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In wildness is the preservation of the world- Henry David Thoreau, in  ‘Walking’ (1862)

Its Sunday June 3rd and back in the UK my colleagues at Surrey Wildlife Trust have already been busy filling social media with their #30dayswild posts to encourage their friends, family and the public to take time each day through June to connect with the wild. Lou took a walk in a local wildlife with her dog Banjo and photographed all the flowers. James has revamped his garden with new plants to attract wild pollinators. Lucy  and Nicole have been exploring the mountains of Scotland. My computer screen is brimming with colour and energy and life.

I have been meaning to update my blog but I have been too busy living #MyWIldLife to write about it, but now happily both my love of writing and my need to spread the word about some of the exciting things i’m doing coincide, just in time for this annual celebration of wild living.

My Canadian adventure which started in 2016 has now reached a new phase  and I am at the start of a 10 month sabbatical from SWT. I am working as Visiting Scientist at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Innovation and Resilience which is part of the University of Waterloo. I have joined the team on the Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape initiative  who have been using a partnership approach to explore complex issues of landscape planning and management within southern Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH). I’ll be working with partners to support their hedge planting and hedgelaying visions at both site and landscape level, together with exploring the development- or rather curation-of a rural skills network in Southern Ontario. This practical work will explore new pathways of sustainable transformation towards landscape and community resilience. More on this in later blogs!

I am living with my partner Sarah at the wonderful Mount Wolf Farm, owned and run by the Crandall family where my friends Nigel and Jef demonstrated hedgelaying back in 2016 and last year we planted the first plants in the First Canadian Hedgerow (probably not but every hedge needs a story!).  Mount Wolfe is at the centre of a transitioning landscape, a complex theatre in which i find myself an actor exploring solutions towards a sustainable future.

Thoreau’s thoughts about wilderness are iconic. Today, in the age of the Anthropocene as we struggle to maintain ecosystems and reverse biodiversity loss from a myriad of pressures perhaps we might restate this famous quote- in our world  is the preservation of the wild.

Here are a few highlights for my days 1-3 of #30dayswild




Even in winter, hedgerows are working in the landscape. Not only can they prevent snow drift on to roads (a feature or ‘ecosystem service’ I’m keen to explore more in work in Ontario, see 3 Go to Canada: Hedges, Novel Ecosystems and Damn Fine Donuts,HedgeCanada Revisited: healing the landscape and connecting communities with a new hedgerow story  and Hedge Canada 3: The Planting) , thick hedgerows can also be a barrier and shelter against wind for wildlife and people. They also provide visual interest in the landscape, their varied structural forms catching the eye, an adventure in landscape history for the curious mind and a cheering companion on a winter walk, especially when full of redwings after ivy berries! Ivy in hedgerows and trees is crucial at this time of year for birds and small mammals. Rowan berries and hawthorn hips are mostly long gone, but Ivy berries still endure. Kate Bradbury has written about the benefits of Ivy in the Guardian here

Its this varied structure of hedgerows, clearly seen on a winter walk  that underpins their value to biodiversity. In a  recent paper (Graham et al 2018 The influence of hedgerow structural condition on wildlife habitat provision in farmed landscapes) the authors reviewed the importance of hedgerow structure to biodiversity and found that the the definition of a good qualityhedgerow for biodiversity conservation should be expanded to include all those key structural features which are important across taxa. They highlighted the importance of heterogeneity in hedgerow structural condition  where no fixed set of hedgerow characteristics were found to benefit all taxa., which leads away from the prescription of uniform hedgerow management , because some species (including those of conservation concern) are likely to be adversely affected by a loss of suitable habitat or resource decline. I’ll review the paper in  future blog.

