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Saturday 10 December 2016

Wexford contractor hedges bets by branching out for new work

Wexford contractor exploring new avenues such as scrub land clearance to beat the recession

Bruce Lett

Published 06/09/2011 | 05:00

With the harvest nearly over, for many it is again time to prepare for the next cycle of cultivation and planting. In many parts of the country there are trees and vegetation that need to be trimmed back after the summer growth and before any cultivation is carried out. Some farmers own their own hedgecutters but many get contractors in to perform this task.

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I always find it interesting to talk to someone who has been in business for as long as hedgecutting contractor Davy O'Connor.

Mr O'Connor, from Rathnure, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, is in his fourth decade of the hedgecutting business.

Like many of us, his focus at the moment is on getting through the current recession and remaining in business.

Mr O'Connor started out in business 35 years ago when he bought his first hedgecutter, a McConnell Hyreach for £1,600. But getting going back then was not as easy.

"There were no hedges at the time, you had to convince farmers to make hedges out of overgrown ditches. I was lucky to get hired by Wexford County Council to cut hedges on the roads, but this was only seasonal work. I was hedgecutting at £4 per hour."

Developed

After a while, Mr O'Connor developed his business into other areas of agricultural contracting such as beet harvesting and tillage. This didn't go well for him though.

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"I borrowed a lot of money, unfortunately falling behind on payments and this caused trouble. I decided that hedgecutting was the best of a bad lot," he recalls.

"We tendered for (public) contracts and were lucky enough to get contracts with the ESB, Irish Rail and Coillte, as well as the council."

This created a steady influx of hedgecutting work as well as cutting hedges for farmers.

"Over the past few years we have expanded the hedgecutting business, running between five and eight McConnell hedgecutters and a Moffet saw."

Mr O'Connor always tended to purchase older second-hand tractors and second-hand hedgecutters and this has perhaps helped his business survive throughout the years.

"If I had bought new tractors in the boom times, 2007 or 2008, I would be in awful trouble now. I have found through the past two years that it is hard to make ends meet, with expenses increasing and income falling. Government bodies in particular don't have as much money to go around."

Insurance and fuel costs have gone up but prices for work has gone down, he explains.

Running the business with Mr O'Connor is his wife Ann, son Noel and daughter Kelly.

"I couldn't run the business without Ann, and Noel has a great interest in the hedgecutting business," he says.

The business supports five full-time staff and this rises to eight during peak times. Mr O'Connor credits the ability of his staff plus their loyalty and his customers as part of the reason for the businesses survival.

BOom

"We are lucky that we employ great operators and have customers who have stood by the business over the years. In the boom times any of the staff, who are all very capable, could have left for the big money being offered in the building industry. Thankfully they didn't."

Not one to stand still, Mr O'Connor is developing new avenues within the business.

"At the moment there is much more manual chainsaw work out there, particularly with the ESB and the railway. We have got into chipping and shredding as well as part of that."

He has also invested in more specialised equipment in the form of specialised tungsten-tipped mulcher.

"At the moment, we are again expanding and feel there may be an opening in the area of scrub land clearance and we have purchased a Seppi M multiforest, capable of clearing wasteland and roadway maintenance," he says.

"This machine is said to be capable of mulching pretty much anything and will be on display at the National Ploughing Championships."

Risk taking and diversification in business is all part of survival and Mr O'Connor is certainly looking forward with his latest purchase.

"We hope that incorporating this [scrub land clearance] into our current hedgecutting business will allow us to broaden the extent of work which we engage in throughout the year," he adds.

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