Interview * Kate Ellis * The Hedge Doctor *
Posted on February 18, 2013
I had been driving past an old gnarly hawthorn hedge for some time; watching as a woman chopped, sawed and wove it into a neat tangle. I had no idea what she was doing. It looked like a big bird nest to me. Then the woman put up a sign that read, “Traditional Hedge Laying”.
I sat for a coffee and chat with Dr Kate Ellis to find out what motivated her to spend her time among the thorns. This is Kate’s Country Creative story.
The ancient country craft of hedgelaying has been in poor health in Australia for many years. But that’s all changing now that Dr Kate Ellis has decided to breathe new life into its revival. Happily, after working in the UK and Croatia, Kate decided to call Kyneton home (well, Lauriston, which is just outside Kyneton).
When people like Paul Bangay and Tonia Todman stop to ask you what you’re doing it’s highly likely you’re doing something unique and that’s exactly what happened to Kate. “When I was laying a hawthorn hedge for St Agnes Homestead beside a fairly busy road just north of Kyneton lots of people pulled over to ask me what I was doing; including Paul and Tonia,” says Kate. “I was pleased people stopped because they were either concerned I was a philistine who was ‘butchering’ trees or they were curious and loved the result of my work. The fact that no-one recognised what I was doing proved to me just how lost the craft of hedgelaying has become in Australia.”
If you’ve ever flown into the UK or Europe (or even just picked up a brochure dreaming that one day you might do so), you’ll recall the quintessential vista of a verdant patchwork of fields bordered with dark green hedgerows. “Even in the UK, where the tradition is much older than it is in Australia, about 200,000 miles of hedgerow were ripped out in the 1940s to 1970s to expand the land,” explains Kate. But it wasn’t just the hedges that were lost in the process. “The artisanry and an appreciation of the purpose and benefits of hedgerows to the environment were also lost,” laments Kate.
“It’s interesting to learn that lots of people don’t realise their overgrown, gappy, unwieldy hawthorn hedge is actually a very effective form of fencing with great cultural significance – most people regard them as an outdated weed and just end up letting them deteriorate or pulling them out altogether.”
Kate – who holds an Honours Degree in Environmental Science from the University of Melbourne and a PhD in Ecology from the University of St Andrews in Scotland – is the only female hedgelayer in Australia: a rose among the thorns if ever there was!
“It’s always nice to be the first at something and in some ways it is significant that I’m the only female practising hedgelaying as it is an ancient craft that has traditionally been the domain of men,” says Kate. “But what’s really important to me is that my children, Frankie and Maggie, see their mother practising and enjoying a physically demanding and creative outdoor trade.”
Along with her husband Brett, Kate was landscaping and hedgelaying in the UK and Croatia before returning home to Australia. “When we were living in Scotland, I remember the first time I saw a guy laying a hedge with his chainsaw and bill hook and I thought, ‘what on earth is he doing?’ It looked so brutal. When he explained to me that he was laying the hedgerows that give the UK countryside its unique natural and enduring beauty, it was then that I decided I wanted to learn the craft.”
Kate has spent some time with James Boxhall, of Sticks and Stones in Tasmania, who had been taught by England’s professional hedgelayer Karl Liebscher. “I was really fortunate to get an opportunity to learn the craft from James – his devotion and skills are inspiring,” says Kate. Traditional hedgelayers used a swag of tools that included slashers, bowsaws, axes, fencing mauls, pole hooks, sharpening stones and billhooks. Today they use a chainsaw and a billhook. Kate uses a ‘Stafford’ billhook made for her by a Tasmanian blacksmith – a simple, short-handled, light-weight, single-bladed version of the Yorkshire style.
The work is seasonal and requires a fair degree of brute force. “Most hedgelaying is done in winter while the plants are dormant and there are fewer thorns (the latter being the inspiration for her business name Thornology),” says Kate. Her forearms are covered in scratches. “Unlike hedge trimming, which doesn’t restore the hedge and tends to create woody gaps, hedgelaying cuts and lays the trunk over, which causes new vigorous growth to sprout from the base.”
As with many old country crafts their practice and admiration can dwindle with each passing generation so Kate is happy to be part of its resurgence. “The revival of hedgelaying at this time is owed in great part to the conservation and sustainability movements gaining a broader audience,” says Kate. “Fortunately, in the Macedon Ranges area at least, many old hedges have survived being ripped out. Whilst they might look a bit shabby now, laying will return them to their former intended glory and purpose.”
Much like the simple and timeless appeal of other naturally imperfect yet intricate forms like a bird’s nest, Kate’s work attracts many admirers. “Once they’re laid, people find the hedges so appealing because they look like they have always been there; there are no unnaturally shiny metals, wires, plastics or paints – just nature’s whimsical palette and its extraordinary desire to thrive.”
As well as laying several private hedges in the Macedon Ranges area, Kate has been invited to lay the hawthorn hedge in the Heritage Orchard at Werribee Park Mansions and has been commissioned to lay the Kyneton Botanic Gardens’ existing but desperately neglected and overgrown 300m hawthorn hedge as part of the Gardens’ refurbishment. “Kyneton’s Botanic Gardens will be the first in Australia to have a hawthorn hedgerow,” says Kate proudly.
Far from just being ‘on trend’ with the latest in landscape gardening, Kate is passionate about her crafts and dedicated to improving the understanding people have of the benefits that hedgerows provide to the environment. “Laying existing hedgerows not only works out cheaper than standard fencing because it uses an existing resource it also adds significant environmental conservation value. Well laid hedges can last for two hundred years or more and provide a great windbreak for stock, which helps reduce lamb mortality rates as well as promotes biodiversity by providing an important wildlife habit for smaller creatures.”
Kate is also reviving traditional “hurdle making” and introducing it to the Australian garden landscape. Also known as “wattle work” (although willow or hazel wood are most commonly used woods) the craft of hand-weaving flexible, green, sapling wood into useful rustic garden accents, trellises, borders and fences dates back to the Bronze Age.
Kate sustainably harvests young willow saplings from the banks of local rivers, which helps Thornology maintain a low carbon footprint.
So far, Kate has made woven fences for Paul Bangay and a number of his clients, East St Kilda’s SteinerPrimary School’s community garden as well as various garden structures for interior designer Stuart Rattle.
“I guess my main aim is to re-gentrify the countryside – to reintroduce these old cultural art-forms and make this region the hedgelaying capital of Victoria,” says Kate. “Hooray for Kate!,” says Dr Danni.
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