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The Rural Skills Hub: Kickstarting careers in traditional boundary crafts

Logo: Rural Skills Hub

Traditional field boundaries are a familiar feature of our landscape – there are over 300,000 miles of hedgerow and 120,000 miles of dry stone wall criss-crossing the British countryside. Sadly, the skills required to look after these boundaries are in decline, and fewer people are training to a professional level to maintain them. The Rural Skills Hub, a joint project between the Dry Stone Walling Association (DSWA) and the National Hedgelaying Society (NHLS), was launched in November 2021. The project aims to help people start a career involving traditional boundary crafts, through providing financial support, training, and employability advice.

Ben wearing a checked flannel shirt stands behind a dry stone wall holding a brick hammer with a mug placed on the stones beside him
Ben was the first Rural Skills Hub trainee to achieve a Level 1 in Dry Stone Walling (Rural Skills Hub)

Career prospects in boundary maintenance are generally good, with plenty of work available in rural and domestic settings. A highly-qualified dry stone waller or hedgelayer can earn a decent wage, plus becoming skilled in both crafts helps secure year-round employment. The outdoor nature of the work is appealing to many people. There are barriers to taking up these professions, however, particularly for young people. Qualifications, transport, and start-up costs can be expensive, and a decreasing number of professional wallers and hedgelayers means fewer role models. The Rural Skills Hub is working to address these barriers. Since launching, the Hub has awarded 22 training grants totalling £10,000 to young people aged 16-40, covering the cost of obtaining dry stone walling and hedgelaying qualifications. Four funded trainees have already achieved a Lantra-accredited certificate in dry stone walling. Additionally, six-month work placements will soon be organised for five people aged 16-24 years old, enabling them to gain experience under the guidance of professional dry stone wallers and hedgelayers.

The Rural Skills Hub has also funded ten Community Experience Days around the country, giving volunteering groups the opportunity to learn the basics of traditional boundary maintenance, and get a taster of a day working in the field. Recently, the Northumbria Branch of the DSWA delivered a dry stone walling Experience Day for Satley Village Community Group. The group learned how to repair storm-damaged walls in the village, and enjoyed the opportunity to connect with the heritage of the area by learning about this locally-important craft.

Satley Village Community Group learning the basics of dry stone wall repair, guided by the Northumbria Branch of the DSWA
Satley Village Community Group learning the basics of dry stone wall repair, guided by the Northumbria Branch of the DSWA (Dry Stone Walling Association Northumbria Branch)

Dry stone walling and hedgelaying are valuable skills, whether you use them as a professional, a volunteer, or on your own private land. If we don’t continue to practice these crafts, we will gradually lose our traditional boundaries. Although the statistics aren’t yet available for dry stone walls, it is generally estimated that we have lost 50% of our hedgerows since the end of the Second World War.

The Dry Stone Walling Association and the National Hedgelaying Society advocate using traditional methods to restore and maintain field boundaries wherever possible, for a number of reasons. A traditional dry stone wall or laid hedge can remain in place for hundreds of years if managed sensitively, providing long-term benefits for the environment and the community. Hedgelaying, for example, involves cutting hedge stems in a way which encourages them to regrow from the base. This creates a dense structure which livestock can use for shelter and browse, while the roots help prevent soil erosion, mitigate the effects of flooding, and sequester carbon. Recent research by the CPRE (for their ‘Hedge Fund’ report, 2021) suggests that a 40% increase in the UK’s hedgerows could have a significant impact on our efforts to reduce the effects of climate change, with a sequestration potential of up to 5 million tonnes of carbon. Dry stone walls, meanwhile, provide habitat for lichens, mosses and flowering plants, and the mortar-less structure ensures plenty of shelter for amphibians, invertebrates, and small mammals. The benefits of traditional boundaries can even be seen in urban environments, where carefully-managed hedgerows in particular have the potential to reduce air temperature, block noise, and shield us from pollution. Importantly, both types of boundary provide a corridor for wildlife to safely cross our landscape – they are a fantastic way for us to compromise, and share our space with nature.

Young Green Leaders learning how to rebuild a dry stone wall, supported by the Northumbria Branch of the DSWA
Young Green Leaders learning how to rebuild a dry stone wall, supported by the Northumbria Branch of the DSWA (Stone Walling Association Northumbria Branch)

The popularity of the Rural Skills Hub’s Community Experience Days scheme demonstrates another way in which traditional boundaries benefit our communities: wellbeing. Hedgerows and dry stone walls are a familiar feature in our landscape, with a beauty and character of their own. Learning how to look after them keeps us physically fit, helps us to connect with local history and nature, creates job opportunities, and preserves the natural splendour of the British countryside. Ensuring the survival of our traditional boundaries is as important to us, as it is to the wildlife that inhabits them.

The Rural Skills Hub is supported by the Green Recovery Challenge Fund until March 2023.

Further information can be found on our website  plus Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @RuralSkillsHub.

Logo: Green Recovery Challenge Fund

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Posted On: 28/07/2022

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