National Hedgelaying Society

December 2006 Newsletter

NHLS December 2006 Newsletter

County Galway Hedgelaying Workshop

It was a wet and windy morning after a dark and stormy night. The weather forecast for day one of the first hedgelaying workshop of the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland was wretched. The culmination of practically six months work was in jeopardy, being toyed with by elemental forces beyond the control of the organisers.

This all-Ireland organisation was set up in 2004 with a stated aim: “To Conserve Ireland's Hedgerows”, and the workshop in the Franciscan Brothers Agricultural College, Mount Bellew, Co. Galway, was our first attempt at demonstrating what a wonderful craft hedgelaying is.

It was Friday the 6th of October and myself and four other candidates were up for assessment of our hedge laying competency by a seasoned veteran of the craft, a man with miles of neatly layed stock-proof hedges behind him, a man so gnarly that he could only be Paul O'Hagan from Derry. A qualified Assessor of the internationally recognised awards body the National Proficiency Test Council.

Also taking place on Friday were training courses for those who would follow in our chainsaw-safety-booted-footsteps. Saplings, if you will, straining towards the light of a hedge laying Utopia, disciples of the new sustainable gospel of the Rejuvenating Whitethorn Tree. Their intact hands and fresh faces would soon be scarred and weather beaten in pursuit of the new faith. Hmmm, enough of that.

Regardless of the weather a number of associated trades, crafts, organisations and companies were present with stalls and demonstrations to beguile those members of the public who were able to drag themselves away from the mesmeric natural rhythms of the hedgelayers.

The displays also provided a relevant context for hedge laying in modern environmentally conscious agriculture, an industry like any other, where everything must pay its way or go by the board. In this vein two of the exhibitors displayed ingenious and profitable uses for hedgelaying by-products i.e. large amounts of wood.

The stands of wood turner Niall Miller of Co Leitrim whose penchant for delightful wooden mushrooms nodded to more carefree times, and Besom and Bundle tool maker Michael Hentschel of Co. Donegal whose simple, practical birch brooms have not been improved on in thousands of years of progress, were pure class. Their other toys and tools and furniture were also of the highest quality.

Tree Care Ireland of Carlow had a fine display of safety gear and hand tools for the hedge laying, chain sawyer about town. All ably presented by the genial, reddheaded Kevin Birchall. I couldn't resist their special offer “Samurai” saw complete with holster and belt attachment… oh yeah, show me the trees…

There was a demonstration of dry stone walling by the soft-spoken James Hunter of the Clandeboy estate, near Bangor Co. Down. While John McKeon of Castleblaney showed how and what to plant in the way of new hedgerows in what proved to be a very popular demonstration.

Local Doonwood Nurseries of Mount Bellew were present with a wide variety of plants available to buy.

Also on hand with all the information on what's what in environmental circles were Crann and the Irish Wildlife Trust. Their message on the importance of our trees and hedgerows never loses its relevance.

JF Farm Machinery of Drogheda Co. Louth demonstrated the use of a tractor mounted finger-bar type cutter. This Danish import gives a much cleaner cut than the ubiquitous flail.

Did I say that the weather appeared to be beyond the control of the organisers? I was wrong. Despite dire severe weather warnings on the radio and promises of local floods and 100kph winds it all failed to materialise, barring a few showers and some strong gusts. The hedgelaying assessment candidates and the training course initiates all began working more or less on schedule.

One of the main purposes of the HLAI is to get official recognition both for hedge laying as the optimum form of hedge management in most cases and for the necessity for high standards of craftsmanship. To this end officials from the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and Teagasc, the Farm Advisory Service, were encouraged to attend the event. So far the feed back from them has been very positive, with one DoA official taking part in the Saturday training course.

The positive feedback is hardly surprising given the quality of work on display. An important factor in this was the excellent condition of the hedgerows. They truly are a credit to Brother Fidelis of the college, whose labour of love they are. The trees were ten to twelve years old, a foot or less apart and weed and bramble free, so unlike the ageing, gappy, ivy-strapped horrors that most of us are used to.

