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Desmond Family Canoe Trail
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"Trim everything from below your belly button, cut half way through, then bend it over gently" were Jonathan's instructions.
It’s enough to make your eyes water but thankfully Jonathan was just talking us through the key processes in the ancient craft of hedge-laying.
On a bright but chilly February morning, eight Canal & River Trust volunteers met up at Naburn Lock, some six miles south of York on the river Ouse, to hear the wise words of Jonathan Pounder from the Heritage Craft Alliance. Jonathan explained the aims of the technique :
Just trimming the top of a hedge won't do this. Over the years the skills of forcing hedgerow trees to produce new basal growth has been developed. This is 'hedge laying' - and we were the newest recruits!
A few hundred yards north of the Lock, the group encountered the hedge that was to be laid. A straggling, 30-yard length of self-seeded sycamore, ash and willow, with flotsam, jetsam and rusty barbed wire tangled around its base.
The trimming operation was needed to clear away this 'brash' in the hedge bottom before getting down to the task.
Having first shown us the 'hedge layer's wiggle' - shaking the stem to check the upper branches weren't tangled up - Jonathan set to work on the sycamore trunk of his choosing. Ten feet tall, about ten years old, it had a trunk as thick as an arm.
A sharp saw sliced half-way through, as near to the ground as possible. Diagonal strokes from axe and billhook cut away a triangular segment, leaving a so-called 'pleacher', above this incision. To us novices, this looked like death by a thousand cuts, but Jonathan reassured us "Provided some of the cambium and sapwood remain intact, the tree will live". Then came the key moment. Gentle pressure on the upper limb of the tree magically bent it into the horizontal, filling a gap in the hedge.
Forming into pairs, we then went off to apply our learning. Gingerly, we sawed, pleached and laid. It was amazing to learn how pliable tree stems can be. Of course, as novices, we sometimes went too far and snapped the trunk. Happily that didn't kill the tree, as it would sprout again from the base, and the detached limbs could be worked into the final hedge. Mind you, Jonathan did warn that whilst once was understandable, and twice might be unlucky, more breakages than that probably meant you weren't cut out to be a hedge layer!
After four hours or so, the group had turned the 30-yard length of scrub into the makings of a properly-trained hedge. This would not only make a more efficient and 'greener' barrier, but also increase the wildlife value by creating a better environment for nesting birds.
Because the trunks had been partially severed, Jonathan said this summer's growth would be limited, but the trees would gradually regenerate, before having to be laid again in about ten years' time.
As volunteers, we felt we'd had a valuable day. We'd learnt the basics of an enjoyable and rewarding skill and we’re keen to be able to use it in future. If you want to see the hedge, and the fascinating Naburn lock complex, public access is available through the adjacent Naburn caravan park, on the B1222.
The Canal & River Trust has top team of committed experts and enthusiasts, who help to protect our waterway environment and improve it for both people and nature. Follow this blog to find out more about the hugely varied work they carry out.