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February 2015
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Well! What do you know? No 15 Thorns in the lane
By Colin Sully

Over the winter, several people have mentioned an apparent increase in bicycle punctures from thorns and wood splinters on rural roads. I wondered if this is because of an increased problem with the thorns themselves or more a reflection of changes in tyre-technology.

Changes in farm management certainly mean that hedges are now being cut less often… but does that automatically lead to a bigger problem with thorns and splinters of wood?

Well, according to a leaflet from Natural England (see below) it looks like it does.

newlsettersEnvironmental benefits
Natural England suggests that there are two good reasons for farmers not cutting hedges every year.

The first is that most tree and shrub flowers are produced on year-old growth. Annual cutting removes this growth, so there are no flowers, no berries and no nuts. This has a big impact on a wide range of wildlife, from insects such as butterflies and moths, through birds such as thrushes and fieldfares to mammals such as dormice.

The second reason is simply that the bigger the hedge, the more wildlife it will support. It is estimated that every year a hedgerow is left uncut it will gain two species of breeding bird. Natural England goes on to say: “If a flail mower is used, and care is taken, experience shows that there is usually little tidying up that needs to be done (after cutting two or three years growth). The flails will break the shoots and branches up into small bits, many of which will fall to the base of the hedge and decay there.”

Punctures and lameness
In answer to the questions “Will there be a lot of thorns and sharp splinters on the ground if a hedge with several years’ growth is cut back? Could these cause punctures or lameness?” Natural England says “Even annual cutting can result in thorns in fields, or on tracks and roads, but this problem will be greater with older growth. The tyres of motor vehicles are rarely punctured (by thorns), but there is a real risk to bicycles. Blackthorn in particular can cause lameness in livestock, so it is advisable to keep stock and bicycles away from hedges that have been recently cut. Thorns break down in wet weather fairly quickly, and along roads and tracks motor vehicles soon crush them, so the risk is usually acceptable after a few weeks.”

Farmers are asked to try and cut most of their hedgerows in January or February but, if ground conditions and cropping patterns permit, many like to get the bulk of the work done in the autumn.

So, there we have it… if you don’t know your blackthorn from your black currant, then the best advice seems to be don’t cycle (or take your dog for a walk) down a road or track which has recently had its hedge cut.

Ref: Hedge cutting: answers to 18 common questions; Natural England: ISBN 978-1-84754-024-9; also available on-line.

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