“Bull strong, horse high, and pig tight, and the goats will still get through.” – Roy Underhill
What are hurdles?
Hurdles are wooden fence panels. There are two types – wattle hurdles and gate hurdles. Wattle hurdles have a longer history than gate hurdles, and are made from woven rods of coppiced hazel or willow; gate hurdles are made from split wood of various types – often sweet chestnut or oak.
They were traditionally used as moveable agricultural fencing, and to pen livestock, especially sheep. They were common on chalk downlands, and much of our surviving workable hazel coppice is situated close to those downlands – in Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex, although there are pockets all over the country. Young trees are cut back to ground level in a regular cycle, the length of which depends on the species. Many shoots will reappear from one stump, providing a lot of new material in a relatively short time.
Coppicing has a long history. Archaeological digs have uncovered the remains of hurdles on the Somerset levels from neolithic times. They were used as walkways through the wetlands rather than fencing, and were preserved because they were pressed into the peaty, wet soil. The primary product of coppicing was fuel. Before oil, gas or electricity, everyone burned wood to keep warm. Woods were coppiced for thousands of years, producing material for basketry and wattles as well as firewood and hurdles.
Hurdles have traditionally had two main uses for the sheep farmer. Firstly, they were used to make lambing pens. Four hurdles make a quick, easy pen to keep a ewe and her lambs out of the worst of the weather, and to keep them close together so that they can bond properly. Secondly, they were used to make larger pens to contain sheep at night on arable land. Their dung fertilised the arable fields, and they were released back to the downs to graze the next day. Sheep hurdles were often made with a ’twilling hole’ in the middle so that the shepherd could carry four or five hurdles over his shoulder with his crook through the hole.
The old agricultural uses have now gone, and farmers don’t tend to buy or make them these days, but use metal hurdles instead. Traditional hurdles are still used by some smallholders, but mostly they’re used in gardens as windbreaks or fencing, as people tend to like their rustic appearance.
Willow has historically been coppiced on a one-year rotation, producing round rods for basketmaking. Willow for hurdles is a product of that form of management, and therefore comes in the form of round rods. Hazel is grown on 6-8 year coppice rotation, and so the resulting, larger rods are cleft in two down their length to produce the material for hazel hurdles.
What are the benefits of hurdles?
Hurdles offer an alternative to the classic larch-lap fence panels found in garden centres, which aren’t wind-permeable, and so the wind can blow them down, and eddy over the top and damage plants behind them. Hurdles are wind-permeable – the wind filters through the gaps with no eddies created, making them very effective wind breaks.
Hurdle-making is a great skill to learn, and like most of Lowimpact.org’s topics, can form the basis of a small, sustainable business using locally-produced, natural materials. But you can’t make hurdles without coppicing, and it’s the production of the raw materials for hurdles via coppicing where we find most environmental benefits.
Coppicing is the ultimate form of sustainable woodland management – especially coppice with standards, where coppiced trees are mixed with mature specimens. Ideally, trees within a coppice are harvested in rotation, so that different trees will be harvested each year. This provides a regular supply of material and means that there will be lots of trees at different points in their rotation, meaning more different habitats and greater biodiversity. The opening up of the woodland allows in light, and with it a greater variety of flowers, butterflies and birds.
What can I do?
If you’re making your own hurdles, your biggest problem is likely to be sourcing the raw materials – often a stumbling block with old crafts. Most coppice in the UK is in a band along the south of England, so it will be much easier to get coppiced rods there. You could contact your local Wildlife Trust or other conservation organisation to see if they do any coppicing for habitat management. You can also buy hazel or willow products from the Coppice Products website. If you have land, you could establish your own coppice. Generally, coppicing will only spread if it’s economically sustainable – which is difficult, as it means lots of work for not a great deal of return. However, there is more demand for coppice products these days than there are coppices to provide them, so the opportunity is there if you’re committed to woodland work as a way of life.
Weaving a willow hurdle
If you decide that you want to make your own hurdles the way to start is to attend a course. It’s physically hard work, so it’s great exercise (the part that most course participants find hardest is putting the ‘twist’ in, which is a tricky technique and physically demanding). There are three key things to learn:
- how to split hazel rods – commonly done with a hook-nosed billhook.
- how to put the twist in, so that the rod can turn back on itself at the edge of the hurdle, which prevents it from falling apart.
- how to start off and finish the hurdles; i.e. the specific sequences at the beginning and the end.
Here is a brief overview of how to make wattle hurdles:
- obtain or make a long board (called a mould board) with nine holes drilled into it to take the uprights
- place the uprights (or sails) into the mould board
- lay in a starting sequence of small round rods in such a way that there are no loose ends hanging out
- build up the height of the hurdle with split rods (hazel), twisting the tip of the rod round the end of the hurdle and weaving it back in to hold it together
- finish with a sequence of round rods at the top – again, with no loose ends
- trim the finished hurdle and take it out of the mould board
Saws or loppers may be useful, but the only essential tool is a bill-hook.
