COMMUNITY CORNISH HEDGES PROJECT

Cornish hedges lend themselves ideally to various projects large and small for individuals, schools, groups and communities. Wildlife can be monitored, species recorded, the age and history of local hedges and landscape studied, drawings and paintings made. Projects can be built around any of these aspects, as covered by the AONB Cornish Hedges Education Pack.

The most challenging, necessary and rewarding project, suited to one person or many, is to adopt a flail-ruined Cornish hedge, halt its decline and restore it to some semblance of its former glory.

Since the introduction of the big flail type of hedge trimmer in the early 1970s, the action of this infernal machine has destroyed over 90% of the wildlife and flora that flourished in the ordinary country and roadside hedges of Cornwall until the day the flail arrived. Who now sees orchids, yellowhammers and marsh fritillary butterflies as a common daily occurrence in the hedges along Cornish lanes? Who drives through a snowstorm of moths in the car's headlights at night? The vast majority of their breeding stocks were wiped out of the roadside hedges in one go when the Council first sent its new flail fleet out in July 1972, and the few survivors have since declined to a pathetic remnant in most of Cornwall's hedges, due to repeated flailing.

The end result is hedges and verges barren of diverse flowers and insects, taken over by tough species - ivy, gorse, bramble, and invasive weeds such as nettle, three-cornered leek and winter heliotrope. The "Catch 22" problem is that once these have run rampant, further trimming with the flail only encourages them, as the mulch it leaves behind continually enriches the soil. Worse, the hedgebank under them has been weakened and often destroyed by their heavy roots and shade. The flail itself causes collapse. The only way to restore these hedges now is by patient, well-directed, dedicated handwork. Who is going to do it?

If the authorities can't act, the public can. This is not a task that requires a lot of money. It is something that can be done for love. Anyone can go out in their spare time with a pair of gardening gloves and secateurs and improve a length of hedge. Groups of people, or whole villages and towns banding together, willing to take on a long-term project, could turn the fortunes of our hedges and our wildlife around. The question is -

ARE YOU UP FOR IT?

Please go to the Cornish Hedges Library (CHL) and download Wildlife and the Cornish Hedge, and The Life and Death of a Flailed Cornish Hedge. Having read these, you will, if your heart is in the right place, very definitely be up for it.

PROJECT STAGE 1: Preparation

Having recruited your volunteers, the first move is to survey nearby hedges and determine their state. If the stones are visible and firmly tied in with turf and various wild flower plants with not much ivy, and any gorse or brambles are mainly along the top of the hedgebank, or if the sides of the hedge in summer are a mass of flowers such as bluebells, campion and foxglove with bushes or trees on top, then leave well alone.

Choose a hedge in full sun or lightly-dappled shade, as these will have lost the most species. Look for a hedge where the sides have little or no visible stone and are covered with a deep mass of ivy, gorse and bramble. Along the foot is likely to be a lot of winter heliotrope (big round leaves) or three-cornered leek (a bit like white bluebells, smelling of onion) in spring, followed by cow parsley, docks, cleavers and nettles. Along the top gorse, blackthorn, hawthorn, perhaps flailed level along the top line. This is your target hedge. Pre-flail, it probably contained over a hundred different flowering species to the mile.

This hedge may have a seriously degraded stone structure hidden beneath the thick mass of rank growth. You need to be aware of this and put in place a plan to deal with it, as collapse may occur when the growth is removed. Either your group can consider raising funds to employ the help of a qualified hedger or for less money members of the group can attend a two-day course in hedge repair with the Guild of Cornish Hedgers - for details of the course click here. To contact a suitable hedger or join a repair course go to www.cornishhedgers.org or ring the Stewards on 01736 788 816 for details.

You will need to find out who owns the hedge. CHL (Cornish Hedges Library) Who Owns That Cornish Hedge? might be helpful. If it is an old hedge and runs alongside a road it it most likely to be the property of the adjoining landowner, not the Cornwall Council. It may help to get the owner on your side if you point out that serious damage has been done to their boundary hedges by flailing, and that you are proposing voluntarily to put right some of that damage free of charge.

If the hedge is alongside a public or permissive footpath across private land, you will need the consent of the farmer or landowner, and must obey the countryside code regarding gates, crops, livestock etc. See www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-countryside-code. The simplest way to begin might be with a hedge belonging to an interested supporter or member of your group, if this has been spoilt by flailing on the outside. The owner of such a boundary hedge has a right to enter the adjoining property for the purpose of maintaining his hedge, though courtesy demands that you inform this neighbour of your intention.

