Hedging your bets

Well it’s done. Another hedge laid. Not a long one by any means but the amount of stuff that had to be cut out of it was phenomenal. In fact when the weather was freezing, I just went down the line of the hedge cutting out the stuff that I didn’t need or just wasn’t going to lay into the line of the dike whatever I did. I spent several days just doing that. One day was spent cutting out and cutting up a middling sized elderberry tree. The reason for doing this job when it’s freezing is that if you try laying stuff when it’s too cold, the branches just break off rather than split and go down.

Elderberry is a weed in hedges. Whilst I suppose livestock cannot in point of fact walk through the trunk, a hedge of elderberry might break the wind a bit but it won’t stop livestock. The branches lack the thorns of hawthorn, and they lack the strength and resilience of a tree like sycamore. A cow hits a patch of elderberry in a hedge and the branches just break off and she’s through.

But like all weeds, I might cut it out now, but in ten years’ time I’ll walk along the hedge and the elderberry will be back.

As I’ve worked my way through the dike, when I’ve cut stuff out, anything of useful thickness has been cut into lengths that nicely fit the saw horse, and when I get home, I cut it up whilst I’m still wearing my chainsaw trousers. Then it can get stacked in the woodpile to dry out.

Looking at what’s in the heap, the blackthorn burns well, slowly and with plenty of heat. Elder is less good, burns quickly and doesn’t produce a lot of heat, but it’s there and I might as well use it. It gets added into the mix. The hawthorn is another good firewood. People comment that it’s bad to split, but because I’m taking out hedgerow timber rather than trees a lot of it will not need splitting. There’s even a fair bit of willow. It has a high water content but if you leave it to dry out it burns well enough.

Then we have the Sycamore. This is the staple firewood round here. As you walk along the lanes you see the amount of sycamore in the hedges or dikes increases as you get nearer the farms. My guess is that they put it into the hedges because it’s a decent burning timber and not a bad hedgerow timber.

Also in my woodpile is a fair bit of Leylandii. My late father planted perhaps a score or so of them at one end of the garden as a wind break to stop the north wind. They did that alright, but now they’re a ridiculous height and they’re shading everything else. To show how well leglandii shade, the end tree, which was by the gate and only had leylandii on one side of it, was about eighteen inches in diameter at the base. The others who had leylandii on both sides of then never got to be more than nine inches in diameter and they were all planted on the same day. It’s another timber that you have to allow to dry out before burning. Indeed I’ve found that some of the larger diameter rounds need to come out of store in their first winter and be split into burnable sized pieces before going back into store again to be burned next winter. Mind you we’ve had to big sycamore rounds from the tree that I stood back up again, and I’ve had to do the same with them.  

Another problem with hedgerow trees is that they can be remarkably knotted and twisted. I have come across pieces where one branch has been growing through the trunk of another tree. One plant has quite literally grown round the other. This means that when it’s come to splitting a lot of the rounds for the fire, I’ve used a sledge hammer and steel wedge rather than an axe. Indeed in a few recalcitrant cases where the wedge wasn’t making much progress I’ve cut the round up into ‘bricks’ using the chainsaw!

But now everything has ground to a halt. The EU regulations say that we cannot trim or lay hedges after 1st March because of birds nesting. No matter where you are, Greece or Shetland. Ironically the local authorities aren’t covered by these regulations and cheerfully trim hedges all the year round.

Traditionally the old rule was ‘lay hedges when there’s an ‘r’ in the month. Basically this meant you didn’t do it in May, June, July and August. In those months the sap is rising. Given that this rule is one that was developed and existed for centuries when we had no end of birds nesting, I’d suspect that farmers laying a hedge in March is not going to have a major environmental impact.

Still the job is done. Admittedly it should have been done in the 1960s, but somehow we just never got round to it. With the falling number of people left working on the land, I suspect that a lot more hedges are just going to disappear. Whilst hedges are protected from being grubbed out, they can easily fade away by accident. There is a constant cost of maintaining them. Round here I’d suggest you really need to have a fence on both sides of them, otherwise stock will just browse their way through them. Sheep will nipple off young shoots, cattle will break things. If not looked after, (not a cheap hobby) it doesn’t take long for a hedge to end up being a few trees and bushes in a line across the middle of a field. So you’ve got the cost of maintaining the fences, plus trimming the hedge at least one year in three, and then somebody really ought to lay it at least once in twenty years.

On the other hand, at least I get my firewood.



There again, I do have expert supervision

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

As a reviewer commented, “Another great collection of bite-sized tales from the author’s farming life. (The first one being ‘Sometimes I sit’s and thinks’)
A gentle sharing of observations from a sheep farmer (and his collie)
More wry observations of animals and humans!”

