Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Renovating a natural hedge.

To the west of the building plot for our future eco-house, was a hedge with four unevenly-spaced mature oak trees linked together by an unbroken ball of brambles that swamped and concealed everything else.  Last autumn, holiday makers Clive and Wendy asked for something to do.  Only they can tell you whether they regret asking! 

With sturdy gloves, secateurs, loppers, a rake and a billhook, they cut and dragged away the bulk part of the brambles and then further equipped with my my favourite hedgerow identification book, some sticky tape and a marker pen, labelled the plants left standing.

We have hawthorn and blackthorn (bien sûr) field maple, briar rose, holly and a thing we can’t identify until it comes back into leaf.  It was time to retreat to a comfy chair in front of the wood stove and do some swotting up.  As always, I thoroughly recommend the BCTV range of books and pulled Hedging by Alan Brooks and Elizabeth Agate from the bookshelf.  I’d also picked up some excellent guides produced by the Conseil Générale for Côtes d’Armor (look under “Les publications disponible”) at a local agricultural show a couple of years back.  Oh, and, of course, a shufty around the Internet too.

In France, as in the UK, rural ministries have handed out subsidies to rip out hedgerows and are now giving subsidies to replant them … so much for moderation and forward vision!  That said, soon-to-be-retired-pig-farming-neighbour Paul said that in his youth there were so many hedges (enclosing tiny fields) that a farmer could spend all year just maintaining hedgerows (for no reward) but he accepts that perhaps too many were ripped out.  It’s a question of balance, of course.  He also pointed out that the hand that giveth also taketh awayeth: yes, there might be subsidies to replant hedges but, at the same time in France, satellite imagery allows the subsidy-giving agencies to subtract areas under the shadow of, say a venerable oak, from the area of the field to be subsidised, leading a farmer, logically, to shred or fell said tree … doh!

We wanted to reinstate a mixed natural hedge for the aesthetic and to increase biodiversity.  The range of plants would be chosen with the ultimate goal of laying it to produce a livestock-proof hedge.  We eventually cut everything hard back, even the field maple and some well established trunks of hawthorn, which should re-grow.  We filled the gap with seventy small plants, which had had their bare-roots dunked in a fungal dip of friendly mycorrhiza.  We have planted Sessile oaks, crab apple, common dogwood, sea buckthorn, guelder rose and cherry plum (myrobalan) along with the hedging staples of hawthorn and blackthorn. Buds and leaves are already appearing and we’re keeping it well watered, and will start mulching it with grass cuttings as my gardening job gets properly underway.  I’ll post photo updates as it gets established.