Thursday, 27 November 2008


Haws - the fruit of Crataegus monogyna - 
a life-saver for birds, particularly migrant winter thrushes.

To all of you across the pond - a belated HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

My son arrived at our house yesterday in a towering rage, wheeling a bicycle with two flat tyres. One of the local farmers, it seems, was using a flail machine to cut his roadside hedges and as anyone - apart from my son - knows, whichever way a hawthorn twig lies, there will always be a spike pointing upwards. 

It would be unreasonable to resent the farmer for hedge cutting - a necessary chore to keep the growth dense, to size and stock-proof.  But does it have to be with those hideous and dangerous flail slashers?  And does it have to be now, when hedgerows are larders for wildlife?  

A juvenile blackbird enjoys ripening Amelanchier fruits in our garden.

Good farmers are careful and timely, overhauling their hedges and ditches with minimal damage. They avoid trimming in autumn, when wild fruits and seeds are so vital for sustaining birds, mammals and invertebrates; then, when they do cut, they manage the task with minimal intrusion.  But there are one or two bone-headed cretins who haven't a clue about conservation and worse, a few callous bastards who don't give a damn about wildlife, beauty or bicycle tyres. 

These idiots seem happy to smash and mangle verge-side shelter belts, injure hedgerow trees and, of course, wreck the hedges themselves.  One in my previous village would wait until the wild blackberries were ripe and luscious, and would then get out his vicious, dangerous, hideous flail slasher and bugger everything up, not only for those wanting blackberry and apple crumble for Sunday lunch, but also wrecking things for late butterflies, arriving migrant fieldfares and redwings, resident thrushes, wrens, tits (whoops, pardon missis, no double entendre intended)  voles and field mice - not to mention bees, hover flies and other invertebrates.

Since farmers receive more than £2billion in subsidies, allegedly for stewardship of the land, perhaps there should be more careful policing of just how that dosh gets spent.  Farmers who turn out to be crap at such essential husbandry should be trained, perhaps, or at the very least, educated.  One wonders, though, how much of that £2billion goes towards the next BMW, rather than on building up skylark numbers, making life easier for barn owls or encouraging verge-side cowslips.  

But enough ranting!  Stop it!  Stop it!!  Stoppit!!!

The bountiful summer of 2006, when berries of wild privet hung like  grapes.

No, what I really wanted to say was that the autumn berries seem to be holding out remarkably well this year.  We have cotoneasters still in full fig, lots of hollies burgeoning for the coming festivities, viburnums, hips, haws and so on.  Lots of colour, lots of joy!

I wondered how such bounty had come about, when spring was so vile and the past summer so wet.  In previous bad years, I seem to remember that yields were poorer but perhaps, since this is the second wet summer in a row, all the excessive growth of 2007 has resulted in more fruit. Plants have a remarkable ability to adjust their behaviour to prevailing conditions - even though they'd be pretty crap at scratching an itch! 

Purging buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, food plant of the 
brimstone butterfly, but also provider of food for autumn birds.

I was trawling through my picture library and discovered a batch of images shot on 21st November 2006, in a nature reserve on Thurlby Fen.  The summer had been an exceptionally warm and dry and the most familiar, showy fruits covered the scrubby vegetation in staggering profusion –  blackberries, rose hips, hawthorns, honeysuckle and startling scarlet bryony berries.  But there was also a rich band of tenors and basses, supporting these jazzy trebles. Cloudy grey dewberries – or were they dewy grey cloudberries? – dotted the knee-high undergrowth near the hedge bottoms and on the normally nondescript wild privets and purging buckthorns, black, gleaming berries hung like ripening grapes.  

The birds were treated to a sumptuous banquet, that winter, and I returned to the reserve dozens of times, feeling sure that such abundance would attract our handsomest winter migrant birds – the waxwings. But did I see one?  Did I heck!

As a PS - I don't know what pushed me into ranting about farmers at the top of this post.  I was inspired, indirectly, to write about the berries by this world famous  AWARD WINNING JOURNALIST designer and hatstand .  He usually ends his posts with a note on what he is listening to and what he was doing this time last year - hence my trawl of piccies from the past.

I listening, by the way, to our central heating boiler which is sounding distinctly odd.  Brewing up, I suspect, for its usual Yuletide malfunction.


  1. If you want to see waxwings, do come to our local Sainsbury's. They're a regular feature in the carpark each winter, feasting on all the berries. It's the one time I forgive the supermarket for having an otherwise unspired planting.

