I thought it might be of interest to see a bit of what we do on the farm which is home to Westmorland Woodfuel. The farm is called Sleastonhow, which I understand means “farmstead on the hill”. A pretty accurate description as it sits on top of one of the Eden Valley’s drumlins. This affords us some great views. I once read in a book that the finest view in Westmorland was from Sleastonhow Lane. Now I think that is an exaggeration but you can see the Pennines, Wildboar Fell, the peaks that form High Street and a fine view of Blencathra and it’s “saddleback” as it’s often referred to locally.
Anyhow, it’s fair to say that the rural landscape has changed a lot in modern times and this was a progressive dairy farm in the 80s. The herd was sold in the early 90s at which point we were milking 130-160 cows on about 300 acres plus about 50 acres we rented. Inevitably this intensive management led to the removal of hedgerows and general neglect of trees and any hedgerows that were left. The damage was done by modern flailing and wintering sheep browsing out the hedge bottoms leaving that familiar row of mushroom shaped hawthorn and blackthorn bushes. Since about 1995 we started to restore the hedges and fence the sheep out of them. Progress was slow and with just one man and a hand axe but slowly they have recovered. Browsing from rabbits and hares prevented any successful basal growth or suckering, so in the late 90s I started planting more replacement trees in the gaps between the old stools that were laid as I could see that there wouldn’t be much to lay in the next time if there weren’t more stems. This gave the opportunity to plant some standard trees such as ash and oak where they were missing but also some other species such as holly, hazel, birch, willow, crab apple, rowan, dog rose, field maple and guelder rose. When I took on the management of the hedges in 2005 I stopped annual flailing and adopted a policy of allowing the hedges to grow up, occasionally flailing every 3 or 4 years (except on roadsides for access). The idea being that hedges would provide more shelter and bear abundant flowers and fruit for foraging insects and birds. The hedges will be laid on a 15-20 year rotation rather than annually flailing them into the ground. I reckon this is cheaper in the long run and certainly provides more shelter for livestock, us and the wildlife.
Sadly I don’t see many farms in this area that really value their hedges enough to invest time and money into making the most of their remnant hedges. I still see old (flailed to death) hedges being replaced by wire fences without recognition for the benefits a good thick hedge can bring to the farm. Improved shelter, shade and forage for livestock (cattle love to browse on some tree leaves such as hawthorn) pollen & nectar for pollinating bees and other insects, food for bats and birds, fruit and nuts (sloes, crab apples, blackberries, gooseberries, rosehips, hawthorn berries hazel nuts) and, in time, the finest firewood from hawthorn and ash trees.
There is no doubt that the labour resource on the average farm is seriously depleted these days. Once on hedgerow maintenance and laying was a winter job for farm labourers that would otherwise be short of work.
My view is therefore that farmers should look harder at which boundaries they can sensibly manage and start investing time and money into restoring them over a number of years. It’s the sort of long-term thinking that farmers are meant to be good at…live every day as if it were your last, farm as if you’re going to live forever.