Hurdle making (gate hurdles)
The making of gate hurdles, moveable wooden panels used to section off a part of a field for sheep to graze. See the separate entry for hurdle making (wattle hurdles).
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||21-50 (see ‘Craftspeople currently known’ for further details)|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||21-50 (see ‘Craftspeople currently known’ for further details)|
Gate hurdles are a form of open hurdle, made as a portable fencing panel primarily for penning sheep. Some were used for penning pigs and larger ones were even used to contain young bullocks at sales. Gate hurdles were intended to be lightweight so that several could be carried over the shoulder, but also robust enough to withstand rough treatment – they would be knocked into the ground with heavy blows and used repeatedly (Tabor, 1994: 122).
Unlike the wattle hurdle maker, the gate hurdle maker was historically a village worker rather than a woodland worker, transporting his raw material to the village workshop. Gate hurdle making was widespread in Hampshire and Berkshire, where it was needed to supply the demands of the sheep farmers on the downs there. Baghurst, Hampshire, was the best-known centre of the gate hurdle trade but by 1959, the last of the gate hurdle makers there was forced by economic circumstances to find alternative work (Jenkins, 1978).
The following description is provided by Jenkins (1978: 81-83).
Shaping the heads: The poles are sorted according to length and thickness, and then two stout rods are cut and shaped to form the vertical heads. They are trimmed to length with a saw, put in a brake and cleaved in half with a froe, the bark stripped with a drawknife, and then pointed with a billhook (the pointed ends meant the shepherd didn’t need to dig preparatory holes when moving the hurdles). The morticing holes for the horizontal rails are then cut out using a morticing knife.
Shaping the rails: Longer, lighter poles are cleft with a froe and rinded with a draw knife, and the ends flattened with an axe. They are roughly hexagonal in cross section.
Shaping the braces: The braces are shaped in the same way as the heads and rails.
Assembly: The various sections are placed in the right position on a special brake and the heads are trapped firmly on to the rails. The braces are placed in position fixed with nails. The nail heads are flattened so that they lie completely flat against the gate hurdle.
Finishing off: The hurdle is tidied up, stacked in batches weighed down with stones (to ensure each hurdle is flat), and left to season.
Historically gate hurdle patterns varied from county to county. Most varieties occur in the number of rails (also known as ‘slays’ or ‘ledges’) and the positioning of the braces.
East Anglia: 6ft long x 4ft high, with six rails
Kent: 8ft long x 4ft high with five rails
Hampshire: 6ft long x 3.5ft high, with 6 or 7 rails, one upright and two diagonal braces to give added strength
However, all gate hurdles had a smaller gap between the bottom three ledges than the remainder – so that lambs could fit their heads through to eat on the other side but older sheep couldn’t. (Tabor, 1994: 124).
The materials also varied from place to place, depending on what was locally available. The material was cut and sorted in winter, and the hurdles made in summer.
East Anglia: ash, but also hazel, elm and even oak
Southern England: willow
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: The demand for gate hurdles has almost completely disappeared. Unlike wattle hurdles, it has not really been possible to find an alternative use for them. When Ray Tabor was writing in 1994, only about 1000 gate hurdles were sold a year.
Craftspeople currently known
- As of February 2017, the Coppice Products website lists 41 makers of gate hurdles, although the output and skill level of each maker is not known.
Tabor, Raymond, Traditional Woodland Crafts: A Practical Guide , B. T. Bastford Ltd., 1994
Jenkins, J. Geraint, Traditional Country Craftsmen , Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978
Arnold, J. The Shell Book of Country Crafts , John Baker (Publishers) Ltd., 1977