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Hedge Laying page


start of hedge laying spring finished


The first picture is what hedge laying looks like when you first start. It is looks like a mess, but over time and with a little bit of perseverance, it starts to take shape. The middle picture shows what it looked like last spring, there is actually only about 2 months difference between the first 2 photographs. The last picture is the final stage in this particular stretch of hedge at High Woods we will have to wait and see what it looks like this spring?

Below is one of the 3 articles that we have been privileged enough to have had published in Living Woods magazine. Unfortunately, it's not on sale in shops, you can only receive it through subscription,I have put a link to the web site on the Links page and an email address on the Contacts page. Some back issues are available.



Paul Roberts (one of our Monday conservation volunteers) explains how a volunteer group got a grant for training and then put their new hedgelaying skills to good use.  Some practical tips on getting stated in hedgelaying are also included.

Why Hedgelaying?

Traditionally hedges were laid to create stock proof barriers to keep in animals such as sheep and cows.  With modern wire and electric fencing, and the use of brutal mechanical flails, this aspect is not so important.  But laid hedges are attractive to look at, kind to wildlife, and easy to maintain.  We think it is important to keep the knowledge alive.  Hedgelaying is also a surprisingly satisfying activity.


Our group, the Colchester Countryside Volunteer Rangers (C.C.V.R.s), supports full-time council Rangers employed to maintain the 500 acre High Woods Country Park, as well as 15 other nature areas in the Colchester area.  These sites are managed both for the benefit of wildlife and for public recreation and education.  The Volunteers represent a wide cross section of the local community ranging from students to the retired.  Conservation tasks undertaken include coppicing, fencing, path work, wildflower management, minor construction and much more.   Volunteers also patrol, assist with public events, carry out estate management, lead health walks, and deal with visitor enquiries.  The group raises its own funds by the sale of products such as firewood and nesting boxes.

In 2010 we applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant to training to improve the skills of the volunteers.  The Fund distributes money raised through the National Lottery in the form of grants to sustain and transform Britain’s heritage.   We were granted £6,443.  Standard conditions include the keeping of auditable records, submission of an end-of-project report, and display of notices acknowledging funding.  All of these are of course perfectly reasonable when spending public money.

The courses have been sourced from a mix of local providers, including colleges and individual tutors.  In addition to Hedgelaying, volunteers have been trained in a range of useful skills including Identifying Trees without Leaves, Use of Wood chipper, Use of Brush cutter, Pole Lathe, Wild Flower Appreciation and First Aid.The Hedgelaying course was held over 2 days based at the Epping Forest Field Centre, ably lead by Peter Vaughan, a member of the National Hedgelaying Association.  Our 4 volunteers, Mike Taylor, Cath Bremner, Greg Meason and Paul Roberts, joined a group of a dozen students from varying backgrounds.  Some were from volunteer groups, but others had personal interests; one member had an extensive hedge bordering the forest and planned to use the skills accordingly.

The first morning was in the classroom with a practical demonstration and an explanation of the terminology such as pleachers, heels, bindings etc (more below on this).  We were also shown the tools to use, the best types and makes (mainly vintage) and how to sharpen them for best results.  Finally an instructional DVD was shown.  The style we were taught was the South of England, with some information on other styles.  After an excellent pub lunch the group decamped to a wind blasted site in North Weald for a practical demonstration by our tutor.  On the second day the class split into small groups each of which laid a section under supervision.  Well, we all really had the bug by this end!  The finished result was just so satisfying – all credit to Peter Vaughan for first class tuition.

Laying Solo

The hedgelaying group began to accumulate our own sets of tools in preparation for tacking a length of hawthorn hedge selected for us by the park rangers.  A few weeks later the party rolled up on site.  We immediately had a serious outbreak of sheepish foot shuffling; these hawthorns were in fact a row of trees, at least three times the height and diameter of our kindergarten hedge! But we gradually got to grips using the general principles we had been taught (see below) and during a few sessions managed to lay about 70 meters (see photos above).  As mere improvers we found that working in pairs was best at first.  Once we had got going some colleagues joined us to help learn the method.  Although the stems were quite large for laying we were very happy with the end result.  This spring the new growth has been remarkable as the middle photograph shows.

