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  Hurdle Making in Verwood.  


   Note that this article was originally written in 1968 by Mrs. P. Reeks.

Mr. Kerley is another Verwood craftsman continuing in his father's foot- steps, although he does not make as many sheep hurdles as his Father did, the reason being that more and more sheep are wither fenced in their feeding ground or on free range. A large number of his hurdles are made for garden partitions and ornamental fences. Some are used on dual-carriageways to break car head light beams. Mr. Kerley's father made sheep hurdles for use in Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. Today Mr, Kerley's sheep hurdles are mostly used for lambing pens. The hurdles are supported by wooden "sures" or stakes which are driven into the ground between each hurdle. A twisted wooden or wire shackle is used to link the end zales of each hurdle to a sure. A lambing pen is usually lined with straw bales for protection against the elements. Sheep hurdles have a space in the centre called a "Twilly hole", so that when a shepherd wishes to move the sheep—pen he can carry several hurdles by threading a ''sure''' through the Twilly holes.

There are many hazel copses in the Verwood area so ('Mr. Kerley has plenty of raw material. He said that wood, ten to twelve years old is the best as he can cut a lot of useable wood when it is at this stage of growth. Hazel bushes benefit from cutting as they throw up more shoots each time that they are cut. It is softer and consequently easier to cut in the summer than if cut in the winter. Frosts can make it brittle and difficult to work. If willow is to be used it must be worked immediately after cutting, as when it dries or is burned by the sun it becomes very brittle.

I went to visit Mr. Kerley in a hazel copse, and though it was a bitterly cold morning, he seemed unperturbed by the weather and was working in a shirt with his sleeves rolled up. He had been trimming out - cutting legths of haze1. The smaller pieces had been put into bundles for "pea sticks", but this wood was only eight years old. Hence he had not been able to cut as large a quantity as he had hoped. I asked him why he had not left the wood to grow more and he replied that the owners had wanted it cut now, and that if he had not taken the opportunity someone else would have done so. Also the copse was in a desirable position close to the road, and could be easily reached by the hurdle carriers.

Mr. Kerley was working in a well worn part of the wood surrounded by cut hazel. Some was in heaps; some had already been selected and placed on a rack. The cross-pole of the rack had been marked with a chopper at certain spots these being used as measures. On and partly in the ground was the frame - a large round log, approximately seven feet long which was shackled to the ground with twisted wooden shackles and wooden pegs. The frame had holes, into which the zale points were placed, the holes having been drilled with an "auger". This tool drills at an angle, more efficiently than does a brace and bit.

Mr. Kerley began by putting the zales - the upright wood - into the frame. Some zales were cloven i.e. unsplit, others he split into two and some into four, depending on the thickness of the wood. The wood for zales has to be fairly straight, and this he split with a cleaving hook. He told me that the hook point had to be sharp and the blade, blunt. He cut into the top with the sharp part and split the wood with the blunt part to prevent cutting his hands. The zales points were cut with a knobbing (Knobby) hook which had a ten inch blade and had most of the weight at the head.

Ten zales were put into the frame with any natural curve curving towards the front, away from him. He then chose smaller wood to continue the hurdle, picking up the pieces with the hook to prevent catching hold of thorns, or in the summer to prevent picking up snakes. Each piece had the knots or spikes trimmed off, this process being called "shredding". It was then split beginning approximately twelve inches from the top and splitting to the bottom. Mr. Kerley told me that the rods to be woven can be used cloven or split if the rods are thick.

  1. Mr. Kerley began weaving with four bottom binders or rods leaving the long ends free.

  2. Two Johnny rods (the name given to the next pair of rods) were woven, both being twisted round the end zale at the left.

  3. He twisted the bottom binders round the end zales next, to form the "big spurs". These hold the bottom of the hurdle firm.

  4. Four or five "backers" (filling rods) were then woven, being twisted around the end zale on the right.

  5. At this stage Mr. Kerley measured with a marked stick the width of the hurdle to ensure that it was being made accurately.

  6. If the hurdle is to be a six feet high hurdle, backers are used from the next rod up to the top binders. If a sheep hurdle is being made, the pitch rod is the next rod woven, it is twisted round the left zale and threaded from the back to the front, four rods down. 

  7. Next, a gap called a "Twilly hole" is left in the weave of a sheep hurdle. Above this are woven two strong "Twilly rods" which strengthen the hurdle for the occasions when the shepherd comes to move the fold.

  8. Two or three backers are then woven and twisted round the right hand zale. As Mr. Kerley pointed out, this end is then higher than the left because of the twisted rods.

  9. The top "binders" are then woven with the twists round the left end zale, to help to level the rods. To level the work completely, a short stiff rod called the "Stumpy Rod" is woven from the left left end zale to the third zale from the right.

  10. The "Pitch Rod" is the final rod to be woven. It is tucked in from the back, four rods down and twisted round the right end zale, the opposite way from the other rods, and woven through the top binders.

  11. The uneven ends are then trimmed. As Mr. Kerley said "trimming requires skill". One false cut could ruin the hurdle of injure the craftsman.

Mr. Kerley told me that hurdles have to be made with a slight curve, but when they are stored they straighten out. If they were made straight, they would become curved when stacked.

"A Completed Fencing Hurdle".

All hurdles are six feet long; sheep hurdles are three feet high of weaving plus the spike ends. Garden hurdles can be made up to six feet high. When hurdles are made, the frame has to be placed in the trench, or the frame tilted and the hurdle made at an angle.  

A great deal of physical strength is needed for the making of hurdles. All the wood has to be cut and carried to the working space and when weaving the craftsman has to push the rods into position with his foot. As the hurdle is built higher this is done with his knee, usually protected with a rubber pad.

Mr. Kerley has one son, but it is too early to tell whether he will carry on the family craft, which also includes spar making, spars are the wooden staple-like pegs used to hold the straw in thatching. They are made from hazel and are of varying lengths according to the type of thatching required. When thatching a house two feet four inch spars are used with shorter ones round a chimney. Hay Ricks need to be thatched using three feet or two feet six inch spars, and wheat Ricks need three feet six inch spars.

Mr. Kerley makes very few spars today, as he is almost completely occupied making hurdles. He told me that to make any profit on spars he needs to be quick and said, "There should be three chips in the air at once!"

Copyright © P Reeks.     


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