Having obtained permission from the landowner, if your hedge runs alongside a road you will need to inform the Cornwall Council highways department that you will be working on the roadside, and you must comply with any requirements they ask. See CHL Advice for Working on Roadside Hedges which gives full instructions. You may be able to borrow equipment such as road traffic cones from the council, otherwise you may need to raise some funds perhaps by donations from those interested in supporting or joining in on the project. You will need someone with a vehicle suitable to take away the green waste.

It would be wise to have personal accident and liability cover for your group or the individuals within it. Read the CHL Risk Assessment Guidance and equip yourselves with suitable protective clothing, gloves and boots, and other preparations for a day's work in the open air - packed lunch, macintosh, first aid kit, sunscreen, etc..

In selecting a suitable hedge for your project, these pictures of badly flail-damaged hedges may help.

Heliotrope, ivy, montbretia.
Heliotrope, ivy, montbretia.
Hogweed, nettles, brambles.
Hogweed, nettles, brambles.
Ivy, three-cornered leek.
Ivy, three-cornered leek.
Ivy
Ivy.
Ivy, matted gorse, cow parsley.
Ivy, matted gorse, cow parsley.
Bracken, false oat grass, brambles.
Bracken, false oat grass, brambles.

Keep a photographic record of your project, including views of the hedge before you begin. These will be interesting in contrast to how the hedge should look in a few years' time after proper care. Beneath the ugly mass of flail-induced weeds is hidden a historic stone-built monument to craftsmanship perhaps many centuries old, robbed of its primaeval flora and wildlife and sadly in need of rescue and regeneration.


PROJECT STAGE 2: Removal of undesirable hedge growth

This is the start of the practical work. To avoid disturbance or damage to any wildlife remaining in the hedge, work must be carried out only in the winter months from October to February. Make sure that you have arranged access to a qualified hedger, or have a member/members of your group already trained in hedge repair techniques.

The first step is to remove heavy invasive growth from the hedge side and the verge along the foot of the hedge. Growth along the top of the hedge is left undisturbed, unless it is literally just ivy and invasive weeds with no bushes or trees.

Woody species that must be removed from the stones of the hedge side as completely as possible are: ivy, gorse, blackthorn, hawthorn, bramble. These are left along the top of the hedge, including ivy which has grown up into bushes as its flowers and berries are valuable for bees and other insects. The same applies to brambles along the top - weave any long growths back into the bushes.

Weeds that must be removed from the sides and also, as far as possible, the top of the hedge, are winter heliotrope, three-cornered leek, montbretia, nettles, bracken, false oat grass (onion couch), and rampant garden species such as variegated deadnettle and periwinkle.

If your hedge contains Japanese knotweed consult official sources for instructions for safe disposal. This will not be a problem if you tackle it by hand-removing the soft new shoots as soon as they appear, throughout two or three seasons. As the crowns die from this treatment they can be removed and burnt, without risk. Similarly, bracken is best got rid of by perpetually cutting off the young shoots as they appear, before the 'crosiers' open into fronds. Do not pull bracken with bare hands as the stems are sharp.

The basic tools you will need for this work are secateurs, loppers, bushman's saw, garden border fork, long-handled dung fork or eavel, rake, stiff-bristled broom. Much of the growth requires severing, then hand-removing. The object is to cut the woody growth such as gorse right back to where it emerges between the stones, and to remove the rambling stems and roots of invasive weeds. If you encounter snails, slugs, spiders etc pop them over to the other side of the hedge out of harm's way.

Hand-trimming brambles with secateurs. Hold down the thorny stems while root is severed below the lump at base of stems.  This discourages regrowth.
Hand-trimming brambles with secateurs. Hold down the thorny stems while root is severed below the lump at base of stems. This discourages regrowth.

Proceed cautiously and avoid tugging at roots between the stones, as this can cause collapse. The object is to cut and peel the growth away, leaving the severed roots to die and rot away between the stones where they are. Woody growth is removed with loppers or saw as close between the stones as possible.

Brambles are best removed with secateurs, cutting just below the knob from which the thorny stems emerge. Nettles need their roving yellow rhizome roots removed as far as possible without loosening the hedge stones. Any that can't be removed will die if their young growing shoots are pulled off as they appear in spring and summer. Montbretia and onion couch need their corms and bulbous clusters chopping out, bearing in mind that they grow from the fresh ones that form on top of the older root each season. A tool such as a small pick or a fireman's axe can be useful for this. Along the foot of the hedge a garden fork may be used to loosen the invasive roots before pulling them out. Take care not to loosen hedge stones, and tread the earth down firmly afterwards.