It’s important to maintain hedgerows in good condition however. Annual cutting at the same height every year stresses plants resulting in thick stems and a hard knuckle of regrowth which cracks and splinters under a flail which looks unsightly and may contribute to exposing plants to disease and decay. Annual cutting leads to gappy hedgerows as plants disappear from the hedge, like in this ‘candelabra’ hawthorn along Chapel Road in Westhumble, Dorking. Equally, non intervention leads to tree lines and eventual disappearance of hedgerows.




I suggest a balance needs to be set between the need to preserve the hedgerows and hedge networks itself versus the needs of the species that occupy it/them. There is a point in the (The Hedge Management Cycle, (see also Hedgelink website) where a hedgerow reaches Point 10-  line of trees, and is managed as such for biodiversity and socio-ecological benefits. There are some old beech hedges in Surrey at Haslemere and Hindhead and on Leith Hill which still retain the old pleachers fused together at the bottom of huge mature beeches. These amazing relics are part of the story of our landscape history and while I wouldn’t prescribe ‘no intervention management’ to all hedgerows its important to allow space for such features to emerge, both for wildlife and people. Its only by planning at the landscape scale and over time can you assure the heterogeneity Graham et al recommend.


Old Hedge & SarahD_Comp

Relic beech hedgerow at Leith Hill, Surrey


For more information about hedgerow management visit the Hedgelink website


Way back in the mists of time I completed a short school project on the Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus.  Young Jim had read an article in a magazine with a picture of a tree dressed from root to branch in thousands of Monarchs. He learned about the incredible migration of this beautiful butterfly up and down Central and Northern America. He cut out the picture and stuck it in my exercise book, migrating the text into my own enraptured shorthand. Forty years later I drive a golf cart up onto Mount Wolfe Forest Farm in Ontario to feed the chickens and dancing about me between patches of Milkweed, their favorite larval food plant, are those same Monarchs. These butterflies are in trouble across their range, the overuse of herbicides and intensive farming practices implicated in the loss of breeding habitat which threatens to destabilize this epic migration.

Its 10 months since I undertook my own migration across the Atlantic to Mount Wolfe Forest Farm as a guest of the University of Waterloo to advise, with my Hedgelink colleague Nigel Adams and Dutch hedge-layer Jef Gielen, on a 3 year project ‘Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Greenbelt: A Multi-Criteria Assessment of Social-Ecological Innovation and Novel Ecosystems’; You can read about that first visit here. ‘Hedgerows’ in Ontario are generally fencerows or shelter belts found on marginal land where no, or very little, management is practiced and shrubby scrub inevitably gives way to trees. European-style hedgerow management, including the act of rejuvenation called hedge-laying, isn’t practiced widely (or at all?) in Canada.  The University of Waterloo and partners are exploring the promotion of hedgerows- or living fences if you prefer -for the variety of ecological services they can provide-– biodiversity, soil protection, water ( and snow?)management, wood fuel, food; but also the social-ecological benefits arising from the interaction between man and this feature of the natural environment such as sense of place, skill development and health and wellbeing. A sense of urgency informs this work as the inevitable expansion of Toronto into green-belt land requires forward thinking and the incorporation of a novel ecosystems (see Hobbs_et_al-2006-Global_Ecology_and_Biogeography ) approach into regional and local planning.

Both of the hedgerows Nigel and Jef layed back in September, with a help from this blogger, have survived the winter and are thriving. Initial worries that the pleacher (the hedge plant after it has been partially cut at base and layed over) would break or die underneath the snow have not been realized. The hedge at Mount Wolfe is mostly white ash with a hawthorn species and high-bush cranberry (Viburnum americana, a subspecies of my own hedgerow favourite Guelder Rose Viburnum opulus).

