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“This is THE hedge-laying competition!” exclaimed John French as he presented the John French Prize for Best Cutting at the Maasheggenvlechten (literally ‘Meuse Hedge Weaving) last weekend, and indeed it is a hedge-laying competition like no other. Why do thousands of Dutch people flock to fields in the Netherlands to watch a bunch of their kindred and some assorted Europeans play in hedgerows? As I pull together our new Surrey Wildlife Trust Citizen Science project Hedgerow Heroes which has, like its freshwater brother RiverSearch, the ultimate aim of connecting people and communities with the natural world, this was very much on my mind.

Maasheggenvlechten is hosted in the Boxmeer Principality of the Netherlands by the banks of the mighty Meuse River which rises in France and flows 925km to join the Rhine at Hollands Diep in the Netherlands. The eastern most and least urbanized tip of the Province of North Brabant which has a flat (although above sea-level) agricultural landscape, hedgerows are part of this landscape although like in the UK many were removed for post-war agricultural intensification. The competition is an annual event which was the brainchild of Lex Roeleveld.of Stichting (“foundation”-like a charitable NGO) Heg en Landschap  to promote the Dutch Hedgelaying style after which the competition is named. Supported by the President of  the Stichting, Louis Dolmans they co-organised the event for the first five years. Now the event is organised by Ruth Bakkens of IVN Meuse Valley.

For the uninitiated, hedge-laying involves the rejuvenation of a hedge by cutting a shrub at its base to leave a living hinge and laying over the stem, now called a pleacher. Regrowth of the shrub then arises from the base and along the still-living stem.   In the UK “Hedge-laying” is represented by over 35 styles including Midland and South of England which vary in the angle of laying and the use of binders and stakes to secure the hedge. With Massheggenvlechten, stems are cut and bent at various heights usually at the horizontal to create a living stock proof fence.

English hedgelayers have attended the competition for many years. I was invited on this trip by that veteran of many hedge-campaigns and Hedgelink colleague Nigel Adams. Once in The Netherlands we joined with fellow Brits Dave Truran, Roger Taylor, John French, and hedge-laying legend Peter Tunks. In advance of the main competition on Sunday our host Lex Roeleveld had organized a training session on the South of England style at a Roggebots Staete in the Flevopolder near the village of Dronten. In perfect Spring weather we laid a line of hazel mixed with a local thorn variety and enjoyed the hospitality of our hosts.

To my surprise I had woken on Friday morning with a swollen and painfull ankle which I could only put down to a lunch-time run on Wednesday. As I hobbled to Stansted and to the car hire at Eindhoven, prospects of tooling-up and getting to grips with a hedge- to my shame the first time this winter- were diminishing. Yet a good compression bandage, elevation, plenty of ice and a few jars of Amstel, I was good to go on Saturday morning.

We arrived before the crowds on Sunday so that Nigel and Co. could survey the hedge which they would use to demonstrate Midland and South of England styles. Spring was most definitely in the air and the early sunshine promised a good day. John French’s tools and George Mueller’s book stand (more on him soon) were early attractions and old friendships were reaffirmed over steaming cups of coffee before we all assembled outside for a picture and instruction on the day. Our hedges were the first that visitors to the site would see as they walked from the car and cycle park past a demonstration of sheep-dog skills. During the day the cycle park became a sparkling inland sea of aluminium forks and frames.

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The first job for us was to cut away much of the lateral wood that the previous hedge-layers had expertly crafted. While in some ways this felt like a violation, the hedge was ready for rejuvenation and the English demonstration styles needed clean vertical stems. I was happier that the man who had previously laid this section of hedge was on hand and was none other than our HedgeCanada buddy Jef Gielen. We were happy to find a length of pleacher which still held the healed –over scar of his original cut some 12 years ago which he kept as a token.

