Hedge-laying skills taking root

One of Scotland’s most ancient rural crafts is undergoing something of a revival in the Borders.

It is thanks to Newton Don-based artist, blacksmith Graeme Walker.

Graeme Walker using traditional hegdgelaying methods to build a boundary at Press Castle near Coldingham.

Graeme Walker using traditional hegdgelaying methods to build a boundary at Press Castle near Coldingham.

A native of Kelso, Graeme is actually an archaeologist by qualification. But after seeing traditional hedgelayers in action where he used to live in the Cotswolds and Herefordshire about 14 years ago, he was inspired to take up the craft.

Currently engaged on a large project near Press Castle in Berwickshire, Graeme says traditional hedge-laying maybe an ancient rural skill, but one very rarely seen nowadays either in the Borders or the rest of Scotland.

“The process involves rejuvenating an old and/or overgrown hedge boundary by means of skilful ‘pleaching’ of standing stems and ‘laying’ these down one upon another, staked in place and then held together with a woven binding on top,” explained Graeme.

“The finished article being a visually striking, aesthetically pleasing, dense and stockproof boundary with the additional benefit of providing a haven for wildlife.

“Hedge-laying never died out completely in the middle shires of England. And it was once widely practised in Scotland, where it was a common part of the farming year, but the sweep of mechanisation here in the 1950s and 60s, with the resulting loss of manpower from the land, saw it pretty much disappear from Scotland.

“These days there is perhaps only a dozen professional hedgelayers working in Scotland, which means it attracts people’s attention when they see it going on.”

There are references to laid thorn hedges in accounts of the Roman occupation of Gaul and historian Herodotus refers to them being around the Parthenon in Athens.

A well-maintained thorn hedge provides not only a durable stockproof fence and a long-lasting boundary, but also creates a haven for wildlife.

“It benefits wildlife by providing a safe corridor to let small mammals and birds move around the countryside,” added Graeme.

But many surving hedges are in poor condition, being very often maintained by trimming with mechanical flails which, as Graeme pointed out, does nothing to plug growing gaps near their base and leaves it flat-topped and only about four feet high.

“That doesn’t do anything to make it a stockproof boundary or benefit wildlife,” he said.

But there are hedges being laid in the traditional manner again in the Borders, mainly on big estates like those of Roxburghe and Buccleuch.

For his part, Graeme prices hedge-laying work by the yard, with cost dependent on what is required. There are also different ways of laying a hedge, depending on what use is intended.

And it turns out the Borders is one of the best places for seeing traditional hedgelaying in action.

Each year sees the country’s national championships hosted at Ancrum and at the end of this month, Graeme will be involved in running a course teaching hedge-laying, which is already fully booked.