THERE’S no hedging around the issue, too many of Ireland’s hedges are in something of a mess.
Some are far too high, others are too ‘thin’, with too many gaps – and a major competition on a farm in Co Londonderry on Saturday aims to put that right.
It’s the first-ever all-Ireland Hedge Laying Competition, where about 20 exponents of the noble art will gather at the farm of Paul O’Hagan – between Desertmartin and Moneymore – to show the world what the perfect hedge should look like, by restoring tired, old hedges to their pristine glory.
The unique event is being organised by the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland, whose chairman David Thompson explained: “All hedges want to be trees and grow sky-high, which isn’t what they’re designed for. And once they grow upwards, gaps appear, the cover of the base is totally lost, and they don’t keep livestock hemmed in, or provide cover for birds and animals. Six to eight feet is the ideal height, so this will be a case of cutting them down to size!”
The oversized hedges will be expertly pruned back. And the growth above the required height will be used to thicken the hedge, by bending them back on themselves to ground level, and as they retrieve their original shape. The cows and sheep won’t be able to break out, birds like yellow hammers, partridges and pheasant, as well as mammals like hedgehogs, voles and field mice will use them for shelter, and insects will also move in.
“Properly-shaped hedges are essential for the countryside,” said David, who is one of the main organisers of the project, where sharp-eyed judges will choose the best hedge-layer in this, the first competition on the island of Ireland. And, of course, Paul O’Hagan’s farm will benefit greatly.
“There couldn’t be a better choice than Paul’s farm. He is fastidious about his hedges,” said David. “But he has left a few untouched so that the experts can show their skills. It’ll be quite a day. The farm is well signposted between the two towns, and everyone is welcome.”
The art of laying has to be carried out on all hedges every 20-30 years. Most hedges in Ireland are 100-plus years old and cannot rejuvenate themselves without the help of the experts whose skills are in short supply, so the competition today will be a real attraction. It will run from 10am-4.30pm and the address of the O’Hagan farm is 1 Brackagh Road, Moneymore, Magherafelt, BT45 7RR.
The technique of hedge-laying was widespread in Ireland in the middle of the 20th century, but the practice has largely died out, and the association aims to revive it throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The origins of this ancient craft are lost in the mists of pre-history. As far back as the First Century BC, Julius Caesar decried the thickness of hedges of the Nervi tribe in Flanders.
They were developed apparently to thwart their neighbours’ cavalry, and to protect livestock from wolves. Caesar complained: “They had succeeded in making hedges that were almost like walls, by cutting into saplings, bending them over, and intertwining thorns and brambles among the dense side-branches that grew out. These hedges provided such protection that it was impossible to see through them, let alone penetrate them.” (He said it in his native Latin, of course!)
While hedge-laying is rarely deployed against cavalry today, it still has a major defensive role in the countryside. Hedges are the last refuge of many of the creatures and plants that used to flourish in and around the woodlands and for these to survive the hedgerow has to receive correct management. And that’s the purpose of the competition. So everyone with the good of the countryside at heart is invited to go along to the O’Hagan farm and learn about the importance of the humble hedge.