Hedgerows mark boundaries, provide stock-proof barriers to keep farm and wild animals in or out of fields and in days gone by served as a source of firewood and ingredients for blackberry jam and sloe gin. Hedgerows also play a role in flood control and erosion, climate regulation, screening and noise reduction.
Of course, hedgerows are also tremendously important for wildlife. They are complex ecosystems and provide shelter, food and movement corridors for mammals, birds and insects. It is estimated that there are about 400,000km of hedgerows in the UK and of this about half are ancient or species-rich.
The Joint Nature Conservation Committee states: "Hedgerows are the most significant wildlife habitat over large stretches of lowland UK and are an essential refuge for a great many woodland and farmland plants and animals." But hedgerows need maintaining and it is up to the estate or land manager to decide how and when.
With good growing conditions, hedgerows quickly spread in size, reducing the amount of land available for food production, narrowing roadways, obscuring road signs and hiding footpaths and gates as well as crowding out smaller species such as primroses and violets. The invention of the tractor-mounted side-arm flail cutter 50 or so years ago revolutionised how hedgerows are maintained. Now we can cut them as often as we like. Or can we? Or should we?
Hedgerow cutting regimes and tips
It is argued that cutting a hedgerow every two or three years rather than every year will save money but there are also environmental benefits. For starters, much hedging material flowers on year-old wood. Trimming annually may keep hedges bushy and compact, good for many breeding birds, but it takes away the capability of flowering and therefore, importantly, the production of fruits and nuts on which much wildlife relies for food. Some insects, notably the brown hairstreak butterfly, only lay their eggs on new growth. By not cutting too often, the hedgerow is able to support more breeding birds, although a few species such as yellow hammers prefer shorter growth and should be accommodated in areas where populations are high.
Annual cuts may be deemed necessary where hedge growth causes obstruction, denies passage or presents health and safety concerns. But in these instances it is good practice to only cut the grass and plants at the base of the hedge every other or every third year because this area is important for ground-nesting birds as well as being a refuge for insects, butterflies and moths.
As with mowing, cutting a hedge less frequently may require stronger, more heavy-duty kit, although it depends on the species. It may also mean making several passes and cutting slowly. It is important that flails are kept in good condition and that the correct rotation and forward speeds are maintained so that thicker branches are not left ragged, bruised or with open wounds that invite infection.
Raising the cutting height by 10cm each time a cut is made can help and circular saws, rather than flails, may be needed where branches have a large diameter. Sooner or later, certainly for over-mature hedges and where vigour has been lost, the hedgerow will need laying or coppicing.
The general rule is to cut hedgerows in January and February - after the birds and wildlife have taken the berries and nuts - but this is not always possible. There may be crops in the field or the ground may be too soft for the weight of tractor and equipment.
Using a contractor may also mean cutting hedges in late autumn. The bird-breeding season should be avoided and for farmers and contractors it is illegal to cut hedgerows between 1 March and 31 August, although there is a campaign to bring in a risk-based approach during the month of August.
Side-arm flail hedge cutter: revolutionary kit - image: Wessex International
Heavy-duty cutting kit
Razorback Auto-Level 550 hedge cutter from Mzuri
There is no shortage of equipment designed to appeal to landowners, estate managers, local authorities and contractors. Among the newest is the Razorback Auto-Level 550 hedge cutter from Worcestershire-based British manufacturer Mzuri.
Introduced to would-be operators at Cereals 2017 - the showcase event for the arable industry held in Lincolnshire in June - the Razorback is a vertical-axis rotary hedge cutter with self-levelling Co-Pilot technology. Designed to deliver productivity, it has a 1.5m-wide cutting head with a SoftStart triple rotor, additional mulching blades and hydraulically controlled front hood and rear roller.
The design means the blades are in contact with the growth during their 360 degs cycle, awarding a much faster and cleaner cut and superior mulching. The rotary action and side deflectors ensure debris is efficiently contained by the hood with considerably less material thrown onto the road or into the tractor cab.
Particularly innovative is the Auto-Level Co-Pilot technology. This has been developed to ensure that the head and main frame of the machine remain level at all times, irrespective of the tractor angle, and this is especially useful when working from undulating ground. The feature results in a smooth finish regardless of the terrain, making for a more comfortable and trouble-free experience.
Operation of the Razorback has been designed to be simple yet precise. The machine's electronic proportional controls incorporate a three-axis joystick while the main control box features rotor on/off, level sensitivity and Auto-Level Co-Pilot on/off functions.
