Through the pricked ears of the grey hunter in Snaffles’s The Finest View in Europe can be seen row after row of neatly laid hedges, an invitation for hedge-hopping no foxhunting man could resist. There is something entirely British about such a scene, familiar since the 17th- and 18th-century Enclosure Acts created the patchwork of fields that has endured to this day. A good hedge is the result of careful management, training natural growth and weaving branches together to form a stockproof, ever-growing barrier that’s not only an effective field boundary, but also a vital home for wildlife.
There are dozens of styles of hedgerow in the UK, depending on climate, farming practices and types of native trees and shrubs, from the huge, thick Midland Bullock that can withstand cattle and horses pushing against it, to the hazel and brush laid atop banks in Devon. Hedgelaying itself is enormously satisfying, turning a scraggly, thin row of trees into a neat, dense network of living branches with a neat slice from a billhook and a thump or two from a mallet. The Prince of Wales is an accomplished exponent and one of the greatest champions of what is in danger of being a dying art (Country Life, November 13, 2013).
The National Hedgelaying Society (NHLS) (www.hedgelaying.org.uk) is the central source of information, with lists of practising hedgelayers, guides to different hedges and links to courses. There are classes across the country, often led by champions keen to share their skills. Guy Robins, runner-up in the 2012 national championships, leads Hedgelaying Weekends with the Fife Coast & Countryside Trust, costing £60 (http://fifecoastandcountrysidetrust.co.uk; 07951 241872) and Philip Rowell runs training days from November to April in Yorkshire (www.countryment.com).
The Blackdown Hills Hedge Association is holding classes on February 1 in Devon (www.bhha.info) and, in Leicestershire, an Introduction to Hedgelaying course (www.parkhilltraining.co.uk; 01509 815534) will give attendees an insight into how the hedges that make the county a hunting Mecca are created.
Further south, Hedgelaying with John Waller will be held at Bore Place, Edenbridge, Kent, on January 18-19, £120 (www.underwoodsman.co.uk; 01892 740303) and Hedgelaying with Neil Catchpole takes place at Assington in Suffolk on February 15, £75 (01787 229955; www.assingtonmill.com). Midlands and Somerset-style hedgelaying for beginners will be taught at various venues in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire from January to March (www.cotswoldsruralskills.org.uk). Each day-long course costs £109.
If you decide to buy your own billhook, there are plenty of opportunities for you to put your skills into practice as landowners reject the modern curse of wire in favour of well-laid hedges. There is no national hedgelaying qualification, but the NHLS runs an accreditation scheme.
What to buy
No Bull Duvale Steel Rigger Safety Boot, £34.99, Mole Valley Farmers (0844 310 5495 www.molevalleyfarmers.co.uk)
Goldleaf dry-touch gloves, £18.95, Countrywide (01386 429500; www.countrywidefarmers.co.uk)
Bromyard billhook, 10in blade, made to order, John Beavis Traditional Blacksmith (07795 433993; www.olivemeadeforge.co.uk)
Stretch technical tweed jacket, £475, Musto (01268 495824; www.musto.com)
Make a weekend of it
National Trust Working Holiday, near Lyme Regis, west Dorset
Spend the days hedgelaying with experienced National Trust rangers on the glorious Jurassic Coast. Beginners are welcome and can even expect to be reaching competition standard by the end. November 15-22; £155 per person. (0844 800 3099; www.nationaltrust.org.uk)
Survival School Hedgelaying Course
Hedgelayers can sleep under the stars with the Survival School. The weekend courses start with making camp on Friday night, and guests learn about tools, hedgelaying history, safety and how to identify suitable trees. Days are spent working on a stretch of hedgerow, and tools are sharpened round the fire in the evening. You’ll need to bring your own tent and food, but tools are supplied. Courses are in Devon (March 7-9) and Staffordshire (March 21-23). £150 per person.
(01453 752220; www.survivalschoolstore.co.uk)
Tips from the expert
Peter Gibson, 2013 National Hedgelaying Society Champion, offers advice
* Prepare well-sharp tools and decent protective clothing are essential. Thorny hedges may necessitate eye protection
* Seek advice. Good instruction is vital and hedgelaying societies advertise training events for beginners, booklets and lists of competitions
* Practise! The more you do, the more you’ll learn
* Keep up your enthusiasm. Hedgelaying is an autumn and winter activity and can be hard work, but the rewards are immense when you see the finished result, knowing that it will be there for years to come
Read all about it
Hedges and Hedgelaying: A Guide to Planting, Management and Conservation by Murray MacLean (The Crowood Press, £19.95)
Hedgelaying Explainedby Valerie Greaves (The National Hedgelaying Society, £8.50)
Hedging: A Practical Handbookby Elizabeth Agate and Alan Brooks (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, £14.95)
* Follow Country Life on Twitter