Destroyed habitats, blocked drains and that’s just for starters. After decades working to support farming and agriculture in various government agencies, Peter Hull shares his views on why farm hedge trimming needs to change.
I have always felt strongly for a long time now that the practice of neatly topping and trimming hedges wastes valuable fossil fuels and also degrades habitats for wildlife. Hedges alongside the highway must be trimmed for safety reasons but there are probably tens of thousands of miles or kilometres of internal farm hedges which need not be so aggressively trimmed. There are several benefits to the environment in doing so.
Going back a few decades, hedges were trimmed using a 35 hp tractor with a mechanically belt driven cutter bar. Now we see tractors of over 100 hp trimming hedges with hydraulically powered flailing heads. Transmission of power by hydraulic transmission is hugely inefficient. To compound the inefficiency, flails are a blunt tool for cutting wood. The inefficiency of cutting hedges and wasting valuable fossil fuels across the UK is huge.
Blocking drains and subsequent localised flooding
The other problem with this type of machine is that, although it shreds the woody material and most of the shredded material drops into the hedge itself, some of the shredded material ends up on the road. This gets washed into drains, blocking them and causing localised flooding. There is a need for a different design of hedge trimmer that is kinder to hedges, makes cleaner cuts and clears up any material from the roads.
Degradation of wildlife habitats
Not only is the whole process hugely inefficient in the use of energy, but it destroys wildlife habitats. Flails are often too blunt and just abrade the wood, leaving a very ragged cut which, as any gardener will tell you, leaves the hedge susceptible to disease and degradation. Very often the tops and sides of farm hedges are cut so aggressively that the woody thorny plants do not survive and brambles and bracken invade the tops and sides of banks of hedges.
Shade and shelter for livestock
In livestock areas taller hedges provide shade and shelter for stock. If the predictions of global warming are realised and the temperature increases, shade and shelter for stock will become more necessary. Another good reason for not topping hedges so aggressively or not topping them at all, if they can be laid traditionally, is that they produce some wood from thinning the hedge at the time of laying it.
The cost analysis of trimming versus laying
It would be interesting to look at the cost of no or reduced annual trimming as opposed to laying a hedge say every 10 years to 15 years, depending on altitude. The costs of labour and machinery in both cases would need to be assessed to prove if the reduction in labour and machinery for annual trimming is any more (or less) than laying a hedge over a longer time period. The benefit of any renewable resource would also need to be taken into account.
The country as a whole and the farming industry are missing a valuable resource. If farmers could be persuaded to manage their hedges differently it could generate a valuable renewable resource: biomass. There are some notable good examples on Exmoor, where laying hedges has always been traditional. It is the farms which have little or no support through government schemes which tend to resort to trimming hedges excessively because they probably feel that allowing them to grow up and outwards causes them a lot of work and expense in future years.
Providing examples of good practice
In the absence of any encouragement by the authorities, I do wonder if wildlife groups could be more proactive and find farms which are less aggressive in their trimming regime and promote these practices and benefits to other farmers. Even better if they could find several neighbouring farms who may be persuaded in one locality to improve hedges say over a wider area and enhance wildlife habitats.
There are several issues here that could be corrected in ‘one hit’ by different hedge management techniques. It is not easy changing farmers’ minds, I know. I firmly believe, though, that an improved design of hedge trimmer, combined with maybe side trimming hedges but not topping them could reduce fossil fuel consumption and a saving in fuel and cost. It may also generate some income from biomass as a renewable resource. Ultimately, however, it would help to reduce global warming and at the same time improve wildlife habitats.
As a retired employee of Natural England, please be aware that Peter’s views do not represent or necessarily reflect the current views and policies of Natural England.
About the author
Peter Hull began his civil service career as a Mechanisation Adviser for the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS), later converted into the Farm and Conservation Agency before falling under DEFRA, and undertook various roles there. Prior to retirement, he worked as a Project Officer with Natural England, dealing with the Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme on Exmoor.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Mike Pinard June 13th, 2019
I agree that the twice down each side once over the top is a pretty ridiculous thing from a nature point of view but so many people farmers and the public like nice neat hedges as it looks tidy.
We rotationally coppice ours as opposed to laying them and the stink that kicks off when we do is quite alarming. We have had letters of outrage in the local press and huge criticism on social media from those who have absolutely no idea. We now put up signs explaining but even so face criticism from some of the public for ruining the hedge as a greedy farmer. Sometimes you just can’t win.
2Peter Hull June 14th, 2019
Well done Mike, yes hedges need to be managed. I guess the public need to be better informed about what is needed when hedges need to be cut and managed for the future. I have seen plenty of examples of no management on Exmoor. Tall Beech trees maybe 100 years old have been left to grow, this degrades the bank which washes out making the hedge derelict. Hedges need long term management and the public need to be informed on what this entails.
