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On a perfectly sunny winters day earlier this week, I started my first hedge-laying task of the season. Michael (Fi’s Dad) and I began with work on the hedge that borders his property. Michael had already done a stirling job with son-in-law Andy taking the bulk of the heavy stuff from a line of overgrown hazel stools with a chainsaw but they weren’t sure how to proceed to create a hedge-like structure. In my assessment of the hedge, there were enough sturdy uprights to create a layed hedge between coppice stools. The aim was to leave some uprights to mature thus providing a source of hazlenuts while the stools were regrowing, and nesting and perching areas for birds, but have enough light coming through to the old stools to encourage regrowth. Laying old coppice stools isn’t ever going to win any hedgelaying competitions, and I think there comes a time in the life of any linear feature of pure hazel where cutting back the stools to the base, or even low enough to allow live material to be layed in the gaps, would be to much of a shock to the tree. The best thing then is to manage the line as a linear coppice feature, pollard hazels at chest height and dead hedge in between- enough bramble and climbers should grow over these to create a useful and attractive, while shade-tolerant species of shrub will colonise too. You could even plant up with holly which would grow underneath a canopy (it’s the only thing that does grow in our over-shadeded woods!)

Our hedge wasn’t at that stage yet although the first four stools were quite substantial and cut off to about chest height. Because the stumps were still growing from the base we cut the stools lower which allowed uprights to be layed across into pleachers for a wide hedge. In what style you may ask? Jim style, a combination of midland and south of england. Like I said its not going to win any competitions but it will create new habitat and hazel regrowth.

When I first start any practical work I’m tripping over myself and stopping often to think, but its not long before I’ve found the “groove” and make judgements about what to lay and what to clear almost instantly. Its like the hedge is telling me what it needs and I can see the shape it should be. I step back regularly to take a look at how the hedge is proceeding. Michael has his chainsaw cranked up and is taking out the bigger limbs leaving me to lay and stake pleachers and generally form up the hedge. He has loaned me an old billhook he found, a lovely thing but it needs sharpening. I have the brush-hooks I bought for the project last year but their point is too big and they are generally too light. I would buy some proper billhooks but there seems little point with only two months of the Hedgerows for Dormice project left to go. Shep watches us work from just beyond the cattle fence, Kong sat between his paws. Every now and then he sends up a whine and then a few barks, mouthing his toy in a desperate attempt to get our attention- “play with me”. I forget that he is used to Fi’s volunteer events where there is always someone to play with him, but today she is on a tree safety course and couldn’t take him along.

Unlike last year when I started before Christmas, this year demands on my time have seen me more in the PTES Battersea office than out and about. Our Hedgerow Capital Costs Scheme -free plants for farmers and landowners- has had a greater uptake this season and thus more admin for me. With the project deadline looming, it gets more hedgerows in the ground if we give people plants to pay for hedges than if I organise volunteers to undertake the work. Its more rewarding doing the latter, but unfortunately not the best use of time. Its wonderful to be outside, I should be here all the time. I spent some time working as a gardener with my brother-in law, out in all weathers, and I can’t recall being happier. A funny thing though, due to a brace of reasons to do with my head (well, that’s where it hurt most!) I was scaling back my life to concentrate on the basics- I had no ambition but just do my job and come home and that was enough. I loved being able to see the instant product of my labours. We had a job to do, we went and did it and left satisfied we had done a good job- and whats more I felt it in my body, getting fitter than I’ve ever been. Well, I got myself on track and reignited my ambition to work in conservation. I volunteered for PTES as a data entry volunteer and have been through a number of contracts, Dormouse Database Officer, Development Officer and then in this incarnation Hedgerows for Dormice Officer. Somewhere along the line, I’ve lost contact with the earth, have a 3 hour round-trip commute to London, I spend most of my day replying to emails. I have become a creature of the twilight world and flickering monitoring screens, pasty and hunched. Well, no I haven’t, there are of course really great parts to my job, and the best part of them all is the (ever decreasing) time spent out-doors planting, hedge-laying and coppicing. Right now though, with redundancies and cuts in conservation organisations happening all around me, I am grateful to be working in a field (or should that be hedgerow) of my choice, if only for a little while longer.

Its difficult typing this today, on my trip into London: my fine motor skills in my fingers are compromised by aching muscles from first-use of billhook- but it’s a satisfying ache. We steadied away most of the day and broke the back of the hardest part of the hedge where the stools were older. Accompanying us was a sweetly-singing Robin and curious blue-tits. They felt like curious on-lookers at a new housing development, dreaming about the possibilities for the years ahead. It struck me our robin friend did bear a passing reemblance to Kevin Macleod from Grand Designs.

As I worked, I kept leafing through the coppice bases to check for sleepy dormice, these stools being the perfect habitat for them, and in the woodland just over the brow of the hill one of our boxes housed a nest of juvenile’s in August last year. There were only a few hazel nuts and none nibbled to suggest the critters were present. One day perhaps, when this hedge is connected to the woodland, we might get dormice- and plenty of other species too- using it. I will be erecting dormice boxes once it’s layed to monitor progress. A beautiful oak nearby riddled with Ganoderma bracket funghi had tunnels and apertures which I explore during a tea-break, pulling out hazelnuts with characteristically-chewed holes confirming wood mice were in residence-probably yellow necks if our unwanted summer visitors to the house were a good indication. As the sun slipped down the sky, the tops of oaks, birches and ash in the woods across the valley turned golden and the clouds became a dusty pink hue. A full moon rose early in the afternoon and waxed in intensity until it sat fully ripe in the sky, a visual poem to cold majesty. As we sorted and cleared the off-cuts into useful firewood, rods, stakes and binders-my friend Lauren weaves baskets and probably will use some of the smaller pieces- and in separate piles – a roe deer stag leaped across the field before us, his glossy bronzed fur shimmering and his white tail flashing in the last rays of the sun. I headed home with Shep skipping before me, both of us thinking of our tea, the job started well. It had been a very fine day indeed, and I hope to get out again this weekend to continue the job.

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