Sunday, 22 August 2010

Overcoming hurdles

I've been preoccupied with fencing this week. The contractors have started putting the posts in for the boundary fence at Milkweed. This is our permanent field fencing, to keep horses and sheep from paying unexpected visits to the neighbours. Within the field I'll erect temporary fencing to separate the sheep from the horses, and control their access to grazing. I rely on movable and relatively inexpensive electric tape held up by plastic posts. Modern and convenient.

But what did they do for temporary fencing before electric tape, UV stabilised plastics, and the car battery? They made wattle hurdles -

That's just what I did on Thursday, with friends from the village and our tutor Pete.

Class in session

Pete and his family have been living in the Dorset woods for over 15 years producing hurdles and furniture. He worked as an engineer for many years before turning his skills towards more traditional crafts. Pete says it's given him a bad back but peace of mind. That's probably not a bad trade-off.

I won't try and reproduce the course in a blog post but, if you are interested in having a go, full instructions for making your own hurdle can be found here on the BTCV website. Instead, I'll tell you what I learned from my day with Pete.

I learned that hurdles are the ultimate in efficient and renewable engineering. Hurdles are usually made from hazel (sometimes willow or chestnut). Hazel grows in straight stems and can be harvested without killing the parent plant. This method is called coppicing. Making a hurdle uses all the sizes and parts of a stem. Pete says if a hurdle is made properly, what's leftover should only be usable as kindling in your wood stove.

The short and thick stems make the uprights, which stand in a frame -

The thinnest. longest stems are what you begin weaving between your uprights. By using the most flexible stems, you can get a tight weave. By using the longest stems, you can twist the weave back on itself for strength.

Once the thin stems are in place, you fill in with split stems. Select one of medium thickness, find the centre with your billhook, knock the blade in to begin separating the stem in two halves and work slowly twisting your blade side to side, to control the split -

Swearing isn't mandatory but it's probably unavoidable. Splitting a long length of hazel without getting hung up on a knot or running out the side takes practice. Years of it apparently. For every one stem I split correctly, I ruined three others. Well, relegated them to other uses - nothing is wasted in this process. Pete also noticed the name of the maker stamped into my bill hook: Stanforth's SeverQuick. I hoped their claim referred to the hazel only and not my fingers.

In the end I managed to complete a small hurdle, with a lot of help from Pete -

I don't know why I look so proud, it took me half a day to make that. With help.

But I had need of this particular hurdle; not to keep sheep in but to keep chickens out of my flower beds.

I think it looks pretty good. If my wrists and elbow joints ever recover, I might attempt a second one for the other bed.

These days hurdles are mainly purchased or commissioned as decorative garden fencing for fancier homes. Originally, they were an important tool for shepherds.

Shepherds moved their flocks constantly, to maximise grazing. As sheep moved and grazed, they gave birth to their lambs. Hurdle pens were erected to protect a ewe and her lambs, and to keep them together. The uprights have points on the bottom, to make them easier to push into the ground and sturdy once they're in.

Some hurdles were made with small rectangular gaps at the top. When the lambs got bigger and needed to eat grass, the hurdles were turned over. The gaps let the lambs out to graze and play, but kept the ewes contained. The ewe called her lamb to keep it close, and was on hand for food and warmth.

When lambs were weaned and big enough to travel, the shepherds just picked up the hurdles and carried them on. Nearly all hurdles have a small hole or slot woven into them. The shepherd could poke a pole through a stack of hurdles and carry them on his shoulder. Hurdles were just right for the job.

Now there are metal hurdles, and I use some of those to corral the sheep when I want to work on them or give them meds. They're fine too but they lack the romance and artistry of a finely woven hurdle, a design which may have been used since humans became sedentary and took up agriculture.

Pete says he can make a 4ft x 6ft hurdle in about 2 hours, with a good wind behind him, so even with experience it is still a labor-intensive job. It only takes me half an hour to drive to the local feed store and pick up another roll of electric fence tape. Romance will always give way to my laziness.

Tomorrow I'll be managing the other end of the fencing spectrum, watching the tractor and its hydraulic rammer pound posts into ground and define the boundary of our little field. But I can imagine the old shepherds who once grazed their sheep on Milkweed, and it's nice to think that it only takes a few interwoven split stems to keep a ewe and lamb safe.


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Yay, Jen! Your hurdle's beautiful.

