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Backbone of Britian: Young hedgelayers preserving iconic British craft

Hedgelaying has been a part of Britain’s story for hundreds of years and, here, we take a look at how the next generation is preserving its legacy. Emily Ashworth reports.

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How young people are taking the most traditional rural crafts and bringing them in to the 21st century #ProudToFarm

Although we may live in an increasingly robotic world, there are certain skills which simply need to be cultivated by human hands.

 

Hedgelaying is a rural skill which has been practised for centuries and its rural craftmanship is still very much alive, with traditional techniques being harnessed by the next generation; passionate about ensuring the longevity of its future.

 

Originally developed in England in the 16th century, it was a common way to enclose livestock in fields, but as developments in field management were made, hedges are now used to provide food and shelter for wildlife and encourage rejuvenation of existing hedgerows.

 

Although undeniably beautiful, many countryside lovers will be unaware of the sheer physical act of laying a hedge and its historic role in our land’s heritage.

 

For hundreds of years, the countryside was saturated in intricate rows of hedges, providing work for many rural communities, their presence vital to farmers and their land.

 

But following World War Two, hedges went into sharp decline as lowland areas switched from livestock to arable and fields were made more adaptable to the tractors and machines which now worked them.

 

Although Britain has lost four-fifths of its hedges over the last 75 years, through love of labour and homage to keeping part of the country’s cultural identity alive, young hedgelayers are bringing it right into the 21st century.


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Preservation

 

The National Hedgelaying Society (NHLS) is currently the only organisation dedicated to preserving these traditional skills, and is proud to call Prince Charles its patron.

 

The society was born after three hedgelayers, Fred Whitefoot, Clive Matthew and Valerie Greaves, realised these once valuable skills would soon be lost to time, and founded the idea of a national society to document them and pass them on.

 

NHLS secretary David Whitaker says: “We are pushing the promotion of hedgelaying hard offering several courses in local styles and promoting training for the next generation.

 

“There are young people within farming, but also from non-farming backgrounds, who are interested.

 

“At the moment, we have a really good group of young people doing tremendously well who will grow to become more experienced. You are only a novice for a short period of time.”

 

He also feels it is imperative to motivate those with a natural talent for it, because like most rural crafts, you either ‘have it or you don’t’.

 

NHLS organises various competitions and, this year, the national championship will be held at Lark Rise Farm, Barton, Cambridgeshire, on Saturday, October 27.

 

Its 550 members come from all walks of life, proving what some may deem as a diminishing way of life is still thriving and celebrated by people within and outside of agriculture.

 

Craig proctor, 27, Kendal, Cumbria

 

Having had the opportunity to take a course through Grayrigg Young Farmers Club, Craig Proctor found he had a knack for the somewhat complex operation of hedgelaying, the tradition perhaps in-built in him with his late grandfather also possessing the skill.

 

A third-generation beef and sheep farmer, Craig, who works on his family’s 81-hectare (200-acre) farm in Cumbria, began his journey when he was only 12 years old.

 

He says: “I started out of pure interest and it grew from there. It is nice to think I am carrying something on which someone else in the family was also good at.

 

“It is a real sense of achievement to get it all finished and looking smart, especially when you have a rough hedge. You feel accomplished.”

 

The styles Craig practices are the Lancashire and Westmorland styles; types which suit the area best and help keep sheep in on both sides.

 

But he admits it is the British countryside he loves, revelling in a hobby which gets him outside and into the fresh air.

 

Longevity

 

Craig continues to help promote the craft to the next generation by holding training days each year, feeling they are important skills to keep alive.

 

Best Young Farmer champion at the National Hedgelaying Championship for the past three years, Craig is certainly flying the flag for this rural trade, ensuring it has a place in farming’s future.

 

He says: “It is good for the hedge, as it stimulates growth and benefits land. More people do it with the tractor because they think it looks tidier, but eventually you are going to end up with big gaps in the hedge.

 

“It is good to keep a tradition and skill like this going and active in the countryside.

 

“Soon, all the old boys will be retiring, so it is important to keep the next generation coming through.”

Regional styles

Over time, regions across the country have developed their own styles of hedgelaying based on materials available, local customs and what the area of land requires.

 

The Midlands style, for example, is mainly found in Leicestershire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, which are traditional beef rearing areas and the hedges are designed to contain stock:

  • 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 bullocks cannot twist it off with their horns

 

Derbyshire style derives from the place itself, a typically mixed farming and sheep area:

  • Square, sawn stakes behind the line of roots
  • Pleachers woven firmly
  • No binding; relies on weaving to keep pleachers in place

 

Yorkshire style is designed so once grown, the base will be too dense for sheep to push under it:

  • A very low hedge, with bushes to provide a barrier to wind; stems lie so close it is almost impossible to see twigs branching off
  • Sawn stakes with a rail nailed on top, because stakes and binders do not grow very plentifully on windy uplands
  • Brush goes both sides
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