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Hedgelaying in Fyfield

PUBLISHED: 15:47 23 May 2013 | UPDATED: 15:47 23 May 2013

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Hedgerows are a vital part of our British heritage, helping to contribute to the iconic patchwork of our countryside that has been a backdrop to rural life for hundreds of years. However, the introduction of modern farming methods in recent generations endangered these unique habitats as farmers sought to increase the yield of their farm and removed hedges to make way for the ever-growing size of the machinery they used.

Only in recent years has the balance shifted once more, with landowners replacing hedgerows to encourage our native flora and fauna to once again establish itself. Laying hedges creates a denser boundary, which encourages song birds and the smaller native birds to nest as it allows more protection from predators and the elements. The regeneration of the plants once the hedge has been laid also encourages a bountiful crop of fruit and berries providing a valuable food source for birds, mammals and insects.

While many of the UK’s hedgerows were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the enclosure of fields and development of agriculture, there were undoubtedly hedgerows planted much early. Early settlements would almost certainly have required some kind of boundary fence to prevent unwanted animals straying into the area and also as a defensive line in the event of attack. Sooner or later our ancestors would have developed the knowledge to create hedges by planting saplings or perhaps by using existing lines of shrubs and trees and clearing woodland around the settlement.

As far back as 55BC, Julius Caesar recorded the fact that the Nervi tribe in Flanders, ‘Cut into slender trees and bent them over so that many branches came out along the length; they finished this off by inserting brambles and briars, so that these hedges formed a defence like wall, which could not only not be penetrated but not even seen through’.

In fact hedgelaying, the process used to rejuvenate an existing hedgerow, is an ancient craft and yet there are now only a few hedgelayers left in the country. Jim Haskett from Fyfield has been a hedgelayer for 12 years and is the only contractor in Essex listed on The National Hedgelaying Society’s (NHLS) recommended list.

‘Having studied countryside management at university, I was aware of the management techniques for our hedgerows,’ explains Jim. ‘But over time I discovered hedgelaying was an interesting traditional craft and something that not many people did anymore. It also complemented the work I was already undertaking in our landscaping company. When I first started hedgelaying I wasn’t aware of any family history in the craft, however I have since found out that my great grandfather layed the hedges on the farm where he worked as a young man.

‘I feel passionate about hedgelaying for many reasons. Personally, I feel privileged to be able to work in the fresh air, creating a beautiful piece of work which will last for years to come and add to the heritage of our country. I am always delighted by the feedback I get from clients and the public, and the interest that is generated. Hedgelaying for me is a chance to maintain one of our ancient crafts and ensure it is continued for future generations to enjoy.’

There are various stages in the process of hedgelaying which help to restore an existing hedgerow and give it a new lease of life. Firstly you need to remove any unwanted materials such as bramble, nettle or dead wood. Next a pleach is cut. This is a cut three-quarters of the way through the plant which enables you to bend the plant over without it breaking, leaving enough sap wood attached in order to keep the plant alive. Beginning at one end, gradually the hedge is layed.

A stake, normally of hazel or ash, is then installed at every yard before the top of the hedge is bound with hazel rods, each 10 to 12ft in length. Once complete, the hedge is trimmed to improve its appearance, leaving a woven, living fence which is approximately 4ft high. Not only is the hedgelaying process good for the hedge and for the wildlife that benefit from this habitat, but these methods also encourage efficient woodland management techniques as the materials required for hedgelaying are produced using traditional coppicing methods.

During the process of laying a hedge, the stakes and binders used to support the layed plants and tie the overall structure together are usually made from hazel and this is sourced from local woodlands where it is coppiced on a traditional rotation method. This promotes the maintenance of the ancient woodlands that have become a valuable part of our landscape and there are many woodsmen throughout the country who rely on hedgelayers for a portion of their annual sales of hazel.

As well as being a beautiful focal point of our countryside and of great benefit to our native wildlife, hedgerows can act as a natural stock-proof fence. A tall, gap-ridden hedge can be layed to create a thicker and more solid boundary, negating the need for erecting fencing to keep animals within a field. As the hedge grows, the base becomes denser to provide not only a boundary, but also shelter for the animals.

Jim’s hope is that this ancient craft will not be lost, and with it the many benefits that it brings to rural life. To this end, Jim is running courses for individuals or groups within the county who wish to learn more about hedgelaying and the unique skills and techniques which are involved.

‘Without hedgelaying there would be fewer well managed hedgerows in the countryside, which would result in a drop in wildlife numbers,’ explains Jim. ‘We would start to lose some of the features of our countryside which makes Britain what it is. It would be a real shame to lose hedgelaying and consign another ancient craft to history.

‘But the future looks good for hedgelaying. Interest is growing in this part of the country and I have already been approached by several groups to run training courses later this year. Awareness of the benefits of hedgelaying for wildlife is increasing in the domestic market too, with more small landowners keen to employ hedgelaying services to improve their existing boundaries. I am hopeful that the agricultural sector will follow as this will undoubtedly keep this ancient craft alive.’

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