Hedge laying

Hedge laying

Hedge laying is a country skill, typically found in the United Kingdom and Ireland, which, through the creation and maintenance of hedges, achieves the following:

* the formation of livestock-proof barriers;
* the rejuvenation of existing hedgerows by encouraging them to put on new growth and helping to improve their overall structure and strength;
* the affording of greater weather protection to crops and wildlife;
* the provision of aesthetically pleasing screens to fields and gardens.


As with many things, the theory behind laying a hedge is easy; the practice is much harder - requiring skill and experience. The aim is to reduce the thickness of the upright stems of the hedgerow trees by cutting away the wood on one side of the stem and in line with the course of the hedge. This being done, each remaining stem is then laid down towards the horizontal, along the length of the hedge.

A stem which has been (or is to be) laid down in this manner is known as a "pleacher". A section of bark and some sap wood must be left connecting a pleacher to its roots in order to keep the pleacher alive - knowing how much is part of the art of hedgelaying. It is also essential that pleachers are not laid down completely horizontal as some upward slant is required to ensure the sap will still rise properly through the plant - the required degree of upward slant is again a matter of skill.

Smaller shoots branching off the pleachers and upright stems too small to be used as pleachers are known as "brash" or "brush" and in most styles of laying the brash will be woven between the pleachers to add cohesiveness to the finished hedge.

At regular intervals upright stakes are placed along the line of the hedge; these stakes give the finished hedge its final strength. The uprights are often bound together by such things as hazel whips woven around the tops of the stakes.

Traditional regional styles

Over the centuries, different parts of the UK developed their own distinctive styles of hedge laying, all based on the same basic theory:

Midland style

Also known as Bullock style. This hedge was designed to keep big heavy bullocks in their field. This style is mainly found in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire - traditional beef rearing areas.

Typical features:
* Stake sides face road or plough land.
* Brush is on the animal side to stop them from eating new growth
* Hedge slopes towards the animals, as stakes are driven in behind the line of the roots.
* Strong binding is below the top of the hedge (so that bullocks cannot twist it off with their horns)

Derbyshire style

As the name suggests this style is from County Derbyshire which is a mixed farming and sheep area.

Typical features:
* Square, sawn stakes behind the line of roots.
* Pleachers woven firmly.
* No binding, relies on weaving to keep pleachers in place.
* Brush left the far side.

Double staked styles

Used in Somerset and Lancashire. Both of the following two styles are good sheep hedges; they use stakes, but as a rule neither uses any type of bindings:

Lancashire style

Typical features:
* Uses a double row of stakes, placed alternately
* The most part of each pleacher lies between the two rows of stakes.
* The twiggy bits are pulled to the outside through the stakes, helping to keep everything in place.
* Height varies, from 3' upwards.

Westmorland style

Typical features of the Westmorland style are:
* Single row of stakes down the centre of the hedge which, when the hedge is finished, can no longer be seen.
* Stems go between the stakes so that alternate ones go to opposite sides of the hedge.
* To finish, twigs at each side and on top are twisted together to produce a square shaped hedge.

Brecon style

A double brush style; this means that the twiggy ends of the pleachers are kept both sides of the hedge. Brecon style is practised in Breconshire, Radnorshire, Herefordshire & Monmouthshire.

Typical features:
* Stakes are in the centre of the hedge.
* A lot of stems are cut off and replaced by deadwood - this keeps animals noses away from the new growth coming from the stumps.
* Pleachers are double brushed and woven round every stake. This bowing covers the stumps, further protecting the new growth. It also hides the stakes.
* The hedge is fairly tall, bound and trimmed square.

Montgomery style

Typical features:
* A wide hedge.
* Half crops are sometimes used on the outside.
* Pleachers are closely woven and the tops are entwined.
* Trimmed square.
* No binding.

The Stake & Pleach style is used in Monmouth, Brecon, Radnor N & E, Carmathen and Montgomery.

The Flying Hedge style (a low hedge on a bank) is used in Pembroke, Gower, Glamorgan Valley, Monmouth and Carmathen.

outh of England style

Also known as the Sussex Bullock Fence and has a double brush style, but the cut base of the pleachers can be seen. Sometimes a pleacher is laid almost flat at the base before the next few are laid at a normal angle, this is presumably to help keep the sheep at bay.