    As for Cotoneaster in full fig - if only my fig tree would fruit as productively as my Cotoneaster. *Big sigh*

    When I started reading this I was gearing up to having a major rant about the Stewardship scheme in your Comments, but I see you've beaten me to it. What a service you are providing for your readers! I'm feeling much better as a result ;)

  2. The council flailed our hedgerows this year just as we were to pick blackberries for bottling and jam.

    Goodbye damsons too.

    I don't make sloe gin but the people who do can't have been happy either.

    I went to the council offices to complain but nobody relevant was in.


    Later, I received an email saying it should have been done in July as well but their contractor let them down. Their next flail is planned for May.

    They say it's to keep budleia 'out of the sightline of cyclists'.

    I understand that but it is done with such violence! They cleared the ground well after the machines had been by but there are half-cut branches still hanging from the trees and bushes, with the rain seeping into them, discolouring the wood.


  3. Lucy, if your council is planning to flail hedges in May and in the process, disturb nesting birds, they could be committing an offence. Perhaps they might want to reconsider. The RSPB might want to be in that frame too, and I'm sure could give them wise advice!

  4. I still have the email from the council and there is an RSPB reserve not far away.

    I'll get in touch with the people there.

    Thanks for the advice.


  5. Lovely bit of Colborning about the hedge flail. You are, of course, absolutely spot on it is a hideously violent process: akin to mowing a toad (a experience that scarred me deeply). I have had car tyres punctured by widespread flailings.
    Anyway,good berries - especially blackbird on Amelanchier. Exactly how purging is Rhamnus cathartica? Suitable for clearing a small blockage or only for complete scourging? (I ask purely from curiosity rather than any sort of digestive problem.)

  6. Interesting, but predictable rant:I was expecting better from such an informed commentator.When I first started farming in the 70s, we cut our hedges with circular saw type cutters-a two man job which left narrow and gappy hedges. The nature of the machine made it impossible to merely trim:it needed to get its teeth into solid wood.I must admit that I thought that flail hedgecutters would ruin our hedges:far from it, they produce a much tidier finished product, leaving more body in the hedge for wildlife.Providing , of course ,that the operator knows what he is doing!
    We are in various stages of Environmental Stewardship, and aim to cut our hedges on a 2 to 3 yearly rotation, not (usually) both sides in the same year. This wider frequency naturally produces more cut material, but most contractors’ flails are fitted with a blower to clear the roads.We leave ours until after Christmas: good for the birds, but this means that in a wet year such as this we may not be able to do as many hedges as planned.
    Post harvest trimming is a necessary evil in an arable situation, however this can be mitigated by adoption of say 6 metre headland grass margins where suitable. One query: how can I and everyone else cut my garden hedge at any time of the year, regardless of nesting birds? If I was to cut my farm hedges during the March to August close period, not that I would, I’d quite rightly be persecuted by the might of the Rural Payments Agency.
    Have you any suggestions for berry-bearing shrubs, preferably with scented or aromatic flowers, leaves or other structures?

  7. Wittenden - I'm wondering, from your experience with flailing, whether I'm right to worry about the branches which are left frayed and split and half hanging off in the hedgerows?

    It's not just Buddleia (which grows like a weed here) but Oak and Hawthorn, even Apple trees.

    And, if flails are to be used, when would you say is the best time of year to do it?

    I think I remember a test at Wisley (somewhere like that) where rose bushes were flailed instead of pruned. They carried on flowering ok but there was a question about what would happen over time - whether they'd became more prone to disease because, with normal pruning, you are aiming to allow air to circulate and that can't be achieved with a flail.

    With a hedge, you are generally aiming for the opposite - a dense structure rather than an airy one - but isn't there going to be a problem with disease if you leave lots of damaged branches and other woody debris there?

    I have noticed in some places, there is a resurgence in hedge-laying. Clearly, layering miles of hedges would be too time consuming for most farmers so why are they doing it? Would you say this is because it is the best way to look after a hedge if you possibly can - or is it like dry stone walling, an old practice that isn't exactly necessary (even though it looks lovely) and which can be treated as much as a hobby as a useful skill?

    Nigel - I hope you don't mind me asking these things through your comment box - but I don't know how otherwise to ask Wittenden and I'd be really interested in his /her answers.


  8. Wittenden - would that more farmers were like you! Thanks for your comments, and sorry I wasn't able to deliver better for you. But this blog is subject to occasional rants and I'm afraid I've no intention of reforming.

