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The secret to Sussex hedge laying

PUBLISHED: 13:28 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 13:28 11 June 2013

Hedging bets

Hedging bets

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The ancient skill of hedge laying has been around for thousands of years. Up until the 18th century the only way to boundary your land and protect your crops and livestock was by laying a hedge

Avid followers of the BBC’s Countryfile programme will have seen HRH Prince Charles only too happy to pick up his tools and get involved in the art of hedge laying; hardly surprising since he is the patron of the National Hedge Laying Society. Each year the society holds a national competition in October which moves across the UK, and a number of competitors who have done especially well there are then invited to take part in a competition at the Prince’s Highgrove Estate. One of these members is Phil Hart from Plumpton, East Sussex.

Phil has been involved with hedge laying since 1987, taking part in local competitions as well as the English and Scottish National competitions and a championship in the Netherlands. He believes that hedge laying today retains its original practical purpose of creating a stock-proof fence that will help to keep livestock in or out of a field, while also providing shelter for farm animals, especially sheep with young lambs. And in today’s countryside where many of our wildlife species are disappearing due to lack of habitat, hedge laying has an increasingly important role to play.

“Hedge laying is really important for hedgerow regeneration and the wildlife habitat it creates. That is why Prince Charles is so passionate about maintaining this ancient craft,” says Phil.

“It helps enormously to breathe new life into an overgrown and dying hedge which conserves and improves the habitat for small animals and birds. A laid hedge can also give some wind protection and help prevent soil erosion. Thin hedges that have gaps and holes are no protection for sheep and lambs and nesting birds, and don’t keep out the weather. A hedge trimmed every two or three years will also provide a lot of winter food for wildlife.” The profile of hedge laying over the years has been in direct correlation with British agricultural history. A post-war starving Britain saw the removal of hedges to make larger fields that could accommodate larger, more efficient machines harvesting more crops. By the late 70s/80s there was an excess of food crops, so farmers were encouraged to set more land aside for other purposes.

“Today we have agri-environment schemes,” says Phil, “where farmers and land owners are paid to leave field margins and farm in a more wildlife-friendly way. A lot of new hedges have now been planted and laid under these schemes. Organic farmers, for example, value the laid hedges for the wildlife food chains they support as part of the organic farming eco-system.”

It is the aim of the South of England Hedge Laying Society to promote the traditional craft of hedge laying and particularly to keep the local style in existence. They are also very keen to stimulate interest among young people wanting to learn the craft, and to this end they run a series of courses with which Phil is very much involved.

“We run various training days providing both competition and demonstration facilities, and it is recommended that new members do at least three days of training. The National Hedge Laying Society runs a standard programme for instructors, which is a two-day course with the aim of setting the structure for the Train the Trainers courses, which cover the different styles of hedge laying. A further seven courses are planned for the next two seasons. We also help to generate greater interest for competitions held at local ploughing matches,” says Phil.

There is a baffling variety of approximately 30 different styles of hedge laying, with a particular style for each region throughout the UK. The style used here in Sussex is the South of England Style, which is derived from the rougher Sussex Bullock hedge. It is a Double Brush hedge, with stakes and binders down the centre of the hedge, the finished height is four feet. This hedge is used to contain sheep and cattle in the fields on both sides of the hedge.

The best time to carry out the laying is between September and March, which avoids the bird nesting season.

“The process involves removing the old fence posts first,” advises Phil. “Remove any wire, brambles and nettles. Start at the top of the field and work back down the hill so the hedge is laid uphill. Get the first stem (shrub) of the hedge, pull it apart from its neighbours and untangle it, this may involve cutting some of the branches off. Then “pleach” it, that is cut it 90 per cent of the way through and then bend it over or “lay” it. When you lay the next stem or shrub in the hedge, build it up, that is tangle it, back together.”

After a section of hedge has been laid, the laid hedge has stakes added down the centre, binders are added to the top of the stakes to hold the hedge together and to stop the wind and livestock damaging it before it re-grows. The hedge is then trimmed after laying.

With a renewed emphasis now on preserving both our environment and ancient rural skills, the future for hedge laying looks bright. There is funding for training courses and the South of England Hedge Laying Society has nearly 200 members.

A beautifully laid and maintained hedge fence has a rustic charm that can outstrip a row of barbed wire any day. And for Phil the attractions are both recreational and practical.

“Swinging the hand tools is like winter cricket, but without having to run and collect the ball. I enjoy the challenge of taming and transforming an overgrown hedge to a manageable stock proof barrier – plus the element of competition of course!” says Phil.

“I remember an elderly hedge layer I met at one of the competitions telling me that he once met the late Spike Milligan and they were talking about the craft, when Spike piped up that his only experience of it was that a hedge was a great place to lie under after he’d had a few drinks...”

For further info on hedge laying and training courses visit www.sehls.weebly.com

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Expert hedge laying tips:

1. Be brave! Don’t be afraid to swing the relevant tools, this is how they get the power to cut through the dense hedge row material.

2. You could use a chainsaw but it will cost around £1,000 for the saw, safety equipment and relevant training and certification. They save work but with competitions offering up to £100 for the best hedge cut with an axe and billhook, there has been a revival in using the old tools.

3. Do not wear gloves when using swinging tools, they will slip out and injure someone or your hand may creep up the blade and cut through the glove into your finger!

4. Go on a training course with the South of England Hedge Laying Society, they have the skills in the membership and run three training days plus four competitions.

5. Purchase some old tools, makes such as Ellwell, Parks, Cornelius Whitehouse or Brades. These old tools remain sharper for longer.

6. Learn how to sharpen your tools as brute force only lasts for so long before you get tired and a blunt tool won’t perform.

7. The skill lies in sharp tools and good technique!

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