Durham Wildlife Trust comes together for joint task day at The Whinnies


Jess Wilson one of our Volunteer Reserves Officers explains about the recent hedgelaying day at The Whinnies..

Durham Wildlife Trust manages over thirty different nature reserves with various different habitats. From magnesium limestone grasslands to ancient woodlands, we have all sorts! With over thirty reserves it’s a pretty big job managing them all, too few hours in a day… So to help with this, we have two visitor centres which split the work up, sort of like two teams. Each centre has a Living Landscapes Officer who manages the VROs and Volunteers. Rainton Meadows is the trust’s headquarters site situated on 74 hectares of grassland, woodland and wetland while Low Barns is bordered by the River Wear and sits on 46.6 hectares of wetland, mixed woodland and species rich grasslands. I, along with two other VROs are based at Low Barns and so we cover the southern reserves. We may have two visitor centres to weigh out the management of reserves but we do on occasion help each other when needed through joint task days. Joint task days can become huge events with even members of the office staff helping out, even trustees join in! It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet everyone.  

Recently, Durham Wildlife Trust gained a new site known as The Whinnies which is situated parallel to the Darlington to Stockton railway line on one side and the A67 on the other. The former Iron works site sits on five hectares of species rich grassland, scrub habitats, secondary woodland and various small ponds. As it’s a new site, there is a lot of work to be done… And so what better way to commemorate this new addition than a joint task day? Low Barns staff, VROs and Volunteers; Rainton Meadows staff, VROs and Volunteers along with trustees joined forces to make a start on hedgelaying along the walk.  

Chris explaining to volunteers and staff members how to hedgelay

When I first heard about hedgelaying I immediately assumed we were planting hedges, but soon found out it wasn’t… So what is? Its basically a method of creating a living barrier by partially cutting a small tree or bush in order to bend the stem and lay it along the fence line, still alive so that it can continue to grow. But why lay a hedge when you can install a normal fence? Hedgelaying was the traditional technique to holding livestock (before barbed wire and other modern methods). It provided shelter for the livestock as well as the wildlife while serving as a structurally safe barrier. Cattle enjoy rubbing themselves against objects and sheep will push through the bases, especially fences and so planting hedges alone isn’t enough, hedgelaying prevents the cattle and sheep from creating gaps as the stems are angled creating the stock-proof barrier. These days we have barbed wire fences which is often used as stock-proof barriers instead. While it is efficient, it doesn’t have the aesthetic value which a laid hedge has and provides no shelter for livestock and wildlife. So, our reason for hedgelaying as opposed to modern techniques? Its good for wildlife and looks pretty… Wildlife such as hedgehogs can walk through the laid hedges safely avoiding predators, the fencing serves as a corridor connecting different communities (known as a habitat corridor).

Sue an officer member getting involved

At The Whinnies we used Blackthorn, a small deciduous tree, to hedgelay. During the winter Blackthorn looks a bit intimidating with its dull bark and its prickly stems, but actually… come March to April time the Blackthorn bursts into life with beautiful white flowers appearing on short stalks.  

The traditional tool for pleaching a tree or bush (the stem which is partially cut to allow vertical growth) is called a Billhook. There are various styles of Billhooks depending on where you are in the UK, some are small others are longer; some have bladed spines while others are completely hooked… I could go on forever about them… Before you start cutting your pleacher you need to eliminate any hazards, with Blackthorn this was especially tricky… The entire tree is a hazard! Have you ever tried pulling a Blackthorn’s thorn out of your cheek? It hurts… A lot! So before we made any pleacher we pulled out the loppers and got to work on pushing those bad boys back… Traditionally, and in competitions (Yes, theres hedgelaying competitions, how cool is that?) the person laying a hedge would only use a Billhook… We had Billhooks; loppers; bowsaws and even chainsaws for those extra chunky stems…  

Weve all seen trees, they grow up towards the light, right? So we made sure to cut any branches leaning in the direction of the hedgelaying, all hedgelaying is laid uphill where possible, allowing the sap to flow. Once the hedge was laid those branches would only get in the way so its best to deal with them now. Now we’re getting somewhere… 

As a general rule, its best to cut higher. Higher allows room for error. The standard rule to follow when deciding where to cut is to cut three times higher than the stem is wide but allow the stump to remain between 3 – 10cm above ground on an angle running away from the pleacher (this allows rain water to run off the stump and prevent any harm to the tree or bush). The pleacher needs to be able to lay down without force while keeping enough cambium and sapwood to allow the tree or bush to survive. It can be a struggle to get the right balance and ensure the pleacher is laying without force, I found gently breaking the fibres along the pleach while someone gently pulled the stem down worked wonders and helped prevent the pleacher breaking completely. Once its down the pleach can be chipped smooth so there are no crevasses to retain rain water. Then trim the edges or add pleaches to save chunkier stems and add to the bulk. 

One issue we found was if the next stem was larger than the previous, we had to be extra cautious not to accidentally drop the whole tree or bush onto the laid pleach as its weight could snap it… So many times’ this has happened to me, not this day though! I did however find myself stuck under a pleacher while holding my weight up to stop myself from putting too much weight onto the previously pleached stems as my hedgelaying partner decided to take an axe to the final fibres causing the stem to give way while I was guiding it… Now that hurt! But our pleach survived so a job well done.  We spent the whole day hedgelaying in small groups along the row of Blackthorn, it was frustrating, exhausting yet thoroughly rewarding in the end seeing how far we had come and how well our pleachers looked.  

Why not check out our work and have a walk along The Whinnies?  

Volunteers getting involved