To finish, the road must be swept clean of all earth and debris. The cut growth should be well-shaken to allow any remaining invertebrate life to escape back into the hedge, then taken to the nearest centre for green waste recycling.


PROJECT STAGE 3: Repairs to hedge structure

In the worst case, your hedge will have been so badly damaged by the long-term effects of flailing that stones may fall as soon as you begin to remove the growth. Sometimes you can see that behind the gorse mat, the stone hedge facing has deteriorated into a dust slide of jumbled rocks. If you have decided to be a fund-raising group to employ a hedger, this is where he can quote a price for rebuilding the hedge face. If you have prepared by sending one or two of your members on the Guild of Cornish Hedgers' repair course and reading CHL Repairing Cornish Hedges and Stone Hedges, this is your baby. You will need to proceed very carefully, not to cause an avalanche.

Tools required are a long-handled Cornish shovel, a heavy club hammer and a profile former. This can be obtained from the Guild of Cornish Hedgers, or more cheaply made from a piece of plywood - instructions are given in CHL Building Hedges in Cornwall, page 4.

Remove the growth from the hedge side if possible without causing stones to fall, for one metre length only. Rebuild this section of hedge face, replacing the stones as far as possible in their original order, working in accordance with the Guild's Code of Good Practice for Cornish Hedging. At the end of each course of stone leave a little step or seating so as to interlock the next section of repair on to that course. Then strip the growth from another metre, and rebuild immediately. Don't strip more than you can rebuild in one go, as the bared hedge could collapse into the road or footpath as soon as you go away and leave it.

You are likely to find that there is not enough stone for rebuilding, as in the early years of flailing many hedgebanks collapsed and the council or the farmer may have removed the debris. You will need stone of the same type that the hedge is built of. Sometimes farmers and landowners have a stockpile of stone for repairing their hedges. Contact the Guild for advice on obtaining stone.

If the hedge face is reasonably good but small sections of stone fall, or have fallen out, repair the hole or gap. The stones may be still lying at the foot of the hedge, or may have been thrown up on to the top. If the stone is missing, you will need to get stone in to replace it.

If only single stones fall out, replace them exactly as they were and tap them back into place with a heavy hammer.

If the hedge stones are all in place but bulging outwards here and there, tap them back with the hammer, starting with the loosest stone in the middle and working outwards in a circular way, until they are all as tight as they will go.

Finish by throwing any leftover loose earth up on to the hedge top, and sweep and tidy up.


PROJECT STAGE 4: Return of species

This is the exciting part, but may also be the most disappointing. Your hedge has wrongly been flailed during the spring and summer months between February and November, so it will have lost many species. The more often this has been done, the fewer species will return. This is because summer flailing denies the plant its seed-ripening, so the fresh stock of seed in the hedge has not been replaced. When this is done for several years, even the stock of dormant seed is lost, because as soon as it germinates each year it, too, is denied seeding by the next flailing. At the same time the flailed hedge loses soil, as it dries too much and falls from between the stones, and this too carries away seed.

You will have cleared the invasive growth from your hedge and done your repairs in the winter months, so spring is the time when the first results of your labours will show up. You need help now from someone who can recognise plants in their seedling stage, and who will direct the removal of the invasive seedlings, while carefully leaving desirable species to grow. You will also need to remove any young sprouts from cut-off stubs of gorse and other woody species left between the stones. If these are continually removed, the stumps will die and harmlessly rot away. For the first year this removal of unwelcome seedlings and regrowth is all that should be done. Monitor your hedge for the reappearance and growth of the hedge's original native species, and record those that appear. It is important that they should be allowed to ripen and cast their seed, so any trimming of the hedge side must not be allowed.

In the second year you will again need to remove invasive weeds, and leave the desirable species to grow and cast seed. This must continue until the fertility of the hedge has fallen, as it will if flailing is not done.

It is likely that few species will reappear, and these will mainly be those easy-seeders tolerant of enriched soils such as red campion. You may be content with this, as at least they are flowering and bee-friendly. If you wish to restore a better diversity to your hedge, you need to decide on its original character. Was it a typical farmland or roadside hedge, or a more specialised heathland, maritime or marshy hedge? See CHL Check-list of Types of Cornish Hedge Flora and Picture Gallery/Cornish Hedge Flora. These will show a typical selection of the species that should have been in your hedge.

