"Having the right pedestrian mower in the fleet is crucial for back-up mowing and for high presentation areas"
There is a vast selection of pedestrian rotary mowers on the market and, even having pinned down the required cutting width - for the purposes of our test we chose the popular 53cm (21in) size - the selection varies from semi-professional, single speed drive models suitable for occasional use, to heavy duty rough cutters ideal for the contractor.
Identifying the purpose for which the mower is to be used, then, is crucial. We enlisted the help of Loughborough University for our test, a centre of sporting excellence which also has huge areas of amenity and ornamental grass. Head Groundsman, Mark Freeman, has the challenging task of looking after one of the most high profile groundcare sites in the country.
Loughborough University campus covers an area of approx 500 acres, comprising high and low amenity gardens, top quality sports pitches and two heritage woodlands. During term time there are approximately 15,000 students, and approximately 3,000 staff on campus at any one time.
The amenity gardens are maintained by seventeen gardeners, led by Assistant Supervisor Grounds and Gardens, Karen Setchell, and divided into small teams for each park on campus, with additional seasonal labour brought in when required. Upkeep of the campus is a huge job, varying from cleaning up rubbish after student activities to maintenance of a wide range of shrub beds and amenity areas. A fleet of four ride-on cylinder mowers and fifteen pedestrian rotary mowers are used to maintain the grass areas.
This team is also responsible for planting a huge number of indigenous trees and whips to create several new wildlife areas, including a carbon emission wood and, in doing so, enhance the biodiversity of the campus.
In recent years, other projects have included working alongside the local authority and other local partners with the 'East Midlands in Bloom' competition, where a Silver Gilt medal was awarded.
Loughborough University's sporting reputation is known both nationally and internationally, with many of the country's leading sports men and women having passed through the university or currently being based there. Loughborough is also the home to many of sport's national governing bodies, especially with the opening of the SportPark headquarters development imminent.
As a consequence, the demand for high quality outdoor sports pitches is at a premium and they are often used by high profile visitors to the campus. The sportsgrounds are maintained by two teams of four groundsmen, led by Assistant Supervisor Sportsgrounds, Will Relf, one dedicated to the National Cricket Academy and the second to all other sports, both off and on campus.
Karen Setchell, explains: "We use ride-on Hayter and John Deere triples for much of the mowing, plus a Shibaura flail for rough cutting, but having the right pedestrian mower in the fleet is crucial for back-up mowing and for high presentation areas. We currently use Hayters, but we're interested to see what else is on the market."
We invited the leading manufacturers to submit mowers for the test, which included tidying a cricket square in the closed season, cutting high presentation areas and tackling rough wet grass on the level - adjacent to the university's Helipad - and on slopes. Collector mowers were also deployed to pick up leaves from grassed areas.
Whilst the quality and effectiveness of the cut are obviously important, there are many other criteria which must be met if the mower is to be useful to the professional operator, who may be mowing for several hours a day or manoeuvring tools between a number of work sites.
"Manual handling is a major issue for employees," comments Karen. "So, mowers must be easy to move about, whether loading onto a truck or trailer or wheeling them onto a lawn."
"Vibration, too, is a vital factor, and we chose our current mowers mainly for their low vibration figures."
Practicality was well and truly put to the test. Poorly sited starting handles and long flexes meant a long stretch and difficult start. Dead man's handles that cut the engine as well as the rotation of the blade when they are released - although laudable for the effort to improve safety - mean an annoying restart every time the grass box is taken off.
Hand mowing tends to be a job that is shared between several members of the team, both to cut vibration exposure and to make best use of labour, so controls, starting and operation need to be simple enough to be anyone's job. All too often this was not the case, with some of the control layouts foxing the most experienced of operators.
The choice of a wheeled or roller mower depends on its main function, with big chunky wheels being better for rougher environments, but a rear roller does give the facility to stripe the grass for ornamental areas and sports pitches.
On many hand mowing jobs, collection is a pre-requisite, but side discharge mowers are useful for rough cutting, and the ability to drop clippings out of the back of the mower or fit a mulching plate could come in handy at times.
Build quality is important for the longevity and safety of the machines, and it does seem to follow that you get what you pay for. But, a heavy duty mower may be overkill for occasional back-up mowing, where a more compact, cheaper model may fit the bill.
Handlebars - Groundsmen come in all shapes and sizes, and so do mowers. Check that the handlebars are the right height for the intended operator or can be easily adjusted.
Basic design and build quality influences how much time a mower spends in the workshop, but little things matter too. Loose cables can easily get trapped and damaged, so enclosing them is a good idea. OK, you could fit your own cable ties, but how much better if the manufacturer does it for you!
Handling - Ideally, mowers will be wheeled into a trailer but, if you have to lift them, grab bars or even an entire frame can be useful.
Operator presence systems - Also known as the 'dead man's handle', these are designed to cut the drive to the blades, and sometimes to the engine, if released, preventing injuries. Some systems require a very long reach to bring the two or three bars together or are uncomfortable to hold; other manufacturers have gone out of their way to make the handles comfortable.
