`There are about 35 different styles, families of styles and even styles

Watch how your
Hedge grows
Graham Downing watches the experts at the National Hedgelaying Championships
and has a tip of his own to offer. Photographs by Laurence Squire
magine that you have been parachuted into the English countryside
from some distant planet. How do you
establish exactly where you are?
Simple. Walk over to a newly cut-andlaid hedge. If it is 4ft 6in high, with hazel stakes
and woven hazel binders along the top, then
you are in Midlands foxhunting country. If the
stakes are of sawn timber and there are no
binders, then you are in Derbyshire. If the
sawn stakes are 18in apart on alternate sides of
the hedge and the pleachers are laid at 45
degrees, then your most probable location is in
Lancashire or Westmorland. If the hedge is on
top of a bank and the binders are secured with
crooked hazel sticks, you are in Devon, while if
the hedge is narrow and finished with sawn
stakes and rails, you have landed in Yorkshire.
Just as our native livestock breeds were
developed to suit local conditions of soil and
climate, and vernacular building styles vary
from district to district according to landscape
and geology, so do the ways in which fields are
fenced and hedgerows cut and laid.
“There are about 35 different styles, different families of styles and even styles particular to individual estates,” according to
Robin Dale, chairman of the National Hedgelaying Society (NHLS). “The radius that
‘There are about 35
different styles, families
of styles and even styles
particular to estates’
different hedgelayers worked in the past
would have been no more than five miles.
Each would have his own style and someone
else would have another way of doing things.
Even the designs of axes and billhooks would
be different, because the blacksmith was
making that billhook for
that man. You weren’t
going to be influenced by
someone on the other
side of the country, and
that’s how regional differences came into being.”
Foxhunting was one of
the main factors behind
the development of hedgelaying. The craft not only
created a stockproof fence
capable of containing bullocks, which might weigh
a ton apiece before being
sold in Melton market, but
it also produced a challenging though uniformly
contoured obstacle for the
horseman. “The binders
are on the top of the hedge
to keep the hedge down,
but they also gave you a
precise take-off line. And
where we cut the stakes at a 45 degree angle
with the ditch on the nearside, if your horse
didn’t get high enough, then you slid over and
didn’t stake your horse. It’s all about hunting,
without a shadow of a doubt,” says Dale.
Sporting estates and hunts kept the skills of
hedgelaying going during the last war and up
until the mid Seventies, during a time when
the richness and diversity of our countryside
was under huge pressure from the economics
of agricultural change. Nowadays, however,
hedgelaying is undergoing a renaissance, both
for wildlife conservation reasons and simply
because landowners are once more appreciating the pure aesthetics of a beautifully cutand-laid hedge. The present guardian of the
rich diversity of regional styles is the NHLS
and there is nowhere better to appreciate and
understand the finer points of that diversity
than at the Society’s annual championships,
which in 2011 were held at Arlingham,
Gloucestershire and at which, appropriately,
there was a meet of the Berkeley Hunt.
Undoubtedly, the classic cut-and-laid
hedge is the Midland style, which was developed for farms with large animals where the
hedges needed to be able to withstand the
weight of a heavy beast pushing against them.
The stems are “pleached” or cut half through,
turned almost horizontal to the ground and
held in place with a row of stakes 18in apart.
Finished to a height of 4ft 6in, the hedge is
topped off with a continuous line of hazel
binders. “When we’ve finished, you’ll see that
it is a living stockproof barrier,” commented
Nigel Adams, a competitor in the Midland
open class and NHLS spokesman. “Before
wire fences were invented, this is how we kept
animals in and out of fields. All the brush is
turned towards the side where the stock are,
while in the old days the field on the clean side
would go into a crop rotation.”
On the Welsh borders, hedges are designed
to contain sheep rather than strong cattle, so
the finished hedge is packed with dead wood
to prevent the sheep nibbling away at the
Heather Swift (below left) lays in the Lancs &
Westmorland style. A sharp axe (above) helps.
Midland style competition length (right)
regenerating shoots. A further feature is that
the stakes are set at an angle to ensure that
rainwater running down them is kept away
from the stools so that they will not rot.
In complete contrast is the Lancashire and
Westmorland style, in which the pleachers are
simply pushed over at an angle of 45 degrees
between a double row of stakes. “It’s very
quick and practical, and the farmers up in
Cumbria and on the fells can lay up to 100yd a
day,” South of England intermediate judge
Dave Sands told me. “It doesn’t have any binding in the top, but the stakes hold it from popping out the sides until the new growth comes
through the bottom.”
And regeneration, of course, is the whole
object of hedgelaying. If it is unmanaged over a
long period, a hedge will attempt to grow into a
line of trees, with nothing at the bottom to contain livestock or, for that matter, to provide
shelter for game and wildlife. Even if it is
trimmed mechanically, after a few decades the
plants will degenerate and start to die back.
The process of hedgelaying, in which the living
stems are pleached and pushed down to the
ground, initiates a burst of new growth. Fresh
shoots emerge from the partially severed
stools and drive upwards between the tightly
compacted old stems and the cycle of growth
starts once more.