Dave, Peter and Roger got stuck in on the SoE demonstration and I assisted Nigel at a more leisurely pace on the Midland. I am only a keen hedgelaying novice- my expertise lies in hedge ecology and conservation- so this weekend was also a chance for me to learn and practice under the tutelage of a thicket of hedgelaying professionals. It was an enormous pleasure to watch how much thought goes into the placing of each pleacher, the good will with which advice was taken and given, and the easy carry-on humour that emerged as we worked. With a group of us on hand there was also plenty of time to talk to the crowds, building to a steady stream as the day wore on.

John commandeered Nigel for judging duty just after lunch so I downed tools and ambled around to soak up the atmosphere and converse with hedge-layers and visitors. I was stunned by the number of people but Lex and others thought numbers were down on previous years. The hedges weren’t the only attractions: horse-riding, a roving all-female brass ensemble and plenty of distractions for kids involving willow-weaving and a straw-bale assault course. When I met Sjoerd Aertssen in front of his beautifully woven hedge and we chatted over small glasses of Jenever (Dutch Gin), I asked him why this event attracted so many people. “It’s a great thing to do on a nice day” he said, “It would be different numbers if it was raining. But people like to be in touch with nature. These places are also relatively small and people know each other ( very) well. Everyone knows someone who is joining the competition. It’s the only thing that makes these villages really special and nobody wants to miss an event like this.”

 

One thing that marks Maasheggenvlechten out from say, the National Hedgelaying Championships in England, is that the majority of people here aren’t professional hedge-layers. Most have taken a course but are here to just get involved and connect with the land and each other. Hedges are layed in teams and, as with our demonstration hedgerows, that arguably lends a different feeling over all. There is still much competitiveness and a striving to improve, but for me that inclusiveness and community spirit really marked this event as special.

Watching a skilled hedge-layer at work is a form-poem, a demonstration in connectedness. It’s important that professional competition exists so that the apogee in skill can be demonstrated through the drive of competitors to be the best amongst their peers; anyone who has attended a competition knows the vicarious pleasure of watching the masters at work. For improvers or  those of us just starting out it shows us what can be attained with practice and determination if you have some ability and a good eye. Like the water-colour hobbyist who takes trips to the Tate to see his favourite artist, our novice attempts may never reach such great heights of perfection, but in lifting a brush, in feeling and seeing the properties of paint on canvas, we appreciate the skill in the task that much more. That understanding is vital in creating the essential connection between a person and the external (natural) world. In the world of hedges and hedgelaying, a person who is willing to try their hand, without regard or embarrassment to their level of skill, becomes connected in a positive way. Once connected, the hedge and the landscape it emerges from are forever part of their reality, and they will do everything in their power to preserve it.

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After tools-down we assembled in the large marquee and fuelled by hotdogs and beer we awaited the prize-giving. In an unexpected move foreign competitors were invited up on stage and thanked for our participation with a gift of a book called “Beautiful Europe” by Jaap Dirkmaat. The irony of this moment was not lost on our English contingent as we shuffled off the stage apologetically (even more so now as the Dutch have rejected a call to populist nationalism in their March elections).

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Now to Georg Mueller. In 2013 he released the results of his years of research in the two volume “European Field Boundaries” which, not having access to the books themselves I gave a cursory review of here. Georg joined us at our hotel on the Saturday night and while language was a barrier (his English is better than my German!) with the help of Nigel I spoke in admiration of his work and conveyed my own interest in the social ecology of hedgerows, and we agreed to correspond. To my utter surprise and delight, Georg gifted me the 2 volume set of his work at the competition the next day, so a more thorough review will be forthcoming in time. Thank you Georg!

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A hugely enjoyable event and weekend and my thanks go to Dave, Peter, Roger and John for making me feel part of the team; to Lex for being the most attentive and generous of hosts (we will forgive the lack of tools on Saturday, partly because it prompted John to bring along his fabulous wooden hammer and cry “Whose looking after my knocker” to much attendant mirth. Special thanks to Nigel for inviting me along – it’s a wonder we did get there though at all with bad ankles, misplaced driving licences and a non-functioning sat nav.

See you all in 2018!