It's a funny thing, finding the balance between the efficiency of the modern and the romance of the traditional. Sometimes it seems artificial to hold to old ways when there are less expensive, less time-consuming, less difficult alternatives. But then you see a picture of a hurdle like that, and you can't help but want A) to have them for your fences and B) to be able to make them yourself. Is it just nostalgia, do you think?

Cynthia said...

Hmmm -- I wonder if I could make those with crepe myrtle? All my bits look similar ...

Sara said...

That came out looking really nice. And hey, no hazels were killed in the making of the fence. Definitely another good skill to have. It's true what Tamar above said, you see one and just want to try to make one. It doesn't look like it would be a lot of work, but I can understand how it is. What almost is more amazing to me is that there's someone in the village giving hurtle-making workshops, with a handful of people in attendance. That's probably a good thing.

Paula said...

I think that the hazel hurdle is beautiful, and would like to offer this in defense of older ways: there will come a day when petroleum-based plastic and earth-based metals will become so prohibitively expensive that the renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable hazel-based hurdle will seem a godsend and you'll be glad you know how to make one. I advise always learning the appropriate technology where and when you can because eventually, it will be the necessary technology. In other words, I don't think it's necessarily romantic, but it might well be romantically necessary.

Keep practicing it, and pass the skill on.

Kate said...

Nice work. Love to hear about old ways of doing things. Two hours for a 4x6 hurdle, with a whole lot of experience behind the work - really makes you think. In the old days, there were no short cuts, and work had to be done well in order for it to last. I can't imagine how much work would have gone into enough hurdles to confine a flock of any size. You couldn't afford to throw away that much time on shoddy work that would only hold up for a little while.

Love the dogs in the window, by the way.

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - I definitely think it's in our nature to value things for their aesthetics, as well as their functionality. How much it costs - in terms of time and energy - to produce something that works AND looks good is the determining factor. I think, anyway. Nostalgia is certainly a contributing factor.

What it gives me is a sense of security - in a pinch I can produce something to protect my livestock from the materials around me. I put a lot of value in self-sufficiency.

Jennifer Montero said...

Cynthia - Absolutely! The technique should be adapted to available local material. If the crepe myrtle is strong (fibrous) and pliable, then I don't see why it shouldn't work. Please let me know if you try it.

Sara - It is nice doing something that doesn't involve death for a change.

I forgot to say how much work the hurdle-makers put into managing their hazel stands. All the materials have to be harvested, sorted, and moved from the woods to their workshop. That's probably twice as time-consuming as the actual assembly.

We have a local directory for woodland producers, including hedge layers, hurdle makers, turners, local sawmills, charcoal makers, and ever people who specialise in making spars - hazel pegs used by thatchers to put up thatched roofs. There are 50 people listed in the directory making a living from the woods, just in our local area.

Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - That was a very eloquent comment. I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly. And I love your phrase 'appropriate technology'. That sums it up.

I'm not sure how appropriate our unfettered use of plastics and petroleum-based products is, environmentally speaking. Discounting my laziness, hazel hurdles might be the most appropriate technology if you take into consideration resource useage, that it's a local product (no footprint), and it directly supports local families so more money goes straight back into the community.

Sadly, Pete said that fewer people are learning these skills, which were usually passed on from father to son (as was gamekeeping).

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - The beauty of the hazel hurdle is that once you made one, it could be easily repaired with materials from the woods (no need to carry replacement parts) and probably lasted some years.

I imagine shepherds sitting outside their hut, in front of a camp fire swapping stories while they made and repaired hurdles. It was probably a pleasant part of their work.

On the non-romantic side, I expect they all had debilitating arthritis by the time they were 50 from the cold and damp conditions, and the sheer hard work of twisting and weaving hazel.

Dog Hair in my Coffee said...

Not only is that a really beautiful hand-made work of art and function, I also loved learning about the old ways of doing things, and the why's of them as well. Thanks for that.

Kevin F. said...

What has been described as romantic,nostalgic traditional and the like almost always has an element of pride of workmanship to it.
For me that is the hook,what I would have done if I had the time, skill and material is a thatched roof for the chicken coop.Impractical as it would have been. Keep at it, your hurdle is a possession to behold.
Kevin F.

tabitha said...

This is amazing. We spent half a day trying to make these without any instruction, learning some very valuable lessons of course. Perhaps next time we'll refresh our memory with your post. Thank you.