All posts by Michelle Werrett

Michelle Werrett is a farm consultant specialising in the integration of wildlife conservation with commercial livestock production. She advises on design and management of ponds, hedges and woodland and on pasture management for farm livestock or horses. She helps with grant applications and all farm paperwork. Michelle has lived in the Exmoor area all her life and is often seen out on the moor riding side-saddle.

Hedgerows: The Story of our Landscape

As you cross the moor, whether by horse or on foot, you will notice the worn-down remains of old banks lying beneath the heather. Many of these are the remnants of early hedgebanks associated with Neolithic settlements and field systems. On lower farmland around the foothills of the moor many hedges date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when fields on manorial lands were enclosed by tenants. However, no one knows how many prehistoric hedgebanks were absorbed into this medieval field system and may still be in use today.

These medieval hedges enclose small fields, shaped to fit comfortably into the contours and natural features of the land. From a map you can see how many of these old hedge lines have been bisected by more recent roads. Over the ages these hedges have been colonised by numerous species such as ash, hazel, field maple, oak, holly, rowan and thorns, all jostling for space and bound together with brambles and briars. The growth is luxuriant and a profusion of wild flowers brightens the grassy hedgebanks.

On the higher parts of the moor the fields are larger and squarer, the hedges are straighter and almost exclusively of beech. Beech hedges are now a characteristic feature of the Exmoor landscape but beech is not native to Exmoor. These hedges were planted as a result of the reclamation of the Royal Forest by the Knight family, a process that began with the Act for Inclosure, passed in 1815, and continued throughout much of the nineteenth century. Until this time hedges, and indeed roads, were virtually non-existent in the Forest. Both were built to facilitate the agricultural and industrial development of the area by the Knights. The earliest work was the construction of the boundary wall, completed by the end of 1824 by John Knight to enclose the land he had bought. Several of the old Forest boundary marks (usually notable stones) were included within it.

The next stage, continued by John’s son, Frederic Knight, was the creation of farms and the enclosure of large fields of some 50 acres (20 hectares). Substantial earth banks were built, faced with stone on each side to a height of four feet and topped with a further two feet of turf, making the whole construction six feet high. A double row of beech was then planted upon the crown. These were protected on either side with wattle fencing, known as ‘wreath’, to make them sheep-proof, although this was substituted by wire from 1848.

Considerable expense was invested in constructing these beech fences. At Simonsbath a full-time nurseryman was employed, tasked with raising the necessary young plants from beech nuts. Building hedges was soon made the responsibility of the new tenant farmers. Both landlord and tenant benefitted from the potential agricultural returns that could only be achieved through enclosing land from the moor and improving it.
The essential work of Exmoor’s hedgelayers was recognised by Exmoor National Park Authority with support from the Exmoor Trust through the Exmoor Hedge Competition 2010.  Hedges are built to last, and one of their wonders is their age, but this does not happen without maintenance work being carried out along the way. Banks will be eroded by weather, deer and livestock, and bushes will become tall and overgrown. Overgrown bushes become thin in the base, offering little shelter for wildlife or livestock and their tall structure makes them unstable in rough weather when eventually they will blow down, with their roots levering out a large chunk of bank. In order to maintain a thick, bushy, stable structure hedges must periodically be laid or steeped.

In the early part of the twentieth century there was widespread unemployment, labour was cheap and readily available and so hedging work was carried out regularly, but as farms became larger and labour unaffordable hedging was one of the first jobs to be neglected. It was so much quicker to simply erect a wire fence. After the Second World War government grants were offered for the removal of hedges to make fields larger, facilitating the use of modern machinery at a time when efficient agricultural production was a priority because people were hungry and food was rationed. Fields became larger, hedges fewer and increasingly hedges became tall, overgrown, run down by stock and in danger of collapse.

During the 1990s a new government initiative known as the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme did much to redress the situation, driven by the concerns of (a by now well-fed) society for conservation. Exmoor was designated an ESA and farmers within the area could claim grants for, amongst other things, managing their hedges. Over the next decade more hedges were laid and banks restored and replanted than had been done for a generation. There was work to be had for a man who could lay a hedge and suddenly the old skill gained renewed credence and respect.

Now the ESA scheme is being replaced by Environmental Stewardship and capital grants for hedging work are available to some but not all Exmoor farmers. The result is bound to be a reduction in the management of hedges, although in the present economic climate any grant must be viewed as a bonus.  Exmoor’s hedges are now in better condition than has been the case for many years and it is to be hoped that can be maintained.