3Paula June 15th, 2019
Well done on the signs then – that should help. I agree that more news articles in local papers,on local social media pages where I saw this piece by Peter would perhaps help to enlighten people. Similar social media posts explaining what is happening and why, when hedge management is about to progress or is underway would also help I expect. I am sure you are right – many just do not understand what is happening or what is required to keep the hedge productive and in good condition. If they were not born into it I suppose they are unlikely to understand unless farmers and related industry workers take the time to explain. I was born and grew up in the country surrounded by country people, but am not specifically from a farming background.Your subsequent comment Peter about the tall Beech is for instance a point that I had not given thought to previously. I don’t believe people are deliberately stupid but the more who move out of suburban areas into country areas, the more they need help from people like yourselves to enable them to understand countryside and farmland management.
4Mike Pinard June 15th, 2019
Paula. Your right in we should try harder but I think that the public attitudes have changed over the years.
Many moons ago walkers or riders coming across us by a coppiced hedge would ask why we had done that and would be happy with the explanation.
Now the approach is usually combative and of the ‘what have you xxxxxxs done or worse. Even if you explain often you are not believed because they are (internet) experts.
I usually end up by saying come back next year and see, even that doesn’t suffice for some.
Being in an urban area doesn’t help but I sometimes think it would be easier to do nothing.
5Peter Hull June 18th, 2019
It seems to me there is a disconnect between urban and rural dwellers. Farming ambassadors like Adam on BBC Country File are good at explaining why certain operations have to take place on farms. Maybe we need more Adams across the Country to help heal this rift and to get some dialogue going. The LEAF Scheme goes someway to doing this. Rural Studies in schools would also help I think.
6Peter Hull July 25th, 2019
Just found this cutter bar hedgetrimmer https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/123153410358
7Sandra Wheeler February 17th, 2020
Peter,I do dislike seeing flailed hedges to the degree that I wince when I see them.
I had a of damaged tyres as a community nurse in the hedgecutting season usually on a back lane with no signal! It is lovely to see a well laid hedge which grows into good stockproof hedging and wonderful support for our wildlife. Sandra
8Elaine February 18th, 2020
Peter Hull On a related note, you may like to sign and share my petition to introduce GCSEs in Wildlife and Conservation! More coulda d should be done in schools. Thanks. It’s http://www.change.org/GCSEs/Wildlife
9Ellie Young February 18th, 2020
I totally agree some of the hedges look as if they have been butchered with a bread knife.
I love to see layed hedges. This helps them to grow thicker and so much better for the wild life.
10Peter Hull February 19th, 2020
Thanks for your comments. It would be good to see some change. Unfortunately the current Government doesn’t seem that interested in the issue. I think my only hope is that Wildlife Groups around the country will show a lead and promote examples of good practise.
11Mike Pinard February 19th, 2020
The whole problem is not mindset its lack of labour and economic. Years ago this smallish ( by today’s standard) 300 acres would had at least four or five farmhands. That is in reality saying it would support five or six families, today it doesn’t fully support one.
The winter months were a time for hedge and ditch maintenance most work being done by hand. Hedges had two purposes firstly as a boundary, secondly as stock control. Today the boundary reason still exists and they have to be cut so with no labour it is machine work.
For stock control again lack of labour means usually run out wire and the job is done for many years.
A flail is not perfect but it’s not the problem it’s cutting every year which kills hedges. If they are rotationally cut at different heights a flail can do a good job. Also cutting too low fills the base up with deadwood which speeds up the decline.
Another problem is the stupidity of the law that reduces the time allowed to cut hedges, by condensing the time arbitrarily it puts pressure on and so a quick once over is the only way some can manage. I know that the law was to protect nesting birds but flexibility would allow farmers to be more selective.
Another reason to prevent farmers letting the hedge spread is satellite mapping, the Govt assesses field size by satellite, if I allow my hedges to spread and some outrunners to establish then next year I am penalised by a reduced payment as the field is ‘smaller’ on bigger farms this can be a substantial amount of money and as the only profit in farming is the subsidy it’s a real deterent.
Fortunately I believe the new eco scheme takes this into account and encourages this practice so there is some hope. Field corners are not economic to farm and many farmers would gladly leave then for nature if this change is made.
As with all things the problem is not black and white and the answer not always obvious.
