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
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