Branch­ing out

Concern over the de­cline in Bri­tish hedgerows and the sur­vival of tra­di­tional hedge-lay­ing skills led to the foun­da­tion of the Na­tional Hedge Lay­ing So­ci­ety – it’s now in its 40th year

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS ALYS HURN PHO­TO­GRAPHS JA­SON IN­GRAM

In 1978, three hedge lay­ers set up the Na­tional Hedge­lay­ing So­ci­ety in Bri­tain to ensure the fu­ture of hedge-lay­ing skills be­ing lost. In 2018 the so­ci­ety cel­e­brates 40 years

Hedge lay­ing is no mean feat. It re­quires pre­ci­sion and strength to pleach, bind and crop stems into place but there’s no doubt that when fin­ished, a tra­di­tion­ally laid hedge is a sight to be­hold. “In my day it was looked on as a yobbo’s lot,” laughs re­tired hedge layer Mick Haynes. Mick, now 95, can re­mem­ber earn­ing £10 a week from hedge cut­ting at a time when the av­er­age weekly wage was just over £4. “When I went into hedge cut­ting, my fa­ther, who was a bank man­ager, thought I was the low­est of the low,” says Mick. ‘But I be­came a con­trac­tor and did very well.” Mick is cast­ing his ex­pert eye over the com­peti­tors at the Na­tional Hedge Lay­ing Cham­pi­onship in the Cam­bridgeshire vil­lage of Bar­ton. It’s an an­nual com­pe­ti­tion or­gan­ised by the Na­tional Hedge Lay­ing So­ci­ety (NHLS), which this year cel­e­brates its 40th an­niver­sary, and de­spite the fact that to­day’s com­pe­ti­tion feels like a very male af­fair, the so­ci­ety owes its foun­da­tion to a force­ful and ded­i­cated woman called Va­lerie Greaves.

In 1978, deeply con­cerned for the de­cline in Bri­tish hedgerows and the sur­vival of tra­di­tional hedge-lay­ing skills, Va­lerie en­cour­aged two other keen hedge lay­ers, Fred White­foot and Clive Matthew, to join her in be­com­ing found­ing members of the NHLS and to pro­mote the hedge as a na­tional as­set. They es­tab­lished the Na­tional Hedge Lay­ing Cham­pi­onship in the same year to give the craft a com­pet­i­tive edge and help im­prove the skills of hedge lay­ers. It started small, with two Mid­land-style classes and two Welsh-style classes. Over the years, the so­ci­ety has steadily grown and this year’s cham­pi­onship had more than 100 com­peti­tors cut­ting 12 dif­fer­ent styles be­tween them, from the tall, bushy Mid­land style, also known as a Mid­land Bul­lock, de­signed to con­tain large stock an­i­mals, to the low Devon style, which is laid on top of a bank. There are be­lieved to be more than 30 re­gional styles of hedge lay­ing in all and each type de­pends on the lay of the land and the farm­ing prac­tices of each re­gion.

In the years be­fore the so­ci­ety was formed, hedges had been in rapid de­cline. Dur­ing and af­ter the Sec­ond World War arable land dou­bled in area to ac­com­mo­date the de­mand for food pro­duc­tion. Farm­ers, en­cour­aged by the gov­ern­ment, grubbed out hedges to make space for the mon­ster­sized ma­chines needed to cul­ti­vate these vast new spa­ces. Ac­cord­ing to the NHLS, be­tween 1947 and 1985 around 155,000km of hedge were removed. Tra­di­tion­ally, hedge lay­ing was win­ter work, a task that filled the time when fields lay empty. But in­ten­sive farm­ing and mech­a­ni­sa­tion changed the way farm­ers worked. Many ne­glected hedges grew into big trees, and farm­ers adapted to us­ing trac­tors with flails to

trim over­grown hedges, negat­ing the cost of hir­ing a hedge layer. But this left the base of the hedge un­touched and ‘gappy’ – a tech­ni­cal term – not the stock-proof de­fence it was in­tended to be.

To wi­den the ap­peal of a tra­di­tional laid hedge, for­ward-think­ing NHLS mem­ber John Sav­ings made a dis­play of minia­ture bon­sai hedges, laid in dif­fer­ent re­gional styles, that he trans­ported around the coun­try. In 2001, at the Game Fair held at Shut­tle­worth Col­lege, the quirky ex­hibit caught the eye of HRH The Prince of Wales. John was al­lo­cated two min­utes to talk to the Prince but their con­ver­sa­tion lasted al­most half an hour and by the end, John had of­fered the in­trigued Prince a prac­ti­cal hedge­lay­ing les­son. Prince Charles ac­cepted and John went to the Prince’s Glouces­ter­shire home High­grove to pro­vide in­di­vid­ual lessons. Prince Charles is now a com­pe­tent hedge layer and pa­tron of the NHLS.

Roy­alty isn’t the only au­thor­ity to have sought ad­vice from the NHLS. In 1993, Va­lerie Greaves and Fred White­foot were called to give ev­i­dence to the House of Com­mons Se­lect Com­mit­tee on En­vi­ron­ment, Trans­port and Re­gional Af­fairs. The pair gave valu­able in­sights into the state of Bri­tain’s hedgerows and the im­por­tance of keep­ing up the man­age­ment of the hedges. How­ever, as the min­utes record, Va­lerie was more con­cerned with en­cour­ag­ing the man­age­ment of hedges as bound­aries, than the en­vi­ron­men­tal role they have to play. ‘If the hedge is do­ing its job as a hedge,’ she told the com­mit­tee, ‘then by all means let it be used to con­serve wildlife – an ex­cel­lent idea – as long as it keeps its dual role and is not kept purely for, or as, a zoo.’ But, de­spite her aver­sion to hedges act­ing as a home for wildlife, a healthy hedge has been ac­knowl­edged as hav­ing a vi­tal role in re­vers­ing the de­cline of many na­tive plants and an­i­mals, and in the past cou­ple of decades the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of los­ing Bri­tain’s hedges has be­come a key concern: ‘pre­serv­ing the past, pro­tect­ing the fu­ture’ is the NHLS motto.

The big­gest chal­lenge fac­ing the so­ci­ety is at­tract­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of hedge lay­ers. Like Mick Haynes, most of the so­ci­ety’s members are men who have con­tin­ued to lay hedges long af­ter re­tire­ment. At this year’s cham­pi­onship, five members com­peted in the ju­nior class, lay­ing the Lan­cashire and West­mor­land style, with many an es­tab­lished mem­ber prais­ing their cut­ting abil­ity. The so­ci­ety of­fers fi­nan­cial awards for young hedge lay­ers and has an on­go­ing pro­gramme with schools and the North Cotswold Con­ser­va­tion Board. There are few fe­male com­peti­tors – only three at­tended this year’s cham­pi­onship. Claire May­mon, me­dia of­fi­cer for the so­ci­ety feels many women are put off by the phys­i­cal­ity of lay­ing a hedge, and ad­mits that there is an old-fash­ioned at­ti­tude to women lay­ing hedges. Per­haps if more peo­ple knew the NHLS had been founded by an in­de­pen­dent fe­male hedge layer, more women would be in­spired to take up the bill­hook and compete.

USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Find out more about the work of Na­tional Hedge Lay­ing So­ci­ety and the Na­tional Hedge Lay­ing Cham­pi­onships at hedge­lay­ing.org.uk

A HEALTHY HEDGE HAS A VI­TAL ROLE IN RE­VERS­ING THE DE­CLINE OF MANY NA­TIVE PLANTS AND AN­I­MALS

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