The Farming Manual: Hedges


I have my days. Sometimes I sit, misty-eyed, looking at my fields dreaming of hedges following the contours of the landscape, providing shelter for wildlife, wind protection for the herds, cow protection for the cars driving past…sigh…

I should take a moment to be clear on this topic. What is a “hedge”? Hedges are not something we see outside of gardens in this country. This video is quite lengthy but covers the whole shebang from a how-to perspective.

And here is a later video of the same hedge discussing the results.

So we are talking about planting and training a fence. You typically want a plant species that will coppice well, something that will respond positively to being stressed, something that will grow in close quarters and, usually, something with thorns. You know what will coppice well, grow in close quarters and has thorns? Osage Orange.

Some years ago I read the book Hedges, Windbreaks, Shelters and Live Fences by E. P. Powell dated 1900. He is against using Osage Orange. While they fit most of the criteria, they tend to grow out as much as they grow up and you have to, according to Powell, trim them three times each summer. Worse, you have to lay the hedge at some point. Osage Orange typically has 1″ thorns spaced 1″ apart along the entire length of young growth. How on Earth would you weave those together as in the video above?

Rather than review Powell’s book I’ll continue with Henderson’s species recommendations.

In hedge laying every effort should be made to preserve the hawthorn, which is the hedging material par excellence, it gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hedge thorn’. If there is any choice, the hazel, elder, maple, privet, spindlewood, wayfarer, guilder, and briar should be cut out, a rapid-growing, large-leafed species is the enemy of the thorn.

We have hawthorn on the farm and, BOY!, does it succumb to fire blight. I suppose I could try to bring a blight-resistant species onto the farm or, over the long years, attempt to breed a more resistant strain of my own.


Hazel isn’t exactly common in my area. Elder grows everywhere but is, in my opinion, not a worthwhile wood to cultivate. Maple sneaks in where it can. Same with black raspberry…and poison ivy. And rather than deal with a thorny, tangled mess intertwined with poison ivy, modern farmers tend to put up barbed wire or high-tensile fence and keep the fence clean with round-up. Or, if they have a line of trees (not a hedge) they just try to cut them back every so often.

High-tensile electric works pretty well. But that’s not what Julie and I are after. We need wind protection. We need wildlife habitat. We need food production. We need coppiced wood. We need a barrier to smaller animals. And to get this I have to grow appropriate species to my climate and lay them in a woven, living mesh, not just chop them back every so often.

Hedge cropping, the mere cutting back of growth, is not so effective, as the hedge tends to get thin at the bottom and gaps appear through which stock may escape, while a really well-laid hedge is hen proof.

And, later:

Hundreds of farmers no longer keep sheep because their hedges will no longer confine them. On many farms all the stock roam over too wide an area for want of efficient hedging. On such farms it is difficult to think of a more profitable investment for time, money, and effort, than in putting all the hedges in order.

From here, Henderson begins on dry stone walling. My enthusiasm for hedging is, I believe, obvious. My lack of enthusiasm on the subject of dry-stone walling may be similarly obvious. We do not grow rocks where I live. I suppose there are rocks down there somewhere but not like they are a few hours to the north. I have driven past fields in Wisconsin where there are piles of stones that must grow like potatoes in the soil each winter for harvest each spring. The few we have were carried by glacial action or by my vacationing grandparents. But he does talk a little about contour here, something we missed in the section about hedges

Where boundaries run up hill, the wall should be built horizontally, and not up the slope. Heading stones should be supported by a large block occasionally, or made to lean uphill, so that if a lower stone is removed accidentally the others do not fall like a pack of cards.

Contour is important for other reasons though. We want to slow down the flow of water so we can store as much as possible and settle out any sediment the flowing water has picked up as it passes over and through our farm. Our creeks should be wide. Our ponds should be many. And our hills should focus the flow of water to the ridges while slowing the passage of water downhill. The top of the hill is the place to store water. But sometimes hills cannot be avoided and for those moments it is appropriate to remember that water flows through plants too. Sap goes up the stem of the plant. Cut your pleaches so your hedge grows up hill to retain the flow of sap. It’s too much to ask a tree to grow upside-down.

Henderson ends the chapter talking about sheep hurdles. “Hurdles” are wooden sections of temporary fence. This is wood craft. Coppiced wood (probably hazel) made into a kind of wicker fence section.

That’s not for me either. But there is some detail here that pertains to us. We use temporary electric fencing and that requires some level of planning.

A very important aspect is in planning the number of daily pens in a given field inch a way as to give the sheep the food they require, and at the same time ensure the minimum of effort for the land covered, and to never the finish at the week-end with all the additional labour of moving to the next field. The old shepherds were always very cunning in having it all worked out. Many of them never set a hurdle after mid-day, but spent their spare time ‘looking at the sheep’, while lesser men would strive all day to catch up. In the old days it was reckoned one man could set for 400 sheep grazing roots, or half that number if he was grinding (pulping) the roots by hand. It was equivalent to having 1,000 sheep on each acre per day, no wonder the Golden Age of British farming was based upon them.

That is to say, if we are attentive to what we are doing we can be more efficient about it. There is a real difference in the amount of time and energy I spend building fence compared to the time Julie spends on the same task. But this isn’t a chapter about rotational grazing. It’s a chapter about restraining livestock.

The hedge is of interest to me. I have allowed a few black locust trees to sprout up here and there intending to pull them with the tractor and put them all in a row. I think this is the year. Mulberry would work well too. No thorns to mess with. Hawthorn may be the gold-standard but I can’t seem to get ahead of the fire blight. Osage Orange is only in Illinois because it was believed to be the best option in North America. Who am I to argue with that? I’ll argue anyway though. I hate Osage Orange. Hate.

What is the best option where you live? Probably high-tensile electric. But are you adventurous or dumb enough to hedge? Skilled enough to build a dry stone wall? Silly enough to make wooden hurdles in an era of electric netting?

Maybe it’s not dumb or silly. Maybe it’s the right thing to do in any economy. I don’t know.

2 thoughts on “The Farming Manual: Hedges

  1. I guess I should count myself lucky – I have a lot of very healthy hawthorn in all my fencelines. Some are 50-60 year old trees. Hay Guy comes through with the brush cutter every couple of years to give them a haircut, and it is making them more hedgelike as the years progress. I love all the birdlife and other small creatures that live there – walking past, I can hear all the scuffling and rustling. Most people consider hawthorn something of a pest here though, since it can and does seed itself anywhere that isn’t mowed or grazed regularly.

  2. Hawthorn does well here too, and can be income producing also if you find a market for the leaves and flowers. We let a naturopath U-pick ours in a barter exchange for treatments. Otherwise, it’s great browse for the cows. However, Himalayan blackberries have become the hedge of choice just because you cannot eradicate the voracious plants without herbicides. So we live with the blackberries unfortunately.

    Glad to see you posting regularly, apologies for not commenting on this excellent series of posts about Henderson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s