How alive is your dead hedge?

05 September 2014

A 10 step guide for working with young people to teach sustainable education, countryside management and habitat conservation.

So, how alive is your dead hedge? Confused? Well, let me explain. 

A dead hedge is a barrier or boundary constructed from cut branches, saplings and foliage.  They’re actually the most primitive and ancient form of hedging but they can be really important habitats for birds, hedgehogs and other wildlife.  So they’re constructed from dead offcuts, but can be alive with wildlife.  Dead AND alive!

Agreen Dead Hedge 1Photo courtesy of Andy Lewis and 'Uppark House and Garden Blog

It’s actually really easy to create a dead hedge and a great activity for those of you working with young people on sustainable education activities.  If this is you and you’d like to give it a try, read on to find out how to get started.

Planning the activity

Constructing the hedge is a great way of engaging young people in countryside management and they won’t even know they’re doing it (until you explain of course).  What a great activity - cutting down or felling small trees, coppicing, pruning lower branches off trees and dropping those dead trees that never got a chance to get going.  You would normally be presented with a disposal problem after carrying out such maintenance activities, but not this time!   This time you’ll be using the waste to create a fantastic wildlife habitat.

Agreen Dead Hedge 5     Agreen Dead Hedge 6

If, like most schools these days, you have some land attached to your buildings, you’ll probably be able to find a perfect spot for a dead hedge.  If you don’t have land attached to your building, there may be some nearby woodland that you could use.  Just check with the local authority, farmer or owner before you start and get permission.  Explain to them you’ll actually be doing them a great favour.

You’ll need:

  • Strong gardening gloves (one pair for each person)
  • Goggles, if dealing with Hawthorn or Blackthorn (optional)
  • Loppers
  • Secateurs
  • Bow Saws
  • Billhook or Axe (dependent on the ability of the young people)
  • A Rake or a Besom is sometimes handy dependent on where you are, for example thorns left on a footpath.

If the group is a large one, you could easily split them up as there are a number of different activities to do.  There’s cutting (from experience, they all want to do this though), dragging out, laying the branches and then cutting stakes to hold the hedge together from either side.  By the way, this is a great practical activity for a school’s environmental or eco team too.

Of course there’s all the health and safety to consider too, especially with regard to hand tools and sharp branches, so please make sure you follow all the relevant health and safety procedures and never leave the young people unattended.

Getting started

There are a few ways that you can construct the dead hedge; it’s all a matter of preference.  You can lay the branches straight and on top of each other, but I prefer to lay them at angles so that the end result looks more like a living hedge.  The instructions below follow this latter approach.

1.  Choose where to put your dead hedge, and start at the right hand side (you can start at the left but, for ease, let’s go with the right for now).

2.  Lay down the branch, cut end (or thick end) to the left and pointing towards the ground with the twiggy/foliage end to the right and pointing upwards.

Agreen Dead Hedge 4

3.  From here on, work to the left following your line and keep the cut end of branches towards the ground with the thinner ends to the right.  These will lay a little to the left of the branch laid previously.

4.  You will need to interlock branches into each other by forcing a branch through the ones you’ve already laid out, still with the cut/thicker end to the left and pointing down.

5.  Keep repeating this process, slowly working towards the left, but also going back and pushing branches in through the ones laid earlier (still with thick end to the ground).  This will help give the dead hedge more height. Branches can also be pushed in alongside the ones laid previously, which will also thicken the dead hedge.

6.  You’ll also need to cut some stakes, approx 50mm in diameter.  These will have to be fairly straight as you’ll need to knock them in the ground.  It’s also best to sharpen a point on first, either with a saw or an axe. It’s not written in stone but each stake should be about 1.5m apart (see drawing below).  There needs to be a row of stakes on both sides of the dead hedge, one side being alternate to the other, this will help keep it all together. You could aim to have your dead hedge approx 1m high.

Agreen Dead Hedge 3B

7.  After you’ve done a few meters of the hedging, you can knock your stakes in.  Keep them in a straight line so that both sides are parallel. Try and be consistent with the distance between the stakes and keep them alternate to the other side.

8.  Some of the branches may be too long for the stakes, but you can just push them in first then cut it at the dead hedge height, pushing in the offcuts of the stake into the hedging.

9.  With the stakes in, you have an opportunity to thicken the dead hedge up even more, interlocking the branches as you go along. It’s a good time to tidy the top line up by weaving in any twigs that are sticking above the desired height.  Do the same with branches or twigs that are sticking out of the sides.   

10.  And that’s it!  All you need to do now is wait for the wildlife to come.

So there you have it - a hedge that’s both dead AND full of life!

What will you use yours for?  To enclose a wildlife area? A path or lane boundary? To hide something unsightly?  The uses are endless and the process is great fun.  What a great alternative education activity!


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