A wide hedge in the North Pennines-
Words and photos- Nic Renison
Late in 2018 whilst walking and talking through our fields with our mate and tree guru, Pete Leeson from the Woodland Trust, we got talking about the benefits of wider hedges. Since 2014 we have planted over 8km at Cannerheugh, doing this has been a big learning curve and has given us the confidence to be braver and bolder with our planting.
Nothing looks more disheartening than strips of plastic spirals and bamboo on bare ground. You spend hours planting tiny whips of trees, lose valuable grazing land, and fork out on expensive fencing materials and plastic to protect from deer, rabbits, and voles. It takes time and upkeep for these hedges to blossom, but having seen first-hand the transformation that can happen in just three years we decided to crack on with our wide hedge.
The north-facing eight-acre field we had in mind spent most of the grazing season with an electric fence permanently down the middle of it which we could then subdivide into smaller paddocks for daily cattle moves. The hedge would provide shelter, browse, and habitat, also acting as a corridor for birds by connecting two scrubby areas of the farm. In 2018 the ‘beast from the east’ taught us just how crucial shelter is on the farm. The perishing wind combined with heavy snow and the losses we endured are etched in our minds.
So with a scrap of paper over a coffee with Pete, we planned the hedge. 176 meters long, 5 meters wide with a gate at each end, and straight up the middle of a grass field, bonkers or what? The plan was to have a normal hedge on each side with hawthorn, hornbeam, hazel, dog rose and willow, then a line of trees – bird cherry, aspen, rowan, crab apple, with the centre line being silver birch and oak.
With the trees being funded by the Woodland Trust, our job and expense was the fencing, and the time taken to plant the hedge. It’s a funny feeling, fencing off an area of land that has been pasture for possibly hundreds of years to then change its role to become a very diverse, ecologically rich habitat. I often wonder if the land could speak, what would it say to us? Possibly, 'What the hell are you doing?’ But I like to think it’s more like, ‘This is just what was needed’.
Planting began in early January 2020, just before COVID struck. One memory I have of that time was setting up a watering system in the very dry hot Spring for the thirsty young plants and our two daughters rigging up some silage sheets and creating their own water slide! We watered hard, lost a few, but generally, the take was very good.
Now it's 2023, the hedge is getting better and better. Willow and crab apple are towering over us as we walk up the middle of it, getting browsed by the cattle every now and again on their grazing rotation. We have spent a couple of days in there, removing guards and replacing dead plants, this time is well spent and important. I think we have realised through trial and error with trees as with most things, you get out what you put in.
We have shown many groups around the hedge, we’ve had the odd head shaker and sharp intake of breath but the majority of folk can see the huge benefits it brings. From shelter to nutrition, biodiversity and connectivity but also other conversations around fruit, nuts, harvesting, chipping and carbon trading/off-setting. These chats are what make showing people around so rewarding, it’s exploring the possibilities and that’s what makes farming alongside nature so exciting.
Want to find out more about how you could use hedges on your land? Get in touch with our Woodland Advisory Service- CLICK HERE