Richard Hackett: We can't hedge our bets any longer on dangerous trees

 

Hedgerows connecting with scrub woodland in Co Leitrim
Hedgerows connecting with scrub woodland in Co Leitrim

Richard Hackett

We'll start off with some history on hedgerows. The origins of the first hedgerows in Ireland were primarily to delineate townlands and delineate estate boundaries.

Drains and ditches proliferated from the 'land improvements' carried out by landlords on their estates in the 18th century required large scale land drainage schemes.

Drainage at this time was generally by digging open drains, which were then protected by planting hedges alongside to keep stock out of these open drains.

Subsequent division of lands under successive land acts also brought about further hedgerow planting and drains to delineate field boundaries, and stock-proofing became a more prominent role.

Dug and planted by hand by our ancestors, drains and hedgerows are the 'gift that keeps on giving', still keeping our fields separate and dry for tillage and for grazing 300 years later. As long as they are maintained.

One thing that tourists consistently comment on are our hedgerows, which are a unique aspect of the Irish landscape.

As little as 20 years ago, most hedgerows were annually butchered into a rough square shape, according to the machinery available at the time.

This was subsequently frowned upon, and hedgerow maintenance became one of the first targets of the then developing environmental lobby.

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Quite rightly nowadays, hedgerows are controlled by many pieces of legislation to protect them.

However, protection does not mean leave them alone, and it appears that many farmers are using the excuse of legislation to ignore their hedgerows, to the extent that they are becoming useless in terms of stock-proofing, useless in terms of biodiversity, and more importantly, downright dangerous.

Allowing hedges to grow unimpeded without any maintenance has resulted in hedges becoming lines of trees located far too close together.

Tall hedges are closing in roadways, causing excessive shading which slows down fields from drying out in the spring and excessively thick and overgrown hedges have minimal benefit to biodiversity.

More importantly allowing hedges to grow into lines of uncontrolled trees is extremely dangerous. Soil along drains do not provide sufficient anchorage to hold up lines of trees during storms.

Disease

Trees growing too tightly to one another do not thrive and are more susceptible to disease outbreak and are more likely to grow crooked and unbalanced, eventually causing limbs and whole trees to fall erratically.

By neglecting our hedgerows and actively discouraging maintenance, we have created a huge problem that will have to be addressed at some stage.

In 1740, 1741 there were two years of extremely cold and subsequently wet weather which brought about widespread famine in the country (it caused a proportionally higher mortality than the great famine of the 1840s which was caused by potato blight).

One of the results of this famine was a complete clearance of the countryside of trees and hedgerows, as wood was needed for heating and food preparation.

Following this, the Royal Dublin Society began a tree planting scheme which ran between 1766 and 1806. Some of the trees planted under this scheme are still around in our hedgerows.

However they are getting on a bit, and coupled with trees succumbing to diseases, and other trees being in the wrong place in the first instance, decisions on these potential 'widow-makers' are becoming imminent.

Management of these trees is extremely dangerous.

Decaying trees do not have consistent stable timber throughout their girth on which to rely on when cutting down, so can they can fall very unpredictably.

Hedgerow trees grow in every direction and can be very unbalanced, again causing huge difficulty when predicting how they fall during felling.

Hedgerows by their nature are along roadways, which imposes huge concerns, and laws, with regard to safety of passers-by during felling. Mature deciduous trees can weigh 8-10 tonnes, a lot of weight to manage when free-falling. In short, felling hedgerow trees must only be carried out by trained professionals. It is not a job for a few lads on a quiet day.

So by neglecting our hedges over a relatively small period of time, management of these hedges has moved from an annual run around with a hedge cutter, to an extremely expensive, and dangerous undertaking.

We will have to tackle the problem at some stage however. By leaving hedges alone, maybe for environmental reasons, maybe for cost cutting concerns, perhaps because of the conacre system which generally ignores hedgerow management, we have allowed a big problem to develop that is going to cause a huge amount of money to rectify.

Previous environmental schemes, like GLAS, REPS and AEOS, included measures for coppicing and laying hedges.

Uptake of these measures was a bit muted, and does not even start to address the scale of the problem that is developing.

As we get around to designing a new round of the CAP, with new environmental schemes, we could do worse than include an ambitious programme of hedgerow management , to run concurrently with a comprehensive training and skills programme.

Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

Indo Farming


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