JENNY STEEL  The Rural Craft of Hedge Laying

 

           

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Contact Jenny to find out more about her freelance writing

 

THE RURAL CRAFT OF HEDGE LAYING

Every winter, all over the Midlands, Wales and southern England, hardy men and women are out in all weathers with billhooks and bow saws learning to cut stakes and weave pleachers, as the laying of hedges is revived as an effective and productive way of managing field boundaries.  Many conservation volunteers, nature reserve managers and enthusiasts interested in reinstating this ancient skill are learning the basics from those older craftsmen who have managed to keep the art alive through a long period of hedge removal all around our countryside. 

The partial cutting of tree and shrub stems and their tying down to promote new thick growth at the hedge base, was originally a means of keeping hedgerows stock-proof and productive - for fuel wood, fruit and nuts - and to enable the management of rabbit warrens in hedge banks which were an important source of food for farm labourers.  Now hedge laying is also seen as a means of prolonging the life of a hedge and producing an impenetrable barrier to shelter livestock and protect crops, as well as a way of encouraging wildlife.  We are only just beginning to appreciate the value of hedges as important habitats for some of our most endangered creatures such as doormice and corn buntings, as well as declining species like the song thrush.  A well-laid and dense hedge has good protection for nesting birds from magpies and other predators, and can provide a corridor for the safe movement of species through the countryside.

In the historic parish of Chideock in West Dorset, master hedgelayer Jon Parker is almost single handedly restoring the hedges of the National Trust coastal land around Chideock, Seatown and Golden Cap with patience, expertise and some help from volunteers who come to learn from him this ancient skill.  Jon is every inch the countryman, full of knowledge and wisdom about farming practices, wildlife and the land all about him that he knows so well.  He is convinced of the immense value of hedgelaying to modern farming and wildlife conservation, and talks with pride of a family of barn owls nearby, no doubt aided in their survival by the many small mammals finding homes around the field margins where the hedges are thick and luxuriant.

The Dorset style used here on this windswept coast makes a completely sheep-proof barrier.  It has similarities to the Welsh  ‘Flying Hedge’ style where the standard trees and pleachers – the stems being cut – are laid almost horizontally on the ground and there is an absence of binding or ‘heathering’ along the top. Unlike more familiar hedging styles, such as the Standard or Midland style where the pleachers are angled at about 30 degrees, this work, to the untrained eye, has the effect of a living hurdle, expertly woven, with small standard trees left where appropriate.  The result is a barrier so effective and beautiful it would not look out of place in an expensively designed garden!

Work begins on a ‘hedge’ on the Chideock Manor Estate, although hedge is hardly the word for this tangle of brambles with stools of hazel and some small wild cherries.  The line is dominated by thirty-foot tall wych elm, just large enough in girth to have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease last summer.  Jon hopes that restoring the hedge by laying it will also encourage the re-growth of the elm, allowing it to survive another 20 years before the beetle carrying the disease can catch up with it again.  This week he has with him a volunteer, Alan Pottinger, a forester who works mainly in the tropics.  Alan is keen to learn the ancient art, and has thoughts about the immense potential of hedgelaying in Africa, to provide living stock proof barriers for small farmers there. 

Jon’s approach is methodical and careful.  His own safety and that of his charges is uppermost in his mind and the day begins with tool sharpening – sharp tools are safe tools.  Billhooks and hand axes are the weapons of choice, but a chain saw makes light work of the overgrown elms. Jon’s tools are like old friends, honed so frequently over the years that the blades are half the size they once were.  The next job is to clear out brambles, undergrowth and brash.  Only then is it possible to see what is actually happening, and find the true hedge line.  These hedges work very much in conjunction with the ditch on either side.  Occasional clearing of the ditches involves heaping up spoil in the middle to make the characteristic raised hedge bank between two rows of hedge plants.  Both rows must be laid to produce a double stock proof barrier with the further deterrent of a ditch on either side.  The ditches overflow with foxgloves, primroses, pendulous sedge and celandines.  In the depths of the hedgerow itself are woodland wildflowers including dog’s mercury, red campion, ramsons and hart’s tongue fern.

Once the existing hedge is revealed, decisions can be made about which standard to remove completely and which to lay.  This hedge has small trees outside the hedge line and these will be cut to ground level.  Every stem, trunk and branch is considered individually, before deciding to lay it or take it out completely.  The pleachers are then cut through at an angle and the stems bent over to almost horizontal.  On a sloping site such as this, it is important to lay uphill to minimise strain on the cut.  It is also crucial to keep the whole structure strong and if it is not possible to weave one pleacher into those already laid, a crook will be used to hold it down.  Only material on site is used, so a crook will be fashioned by axe from a stem already removed. 

Jon and his volunteer work all day standing ankle deep in running water, in the ditch beside their hedge.  There is art as well as craft in their work as the overall appearance of the hedge is considered at every stage.  Jon, a true expert, has been hedge laying for thirty years, and Alan is hooked after only one day. But this is not a skill to be leaned in a day.  We have lost several lifetimes of experience and the handing on of knowledge, and Jon is not sure that he will find a young apprentice to teach. The professional hedge layer requires summer work, as laying can only be done between late October and mid March when the sap is down and Jon observes that his work is beginning later each year as climate change delays winter weather.

National Trust volunteers come from all corners of the world to attend week-long courses run by Jon Parker here in West Dorset.  He is assisted by Peter Yates, a National Trust Warden who has judged at the National Hedge Laying Championships.  Together they have passed on their skills to Japanese, Australian and New Zealand enthusiasts, from all walks of life. A consultant neurosurgeon was protective of his hands, the tools of his trade, when he first arrived, but by the end of the week, they were scratched and bruised, and he along with everyone else was hooked on hedging.

As Jon showed me his work he told me, with typical modesty, that he felt he was not the world’s best hedge layer, or even an expert, but he hoped that in twenty years time, when this hedge was ready to be laid again, he could come back and appreciate the fruits of his labour.  Long may he continue.

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017