Meet some the last traditional hedgelayers of Yorkshire - fighting to keep countryside craft alive

One of the benefits that could yet come from the Government’s new Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme could be that more farmers learn about a craft that has gradually been dwindling away over many years – hedgelaying.

Managing hedgerows to provide shelter for livestock and crops and to provide for wildlife habitat is something that most farmers are well aware of but, when the pressure is on to earn a living, can often be forgotten about.

Dairy farmer Stephen Britton of Whitcliffe Hall Farm, Ripon will be taking part in the Yorkshire Hedgelaying Championships to be held at Well Quarry, near Bedale next Saturday 11 November, having made his debut last year when taking the novice class title.

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Stephen says that he first decided to look into hedgelaying about five years ago when grants began appearing for planting hedges on farms.

Derrick Slater mentors Charlie Britton ready for the Yorkshire Hedgelaying ChampionshipsDerrick Slater mentors Charlie Britton ready for the Yorkshire Hedgelaying Championships
Derrick Slater mentors Charlie Britton ready for the Yorkshire Hedgelaying Championships

“I just thought we might as well put these hedges in because what we had were rubbish. We planted them around two or three fields and left them to grow. After a while, when they had grown, we thought we’d better get these hedges laid and start managing them.

“I’d always been interested in hedgelaying and looking after hedgerows because I can see that they benefit the farm. There was a hedgelaying course that came up, but as usual I didn’t have time to go on it, so I got in with a few other farming lads, Derek Slater, John Dale and Keith Simpson and a few other lads at Bishop Thornton who do a bit.

“Derek (Slater) is one of my farming neighbours. He contract rears heifers for us. I asked Derek whether he would tutor me, get me started. Derek got out all of his billhooks, we got shaped up and my lad, Charlie went with us. Charlie has now got going as well.

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“All of a sudden, after a while when we thought we didn’t know what we were doing, others thought we were making a reasonable job and so last year I entered the Yorkshire Hedgelaying Championships for the first time and it came as a very pleasant surprise when I picked up a trophy and some prize money.

Stephen Britton and son Charlie who are competing in the Yorkshire Hedgelaying ChampionshipsStephen Britton and son Charlie who are competing in the Yorkshire Hedgelaying Championships
Stephen Britton and son Charlie who are competing in the Yorkshire Hedgelaying Championships

Stephen says that the day itself didn’t exactly go according to plan.

“I’d gone the year before when it had been held at Tom Ramsden’s place and I’d had a few lads wanting me to enter last year, so because it was locally run at Kate Smith’s I said I’d enter.

“It was my weekend on milking, so I was an hour late, but I got my bit of hedge laid and then we had a cow calving so I had to leave. It was when I landed back that I found I’d won.

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“Derek had helped a little bit and he’s going to look after our Charlie this year, as he’s going to have a go in the novice class. I’ll be in the intermediate class and hopefully this year since we’re not on milking I’ll be able to stay all the way through.

Stephen says that hedgelaying is something that can give immense satisfaction from seeing done well.

“It’s one of those jobs where if you have time to do it, it is nice if you can go, switch the phone off, have a nice day, and then there’s nothing better than seeing what you’ve done. And sometimes when you think that maybe you’ve not done so good, the following year when it’s all greened up and sprouting from top to bottom, and wildlife is using it, you then know that’s a right job.

Learning about hedgelaying has provided Stephen with a new skill, greater knowledge and he’s found it is something he thoroughly enjoys.

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“You can take a lot more off, when you’re trimming sides down, than I ever thought, and the more you take off the faster the regrowth comes. It’s also capping how supple the plant is when you’re taking your cut, where it grows from.

“Derek has been involved with hedgelaying all his life and he’s shown Charlie and I how to weave in and out and how much to take off when you’re maintaining a hedge. There are some who don’t take much off at all, but we tend to take off a fair bit.

“Our newly laid hedges are really neat. Maintaining them comes when they are a bit outgrown or are very open at the bottom. We lay those to thicken them up.

“I’m still by no means an expert, but I do love to talk to older lads about it, the ones in their 80s now, who always used to cut their hedges by hand. We need to learn from these guys because otherwise really important countryside crafts like this are going to die out.

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While Stephen’s novice class had only around seven or eight competitors last year he was impressed by the number of people who turned out to watch.

“It was capping to see how many people come to watch the hedgelaying championships. I was surprised who was there last year, people I hadn’t anticipated, like Ken Addyman of Blubberhouses who was tractor man for farmer Stuart Falshaw.

Stephen farms with his brother John, John’s eldest lad Chris and his own lad Charlie. They have 250 milking cows that average around 10,000 litres and have a separate business supplying soda grain for other dairy farmers. They also grow 80 acres of wheat and 100 acres of maize, 70 of which is grown off-farm.

While Stephen is enjoying his hedgelaying he also sees the irony in the Government’s SFI payments.

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“We’re now getting paid not to farm. It’s like the Government is saying we don’t need your food because what you produce is killing everybody with methane, so because they’re willing to pay for this to be done, we might as well do it. They only seem to want us to keep our farm tidy, have good fencing and hedging.

“We will at least have nice hedges.