Hedgerows define our landscape, giving structure, texture and character to the land. They are historic features still used today for their original purpose – to contain and shelter our livestock, facilitating management of both the animals and the pasture. They bear testimony to generations of Exmoor farmers and workers who have built and managed them over the years and, we trust, will continue to do so for generations to come. Hedgerows tell the story of the history of Exmoor, for anyone who cares to listen.

Useful resources:
Devon Hedge Group via: www.devon.gov.uk/devon_hedges
Somerset Hedge Group: www.somerset-hedgegroup.org.uk

Hedge laying

Hedge laying must be done in winter when there are no leaves on the trees and the sap is down. First any wire must be removed to render the hedge accessible, and if it was put up last time the hedge was laid it will probably need replacing anyway. Any brambles and twisted, misshapen growth that cannot be laid is cut out. Large old stems may simply be cut off, at a slight angle to shed rainwater and avoid rot, and left to re-sprout from the stump. So the hedge is prepared, leaving only layable stems, evenly sized and spaced, as well as perhaps an odd tree to be retained.

These stems must then be cut partially through on a diagonal, leaving a thin, pliable tongue which acts like a hinge and the stem or ‘steeper’ is laid over, taking care that the bent section does not snap or lose its bark or the whole stem will die. Steepers are laid horizontally along the bank, one line along each comb, or edge. They must be laid uphill where there is a slope, as sap (opposite to water) runs only uphill. It is important that the laid steepers are close to the top of the bank, which is usually cast up at the same time to ensure a snug fit.

Turf is taken from the ground at the foot of the hedge and used to rebuild eroded sections of bank. New growth will sprout from the laid stem and it will of course only grow upwards so a gap below a steeper will never fill in. Once the hedge is ‘made’ it must be protected from the depredations of livestock and deer with a wire fence on either side. Few banks are high and sheer enough not to need this, as during re-growth the young shoots are very succulent and tempting.

courtesy Somerset Archaeological and Natural History SocietyThis lovely illustration comes from the 1851 publication, The Farming of Somerset by Acland and Sturge. It is reprinted courtesy of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society whose library has been reopened at the Somerset Heritage Centre. The accompanying text reads: “The fence which gives complete shelter is a double ditch wall, 5½ feet high, with a beech hedge on top. It consists of 4¼ feet of stone, 1¼ feet of turf-sod, with a sloped ditch on each side, and two lines of wattling on the top (called vrith or wreathing), between which the beech plants are nursed up.”

Exmoor Hedge Competition 2010: first prize went to Martyn Sloley from Brompton Ralph, who laid the winning hedge belonging to Mrs Mary Stacey of Higher Foxhanger Farm. Left:  The essential work of Exmoor’s hedgelayers was recognised by Exmoor National Park Authority with support from the Exmoor Trust through the Exmoor Hedge Competition 2010. First prize went to Martyn Sloley from Brompton Ralph, who laid the winning hedge belonging to Mrs Mary Stacey of Higher Foxhanger Farm.

This article is taken from Issue 53, winter 2010.

Exmoor’s deer legacy

A series of low, choking coughs echo up from the steep woods, followed by a deep guttural groan reverberating across the combe: a primeval sound from the dawn of time. The stag is answered byanother from the far side of the valley and a third, deeper yet, from further up the water. Around the third week of October the rut reaches its peak on Exmoor and the stags hardly pause day or night.

The normally quiet woods thunder with the affairs of the deer.On an amber brake between the bronze oak woods a big stag stands sentinel over around 20 deer, roaring his defiance across the valley. Deep, rumbling replies echo back from at least four other stags, each unseen within the woodland and each unwilling to answer the challenge in person. The big stag roars again but he hardly has time to fight with so many deer to keep an eye on. He trots after the nearest hind who circles around the group, not going far but just keeping out of his reach. Eventually he tires of chasing her and tries the next, sniffing curiously at her tail and hoping she might be ready for him. But she is not and trots away evasively as her sister had before. The stag’s constant vigilance is important to catch each hind during her oestrous cycle, which occurs every 18 days during the rut. If another stag dares to approach the big stag will quickly chase him off and if he doesn’t leave promptly there will be a fight.

