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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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December 9 2010 I’m trapped in a snowglobe awaiting the shake that will turn the morning on its head and bring the next blizzard blasting through the valley. Or that’s what It feels like from my vanatge point perched on the upper step of the wooden style between woodland and field on my morning walk with Shep.  Just behind me is the woodland edge, a hotchpotch of deciduous trees blasted  by the east wind, crisp and white with hoarfrost. The upper field is ringed with mixed woodland, dipping down into the south-east and the snow-bound town of Haslemere before rising up to the spectular views from the acid sandstone of Blackdown, the second highest hill in Surrey, which inspired Tennyson. The early sunshine is a rose-hipped sherpherds curse. The field has a covering of powdery snow undulating like a pond stirred gently by the wind, frozen in a moment as if the cold which numbed my fingers had worked some magic with time too.

 A well tossed Kong arcs through the air and shep bounds across the powder to retrieve it. The heavy purple ball is trimmed with material strips which gives it the appearance of a design plan on the books of the 2210 Committee for Refauning The World After The Great Biodiversity Crash for a genetically engineered tropical forest bird. It lands with a whump and disappers beneath the snowpond, but Shep is upon it sending up an explosion of snowflakes. Shep has some kind of species memory moment, reaching back to an ancestral vision of his pack hunting caribou across the Tundra side tracked by an easy feathered meal. His head moves  as he searches, a mini snow-plough, but he soon has his quarry caught and tosses it triumphantly skyward, catching it only to shake it by the tail feathers, making sure it’s dispatched, a low growl in his throat. Then he drops it again only to repeat the game, this time yapping and yowling as he mouths the toy before shaking it vigorously once more. Watching him at play is an early morning treat that never fails to send a flush of pure joy through me, and today this cold, pure morning in the sleepy valley between Blackdown and Hindhead, it’s a feeling close to perfection. I pause on my walk, perched on the stile between wood and field to bask in the feeling. I am in the moment, a rare and cherished event in a busy world.

 Looking across the valley like this, I can’t help feel that historical wash that has me envisioning past landscapes like a TV flashback. I wonder what the view would have looked like just before the war, when it was a working farm in good condition. Private houses have risen up on the land Dr Hutchinson once owned entirely, and although his descendents still own much of it, bits of the land have been sold off and new houses built; smaller ones made bigger, grander (spoilt some may say) and the overall feel of connectedness that the farming estate would have maintained has been lost, not helped by modern security gates that shut out unwanted visitors. And of course there are cars, and probably less people now than their once were, as an estate although small at just over five hectares would still require a workforce- seasonal and itinerant for the most part. I can’t help but see this landscape with Thomas Hardy on my shoulder.

 But of course, go back further and the connectivity of this estate-made large by its connections to other farms and towns nearby -is itself an enforced vision of humanity on an already perfectly connected world. How far back do I need to go I wonder before neolithic man first cleared the woodland here for pasture and begun shaping the woodland- coppicing that is still practiced here today on a grand but sympathetic scale by a local contractor on the NT estate at Hindhead. When Surrey was at probably entirely covered by Lowland forest, and wolves and lynxes. were the things to be scared of. Now its just top-end 4x4s on the school run , their drivers too pre-occupied to look out for a man and his dog on a country lane.

 Shep and I continue our trudge through the snow in unfilled tracks we made in a pristine carpetting yesterday. Here and there the wild residents of the valley have been busy foraging for the last scraps in the autumn larder; or busy predators searching for the foragers; and these bent on avoidance hoping to see yet another spring. Deer tracks hug the fence line from the larch plantation across the field and disappear into the broadleaved copse, perhaps heading down to search for drinking water in the brook. Yesterday the brook in the lower field that the cows use was unfrozen. The deer will pass through a defunct hazel coppice that is one of the places our badgers call home. I wonder how they are doing now, oblivious of the approaching storm that could leave them at the mercy of every landowner with a rifle, or with friends unmindful of the Badger Act and all the empathy for animals as Frank Cauldhame from the Wasp Factory.

 Despite promises to myself about badger watching I haven’t found the time this year. But our neighbour is a regular watcher and she has reported less sightings. Its been a hard year in these parts with a dry summer so perhaps they are struggling. I smile as I recall an email from my friend Chris from the Badger team at Wytham Woods in Oxford who reports that on the last census in October his charges were all well-fattened up , probably on a good year for chestnuts. Well we’ve plenty around here too, so maybe our black and white neighbours are okay. Note to self: more badger watching.

I walk along a little further and see tracks of a fox seemingly hell-bent on making himself dizzy! Another set of tracks mirror the fox’s but I can’t work out what they are- certainly older and deeper than the vulpine’s. Then I catch Shep galumphing through the snow and realise the tracks are his, made last night on his walk before bed. The fox must have emerged to check out the scent.

 We walk back across the fields to Deer Path cottage and soon, having put Shep in doors- to go on his dayjob as a Wildlife Trust Ranger’s dog, I make tracks for the station in the dim hope that the trains have been cancelled and I can avoid a trip to London. AS I walk down the icy drive- a problem even in a Landrover- I gaze through the  line of bank-top shrubs and trees mostly holly and beech with some hazel-that was once a hedge, out over the fields.  Below I can see the hedge we laid last year, calling out for a trim. The hazel has shot up from the layed stumps which I am pleased about, as has some of the holly; but so to has the  odd elder tree which I am not so pleased about because it will take over the hedge if left unchecked.

 As always on this walk my head is full of what-ifs. I see work to do and no time or money- or permission-to do it. At least the cows are back now and we are talking about grants-environmental stewardship, woodland improvement-to the landowner to see this landscape returned to its former glory- albeit 1900AD than BC.

My musings are over my role in that. My current contract is coming to an end and there are no long term offers after that. I have already been offered a part-time job as a land manager by one of my Hedgerows for Dormice contacts. Once and if grants are awarded, could I help manage this land back into a wildlife haven-cum-working farm. What a challenge that would be! And yet what a distraction from the world I have made myself – a conservation ecologist. Perhaps if there were two of me!

I reach the bottom of the hill and to my right there are the cows, feasting on a pile of hay Fi sourced from Woking depot yesterday in treacherous conditions. All being well, there will be a bigger delivery tomorrow to keep the cows fed during a long spell of bad weather

“Morning Ladies!”

I couldn’t help myself and called out to the Belties as I turned into the Lane heading toward the station, London bound.

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