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Home woven fencing

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:53 28 March 2014

Alan Beat  sets out to make wattle hurdles

Wattle hurdles are a traditional means of providing temporary pens or fencing for sheep. They’re usually woven using small diameter rods of hazel or willow, the native species that can be most readily split and twisted. Wattle itself is as old as woodmanship – it was used 6,000 years ago in Neolithic Britain to construct trackways across marshy ground, and during the Iron Age to construct the walls of dwelling huts. It was the management of large numbers of sheep during the Middle Ages that gave rise to the classic wattle hurdle, light enough for a shepherd to carry several at a time on his shoulder. These were used for folding sheep (strip grazing), dipping, shearing and penning for routine husbandry tasks. At lambing time, they offered more protection from the elements than gate-style hurdles made from widely spaced sections of timber and, of course, they could be made from small wood that was of limited use for other purposes.

The production of young timber rods suitable for wattle was a cornerstone of the woodland coppice industry for a long period of our history, but rapid change during the 20th century saw coppicing and wattle hurdles decline to the point of extinction. Only in recent years has this damaging trend been reversed, as interest in sustainable resources and traditional crafts has revived. In parallel has developed an increasing recognition of the wildlife value of coppice management in woodlands, where the harvest of regrowth on a regular cycle promotes biodiversity, while new markets have developed for wattle panels as garden fencing, screening and decorative structures.

As I started to lay the hedges around our field boundaries, the surplus that I cut out contained a fair amount of hazel and willow rods that were on the small side for firewood, and far more than could be used as pea and bean supports in the garden. No smallholder likes to waste anything, so the thought arose that perhaps I could use this material to make wattle hurdles – not for the garden either, but for use with our own sheep flock. After all, the modern galvanised metal hurdle is expensive, ugly, and offers no protection against the weather to lambs outdoors. I decided to have a go.

The library had a string of books on country or woodland crafts, but none with enough practical detail to make a wattle hurdle from scratch. There were no courses available at local colleges either. Eventually, I spoke to a young hurdle maker demonstrating his craft at a show, and he put me in touch with his own tutor. As a result of that personal contact, I spent a cold winter’s day in a moorland coppice under his tuition.

The craft had been handed down to this man by his father and grandfather. There are many local variations, as you would expect, but he showed me his way of making a wattle sheep hurdle. For my benefit, as a complete beginner, he arrived with a hurdle already started on his mould or base board. The picking up the base of the hurdle is tricky, so he had already woven to the point where the more straightforward middle binding began (see glossary later). We selected and cut rods from the coppice, trimmed and sorted them, split some but left others round, and began raising the hurdle, weaving rods in and out of the zales or uprights.

Of course, I found that there was far more to it than had first appeared. Twisting the rods around the end zales without splitting wasn’t easy, but somehow I progressed to the top binding, the intricate pattern of the top weave which ties everything securely into place, leaving no loose ends. After trimming off and removing the completed hurdle from the mould, the light was fading and there was no time left for me to start another hurdle so that I could learn the vital picking up stage. My tutor suggested that I used twilley rods instead, making a tight weave of two round rods, both twisted around the end zales and then worked back into the subsequent weave for strength. This would allow me to practice and improve the necessary skills on the rest of the hurdle, and I could learn the picking up weave later on.
Back home, I scribbled out a few pages of notes on what I’d learned for future reference, especially the step-by-step method of the top binding. Then, while hedge laying that winter, I sorted out the waste wood into bean poles, pea sticks, thumbsticks, firewood, hurdle rods and zales. Only the brash went onto a bonfire (and in times past, even this would have been bundled into faggots for fuel). By the time my hedge laying work finished in the early spring, an impressive array of hurdle-making material had built up.

I made a mould from an old railway sleeper that, being heavy, wouldn’t require any pegging down. I had no need for this to be moved, as the raw materials could easily be carried to it, conveniently situated by my workshop doorway. I bored two end holes of 7/8 inch diameter spaced 5’ 10” apart (for a 6’ hurdle), then marked out and drilled seven more holes equally spaced along a gentle curve so that the centre hole was off-set by about 3” from a straight line drawn between the two end holes. This offset puts a slight curve into the finished hurdle, which is supposed to flatten and tighten up as it dries out.

Suitably equipped with a sharp billhook, I set to work on my first hurdle, knocking the zales into the mould, starting the weave with a row of twilley rods as my tutor had suggested, and then raising the weave steadily upwards. Looking at my rough notes and the original hurdle, I managed to complete the top binding to give an overall height of 3’. After trimming off all projecting ends, the finished hurdle was prised free from the mould. It had taken several hours of hard work to make, my hands were sore, but I could hardly wait to start another!

In the fullness of time, I found that my stack of hazel and willow rods were transformed into seven hurdles. This was fewer than I had originally expected but there had been a fair amount of wastage, no doubt resulting from my inexperience at selecting, splitting and using rods. The seventh hurdle took me around four hours to make from start to finish. My tutor had suggested that four a day was a reasonable output for an experienced hurdlemaker working with material of good quality, so for the amateur working with hedgerow material, a time of perhaps three hours each should be attainable with practice.