With a 5.5m reach, the Razorback should prove at home with all vergeand hedge-cutting tasks, and it will tackle twoto three-year-old growth. "It allows users to top and side hedges in fewer passes compared with conventional counterparts, leaving a highly professional finish at double the output," confirms Mzuri business development director Ausra Landey.
A standard Razorback Auto-Level 550 machine retails at £28,480 + VAT and is expected to become available at the end of the year. The specification includes the 1.5m head, hydraulically controlled front hood and rear roller, Auto-Level Co-Pilot with electronic proportional controls and a fully independent hydraulic system with oil cooler.
Power Arm: high-performance hedge cutting systems - image: Mcconnel
McConnel's new 75 Series Power Arms
Launched at the same Cereals event, McConnel's new 75 Series Power Arms are available with 5.6m, 6.4m, 6.5m, 7.7m and 8m reach, powered by high-performance hydraulic systems. Intended for professional contractors making a living from hedge and verge cutting, these units feature a new high-efficiency oil tank and cooling system designed to deliver superior de-aeration performance, produce very low overall flow velocity and eliminate areas in the tank where resting oil can concentrate. The new system ensures consistent cooling in all weather conditions and reduces heat build-up.
There is a choice of arm sets on the PA 75 Series - standard, telescopic, variable forward reach and telescopic variable forward reach. The new Tele-VFR arm set is said to be the most advanced in the industry and enables operators to position the flail head alongside the cab for enhanced visibility while offering extra reach on demand for greater manoeuvrability. The tractor requirement is 120hp and at least 5,000kg weight.
The new series has also been designed to get the best from Revolution, McConnel's eight-function proportional control system. This features joystick precision, fully customisable controls and software developed in-house by the company.
McConnel UK sales manager Jonathan Webb says: "The new 75 Series is extremely robust and is ideal for busy professional contractors. Its enhanced cooling and hydraulics systems offer significant breakthroughs in performance and productivity."
Becx Machines' HS75HR hedge cutter
New from Dutch manufacturer Becx Machines, the HS75HR has a working width of just 75cm - the smallest hedge cutter in the range. It has two rotary-type cutters and its small size it means it requires an oil flow of only 24 litres per minute.
Hedge cutting: guide to best practice
- Where possible cut hedgerows every two or three years except where growth is likely to impede passage or cause health and safety concerns.
- If hedgerows have to be cut annually, then consider cutting the grass and plants at the base on a twoor three-year programme.
- Try to cut in January or February, or in autumn if necessary.
- Do not cut in the nesting season (March to August).
- Allow the hedge to flower and fruit.
- Encourage thick basal vegetation.
- Do not cut all hedgerows in the same year.
- Avoid damaging the hedge by ensuring flails are in good condition and the correct rotor and forward speeds are maintained.
- Maintaining a diversity of hedge shapes and sizes will suit a wider range of wildlife.
- Vertical-sided hedges are less wildlife-friendly than those that have sloping sides.
Hedge cutter supplier details
Suppliers of tractor-mounted hedge cutters include:
Becx Machines (00 31 13 513 1140) makes a range of cutter heads with rotary blades.
Bomford Turner (01789 773383) manufacturers a wide range of side-arm flail mowers and additionally offers circular-saw heads as well as a reciprocating cutter bar called the MicroKlippa.
McConnel (01584 873131) offers a vast range of Power Arms, plus accessories, suitable for landscape, municipal, grounds care and contractor markets. In addition to flail and circular-saw head, McConnel builds the SwingTrim reciprocating hedge cutter.
Mzuri (01905 841123) has just entered the marketplace with the Razorback Auto-Level 550.
Opico (01778 421111) supplies Maschio machines Camilla and Katia with reaches from 4.5m to 6.5m.
Ryetec (01944 768232) specialises in grounds care, forestry and farming machinery and offers four series of side-arm flail mowers along with the Multi-Disc saw blade attachment.
Shelbourne Reynolds (01359 250415) offers a range of verge and hedge cutters for grounds care, municipal and contractor use. Tractor requirement starts at 50hp.
Siromer (01253 799029) supplies finger bar and flail cutters for its range of compact tractors.
Spearhead (01789 491860) supplies reach mowers and Twiga hedge cutters for all situations from estate use to municipal and utility.
Twose (01884 253691) supplies five series of hedge cutters from a 3.2m model for compacts to a 6.75m machine for 70hp tractors weighing 3,000kg.
Weaving Machinery (01386 49155) has a range of machines for parks and gardens including the flagship 5m-reach Green Shark unit with 1.2m cutting width.
Wessex International (01264 345870) has a range of five machines for use with compact tractors and offering reaches from 3.2m to just under 6m.