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Hedgerow Heroes Hit Holland!

Posted: Thursday 23rd March 2017 by Nature Notes

Why do thousands of Dutch people flock to fields in the Netherlands to watch a bunch of their kindred and some assorted Europeans play in hedgerows?

“This is THE hedge-laying competition!” exclaimed John French as he presented the John French Prize for Best Cutting at the Maasheggenvlechten (literally ‘Meuse Hedge Weaving) last weekend, and indeed it is a hedge-laying competition like no other.

Why do thousands of Dutch people flock to fields in the Netherlands to watch a bunch of their kindred and some assorted Europeans play in hedgerows? As I pull together our new Surrey Wildlife Trust Citizen Science project Hedgerow Heroes which has, like its freshwater brother RiverSearch, the ultimate aim of connecting people and communities with the natural world, this was very much on my mind.

Maasheggenvlechten is hosted in the Boxmeer Principality of the Netherlands by the banks of the mighty Meuse River, which rises in France and flows 925km to join the Rhine at Hollands Diep in the Netherlands. The eastern most and least urbanized tip of the Province of North Brabant has a flatagricultural landscape and hedgerows are part of this landscape (although like in the UK many were removed for post-war agricultural intensification).

The competition is an annual event which was the brainchild of Lex Roeleveld of Stichting (“foundation”- like a charitable NGO) Heg en Landschap to promote the Dutch Hedgelaying style after which the competition is named. 

For the uninitiated, hedge-laying involves the rejuvenation of a hedge by cutting a shrub at its base to leave a living hinge and laying over the stem, now called a pleacher. Regrowth of the shrub then arises from the base and along the still-living stem.

In the UK “Hedge-laying” is represented by over 35 styles including Midland and South of England which vary in the angle of laying and the use of binders and stakes to secure the hedge. With Massheggenvlechten, stems are cut and bent at various heights - usually at the horizontal to create a living stock proof fence.

English hedgelayers have attended the competition for many years. I was invited on this trip by that veteran of many hedge-campaigns and Hedgelink colleague Nigel Adams. Once in The Netherlands we joined with fellow Brits Dave Truran, Roger Taylor, John French, and hedge-laying legend Peter Tunks.

In advance of the main competition on Sunday our host Lex Roeleveld had organized a training session on the South of England style at a Roggebots Staete in the Flevopolder near the village of Dronten. In perfect Spring weather we laid a line of hazel mixed with a local thorn variety and enjoyed the hospitality of our hosts.

We arrived before the crowds on Sunday so that Nigel and Co. could survey the hedge, which they would use to demonstrate Midland and South of England styles. Spring was most definitely in the air and the early sunshine promised a good day. 

Our hedges were the first that visitors to the site would see as they walked from the car and cycle park past a demonstration of sheep-dog skills. During the day the cycle park became a sparkling inland sea of aluminium forks and frames.

The first job for us was to cut away much of the lateral wood that the previous hedge-layers had expertly crafted. While in some ways this felt like a violation, the hedge was ready for rejuvenation and the English demonstration styles needed clean vertical stems. I was happier that the man who had previously laid this section of hedge was on hand. We were happy to find a length of pleacher which still held the healed – over scar of his original cut some 12 years ago which he kept as a token.

Dave, Peter and Roger got stuck in on the SoE demonstration and I assisted Nigel at a more leisurely pace on the Midland. I am only a keen hedgelaying novice- my expertise lies in hedge ecology and conservation - so this weekend was also a chance for me to learn and practice under the tutelage of a thicket of hedgelaying professionals.

It was an enormous pleasure to watch how much thought goes into the placing of each pleacher, the good will with which advice was taken and given, and the easy carry-on humour that emerged as we worked. With a group of us on hand there was also plenty of time to talk to the crowds, building to a steady stream as the day wore on.

John commandeered Nigel for judging duty just after lunch so I downed tools and ambled around to soak up the atmosphere and converse with hedge-layers and visitors. I was stunned by the number of people. 

The hedges weren’t the only attractions. Horse-riding, a roving all-female brass band and plenty of distractions for kids involving willow-weaving and a straw-bale assault course could also be found. When I met Sjoerd Aertssen in front of his beautifully woven hedge and we chatted over small glasses of Jenever (Dutch Gin), I asked him why this event attracted so many people.

“It’s a great thing to do on a nice day” he said, “It would be different numbers if it was raining. But people like to be in touch with nature. These places are also relatively small and people know each other (very) well. Everyone knows someone who is joining the competition. It’s the only thing that makes these villages really special and nobody wants to miss an event like this.”

One thing that marks Maasheggenvlechten out from say, the National Hedgelaying Championships in England, is that the majority of people here aren’t professional hedge-layers. Most have taken a course but are here to just get involved and connect with the land and each other.

Hedges are layed in teams and, as with our demonstration hedgerows, that arguably lends a different feeling over all. There is still much competitiveness and a striving to improve, but for me that inclusiveness and community spirit really marked this event as special.

Watching a skilled hedge-layer at work is a form-poem, a demonstration in connectedness. It’s important that professional competition exists so that the apogee in skill can be demonstrated through the drive of competitors to be the best amongst their peers; anyone who has attended a competition knows the vicarious pleasure of watching the masters at work.

For improvers or those of us just starting out it shows us what can be attained with practice and determination if you have some ability and a good eye. Like the water-colour hobbyist who takes trips to the Tate to see his favourite artist, our novice attempts may never reach such great heights of perfection, but in lifting a brush, in feeling and seeing the properties of paint on canvas, we appreciate the skill in the task that much more.

That understanding is vital in creating the essential connection between a person and the external (natural) world. In the world of hedges and hedgelaying, a person who is willing to try their hand, without regard or embarrassment to their level of skill, becomes connected in a positive way. Once connected, the hedge and the landscape it emerges from are forever part of their reality, and they will do everything in their power to preserve it.

Find out more about Hedgerow Heroes >>

Jim Jones

Living Landscapes Manager

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