Obviously, I learned a great deal from these early efforts, perhaps the most significant being the difference between coppice wood and hedgerow thinnings. Hazel grown in the coppice is relatively long and straight, with few side shoots or knots. It splits sweetly along the centreline, with little tendency to run out, while the fibres readily separate for twisting without breakage, even in a beginner’s hands after a little practice. In contrast, the wood from my own hedgerows was more difficult to work. The rods were shorter, often far from straight, with side shoots and knots. It was more difficult to split, needed careful control to avoid run out and was more brittle when twisted, often breaking in my inexperienced hands. But then, few of us have access to high quality coppice wood, whereas hedgerow growth is widely available, just waiting to be used.

Generally, I found it better to use hedgerow wood in the round, only splitting the larger diameter pieces. This made a heavier hurdle, but perhaps a stronger one with an attractive rustic finish. The weight wasn’t an important factor for me because the hurdles wouldn’t need to be carried far on the smallholding.

I also learned the importance of using sharp tools. A correctly sharpened billhook cuts cleanly through the rods with little effort – the weight and balance enable the tool to be used all day without fatigue. A blunt edge, too light or heavy, or the wrong shape of blade, all require more effort from the user and tire you out faster. The shoulders of the blade should be well back from the cutting edge, to give a shallow cutting angle. The edge should be honed to razor sharpness with a fine whetstone. A sharp billhook is only safe when correctly used – always cut away from yourself, and when it’s not in your hand, place it carefully and safely.

I finished my seven hurdles in time for spring lambing, and they were put to good use, penning different groups of sheep around the yard or as temporary gates across an open-fronted barn. The sheep seemed to like them, often settling down behind one in preference to a steel alternative, and they definitely preferred them for scratching against! For my part, there was the satisfaction of putting to good use a product made with my own hands from material grown on the smallholding.

Later that year, in our local library van, I came across a newly published book on woodland crafts in a different class altogether to those I’d read before. The author is a coppice enthusiast who describes the whole range of possible products from coppice wood with clarity and from personal experience. Traditional Woodland Crafts contains all the information to make a hurdle from start to finish, including the special pattern of weaving for picking up the base that my own tutor hadn’t had time to teach me. I soon obtained my own copy to guide me through my next efforts and I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone wishing to try their hand.

Since those first efforts, I’ve enjoyed making wattle hurdles whenever hedge laying has yielded suitable rods of hazel or willow for the purpose. I’ve also established some willow coppice to harvest on a regular cycle, so that my supply of material is steadily increasing. I’ve given hurdles to friends, bartered with others, and although I’ve never set out to sell any, some determined customers have nevertheless sought me out to snap up any spare output.

Lasting quality

Purists could argue that a proper hurdle should employ the special pattern of weaving at top and bottom. Of course, they’d be right – these traditional patterns evolved over a long period of time to give a sheep hurdle the durability to withstand constant use throughout a hard working life. I now make my own hurdles using the traditional patterns, but I started with twilley rods and found that it worked well enough for the lighter duties of our smallholding. Hazel or willow hurdles have a relatively short life span anyway, and even though mine are stored under cover when not in use, they soon deteriorate, and I break them up as kindling for the fire after six or seven years. Outside in the weather, their lifespan will be shorter.

For that first attempt at hurdle making, twilley rods simplify the process and allow you to start and practice the necessary skills. Serviceable sheep hurdles or garden panels can be made in this way until the traditional picking up and top binding patterns are introduced as experience grows. These patterns are too complex to describe here, but detailed instructions are contained in the book I’ve recommended.

Laying in weavers

A few basic rules apply to laying in weavers. The butt end is laid in first, always with the riven face to the front of the hurdle. A new rod is started on the same side of the zale as the previous weaver finishes – never the other side. The rod is always bent around the zale, which is best supported with one hand while the weaver is flexed around it with the other. Aim to keep the zales straight, and the weave level and even. Hurdlemakers use their hands, feet, knees and wooden mallet to knock the weave down tightly as work proceeds.

Every third or fourth row, a weaver should be twisted around the end zale to tie everything firmly in place. Twisting without splitting is a skill which takes time to master. Press the weaver against the end zale and rotate the free end to work the rod to and fro until its fibres begin to separate at the point of flexure against the zale. Then keep turning the rod in one direction as you twist it around the zale so that the fibres continue to separate ahead of the twist.

Conclusion

Learning to make wattle hurdles has brought a new dimension to my enjoyment of smallholding. I love the holistic cycle of harvesting from hedgerow or coppice, riving and weaving into a strong and lightweight panel with many uses, and finally, fuelling the household fire just as the regrowth of rods becomes ready for harvest all over again. There is a sense of continuity with past generations as you acquire traditional skills, practising and safeguarding them for the future.

Wattle hurdles are sustainable, recyclable, efficient, pleasing to look at and use, and cost nothing except time to make. If you have hedgerow or coppice on your own smallholding, or access to suitable material nearby, I hope this article has inspired you to try your hand. Next month, we’ll take a look at some practical applications for wattle weaving in buildings on the smallholding. 

References


  • Traditional Woodland Crafts by Raymond Tabor, available from the CS bookshop at £15.99

  • Courses on wattle hurdle making are run by South West Forest, visit  www.southwestforest.org.uk

  • Locate training in your area by searching for wattle hurdle training course on the internet

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