Cornwall Life talks to Robin Meneer, founder of the Guild of Cornish Hedges
PUBLISHED: 15:14 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:53 20 February 2013
In this April issue, Cornwall Life talks to Robin Meneer, founder of the Guild of Cornish Hedges about his mission to save our Cornish hedges
Robin Menneer, founder Guild of Cornish Hedgers, talks to Ian Wilkinson about his work to save the Cornish hedge
The traditional Cornish hedge is sadly under threat. It's expensive to maintain, often seems to be at odds with modern farming methods and the skills required to build new hedges have been all but lost. In 2002, Robin Menneer, a retired civil servant, established the Guild of Cornish Hedgers in an attempt to raise public awareness about the plight of the Cornish hedge and to take action to halt its decline.
I suspect I am not alone in taking many of the features of the Cornish landscape for granted. It's the sum total that builds the picture in our minds - not the component parts. Of course it's hard not to notice the ivy-clad mineshaft, the stone barn, or even the wind farm - they are manmade objects and we have a view on their appropriateness to the surrounding countryside. Cornish hedges too are manmade, but they are a feature of the landscape that blends in to such a degree that they could have been here from the dawn of creation. Well, not quite - the earliest are probably a mere 6,000 years old! But imagine if they weren't there. Nothing to break up the contour lines, nothing to give the landscape scale and no patchwork of small enclosures, farmed for generations in the traditional way. Cornwall with 50-acre fields? It's unthinkable!
Robin Menneer's crusade to save the Cornish hedge from extinction did not begin until his retirement from a 30-year stint as an agricultural surveyor and valuer with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. "Shortly after my retirement I was buttonholed by one of those people who can persuade you, in the nicest way, to do anything," he tells me. "She said that I just had to do something about the hedges. Naturally I asked her 'why me?', and she said: 'Well, you have a Cornish farming background, you know about hedges and you know about offices and paperwork!'"
Robin Menneer certainly has the right credentials. A farmer's son from Gweek, he learned about hedging at an early age - taught by an old man who learned his skills in the early 1890s! He decided on chartered surveying as a career and joined the then Ministry of Agriculture, initially based in London. For the last ten years of his career he secured a posting in Cornwall, where he was responsible for setting up the West Penwith Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) - widely regarded as one of the most successful in the country.
As a surveyor, Robin was at the heart of the ESA's remit to encourage the maintenance of the historic field pattern, including the retention and repair of stock-proof Cornish hedges. "It was one of life's ironies that when I joined the Ministry all those years ago, I was involved in the administration of grants to rip out the old hedges - only to finish my career helping to replace them!"
The threat to the Cornish hedge came during and after the Second World War when both food and manpower were in short supply. New farming methods did not favour small fields. Many thousands of miles of hedge were lost, along with the skills needed to maintain and build them. It was not until the mid-1970s that their value was reassessed.
The Cornish hedge is certainly worth saving. A typical hedge is essentially a 5ft-high steep earthen bank with a 5ft-wide base, usually topped by a variety of woody species including trees. It is faced with local stone and as well as defining field and property boundaries, it is also an extremely efficient stock-proof enclosure. Hedges supply much-needed cover from the elements for livestock and their benefit to wildlife is significant, providing not only habitats for all kinds of flora and fauna but woodland corridors for all manner of species. As boundaries they are an important source of land use information for the historian, and as an archaeological resource. The fabric of the bank represents a time capsule that preserves not only the original construction materials but also reveals, in layers, what has happened to the hedge since.
he hedge is a living, growing entity that needs regular trimming and maintenance of the bank. The fact that so many hedges are suffering from a lack of repair can be attributed to three main factors - money, ignorance and a shortage of skills. Grants are available to farmers through stewardship, although schemes are very limited. The main thrust of the Guild's work is aimed at raising awareness and redressing the skills shortage. Robin Menneer explains: "We found that there was no formal knowledge base on the subject and so we started to talk to the remaining few people in the county who actually possessed the skills to build and maintain Cornish hedges. Most of these people were in their nineties and had learned their craft before the war, so time wasn't on our side. However, we managed to write a standard specification and a code of good practice."
A Heritage Lottery Fund Grant was secured in 2005 and this allowed the Guild to widen this knowledge base and address the other major issues of skills and training. "The colleges couldn't help," says Robin, "so we decided on a rather old-fashioned apprenticeship scheme, whereby prospective trainees were advised to find a hedger to train them in return for their labour, while the apprentice got some financial assistance from us." However, the scheme failed to get off the ground because there weren't enough hedgers left in Cornwall able to participate.
"We have now established a number of ten-day intensive training courses conducted by a Guild-approved hedger, followed by a 50-day work experience and improvement period leading towards a certificated qualification. The take-up has been most encouraging," says Robin. There are still places available on the scheme.
And the future? Robin is cautiously optimistic. "If we can establish a group of around 30 skilled hedgers, who are then willing to pass on their knowledge to future generations, the training problem will have been solved." "But," he adds, "if the Cornish hedge is to flourish, the authorities need to recognise its importance. That means stricter enforcement of preservation rules, financial help towards repair and, above all, an insistence at the planning stage that Cornish hedges feature in new developments."