On buying hurdles:
There are a number of points to look out for if you are buying hurdles.
Firstly, be aware that there are British made and imported (from eastern Europe) hurdles on the market. Generally the imported ones will be cheaper but less well made. You need to be especially wary of hurdles bought from garden centres, agricultural merchants and the like as they may already be months old, have been thrown on and off lorries and been stacked outdoors for some length of time. Try and ensure that you buy from a local craftsman who will make your order up for you, thus ensuring that they are as new as possible and have a minimum of travel miles associated with them. But you do need to plan ahead rather than expect to buy off the shelf! There are also a number of practical features that you can look out for and which I’ve listed below in an approximate order of importance.
Number of sails. The sails (or zales) are the upright part of the hurdle. Most (6′) hurdles will have 9, some 8 and a few 10. Reject automatically any with 7 or less – someone will be trying to cut corners. I sometimes drop down to eight when I am using very large weaving rods (otherwise it can be just too tight a fit), but usually I use 9.
Twists (or nails). Reject out of hand any hurdles that have been nailed together. A good hurdle is made with no fastenings at all, the long rods being twisted around the end sails and woven back in. The twists are essential for holding the hurdle together, and the fewer there are the more poorly it has been made. Expect to find that about a half of the rods have been twisted. Check also how much fibre has broken-out of the twists. Good hurdles will have clean twists, poor ones very ragged twists.
Bellies. Good hurdles should be flat or have a gentle curve over their length. More obvious swelling and bellies can look unsightly but are not necessarily weakening. However, very exaggerated bellies can cause rods to crack and and thus have a shortened life-span.
Sawn or cleft? Some imported hurdles are made by sawing the rods down their length on a band saw. Check for saw-teeth marks on the flat face of the rods. Sawn rods indicate that the maker was unskilled, as it is probably quicker to cleave a rod down its length and certainly stronger and more durable.
Time of year. Hazel is best cut in the winter when growth has ceased. Summer cut rods tend to be less durable (the wood is full of sugary sap that fungi like to feed on) and will shed their bark in long, unsightly tatters. If you can, check when the rods were cut.
The life span of hurdles can vary greatly according to where you are in the country, the exposure of the site and the manner in which they have been erected. As a very rough guide, expect five or six years in the wet and windy west country rising to ten or more in drier, eastern parts. You can prolong their life by the manner in which you erect them and by treating them with preservative (see below).
On looking after hurdles:
To get the best from your hurdles it is important that you erect them properly. Small hurdles on sheltered sites are fine just being wired to two end posts. As the hurdles get taller and the site more exposed, you should look to have either a third, central, post or a rail between the two end posts to support the middle of the hurdle.
Another good trick is to grow climbers like clematis or honeysuckle through and over them. This both helps keep rain off and ties the hurdle together when it is beginning to fall apart.
Whether or not to apply preservatives is something of a vexed question; some would say that hurdles are a natural product from a sustainable resource and that applying chemicals is out of keeping with their ethos. Replace them when they fall apart and help carry on the ancient tradition of coppice crafts. Others maintain that they are not cheap and that anything that can be done to prolong their life should be done. Either way, hazel will take up preservative readily, and by painting or spraying them you can add several years to their life.