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Lex Roeleveld weaving a hedge in the Maasheggen style

 

“This is THE hedge-laying competition!” exclaimed John French as he presented the John French Prize for Best Cutting at the Maasheggenvlechten (literally ‘Meuse Hedge Weaving) last weekend, and indeed it is a hedge-laying competition like no other. Why do thousands of Dutch people flock to fields in the Netherlands to watch a bunch of their kindred and some assorted Europeans play in hedgerows? As I pull together our new Surrey Wildlife Trust Citizen Science project Hedgerow Heroes which has, like its freshwater brother RiverSearch, the ultimate aim of connecting people and communities with the natural world, this was very much on my mind.

Maasheggenvlechten is hosted in the Boxmeer Principality of the Netherlands by the banks of the mighty Meuse River which rises in France and flows 925km to join the Rhine at Hollands Diep in the Netherlands. The eastern most and least urbanized tip of the Province of North Brabant which has a flat (although above sea-level) agricultural landscape, hedgerows are part of this landscape although like in the UK many were removed for post-war agricultural intensification. The competition is an annual event which was the brainchild of Lex Roeleveld.of Stichting (“foundation”-like a charitable NGO) Heg en Landschap  to promote the Dutch Hedgelaying style after which the competition is named. Supported by the President of  the Stichting, Louis Dolmans they co-organised the event for the first five years. Now the event is organised by Ruth Bakkens of IVN Meuse Valley.

For the uninitiated, hedge-laying involves the rejuvenation of a hedge by cutting a shrub at its base to leave a living hinge and laying over the stem, now called a pleacher. Regrowth of the shrub then arises from the base and along the still-living stem.   In the UK “Hedge-laying” is represented by over 35 styles including Midland and South of England which vary in the angle of laying and the use of binders and stakes to secure the hedge. With Massheggenvlechten, stems are cut and bent at various heights usually at the horizontal to create a living stock proof fence.

English hedgelayers have attended the competition for many years. I was invited on this trip by that veteran of many hedge-campaigns and Hedgelink colleague Nigel Adams. Once in The Netherlands we joined with fellow Brits Dave Truran, Roger Taylor, John French, and hedge-laying legend Peter Tunks. In advance of the main competition on Sunday our host Lex Roeleveld had organized a training session on the South of England style at a Roggebots Staete in the Flevopolder near the village of Dronten. In perfect Spring weather we laid a line of hazel mixed with a local thorn variety and enjoyed the hospitality of our hosts.

To my surprise I had woken on Friday morning with a swollen and painfull ankle which I could only put down to a lunch-time run on Wednesday. As I hobbled to Stansted and to the car hire at Eindhoven, prospects of tooling-up and getting to grips with a hedge- to my shame the first time this winter- were diminishing. Yet a good compression bandage, elevation, plenty of ice and a few jars of Amstel, I was good to go on Saturday morning.

We arrived before the crowds on Sunday so that Nigel and Co. could survey the hedge which they would use to demonstrate Midland and South of England styles. Spring was most definitely in the air and the early sunshine promised a good day. John French’s tools and George Mueller’s book stand (more on him soon) were early attractions and old friendships were reaffirmed over steaming cups of coffee before we all assembled outside for a picture and instruction on the day. Our hedges were the first that visitors to the site would see as they walked from the car and cycle park past a demonstration of sheep-dog skills. During the day the cycle park became a sparkling inland sea of aluminium forks and frames.

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John French and his bounty of billhooks

 

The first job for us was to cut away much of the lateral wood that the previous hedge-layers had expertly crafted. While in some ways this felt like a violation, the hedge was ready for rejuvenation and the English demonstration styles needed clean vertical stems. I was happier that the man who had previously laid this section of hedge was on hand and was none other than our HedgeCanada buddy Jef Gielen. We were happy to find a length of pleacher which still held the healed –over scar of his original cut some 12 years ago which he kept as a token.

