Hands on Traditional skills and where to learn them


Hedge laying

What is it?Hedge laying is the art of partially cutting hedgerow trees near the ground and bending them over (ie laying) to form a hedge. New growth comes from the cut stumps, which rejuvenate the hedge, thicken up the base and prolong the life of the hedge indefinitely. A well-laid hedge provides a living barrier to sheep and cattle and a habitat for wild birds, plants and insects.

What plants are in hedgerows?Hedgerows are ideally made up of varieties of indigenous Irish species. If you choose to freshly plant a hedge, it is recommended to use about 70 per cent of whitethorn mixed with a variety of plants, including holly, ash, spindle, dog rose, blackthorn, oak and hazel. Hedge laying was commonly practised in Ireland until the 1950s. There has been a recent revival of interest due to the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme and environmental groups such as the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland. The hedge laying season runs from September 1st to the end of February.

How is it done?Hedges are laid either to rejuvenate an existing boundary hedge or to make an old hedge stock-proof again. The first task of the hedge layer is to clear dead wood, weeds and to cut back any growth that is not needed when you lay the hedge. This process is called clearing out and facing off the hedge.

The stems are then partially cut at an angle as close to the ground as possible and bent over.

“Hedge laying is like major surgery to the plant and the key is to have these stems thin and flexible enough to bend and not break,” says Andy Booth, a trainer in hedge laying. “Five to 10 new shoots will come up from the base or stump and these will be the stems to be laid again in 30 to 40 years’ time,” says Booth.

Stakes are then put in place 50cm or so apart to support the interwoven branches of the hedge. In some places, hazel rods are braided together along the stakes at the top of the hedge. “This is not such a common practice in Ireland but it looks really well and gives great strength to the hedge,” says Booth, who recommends that farmers fence off newly laid or planted hedges for a few years until they are strong enough to be a stock-proof barrier.

Hedges should then be maintained in an A shape and preferably cut only on one side each year and cut a little further out each time.

How long does it take?A professional hedge layer will lay 30 to 35 metres of hedge in a day. Beginners can learn the basic principles of hedge laying in a one-day course. The tools required for hedge laying include a bill hook, a spar hook, a pruning saw, a rake and a wooden mallet.

A chainsaw will, of course, speed up the process greatly.

Where do I sign up?At the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland (which has just launched a new DVD on hedgerow management), see hedgelaying.ie. One of its trainers, Andy Booth (046-9431040, conservationservices.ie) will give a beginners’ course in hedge laying on Saturday, February 26th in Sonairte, the National Ecology Centre, Laytown, Co Meath. Tel: 041-9827572 or email: info@sonairte.ie.

Today, there is a hands-on demonstration of hedge laying at the Horse Ploughing and Country Skills Day from 11am to 4pm in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Co Down.