Focus: Hedge Wars

Last week an elderly man was convicted of trying to kill his neighbour's leylandii by urinating on them every night. Katy Guest peers over the fence to report on the national passion of fighting with the people next door

Arnhem Drive is just the sort of place a man might choose to live for 72 years. Its spacious houses are bordered by manicured lawns, nestling in the crook of a gentle hillside and surrounded by small copses of trees. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has an office here. The rector of the local church is a neighbour.

But behind this civilised façade of rural Britishness, in the west Lincolnshire suburb of Caythorpe, one Englishman's castle has been slowly and insidiously breached. By wee. A silent (well, apart from a tinkling sound at midnight) siege has taken place, a particularly fine example of that national passion, the neighbourly dispute. There are an estimated 17,000 of them raging at any one time, over boundaries and hedges.

Last week, in the magistrates' court in Grantham, a resident who has lived in Arnhem Drive for all of his 72 years was accused of attempting to murder his neighbour's leylandii hedge. The actual charge was criminal damage. David Jollands, the culprit, confessed that he had been continually urinating on the trees for more than a year. He was sentenced to spend one day in custody.

The gradual poisoning of the hedges became apparent to his neighbour, Russell Brooks, "when there was browning of the hedge and a strong smell," according to the prosecuting counsel. One night, Mr Brooks kept watch. "He saw Mr Jollands arrive and he saw him urinate. He caught the whole incident on a camcorder."

The victim has not commented on the outcome of the case, and is not now answering his phone to reporters.

"I don't want to say too much about what happened," said David Jollands before being sentenced, "but I did have a boundary dispute. I have lived in my house all my life except for two years in the army. I was born there." He added: "Things never run smoothly when you're living in the country."

According to Mr Jollands' solicitor, talking to the local newspaper: "This is a sad case. He had a historic disagreement with his next-door neighbour, and they had not spoken for eight years. He started urinating on his neighbour's hedge, but he has now desisted."

Leylandii wars are as old as the hills and the trees. While beeches, yews, privets and brambles all cause problems, the x Cupressocyparis leylandii is by far the most common reason for dispute. It is thick and hardy, resistant to drought and grows about a metre every year. Before long, it can dwarf houses and starve lawns, and will not stop until it is at least 98 feet tall. Still, Mr Jollands' tactics were rather unusual.

According to Bob Flowerdew, the organic-friendly author of The No Work Garden and a regular panellist on Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time, "continually urinating on one spot will eventually kill whatever is growing on it". But Flowerdew is surprised that one man on his own could see off an entire hedge. "Urine is very rich in fertilisers like nitrogen and potash," he explains. "You can use it on your compost heap and it helps to break it down. The smell is broken down very quickly by micro-organisms in the soil and it is much more hygienic than saliva or sneezes. The problem is that, just like any other fertiliser, if you use too much in one place it will kill the plant. Especially meat-eaters' urine, which is much more acidic. You see it when a dog has killed off one tree in a row by urinating on it. Well, a dog is much worse than a cow, and a bitch is much worse than a dog. But yes, it is possible to kill almost anything with urine."

Not surprisingly, Flowerdew receives lots of questions from irate gardeners wanting under-the-counter advice on how to kill off their neighbours' leylandii. But it is not a topic that he or his BBC colleagues will be drawn into. Once on Gardeners' Question Time a Mr Jim Thomas begged the team: "I've read of the Cypress aphid which has a particularly damaging effect on x Cupressocyparis leylandii. Can the effect be fatal, and if so does the team know where I can acquire the little pest?"

Another listener, Jean Long, wanted to know if she could send her neighbours the bill for the clipping of their hedges. "Be diplomatic," advised Anne Swithinbank. "A misunderstanding can soon lead to antagonism."

All of this comes as no surprise to Clare Hinchliffe, who has been working for the pressure group Hedgeline since 1998. Like all the experts, they do not recommend killing other people's trees. But Mr Jollands was "driven to this by something awful," they believe. According to Ms Hinchliffe, leylandii are "a horrendous problem. We know elderly people who want to sell their houses to move nearer to their grandchildren but nobody will buy, and keen gardeners whose gardens are turned into a mucky, soggy heap. There are the houses that had a really nice aspect and then are shut in, and that's not to mention the roots cracking walls. Then you are expected to cut someone else's hedges - 20 feet high in my case - just so you can get into your garden."

