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The hedges of Devon have a tremendously important historical role, preserving as they do past decisions about mans use of the landscape, which often go back hundreds or even thousands of years. They are characteristically very old, rich in wildlife and visually very attractive, and most of them date from the Medieval period, though some 25% date back even further some 800years. Moreover, on the edges of Dartmoor, some hedges continue the boundaries ('reaves') of Bronze Age field systems, some 3,500 years old.

Apart from Dartmoor, where the abundance of stone allowed the construction of Stone Walls to separate one field from another, hedges and banks have been a feature of this County for Centuries, and today there are still some 33,000 miles of hedges remaining, more than in any other county. Consisting of an earth bank roughly 1.5 metres in height, with a width across the top between 0.5 metres to 3 metres, and width at the bottom from 2 metres to 4 metres, these banks would be faced with stone or turf, and, in all cases would be laid flat on top.

Exceptions to these general measurements came when a hedgebank was also a parish or farm boundary, where greater dimensions might come into play. It was common to refer to the length of a hedgebank in terms of a landyard. The main plants used were hazel, blackthorn, whitethorn, beech, oak, and holly. Ash was not bushy enough and elder was a weak grower. There was a saying that "the devil used to run along hedges but holly always stopped him".

The reason for casting up a bank and laying/steeping a hedge on top was to make it stock-proof. Some leases prescribed a period of 7 years between steepings of a hedge, after this time growth could become thin low down and needed laying. Leaving individual trees untrimmed would eventually kill the hedge on either side. To encourage bushiness, some farmers had new growth trimmed with a paring hook, and Fred Woollacott remembers doing this on his way to school in Witheridge from West Yeo where he lived. The time for hedge laying was between October and March. At that time, the sap was dormant and farm workers had time available between morning and afternoon feeding of stock.

When tackling a hedge and bank, the first task was "browsing out", which involved cutting away all the brambles. Then came some casting up of the bank where there had been damage due to rabbits, cattle and sheep. For this work, a long-handled Devon ditching shovel was used, but the Woollacotts had brought with them to West Yeo in the late twenties, an Exmoor tradition that made use of an 8 to 10 tine stonefork to dig up big clats (turves) and thump them into place. The angle of the bank was crucial; too steep, and the rain or frost could bring it down; too shallow, and livestock could get up it.

As to material from hedging, everything had its use. Cut-off branches would be gathered and tied into bundles of faggotwood, and then stacked in ricks. A local baker would enter into a contract with a farmer for a rick of faggots, which he would use to fire his bread ovens. In addition, crooks were needed to hold down the steepers, the branches laid flat. A crook was about 2 feet of 1 to 2 inch stem (often hazel or beech) with an angle arm at one end. Smaller crooks came in handy for holding netting used to fold sheep on roots such as swedes and turnips.

For steeping, axes and billhooks are used. As to direction, beech would do best if laid towards the sun, but all did best when laid uphill if possible, to reduce the angle of bend. A downward cut was made just far enough above the soil for the stem to be pulled down to lie at right angles taking care not to let the split run up the stem. Some of the bushy part of the steeper should just mask the line where the bank levelled at the top. Later cord was used for tying down, but if tied too tight it could kill a stem. Steeping was to encourage growth, so too many steepers laid together could get in each other's way.

Where there was a weakness in a bank, such as where a bank reached a gateway, stone was used to give it strength. This was known as stoneditching and it was vital that the lowest course of stone be two thirds below ground to form a strong base. Stones picked off the fields could be used. Hedges were often laid and banks cast up when a field was about to be ploughed and so free of stock for a time; stock could damage newly completed work. This work was often done in the sight of neighbours; pride ensured good work was done; errors did not go unnoticed.

It has been said that one species per 30 yards indicated 100 years of growth. However, hedges along turnpike roads were planted from the start with a number of species, and we suggest that in the mists of time a farmer planted a new hedgebank with whatever came to hand or whatever he might have grown himself.

Ploughing matches sometimes included hedging competitions. Competitors travelled miles to take part and could be seen arriving with their tools tied onto their bicycles. Hedging was part of Young Farmers Clubs education courses.

Generations of farmers have been responsible for creating and managing these hedges as stock-proof barriers and shelter for livestock and crops. The hedges may also mark changes in soil type and most are still valued by farmers as field boundaries and for shelter despite the introduction of stock fencing.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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