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Community Woodland – Green and "dead" hedges

23rd February 2024 @ 6:06am – by Charles Bradley
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If you were to visit Tarvin woodland as it was in the 1970's, you would find that you would be walking through farmer's fields. That is the reason we have such trouble in establishing a 'Wildflower meadow' – the ground is so very fertile that the grass grows wonderfully well and totally swamps out all of the wild flowers, so that they disappear! After the A51 Tarvin By-pass was built, the unused land was landscaped by the Highways Agency, with some tree planting at the same time, but, mostly, the orphaned pieces of field were thereafter abandoned – their original hedges (hawthorn hedges are the traditional land boundaries for fields in Cheshire) left intact.

It was in 1997 that a Sub-Committee of Tarvin Parish Council was granted a Gardening Licence by the Highways Agency, and the group, led by Jim Grogan, began to make changes to the land. A decision that was made early on was to preserve the hedges – the historic field boundaries – and so, a little at a time, John Plant and John Sim went through all the hedges, renovating them and remedying fourteen years of neglect. The hawthorn and the holly bushes had, in some cases, turned into trees! In one or two places, sections of hedge that had been lost were replaced, and hawthorn whips were used throughout the woodland to bolster the hedge sections where growth had been scant. Over the past few years, all of the green woodland hedges have been trimmed by our volunteers each autumn – the only exceptions being the odd sections of blackthorn, which may be left to allow the beautiful blossom to be visible in the following spring.

Whenever maintenance work is done on our woodland trees, it generates quantities of branches and twigs – known collectively as 'brash' – which must then be disposed. In the early days, we (very expensively) hired a chipper. This produced vast quantities of chippings, but these were used to mark out the pathways through the grassland. As the amount of material that needed removal declined, the cost of hiring a chipper became prohibitive and another way of disposing of the brash had to be found. For several years, we made small "habitat piles" of brash throughout the woodland, but these were difficult to maintain. It was then that the notion of creating "dead hedges" was suggested.

A dead hedge is a boundary fence, similar to a green, growing hedge, but made of removed branches, twigs and trimmings arranged between two parallel rows of stakes hammered into the ground. This is an excellent use for the hazel poles resulting from the coppicing that is regularly done across the woodland. Not only does the construction of a dead hedge use up the large amounts of brash, but it also produces a safe hiding place for many of the shy creatures that we are trying to encourage. Where the dead hedge is developed along a boundary fence, it can also provide support for the growth of brambles, which help to strengthen the boundary and produce a thicket, thereby further discouraging access to dogs while still admitting the small creatures that we are trying to help.

Because they are constructed of dead material, which will decay, our dead hedges will begin to settle, start to decay and eventually turn into humus – nature's soil improver. However, that presupposes that, once constructed, they remain untouched and are instead allowed to decay gently. We cannot prevent the decay, but we can prevent the disappearance of our dead hedges by topping them up with fresh brash as they settle, replacing the structural stakes if needed. Thus, our dead hedges continue to enable disposal of our trimmings and brash, while remaining important dividers and markers in our woodland.

Finally, the use of the word "dead" requires qualification. It is certainly true that the stakes, branches, twigs and brash in the dead hedge are no longer alive, but the so-called dead hedges will be teeming with life – spiders, insects, slugs, snails and all manner of invertebrates. There will be algae and lichens growing on the stems and small mammals living secure within its structure. As well as brambles, grasses and other green plants will begin to establish themselves within and at the edges of the structure and, of course, birds will find welcome shelter within the tangle of stems that make the hedge up. So "dead hedges" may be made of dead stems but they are far from being entirely dead. They fulfil a really valuable function for nature within our woodland. Next time you're walking through the woodland, have a good look at a supposedly "dead" hedge. You may be surprised!

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