The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Hurdle making (wattle hurdles)

 

The making of wattle hurdles, moveable woven wooden panels used to section off a part of a field for sheep to graze. See the separate entry for hurdle making (gate hurdles).

 

Status Endangered
Craft category  Wood
Historic area of significance  South East and South West
Area currently practised  Dorset
Origin in the UK  Early Medieval
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  21-50
Current no. of trainees  11-20
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)

 

History

Wattle has a long history in Britain, with woven hazel or willow panels found in the Somerset Levels where it was laid down by Neolithic ancestors as track ways, used in Iron Age huts for walls, and wattle fencing was common by Middle Ages. From the Middle Ages onwards, wattle hurdles were mainly used as a portable fencing panel for penning sheep when grazing, being dipped, or being sheared, and offered protection from wind and rain at lambing time. They were intended to be lightweight so that several could be carried over the shoulder (Tabor 1994: 132). Wattle hurdles were primarily used in southern England where there was very little stone or timber growth for building folds and fences (Jenkins, 1978: 26).

By the mid-late twentieth century, wattle hurdles for sheep were replaced by lamping sheds and electric fences, but new markets have been found for them as garden screens and fencing panels, with 25,000 wattle screens sold every year in the 1990s (Tabor 1994: 132).

 

Techniques

Wattle hurdles are made from hazel rods which are cut on a 5 to 7 year rotation.

The following description is provided by Jenkins (1978: 27-28).

  1. Shaping the zales: The zales and finishing rods are cut to length using a narrow-bladed spar hook. The end zales are left round and the rest are split centrally. The zales are sharpened to a straight point and placed in the mould.
  2. Weaving the bottom: This is the most important part of the weaving. Two long thin rods are selected and inserted at right angles to one another in the gap between the first and second zales. Another pair is inserted in the next gap. These are known as ‘spur rods’ and are never cleaved. Taking each spur rod in turn, the craftsman twists and weaves them in between the zales to produce the bottom ten inches of the hurdle. When the bottom has been firmly laid, the rods are trimmed with a special type of knife.
  3. Weaving the central part: The rest of the weaving is done using cleft hazel. Each piece is tucked into the woven bottom and woven between the zales. To make the ‘twilley hole’ two uncleft rods, similar to spur rods, are inserted in the weave and twisted round the end zales. Once the twilley is in place, the rest of the hurdle is woven.
  4. Finishing off: Finally, two or three uncleft rods are taken and woven around the zales. The hurdle is trimmed and the loose ends removed, and then the hurdle is taken off the mould. The hurdles are stored flat on top of each other and left to season.

 

Local forms

The basic hurdle is 6ft long by 3.5ft high, woven around ten ‘uprights’ or ‘zales/sails’ to give a tight weave. The last two zales at either end are longer so that adjacent hurdles can be overlapped and fixed to a post. A gap (‘twilley hole’) is left in the weave between the centre two zales, through which the shepherd passes a stick in order to carry the hurdle on his back, and ten sharpened feet project at the bottom to grip soft ground. Sheep hurdles were constantly moved from place to place, so the ‘bottom binders’ were taken twice round each end zale to strengthen the hurdle. The method of picking up both bottom and top rods is the same for all types, but there are regional differences in the central weaving (Tabor 1994: 132-133).

However, garden hurdles vary from 3ft to 6ft high, and usually only have nine zales (the least you can have to make a tight weave) – and no twilley hole (Tabor 1994: 132-133).

 

Sub-crafts

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Foreign competition: The importation of cheap mass-produced products from Eastern Europe means that prices are kept low.
  • Dilution of skills: Some ‘hurdles’ are machine-made and nailed together but are still marketed as ‘wattle hurdles’.
  • Business issues: Today’s regulations regarding Health and Safety, holiday pay, sick pay, paternity leave etc. and all the paperwork for an apprenticeship means that it is not feasible to employ a youngster for 2 or 3 years to learn all aspects of being a woodsman
  • Recruitment issues: There are very few people who want to work outside in all weathers
  • Dilution of skills: Many of the groups offering weekend courses are taught by people who have only done weekend courses.
  • Dilution of skills: Many of the weekend courses do not teach the proper maintenance of copses which gradually leads the copses to become overstood in places and eventually destroys the whole copse.
  • Recruitment issues: Difficulty recruiting younger workers.
  • Recruitment issues: Although people are leaning hurdle making, almost none go on to be full time hurdle makers.

 

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

 

Other information

 

References