Almost as soon as they were put over the trees formed a stockproof barrier. The fact that some candidates failed to reach the assessment standard was not due to any ineffectiveness of their finished hedge but largely to do with features the untrained eye might not pick up, slope of the stump, cleanness of the cut etc. (No, I reached the standard, even if I was the last to finish).

Hedgelaying in Ireland is very much an individual practice. Strong, attractive people of doughty resolve, undaunted by weather and beasts, thorns or stings, weave their own magic across the countryside in a mercurial dance of flesh and bough, leaf and limb, I never tire of this…

In Britain regional styles based on the requirements of the local agriculture and the agricultural landscape e.g. sheep or cattle, ditches or banks, have evolved over the centuries and are quite strictly adhered to. Though the styles appear very different from each other essentially they fulfil the same purpose.

If regional styles ever existed in Ireland they are not widely recorded and the style now is that of the aforementioned individual hedge layer.

This was quite evident at Mount Bellew where the assessment candidates working on the same hedge within yards of each other all produced quite different hedges.

The trainees produced a lush green and utterly impenetrable hedge, a true team effort under the guidance of HLAI Chairman Neil Foulkes on Friday and Paul O'Hagan on the Saturday. Their skill and enthusiasm bodes well for the future.

Saturday was the day the public had been invited to attend. The weather was grand and we had high hopes of a successful day. From quite early on good numbers of people were coming in and all were pleased with what was on offer.

Neil Foulkes demonstrated actual hedgelaying and Joe Gowran showed the correct method of coppicing, (“not more than about two inches from the ground with a slight slope for water run off”), anything else just doesn't cut it…(!!) Once again John McKeon's hedge planting attracted the crowds.

Beyond the safety barrier the trainees could be observed working away to good effect. Near the entrance ENFO (Environmental Information) had a poster board display on Hedgerows entitled Networks For Nature featuring fine wildlife photographs and stunning action shots of some of Ireland's leading hedgelayers! While nearby James Hunter produced a beautiful dry stone wall.

The stalls also attracted a lot of interest providing havens of tranquillity away from the heavy metal outbursts of the chainsaws. While the finer points of hedgelaying are still done using traditional tools, bill hooks and axes mainly, there is no doubt that the chainsaw is now vital for any professional hedge layer, even if only for the speed.

This means training in the safe use of chainsaws and a very memorable moment came on Saturday afternoon when Tree CareĀ· Ireland staged a chainsaw safety demonstration.

There was much practical advice on the safety features of the modern saw and the available safety wear which must be worn, and some graphic photos of what can happen when it isn't.

This was followed by a crowd-silencing moment when Kevin (that lad I mentioned earlier) turned the chainsaw at full throttle onto a pair of safety trousers. Though the saw stopped instantly everyone got the (very nasty) picture.

As the day and the workshop drew to a close we were able to look back on a very successful event both personally and for the HLAI. One of the most gratifying things was the enthusiasm of those who attended, some of whom had thought that they were hedgelayers alone in a desert of hedge removal and neglect, solo-sailors single-handedly navigating… dear God, will he ever stop. Sorry. …some of whom were previously unaware of the HLAI and other hedgelayers.

A quote from one of the emails we received tells its own story: &ldquoLast Saturday was one of the most enjoyable farm demonstrations I've ever attended”. It was indeed.

Whatever the future may hold for the HLAI this event demonstrated to the powers that be in Irish agriculture that this ancient method of hedge management is probably more useful now than ever and that it requires a degree of knowledge and skill that can only be achieved through proper training.

In an age of environmental protection and dwindling natural resources hedgelaying provides farmers with cheap fuel and raw materials. It decreases their need for wire fences and wooden fence posts. It is visually appealing to people, beneficial to wildlife and is more effective and longer lasting than wire and wooden fencing. What is it they say about win win…?

The HLAI express their sincere thanks to the College Principal Tom Burke for all his help and support. The workshop was funded by The Heritage Council under the 2006 Local Heritage Grants Scheme, and by Crann. The Department of Agriculture and Food sponsored the Craft Demonstrations.