Gate hurdles are made from cleft logs. Many types of wood can be used, but sweet chestnut and oak contain tannins that provide durabilty. Logs are split with an axe and pulled apart until they’re the right size. Splitting rather than sawing provides strength and water-resistance. The uprights have pointed ends that can be knocked into the ground, and cross-pieces are fixed to the upright with mortice/tenon joints and braced. They are strong but lightweight, and can be moved around easily to provide temporary fencing or pens.
You can also often buy finished hurdles from Coppice Products.
How to make a hurdle with hazel and handtools.
You can then use your hurdles on your smallholding for penning or manoeuvring animals, for filling gaps in hedges or fences, or as windbreaks around your vegetable plots. They’ll last 6-8 years as outdoor fencing, but indefinitely if you keep them dry and under cover when you’re not using them.
Thanks to Brian Williamson of West Country Coppice for information, and Out to Learn Willow for main pic.
Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other 20+ land related topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.
The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.
John Waller has been involved with the environment, ecology, woodland management and conservation since 1990. He is a qualified tree surgeon and coppice-worker and makes a range of woodcraft products. He set up his own business, Underwoodsman, in 2000 and now runs courses and offers woodland advice and tree surgery services across Kent, Sussex and into South London.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
20 Comments on Hurdles
Rich Hutton - January 15th, 2017
That’s great advice, but when is the best time to cut the hazel or willow so that they are not brittle to use. I tried in winter and the rods all split when trying to twist
John WallerJanuary 18th, 2017
Rods are normally cut in the winter (but can be cut all year round if necessary). The reason your rods will have split will be either because you are using a brittle type of willow (such as pussy willow) or possibly your technique isn’t quite right. Hope this helps.
John Waller http://www.underwoodsman.co.uk
Donna - February 28th, 2017
I have no personal knowledge but according to a documentary the rods were dried for a time and then soaked to become compliant.
John Waller - March 4th, 2017
Hazel is never soaked up – it takes far too long. Normally, the hazel is cut and then used “green” (before it has dried out). If you are using willow, then it’s still best to use it green (while it’s still supple), but if it has dried out then yes, the custom is to soak it.
Pierre Perrett - September 20th, 2017
Thanks, this is very interesting, informative and well presented, I look forward to learning more. Keen to try hazel hurdle-making in southern Sweden as I live in Hasslaröd, a small area in N.E. Skåne named after the abundant hazels in the area. My back garden borders a field and forest with a good amount of hazel trees. I look forward to learning more. Cheers, P.
Neville - October 26th, 2017
I have quite a lot of hazel every year. Nice, straight rods, but not so thick as to make splitting with a billhook easy. If the hazel rods are slim i.e. 10mm at the thick end, then could I use them, unsplit, for my hurdles? Also, what separation distance between uprights please. Thank you.
John WallerOctober 31st, 2017
Yes, you can use them unsplit, but the hurdles won’t last as well as split hurdles, or be as strong. You will also need a lot more rods than if you grow them on a bit to approx 25mm dia. Weaving the wattles will also take a lot longer. Hopefully that has put you off! If not, you’ll have to experiement with the spacing of the uprights (zales). It will vary according to the thicknes of the zales. Hope this helps! John
Peter Day - February 9th, 2018
FAO: John Waller
I have enjoyed reading about you & seeing your very helpful replies. I have just tried my hand at hurdle making & have completed two so far. I have mastered the splitting of my hazel but I am struggling with the twisting on the ends. Most of the time I only get half the rod going around the end sales & not the whole like a rope. I am using hazel freshly cut – is this right? If not how long should I leave it to dry a bit? Being a farmer I reckon I have a strong grip but the twisting is still failing me! I would appreciate your thoughts.
John WallerFebruary 9th, 2018
This is a part of the process which is easier to show rather than describe…..
However, you should twist the rod with one hand no further than 1″-2″ from the end post. If the twist concentrates in one spot rather than over the whole of the 1″-2″, or it twists within the hurdle, fibres will break as you turn round the corner.
Rods which twist in one spot adjacent to the end post can be salvaged by a reverse twist and a retwist while bending the weaver around the end post. This twisting back and forth of the weaver will separate rather than snap the fibres as you progress round the end post.
Hope this helps…unfortunately my upcoming hurdles course is full as this would have been the best solution to iron out your issues.
Peter Day - February 9th, 2018
Thank you very much John. This is very helpful and I will certainly try twisting back & forth within the 1-2 inches from the post. My hand may have been further away than this. Keep up the good work….it’s always good seeing a professional carrying out country crafts and making it look so easy!