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28 thoughts on “Hedging your bets

  1. rootsandroutes2012 March 6, 2021 at 6:49 am Reply

    ‘If not looked after, (not a cheap hobby) it doesn’t take long for a hedge to end up being a few trees and bushes in a line across the middle of a field.’ I’ve seen this happening on a particular Cornish smallholding over a little more than half a century. I didn’t know what was going on, and presumably my father didn’t either, because I don’t remember him ever laying hedges. Who knows what might (or might not) have happened in my grandfather’s time? For someone without vast resources (and you know about ministers – especially ones without stipends…) is there anything to be done?

    • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 7:03 am Reply

      Some of it is where the two fields are too small. If they’re always managed as one then there is to pressure to maintain the hedge because, for example, sheep passing through it aren’t escaping and you might not notice they’ve done it.
      When it comes to fixing it, there is a pdf telling how it’s done

      Click to access repairing.pdf

      Specifically aimed at Cornwall

      The problem is it is a lot of work.

      • rootsandroutes2012 March 6, 2021 at 10:10 am

        …and it’s a long way away!

      • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 10:43 am

        Yes it’s not something you can do on fine summer evenings 😦

  2. Books & Bonsai March 6, 2021 at 8:16 am Reply

    We don’t like to cut our hedge now, as the birds are nesting in it already. It should have been trimmed last month, but it was too bloody cold, so it will have to wait until the fledgelings have left the nests!

    • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 10:00 am Reply

      We’re nowhere near that stage yet. It’ll be a couple of weeks at least.

      • Books & Bonsai March 6, 2021 at 7:48 pm

        We have been having nesting behaviour for over a week…

      • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 8:08 pm

        I can well believe it. We will probably we a couple more weeks.

  3. Books & Bonsai March 6, 2021 at 8:16 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Books & Bonsai.

  4. wbkerr47 March 6, 2021 at 10:55 am Reply

    Any comments on the modern system of using a tractor mounted flail, from the long term view of the hedge. Will this eventually be detrimental and can it be fixed.


    • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 11:45 am Reply

      If done by somebody competent flail cutting is fine.
      The problem is that if hedges aren’t trimmed they get overgrown, become less stockproof (because growth is at the ends of the plant so the hedge becomes gappy.)
      Also they spread, pull down the fences etc.
      When they were last trimmed by hand round here by Grandfather employed three men on land I farm on my own. In simple terms to have hedges looked after and trimmed by hand we’d probably have to employ somebody full time, so even at 35hrs a week at £15 an hour for a skilled person working in all weathers we’re looking at paying £27,000 a year plus NI etc so it’d probably cost me nearly £35K
      A small farm doesn’t turn over that sort of money 😦

    • rootsandroutes2012 March 6, 2021 at 11:53 am Reply

      It’s certainly detrimental to the tyres of passing cyclists at *that* time of the year. We now use Kevlar banded tyres (Kevlar being what they use in bullet-proof vests…).

      • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 12:40 pm

        Yes, of course roadside hedges can be flailed by several different people. The Highways tend to do it to ensure road safety and aren’t limited by season.

  5. wbkerr47 March 6, 2021 at 11:51 am Reply

    Thanks I understand the economics. What I don’t understand is a flail trims the top- so the bottom of the hedge remains with gaps. So eventually the only real solution is a fence plus a flail above the fence line

    That’s what I see in Bedfordshire

    • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 12:37 pm Reply

      A flail or trimming slows the process. You trip the top and sides, this takes out the apical buds and allows the the hedge to grow out from lower branches.
      But whatever you do, you eventually get gaps at the bottom and at that point the only solution is laying the hedge.
      If your hedge is just a boundary between arable fields that matters less

  6. oldhenwife March 6, 2021 at 12:21 pm Reply

    Glad tro see it wasn’t you on the quad bike …


    • rootsandroutes2012 March 6, 2021 at 12:27 pm Reply

      It was in an area called Stank. It’s absolutely riddled with old iron ore workings – so much so that it pretty much accounts for the very existence of the Roose area of Barrow.

      • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 12:44 pm

        Indeed it also accounts for our Cornish immigrant population who came up for the mines 🙂
        It explains our Mawson and, Trescathrics,

    • jwebster2 March 6, 2021 at 12:40 pm Reply

      Yes I know the chap who did it. One of the old mine shafts opened up

  7. Stevie Turner March 6, 2021 at 12:24 pm Reply

    We’ve got Leylandii in our garden. They do indeed grow at a phenomenal rate. My husband is always cutting our serpentine hedge that runs all the way around our garden – it’s his pride and joy, lol.

  8. Cynthia Reyes March 31, 2021 at 12:25 pm Reply

    Your post reminds me that farms and country properties are such hard work to maintain, and some of it is invisible to passersby. I both miss it and don’t. Now, I didn’t realize you would still have to follow EU-regulated practices. Didn’t Brexit change that?

    • jwebster2 March 31, 2021 at 1:53 pm Reply

      The practices were set in UK law and we’re slowly looking at things. So Defra are creating a new environmental payments system. In the course of this they’re looking at stuff and hopefully weeding out the rubbish. Some of the EU stuff was fine, but some wasn’t really suitable for the UK (or Greece etc)

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