Hedge your bets: Hedge laying

PUBLISHED: 01:16 14 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:42 20 February 2013

Donato demonstrates how to weave in binders

Donato demonstrates how to weave in binders

Creating hedges may sound like an easy task but is in fact one that requires a great amount of skill. Cath Harris meets champion hedgelayer Donato Cinicolo...

IF you havent seen it before it looks like a brutal thing to do, Donato Cinicolo explains as he puts the final touches to a short stretch of hedge freshly crafted in traditional Hertfordshire style. Its the end of a rewarding mornings work for 10 eager volunteers helping Donato bend, bind and prune tall six-year-old hawthorn bushes into an elegant and shapely barrier. The hedge will enclose a scrubby wildlife sanctuary at a St Albans nature reserve and discourage human intrusion.

It is one of hundreds of hedges Donato has laid in a career spanning more than 20 years. He has won the Hertfordshire Hedgelaying Championship five times and can list the Bowes-Lyon family of St Pauls Walden Bury, Gorhambury Estate owner Lord Verulam and several local authorities among his regular clients.

How its done

To lay a hedge the stems of saplings and young bushes are partly severed and bent horizontally, usually in the same direction. The stems or pleachers continue to grow, sprouting up to ten shoots from the cut which eventually form a thick bushy hedge. The pleachers are held by horizontal stakes, and willow or hazel binders woven along the top.

Blocking livestock, reducing soil erosion and bolstering river banks are among the roles hedges perform.

Styles were originally created to fill a local need and in Hertfordshire, pleachers are laid one across another rather than all leaning to one side. It discourages rabbits chewing the cut, Donato explains. It means theres less light but because the root has so much vigour, the hedge still grows quickly.

It was only recently that Donato heard about the Hertfordshire style. Its important to keep these styles going rather than modifying them. If we did that wed end up with no styles at all.

Learning the craft

Donato learnt to lay hedges on a one-day course at Oaklands College, St Albans, more than 20 years ago. I was a bit apprehensive because I didnt think I would learn that much but when the chap taking the course, Colin Wagstaff, said wed be spending five minutes in the classroom and the rest of the day outside things looked hopeful. I found it absorbing and loved every aspect. He was a marvellous teacher.

Nurses, firemen and plumbers were among those learning new skills that day and Donato was one of three novices agreeing to help Colin lay hedges at weekends. But as the days got colder and wetter, the other two dropped out. I carried on for the whole season [which runs from October to March] but the following year Colin died. I had to finish the hedge wed started and felt I wanted to continue the work.

Word spread and business grew, and Donato now spends around half his week during the season laying hedges. He rents a small piece of woodland near Harpenden which he coppices for stakes and binders.

Farming methods are changing and three metre margins are now commonly left between crops and the hedges enclosing them. That means the roots dont get cut during ploughing and theres space for wildlife to move through and feed, Donato says.

Times have changed

The Cinicolo family moved to England from the southern Italian town of San Bartolomeo in Galdo when Donato was nine, shortly after World War II. It was a time of huge change for Britains countryside with food production a new priority.

We needed bigger fields to produce more food and many hedges were removed. Also, so few men came back after the war, there wasnt the manpower to look after hedges in the same way. Those that remained became neglected.

Sometimes Donato tackles hedges planted five or six decades ago. Its slow, physical work because of all the protective clothing I must wear using the chainsaw. Sometimes you can only manage about eight metres of hedge in a day but the average is 20 to 25 metres. Last season, Donato completed 700 metres.

The Hertfordshire Hedgelaying Championship runs alongside the county ploughing match each October. Competitors are given five hours to complete 10 metres of hedge and Donato has won the event five times.

Effectiveness can it keep out livestock wins the greatest proportion of marks but appearance is important too.

Donato takes great care to ensure all his hedges look good irrespective of accolades. Youre only as good as your last job and if you produce poor work it follows you. I always like the fact that my work is anonymous and when I look at old hedges I think that someone like me was doing what I do. Once youve made a hedge you never look at them in the same way again. Its a life-transforming experience.

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