My first ever contact with Pipers Farm was about 8 years ago when Peter and his fabulous bullocks starred in “Food 4 Thought”, an educational film I was making about food, farming and the countryside. Michael Caines was our human star, and originally suggested featuring Pipers Farm in the film, but during the two days filming here, it was the livestock, fields and hedgerows which got top billing in my mind!
So it seemed fitting that my first blog for the farm since joining the team recently should look at those hedges in a little more detail than I did back then.
The sheer volume of the hedges here is quite amazing! These chunky boundaries, at points over three meters across, are so much more than just stock-proof delineations, they are a source of huge ecological richness around the farm and can’t simply be created, they take hundreds of years to achieve this significance.
To roughly age a hedgerow there is a useful equation I like to use called Hoopers Rule. For every 30 yards (27 metres) stretch, each different tree or woody shrub equates to a century of the hedgerow’s existence. This doesn’t hold true for modern or newly planted hedges, which have often been strategically planted with a wide mixture of species, but for unmolested ancient hedgerows, the rule stands up to close scrutiny well.
Here on Piper’s Farm, our hedgerows abound with a broad diversity of trees, shrubby plants and flowers; many common in our rich Devon countryside, but some a little more scarce and worth a closer look. The hedges here can be dated accurately through maps and documents, and hark back some 400 years. Within a short stroll of the farmhouse, you can find some amazing plants and animals in residence!
Around our old fields, the hedges have a strong structure of hawthorn and blackthorn, with holly, hazel and ash appearing in large clumps. This structure produces a thick dense hedge with occasional standard trees being allowed to grow at points, normally ash, oak and field maple. Honeysuckle pops up all over the place, adding its own floral bouquet, and providing autumnal nesting material for a Devon hedge specialist, the dormice!
At this time of year, the elderflower is probably the most noticeable plant.
Another delicate bloom that weaves its way through the hedges here is the pale dog rose, the original wild rose. At present the open flowers are a dining table for hosts of nectar-feeding insects – bumblebees, butterflies and solitary bees – once pollinated, these will mature into bright red fruit packed full of Vitamin C. The fierce prickles of the dog rose, overly familiar to anyone like me who enjoys grappling with hedges in the winter months when laying them, are not only a deterrent for grazing animals, but also act like a climber’s crampons, giving the plant purchase as it winds its way up through the hedge.
The tight nature of the hedges here is not only good for the stock, giving them somewhere to shelter if the weather is bad, it also provides great cover for nesting birds and small mammals.
One of the reasons why the hedges have fared so well over the last 25 years, is that one of the first jobs carried out on the farm by Peter and Henri when they moved in, was to fence all of the hedges to protect them from stock.
It seems counter-intuitive, especially when you think of the expense that fencing such a length must have cost. Hedges were originally intended to keep stock within fields, why must we now double up with wire fencing too? It's mainly the fault of sheep… Sheep have a habit of breaking out. They push up under hedges, to get to the most difficult to reach morsels (always the favourite food of a sheep, the hard to reach morsel) and as they do, they will erode the hedge bank while creating a gap in the foliage. Once they’ve got a head through, they’ll all be out and into the next field or onto the road in no time. Over the years of annual light trimming, the hedges have grown out to such an extent it is often hard to notice the fence tucked-in beneath the leaves, but it's there – protecting the precious hedge from marauding ruminants! If we were to keep this annual trim the hedge would stay neat, certainly, but the ecologically rich elements of the hedge (the flowers and fruit) would slowly deteriorate.
And it's not just for a fuzzy, warm feeling that we are committed to keeping our hedges in good shape; they are such an important part of the farm’s environment. Since the war over 120,000 kilometres of hedgerow have been lost in the UK, coupled with the fact that a 2006 report for Defra suggested that only 22% of those remaining hedgerows were in favourable condition, we have a huge responsibility to ensure that our precious hedges are the best they can possibly be.
So that's why one of my first jobs here will be to survey the hedges and make up a timetabled plan for the next 5-10 winters, to go about laying selected stretches of hedgerow, which will maintain the integrity of the hedge, whilst allowing a new flush of fruitful growth to appear in our rich hedgerow system. The good news for any of you out there itching to get hands-on with farming, is that laying a hedge is something best done in groups; it takes a little bit of time and effort – so it's a job best shared, and I am very keen to share this ancient skill with you through a series of events we intend to roll out this autumn! Keep your eye on the website for more details, or subscribe to our newsletter, so you’ll be the first to know – I predict these events will book up pretty quickly!