Hedgelaying Preparation

Whilst we cannot claim long expertise, based on the training and our own experiences, we offer the following.
Having the right tools is crucial.  These include:

  • a hatchet and/or bill hook.  A bill hook is best for thinner stems and side branches, but for thicker stems a 1.5 lb hatchet is far more effective.  These edge tools need to be really, really sharp, and keep a good edge.  Sadly this rules out most modern tools except the very expensive.  Specialist hedgelaying tools can be made to order from specialist smiths listed on the National Hedgelaying Association web site.  But good vintage makes such as Elwell and Grays are probably the most cost-effective options for occasional users, and can still be obtained second-hand through car boot sales and eBay (although the eBay ones do seem to attract quite high prices);
  • effective means of sharpening the edge tools, e.g. a canoe stone or a diamond file.  Edges need to be sharpened with a very long taper;
  • a sharp saw.  Ones of the Silky ZuBat type, i.e. hand pruning saws, are best as they can be worked in confined spaces.  Small bow saws can be used in many situations.  (Some brave and experienced hedge layers use chainsaws, apparently, but we are delighted to claim total ignorance of this technique.) 
  • a pole saw, but only if the trees have entangled branches that are out of reach;
  • a large maul or mallet to drive in stakes. 

Stakes and binders will be needed.  The stakes are about 6’ long and about 2” diameter.  The thicker end should be pointed.  Binders should be at least 8’ long and about 1” maximum diameter.  They should be recently cut and are typically saplings of some flexible wood such as willow, hazel or (or favorite) ash.
Personal protective equipment is also needed, in addition to clothing to cope with the elements bearing in mind that this is a winter activity.  Assuming there are thorns or brambles in the hedge you will need the following:

  • heavily padded gloves to protect the hands.  Horsehide mitts are available via the Association web site, but best quality welding gauntlets are a fair second-best;
  • strap on knee pads or a kneeling pad;
  • eye protection (in my view);
  • thorn resistant  clothing  such as a wax jacket and tough trousers;
  • some form of headgear – perhaps a safety helmet for a very tall hedge where there is a risk of falling branches.

A basic risk assessment on site will identify hazards such as poisonous plants, deep water, bulls, overhead power cables and so on.  If the public has access then signs or barriers will be needed.  You will also need to decide how to dispose of waste cut from the hedge, e.g. by fire, chipping or piling up to rot down.
Please do be doubly careful if the hedge contains blackthorn.  It is reported on the web that the long sharp thorns are coated with both a chemical irritant to cause inflammation and a bacterial agent to cause infection.  I can vouch for this as I once got one in my back, which soon resulted in an angry red and yellow abscess the size and shape of a poached egg.  This abscess was painfully lanced by the medics, and I still have the scar.  The tree was just protecting itself, but you should do likewise by taking the precautions above!

Hedgelaying Basics - South of England Style: Whatever style is used, the principles are the same – to convert the mushroom shape typical of a hedging plant into an impenetrable dense barrier with plenty of growth from the bottom upwards.  The Association web site contains guides and photographs for a number of regional styles.
The process can look savage in that it cuts most of the way though the stems, but in fact even large trees thrive with only an inch or so of bark still connected, so be confident.  The following should give the flavour of hedgelaying: 

  • decide which way to lay the hedge – this is usually up hill;
  • starting at the higher end, clear away vegetation and loose material around the stems.  Like much hedgelaying this is best done kneeling;
  • cut off or untangle intertwined branches, and remove any that will prevent the “pleacher” (i.e. the bent over stem)  laying down;
  • check for damage to the bark, e.g. by rabbits.  If necessary the leaching cut can be made to one side and the pleacher twisted to lay it in position;
  • at a height of about 3 times the diameter of the stem, cut part way through at right angles using a saw;
  • supporting the stem with one hand, strike off a series of chips until the stem has narrowed enough to be spilt down to the ground and then laid over.  Typically about 7/8 of the stem thickness is cut away leaving the rest as a hinge about one foot in length;
  • in the South of England style the “pleachers” (i.e. laid stems) should be laid in two rows with a narrow gap between;
  • the “heel” (i.e. the stub of the stem) should be cut off close to the ground at 30 degrees;
  • once a length has been completed the stakes should be knocked in loosely every 18”;
  • bindings should then be woven along the tops of the stakes;
  • stakes should be knocked down and the bindings adjusted so they are at a set height typically 4’ 6”.  The tops of the stakes are then cut off 4” above the bindings;
  • Stray vegetation is tucked and woven into the body of the hedge.  Anything projecting unduly should be trimmed.

The Future
We are looking forward to carrying on next winter.  Meanwhile, the National Hedgelaying Association has no group nearer to us than about 80 miles, so if anyone is interested in a joint approach to forming an East Anglia Group (or joining the Colchester Volunteers) please contact the rangers via the email address on the contacts page.

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