While getting on with some hand cutting, our young jobbing forestry contractor laments the work of enthusiastic amateurs – an increasing occurrence in the world of agriculture.

JUST recently it became apparent, after advertising my particular skillset to the farmers and landowners of northern England, that the knowledge they possess on tree planting and forestry in general is somewhat meagre. In fact I might even go a step further and declare the majority don’t have a clue.

I know this from first-hand experience, having grown up in the farming community, working with livestock, shearing sheep and employing – albeit on a part-time basis – mainly young farmers. I am, therefore, immersed on a daily basis in the farming scene and am pretty much on the pulse and can empathise with the average shepherd who might only get out once a week for bread and dog biscuits. I can come face to face with a farmer, look them in the eye (something most land agents struggle with) and talk farm. I bridge a wide river between the food sector and the tree sector.

Farmers do what farmers do best when they’re not farming and that’s talking – usually at the mart or, while stopping all the traffic on the high street, from the rolled down window of some old Land Rover Defender. Even if they don’t have any, they enjoy talking about sheep, cattle and wheat, but now, due to the direction of the stewardship gravy train, they’re talking about hedging.

Your average ‘mixed species’ hedge including plants and labour costs roughly £10.50 per metre to plant. Last year, farmer’s stewardship grants were paying out roughly £11 per metre of new hedge to set. The government grant has since rocketed up to just under £23 per metre and farmers can make a small fortune and at the same time get some shelter for their lambs. It’s a no-brainer.


I’m still a relatively young chap, but in my experience it’s clear that whenever any government throws money at something then vast amounts get wasted. From what I’ve observed over recent months, the influx of cash now up for grabs is causing chaos in the flat-cap community with farmer Ted, farmer Fred and Old MacDonald all in a frenzy to capitalise. What’s embarrassing from my point of view and of some concern is that in order to maximise the capital gain many farmers, with absolutely no experience, are having a go themselves.

What they don’t know about hedge planting doesn’t seem to bother them and after a few hours of dragging an old feed bag stuffed with trees and some randomly scattered shallow-planted hawthorn to show for their efforts it’s job done. One such individual, someone I know well, has just completed his 500-metre ‘night hedge’. A hedge planted over the course of two months entirely at night and in the dark with only a head torch. Rather than asking for a bit of help or, heaven forbid, paying someone to do it in the daylight, he has finally completed his night hedge.

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I’ve put on Tubex tubes in the past with a head torch and I’ve also snedded out the last few trees on a site under the lights of a forwarder or harvester to get a job finished so I didn’t have to return the following day. However, to plant an entire hedge in the dark in full view of a main road displaying an abomination of bent tubes and crooked trees just highlights the absurdity that large amounts of grant money can cause.

The most outrageous hedge I’ve observed so far is the ‘speed hedge’, and if I could withdraw any of these grants then it would be for these – a short section blitzed in an afternoon by a shepherd’s stockman and overseen by a tractor driver. I have witnessed several such hedges where the canes are barely pushed into the ground and then along comes the next named storm and the plants and canes get scattered far and wide. Planted properly, most hedges are pretty robust, but the speed hedge is a complete waste of time and money. And so, while farmers have been hard at it themselves, I’ve been getting on with some hand cutting.

With felling sites in the North still under water, resembling no man’s land between the trenches, to get any hand cutting done it’s crucial to travel as light as possible.

Clearing up after a harvester on a windblown site comes with many challenges – big, hairy, dry Sitka edge trees with which to wrestle; uprooted root plates covering the bottom of the trunks in sand and rocks; and Scots pine that has sunk several feet into the ground, to name but a few. But by far the biggest challenge is transporting oneself across these bottomless mud-strewn wastelands. I was recently transported by a forwarder 100 yards through a four-foot-deep lagoon of mud and silt which had washed down in the persistent rain following extraction. As we crossed the swamp to slightly higher ground I jumped out of the cab and sank knee deep in the slutter.

The forwarder driver took one look and laughed. As he drove away I was just able to hear, ‘Good luck!’

You certainly don’t want to be carrying an extra saw with you, but ideally an extra saw with a log bar is exactly what you need to make quick work of cross-cutting the first few logs. The second element of difficulty, after the physical effort of access and transport, is the trees dotted around the site that have stood back up after the harvester has cut what it can. This often results in a three-metre straight pole with a three-to-four-foot girth, usually covered in soil. Rather than dragging an MS661 with a long bar all around the site, I’ve developed a cut that can be done quite efficiently with a smaller saw.

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There are only two ways these poles are coming over when no machines are present.

You either have to make a huge gob to undermine the centre of gravity or you have to lift it with a felling bar or a jack. Jacks are twice as heavy as another saw, so that was completely out of the question. However, I was equally apprehensive about dragging around a felling bar in all this slop. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I developed the ‘beaver cut’ which I copied straight from the beavers’ handbook with a little supporting wood left at the rear for safety.

I start with a horizontal crosscut right around the tree, leaving a core towards the back of about 20 per cent. I then take out the gob (as deep and close as possible with a short bar) with four to five cuts down and around, thereby creating a rounded gob face 270 degrees around the tree. If the gob face was flat there’s a good chance when you cut your holding wood it would just close and still remain on the stump and you’d be no further forward. The rounded face of the gob allows the trunk to roll off the stump when you cut through the hinge, although you do have to be aware and on your toes as they can be quite erratic as they jump off.

And so back to the hedging! With still many miles of hedge to go before the end of March, I decided to invest and experiment with some new planting apparatus. A simple white rope with purple sheep dye spacers that would show us the way and keep the spacing straight and bang on was modest investment. I then took a look at Chris Forestry’s website, which displays a wide range of accessories from around the world. It would seem the Canadians are leading the way on the planting scene and hold all the records which they themselves created, but I do like the look of the Bushpro gear they make. I have tried the Bushpro speed spear, which still spends most of its working life as a spare in the back of the truck. I believe in Canada and North America generally they plant cell-grown trees rather than bare root and the speed spear is more suited to that task. The bare-root trees I’ve had to plant lately still require the good old British bulldog planting spit to provide a larger hole.

I’ve had more luck with the Canadian planting bag. It’s white and shiny and beekeeper-like and looks somewhat out of place among the more traditional Northumbrian feed bags. I wouldn’t return to the feed bag as the bra-and-belt design allows you to carry many kg of cells with comfort. Dual baskets allow you to select the variety of plant with ease and it even has a handy little pouch at the back, thereby removing all temptation to bury your used plastic cell wraps. The plastic wraps can instead go to landfill where they’ll probably outlive the plants they just nurtured.