Cutting brambles with a hedge trimmer

I’ve written before about mowing rides and glades with a scythe mower and a brush cutter before that. Six foot high nettles, cow parsley and saplings present no obstacle to this machine, but brambles are another story. Their branches run horizontally, tangle together and root when they touch the ground, creating a strong mesh. They need both horizontal and vertical cuts to cut them up and separate them from their roots. Last year I bought a petrol hedgetrimmer and yesterday I used it on big thicket of  brambles blocking a ride: its first proper outing.

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Rides and deadwood

One of Century Wood’s best features is the kilometre of rides that I established in the first few years. I really neglected them in 2017/18 though, largely due to extending the central Glade and putting up the Drying Barn. But this spring I’m doing ride maintenance before it gets much harder in summer. In the wood, a big part of this work is with dead and dying branches from the plantation poplar trees which have fallen across the rides, and there is also some unstable standing deadwood here and there which isn’t ok beside the rides.

This first photo shows part of one of the rides from yesterday after clearing. You can see where I cut off some small overhanging branches, and on the extreme left where I dragged them to the ride side. Unless branches are thick enough to cut up for firewood, I always drag them to the side or off into the undergrowth to rot down over time and provide cover and habitats.

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Mowing woodland rides and glades with a scythe mower

I started sketching out routes for the ride network when I bought Century Wood but only started work seriously about a year later. Before then as the first summer bloomed I was faced with ground vegetation, especially nettles, which threatened to become impenetrable. Over the years I’ve employed various techniques for mowing the rides and glades, or even just getting around. Eventually I settled on a scythe mower which is still serving me well seven years later.

The first few times I was faced with getting through stands of nettles above waist height I grabbed a stick and whacked the stems to break them. It’s surprisingly effective as long as the nettles aren’t too dense, and was ok for wading through as long as I had decent jeans to deal with the surviving stumps round my shins. Later I bought a machete and set about it in a more professional manner, but it’s a very labour intensive way of going for a walk through your wood. These tracks did last a week or two though, and so could be used for cutting out a route that less intrepid visitors could use. I still use this kind of approach if faced with nettles barring my way somewhere off a ride.

I experimented with using a garden roller, with its drum not yet filled with water, sand, or cement. That worked a lot better than you’d think too as nettles and cow parsley have stems that break rather than just bend as long grass does. You do feel like you’re walking on a rather springy bed make of the stems though, and it sounds like a ridiculous idea when you try to explain it.

I stepped up to a cheap no-name petrol brushcutter which was my first proper solution. With this I was able to cut all the rides to about eight foot wide, by making two trips over their one kilometre or so distance, and mow the glades and car park too. This took me about two days of work, so was feasible to do bit by bit more than once per season.

However, I knew a better solution was a petrol scythe mower. This is effectively a hedge trimmer set horizontally just above ground height and mounted on a pair of driven wheels with handles for you to steer and work the controls. These are extremely effective and tackle small woody growth in addition to anything green you put in their way. Since there are just two wheels with the cutter itself on skids, they also deal with uneven ground and small obstacles like logs that hide in the undergrowth.

The mower I bought is made by Al-Ko in Germany, and I managed to get a much better price by buying it online from France. I took a bit of a risk about the complications of returning it if faulty, but for ongoing maintenance and servicing buying a brand name rather than a “no name” machine from China was worth it. Plus the engine is Briggs and Stratton which most lawnmower workshops are familiar with already.

One of the key things about a scythe mower is that there’s lots of vibration. The springy handle bars don’t transmit it uncomfortably to my hands (unlike my no-name brush cutter) but you need to check for loose nuts and bolts each time. I lost one key plastic part of the cutter by not checking this enough, and the rapid side to side motion of the top blade threw it off into the undergrowth never to be seen again. Back home I tried welding together a replacement piece, but that started wearing down the adjacent pieces and I had to get (inexpensive) replacements from Germany. It’s worth getting more spares than you need, and carry spare nuts and bolts too in case things rattle free on site.

This year I decided to repaint the body of the mower, which started life at silver grey but inevitably got scuffed and rusted at the corners. I chose black to match the engine block and handle bars, and because it’s a discreet colour for equipment parked in woodland shade. Not that I leave it at the wood overnight. I also attached a small toolbox for things like a bottle of water and some bug spray.

The cutter consists of a fixed bottom blade and a moving top blade, each with triangular teeth about 5cm apart at the points. These slide over each other to cut, and that defines the thickest stem which can be cut through in one go. That’s about the size of a fat thumb, but in reality thicker ones can be cut by letting the blades chew at the sapling from one side. I’m cautious about doing this aggressively though, in case I overheat the engine.

For the nettles, cow parsley, saplings, grass, and other ground vegetation that I mostly deal with, the mower works very well. It’s also fine with isolated brambles which give up after a few passes over the year, but isn’t effective where the brambles have formed clumps woven in and around other plants. In that case slicing away at ground level doesn’t disturb the brambles very much, and they tend to spring back once the mower has gone past. So it’s necessary to do something else (machete, bill hook, secateurs, chainsaw?) to disconnect the brambles from their root and then start shredding them with the scythe mower.

These two pictures (click for bigger versions) show a before and after in the main glade of the wood last week. You can really see the height of the vegetation which the mower dealt with in a single pass. It hasn’t been mowed since 2015 so the grass has been suppressed by the other plants. I hope by the autumn it will have reasserted itself again.

It really deserves its own post, but I’ve also observed significant recolonisation of the rides by grass after repeated mowing. I also vary the edges of the rides that are mowed to encourage a variety of ground plants, but in some areas I just want grass for the amenity value.

