Monday, 4 March 2013

Week 17: To the hedge!

If ‘a change is as good as a rest’ then this week is ‘the exception that proves the rule’ because I am stiff and very tired!

The change has been that we have spent 4 days learning to lay hedges in a field at St Dogmaels and the usual team has been augmented by Steve and Ineke, a couple from Northumberland, nominally on holiday and taking this short course purely out of interest having neither hedges nor land of their own. Have I explained before that being weird is a prerequisite of involvement in Coppicewood?

We met on Monday morning at the shelter in the woods for a briefing and to collect tools. Nick explained the principles of hedgelaying – how we would pleach stems by cutting down on a slant with a billhook at the base of the stem leaving a thin hinge, then bend the stem down to the ground and weave the top growth around stakes leaving the brash on the far side before cutting off the stump remaining as it could be a hazard to livestock. He also showed us the large ‘Yorkshire pattern’ billhooks we would be using to cut down through larger stems alongside the more familiar small ones and taught Steve and Ineke how to sharpen them. The rest of us, old hands at sharpening now, made sure that all the hooks, slashers and 2 axes were ready for use. Then we loaded these with bowsaws, two-handed saws and large mallets (for knocking in stakes) into Andrew’s large Landrover and set off for St Dogmaels. We were to work on a field which is used as a market garden and had been asked to take as few vehicles as possible as parking is limited so for most days Andrew’s Landrover became our shuttle bus and mobile tool store.

For most of the rest of the day we worked to be able to get to the bit of hedge we wanted to work on! Like many in this part of Wales it had been neglected and small trees had grown as offsets or seedlings either side of the bank on which the original had been planted. These had to be cleared to gain access. However we were encouraged to practice pleaching some of these so that we made our mistakes on ones that would not be needed in the finished piece. Because there were so many of us we were each given a section to work on and by the end of the day we had reached our objective along quite a long length. Part of the arrangement with the landowner was that he would be responsible for dealing with all the stuff we cut out and he had arranged for someone with a chipper to come in later and shred it all. To make this horrible job as easy as possible we piled all the brash in a line with stems pointing to the hedge and a good tractor width away from it. Our progress on the hedge itself might not have looked much but this line of rubbish was seriously impressive!

Removing unwanted material

On Tuesday Andrew’s big Landy was not available so Stef and Kieron nobly folded themselves up small into my little Kia Picanto for the ride from the woods to the field. Andrew turned up in his smaller Landrover just in time to rescue Nick from joining them! We were asked to divide into 4 teams of 2, each of which would tackle an allocated length but Nick very tactfully requested that the youngsters take the high banked section. This meant that Andrew and I, as the 2 who are ‘getting on a bit and not as agile as we once were’, got the section where the bank was almost demolished without being too embarrassed!

Before we could begin to pleach anything we had to clear out thickets of branches which had been flailed off by the electricity board to stop them interfering with their lines which follow the hedgerow. Then we had to clear small stuff from behind the hedge itself just as we had done at the front. Finally we began to pleach and bend the first few stems of our section but could not weave these into stakes because we had to allow for the team next to us (Steve and Ineke) to join onto our section when they finished theirs. Those first stems had to be laid loosely down the bank to go on top of their last few when they reached the end. To complicate things even further some of the trees in our section were of substantial girth and had to be pleached with the two-handed saw. It did have the advantage of giving us practice with that! It was rather dispiriting to look at our work at the end of the day and see very little to show for it despite hard work and many scratches but we were assured that the first stage was often slow and tiresome and that we would pick up speed the next day.

A pleach in progress

Pleach complete

They were right! Despite a lot of time still being taken up with clearing out stuff we did not want (the line of rubbish got higher, longer and denser) we did start to produce something which bore a passing resemblance to a neat hedge! Nick, Barbara and Martin moved up and down the line offering help, advice and encouragement and generally ensuring that we did not bring disgrace on the college!

After 2 days of warmth and sunshine the forecast for Wednesday had been for heavy rain but we were lucky and suffered only occasional drizzle / light rain so were able to keep working. When I got home it was obvious that we had escaped lightly and that my place had not been so lucky. It seems that Cardigan had a deluge overnight because the next (and last) day we were paddling in mud.

Slipping, sliding and slithering up and down the banks we managed between us to join all the sections together. Steve and Ineke, who did not take the full lunch break (very keen those two!) finished theirs and leapfrogged our section to take on another bit and Martin and Barbara did a section beyond them. They had been itching to get stuck in since Monday! The rest of us finished too late to start any more but cleared up bits of debris which were littering the tractor path and made sure that all the tools were collected together. And, if I am to be strictly honest, stood around admiring our handiwork! By the end of the day roughly 70 yards of hedge was looking surprisingly neat for the work of beginners.

The finished product

Whilst David got Penny to her bus, Martin walked home to the other end of St Dogmaels and Steve and Ineke returned to their B&B for a well earned shower and a few more days holiday, Andrew took Nick, Barbara, Stef and I back to base where we  cleaned and put away all the tools. Although I was tired, muddy and had discovered muscles which I never knew I had it had been a great course and a lot of fun.

The hedgelaying crew

On Sunday I was working on reducing shading on my orchard and instead of coppicing a row of willows on one edge I laid them as a hedge. It wouldn’t win any prizes but I couldn’t have done it the week before. I also axed down a multi-stemmed hazel which I couldn’t have done a few weeks ago. This course seems to be working! A week off next week for half term so a chance to recover and/or get stiff and tired on our own patches.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

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