Hurdles: introduction

“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.

Starting off a hurdle on a mould board.

Starting off a wattle hurdle on a mould board.

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.

Continuous weave fencing

Continuous weave fencing is constructed in the same way as hurdles, but as it is woven in situ it forms a more permanent barrier, and can also follow the contours and slope.

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.

A line of coppiced willows before a 'haircut'.

A line of coppiced willows before a ‘haircut’…

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.

...and after.

…and after.

Hurdle-making is a great skill to learn, and like most of’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.

Weaving cleft hazel.

Weaving cleft hazel.

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:

  1. how to split hazel rods – commonly done with a hook-nosed billhook.
  2. 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.
  3. how to start off and finish the hurdles; i.e. the specific sequences at the beginning and the end.

A traditional gate hurdle – used as a fence panel, not hung as an opening gate.

Here is a brief overview of how to make wattle hurdles:

  1. obtain or make a long board (called a mould board) with nine holes drilled into it to take the uprights
  2. place the uprights (or sails) into the mould board
  3. lay in a starting sequence of small round rods in such a way that there are no loose ends hanging out
  4. 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
  5. finish with a sequence of round rods at the top – again, with no loose ends
  6. 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.

A cleft hazel hurdle.

A cleft hazel hurdle.

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.

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john-wallerJohn 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.

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