These pictures show two sections of ride after mowing, and again you can get a rough idea of what the mower cut through from what’s still on either side.

In terms of protective equipment, the requirements are less than a brush cutter because you’re safely standing behind the handle bars while the engine is running. Especially, while the clutch for the cutter is engaged and the blades are moving. With the two clutch levers for the cutter and the driven wheels on different handles, it requires you stay safely at the back. All this goes out the window for other people around you of course and so it’s really a machine to be using without other people nearby.

I just use rigger gloves and a chainsaw helmet with visor and ear defenders beyond what I normally wear in terms of decent boots and thick jeans. I find gloves and visor to be essential when tackling nettles and cow parsley that are up towards eight foot high and tend to topple over towards me as they are cut at the base. The helmet itself protects me from any other surprises.

My reason for moving up from the brush cutter to the scythe mower was to reduce the time and effort taken to maintain the rides and glades, and this worked out very well. It’s less tiring but also faster, certainly in my amateur brush-cutting hands. What used to take me two days if I mowed everything, now takes a long afternoon and early evening, and when I was establishing the rides I did it all once a month for two summers.

I found that the least tiring pattern is to walk in straight lines or long lazy curves. Good for rides, and something that works in glades if I go in a spiral. What is very hard, harder than the brush cutter, is tight corners where you need to manhandle the mower round. So up and down stripes like you might do with a lawn mower aren’t a good idea. Reversing out of a clump of nettles that is just too thick and heavy to push through becomes very tiring too: it works better to keep trimming away at one edge so you’re always walking forwards.

All in all, the scythe mower has been one of the best investments I’ve made, especially for the amenity value of maintaining the grassed rides and open glades.

Rewidening the roadway

Earlier this week I spent some time on the roadway that leads into the centre of Century Wood. Mainly cutting back overhanging branches and dealing with brambles. I took some pictures of what I’d done, and also of a poplar stump coppice by the side of the ride.

The roadway started off as one of the first paths into the wood, hacked through the tall nettles with a stick or later on with a machete. It was gradually widened until, in preparation for the laying of the roadway, I made it into a proper ride with graded edges exposing all the layers of the woodland to sunlight one by one. Over the years the wood has tried to reclaim this ground, and I’ve gone back and reestablished it. Or at least, kept it passable. For the last couple of years this hasn’t been done properly, and last summer the branches were starting to encroach. So this spring was the time to get on top of it again, before the leaves are fully out.

As I’ve done so little in the wood over the winter, I decided to start off fully hands-on, with a bow saw and a machete. The bow saw is the natural choice for me when dealing with any branches above chest height from the ground, and the machete is an old friend from the nettle days and likes brambles too.

This first picture is the Before one. Looks ok but by high summer I’d be worrying about scratches on the car when that closes up.

This second picture is the After one. You can see where I’ve cut it back, and I’ll take one in a few months to show what it’s like in high summer now.

I also took the opportunity to tidy up some fallen branches from the poplars. And some hanging branches too.

As usual, I didn’t attempt to collect or burn any of the brash this generated. Some gets dragged beside the ride to encourage a bit of ground cover where the sun can reach, and some is thrown, frisbee style, off under the full canopy (such canopy as there is in a wood that is still mostly poplars.) I do this partly because I believe that if The Wood has gone to the trouble of fixing atmospheric nitrogen and carbon and building them into plant cells, I might as well leave them intact in case other animals and plants of The Wood can make use of them. It’s part of my wider aims too.

One my principles has always been to avoid long sight lines, as it’s better for both of my primary management aims: it’s good for wildlife; and good for “amenity” uses as it makes the wood feel bigger and more isolated. That you are “in the woods” rather than in an open field that someone has just planted tall trees in. Leaving brash around and grading the edges of the rides immediately helps with this, as does thinning out some of the bigger trees to let light in and to encourage the understory of hazel, elder, and hawthorn.

Coppicing can also help, and by that I mean the ability of some trees to regrow when cut right back, rather than the practice of doing it to harvest wood in the future. My secondary aim is managing the wood for firewood (beyond what’s needed for the needs of the wood stove in the log cabin), and if I do pursue that seriously in the future, coppicing will be part of making the sustainable.

So coppicing from stumps is something I pay attention to.

I took these last three pictures to record first a poplar and then a hazel stump. This is the stump of a poplar felled in the spring of 2009. About one in five of my felled poplars coppice like this, and this is one of the best examples of it. There’s a hazel tree behind the poplar stump, and in the left of this picture you can see a row of straight up hazel suckers like iron railings; and to the right is a pool of feathers from some unlucky pigeon. I’m guessing due to one of the buzzards we see patrolling the rides and the skies above the wood.

This is the hazel stump that’s behind the poplar. I don’t believe I cut it back at the same time as the poplar (judging by photos taken at the time) which probably mean it’s been growing slowly in the shade of the poplars since the wood was clear felled and they were planted.

This last picture shows the poplar regrowth in front of the hazel. It’s a bit deceptive about how big the poplar is, but you can tell them apart if you remember that the poplar has green leaves properly out already but the hazel hasn’t got that far yet.

I also took the previously mentioned machete to some of the brambles which are encroaching at ground level. And in some places, not just at ground level now. Previous experience has shown that the mower deals well with brambles despite their legendary ability to regrow, including from “cuttings” shall we say. Keep mowing at the frequency dictated by the nettles and the grass of the rides, and things seem to be ok on the brambles front too.

Next time I’m going to come back with a chainsaw-as-hedge-trimmer, and be more aggressive with the brambles and a few remaining hazel poles further along the rides which I hadn’t finished by the end of the day.