The success of these demonstration “hedgerows” and meetings last year are now being built upon with plans to begin planting hedgerows at two locations in the Caledon area north in the Green belt North of Toronto. On my recent trip bacto Ontarion in July I joined the project partners-The University of Waterloo, Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), Albion Hills Community Farm, Mount Wolfe Forest Farm and Caledon Town Council– to firm up plans for an Autumn…sorry, Fall….planting program.. The plants for these first hedgerows in the scheme will be provided by TRCA from their own stocks; the exact composition is yet to be decided but initial conversations between Nigel and TRCAs Ralph Toninger have come up with an outline planting list. We are also aided by PHD student Perin Ruttonsha’s discovery of a 1938 publication Hedges, Screen & Windbreaks Their Uses, Selection and Care by Donald Wyman. The desire is to not be too prescriptive however but to see what works, both ecologically and sociologically: these hedgerows must evolve from the landscape and express its individuality.

For the success of Monarchs and Canadian hedgerows migration is crucial factor. In this year when Canada controversially celebrates celebrates 150 years since its confederation, we remember that it was founded on migration but failed, and continues to fail, to recognize the nations that existed before. When equality and justice for indigenous people is still far short of where it should be, we must be wary of a direct migration of what is on the face of it a clearly European approach to land management-a cultural ‘hedge-emony’ if you like. However we also must be careful not to disregard the functional role hedgerows can provide in the managed landscape as well as the ability they have to reflect the individual sense of place envisioned in the hearts and minds of those resident in the landscape Oreszczyn and Lane (2000).   Indeed, hedges may have existed in many cultures across the world as dead hedges used for corralling livestock the world before Europeans developed their own particular style of management (sensu Nigel Adams!)

Infamously, hedgerows are remembered in the UK as facilitators of landscape enclosure and disenfranchisement. However until post-1940s mechanization took hold Britain’s network  of hedges provided hedgelaying work for people through the autumn and winter, so supporting rural economy and society. Now in a modern landscape where habitat fragmentation is a dominant structuring process, hedgerows can provide connectivity and green infrastructure.

In this project we have a possibility to focus on the connective and rejuvenating aspects of hedges to bring communities together; to heal a landscape and reimagine hedgerows as facilitators for creating new inclusive rural and urban identities and even incomes and livelihoods. I look forward to helping shape this new story.


Glat, shard, smout or smeuse?

 Working on a new Citizen Science project Hedgerow Heroes for Surrey Wildlife Trust, I am exploring the connections between people and hedgerows and how we can use past relationships with this important semi-natural habitat to shape future ideas about sense of place and environmental stewardship.


One measure of our connectedness to nature is how much it is reflected in language.Robert Macfarlane ’s works are a wonderful exploration of this connection, particularly Landmarks which has a series of glossaries containing words associated with landscape features. And guess what, there is a section on  “Edges, Hedges and Boundaries”

Boodge to stuff bushes into a hedge to confine livestock (Herefordshire)
Buckhead to cut the top off a hedge to within two or three feet of the ground (Suffolk)
Bullfinch hedge that is allowed to grow high without laying (Northampton shire)
Carvet thick hedgerow (Kent)
Cop bank on which a hedgerow grows (Cumbria)
Glat gap in a hedge (Hertfordshire)
Grounders bottom stones in a Hedge (Cornwall)
Hedgers, soldiers, toppers top stones in a hedge or wall (Cornwall)
Kes, kess buildup of soil and stone along the base of a very old hedge (Cumbria)
May-mess profusion of hedge blossom in full spring (Poetic- GMHopkins)
Prickle-nickle dry hedge of thorns set to protect a newly planted hedge (Northamptonshire)
Round-about Boundary hedge of a coppice (Northampton shire)
Shard gap in a hedge SW (England)
Smeuse gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal (Sasses-My Favorite!)
Smout hole in the hedge used by a hare (N Eng. & Somerset)
Squiggle to wriggle through a hedge (Essex)


These are all English terms but they probably have equivalents in other languages. Of course there are the terms associated with hedge-laying like pleachers and bindings too.

I’d be really interested in hearing words, and other sources of words, which document the human connection with hedges, hedgerows and hedge landscapes.




“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.



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.



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).



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!


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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