What to Do with Hedge Brush Wood?

Thanks very much for this post from Andrew and Helen Martin, on a thorny topic for many meadow owners…

We’d like any advice anyone might care to offer on the following, especially if you’ve done this before yourself!

Most of the field boundaries on Ffos y Broga (our smallholding) are mature treelines, no doubt developed from hedges on banks over many decades of not being laid or cut.  Our two meadows, fortunately, don’t have tall trees on their southern edges…

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One (above) has a nice oak and a beech with hedge between, and the other has a line of small trees (hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn and the odd willow) which look like they used to be flailed on top and each side up until 5-10 years ago.  We’re in the process of thinning this one out with a view to laying it during the winter, so it will be a hedge rather than a treeline and let more light into the field.  So far so good, but having thinned out about half its length we’re finding that as well as a very nice collection of wood (which will probably be most of what we need for the woodburner in the winter of 2017/18) we have already accumulated a pile of brush that in volume is about the length, width, and half the height of a single decker bus …

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In the past, when doing brushwood-producing jobs elswhere on the smallholding, we’ve stuffed the brush into our trailer with mesh sides, (you can get a lot in there if you really work at stuffing it in before you struggle to put the tailgate up), and transported it all to where we normally have our bonfires (in another field).  I would rather not have to do that with this load of brush because when burning it you have to add it to the fire very fast, as if the fire burns down there’s not enough heat left to ignite the next lot of brush you put on it.  That means you have to have it ALL within a couple of arms’ lengths of the fire before you light it.  I estimate there will be about 20 – 25 trailerloads (it’s not a very big trailer!) and frankly we could do without having to move it all again before processing it.

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There are two other options.  First, we could hire a big heavy-duty chipper/shredder which could cope with all the brush (stems about 1″ – 1.5″ max, all the rest is firewood).  But I have no idea how big the pile of chippings would be (would the bus be converted into a small caravan?) and if I pile them up at the edge of the field, would they be leaching their breakdown compounds into the field’s soil and effectively adding compost?  Secondly, we could burn it next to where it is, in the meadow.  The actual area of scorched earth would only be a tiny proportion of the field, but what about the pile of ash left over?  It wouldn’t contain any significant organic matter, but would a pile of concentrated minerals be a bad idea for a field whose soil we are trying to impoverish as much as possible?

Or would the best option be to burn all the brush right there in the field, and when the ash has cooled down, shovel it up and take it away? It would certainly be easier to remove (i.e. smaller volume, maybe a wardrobe rather then a caravan) than the pile of chippings.  Would a small patch, say 2-3m diameter, of sterilized ground soon be recolonised?

Any suggestions (polite ones please) gratefully accepted – do leave comments below.
Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “What to Do with Hedge Brush Wood?

  1. Chipping it would probably reduce the pile by at least 3/4, and then it would quickly reduce again as it composts. You could then bag it or stick it in a trailer and move elsewhere.
    Also provide an egg laying site for grass snakes!
    You could also use it for river bank erosion – if you have either/both – happy to advise further on this if needs.
    Burning – Now I’m happy to be corrected on this, but if you are grazing with stock then you don’t really want to impoverish your mineral content. Your N&P are what will limit the vigorous grasses, and the ash will give you K i.e potash, which in the absence of any inorganic N&P is unlikely to significantly improve productivity to the detriment of your flora.

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  2. Andrew & Helen
    Neighbours, Simon & Suzie here …. I had the same predicament & went for the chipper option. They will shoot the arisings at least 8-10m from the, easily directed, exit tube.
    I would suggest shooting the chips back onto the base line of the hedge, ie doing as nature intended. This will mulch & subsequently fertilise the re-growth. You’ll be amazed how little volume your piles will be reduced too.
    If you’re nicely stacked / set up as you appear to be you’ll easily get through that lot in a day.
    I hired from http://www.ab-hire.co.uk/ at Ffarmers. They are very helpful. Think it was £100 +VAT for the day

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  3. Ruth Watkins
    I too have wondered what best to do. I have never chosen the chipper option as it is best to take the chips off the field so one would need to use them elsewhere. Part of coppicing a hedge or laying, rather tidily, I think, is to have light to the bank so that flowers of the bank and hedgerow can grow as well as the coppice or pollard regrowth. I have found that a fire of brushwood, even the size of a bus, leaves a small mound of ash which one can scatter about the field, or do nothing about. I have observed mine a year or more on and they have not been colonised by weeds where there were none before, and meld inconspicuously back into the field. Willowherb appeared after one large fire but the cattle ate it next year and it is gone. On SSSIs the fires have been made on corrugated iron, the ash accumulated on it dragged off the fields. But I wonder whether this is really necessary.

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  4. If you are going to burn, I also recommend burning on corrugated iron. Fire sites can become invaded by ‘weedy’ species that you won’t want – I’ve recently seen a site with hogweed and other unwanted species dotted about a nice field where blackthorn had been burned. If it’s not too difficult to get the ash bagged & off the field, the potash is said to be good for the veg patch.

    Interesting point from Mike though, about the removal of potash from the meadow, I’ve not heard that before. And I agree with Ruth about not putting the chippings at the base of the hedge where you want the hedgerow flowers to recover.

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  5. To add to all the above interesting comments, we’ve tried both burning and chipping on occasion. If you have a good use for wood chips – say as garden paths/weed suppressing mulch, then chipping can be worth doing – we actually hired a man and giant chipper – a morning yielded about 17 big bags of material, so well worth the money it cost us. But you do need to keep it dry or it will quickly heat up and compost down to very little.
    But normally we burn on site. The wood ash, though quite alkaline, seems fine in our heavy rainfall and generally acid conditions either direct onto fields or used throughout a garden – I’m convinced that foliage and flower colour intensity improves as a result. A recent modification to simply shovelling up the ash before rainfall and using broadcast in this way has been to save the very base layer, where there are usually small pieces of stick charcoal. Sieved out, this can again be added to homemade composts (think BIOCHAR), or veg gardens, or after rinsing to buffer the ph, I’ve found it makes a great potting medium for anyone with indoor orchids like Phalaenopsis ( Moth Orchids). It’s free draining, doesn’t degrade as quickly as wood bark or moss, and being black helps to warm any trapped air between the pieces to aid root growth. It’s also fairly easy to trickle in amongst the chunky roots at potting time.

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  6. Thanks to all who replied for their advice! After due consideration, and with the unusual opportunity of a lot of dry days in succession, we decided to go for the burning option, and having got a hot fire started with a couple of old pallets we found we could burn all the brush easily while confining the area of the fire to only a couple of metres diameter, so if any nasty weeds do appear they will be easy to pull out. When the brush is gone, you’re left with a pile of what looks like ash but is actually a thin layer of ash covering quite a good pile of red hot charcoal. If you stir the pile a few times over the next couple of days the charcoal mostly burns, leaving no more than a wheelbarrow full of ash. We just spread this around in the neighbouring field (not a hay meadow), and we have a little bit of charcoal left as well which we’ll try out as potting compost. Thanks again for all your advice. Useful thing, this website!

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