There is a joy to hedge laying and anyone who does it, or watches it being done, is rarely immune – it’s not difficult to see why. A laid hedge, whether it be the impressive staked and bound ‘bullock hedge’ of the Midlands, or the more modest banked and ditched variety of the West Country, is a rural sculpture, a piece of land art.
Under the hedger’s billhook, the old boundary is tamed, shaped, given body and form. Done well, the effect is like something punkish and unruly given a decent haircut. But the beauty goes deeper than mere surface: in laying an old hedge one is reinvigorating the boundary, creating a stock-proof barrier and a springboard for new growth.
All positive stuff. But being first and foremost a charcoal burner, my satisfaction goes beyond hedge husbandry. For while this practice gives me paid work and a living during the winter, it also provides me with the means by which I make a summer income. Let me explain.
The first task for any hedger is to cut out much of what is in front of him. Walk down a hedge which is being laid and you’ll see plenty of material lying nearby. Some of this will be brash, the frothy stuff from the ends of branches, but there’ll also be more substantial material among the drifts. I have no need for the brash, but the larger wood is a welcome harvest: hazel, ash, thorn, field maple – all great material for charcoal. Often the landowner just wants the ‘waste’ removed, and I am able to take the wood on for free. It is this elegance of fit between work and seasons which is most satisfying.
The Dorset Way
To lay a hedge well – which is the only way to do it – there are three main skills to master. The first is to know what, and exactly how much, to take out of the hedge – what we in Dorset call ‘ridding out’. The second aspect is the all-important ‘pleach cut’, the diagonal incision down the stem, allowing the tree or shrub to be laid while keeping it alive. Finally there is the laying down of the material, what we call ‘marrying in’, creating a stock-proof hedge which has both tension and a sense of order.
The first instinct of anyone new to hedging is to keep as much in the hedge as possible – usually far too much. The consequences of this is a hedge which looks like a car crash. Far better to ‘rid out’ with some vigour and crook down the remaining material hard and close to the ground. This, I believe, gives more longevity to the laid stems, produces better regrowth, and avoids gaps developing in the hedge bottom which stock, especially sheep, will soon take advantage of.
Moving onto the ‘pleach’ cut and this is something all new hedgers approach with anxiety: cut too much and you lose the tree, cut too little and the stem splits lengthways as you lay it over. As one gets more experience performing the ‘pleach’ is less of a worry, although care is always needed.
In this regard, it helps to have some knowledge of the species you are cutting, as some trees and shrubs are more amenable to laying than others. Field maple, for example, is a brittle wood which will often snap off, however thick the hinge; hazel and ash are more forgiving.
Laying the material down is where the artist’s eye becomes useful. Like the drystone waller who is able to see the right stone from his pile at a glance, (saving both time and his back), the experienced hedger will develop an almost preternatural instinct for where and how best to lay a stem. It is always a wrestle between physics and art, the importance of tension in the hedge to be met with a sympathy for the visual flow. Cutting crooks from the hedge will give you a means with which to hold down any stubborn rails; so too pliable hazel rods which can be manipulated across the hedge to keep any material from springing loose.
A last tip: in laying a big hedge it is often a good test to walk along a section just laid – with the requisite tension, this should be able to take a man’s weight without moving.
Booking a Job
We lay hedges in the autumn and winter, while the trees and shrubs are dormant. Old country wisdom states you can lay a hedge during any month with an ‘R’ in it – a neat way of including every month from September to April. However, with climate change and the seasons becoming less reliable, old wisdom has been thrown out of the window: September now feels too early to start hedge laying, while spring seems to gatecrash winter earlier year on year.
All this means the hedging season feels increasingly compressed. Consequently, I have less time to do all the work and my diary fills up quickly. If you are thinking about getting your hedge laid, it is therefore best to contact me earlier rather than later. That said, do get in touch however late – we may still be able to accommodate you.
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