The Hedgelayer’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Hedgelayer’s Tale

by George Morley

Although the history of Britain’s hedges can be traced back to Saxon times, the hawthorn hedges that we know them today were developed as a result of the Enclosure Acts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The use of quick-growing thorn boundaries that could provide cheap stockproof fencing and some shelter from the elements meant that there was a demand for skilled hedge cutters and this led to organised competitions in various parts of the country and especially in the Midlands.

Hedgelaying (or ‘Hedgelayering’) is therefore an old craft. It involves cutting hedges in such a way that they will make a natural fence that cannot be broken through by livestock. Some estimates suggest that about 250,000 miles of hedgerows have been grubbed up in this country since the 1970s but organisations like the National Hedgelaying Society have helped to keep the art alive. Hedgelaying techniques can be used on blackthorn, hazel, holly and buckthorn as well as with hawthorn hedges. The laying is best done during the winter months before the sap rises.

Hedgelayering works like this. First of all, thin, twiggy growth (the ‘brash’) has to be cut away and this is piled against the hedge to act as extra defence. The trickiest part of the operation is then to chop almost right through the main stems (the ‘pleachings’) with a billhook before bending them over and laying them at an angle of 30-40 degrees. To the uninitiated, this looks like a ferocious piece of vandalism but the hedge quickly recovers and produces new growth. Stakes can be driven into the layered hedge to give greater strength and thin, flexible bindings (the ‘heatherings’) twisted around the stakes for even more stability. One fascinating aspect of the craft is the variations in style from one part of the country to another. Around Oakham, the Midland Bullock style is common. This, as the name suggests, is a particularly sturdy structure designed to keep hefty stock in check.

Just as the styles of layering vary, so too do the hedger’s tools. Apparently the billhook dates back to the Iron Age and this, together with the long-handled slasher with its slightly curved blade, were both used by the Saxons. We might think a single design would suit most purposes but there are well over 50 types of billhook. Local preference and pride (or prejudice?) dictates the market.

Apart from a break during and after the Second World War, Hedge Laying Competitions have been held in the Cottesmore district since 1898. In that first contest, 10 competitors were each required to cut and lay 11 yards (half a chain) of hedgerow.

In recent decades it has been difficult to find suitable lengths of hedge all on the same site so the form of the competition is somewhat different. Cutters are allowed to cut and lay their length of hedge (66 yards or 3 chains minimum) throughout the winter months as long as they are finished by mid-April. Judges then need a full day, and perhaps 100 miles of travel, to see all the competition entries.

A layered hedge
A layered hedge

It’s a complex system with several different groupings. Class 1 is for Professional Cutters operating in the Cottesmore Country; Class 2 is for farmers, their family or employees cutting on their own land; Class 3 is a Special Award for hedges that have only just started to be layered; Class 4 is for trainees who have not previously won an award and Class 5 is for the layer who has produced the best re-growth since the previous year. Oh, and I should add: there’s a special award of a large bottle of whisky for those cutters who have made a good effort on very difficult hedges.

The National Hedgelaying Competition is rather different. In September 2010 this was held on the shores of Rutland Water. There were over 100 competitors from all over the country and even one entrant from Tasmania!

George Morley is a local farmer and Committee member of the Cottesmore Hedge Cutting Society.