Although it may seem like a quintessentially British problem, hedge wars are an international phenomenon. "We have members in Australia, America, Italy..." says Ms Hinchliffe. "The western seaboard of Canada has a big problem with trees. It's Douglas firs and cedars there. But this happens everywhere people are crammed together." In many countries, however, the problem is legislated for. "In France they brought in hedge height regulations in the 1880s, enforceable in the civil courts. The Swiss and the Dutch have something. The Germans legislate for how close certain trees can be to a house. But until now we have had nothing apart from that you can cut off the overhang. Is an old lady of 90 expected to shin up a 70 foot hedge with a pair of shears?"

This summer the British Government finally tackled the thorny issue of the boundary hedge. On June 1, the Government passed the High Hedges Act, which puts the problem in the hands of local authorities. If a complainant can prove that he or she has attempted to resolve the dispute amicably then the council can force owners of hedges over 6.5 feet high to cut them or pay a £1,000 fine. The problem is that complainants must pay the council to investigate, and fees range from nothing up to £650. The fee in Lincolnshire, where Mr Jollands took his own action, would have been £135.

"I don't know why you are expected to cover the costs when you are being abused," says Ms Hinchliffe, "but if this legislation is used and is seen to be working then maybe the bullies will stop it."

A solution is too late for the likes of George Wilson, who was shot by his neighbour in 2003 after a dispute over a hedge, or Malcolm and Marlene Girling, who were sent to jail for 14 days each in 2002 for taking a chainsaw to a neighbour's 15-foot hawthorn. Experts still urge the diplomatic approach. Councils recommend counselling services like The Tree Advice Trust and Mediation UK. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister offers a handy leaflet called "Over the Garden Hedge". Its title may sound like a cruel joke to anyone on the wrong side of a 30-foot leylandii.

Battle lines drawn by the neighbours from hell

A long-running dispute over a 12-inch hedge proved fatal for pensioner George Wilson, 66, who was shot by his neighbour Robert Dickinson, 52, in 2003. Wilson died in hospital from his injuries. Dickinson was charged with murder but hanged himself before the trial, in his cell at Lincoln Prison.

Malcolm and Marlene Girling were sent to jail for 14 days each in 2002 after breaking a court injunction by taking a chainsaw to a neighbour's 15ft hawthorn hedge which had allegedly been blocking lightto the Girlings' kitchen, in the hamlet of Witton, near Norwich.

Pensioner Phil Bodenham lost his life savings when ordered to pay £15,000 costs and £200 damages in a court case with his neighbour in 1999 over a leylandii hedge in Cliffords Mesne, Gloucestershire. Neighbours are entitled to cut branches which overhang their property but Alan Barnard sued the retired postman for cutting six inches too much.

Retired teacher Michael Jones from Selly Oak, Birmingham, fought a court battle for more than 20 years to force his next-door neighbour Charles Stanton to cut back his 35-ft leylandii. By the time he won, court costs had reached £100,000.

In 2004, Janet Gray, 92, was found guilty of breaching the peace in an access dispute with neighbours who had built a gate and a fence by her home near Kelso, Scotland.

A five-year dispute between retired TV producer John Doran and his neighbour in Aberdeen, Dr Kevin Jennings, began when the cardiac specialist refused to cut down his 40ft leylandii hedge. It went to court, in 2000, but Dr Jennings was cleared of breaching the peace.

SO WHAT WILL KILL A LEYLANDII?

Urine

As dog owners know, the urine of meat-eating animals is not good for growing plants. Its high levels of nitrogen can kill them, eventually.

Aphids

An aphid has been identified that attacks leylandii, killing them in small patches. Unfortunately it also eats all the other plants in the garden.

Honeyfungus (armillaria)

Hits a leylandii harder than any aphid, but still only kills it in patches, making the plantit untidy and no less tall. Also attacks everything else in the garden, without cure.

Drought

Leylandii does not like strong drought and needs plenty of water when it is young. It also does not like soil that is constantly wet - especially with urine.

Chainsaw

Landscape designer John Cushnie told Gardeners Question Time, "[The two-stroke chainsaw] is about the best pest you can find. It makes a lot of noise, but it's very effective. And if you prune it at ground level it won't grow again!"

Christine Miles

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