David - May 27th, 2018
Hi I am going to attempt to build a hazel fence which is curved in shape and a continuous almost full circle. As i am living in france I am not able to attend a course, so can you advise me 1, how deep I should plant the sails to give some stability to the structure as I start to weave, and 2, as this is going to be a permanent structure, is there any method or treatment that will help preserve the wood? Hoping you can help. David
John Waller - June 1st, 2018
Hi David – I’d use sweet chestnut as the zales as they will last longer. Depth depends on height, but a useful rule of thumb is to use a post with 1/3 in the ground. Round or split hazel won’t take preservative well, but when it has dried out, you could paint/spray on a penetrative preservative (eg cuprinol).
Tim - January 20th, 2019
Great read that!
I am fairly new to hazel fencing but have experience binding the tops when hedglaying. I have a project on that consists of building a continuous Hazel fence, I have searched the internet for info on continuos weave fencing but can only seem to find limited info on hurdle making. so if you are able to spare a moment to answer some questions, it would be most helpful.
The fence will be 60 metres in length and around 1m high.
I will be using sweet chestnut stakes knocked in at 40cm intervals.
Do the weavers need to be twisted around the zales like you would with a hurdle or can the weavers just be finished on the one side and trimmed?
How many Zales would you overlap the weavers?
Is it completely necessary to split the hazel?
How high up from the floor would you bind the hazel before starting the weaving and are the tops binded like you would in hedgelaying?
I hope you can answer these questions.
John Waller - January 22nd, 2019
Hi Tim – thanks for your questions.
1. for fencing, you don’t need to turn the weavers around the zales, if the stakes are very firm in the ground.
2. I’m afraid I don’t understand your question about how many zales would overlap the weavers? Could you clarify?
3. No it’s not completely necessary to split the hazel
4. No need to bind the bottom in – if the stakes are firm in the ground. Bind the top to “cap” the weave
I hope that this helps!
Sarah Newbold - April 2nd, 2019
Thanks for all your advice on this site.
You said in a reply to someone else that split Hazel hurdles are stronger and last longer. Can you explain this? I would have thought that split wood would be more easily penetrated and broken down by the elements.
John Waller - April 4th, 2019
Hi Sarah Newbold,
The bark acts like a leaky coat – so lets moisture in, and then holds on to it – drying out slower than split wood. The raised moisture level provides a more favourable environment for decay fungi.
Also, split wood uses larger diameter rods (split in half), so the small round wood is proportionally even more susceptible to more rapid decay (ie same amount of wood in each example, but one of them is wrapped in a leaky coat).
I use larger diameter round wood in the in-situ, continuous weave fences to offset this, but this would be too coarse and heavy to use practically in panels.
I hope this makes sense…
corndogcatman - April 9th, 2019
Have you, or anyone you know of, experimented with non-traditional species for making hurdles or fences? I live in the high desert of New Mexico, USA, where along the streams there is usually a “bosque” (woods) of native species such as willow and cottonwood (Populus fremontii), along with exotic invasive trees such as Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila). We have to cut the willows and invasives back often because they grow and spread aggressively; it seems such a waste not to put the cuttings to good use. I’d appreciate hearing about the experiences of others along these lines as they might serve me as a guide in experimenting.
John Waller - April 12th, 2019
I’ve not tried using these particular species! Best to set up some zales/stakes and weave some of your material around them. If it breaks/snaps, you probably can’t use it!
tavascarow - May 5th, 2019
Hi John. You say willow is best used green but one of the reasons basketmakers dry willow then resoak isn’t only to extend the working period. Willow shrinks significantly in thickness from green to dry so anything woven green will become looser as it dries. Brown willow (dried) which has been soaked doesn’t shrink much so remains tighter. Probably not such a problem for hurdles but a major consideration in basketry. Lovely post though. 🙂
John Waller - May 9th, 2019
I am a basketmaker too (see http://www.underwoodsman.co.uk) – so I very much agree (though some materials are used green in basketry too – for example hazel and chestnut splint etc). However, for coarse/outside willow work (especially hurdles where the weavers are bunched and overlapping in the bunches) the shrinkage is not a problem. Soaking up enough materials without industrial scale tanks or a boiler is however a big problem. Most small scale makers are therefore best off using it green.
Rachel Andrews - July 12th, 2020
Thank you for the very useful and interesting information.
I have a very exposed site in the North West of Ireland surrounded by sea on three sides and subject to very high winds. I wonder would a continuous fence of willow, woven in situ, work as a windbreak in these harsh conditions? What species would be best for zales and indeed for the willow weavers?
Would you have any other observations about building a woven fence in such a situation?
Many thanks, Rachel
John Waller - July 13th, 2020
I have installed several continuous weaved fences on the South Downs, in view of the sea. They have put up with the exposure well, and I think would compare well against other types of fencing. I would advise making sure the stakes are firmly in the ground… I use the rule of thumb of one third in the ground, two thirds out. I use split sweet chestnut stakes, and on exposed sites, would advise every fourth or fifth stake be round. I’ve not noticed enough difference between species to recommend one over another.
Rachel Andrews - July 14th, 2020
Thank you so much for this extremely helpful reply.