The start of March usually means the end of the hedge-cutting season, but could it be that a derogation is on the way to allow an extra fortnight of cutting this year?
The Association of Farm & Forestry Contractors (FCI) has called for a hedge-cutting extension until St Patrick's Day this year given how the abnormal amount of rainfall and waterlogging prevented many hedgerows from being trimmed.
"It is accepted that soils on many farms are saturated to the point of being waterlogged. This has brought field work to a standstill, especially in areas such as time-sensitive hedge management," says FCI National Chairman Richard White.
"Field conditions for work on mechanised hedge management have been at their worst for a number of months this year. The need for an extension has never been more urgent. If that doesn't happen, many field hedgerows will remain unmanaged for 2020, causing field and road obstructions and leading to road and farm safety issues for all users."
To find out how hedge-cutting contractors are dealing with a most challenging closing period of the season, I caught up last week with Waterford-based contractor Ray Darcy. He was busy working for a farmer in scenic Tramore. I asked him for his views on the FCI request.
"I 100pc agree, but I wouldn't be holding my breath that our wish will be granted," he says. "The current closed-period deadlines are no longer practical to take account of weather conditions. In theory, we are meant to have a six-month cutting season, but this year, there were at least two months where you simply couldn't go near a farmer's land for fear of causing ground rutting and damage.
"As you can see, I fitted the tractor with special sports turf flotation tyres to help minimise the damage caused on soft ground. They cost close to €8,000 for the set of four tyres, but even that has, at times, not been enough to allow me to work.
"I would agree with the call for extending some flexibility to contractors as there is still an awful lot of hedgerow left to be cut this year - more than I can remember in any other year."
Ray says when he started out cutting hedges 36 years ago on a David Brown tractor, there was a 12 month season and it was easier to generate cashflow across the working year. That has changed now and while he is all for protecting wildlife, Darcy stresses the unique challenges that such a short working season presents for modern day hedge-cutting contracting businesses.
"The standard and costs of machinery has gone up, insurance costs have gone way up, fuel prices and labour have gone up, and all of this on a backdrop of a much shorter working season," he explains. "The challenge gets even tougher in a year like this when the weather shortens the season even further. The last week has been hectic with farmer customers trying to get hedges done when the weather allows. Only for the special sports turf tyres on the New Holland, I wouldn't have been able to go into some fields. You try and make these changes to give customers a better service, but then it's tough when the weather just doesn't allow you to get into fields."
Darcy runs three tractors on the hedge-cutting front: his reliable six-year-old New Holland T6160 is ably backed up by a three-year-old Case IH CVX tractor. A third tractor, older but still reliable, is a Ford 86300. The New Holland now has 8,600 hours on the clock and has proven to be a real goer since he bought it from Murphy Motors in Glenmore back in 2015. The CVT transmission comes in for big praise.
"It's a very high-spec tractor that is fitted with the works; continuously variable transmission, a 50kph transmission, cab suspension and fingertip controls," says Darcy. "During road travel, the eco mood kicks in and the engine falls to around 1,600rpm. The other thing I like about this tractor is it's only a four cylinder model. This means the overall road length isn't too long, which is important when you take the rear-mounted hedge cutter into consideration. The next time I change tractor, I will look for a sunroof to allow for even better visibility when cutting."
The Case CVX is a more recent addition to the Darcy fleet, bought new from another local dealer, Kill Agricultural Services, in 2017. It too comes in for high praise and has plenty of power for dealing with hedges with a lot of timber. This is very much a family business and Darcy's 26-year-old son Raymond was also flat out last week finishing off some local Council work, cutting hedges along the Waterford Greenway. Between them, both men have built up a solid reputation for reliability and cutting safety around Waterford.
In terms of hedge-cutting machinery, this team are fans of McConnel. On the rear of the New Holland is a telescopic McConnel VFR 7285, which has an impressive 7.2m reach. This is a top-end hedge-cutting machine designed for contractors and is priced at around €50,000 including VAT. The key to the machine is the telescopic design that allows the cutter head to sit ahead of the driver's position, thereby taking out the constant need to look rearwards. As a result, this machine is comfortable to operate when working for long days.
Inside the cab, McConnel's Revolution control terminal shows features such as rotor speed and power output. Usefully, the telescoping arm can also be retracted for added manoeuvrability when working in tight spaces. Powered by 85hp hydraulics and with a dedicated 200 litre oil reservoir, Darcy says the VFR 7285 requires a minimum of 100hp to drive. The hedge cutter weighs in at 4,000kg, so he uses some counter weights on the opposite side of the tractor to keep it steady during work.
Out front of the New Holland for the last while, Darcy has been running a heavy duty McConnel finger-bar cutter that he bought second hand recently. This unit has proved very valuable when going into overgrown areas that haven't seen a cutter for a few seasons. Its slow, reciprocal cutting action can cut thick overhanging woody branches up to four inches wide that pose danger for the oncoming tractor.
"If not cut, these could potentially damage the cab and windows as has happened in the past, so I've found it a great piece of kit," adds Darcy. "I don't use it all the time and I tend not to charge customers any extra for having it, but its handy to know that I can use it when the growth is strong."
Darcy first started hedge cutting 36 years ago, charging £9 an hour. He began with a David Brown 995 tractor and a Bomford Highwayman hedge cutter which had a 15ft reach. Back then, he was the only such contractor for a 15-mile radius, but these days there is much more competition.
While this year has been a challenging one, hedge cutting is still a job that he loves and takes pride in doing a good job. Darcy likes being his own boss, but says being a hedge-cutting contractor can have its drawbacks when it comes to meeting irate members of the public who are becoming ever-more watchful.
"I have to say, most people accept a certain amount of summer cutting on main roads is inevitable given the high growth rates and the effect that overgrown ditches have on driver safety. I'm all for protecting wildlife and diversity, but at the end of the day, road safety is road safety.
"Most people realise that, but there's always someone who can't see the logic and will come out to abuse you or to try and set you up by recording you. I had someone out only last week filming me with a big iPad!" he says.