One way to re-introduce local flora, if there is any left in local meadows, is by taking small plugs from this area (with permission, of course) and stuffing them into the crevices of your hedge. You will have to watch them for a while to make sure they don't get dry and die or drop out.

The use of bought wild flower seed is frowned on by the purists, but desperate cases sometimes require desperate measures. Don't use the packets sold by commercial garden seed firms. Go to specialist providers of responsibly-sourced British wild-flower meadow seed, whose stock should include the flower species and the kind of grasses that once flourished in your hedge. Don't buy flower meadow mixtures, as these contain far too much grass, usually 80/20 grass to wild flower seed. This is the wrong way round for Cornish hedges which would naturally be more like 80% wild flower species to 20% grasses. Find a source that sells 1 or 2 gram packets of individual species, priced usually at a pound or two each. Choose half a dozen grass species from the fescues, bents, and other native grasses such as sweet vernal, crested dogtail, hair grass and slender foxtail, and as many as you can afford of different wild flower species. To know which to buy, choose any that appears in the list of lost species at the end of The Life and Death of a Flailed Cornish Hedge.

Roadside hedge in recovery from flailing.
Roadside hedge in recovery from flailing.

Don't scatter your precious seed along the hedge face and hope it will grow. Make little pockets of earth in the crevices between stones, plugging below with a bit of turf to prevent your softened earth and seed from washing straight down from the hedge next time it rains. In each suitable crevice sow a tiny pinch, no more than three or four seeds. Either sow into the hedge in this way, preferably in autumn in imitation of nature's own way, or raise the seeds as plug plants and bed them into the hedge crevices in spring. As with turf plugs, make sure they don't dry out before they are established. If done well this may give a higher success rate than sowing direct into the hedge.

You can also collect seed locally if any can still be found without robbing the place where they are hanging on. Don't collect lots of seed from campion, foxglove and poppies. One tiny pinch of betony, yarrow, vetch, fumitory, trefoil, bedstraw, scabious etc, is far more valuable, as these are the ones that need most help and give a wider opportunity for insects. If you can only get one or two plants of these growing in your hedge, and let them ripen and seed, they will re-establish.


PROJECT STAGE 5: Maintenance and aftercare

It is as important and as interesting for the project to continue, in the years following.

The heavy infestation of weeds that the first stages of the project removed will try to return for some time to come. They need to be regularly removed as soon as they appear either in the form of regrowth, new plants from chopped bits of root, or seedlings. Japanese knotweed will need all its baby shoots removed until the crowns die. Over the first two or three years the shoots will appear in greater numbers but much weaker in size. It is crucial to continue removing them, perhaps three or four times between March and August, as soon as a new crop of sprouts appears. After three years they will suddenly give up, but it is vital to go on removing every odd young sprout that appears. If you let just one escape your eagle eyes, it will begin to revitalise the root, and your wonderful work will be wasted.

Until the crevices between the stones refill naturally with leaf mould and increasing wild flower growth, regeneration can be helped by seeding, adding more plugs with different local species, and casting up fallen or washed-down earth over the hedge face. Once the crevices are again packed tight with the healthy growth of a wide variety of wild flower species, fine grasses, mosses and ferns, as long as this is left undisturbed to grow, flower, seed and die back naturally the invasive weeds will be virtually unable to return.

Your hedge and verge will only continue to recover and thrive as long as it is not touched by a flail, strimmer or rotary mower. To prevent this you will need to inform Cornwall Council that it is a Community Project Hedge and will be suitably maintained by you. Attach a Community Project notice at each end of your hedge length directing flail operators please to omit trimming until they have passed the second notice.

Your side of the bargain is to make sure the hedge is correctly trimmed. Trees and shrubs along the top may need trimming back selectively in winter if any branch protrudes on to the highway or if heavy-topped bushes rock in the wind. In winter continue to cut out by hand any woody growth including brambles from the hedge side, and in spring and summer remove any growth that seriously affects traffic visibility such as concealing a blind entrance, and any bramble whip that may have escaped your winter trimming. The green growth of the turfy, flowery, ferny hedge side is left untrimmed. Remove individually any invasive coarse weed that reappears.

Hopefully, you will have "got the bug" and will go on to restore more hedges in your area. Be part of a concerted movement by the public to persuade the council, landowners and contractors to stop flailing Cornish hedges and return to winter-trimming with a reciprocating scythe. See Cornish Hedges Library How to Look After a Cornish Hedge and Advice for Trimming Roadside Hedges in Cornwall.

Your reward, after the enjoyment of healthy work in good company, will be to watch your hedge increase in beauty and biodiversity as time goes by.