Ask most people what they would describe as an iconic view of the English countryside and it would be a patchwork of fields and hedgerows. Mention hedgelaying to many people and they will know what you mean and will consider it a part of that English countryside, even if they do not how or why it is done.
However, over half of the hedgerows were lost during the last century, mainly due to agricultural intensification and the decline continues today. The work of the hedgelayer has been taken over by mechanical hedgecutting but hedgelaying is still an essential skill with a very real future ahead.
Over thirty different regional hedgelaying styles have been recorded in the British Isles, with others in mainland Europe and even further afield, all having evolved according to farming practice, topography, climate and plant species available. The basic principle of this craft lies in cutting part way through the stem of each hedgerow shrub, laying over the stem and building it into a living, stock proof barrier. The cut is made close to the ground and ensures that the layed stem or Pleach remains alive and produces shoots while the trimmed stool will also produce, stronger shoots, one of which will eventually replace the layed stem.
Mechanical trimming of hedges, forces growth from the top and sides, while the bottom of the hedge does not grow, eventually withering and dying from disease or old age. The hedge then develops gaps or reverts to being a line of small trees. Hedgelaying promotes new growth from ground level, rejuvenates the hedgerow and is the only hedgerow maintenance method currently known which will do this. Other advantages of hedgelaying are environmental, providing shelter, feeding and nesting sites for birds, mammals and amphibians, preventing soil erosion and other benefits to the farmer in providing shelter for livestock and crops. The insect life of the hedgerow can also be useful for example in eating crop pests such as aphids.
Hedgelaying is labour intensive and requires a high level of skill to be carried out effectively. These skills are best learned from other hedgelayers by way of courses run by hedgelaying societies (which are often linked to or part of a ploughing society).
My local organisation is the Brailsford and District Ploughing and Hedgecutting Society, very long established and one of a number around the country. “Every stem is different” is a well-known and accurate expression and the learning process never stops – there is always something new to learn, along with plenty of exercise (no gym subscriptions needed here) and immense levels of job satisfaction. Hedgelaying competitions are held around the country and provide a good way of seeing how the job is done and to the highest standards. These events also provide contact with local societies, farming and hedgelaying communities.
For further information on hedgelaying and to contact hedgelayers and hedgelaying trainers in your locality contact the National Hedgelaying Society www.hedgelaying.org.uk
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