The Ranger has been for many years involved in organising the Isle of Wight Hedgelaying Competition. Actually, these days, he usually just turns up on the day and stands about reflecting on how terribly well everyone has done. But it’s still a real pleasure. But what’s this? You don’t know what a hedgelaying competition is about? You’re in the right place to remedy that, for sure. Read on…
At the start of the day, competitors assemble from across the Island. Each is allotted a stretch of hedge – either nine yards or eleven yards, depending on the class they are entering. They are provided with stakes (the thick sticks) and heathers (the long spindly sticks) cut recently from hazel, which is a very flexible and strong wood when green – you’ll see just how flexible soon enough.
The idea is to cut the main stems (called ‘pleachers’) and lay the stem down (hence ‘laying’ a hedge) without breaking it off. This way the stem remains alive and the hedge will regrow thick and strong; suitable for keeping stock in the field. A careless hedgelayer might break off the stem – for this you would definitely lose points in a competition.
It’s also necessary to cut a lot of the top growth out of the hedge. A laid hedge is a lot smaller than it started off, at least at first. Within a few years it will be growing more vigorously than ever. There are various regional styles of hedgelaying and on the Isle of Wight our competition is in South of England style. In this style, as the pleachers are laid in, stakes are driven along the hedge to keep it together. The heathers are then woven into the top to keep the whole thing strong and resilient. This is one of the hardest bits, and very important in a competition, as the quality of finish of the hedge is one thing the judges will certainly be looking at.
When the hedge is finished it is a fine sight, and as this one was alongside a main road it is a good advertisement for the craft. The lucky landowner who lent his field for the competition will have a splendid hedge for many years to come.
All that remains to do is to give out the prizes. In this competition, everybody wins a prize! Spending a whole day working at a hedge is very hard work however good or bad you are, so they deserve it. Many prizes are donated by local businesses and landowners. The runners-up get gloves, pruning saws and other small tokens. This year the overall winner got a brand-new Stihl chainsaw. Not a bad prize!