The making of wattle hurdles and gate hurdles (moveable wooden panels used to section off a part of a field for sheep to graze).
|Historic area of significance||South East and South West|
|Area currently practised||Dorset|
|Origin in the UK||Early Medieval|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||21-50 (see ‘Craftspeople currently known’ for further details)|
|Current no. of trainees||11-20|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
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).
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).
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gate hurdles (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.
The basic wattle 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).
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 could not (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
- Kent: chestnut
- Southern England: willow
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.
- 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 1,000 gate hurdles were sold a year.
National Coppice Federation (and local coppice groups)
Craftspeople currently known
As of December 2018, the Coppice Products website lists 50 makers of hazel wattle hurdles, 21 makers of willow wattle hurdles, and 46 makers of gate hurdles although the output and skill level of each maker is not known.
Brown’s Hurdles (Alan and Steve Brown), Wool, Dorset
Ernie Steel, Farnham, Dorset
Pete Moors, Dorset
- Tabor, Raymond, (1994) Traditional Woodland Crafts: A Practical Guide (B T Bastford Ltd)
- Jenkins, J Geraint (1978) Traditional Country Craftsmen (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd)
- Arnold, J, (1977) The Shell Book of Country Crafts (John Baker Publishers Ltd)
- MERL, Rural Crafts Today: The Hurdle Maker