The British countryside has been laced with robust and handsome hedges, cultivated living barriers that divide and protect land, for many centuries and, while there is definitive evidence of hedges being used for hundreds of years, many suspect it has far, far surpassed that.
The process of creating hedges, known as hedgelaying, is celebrated for good reason. Making use of locally available and natural resources, hedges are remarkably fortified and do extremely well to protect crops and livestock from harm. Not only can their density prevent pesky intruders, such as deer and foxes, but also elements of climate such harsh winds.
Beyond their role as barriers, however, hedges are also important as ecological assets. In addition to providing an abundance of food to the landscape, they also serve as both refuge and passage for wild animals. This value became quickly clear following World War II, when many hedges began to see significant decline in upkeep and were replaced with industrial alternatives, such as barbed wire.
Thankfully, despite the art of hedgelaying being considered a cottage industry, one that has become a specialised practice, it persists throughout the UK and the Heritage Craft Association continue to consider the skill’s preservation as currently viable. Though, they do also note that there is a nationwide shortage of hedgelayers.
Due to the variation of resources, as well as differing elements of the natural landscape, hedges have taken on local characteristics. This means that traditional practitioners in the north are likely to have signature elements to their craft, certainly being distinct from that of the south. There are, however, many common elements of a hedge, with trees like hawthorn and blackthorn being widely utilised, most often for their strength and substantial thorns.
Hedges do require ongoing management but those who are willing to put in the effort required will soon see a bounty of natural rewards, including berries, blossom, and the presence of happy wildlife, from bees to hedgehogs. As a testament to the skill involved, there are hedgelaying competitions too, with the most well-regarded being the National Hedgelaying Championship, which is annually held by the National Hedgelaying Society.
In the interest of preserving this wonderful craft, as well as supporting those practices that benefit the local environment, The Family Foraging Kitchen offer hedgelaying courses in Cornwall, hosted at our Horsepool Education Centre and Apiary on the Rame Peninsula. If you’d like to join our sessions and get hands on with hedgelaying, learning not only about its history but how you can begin cultivating your own living barriers, please visit our course schedule page.
Our next hedgelaying course date is January 28th, with tickets available here.