By Frank Wright

There are about 35 different hedgelaying styles across the country, nearly all of which use stakes and many use binders. The two that I know of that don’t use either are two West Country styles, Dorset, and Devon and Cornwall. Both these styles are laid very low and are atop a steep, small bank and are the final bit of the barrier to prevent stock from escaping. Dorset style uses long whips from within the hedge to wrap around the laid stems and keep them in a sausage shape; Devon and Cornwall style uses crooks to keep the hedge in place. Some of the others traditionally use sawn stakes, Derby and Yorkshire styles for instance; this is possibly due to the historical absence of suitable stake material in the local area. The rest tend to use stakes, traditionally hazel although other woods can be used – cleft chestnut is popular and lasts longer.

The ideal stake is 5’ 6” (167cm) long, straight and around 11/2” (38mm) diameter at the base and free of nibs and snags, this allows for 6” (15cm) or more in the ground and enough above the hedge to allow for the binding and to leave a hedge 4’ (120cm) high. Typically they are supplied in bundles of 10 or 20. The ideal binder needs to be at least 10’ (3m) long, straight and with a butt end about ¾” (2cm) diameter. These are traditionally hazel supplied in bundles of 20. Longer is good, shorter is not. Willow binders are also used but need to be a bit thicker as they don’t seem to possess quite the same holding power as hazel – birch seems to do well also. Unfortunately, as so much of current woodland has been ignored for several years the hazel is often grossly overstood, as most in this group will be well aware, so what can be extracted tends to deviate from this ideal. If you have the skill it is possible to cleave the overstood hazel to provide stakes of suitable cross-section. Most chestnut stakes will be cleaved. Each yard or metre of hedge requires two stakes and two binders. If you work a properly maintained coppice with nice straight growth of the appropriate sizes you will probably find an enthusiastic market amongst your local hedgelayers. Unfortunately hedelayers, like coppice workers, are not that thick on the ground.

At the risk of promoting cries of outrage, the two main styles are the South of England style and the Midland style – see below.

Midland style assumes that stock will be on the brush side of the hedge and arable on the “clean” side. Once the new growth has had sufficient time to establish itself properly and is no longer quite so attractive to stock the animals can change sides. This is sometimes referred to as a Midland Bullock hedge. The stake line is about a handspan in from the face side of the hedge and the stems are woven amongst the stakes. The whole is finished with a rather attractive barley-twist style of binding.

Not unreasonably the style most prevalent around this part of the world is South of England. This style has brush on both sides, which is trimmed, as it is anticipated that stock will be in both fields, in this case the beasts in question can be either sheep or cattle. Stakes are down the middle of the hedge, which can be up to 3 feet (1m) wide or more, and the pleaches/heels are covered as well as can be achieved in an attempt to protect the new growth that will be sprouting from the heel next summer. Binding is a straightforward in and out weave. In both styles, after starting the binding in the approved manner a new binder is inserted at each stake and woven in such a way as to lock down the others, this turns the laid hedge into a more unified structure rather than a loose assemblage of cut plants.

Whatever the style the main points of the laid hedge is that it should be live and stockproof – less important now than in the past with the advent of barbed wire and stock-fencing. The hedgelaying season is from the beginning of September to the end of March; we have to stop then because of nesting birds. In the old days the “season” was more the dictates of the farm diary than anything else as a dip in other agricultural activities gave an opportunity to maintain the field boundaries.

A big thank you to Frank Wright for sharing his insights with us, hopefully there will be more soon.