Monday, 16 December 2013

The Christmas 'Stake Out'

Wye Valley AONB Volunteers spend a day with the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Hedge layers.

You wouldn’t think it was all that difficult to decide which end of a stick to sharpen would you?  The last volunteering day of 2013 saw us on the side of Howle Hill, south of Ross, preparing material for a crack team of Wye Valley hedge layers.   An area of ancient woodland on the side of an old marle pit area was available for our use - marle was once dug and used with lime from the Howle Hill area.


A well-laid hedge is a joy to behold; clearly contributing to the natural beauty of an area.  And that is irrespective of whether the hedge is laid in Welsh Border manner, or South of England, or any of about 10 recognized styles.  These all pertain to the angles and composition at which the stakes and growing material is laid, so I learned from Haydn.   He and his colleagues Jamie and John were there to instruct us in cutting and preparing the stakes and binders, used to support the living hedge. 


Armed with a variety of sharp tools, we attacked the area at the edge of the woods.  Here a good number of hazel trees had previously been ‘coppiced’. Since each coppiced ‘stool’ had upwards of a dozen branches, it took most of the morning to trim them all, and drag the branches off to a flat preparation area.  Hard work, so lunch was a very welcome break.


We had been well pre-briefed, so we all came loaded with cake of various sorts, and of course some nice mince pies.  Our hosts Bridget and Chris had a table under some cover, and there was a kettle boiling over an open fire for tea.


Then in the afternoon it was the time for which the men had come – time to get busy with sharp-edge weapons.  Mind you the ladies were pretty handy with the chopping too!!  Sarah and the pro team were careful to explain the safety precautions for using the hand-axe and the bill-hook – no wearing of gloves on the hand which is using the tool, and try to stay two full arm lengths apart (easier said than done).


Stakes need a stick of anything between about one and three inches thick, and 5’ 6” long please.  Doesn’t matter too much if there is a bend; that can be useful if there is a rock or some other obstruction.  Binders are longer and thinner, and ideally straight.  The bill hook is great for stripping the shoots off the side; the axes were mainly for sharpening the bottom ends of the stakes – and there the friendly disagreement in the pro camp was heard all day.  Should one sharpen the thin end or the thicker end?  “I was taught this by a national champion”; “We’ve always done it like that”.  I expect there will be letters to The Times after this blog post…..


By 3 o’clock we had run out of energy to do much more than attempt the remaining pies, but we had created some & apparently very useful piles of both stakes and binders.  I look forward to seeing lots more hedges!  Next outing tbc early in the new year, probably a new and again educational challenge – only with fewer Christmas goodies to eat with our tea.

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