Traditional Hedges Protect Shropshire Wildlife
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The OPAL survey into the nation's hedges launches in September
Karl Liebscher from Stanton Long near Much Wenlock believes the ancient art of hedge-laying is starting to enjoy something of a renaissance. The craft, largely neglected in recent decades, has been identified by conservationists as crucial for protecting wildlife. Hedges not only provide food and shelter, but link different habitats. With 30 years experience, Mr Liebscher still uses the traditional billhook and axe, alongside a modern chainsaw. From September the Open Air Laboratories project (OPAL) is hoping to gauge the health of the country's biodiversity by encouraging people to take part in a survey of hedges in their local area. The aim is improve the condition of hedges across the UK and better protect wildlife. The OPAL network is led by Imperial College London and involves 15 key partners. Supported by the Big Lottery Fund, OPAL also aims to encourage public engagement with nature.
The purpose of Mr Liebscher's craft has changed over the years: "Originally hedge-laying was just a means of making a stock-proof barrier for keeping livestock in. It largely died out with the arrival of wire." Now the value of a well-laid hedge to wildlife is more recognised: "The most important is probably wildlife. You can put all the hedges in this country together and they would cover an area far bigger than any nature reserve we've got." Mr Liebscher said the hedges act as corridors linking blocks of woodland, grass land and wet land allowing wildlife to move around safely.
The aim of hedge-laying is to encourage growth at the bottom of the hedge to give it a new lease of life. Some of the hedges he works on are about 200 years old.
He uses two methods of laying a hedge, known as the Midlands style and the Welsh Border style. As well as working for clients, Karl also teaches on courses run by the Green Wood Centre at Coalbrookdale and also at Walford and North Shropshire College at Baschurch. Mr Liebscher also found himself travelling to Australia to help rescue ancient hedges: "I had a phone call out of the blue from Tasmania... This particular guy, an ex-pat, had bought himself an estate and he'd got all these overgrown hawthorn hedges." While he there he passed on traditional skills to some of the men who worked on the estate. Two of them have since been over to England to work.