Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cutting back

Last spring I was preparing for a bike ride that would take me across the UK from Aberystwyth to Great Yarmouth. And on my training route, I'd always cycle a particular lane - it had the most fabulous hedges, all overgrown and shady and bursting with wildlife. I saw a bullfinch there in March, a hare lolloping down a side track, brimstone butterflies right into summer - when I returned in the autumn the hedge was heavy with sloes.

On Saturday I was back on my bike, starting my training for another charity ride (you'll hear more about that in another post). I was looking forward to that lane; indeed, as I approached it I was thinking how, when passing through much of the middle of England, it was the hedgerows I'd liked best. Throughout the ride, there'd been pretty much a direct correlation between bushes and birdsong - I remember commenting as much to one of my colleagues.

So I was in a light mood as I pressed on the pedals and into Common Road. Only the day before there'd been goldcrests in my garden, long-tailed tits on the silver birch and a blackcap on the forsythia. The warmer weather was hinting at spring - perhaps that bullfinch would be there again - or a flock of yellowhammer? There was a sharp cerulean sky.

Some people might think it peculiar that a little bit of hedge trimming could conjure any sadness. After all, it's only a few gnarly trees - overgrown bushes really.  Didn't I read somewhere that it's good for certain species if the lanes are kept in order?  And doesn't pruning make the trees more robust in the long run?

It's true that pruning makes the hedges thicker.  And cutting every few years, even quite severely, is probably better for wildlife than annual trimming. For every summer of growth, it's estimated two additional bird species will come to nest - so cutting less frequently is a good idea.  On the other hand, there are butterflies which only lay eggs on new growth and many birds prefer low hedges - for these species, regular trimming is what's needed. The ideal is to prune every three years in careful rotation, ensuring no area is reduced too severely at any one time.

But all that is clearly too much hassle for the farmer on Common Road. I reckon it was ten years since he last cut those hedges (ironically quite good) - and when the time came that something had to be done, he wasn't going to be worried about the niceties of yellowhammers or bullfinches. Judging by the results of his mechanical flail I don't reckon he's bothered about much in nature at all. He's not only cut the thinner growth, he's slashed the nearby trees, splintered the blackthorn into shards, even smashed his own fences. In all, he reduced the hedge by over six feet.

I know most of it will grow back; I know that Common Road isn't a conservation imperative, and I know it probably looks worse than it is. But there's something quite brutal about all this. Something that doesn't feel right - a sense that with just a little more care, it would have made such a difference.  As it is, there'll be less birdsong on my training rides this spring, and I guess this autumn I'll be going elsewhere for sloes.


  1. Hello Mark:
    We understand and sympathise with your feelings about all of this completely. Hedgerows are, in our opinion, often the Cinderellas of the countryside and they are overlooked at great cost to wildlife which really depend upon them, especially as there is generally very little uncultivated areas of countryside remaining these days.

    When we lived in Herefordshire there was such a difference between those hedges managed with care and responsibility and those treated as you describe above. The age old treatment of hedge laying was poetry in motion when it was seen but, sadly, not seen enough.

    The only comfort is that in all probability the hedge will recover and, with the farmer's indolence there will be several years ahead when the hedge and its inhabitants will be left in peace.

  2. I hate to see hedges butchered by the mechanical flail, they make me wince.

  3. Hello Mark:
    Yes, there are still swathes of starlings that roost in the iron structures of the pier in Brighton. They fly directly over our house and make a wonderful sight against the sea and sky, especially at sunset.

  4. I love hedges and we have planted new mixed native hedges which are just getting going. I found it quite hard this year when we made the first cut which halved their height - not with a flail though. I know they will bush and thicken this way and we are very careful about times for cutting and times for leaving well alone. Our neighbouring farmer does cut like this with a mechanical flail and it does look brutal. However he cuts every year, not once every ten years. It always looks dreadful and it always recovers and I know the hedges will be full of birds and honeysuckle by the summer, but I wonder how much better it would be if he laid his hedges. I don't know. For him his hedges are simply a boundary. He works night and day and while the stock care cannot easily be mechanised,the hedge cutting can. Tricky, tricky, tricky.

  5. Poor Mark! I too hate to see the devastation wrought by the flail, even though the hedge does recover. I hate it even more when it's done in the autumn, while there is still fruit on the bushes, rather than in late winter. Luckily we still have a couple of neighbouring farmers who still lay their hedges in the age-old way and make the most beautiful job of it. True craftsmanship and it only needs a light trim to keep the hedges in shape for many years after that.

  6. Yes, there's a huge difference between trying to live at peace with nature and doing things because just because your personal itinerary says so.

  7. You can understand the short-term economics of using a mechanical flail, rather than the long-term investment of the work of a craftsman on a well laid hedgerow.
    However even with a flail it is possible to do a tidy job. They are supposed to sweep the road afterwards- bet he didn't!

  8. Like Kath said, I hate to see the mess that the mechanical devices leave when hedge slaughtering.Luckily round here, especially on the Royal Estate, lots of hedge-laying goes on, and I love seeing that. However, there is still harsh and sharp evidence of mechanical means being used in places too.
    Thanks for the comment re Valentine's... I am not around much either, but for different reasons to yours. But still reading blogs once a week if I can.

  9. Remember never to ask him for a short back and sides!

  10. I hate to see the results of using a mechanical flail.....certainly not working in harmony with nature in my opinion.

    I will look forward to reading about your next charity ride Mark...
    Maybe at sometime we will get to ride together......

  11. It bothered me to see that last brutal photo. When I think of the beauty of Britain, the hedgerows shine in memory....pulling over to tuck into them, allowing others to pass on the road..the birds and their song, the flowering and fruiting abundance.

    Just think what that farmer has lost in bug defence...warrior birds gone to another field with hedgerows we hope.

  12. It's so said.

    I wrote a similar post a few years ago when the council starting brutalising the public planting on the estate. They cut back all the dogwood and willow stems in November, so there wasn't any winter colour that year. One area never grew back :(

    When I see hedges trimmed in the traditional way, I think they look great as well as being a haven for wildlife

  13. Sorry job there, looks like butchery...I'm glad you're doing another charity ride though. Let us know more about donating, etc.

  14. Vandalism and all too clearly showing this man's attitude to his surroundings.
    Stewards of the countryside, indeed!
    I remember laid hedges....we laid ours in France to the incredulity of the farmer across the road who was another slash and burn man.

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  16. What a shame! All this glorious weather makes you want to sing about nature, and yet the people you might think would care most can do most damage. Still - I look forward to hearing more about the cycling expotition!