The green man

PUBLISHED: 14:10 03 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013

Karl Liebscher

Karl Liebscher

The art of hedgelaying is enjoying regrowth in Shropshire and Karl Liebscher is at the cutting edge. By Sarah Hart, pictures by John Snowdon

The art of hedgelaying is enjoying regrowth in Shropshire and Karl Liebscher is at the cutting edge. By Sarah Hart, pictures by John Snowdon.

'Nobody knows when the ancient craft of hedgelaying evolved but it almost certainly dates to when people began keeping livestock within confined areas.

It's spotting with rain, grey clouds are gathering and a chilly wind is picking up. Shropshire hedgelayer Karl Liebscher, dressed in a thin shirt and chunky chainsaw trousers, doesn't notice and doesn't care. He's hacking into the trunk of a woody shrub, slicing right through to within a centimetre or so of its complete cleavage.

It looks brutal, yet 'pleaching' encourages thick, healthy, new growth and considerably lengthens the lifespan of the tree. Some British hedgerows are said to be over 1,000 years old.

Karl has lopped through over three-quarters of the stem, just enough to make it give so he can bend it at an angle and lever it against the previous stem he has pleached. An axe in one hand, a spiked billhook in the other, he strips excess foliage from the twiggy branches before interweaving them between regularly-spaced stakes of coppiced hazel that he has driven into the ground. Once satisfied they form a sturdy barrier, he turns to the next shrub, clearing out unwanted growth around it with a brushing hook, before cutting deep with his billhook or chainsaw.

Karl is one of a reviving band of full-time hedgelayers. It's a job that sees him out in all weathers from September, through winter to the end of March.

"It's hard physical work and sometimes it's a bit of battle, especially when it's raining or blowing a gale. But I'd never swap it for a job behind a desk," he grins.

"It's a craft and as a craftsman it's rewarding to stand back at the end of a day, survey what you've made and feel a deep sense of satisfaction."

For 200 metres in one direction, along the edge of a meadow, stretches the elegant line of Karl's freshly laid hedge. A row of splintered stumps, their yellow flesh bared to the elements, cling by a thread to their woven branches. On top a bundle of hazel binds have been twisted together and entwined between the poles, adding strength to the structure. Beyond, for 300 metres or more, the hedge is lush and bushy. Karl re-laid this section the previous winter.

Nobody knows when the ancient craft of hedgelaying evolved but it almost certainly dates to when people began keeping livestock within confined areas. Hedges were common by the Bronze Age (1,000BC).

In 55BC Julius Caesar marvelled that tribes of Flanders "cut into slender trees and bent them over so that many branches came out along the length. They finished this off by inserting brambles and briars, so that these hedges formed a defence like wall which could not only not be penetrated, but not even seen through."

"Any modern hedgelayer would be proud to have his work described as so," trills the National Hedgelaying Society. And the emperor's words testify how the basic techniques of the craft have barely changed in 2,000 years.

Styles vary from region to region taking account of differing climates, locations, woodland species and livestock. More than 30 different styles prevail in Britain alone.

Karl, whose work has featured on television garden make-over shows and in the national Press, is called on in Shropshire for the Midland and Welsh border styles.

Today's hedge is in the Midland style. Particularly strong and 4ft 6ins tall it's suited to large animals. On the roadside the finish is clean and neat, a living fence of intertwined branches between stakes placed an old cubit (the length of a man's forearm or roughly 18 inches) apart. Meanwhile the bushy tips have been fed through to the field side forming a natural barrier to stop animals nibbling the soft tender shoots that will soon sprout from the base. Binds help it withstand the weight of leaning cattle.

The Welsh Border style evolved on hill farms and is good for sheep country. Laid between stakes, spaced two feet apart, it takes the rough brush on both sides.

As new growth takes hold the old gradually dies back. Regular trimming will maintain a hedge for decades. Re-laying is ideally carried out every 25 to 30 years. Left unmanaged a hedge will simply grow upwards, leaving gaps at the base that allow livestock through, and will eventually become a line of trees.

Hawthorn and blackthorn make the best hedges, their branches forming a dense barrier. Hazel and beech are also good.

If you want to work out the age of a hedge count the number of woody shrub species found within a 30 metre stretch. Each one denotes a century of growth.

Karl began hedgelaying professionally 25 years ago, a time when it was a dying craft. Back then grants were given for ripping hedges out. Today, their conservation value understood, grants pour forth for laying them.

Straight from university Karl, originally from Buckinghamshire, trained as a conservation officer. It instilled in him a love of traditional rural skills, and after six years he ditched his job in the North East for the life of a full-time hedgelayer.

What was the attraction?

"I can't pinpoint one particular reason," he muses.

"Most conservationists seem to relish chopping trees and clearing scrub. I guess there's something primeval about taking an axe and chopping things down. But they also enjoy laying a path or building a bridge. Hedgelaying combines both elements. There's the hacking and the cutting, but at the end of the day you've made something."

Karl adopted Shropshire, "one of the last places where hedgelaying hadn't died out", as his new home. His work has taken him all over the country and abroad. He recently spent two seasons laying hedges and training hedgelayers in Australia.

Most of his work in Shropshire is with the National Trust, on its great estates and tenanted farms. He coppices hazel on Wenlock Edge and oversees his own woodland at his home in Stanton Long, in The Corvedale.

Fellow hedgelayer Roger Brown works alongside him during winter. In April they leave the hedgerows to the nesting birds, Roger returns to gardening work and Karl turns to drystone walling and hurdle-making. Come September the hedges of Shropshire beckon once again.

"I feel very much part of the Shropshire countryside. I'm helping to look after it," Karl says.

* Karl Liebscher leads courses at The Greenwood Centre, Ironbridge. For commissioned work contact him on 01746 712330 or see his website www.shropshirehedgelaying.co.uk.

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