Being a complete novice to hedgelaying, my son (Harry) and I signed up for a competition run by the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt in East Pennard, Somerset. The competition was divided into two classes, the open for the professionals and the novice for the amateur enthusiasts, we were most certainly in the latter.
We were greeted by our genial host, Peter FitzGerald, who persuaded us to get stuck in with our allotted section of hedge. As we had very little experience we were helped by a professional hedge-layer, Chris, who was well-versed in the art of Dorset and Somerset hedge-laying techniques. There are about thirty different styles used regionally across the UK.
The hedge was mainly blackthorn, with a ditch one side, and using the Dorset style, we would be laying the hedge at the top of the bank.
We proceeded to clear out the hedgerow of any brambles, ivy and dead wood, leaving the main stems that would be used to create an 18 inch to 24 inch high compact hedge. The stems are known as pleachers.
Harry getting into the hedge
Hedgelaying is a highly skilled craft that has been practiced in the UK for hundreds of years, originally being developed after the acts of Enclosure which began in the 16th century.
Hedgerows are essential for keeping sheep or cattle within a boundary, a barbed wire fence could do that, but they also provide shelter, are important for wildlife and the environment as well as their scenic and heritage value. Hedgelaying prevents animals from getting through a hedge, creating a living stock-proof barrier.
After an hour or so, of tidying up and removing unnecessary elements from the hedge, the serious skill comes into play.
Chris and Harry getting to grips with the hedge
We were using an electric chainsaw, which will last about four hours when used laying a hedge (as it’s on and off the whole time). They are efficient and not nearly as noisy as petrol ones, although many of the traditionalists were using billhooks.
The key for Somerset and Devon hedgelaying is to cut the stems as low as possible, making sure that they were still attached and bending them over and intertwining them with other pleachers. We started at the top end, or the highest point of our section of hedge and worked down, in this case working from right to left, cutting each pleacher on the left side and bending to the right (up the small incline). This is because the sap rises and keeps the stems healthy.
The skill is in creating a solid hedge with no holes and each pleacher represents an opportunity to create a consistent and attractive looking hedge.
Even the youngsters get involved
After four hours we had completed about five metres of hedge, tidied up the site, leaving any dead wood or unwanted stems in neat piles, and believe it or not created a 24 inch high hedge that will grow into a strong and stock-proof hedgerow.
I have to say the organiser, Peter FitzGerald, and others were fantastic – enthusiastic, helpful and encouraging. Hedgelaying is a real skill that takes practice and effort, and my thanks have to go to Chris for his advice and practical help. I now feel that I have the very basics in place – to plant a hedge, see it grow, then lay the hedge to create a strong barrier that will hold stock if necessary, but also support wildlife.
Ashridge Nurseries provides plants for formal garden hedging as well as native hedging. The time to plant bareroot hedging is now until the beginning of April, depending on the weather. Here’s a video on how to plant a country hedge, advice on the best hedging for horses and how to plant a beech hedge. We have a huge variety of hedging plants at the most competitive pricing from beech, box, dogwood, hawthorn, holly, hornbeam, laurel, privet and yew and many others besides.
It’s a pleasure to be out and about in rural Somerset on a winter Sunday, with the weather being kind to us, to see the craft and skill of people dedicated to preserving and ensuring the countryside and environment remain intact.
Our finished hedge
My son, Harry, and I really enjoyed the experience, we both love being outdoors, and he has a degree in British Wildlife Conservation from Cirencester. He has spent 7 months on the Isle of Mull, helping guests on the Benmore Estate to sail, fish and stalk. He’s now doing chainsaw felling and deer stalking courses.
So, if you’re thinking about a hedge then have a look at our website, and if you’re affiliated with a hunt, Ashridge Nurseries will give you a 10% discount.