Fine art to a prickly subject! By Richard Knowles
Some of our most interesting natural history can be found in the hedgerows and verges along the 686 miles of footpaths and roads on the Island.
The shelter and shade provided by the hedges bordering the byways and roads we walk, ride or drive along, as well as those that crisscross farmers’ fields, echoes a woodland edge and provides a rich and varied habitat for wildlife.
Hedges have been around for thousands of years and have been used to control and shelter animals, protect crops, as a resource for timber, food and medicine, and as a way to mark boundaries. Nowadays, with habitats increasingly threatened by development, the hedge’s value to wildlife is recognised.
Although the vast majority of hedges are now managed mechanically with an annual scalping from a tractor and chain flail, the most attractive and natural way to look after a hedge is by the traditional skill of ‘laying’. In the past all the Island’s hedges would have been managed this way using a billhook, saw and axe. Traditional hedgelaying is still practiced during the late autumn and winter months and an annual competition to test this most ancient of the countryman’s skills is held on the Island every last Saturday in February.
The basic principle of laying a hedge involves partially cutting through the living stems near ground level. It might be hawthorn, hazel, field maple, spindle, wayfaring tree, or one of many other traditional hedgerow shrubs and trees. Blackthorn is particularly vicious and tough leather gloves are important to protect the hands. In ‘The Three Strangers’ by Thomas Hardy, the hedge carpenter notes: “You may generally tell what a man is by his claws. My fingers be as full of thorns as an old pin-cushion is of pins.”
Once the cut is made, the stem will be bent over at an angle; this is called a pleacher. This process is repeated along the length of hedge, with each pleacher being laid close to its neighbour. In springtime, new shoots arise from the cut and laid stems and the hedge thickens up.
There are different styles of hedgelaying, many involve the banging in of a row of stakes along the line of the hedge and finishing it by the careful weaving of extremely long and bendy hazel rods – ethers – in and out of the stakes along the top of the hedge. A bit like plaiting, it leaves a neat finish and is commonly used in competitions.
The Island has its own style that differs significantly from those on the mainland. Crooks are used in place of stakes and ethers to keep the pleachers in place. It’s not quite as neat, but it’s practical and it’s very ‘Isle of Wight’. It is also the style I’ll be using this winter to lay the 300 yards of roadside hedge that fronts the woodland I manage in Fishbourne. Look out for my sign and feel free to stop for a chat.