Dave, Peter and Roger got stuck in on the SoE demonstration and I assisted Nigel at a more leisurely pace on the Midland. I am only a keen hedgelaying novice- my expertise lies in hedge ecology and conservation- so this weekend was also a chance for me to learn and practice under the tutelage of a thicket of hedgelaying professionals. It was an enormous pleasure to watch how much thought goes into the placing of each pleacher, the good will with which advice was taken and given, and the easy carry-on humour that emerged as we worked. With a group of us on hand there was also plenty of time to talk to the crowds, building to a steady stream as the day wore on.

John commandeered Nigel for judging duty just after lunch so I downed tools and ambled around to soak up the atmosphere and converse with hedge-layers and visitors. I was stunned by the number of people but Lex and others thought numbers were down on previous years. The hedges weren’t the only attractions: horse-riding, a roving all-female brass ensemble and plenty of distractions for kids involving willow-weaving and a straw-bale assault course. When I met Sjoerd Aertssen in front of his beautifully woven hedge and we chatted over small glasses of Jenever (Dutch Gin), I asked him why this event attracted so many people. “It’s a great thing to do on a nice day” he said, “It would be different numbers if it was raining. But people like to be in touch with nature. These places are also relatively small and people know each other ( very) well. Everyone knows someone who is joining the competition. It’s the only thing that makes these villages really special and nobody wants to miss an event like this.”

 

One thing that marks Maasheggenvlechten out from say, the National Hedgelaying Championships in England, is that the majority of people here aren’t professional hedge-layers. Most have taken a course but are here to just get involved and connect with the land and each other. Hedges are layed in teams and, as with our demonstration hedgerows, that arguably lends a different feeling over all. There is still much competitiveness and a striving to improve, but for me that inclusiveness and community spirit really marked this event as special.

Watching a skilled hedge-layer at work is a form-poem, a demonstration in connectedness. It’s important that professional competition exists so that the apogee in skill can be demonstrated through the drive of competitors to be the best amongst their peers; anyone who has attended a competition knows the vicarious pleasure of watching the masters at work. For improvers or  those of us just starting out it shows us what can be attained with practice and determination if you have some ability and a good eye. Like the water-colour hobbyist who takes trips to the Tate to see his favourite artist, our novice attempts may never reach such great heights of perfection, but in lifting a brush, in feeling and seeing the properties of paint on canvas, we appreciate the skill in the task that much more. That understanding is vital in creating the essential connection between a person and the external (natural) world. In the world of hedges and hedgelaying, a person who is willing to try their hand, without regard or embarrassment to their level of skill, becomes connected in a positive way. Once connected, the hedge and the landscape it emerges from are forever part of their reality, and they will do everything in their power to preserve it.

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Dave Truran, Roger Taylor, Peter Tunks, Nigel Adams, Jim Jones

 

After tools-down we assembled in the large marquee and fuelled by hotdogs and beer we awaited the prize-giving. In an unexpected move foreign competitors were invited up on stage and thanked for our participation with a gift of a book called “Beautiful Europe” by Jaap Dirkmaat. The irony of this moment was not lost on our English contingent as we shuffled off the stage apologetically (even more so now as the Dutch have rejected a call to populist nationalism in their March elections).

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The Golden Billhook is awarded to the winner

 

Now to Georg Mueller. In 2013 he released the results of his years of research in the two volume “European Field Boundaries” which, not having access to the books themselves I gave a cursory review of here. Georg joined us at our hotel on the Saturday night and while language was a barrier (his English is better than my German!) with the help of Nigel I spoke in admiration of his work and conveyed my own interest in the social ecology of hedgerows, and we agreed to correspond. To my utter surprise and delight, Georg gifted me the 2 volume set of his work at the competition the next day, so a more thorough review will be forthcoming in time. Thank you Georg!

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A hugely enjoyable event and weekend and my thanks go to Dave, Peter, Roger and John for making me feel part of the team; to Lex for being the most attentive and generous of hosts (we will forgive the lack of tools on Saturday, partly because it prompted John to bring along his fabulous wooden hammer and cry “Whose looking after my knocker” to much attendant mirth. Special thanks to Nigel for inviting me along – it’s a wonder we did get there though at all with bad ankles, misplaced driving licences and a non-functioning sat nav.

