‘I don’t know if hedgelaying is a dying art. But there’s a lot of old hedgelayers that are dying,’ says David Whitaker to chuckles from some of his fellow craftsmen. The occasion is the annual hedgelaying championship, organised by the National Hedgelaying Society, of which Whitaker is secretary. In a good year, the event draws around 100 competitors and a few curious spectators to a marquee in a muddy field in Hampshire.
Britain’s oldest hedge dates back to the Bronze Age. Thousands of miles of hedgerow were laid in the late 1700s after the Enclosures Act carved up the countryside. There’s a formula for working out how old a hedge is – the number of plant species in a 90ft stretch of an old hedge roughly adds up to its age in centuries – so if you find, say, a hawthorn, some beech and perhaps some common holly, then the odds are you’ve found an Enclosures hedge. However, in the years after the second world war, many were torn up as the government encouraged larger farms and, as a result, more than 100,000 miles of hedgerows have disappeared since the 1950s.
A healthy hedge is home to dozens of species, from ground-nesting birds to hedgehogs, dormice, bats and lizards. It also serves as a bulwark against floods and erosion. The government wants farmers to plant 30,000 miles of hedges by 2037, having belatedly recognised their many benefits. Through generous grants from Defra, taxpayers will be picking up a large part of the tab.
The bill is likely to be higher still thanks to a lack of professional hedgelayers. The craft has slowly fallen out of fashion, save for a dwindling group of devoted practitioners. The King is one of just a few hundred hobby hedgelayers and, as Prince of Wales, hosted regular competitions at Highgrove.
Clive Matthew, whose father taught him to lay hedges on the family farm, prides himself on missing only a single national competition since 1974.