For years now birds visiting our courtyard in Richmond have taken advantage of feeders, baths and, if the need demands, nesting boxes. Elsewhere, gardeners with more space have built insect hotels, left trees rotting where they fell and piled up logs for needy amphibians.

Of the various schemes, one of the most intriguing is the use of the dead hedge, which we first saw in a nearby park several years ago and which has been tantalising us ever since. This blog tells how we have now built one in Brittany and how its creation had repercussions including the repeated emergence of one of my favourite childhood nursery rhymes. 

In Anglo-Saxon England, farmers would pen in their animals with dead hedges. By chance such hedges also served as ‘walls’ in which all manner of wildlife could build their homes. Making these hedges has always been quick and easy: hammer two parallel rows of stakes into the ground; interweave long supple branches between the stakes of each row to make two screens; fill the space between the screens with thin branches, twigs and leaves. Dead hedges can be any length; the one we built is around two metres (see illustration).

Our dead hedge was very much the product of happenstance. Land in France is peppered with yellow ‘bornes’ that mark out boundaries. They are made out of metal poles, concrete blocks or plastic ‘flags’ and each is firmly fixed in the ground. To serve their purpose, they should remain visible rather than hidden under branches or undergrowth.  Earlier this summer our new next-door neighbour asked where he might find the borne delimiting the boundary between us at the bottom of our two gardens. It was, he assumed, hidden by overhanging branches of the willows growing on our land. While we are not legally bound to reveal the borne, and indeed it was just about visible, if we chopped down the offending branches some would be ideal for building a dead hedge. Next day clearing began. 

Using cut branches of varying thicknesses, Rohan and I took around four hours to build the sides of our dead hedge and then fill it in. To us, it seemed, the perfect multi-storey home for insects, small birds, reptiles and possibly the occasional hedgehog. But the project demanded so much more than simply the construction. It took us two days to cut down the branches around the borne and then to drag them to the middle of the adjoining field for sorting. It took another day to cut the larger branches – some as thick as my upper arm – into logs for firewood and then gather them up into piles. For this, help came from a friend with a chain saw and while he was with us he offered to saw up a moribund palm tree in our garden which, inevitably meant more wood for gathering and storing.

But storing firewood requires careful management and in Tréguennec I work on a three year cycle. For the cycle to be achieved, the new logs had to be neatly arranged in an ‘empty’ section of our wood shed. In the end it took two days to clear a space for the new wood, collect up the logs piled up around the garden and then stack them up to be ready for Christmas 2023.

One of the oddest things in all this was that as I worked a particular nursery rhyme came into my head and just wouldn’t let up. ‘The House that Jack Built’ is a cumulative tale so with each verse a new line is added. The odd thing about this rhyme is that it tells nothing about the subject of the title – the house – but describes how the house is linked to other people or animals. So, for example, it’s eighth verse goes: ‘This is the man all tatter’d and torn, that kissed the maiden all forlorn, that milk’d the cow with the crumpled horn, that tossed the dog that worried the cat, that kill’d the rat that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Jack built.’ 

At first, the reason why the rhyme entered, then echoed in my head was a mystery. Clearly my brain had discovered a link and I can only suppose that it saw a parallel between, on the one hand a nursery rhyme that tells of the things that happened in and around Jack’s house but nothing about the house itself, and on the other hand how much of our week’s hard work had little directly to do with four hours building a house for wildlife. 

I had never before realised the quirky nature of the nursery rhyme about Jack’s house – isn’t the brain ingenious?

The illustration shows the two-metre stretch of dead hedge that we built at the bottom of our garden.

For helping write this blog, I would like to thank Rohan and Vivien.

10 thoughts on “This is the House that We Built

  1. Dear Joe,

    Your blog introduced me to a dead hedge- I had never heard this term before! How wonderful that you and Rohan are creating houses for wildlife in Treguennec! And I love the idea that you are planning for 3 years from now!

    Here Spring is just beginning- today it is 24C. People who live in paces with really severe winters can’t quite believe how we describe our suffering during a Sydney winter, but we don’t really heat our houses so we do get rather miserable.

    Love

    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, Thank you for you comments. First, for years now I have thought how odd it was to store wood for three years hence and now it’s seems even odder.. Second, I wonder if my blog will inspire Rob’s Rohan to build a dead hedge – let me know. Love, Joe

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  2. Congratulation on your hard work which must certainly keeps you fit.
    I am a bit puzzled by the term “dead hedge”
    Have you included some willow branches in your hedge to give it a bit of greenery every spring for the birds etc to hide.?
    Just a thought. Not to late either if you have not.
    Take care
    Love

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  3. Dear Sauliac, The traditional hedge has bushes and trees that are alive and growing while everything in the dead hedge is cut and moribund. The advantage of willow is that the branches are subtle enough to be woven and so to make the two screens. Love, Joe.

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  4. Wow what hard work to build the hedge, I look forward to reading about the new inhabitants and perhaps some photos. Has Minou been to visit the new build?

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    1. Dear Carolyn, Many thanks for your note. The first resident, who arrived in hours was a caterpillar. Minou, now called Zoe, seems happy. He remembered us when we went round but he also knew who his new owner was. I am sure he will be round to snooop. Love, Joe.

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  5. Two metres. Just the ideal length to position all but your nearest and dearest at one extremity and you at the other, as you did with your arm and walking stick in Richmond Park many months ago.

    Stephen

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  6. Joe, I absolutely love this! As you say, dead hedges are the most marvellous things for creatures of all kinds (and probably, in time, fungi, mosses and lichens). What a fantastic thing to do. I thought about how that simple question from your new neighbour (“Où est le borne?” – or is it “la”?!) led, via a good deal of physical exercise/hard work, to increasing the biodiversity of your plot for the future.

    For me, therein lies the link to your nursery rhyme: everything has a connection. Everything we do is part of a chain. I am very conscious of this in relation to the natural world at the moment as it is so much under threat. Nature gives us so much and even little things we can do for nature in return are part of slowing the decline. So you chose to do something positive and inspiring – but of course! Lovely story. Thank you so much, as always. JJ Fruitbat XX

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    1. Dear JJ, Thank you for your kind comments. We were very excited to build our dead hedge and it has certainly attracted attention amongst the locals. Before we leave for England I will have a peep to see if anyone has taken up residence. Love, Joe. PS it is ‘là.

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