Typical features:
* Stakes are in the centre of the hedge.
* Bindings are used.
* The hedge is trimmed immediately after laying.

Isle of Wight style

Now almost extinct, the Isle of Wight style looks untidy but is an effective stockproof barrier and is extremely quick and easy to lay successfully. Pleachers are simply laid one on top of the other, usually in alternating directions, with little of the brash removed, and then pegged down with crooked hazel stakes (similar to thatching spars). It is not suitable for domestic use or competitions, which has contributed to its decline, but is principally now used for restoring overgrown hedges.

Typical features:
* Style is informal and very wide
* No binding, stakes at irregular intervals on alternate sides of the hedge
* Crooked hazel stakes can be made from rejected wands when cutting hazel for other uses

Yorkshire style

the Yorkshire style is a sheep hedge as used on mixed arable & livestock farms. It is laid between two arable fields – and is so designed that by the time grass has replaced plough land in the rotation system, the hedge will have grown to a normal height. The base is too dense for sheep to push under it.

Typical features :-
* A very low hedge, which bushes to provide a barrier to wind. Stems lie so close its is almost impossible to see the twigs branching off.
* Sawn stakes, rail nailed on top - because stakes & binders don't grow very plentifully on windy uplands.
* Brush goes both sides.

Devon style

In Devon hedge laying is usually referred to as steeping. The pleachers are known as steepers. They are held in place by crooks (forked sticks driven into the centre of the hedgebank). The two sides of the hedge are steeped separately {as long as the hedge is big enough) leaving a gap through the centre of the hedge. When steeping is finished any eroded soil is "cast up" on top of the hedge to retain a good height of bank.

Typical features:-
* Steepers tight to the top of the bank.
* Steepers secured by crooks.
* Steepers along the crown (top of the face) of the bank .

Cornish style

The shrubs are laid along the top of an earth bank faced with stones. Frequently the stones are set in herringbone style. Not all Cornish hedges have shrubs on top of the bank.

West Country hedges

The style of hedge used in Devon, Cornwall and parts of Wales gives us the familiar deep Devon lanes. However in reality they are seldom particularly deep – but rather what they do have are high banks, which give the impression of depth.

The field is often on the same level as the road. The banks are sometimes faced with stone rather than turf. However these hedges are not walls which have stone all the way through, but are rather an earth bank faced with stone. These are known as Cornish hedges.

In this context, the word "hedge" derives from an earlier one meaning "bank" – i.e. the division between strips in the medieval farming system. The association comes from the time when after the 18th century enclosures each man had to dig a ditch as his boundary and pile the soil spoil on his side of the ditch. He then had to plant bushes in order to keep his animals on his own land. This 'digging down and stocking up' was very hard work and as a result when creating internal boundaries, the ditch was often left out but the result was still called a "hedge".

Hedgelaying outside the British Isles

The Netherlands

In parts of Holland hedgelaying is practised, with styles distinct to that country. With all Dutch styles no stakes or bindings are used. One of every 3 or 4 standards are left tall and are laid back over the hedge. This dies off and forms a temporary way of holding the hedge in place for a year or two until it becomes re-established. [http://www.flickr.com/photos/dave-perry/sets/72157603336893186/ Dave Perry's photographs of a hedgelaying competition in Boxmeer, 2006]

British emigrants

Since the influx of the British settling on mainland Europe, the occasional hedgelayer has taken the skill of hedge-laying with him. Although mostly similar to the practical and swiftly worked Isle of Wight style, occasional examples of a laid hedge can be seen on the continent. However regular management is rare, and very few hedgerows are managed in a way sympathetic to the hedgelayer.

External links

* [http://www.hedgelaying.org.uk National Hedge Laying Society website]
* [http://handbooks.btcv.org.uk/handbooks/index/book/6 "Hedging"] BTCV online handbook
* [http://www.nfu.org.uk/stellentdev/groups/public/documents/regional_article/hedgesandhedge-layi_ia412f4586.hcsp National Farmers Union article on hedge laying]


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