See you all in 2018!

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L-R: Glen, Keith, Emma, Libby,Jenny, Louise, Tom, John, David

Turning a frown into a smile amongst ordinary people working to improve their environment

Today started badly there is no doubt about that. The US became even more of a theme park than usual and an Orange Man who hates almost everyone but himself had become President.

Yet haven’t most of us known for some time that 21st Century Western Civilization is broken. It’s a machine designed to make us consume, because consumption is the dynamo that drives the growth economy which allows our societies to build more houses and shops and roads and hospitals and schools so we can live long and healthy lives….er… consuming.

For me Brexit and Trump are warnings of collapse, but instead of marshalling the best in us to build a better world, they are symptoms of the fear that people have for their future when power is taken away from them, away from the idea that Governments are elected to represent them but instead give power to globalised entities in the name of wealth generation and growth.

Wealth generation and growth is a process, not an end point. The end point should be global well-being.

My antidote to all this was a day on the Rye Brook , a small tributary of the River Mole which itself is a tributary of the River Thames, rising in West Sussex near Horsham and flowing 80km north-west through Surrey to join the Thames at East Molesey near Hampton Court. I was here with 9 volunteers who had given up their day to help improve the morphology and habitat of the Rye as it confluences with the Mole in River Lane Meadows, Leatherhead. The Rye is classed as a Heavily Modified Water Body  in the parlance of the EU Water Framework Directive due to its modification for flood relief, so it will never achieve Good Ecological Status. However we can mitigate the effects of the structures and impoundments along its course by improving habitat. This is the aim of the project we are now running called Rye To Good, with the target being Good Ecological Potential.

I have been working on the Rye since 2010 when I produced a Hedgerow Management Plan for Ashtead Rye Meadows. Today, I manage projects like Rye to Good as part of Surrey Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscape vision, and particularily our Catchment-based Approach (CaBA) work hosting the River Mole Catchment Partnership (RMCP) and Wey landsacpe Partnership (WLP). The Rye Brook is lucky enough to have an army of interested residents and forward-thinking landowners who readily get involved to improve the condition of their local watercourse.

Today everyone looked a bit fazed. We had hoped to break a couple of weirs at the mouth of the Rye to improve the passage of fish into the brook, but after a full night of rain the brook was too high to work with the equipment to cut through concrete weirs. However we set to work on the other goals- installing two deflectors to encourage a straightened section of channel to meander; building a berm to create a low flow channel which would continue to move silt even in lower flows; and day-lighting the brook from years of neglect allowing blackthorn to block out any light into the channel.

With myself and colleagues Glen and Emma today were John, Keith, Libby, Tom, Louise, David and Jenny.Volunteers were from the Surrey Wildlife Trust RiverSearch Citizen Science Project and Surrey County Council’s Lower Mole Countryside Project.

Today has reminded me that real political power lies in the connections we have with each other. Keeping an open mind and heart and solving communal problems as citizens- not as consumption-orientated individuals has to be the way to a brighter future.

Stay positive.

 

 

No one who isn’t a full on neoliberal capitalist, head of a multinational or hedge fund manager really thought the political system was working well, was happy with the status quo. I looked forward and worked towards a time when people took power back and said Enough!….I respect the need for the voice of protest emerging behind #Brexit #Trump but not the fear – and hatred- driven direction this protest has taken.

But its not a time for despair: its a moment to stay together, dig deeper and work harder for a future where social and ecological justice prevail. This doesn’t just happen- we all need to take responsibility for making this happen, and stop burying heads in the sands of consumption.

 

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After a busy week of hedgerows, harvest mice and River’s Week planning, time to relax…with a Dormouse Box Check!