12Peter Hull February 19th, 2020
Yes Mike, I sympathise and I do understand your comments very well. I have never farmed but I have worked on farms, taught in Agricultural colleges and been responsible for grant aiding hedge laying etc on Exmoor. My time on Exmoor really created my interest in this issue. I saw how well hedges could be managed. It was, of course, possible with the considerable help of grant aid. As an Agricultural Engineer and one who has worked in Government Conservation Schemes, unfortunately I see the effects of poor hedge management in my locality. Unfortunately the Govt in their wisdom do not seem to want to get engage with good management of hedges over the UK as a whole and give some incentives to help.
I agree farmers need incentives now that labour has been reduced to very low levels on farms generall but many farms employ contractors to cut their hedges and they provide the labour and machinery to do this. My article was trying to encourage better management of hedges and at the same time provide maybe some ideas for discussion especially for the authorities to help this along.
Without some leadership from Govt it is not going to happen some time soon, unfortunately.
13Mervyn Woodward February 19th, 2020
I thought the above debate was very constructive with one reservation. Do we really believe that the government should be intervening and solving this? You could perhaps enlist a school, or alternative, to promote a policy using the power of social media which seems to work for negative issues so may work for positive. Use social media and the young for good.
14Peter Hull February 19th, 2020
Thanks Mervyn, unfortunately farm incomes are very low at the moment and as Mike Pinnard points out that some smaller farmers are finding it difficult to provide the labour to complete good hedge management. Without the money to do this over the whole of the UK it does need some leadership from DEFRA.
15Mike Pinard February 19th, 2020
Mervyn. It’s greatly in theory but voluntary work is like herding cats and by the time anything had been agreed the hedge would be dead. Also the amount of hedgerow in this country that could be laid/coppiced by the available skilled individuals is minute. You can’t suddenly get back the 400,000+ people that did this full time for four months of the year so an alternative must be found.
Government can give a lead and so a small percentage of hedges could be renewed and incentives given as I said to allow hedges to grow and regain a purpose.
Unfortunately or otherwise in reality the only tool at present available is the flail but better use of it could be a good start.
Without a huge amount of money and manpower we will never again be in the position to treat hedges as they were so the discussion must be to find an acceptable, affordable practical alternative and for this dirt farmers need to be in at the decision making stage or repeats of the mistakes will be made.
16Michael Overton February 20th, 2020
Some thoughts and questions from a non-farmer student ?
On arable land, letting a hedge grow out and letting it regenerate at its margins rather than mowing off new shoots would probably provide a much more significant boundary, shelter belt, wildlife corridor and even a few more trees if you believe those things are important. Why burn diesel, service flails, disturb wildlife and shred young trees unnecessarily? I understand there may come a point when you start to loose the edge of the field (perhaps after many years depending on initial separation), but surely it’s worth it to help put the breaks on soil, pollinator, tree and wildlife declines. If farmers are desperate to revert back, well it’s not all that difficult to tear it all out again as we’ve seen. Perhaps that could even come from a subsidy payout for those unhappy with the results. Should highways take the same approach to verges (although often it’s farmers who do the work for ‘free’ and without being asked)? Should people should just drive more slowly if they can’t see round bends?
What I’m not sure about is current set-aside rules. Do they mean all farmers need to keep a specific field margin low or just land under a stewardship scheme? Additionally, how might this work in a livestock farming context? How common is it for a hedge to be the only or even the main barrier to stock? If some bits of the hedge thinned out (presumably some would other parts wouldn’t) would this be a major headache for livestock owners? I’m also thinking of possible benefits such as additional browsing and shelter.
I’d be interested to hear whether these management questions actually centre on tradition and aesthetics (not that these are in any way ‘unimportant’ to people who live in a place), or whether perhaps there are significant economic drivers/stoppers to different forms of hedgerow management?
17Peter May 16th, 2020
There is an argument for keeping hedges cut reasonably short as they provide a more dense and predator safe habitat for nesting birds. If left untrimmed for too long the hedge opens up and predators like jays bounce along the hedge top vantage points looking for food. All in all, especially taking into account the satellite field measurements issue, it’s best to cut them every couple of years on opposing sides and never let the height get out of hand.
18Maxi Freeman May 16th, 2020
A local farmer used a massive tractor in the middle of the wettest winter to trim hedges down to 3ft in some places. He said he had a ‘duty’ to cut them. The hedges were along a footpath. Do you know if there is such a ‘duty’? The farmer is on the Cotswold AONB board and has been accepted as a pilot for the ELMS scheme.
19Mike Pinard May 16th, 2020
Maxi Freeman it is the local aquthorities duty to upkeep the surface of a ROW but the landowners to stop encroachment from vegetation alongside. So yes it’s his duty but I can’t say if he’s right or wrong in the manner of the cutting.