A traditional skill I have always wanted to learn is the process of hedge laying. When I heard that Keep Wales Tidy in association with the Woodland Trust were running taster days of hedge laying locally as part of their ‘Long Forest‘ project, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a new skill. Hedgerows have been used for centuries as living stockproof boundaries and unlike the modern alternative of fencing, they can be regenerated time and time again. Laid hedgerows also have huge benefits for wildlife and are more aesthetically pleasing than modern flailed hedges, which not only look messy, but quickly become bare at the base and fall into decline . While many fences have long decayed and rotten away, 200 year old hedges have stood the test of time.
Walk along old farm boundaries and you may see the tell tale signs of historical hedgelaying, near the base of the hawthorns and hazels gnarled branches lie horizontally. As with other traditional techniques there are regional variances that have developed over time, adapted to local conditions, customs and tools.
Whichever style is being used the principle methods are the same: Cut 3/4 of the way through the trunk of the hedge tree and lay it horizontally at a 25 to 45 degree angle, weaving it in and out of regularly spaced stakes driven into the ground. Although the majority of the woody part of the trunk has been cut a section of cambium and sapwood which carries the essential nutrients to the branches is kept intact. The tree reacts by sending vertical shoots along the laid branch as well as regrowing from the base of the stump creating a thick new hedgerow as solid as a fence.
The most important tool for hedgelaying is the billhook, which consists of a sturdy curved blade sometimes double sided and is used to slice through the trunk. An axe, thick gauntlet gloves and in modern hedgelaying, a chainsaw and handsaw are also used.
The three essential parts of the laid hedge are the pleacher, the trunk/branch that is laid, the stakes used to provide supports to weave the hedge between and the binding which ties the stakes together for extra strength. The hedge needs to be around at least 8 feet high to be able to lay it properly and, for ease of cutting, not too thick at the base. The hedge we were given to work on was only ten years old and the perfect size to practice hedgelaying. Planted as part of a community project it contained a mixture of Hawthorn, Hazel, Field Maple and Blackthorn
We arrived on a crisp late winter morning the sun catching the last few patches of frost in the fields. Firstly we were instructed to take a walk down the hedge line to remove any awkwardly placed branches, dead wood or poor growth. Once this was completed the first angled cuts could be made near the base of the tree on the opposite side from the direction the stem is to be laid. If the cut is not deep enough the pleacher can snap when it is bent over, and too deep a cut can sever the cambium layer causing it to die. The stakes were then driven in at 18″ intervals leaning slightly towards the pleachers; we used manufactured stakes but traditionally branches are taken from the hedge instead. The Pleacher can then be woven through the stakes and any wayward growth folded back into the line of the hedge or removed. The cut was then cleaned off ensuring the stump was left in the best health and could regenerate without rotting. Finally, thin whips of pliable hazel or willow were woven along the top of the hedge, tying the stakes together and providing a neat finish.
Hedgelaying can be slow and hard work but the final result is definitely worth the effort. The thick low hedge becomes a new habitat for nesting birds and other wildlife. Hedgelaying is definitely a skill that can only be learnt through lots of practice and I hope to join other courses later in the year