9am in the woods at Furnace Place Estate (FPE), I met with Margaret, Wendy, Alan Mary and Nigel from the Haslemere Natural History Society (HNHS) who have been checking the boxes with me for the last two years. They were very patient through year one when we caught absolutely nothing vertebrate- not even a wood mouse! We’ve been rewarded this year with four individual dormice –two each male/female. We caught a pair in May, snoozing in their bracken and birch-leaf nest. We hoped they would breed but no sign yet. In June we picked up another male and July another female. We are able to identify individuals by giving them an individual fur-clip (requires L2 licence from Natural England).

I’m back from the site now where we found one individual but unfortunately it was too quick for the surveyor. We use a “stuffer”-a duster- which goes in the hole in the box to prevent its occupants fleeing before it’s taken from the tree for processing. This sharp-eared dormouse must have heard us coming and was out before stuffer was..er…stuffed. Still, good to know the animals are still about even if we can’t know which of our animals that was.

The Hazel Dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius is afforded the highest legal protection because of its declining UK population. It status as a European Protected Species (EPS) means that a licence is needed in order to survey and handle them. A Level 2 licence is needed to fur clip animals as part of a scientific study. Fur clipping helps us to identify individual animals and learn about their survival, breeding and dispersal (movement habits). This site will be registered as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme run by Peoples Trust for Endangered Species so that our data can be used to keep track of the UK conservation status of these species.

 

49 dormice boxes at FPE set up in a grid pattern. By chance rather than by design the north-east tip of the grid eases out into more open habitat on Forestry Commission land (with their approval of course) which is regenerating woodland clear-fell. Of particular interest at this site is that all animals are being discovered in this habitat where birch, bramble and bracken dominates on very acid soils, and not in the oak-ash-hazel coppice woodland where the bulk of the boxes are. In fact we have caught nothing in two years in this habitat, not even a solitary wood-mouse. I’ve never come across this before in other sites I have monitored. Perhaps the dormice are hiding way up in the canopy and amongst the cavities and rot-holes in some rather splendid, rather tall oaks. Laughing.

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Oak/ash/hazel woodland with (44/50 boxes,  0 dormice)

 

<Pic of birch/bracken scrub to follow (5 boxes, 4 dormice)<

 

My own feeling is that the dark interior of this woodland provides less foraging opportunities than the scrub beyond. Studies from Europe show how Dormice respond very well to woodland management   opening up the canopy and letting light into encourage understory growth of brambles and shrubs (e.g. Ramakers_etal_2014; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp90-93 ; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp18-25). I don’t have the data to support this from our site however, and there continues to be a dearth of published studies in the UK since Morris/ Bright’s in the 1990s and therefore strong differences in opinion in what constitutes good woodland management with dormice in mind. Following the Forestry Commission’s Best Practice Guidelines is the current standard.

In the meantime however here are some pictures of dormice nests composed of bracken and birch leaves without a bit of honeysuckle in sight.

I’m very grateful to the The Barlow’s who own Furnace Place Estate for allowing Surrey Wildlife Trust to monitor these woods for Dormice in collaboration with NHNS who through their members Wendy and Allan Novelle, also dormice monitors, supplied the FPE project with boxes. Landowners, Communities and organisations like Surrey Wildlife Trust working together for the benefit of wildlife is an essential part of SWTs Living Landscape vision. Chris Packham claimed dormice were a “conservation con” a few years back to the outrage of the monitoring community, although I recall he was really just bemoaning the improbability of discovering one of these fascinating mammals in the normal process of being a naturalist. Its my hope that where schemes like these give people the chance to discover these sleepy characters in their own local woods along with other natural gems, a sense of value and pride can be fostered in local natural places, and a plan to invest in retaining them into the future can be drawn up.

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Some of the team from Haslemere Natural History Society earlier in the year with Mary Stuart-Jones (Surrey Dormouse Group etc etc)-Margaret and Alan Tomsett, John Rees (also Surrey Moth Group), Martyn Phylis (also Surrey Bat Group), Margaret Hibbard, Wendy Novelle (better picture coming soon!)

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Yours truly with the first dormouse at FPE captured May 22 2016

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