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An article written for the National hedgelaying soc. newsletter

There are estimated to be some 2000 miles of canal-side hedge in the uk. Towpaths are mainly looked after by volunteers most of whom are not very familiar with hedgelaying. Roger May, a member of the South of England hedgelaying society, as well as a member of the Chichester canal volunteer team, spent a few days with the team in 2012 laying a small part of their hedge to South of England (SOE) style, producing a very fine result. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the local kids discovered their efforts and started using the stakes as javelins and they all ended up in the canal (the stakes not the kids). Additionally the canal preservation funds for 2013 were not looking healthy due to projects elsewhere and stakes and binders are expensive.

A rethink was required. Perhaps adherence to the South of England (SOE) style was not strictly necessary, so, along with Ian Runcie and John List, both members of the South of England Hedgelaying Society, Roger has developed a pragmatic style, which it is hoped may form the basis of a national canal-side style, perhaps with applications elsewhere.

This style needed to be:

Cheap

Low ( the surrounding countryside needs to be on view to the folk on the barges).

Easy (easy enough for inexperienced volunteers)

 

Photos from the early 20 century exist showing newly layed hedges in a free style using live stakes (crops). The layers presumably using the material available within the hedge in front of them, rather than importing stakes and binders from elsewhere. The hedges look strong and well built. There is therefore nothing new about our style and we understand that the crop and pleach style, as the live stake style has been called, is still practised in parts of Wales. Consideration of the Dutch style suggested that binders may be simulated by live trunks layed at the height of the top of the hedge.

 

So off we went, improving and improvising as we went along. We have now layed some 300 metres of canal-side hedge and consider the result to be satisfactory. We are not constrained by style rules and use material from the hedge as we see fit. Generally we lay the pleachers as in the SOE style and leave approximately every 5th or 6th trunk as a live stake. We pleach the stake at 3 feet or so and lay it on top as a binder, usually but not always in the opposite direction to the pleachers, which we think creates a bit of tension within the hedge and may therefore increase its strength. Its main purpose is to hold down the pleachers and maintain the 3ft- 3ft 6 height. Larger trees are frequently left as standards, as is currently encourged by DEFRA, and we have used laterally pleached branches from the standards as binders. If the hedge is too thin we add a cut stake or two or use crooks and there is nothing to stop us reinforcing the live binder by weaving in suitable branches as required. We do not expect the binders to live but we shall see in a year or two. The main criteria is wildlife preservation and, with the farmer's permission, we place the frith between the hedge and the adjacent fence for hedgehog use but this is likely to remain a local variant.

 

With regard to the criteria above: so far we have used only traditional tools and the hedge is going down much more rapidly than we would be able to achieve utilising the SOE competition rules. As we are all volunteers It costs nothing except our own time, which pleases the Canal Trust. It is a low hedge but the height can be varied at will. We are very pleased with the result and will be looking to bring our efforts to the attention of other canal trusts and possibly to other groups eg National Parks, where volunteer groups may be faced with miles of untended hedgerow and inadequate funds.

 

 FAQS

 

Is it stock proof?

As far as we can see it is just as stock proof as the SOE style.

 

Could it be used as a competition style?

We believe so, perhaps as a team event. The style is still evolving and we are open to any suggestions for improvement. Some marks at such a competition could be given for innovation.

 

Can live stakes be used with other pleaching styles?

We don't see any reason why not.

 

Are there any disadvantages?

The TCV (previously BTCV) hedging book lists three disadvantages (as well as a number of advantages) to live stakes.

These are:

1. Every crop is a lost pleacher:

we mostly have plenty of pleachers but where the hedge is very thin we just place ordinary stakes or crooks in the usual way.

2. Thick growth from the top of the crop may cause reduced growth below:

this remains to be seen but canal hedges are trimmed fairly frequently.

3. Cattle may injure themselves on the strong crops:

so far we have only layed adjacent to arable land but better a sore cow than one that's landed in a canal!