Ulster is at risk of losing one of its great countryside traditions, a champion hedge-layer has warned.
Jason Brennan, who won the All Ireland Hedge-Laying Championships earlier this month, said that if the present situation persists then the craft is in danger of dying out – much to Ulster’s loss.
The 39-year-old Ballycastle tree surgeon said that while the craft of hedge-laying is thriving in England, with different styles ranging across the country, in Northern Ireland he believes that it is falling into disuse.
He told the News Letter: “Hedge-laying is a centuries- old craft of regenerating a hedge, first and foremost to make it stock-proof.”
Hedge-laying is different from planting a new one in an open field, he explained, and it basically involves regenerating the existing hedgerows and keeping them strong – in his words, maintaining them as “a living barrier”.
But according to his research, in the early part of the 20th century it went into decline; perhaps due to the loss of manpower in the wars, and to accommodate bigger fields.
He said: “I think when people had a small farm with a couple of fields years ago,they would have done a couple of hundred yards of hedge-laying per year.
“So by the time they got round that they would be back where they started and ready to do that bit again.”
Now, instead of the labour-intensive task of tending to the hedges in the traditional way, many farmers have just shored them up with wire fences, or replaced them with wire fences completely.
But Mr Brennan added these simply do not have the staying power of a properly-built hedge – noting that these tend to benefit wildlife too.
Asked if the practice was in danger of dying out, he said:”It certainly is – if it wasn’t for the hedge-laying association here.”
He had contacted the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland, which is where he was trained in the traditional techniques.
“It’s like any skill – if it’s lost, it’s lost and there’s no-one to pass it on,” he said.
“It would be a shame.
“It’s a great form of exercise, and you can create something which is going to be there probably long after you will.”
But it does take real effort – as the contest on Saturday, October 5, showed.
Working from 10am to 6pm, he laid about 10 metres (33ft) of hedge by planting natural wood stakes, thinning out foliage, and feeding branches in horizontally. Ultimately, he said, it is a bit like weaving.
Mr Brennan, who went up against about 15 others in the competition, took the winning title in the “novice” category of the contest in Co Meath, as well as the overall award, known as the O’Hagan trophy.