Ancient Art Of Hedgelaying

Ancient Art Of Hedgelaying

by Hanna Lindon

Far from being a dying craft, hedgelaying is thriving in Sussex. Hanna Lindon talks to Gary Moore, Trainer Officer with the South of England Hedgelaying Society, about how it’s done.

Back in the 1950s, hedgelaying had all but died out. The traditional smallholding model, where farmhands spent the winter digging ditches and laying hedges, was changing. Why pay a craftsman to spend a day meticulously laying a hedge when you could use a machine to shape it and then plug the gaps with electric tape? Now, though, we’re seeing a resurgence of the old ways.

“People do it recreationally,” says Gary Moore, the South of England Hedgelaying Society’s training officer. “We see a lot of people coming down from the city because they want to unwind and do something different. Hedgelaying is incredibly satisfying.”

The South of England Hedgelaying Society began in the 1980s with just 12 members – now it has over 100 and runs a packed calendar of training courses. Most of the demand is from gardeners who want their boundaries to look attractive, but conservationists are driving a resurgence in the craft as well.

“If you have a hedge that’s 18 or 20 feet tall then pretty much the only thing that will nest in it is magpies,” explains Gary. “If you lay it, though, then that will attract lots of songbirds and small animals.”

The hedgelaying process begins with clearing out rubbish and brambles before selecting a stem and cutting through 90 per cent of it – a process known as ‘pleaching’. You then bend it over (‘lay’ it) and cut off the heel of the branch with an axe or chain saw. The final step is to hammer in stakes around 18 inches apart and then bind the top with willow or hazel. While this is the general method, each area of the UK has its own unique style.

“Down here we were mainly farming sheep and cattle,” explains Gary. “The South of England style is a double brush hedge so that stock could be kept on both sides of it. Go up-country into the Midlands, where arable was just as important as stock, and you get the Midlands style. There they lay the hedge at a slight angle into the field with the brush on one side and the other side bare to allow for regrowth.

Then there’s Yorkshire, where they thin the hedge out by 70% and put a board down the centre so that the sheep can’t push through, and Kent where they traditional lay a low brush hedge because it didn’t need to keep in cattle.”

Nowadays, it’s the hedgelaying competitions at ploughing matches that really keep the craft alive. Head to the Hurstpierpoint and District Ploughing Match on October 7th to see experienced hedgelayers in action or visit the South of England Hedgelaying Society’s website at sehls.weebly.com to find out more.

For further information about work and training please contact Gary on 07767 894961.