Injuries from fighting are not uncommon at this time of year, and are occasionally fatal. With so many deer to hold, and challengers on every hand, the stag is constantly busy and will hardly rest or eat throughout the rut. The condition he has put on over summer in corn and mowing grass will be exhausted by the end of October, and he will finish the rut quite run up and lean. But his exertions will have achieved the goal of passing on his genes to the next generation. The ritual of the rut ensures that generally only the biggest, fittest stags carrying the finest weaponry on their heads are able to do this.

The Exmoor and District Deer Management Society has organised a co-ordinated deer count annually for the past 16 years. Each year, in early spring, a team of knowledgeable local people from all across Exmoor venture out before dawn to count the deer in their home area. The aim is that every covert, every combe, every brake where deer may be found will have someone watching from first light for an hour-and-a-half on two consecutive mornings. This co-ordinated approach ensures that deer are not counted twice and the specialist local knowledge of the counters helps to contrive that few deer are missed. This count has produced fairly consistent results over the years, revealing an average of almost 3,000 deer living on Exmoor. The ratio of hinds to stags is at just under three-and-a-half to one, and of hinds to calves at around two to one.

Watching wild deer is a fascinating pastime, enjoyed by many people on Exmoor. It is the best way to develop an understanding of deer, but we can always learn more. The Exmoor National Park Authority recently commissioned a series of studies to expand our knowledge of different aspects of the deer.

One study examined the health of wild red deer on Exmoor. The herd is generally very healthy with remarkably low incidences of disease across the moor, most deer being extremely fit and well. Nevertheless, two diseases occurring at low levels are noteworthy, these being lungworm and TB. Lungworm has been found in deer from the Dulverton and East Anstey areas. TB in deer is at a very low level on Exmoor, indeed lower than the national average. However, there has been a worrying cluster of incidences around Baronsdown, just to the north-east of Dulverton, and deer of very poor condition have been noted in the same area.

Deer love the shelter and seclusion of woodlands. In summer the thick, leafy coverts provide shade from the sun and a screen from prying eyes at a time when hinds are calving and stags are growing their antlers. As winter winds blow away the autumn leaves, the naked woods turn grey and so do the deer’s coats. When snow covers the ground making grass and heather unobtainable there is always ivy to browse in the woods, and the deeper the snow the more ivy comes within reach. Deer are at home in woodland and all of Exmoor’s woods have high numbers of deer. Ancient oak woodlands are noted for their ecological value and designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, so it was considered important to investigate the impact that deer of all species are having on these woods.

Deer enjoy eating tender young shoots and seedlings of native trees and shrubs such as oak, ash, hazel and rowan but find beech and holly much less to their taste. Heavy deer browsing can reduce the regeneration of young trees and, in the long term, influence the species of trees that make up the wood. It was found that the impact of deer on woodland is minimal where the woods are frequently disturbed by people, such as around Tarr Steps and Woody Bay. It was also clear that deer have less impact on woods that are actively managed; where coppicing and thinning admit sunlight and encourage abundant regeneration protected by a vigorous growth of bracken and bramble.

Of course deer have been present in Exmoor’s ancient oak woodlands since the last ice age so one would expect the woods, and other woodland wildlife, to have adapted to tolerate them pretty well. It is believed though, that numbers and densities of deer within woodlands have increased dramatically since the beginning of the twentieth century. However, at a moderate level some deer influence is vital for a diverse woodland structure and most woods on Exmoor are actually in very good ecological order.

Another angle from which to view deer is a financial one. An assessment of the economic impact of red deer on Exmoor examined both the costs and economic benefits associated with the deer. Costs include agricultural damage, policing poaching and vehicle collisions, and benefits are mainly through sales of venison by stalkers (1% of gross income), wildlife-related tourism (18.5%) and hunting (reduced by 25% since the restrictions of the hunting ban, but still accounting for 80% of gross income). Aggregating all of the economic impacts showed a net positive value of £3.2 million per year. Relating this figure to the annual count results, and considering mature stags to be more highly valued than other deer, the study attributed an economic value of £3,750 per stag!

Whatever their economic worth, the true value of the deer can never be overestimated. To visitors and locals alike the deer are such a significant aspect of what makes Exmoor unique. Few areas in modern Britain support such numbers of large wild animals and few communities take such an interest in wild deer that notable members of the herd are recognised as individuals. At once fascinating, exciting and beautiful, though they are plentiful the deer should never be taken for granted. They are a heritage from our grandparents and they will be a legacy to our children. Exmoor’s culture is steeped in the lore of the deer.