It’s an idyllic winter rural scene. Log fire roaring in his grate. Dogs sprawled at his feet. He sits with a sewing needle… methodically extracting vicious blackthorn spikes from his scratched arms. For Russell Woodham, this is just one of the hazards of being a hedge-layer.
As far as this multiple-champion hedger is concerned – unbeaten 11 times in local Melplash Agricultural Society show and three times winner at the National Championships – there is no better occupation. Come early September, this Dorchester-based 54 year-old is “twitching with anticipation”, keen to get back to his winter-only job. A former countryside warden on Lulworth range and part-time grass cutter at weekends, Russell’s work dried up in the winter. He explains: “I was watching River Cottage on TV and a feature about hedge-laying came on. The fact it could only be done in winter sparked my interest.”
The man demonstrating turned out to be a tutor at Kingston Maurward College. Russell enrolled in March 1999, leading to a mid-30’s career change he’s never regretted. His very first job was a 261 metre-long blackthorn beast. “I think it was a test to see if I was cut out for this occupation!” he recalls. The following year, he entered the novice class at the Melplash Agricultural Society, winning first in his first competition. Twenty-two years later he’s entered close to 50 competitions and been overall champion in many. He was the first Dorset Hedgelayer to be invited to Highgrove to meet HRH Prince Charles, Patron of The National Hedgelaying Society. He runs training days and is Committee member of the National Hedgelaying Society. Russell keeps meticulous records of every hedge makeover. Over 20 years, he’s regenerated 25,606 metres of hedgerows, the longest measuring a staggering 1,038 metres, and in one winter can expect to layer around 3,000 metres.
“I’m not sure if you’d call me passionate or sadly passionate about what I do, but I love it. On a sunny, winter’s day I have the best office in Dorset. On a cold, wet day withma bitter easterly and I’m on my third rain-soaked coat, I wish someone would fix my office’s leaking roof but I still wouldn’t swap this job.”
Russell works solo, with his aptly-named dogs Bay and Conker for companionship plus scurrying mice, voles and inquisitive birds of prey. He doesn’t “plug in”, enjoying silence and time to think. “I put the world to rights when I’m working. It comes so naturally to me now I often look back on a day’s work and think how did I get that far along the hedgerow?”
This ancient art for rejuvenating hedges still mainly involves hand-held tools – axe, chainsaw, billhook and, most importantly, a flask of tea. Resilient gloves are crucial; a generic workaday pair can be destroyed in a morning of tackling brambles and barbed wire. Russell’s motto is “Lay it, don’t flail it.” Annual flailing of hedges is an especially destructive part of modern hedgerow management, whereby a mechanical flail creates a uniform and species-poor hedgerow of little value to wildlife. Russell explains: “If you keep flailing a hedge, it will come to look like an upside down umbrella. It becomes gnarly and will eventually just rot away and the growth underneath will gradually disappear. “Pleaching a hedge will tidy it up and will encourage it to thicken and rejuvenate. Ultimately it is better for the environment and for landowners.”
There’s also the bonus of a well-laid hedge gaining back land for the farmers: “The amount of land I’ve gained people back is extraordinary – I’m talking football pitches.” This champion of these natural highways will work anywhere in the UK or abroad, with commissions on huge estates, smallholdings and domestic gardens. “Hedges are back in vogue and their value is being recognised again as vital for nature.” And when our winter draws to an end, Russell is planning an alternative winter stint in Australia. “I have to make hay while the sun doesn’t shine.”
Contact Russell via his website www.dorset-hedgelayer.co.uk/
 – Pleaching is a traditional hedgelaying technique used to improve a hedge to form a thick, impenetrable barrier suitable for enclosing animals. It keeps the lower parts of a hedge dense, and was traditionally done every few years. The stems of hedging plants are slashed through to the centre or more, then bent over and interwoven. The plants rapidly regrow, forming a thick barrier along its entire length.
By: Tracie Beardsley