The ancient art of hedgelaying is alive and well in Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 09:22 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 20 February 2013

Brian Price

Brian Price

Hedgelayers from all over Europe, more than 130 of them, came to Vowchurch for The National Hedgelaying Championships, the first time the event has been held in Herefordshire for three decades.

Winter is the season when you might think farmers have a rest but you would be wrong. Every month has its dedicated tasks and one of the most ancient and rewarding is winter hedgelaying, coppicing and maintenance. It is vital for both efficient stock management and wildlife habitats and happily, it is enjoying something of a revival.

Like so many rural crafts hedgelaying, has had a bad time in recent history.

After the Second World War, shortage of labour and an increase in farm mechanisation caused an alarming decline in the number and state of our hedges, with many of those left turning into rows of gappy trees.

The result wasnt just hard on the eye; hedges provide habitats for more than 600 plant species, 1,500 insect species, 65 birds and 20 mammals including more than half of Britains rarest mammals.

As the hedgerows declined in number so did the number of skilled craftsmen and women able to lay them. The revival has the potential to benefit both our wildlife and young people looking for work in rural areas.

Prince Charles is Patron of the National Hedgelaying Society and competitors at the Vowchurch event spent a gruelling day sawing, bending, weaving and staking their hedges into stock proof enclosures for the fields around Turnastone Court Farm, courtesy of the Countryside Restoration Trust.

The techniques can be traced back to Roman times and together with trimming and coppicing are still the most effective way of containing animals, providing shelter and at the same time creating habitats for our native wildlife.

The rewards are diverse, up to 220 a day for skilled layers and grants to farmers as well as the environmental benefits.

Natural England, the main sponsor of the championships, works with farmers and land managers to help reverse the long-term decline in hedgerows. Through its Environmental Stewardship schemes financial rewards are offered for restoring, creating and maintaining hedgerows and a new accreditation scheme offered by the National Hedgelaying Society is seeking to restore standards.

Herefordshires Neville Powell entered the Welsh Stake and Pleach, alongside Alan Leighton, Brian Price and Mark Pritchard, with Ben Pritchard and Graham Richards in the Welsh Junior and YFC. He was delighted to have the event on his doorstep.

I havent competed for 22 years but now its come back locally four of us decided to have a go. I have been hedgelaying since I was 16.

Organisers laid on two special classes this year to encourage juniors. Young Farmers Clubs were out in force and competitors as young as 15 turned in a creditable performance. Rita Jones from Brecon brought her son Gethin who is studying at Holme Lacy and Hedley Alexander from Warwickshire was competing against his mother.

There are more than 35 styles of hedge to choose from, each identified with different areas of England.Georg Muller from Germany is researching a book on hedgelaying and dry stone walling.

The English are the best, he said, but then it is an English tradition. I have visited 42 countries looking at the craft so I should know.

Beautiful to look at but practical too the appropriately named Midland Bullock style is cattle-proof one side due to protective stakes, with growth and habitat provided on the other to face an arable field.

Colin Powell from Ledbury attracted a good deal of attention with his intriguing collection of antique laying tools although today the use of chain saws speeds up the task.

At the end of the day, in the face of competition from Southern Ireland, Holland and across Britain triumph went to Andrew Holding from Uttoxeter in Staffordshire. He walked away Supreme Champion, for his Derbyshire hedge.

Almost 164,000 km of hedgerows in England are actively managed under agri-environment schemes. Thats around 41per cent, and around 21,000km have been restored in the past 10 years.

Well-laid hedges should remain stockproof for up to 50 years as well as encouraging wildlife so its good to know that this winter there are plenty of local hedgelayers at work.

More information about hedgelaying from www.hedgelaying.org.uk
For information about Environmental Stewardship Schemes go to www.naturalengland.org.uk/es

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