A Day In The Life Of A Hedgelayer

Logo: Brailsford & District Ploughing & Hedgecutting Society

By Derrick Hale

There is the day before actual hedgelaying starts, when the hedge is viewed and cost discussed. Cost will take into account the level of difficulty the hedge presents, with factors of size (height), condition and accessibility to be considered. Usually priced by the yard (or metre these days) but by a day rate for big, old complex hedges. Many of those tackled now will have been laid in the past and where this has not been done skilfully, more problems will have been created. There is a hedgelaying expression “you lay the hedge for the next man”. Sometimes wishes have to be balanced against reality and the customer given advice as to alternate hedgerow management strategies, or simply be asked to leave the hedge to grow for a few years to provide sufficient height for laying. Costs of material (stakes), clearing out prior to laying and disposal of brash must be factored in.

Person standing side on to laid hedge with the cut hedge plants to the left, a chainsaw on the ground just behind and cars in the distance
Derrick at a Staffordshire match with a hedge laid in the Staffordshire style (Derrick Hale)

Stakes or stakes and binders, depending on the regional style cut obtained and these transported to the hedgelaying site.

On each “day in the life----” drinks and a packed lunch must be prepared. Favourite sandwiches, maybe with bananas for a slow energy release and chocolate for a quick one. I tend to neglect this side of the job and work through without a break, but it is unwise. Neglecting to drink sufficient fluids can have serious consequences, as I once discovered to my cost.

Much hedgelaying is carried out by working alone but all the necessary precautions must be made. Location must be known to those who need it. Mobile ‘phone signal checked (though a signal is not always available) Safety is paramount. Site management and Health and Safety checks are essential.

looking towards a laid hedge with trees behind it and some cut hedging on the ground in front
A length of hedge laid in the Derbyshire style (Derrick Hale)

Cutting (hedgelaying) commences and a step-by-step description would be the subject of another article. Better to say now how it feels to be out there and working. Well, it is quite wonderful; in touch with nature, alone with one’s own company and with maybe the odd passer-by to chat with and put the world to rights with. Almost inevitably a robin will join the hedgelayer and I always feel that if a robin is absent something is wrong. My hedgelaying mentor said that robins were “past” hedgelayers, an idea that appeals to the more romantic of us. I often feel that I am being supervised when I am working.

Towards the end of the day if concentration is flagging it is time to stop, rather than be dissatisfied with the work done from then on. If all is well there is always another stem to pleach (cut), very much like the last cast that a fisherman makes.

At the end of the day one can view the fruits of one’s labours; this work is very satisfying. While packing the tools away it is possible to watch birds going into their newly constructed accommodation for shelter and maybe small mammals running into the hedge bottom likewise.

a very wet hedgelayer wearing chainsaw trousers and gauntlet gloves with a billhook in their hands and a hedge to lay in front of them
Competitors abandoned their water proofs. So torrential was the rain, that a thorough soaking was inevitable (Derrick Hale)

The competitions –

For some hedgelayers there will be days spent competing in matches. Preparation for these will involve packing tools, doubling up in case of breakages and taking all that might be needed depending on the hedge, so far unseen. Items such as pole pruning saws might be essential – but might be left in the vehicle if not. Best be on the safe side and take everything.

Taking a complete change of clothing is vital as, if the weather is bad, there will be no shelter and no going home. A competitor at a match last season noted that it took two hours for the rain to soak through his underpants, at which point there were still three hours before the competition ended. A friend of mine finished a match with no clothing dry except for his socks. A real joy comes from putting on dry gauntlets or mits. I take at least five spare pairs of gauntlets.

a number of people standing working on a hedge with tools around them and cuttings flung to one side
Brailsford Hedgelaying course (Derrick Hale)

A match is a sort of hedgelaying race, almost a marathon, working to the highest possible standard within a time limit. Some hedgelayers can take food during that time but I usually rely on plenty of carbs the night before and a big bowl of porridge on the day. Each competitor will find what best suits them. Drinking enough fluids is essential, as on a normal working day.

Competition is fierce but we usually manage to put rivalry behind us when we sit down together for the meal after the match, which is usually provided by the organisers. Our work is judged by the organiser’s appointed judges, we might judge the competition by the hedge and the food provided.

The matches are places to learn from others, either as a competitor or a spectator. Competition and commercial work can differ, but essential principles are the same. As one would imagine there can be something more of a cosmetic finish to a match hedge. I have been pleased to be told that my standards, competition and commercial are the same.

The courses and another kind of day –

Organising courses involves spending a lot of time away from the hedge, advertising, inviting, exchanging emails and on the telephone. I have made a point of liaising with volunteer, wildlife and conservation groups and this has not only been done remotely but by making visits and giving demonstrations. The courses I am involved with attract people from the above groups, farmers, small holders, contractors and some who are curious and wish to develop new skills.

A section of my past career was in teaching and I now enjoy finding ways to convey the principles and practices of hedgelaying to others. This can be as simple as ensuring that terminology is understood and that trainer and trainee see the same problem from the same direction/orientation. Well, that sounds simple but in the field it is easy to go past a point and assume that it has been understood. A constant and very enjoyable challenge.

I work with a team and the friendly, relaxed but professional relationship we enjoy with one another comes across to the trainees. The result is that we all get along well and the job gets done.

My birthday this year –

On my birthday I was helping a friend with some work at an exposed location in what turned out to be poor weather conditions. I was working alone on a section of big hedge, around 20’ tall and poorly laid many years earlier. There was the pleasure of pleaching and seeing the rough and random nature of the hedge turn into a thing of function and symmetry but after a while the weather had the better of me. When the wind speed increased, the rain came across the field horizontally and I noted a certain dampness despite my wet weather gear it was time to go home. The conditions were assessed later when I changed my clothing, much in line with the benchmarks mentioned in the accounts given above.

All the preparations for A Day I The Life of A Hedgelayer had been made but despite the benefits, to the environment and to the soul, it is best, sometimes, to stop.

If you’re interested in attending a course or finding out more about hedgelaying please contact Derrick on or 01332 761903 / 07983 908176

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Posted On: 05/05/2023

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