The Devon hedge is one of the defining features in the landscape here, they give structure to the lowlands and blend into the stone walls as they approach the heights of Dartmoor. They provide shelter for the animals, corridors for wildlife and sanctuary to many wonderful trees out of the reach of nibbling farm stock. Many are archaeological features going back to the middle ages, marking landownership and parish boundaries. Many are dilapidated now and their future is not bright but the National Trust is not just about restoring and maintaining old buildings we do the same for the countryside using the old skills part of this is training people the picture shows a group from the Devon Rural Skills Trust who I was teaching turf hedging with a restored section behind them.
So what makes up a Devon hedge? A Devon hedge can be stone faced or turf faced this is often called the hedge bank and can be most easily described as a linear heap of soil faced on both sides either with stone or turf to hold it up and provide a near vertical barrier to prevent stock getting up and over. The stone faced hedge is often miss named a stone wall which is stone and only stone whereas the hedge has a soil core.
On the top of the hedge bank is the living hedge which can be made up of a number of species of shrub and tree, with hazel, blackthorn, hawthorn and beech being the most common and arguably making the best hedges. The hedge was traditionally managed by laying (steeping in the local parlance) with the hedge being formed on the top of the face,’ the rim’ of the hedge bank effectively adding height and forming a barrier to the stock. With most hedge banks being of sufficient width the hedge was layed in two combes above both faces leaving a clear path down the centre of the bank this allowed the farm workers to walk along and trim the hedge with a staff hook in the winter. Some of the more local Devon hedge laying styles have evolved to cover the ‘crown’ of the bank with hedge to deter the increasing populations of deer from walking along and eating the hedge. The picture right clearly shows the double combe from the hedge at the Blackdown hills hedging competition.
The process of rebuilding involves cutting back into the old bank and creating a firm base then using a spade to cut deep turves from the base of the hedge bank and lay them like bricks back into the line of the old hedge bank. The shape or ‘batter’ of the hedge face is controlled by the shape of the cut turf and is quite a nice skill. As each course of turfs is added in the soil at the base of the hedge is shoveld back behind the turves and firmed in with the back of the digger. This process is continued until the required height of hedge is reached then the ‘crown’ of the hedge is filled with soil and the hedge layed to the ‘rim’. The result being a restored stock proof hedge (see photo) clearly this sounds far simpler than it actually is and to do it well is a real skill. Often large lengths of hedge are done with a mechanical digger and a skilled driver can do a very good job.
Photo Ralph Mackeridge