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.
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.
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.
This 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.”
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.