Devon stone-faced earth banks and hedges

Last week, I had a really satisfying few days of work on two courses delivered by the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project through the Our Upland Commons Project.

I started with an introduction to stone-faced earth bank repair near Chagford.

A diagram of a stone faced earth bank in cross section

A stone-faced earth bank resembles a dry stone wall from the front, inclined at an angle of 8-15° (the ‘batter’) for strength, which provides a face for a bank of soil. The largest stones sit at the base of the bank and some stones, ‘throughs’, may go from front to back through the bank.

Image: Devon Hedge Group

A slumped section of earth bank at the top of a slope below a track had seen many stones fall away; this was worsened by a row of mature oak trees pushing the bank out with their roots.

Under the instruction of trainer Martin Stallard, we cleared loose material back from the bank and exposed some large granite slabs – lying at rather awkward sloped angles that both made moving them difficult and made building a wall on top of them rather tricky. We opted to plot the best path around them, the earth bank bulging out slightly from the original line.

After clearing soil back to create a small trench at the base of the bank (this sits on broken-down rock and supports the weight of the bank), we started selecting the largest stones we could find from the loose material around the bank. Here’s where it all gets very therapeutic – finding stones with shapes that sit firmly at the base of the bank and align with each other, ideally providing a smooth front face. It’s all about tesselation. There’s no concrete here. Small gaps between stones are filled with ‘tracers’, chunks of stone. As the bank builds up, the stones get smaller. You lay them like bricks, keeping overlaps, building up courses and avoiding vertical seams that weaken the wall. Soil is backfilled and tamped down. Plant roots will eventually bind it all together.

An earth bank fronted with stones
Starting to rebuild a stone-faced earth bank

I could only join one day of this training as I was moving on to an overlapping hedgelaying course, but we’d made a decent start by the end of the first day. And I was just getting into the flow as well. This and hedgelaying should be prescribed on the NHS.

For the next two days I learned Devon hedgelaying near Horrabridge.

I was staggered to learn that Devon has around 32,000 miles of hedgerows, some dating back to the Bronze Age. Many are in poor repair. Here as in many other places, many have had repeated flail cutting at the same height year after year, leading to their slow deterioration. We saw a ‘knuckle’ of toughened growth running along a line of the hedgerow we were laying, caused by years of cutting at the same height – fortunately, the landowners have now let up (left the hedge to put on vertical growth suitable for laying) their hedges for the past five or six years.

Laying a hedge in the traditional Devon style hugely enhances its biodiversity, stockproof quality and longevity as well as being a highly effective tool for carbon sequestration. The earth bank is part of the hedge, an integral part of the structure. Trainer Jeremy Weiss was incredibly knowledgeable, helpful, and also not afraid to tell us if a piece of work was rubbish and needed to be done again.

Notes on laying a hedge in a notebook
My notes from college on laying a Midland hedge. No, I cannot draw a sheep from memory.

I learned hedgelaying in the Midland style in college – pleachers (cut stems as they’re called in the East) laid at an angle with stakes every 18 inches and hazel binders across the top. Devon hedge laying is less fussy in some ways but no less technical. Steepers (cut stems as they’re described here) laid flat across the sides of the hedge, with the hedge plants having a gap between them in the centre of the earth bank. As we moved along the bank, an ongoing assessment is made – do we have enough material? What do we keep? What are we laying next? Most of the brash in the hedge will come out – too crooked, won’t lie straight in a good line, dead or dying – but the best use is made of straight hazel, bushy blackthorn, hawthorn, holly, rowan, ash, anything that will withstand cutting and laying. Hazel gives structure, blackthorn makes the sheep think twice about trying to climb into the hedge.

I learned a great deal that I hadn’t really appreciated. Root laying – severing the plant trunk and laying it still connected by just one root was an option. The need to trim the cut heel of the steeper to prevent the plant shooting up from the heel and allowing the steeper to die off (severing the heel to stop the base of the cut rotting out was a myth). Just how important a really bloody sharp billhook was. Using the billhook to shave down a steeping cut rather than hacking away endlessly.

Looking down on a Devon hedge from above, showing two lines of laid trees along an earth bank.
Looking down on a Devon hedge from above – when cast up, earth is deposited in the centre of the bank

After we finished laying around 60 metres of hedgerow, securing loose steepers with crooks knocked into the bank, the next step is casting up – a digger scoops earth from the base of the bank (this has eroded off the bank over time) and deposits it back on top, between the two hedge lines. This adds to the height of the bank, the trench at the base further heightening the bank, making it more difficult for the sheep to get over.

Apart from some sensitive trimming, the hedge should not need to be laid again for many years.

Job done, we took some time to talk about hedgerows at the end of the course. Jeremy is passionate about them, as am I – I talked about hedges a great deal at Deepdale Farm. Hedges are this incredible resource for biodiversity, long strips of incredibly valuable edge habitat, biological corridors, stock barriers, sequestors of carbon and pollutants, soil erosion and flood prevention devices, and historical artefacts all in one. In the recent fervour for planting trees, however, management of our existing hedgerows (and woodlands) can be overlooked.

Many more trees are needed, obviously, the right trees in the right places, but it would be great to think that we better valued and looked after the incredible resource we already have in hedgerows and other features like stone-faced earth banks. This brilliant training, and the activities of organisations such as Devon Hedge Group and Devon Rural Skills Trust, goes a long way to supporting that.

The Dartmoor Hill Farm Project has an ongoing programme of training in skills from hedge laying to dry stone walling – keep an eye on the website or email for more info.

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