The clean, tidy lines of a newly laid hedge
may only last for two or three seasons until the
new growth gets away, but by then the hedgelayer has fulfilled his objective by maintaining
a secure barrier to livestock and protecting the
hedge stools from browsing. When it has
reached an appropriate height, the new growth
can be managed mechanically with a conventional hedge trimmer, the height being raised
every few years to allow the top to thicken out.
Then after 15 or 20 years, when it has grown to
10ft-12ft, the hedge can be relaid.
Top to bottom left: Jasper Prachek works in the
Derbyshire style; John Savings in the South of
England style; Midland-style stockproofing
Much of the secret of laying a hedge to the
exhibition standard required in the national
championships is in cleaning it of all extraneous matter and retaining useful cuttings to
insert into gaps. John Savings lays hedges in
the South of England style and taught HRH
the Prince of Wales who, he says, is a very
good hedgelayer. As soon as he gets going on
his 10yd competition length, which must be
completed within five hours, he is busy with a
rake, pulling out dead grass and ripping down
briars and brambles. “I work on cleaning it as
I go along, untangling it and keeping every bit
of material I possibly can. Clean it out, cut it
with the axe and see how it goes, then gap it
up,” he says. “When you’re doing contract
work, that’s what it’s all about: hedgelaying is
about filling them gaps.”
But can the painstaking and time-consuming task of cutting and laying a hedge by hand
really stack up commercially against modern
stock fencing? Dave Sands, thinks so: “The
cost of different styles varies. A hedge laid in
the South of England style will cost about £10
to £12 per metre and today, with a chainsaw, a
man can do about 30 to 40 metres a day. We
supply all the stakes and the binders, and
there’s lots of hazel for binding and chestnut
for stakes down in Sussex. Apart from that, it’s
pretty much purely labour, and a lot of people
find that unacceptable these days, I suppose.
“Compare it with wire stock fencing, where
you have to buy the wire and the posts and
strainers and then pay for the labour on top of
that. Wire fencing costs about £4.50 per metre
and will last eight to 10 years, but a good laid
hedge will last 25 years if it’s well maintained
and looked after.”
And, of course, it looks so much more
attractive, it’s better for wildlife, there’s no
barbed wire involved and you have a living
structure that merely requires occasional
trimming. Furthermore, under HLS agreements in England, farmers can receive capital
payments of £7 per metre for laying hedges.
There’s even a therapeutic value to hedgelaying. As Savings points out: “Over the years,
the country crafts like thatching, hedgelaying
and drystone walling have been coming back.
They can see that we’re happy, not a worry in
the world, so they think. Like the man who
taught me [who believed] when you’ve got
problems, all you have to do is take your tools,
walk over two fields, do a bit of hedgelaying
and it all blows away.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that landowners
are looking again at hedgelaying, especially
where the hedges concerned are an important
visual feature in the landscape or are valuable
from a sporting perspective. Newly planted
hedges will generally become suitable for
laying after around 12 to 15 years of growth,
depending, of course, on the soil they are
growing in. If planting a hedge with traditional cutting and laying in mind, some species might be more appropriate than others.
“The best advice when planting hedges is to
look around one’s own area,” says Adams.
“That way, you can see what grows best in that
soil. Most of the Midlands were planted with
only hawthorn during the enclosures, but if
you want to offer wildlife a few other species,
then hazel and blackthorn are the most popular. As a rule of thumb 60% to 70% should be
just hawthorn or hazel with a mix of other species added according to conditions.”
Clockwise from below, laying their 10yd of
hedge within five hours: Nigel Adams; Matthew
Atkinson; Phil Hart; and Jonathan Stafford
Blackthorn is good for wildlife but can
spread out of the hedge if not managed. Maple
provides nice autumn colour but really wants
to be a tree and can dominate, while some
hedgelayers don’t like dogwood because it is
Hedges can be an
important visual feature
and valuable from a
sporting perspective
liable to snap rather than bend. It does provide
attractive colour in autumn, though.
You should aim to plant five whips per
metre in double, staggered rows 45cm apart.
Remember that hedgerow trees are also an
important part of a hedge, and a tree planted
roughly every 30 metres will go some way to
maintaining a declining stock of hedgerow
trees in Britain.
If you want a new hedge to get away quickly
then I can add a further tip. Having planted
your new whips, cut them off with a pair of
secateurs at an angle just 4in above ground
level, roll black plastic sheeting over the hedge
line so that the sharp points push through,
then enclose the hedge in a double rabbit
fence. The plastic will suppress weed growth
and warm the soil quickly in spring. It will also
ensure that each plant sends up a series of
new leaders thereby creating a thick, bushy
bottom. I have a kilometre of hedge which I
planted in this way in 2004. It is now 8ft to
10ft high and will be ready for laying within
five or six years, although I haven’t as yet
decided in which regional style. Whichever I
choose will confuse that alien parachutist, as
Suffolk, sadly, is without a style of its own.
If he comes down at Arlingham, however,
he has my sympathy. Nine regional styles on a
single farm will totally baffle him, though the
yellow hunt coats will narrow down the geographical options considerably.
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