Introduction: Wood Fuel From Hedges - With John Whetman

As the price of fuel on the open market continues to fluctuate wildly, many farmers and land owners in the UK are looking to utilise their hedgerows as a valuable and reliable source of fuel for heating their homes and selling on as firewood. John Whetman, who works with the Devon Hedge Group, manages his hedges with several key factors in mind:

  1. Habitat for wildlife (John is a very keen wildlife enthusiast).
  2. Preserving the ancient skill of hedge laying.
  3. Beautification of the landscape.
  4. Cheap source of firewood.
  5. Helping delay the imminent climate change apocalypse.

John's hedge management is broadly divided into two main techniques, that of 'Coppicing', where the tree is felled in the normal way and extracted and that of 'Hedge Laying' where small trees or 'saplings' are laid over flat on the hedge in such a way that it continues to grow. He combines these two techniques together to extract firewood and rejuvinate the hedge.

In our modern times, most hedges no longer serve their original purpose of keeping livestock enclosed and are often thought of as a bit of a nuisance to the busy farmer/landowner. In this case, the hedge will often be trimmed with a powerful flail cutting machine which is used year on year to savagely thrash the hedge into submission. No firewood is harvested and the plants in the hedge will never produce berries and so is rather poor for wildlife. After a certain number of years, the hedge starts to develop large holes in it and starts to look fairly sorry for itself.

Through the combined techniques of coppicing and hedge laying, John is able to extract firewood and create a perfect place for wildlife.

Hazards:..........Chainsaw training required

Step 1: Tools and Equipment

Step 2: The Hedge Before Work Begins

At this stage the hedge is starting to look a bit scruffy, with some of the species such as blackthorn starting to get shaded out by the bigger trees such as ash and oak. John inspects the hedge carefully, making a mental note of the bigger trees for leaving, the intermediate suitable for coppicing and the smaller ones for laying. I think that the dog is looking for a rabbit?

Step 3: Coppicing Trees in the Hedge - Using a Rope

The first stage in this example is to put a rope around the tree, about half way up, to make sure that it falls into the field and NOT into the adjacent road! John uses a long straight, fork ended stick, a 3" D ring and 100' of polypropylene rope to make sure that the tree goes the right way. Larger trees would require longer steel cable.

The D ring is attached to the end of the rope and carefully inserted over and around branches in the middle of the tree. The ring is heavy enough so that it brings the rope down under it's own weight and the end of the rope is then threaded through the D ring to create a secure loop around the tree. The free end of the rope is then attached to the top link of the tractor and the tractor is slowly driven forwards until the rope is tight.

Step 4: Coppicing Trees in the Hedge - Creating a Hinge

There are now two cuts to be made in the base of the tree to enable it to fall over in the right direction. The first cut is on the compression side of the tree, closest to the tractor. A small wedge of wood is removed with the chainsaw, as shown in the photo, being careful not to cut more than 1/4 way into the tree.

Now the saw is positioned behind the tree, away from the tractor to make a final cut opposite the wedge, being careful not to go all the way through into the wedge. As John does this final cut, he stops when he can feel the tension released in the back of the tree and the rope starts to go slack.

John now finishes off this manoeuvre by carefully driving the tractor forward and pulling the tree over in a perfectly controlled manner into the field.

Step 5: Coppicing Trees in the Hedge - Removing the Rope From the Fallen Tree

The rope is now removed from the tree and the photo shows very clearly how the rope was looped around the tree using the D ring.

Step 6: Coppicing Trees in the Hedge - Removing the Side Branches

The side branches, or 'brash', is now removed from the trees with a chainsaw.

Step 7: Coppicing Trees in the Hedge - Making Cord Wood

The tree itself is now sawn into lengths of about 5 feet each, which is called 'cord wood'. These sections are easier to pick up and move around than a load of logs and the cord wood can be processed back at the ranch using a bench mounted circular saw rather than chainsaws, which is more efficent.

Step 8: Coppicing Trees in the Hedge - Disposing of the Brash Wood

Much of the tree is left in the field as it is too small to be processed into logs. This brash could be processed with a chipping machine to produce more fuel, but John actually burns it as his wood burners are not currently compatible with wood chip fuel.

Step 9: Laying Saplings in the Hedge - the Oblique Cut

After the coppicing and wood extraction is finished, John uses the Hedge Laying technique to ensure that any gaps in the hedge are filled and generally give the hedge more 'substance'.

The chainsaw is used to make an oblique or acute cute down one side of the sapling to create a small hinge as shown in the photo. The tree is now carefully angled back on this hinged and laid flat in the hedge. It is important to note that the acute cut is made directly opposite the direction that you want the tree to be laid.

Step 10: Laying Saplings in the Hedge - Pushing Over the Tree

These photos show the sapling laid flat and the hinge. Remarkably, this hinge is all that the tree needs to gain nutrients from the roots and it will quite happily sprout dozens of vertical shoots along it's length. Notice that the wood above the hinge has been cut off to leave a clean horizontal surface. Technically speaking, it's the bark or 'canbium' that transmits the essential nutrients.

Step 11: The Finished Hedge

In this photo you should see a nice looking dog and a hedge in the background. In the hedge are the stumps from where coppicing has been done and pieces of horizontal sections that have been laid flat. John leaves some of the larger trees untouched and these are spaced out at about 20 feet apart along the hedge.

Step 12: Three Years Later

These photos show what the hedge looks like about 3 years later. Notice the vertical growth on the horizontal laid sections.

Step 13: Mechanically Flailed Hedges

Lastly, here is a photo of a mechanically flailed hedge which has developed large holes in it. This hedge is not good for wildlife as the berries on trees such as blackthorn will only grow on stems that are untouched for at least 2 years and flailing must, by it's nature, be done every year. Amazingly, John's method is done on a 15 year rotation and surely must be better?

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Step 14: Resources

Book by the Devon Hedge Group, forwarded by HRH Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England.

Click on image below:

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