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Home News Notes from the sticks: Cutting-edge hedge trimmers

Notes from the sticks: Cutting-edge hedge trimmers

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OVER the last week or two there’s been a sure sign that autumn is on its way – work has started on cutting back the roadside hedges. It is not until you see a neatly trimmed hedge on one side of the road before the other side has been done that you realise how much growth has been put on since spring. This is a road near us:

When mechanical hedge trimmers came in some decades ago, they were some kind of flail which ripped and mutilated the branches. After the work was done it looked as if a battle had taken place. Today’s machinery is much kinder. Here is a short film involving two delightful Northern Irish lads promoting their business. It was taken with the aid of a drone, which you can see in one shot.

As you can see the cutting head is adjustable so that the top and each side of the hedge can be trimmed in multiple sweeps. As I understand it, the prunings are chopped fine and blown back into the hedge where they will drop to the ground and rot into the soil, which is good for the hedge. It is skilled work and the YouTube commenters are full of praise for the operator, Francis. They also remark on his reasonable rate of £25 per hour, though this was 2016.

When I started this piece earlier this week I wrote: ‘There must be hundreds of miles of roadside hedges in Lancashire, but you never see the cutting happening. Presumably they close the roads where it is being done.’ Then my husband came in fuming having been stuck behind not one but two hedge tractors near our house.  

I believe that conservationists would prefer that hedges are cut only every two or three years, and that not all hedges on the same site are cut at the same time, to provide undisturbed areas for the many species that use hedges as cover. However in Lancashire there are many more miles of hedges away from the roads which are not so regularly trimmed, so I don’t think a great deal of harm is being done. And by the end of August, when the cutting starts, birds have finished nesting.

Of course mechanical cutting is a recent development. For centuries hedges have been maintained by traditional techniques, the main one of which is hedge laying. If a hedge is left to its own devices it will grow into trees, so the hedge layer cuts partway through the trunks, bends them over at roughly a 45-degree angle and secures them with stakes. This provides an impenetrable barrier to livestock which with regular trimming may last for 50 years before laying is needed again. Here is a video demonstration.  

And here is a lovely film from 1942.

This skill came close to dying out after the war when there was a fad for grubbing out hedges to increase available land and make the use of agricultural machinery easier. Fortunately three far-sighted individuals, Fred Whitefoot, Clive Matthew and Miss Valerie Greaves, realised that the traditional method of hedge management needed preserving and set up the National Hedge Laying Society (NHLS) to document the skill and pass it on. In recent times there has also been a realisation that hedges are of immense benefit to wildlife and the trend to do away with them has been reversed.

In my usual ignorance I assumed there was only one way to lay a hedge, but I discover there are many regional styles developed to cope with the climate of the area, different farming practices and the varieties of trees and shrubs that grow in the hedge. The NHLS says there are about 30 styles in Britain, and its annual championship concentrates on eight: Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, Lancashire and Westmorland, Midland Bullock, North Somerset, South of England, Welsh Border and Yorkshire.

I wondered where the society finds enough hedges for the contest so I asked the secretary, David Whitaker. He confirmed that it is a major undertaking because they need at least a kilometre of ‘raw’ hedge (five-eighths of a mile for people like me). They look for landowners who are willing to host the competition and try to plan four years ahead. This year’s event was due to be held next month at the Rotherfield Estate in Hampshire but has been postponed until next year. Last year’s was in Wiltshire, and if you look at this page of results you will see that there are plenty of skilled entrants. 

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I have seen far fewer butterflies this summer than last. At first I thought the wet spring in this area might have been to blame but then I realised that rain should not affect caterpillars much. Does anyone have any ideas?

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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