Starting - The location of the starting cable handle makes a big difference to how easy it is to start - too far up the handlebar and it can be difficult to get enough pulling force, especially for a smaller operator. Those positioned down near the engine are easiest, especially if there is a decent foot hold to brace against.
Working speed - More sophisticated mowers have multiple working speeds to adapt them to a variety of working situations. A single speed mower may still be perfectly adequate as long as the working speed is sufficient for commercial mowing.
Height of cut adjustment - This is usually adjusted via levers on the wheels and is fairly straightforward on most mowers. Some, such as the Etesia, have single point adjustment which makes the job quicker.
Ease of use - Some mowers are more straightforward than others; having instructions printed on the machine means that any operator can get to work with the mower straight away.
Grass box emptying - Check how easy this is - most mowers are fine, but fiddly removal and re-attachment can be annoying over a long day and could lead to the box getting damaged over time.
Cut and drop - Check that the hood on the back of the mower offers enough clearance to allow cut and drop if needed; some clog with grass very quickly.
Side discharge mowers can be useful for rough cutting or directing clippings away from flower beds or water courses. A dedicated mulching mower could be a useful addition to the fleet for fuss-free tidy ups.
Wheeled mowers - Big chunky wheels roll over rough ground better and resist knocks and vibration, but are less important on fine turf.
Roller mowers - A rear roller can stripe the turf and produce an attractive result. The roller mowers also tended to have updraught blades which lift the sward to give a more even cut. They are a good bet if the workload involves preparing sports pitches, after reseeding or out of season. A split, rather than solid rear roller makes for easier manoeuvring.
Anti vibration systems - Manufacturers will offer vibration data and information on any protective designs used on their mowers. The John Deere models have a dedicated shock absorbing system incorporated in the handlebars.
Fifteen mowers were delivered to Loughborough University and, although we had requested professional models in the 53cm (21") to 60cm (24") range, models outside that criteria arrived on site. Undaunted, the Loughborough groundstaff tested the lot and, if nothing else, it showed the variety of mowers available and their different qualities.
"Each one had its plus and minus points, and you could see a role for pretty much all of them," commented Karen Setchell. "Cut quality was universally good, but then you would expect that on a new mower. All of the machines on test left a good finish and were gentle on the turf, even in the wet November conditions."
"It was interesting to try the roller mowers on our cricket pitches, and we were particularly impressed with the Hayter, although this may be because the groundsmen are familiar with the brand, as we already have them in our fleet! They certainly produce a good finish and we may well be looking at adding this type of mower next year."
These mowers showed the variety in price and specification - from less than £1000 for the straightforward Hayter Harrier to almost £1300 for the Honda HRH 536, which was praised for its design and quality.
Individual groundsmen had their own favourites among the mowers, and some were more suited to a particularly tall or shorter operator, which shows the importance of involving the team in the purchase decision for this type of machinery.
Will Relf comments: "There were mowers that I liked that other members of the team were less keen on. Some of the more complicated controls, such as on the Etesias, could prove to be time savers once you get used to them, but ease and convenience of handling and starting is a big issue over a long working day. Whilst you can always wear gloves, comfortable, secure handles are a big plus, and the John Deere and Hayter Harrier were particularly good in this respect."
Generous capacity grass bags were also appreciated on the collector mowers, but some had a small discharge chute and used fiddly designs to ensure the flow of wet grass. When removing the bag to cut and drop, a metal connector flap drops down and this can lead to clogging.
"The two side discharge machines (John Deere and AS Motor) did a good job, but you need to remember to mow in the right direction to put the clippings where you want, rather than where you don't!" comments Will.
Even the humble mower is assessed on its looks these days and, whilst the groundsman's eye is always caught by a robust, workmanlike machine, the test did show that you can't always judge a book by its cover.
Bright green and white livery, plus different controls on each of the four models submitted by Etesia were described as initially off-putting by the team, but clever features, such as single point height of cut adjustment, light handling and quiet operation soon won them over.
And there was another surprise in the shape of the two big orange machines.
"The AS Motor mowers looked old fashioned and cumbersome," comments Karen. "But, we were really impressed by their performance and how user-friendly they are. They are obviously designed with the professional in mind."
She adds: "You really do have to get your hands on the mowers - the John Deere JX90CB, whilst being a really well designed mower, was initially dismissed by some of the operators as large and cumbersome. But, when you get hold of the handlebars and swing it round, it is a really well balanced and manoeuvrable mower."
The AS Mower 530 topped our points table, with John Deere's C52 KS heavy duty rotary a close second. Of the 'traditional' rotary mowers, Hayter's 21" model came out top, with Etesia's ME53B and the Toro Proline also scoring well.
Price is obviously a contributing factor when making any purchasing decision and, for pure value for money, the Active S/P performed more than adequately and is well worth considering.
The four rear roller models tested all scored similar marks, with the Hayter Harrier 56 pipping the two Hondas and the Kaaz model.
Comparison tests like these can never fully do justice to any machine and, coupled with the range of models supplied, the points system is not wholly accurate. However, we hope that this article has given you an insight into what is currently available.
We would always recommend that you have a site and operator specific demonstration before making any purchase.
Finally, we are grateful to Mark Freeman and his team at Loughborough University for their considerable time and effort.
For the full test results click on the image below