Orders pour in for traditional hazel hurdles

THE SKILLS of traditional wattle hurdle makers can be found flourishing at Newton Farm, Melcombe Bingham, near Dorchester, where Jack Beckett of Woodland Organics hones his skills producing about 700 traditional hurdles each year.

“We produce a premium fencing product using home-grown hazel, which can add character and privacy to period properties and farmsteads,” he says.

With three woodlands, Mr Beckett has an area of about 14ha (35 acres) from which to produce hurdles. It is enough to last a lifetime, he reckons. “We coppice hazel on a seven-year rotation and usually work with five acres a year to produce enough hurdles to satisfy demand,” he says.

“Our order book has a three-month wait. Working alone, I can only produce three hurdles a day.”

Given the skill needed and the extent of manual labour required – the only tools used are a billhook and saw – Mr Beckett is not surprised that hurdle production has become an endangered skill. “It was hard to learn when I started, as many old boys” in the trade refused to share their tips and expertise to anyone interested in having a go,” he says. “I tried to learn from a craftsman, but it was easier and more enjoyable to do my own research, making my own mistakes.”

That was over seven years ago and Mr Beckett has since become a keen campaigner for woodland matters and actively encourages the next generation of hurdle makers by offering training courses.

“There’s nothing quite like the tranquillity of the woods, and being able to get so close to wild animals is a great leveller,” he says. “Stress relief doesn’t get much better.”

Hazel is chosen for its flexibility and fast growth. In its first year of regrowth, heights of 1.8m are possible, although rods do not thicken much in the first few years.

“It also splits easily, which makes it possible to slice rods into half-moon slats to form the hurdle,” adds Mr Beckett. Hurdle production takes place in the woods, the only tool required is a 1.8m long template, the length of the hurdle, in which to place the upright rods. Heights can vary from 90cm to 1.8m.

“It’s not as simple as it sounds, but after setting the uprights, I need to weave full diameter rods across the bottom to secure the lower edge of the hurdle. Then it’s a matter of weaving the half-moon slats around the rods to form the main section of the hurdle before topping off in the same way the base is formed.”

Using hazel also allows Mr Beckett to part the timber’s fibres to form a flexible rope that allows the slat to be bent around the rods that form the ends of the hurdle. “We don’t use screws or nails, so we have to secure the hurdle using wood fibres, otherwise they would fall apart,” he adds. “And being hand-built, each one is different.”

Typically, he says hurdles will last for the equivalent growing life of the tree. “Hurdles made of seven-year-old hazel should last at least seven years, but being a natural product, I would recommend regular treatment with linseed oil or a water-based preservative to increase its longevity.”