    I also farmed in the 70s and agree that the hedging chores were far more difficult, with PTO-driven circular saws. As you say, timing is the key to combining necessary hedge maintenance with good conservation, and a longer interval between cuts - exactly what you do.

    I wish I could say that most farmers were as careful as you obviously are, but in my travels about Britain, I have to say that i see more bad practice than good.

    Huge numbers of gardeners seem to be just as bad at nature conservation as some farmers, possibly worse, in fact, so your question about when to cut is a nice one. The traditional time for single cuts is August. But one or two late brood birds may still be rearing fledglings in early August so I try to do mine between mid August and mid September. Berry-bearing hedges are another matter, of course, and I don't think any clipping time is completely damage-free.

    All cotoneasters seem to deliver well, I love both our native viburnums, V. opulus and V. lantana. Honeysuckles, though climbers rather than shrubs, have brilliant berries, espeically the selected wild form Lonicera periclymenum 'Graham Stuart Thomas'. A lot of gardeners swear by Pyracantha, a lovely berry cropper, but I usually swear AT it because the thorns are so vicious. For fragrance, most of the Skimmias are good berry plants, especially S japonica. My Christmas box produces small black berries which get eaten, again by blackbirds and thrushes, and I grow Daphne tangutica, D. laureola and D. mezereum which all have sweet fragrance and juicy berries. Finally, be sure to grow Mahonia japonica which has the sweetest fragrance, wonderful blue-black late summer berries and nutritious pollen and nectar which is highly popular with over-wintering black caps.
    Hope that helps. Gosh - it did get long, didn't it!

  9. Lucy - OF COURSE you can use the comment box for asking questions etc. That's what makes this blog worth doing. Anyone else can, too.

  10. Hello Nigel, this was a true pleasure to read this 'Berrily ' and you had a great photo of my favorite bird the Tardus m. merula. It is Swedens National bird!/ Tyra

  11. Nigel ,thanks for your comments.Lucy, I agree that flails are not ideal, but we have to make the best of a bad job: I understand that there are circular saw type hedgers either on the market or on the drawing board, but I suggest they would be a contractor/specialist application. Regarding damage to the plant material, I don’t personally like to see damaged branches and torn stems. However, most hedge plants seem to be fairly tough old things, and to a layman, disease does not seem apparent.Looking at trees damaged in the 87 Hurricane, I can’t see much diseased growth, but an arborist would probably disagree.
    I would rather deal with larger branches with the chainsaw, but this isn’t always practical. Again, cutting material down to ground level, in the absence of a friendly (and cheap) hedge layer, is the best way of rejuvenating an overstood hedge. Under our Countryside Stewardship agreement, I coppiced a length of neglected hedge a few years back: its now ready for a trim, and is looking healthy and fairly stock proof.Pity I didn’t take any photos!

  12. Thanks for your reply, Wittenden.

    re. the photos you didn't take - do you have a blog yourself? If you do, I suspect it would be very interesting.

    Mine is LOOSE AND LEAFY and I've been planning a series of photos which will show the same hedgerow trees and the same pieces of ground over a year.

    I've delayed in starting, partly because I keep being distracted by other interesting things and in part because I've been trying to chose trees I can stand back from to see the shape but also get near enough to to show what is happening on the branches.

    Nigel's Berrily Berrily Post - and your own remarks are making me think I should modify my plans.

    I've been looking for bushes which haven't (to my eyes) been messed up by the flails. Now, I think I should chose some which have - to see what happens to them over the course of a year; especially because the council plans are for three cuttings - May, July and September.

    (Incidentally, they employ a contractor and the machines they use are massive, not the tractor-with-a-bit-sticking-out-the-side I have been accustomed to seeing in other places.)


  13. I'm so happy to have found your blog. Your photos are wonderful -- and I enjoyed your rant very much! :)

  14. To let you know - this did influence me into changing my series of posts about hedgerow trees and bushes.

    I've been going round photographing the three-month-old scars left by flailing and the first post about it is on LOOSE AND LEAFY
    today. (Sunday 7th)

    I mention your rant, Nigel. Hope this is ok.


  15. Hi Nigel, i came here from Lucy (Lose and Leafy's) blog. I'm in the States and had never heard of this practice, and it's a shame. Your rant let me know something I would otherwise never have been aware of. Thanks!
    ~ Monica