The ancient art of hedgelaying sees a revival in Shropshire

PUBLISHED: 15:51 03 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:46 20 February 2013

Karl Liebscher

Karl Liebscher

The ancient art of hedgelaying has been in decline, but with the growing number of farmers signing up for agri-environment schemes, it's enjoying a revival which is good news for young jobseekers in Shropshire. Judie Kellie reports

Winter is the season when you might think farmers have a rest, but you would be wrong. Every month has its tasks and one of the most ancient and rewarding is winter hedgelaying, coppicing and management, a skill that is vital for both efficient farming and wildlife habitats.
With more than 200,000 hectares of Shropshire being managed under agri-environment schemes through which farmers are encouraged to restore and maintain their hedges, young people in the county have the chance to obtain skilled work.

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, but in the past 15 years this has changed.

Prince Charles is Patron of the National Hedgelaying Society and the most recent national championships were held at Turnastone Court Farm in Herefordshire, courtesy of the Countryside Restoration Trust.

Competitors spent a gruelling day sawing, bending, weaving and staking their hedges into stock-proof enclosures for the fields. The techniques used 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 the agri-environmental schemes that it administers, money is offered for restoring, creating and maintaining hedgerows and a new accreditation scheme from the National Hedgelaying Society is seeking to restore standards.

Shropshire was represented by Karl Liebscher and Geoff Stephens and organisers laid on two special classes to encourage juniors. 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.

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.

Good hedges should remain stock-proof for up to 50 years they say, 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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