Use readily available hazel to hatch the finest thumb sticks
Ever since the day when my father chastised me for not carrying a stick when herding cattle, I have always made sure there was one at hand. A simple ash plant cut from a hedgerow was all that was needed and I passed this warning on to my own children as soon as they began to wander in the fields on their own.
The biggest danger lay in coming across a freshly calved heifer and not exercising proper caution, for a heifer defending her calf can be more aggressive than any bull.
As time passed, I began to appreciate the value of a strong, well-balanced stick as an aid for walking as well as encouraging livestock into a lorry or whatever. But then one should never beat animals unless in self-defence.
A prod is usually all that is needed and good cattlemen seemed to have an uncanny way of anticipating when and where an animal would turn.
The late Mickey Towey, who came from that past generation of real cattlemen and must have bought and sold thousands of animals in his day, would always berate a farmer if he caught him beating livestock.
Not only was it unnecessarily cruel but it damaged the most valuable part of the beast, the hindquarter.
Blackthorn is often regarded as the best wood to produce sticks, but good examples are difficult to find and are generally covered in thorns.
If you are lucky enough to locate a suitable one, this heavy wood can provide beautiful material after the thorns are removed and the stick then finished with varnish.
Hazel, however, is the most common wood used, it is readily available and makes the best thumb sticks of the right weight and balance.
The stems of coppiced hazel mostly grow straight, are easy to work with and have a variety of bark colours.
You can straighten bent stems using steam heat and a bit of elbow grease but if you spend a little time looking around, you should find a straight one that is ready to work with.
The best time to cut sticks is during the winter months when the stems are bare and dormant.
Size is a matter of personal choice but generally aim for stems that are about three-quarters of an inch to an inch thick.
Thumb sticks are longer than a traditional walking stick, so look for something about four- to five-feet long, that can be trimmed to suit and ideally they should be seasoned for about 12 months.
The V at the top can be shaped to ensure your thumb sits securely and comfortably.
Any nobbles and bumps can be sanded down and this adds to the appearance when finishing with varnish or oil.
Finally, fix a bit of copper piping or an empty 12-bore cartridge case to the base to protect from wear.
Few farmers bother to grow and manage hazel these days but it is ideal for planting in odd corners on the farm or along the edge or in the understory of older woodland.
There is always a demand for hazel from stick-makers and other craftspeople and stakes will fetch approximately €1 each. A few days spent coppicing can produce 1,000 stems or more and a managed stand of hazel will keep producing quality material for centuries.
Hurdle making was a common traditional craft and hazel was ideal for weaving in to the desired shape. Nowadays, hurdles are little used in farming but are very popular with garden designers and can fetch surprisingly high prices.
Originally there was very little hazel on my farm in Meath but I have planted hundreds of them over the years and now have my own supply and also enough to sell on for stick- and hurdle-making, hedgelaying and as wading poles for fishermen.
I never go walking in the fields and woods these days without my favourite thumb stick, which is of course made of varnished hazel.
These sticks are the countryman's Zimmer-frame and I cannot deny that I find mine invaluable for leaning on when my back gets sore and there is nowhere to sit.
Thumb sticks are also ideal for steadying a rifle on when shooting grey squirrels.
After all, if we don't control the greys we soon won't have any hazel!
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