Hedgerows – perhaps, you don’t really give them much thought unless you’re foraging for brambles or other fruits to flavour favourite spirits, or you happen to snag your pullover on them when out on a stroll. They’re just those long lines of shrubby bushes, sometimes punctuated by trees, you frustratingly can’t see over when you’re a passenger in the car.
But hedgerows are the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK, and we’ve got around 450,000 kilometres of them, with 190,000 kilometres of that lot considered to be either rich in biodiversity or very old. Also, an impressive 130 wildlife species listed as priorities under the government’s Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) are associated with, or rely on hedgerows.
Northants farmer and Countryside columnist Trevor Foss explains his passion for and the importance of hedgerows to his farm.
“First and foremost, hedges are there to keep stock in, but obviously secondly they support and enhance so much wildlife, as food sources and corridors for them to move around the countryside in.
“They also make up the iconic patchwork of the Great British countryside; I can’t imagine what it would look like without them!”
Hedgerows - providing natural habitat for wildlife
Hedgehogs – the name’s the real giveaway here – bank voles, harvest mice and the hazel dormouse all find sanctuary and a place to feed and nest in the hedgerow. Birds from tits and robins to wrens, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes, yellowhammers and whitethroats, to name just a few, take cover in hedges, often construct nests there and rely heavily on the tasty snacks growing and living there.
Some 21 BAP priority species of birds are linked to hedgerow habitat; 13 of which rely on hedges as their primary habitat. And as many as 16 of the 19 farmland bird species the government uses to assess farmland wildlife are associated with hedges, with 10 of these depending primarily on hedgerows.
Insects and butterflies seek shelter and warmth in hedgerows and are drawn to the nectar-filled blossom and flowers that thrive there in spring and summer, while adders and lizards hide in the shady cover below. And if that’s not enough to make you a hedgerow convert, they’re also important winter refuges for many predators of crop pests.
Grow your own hedgerow
The dormant season from November to March is the best time to plant a hedge – so now’s an ideal time to get cracking on a hedgerow project.
Planting hedgerows can be a very positive thing for local wildlife, but, before you rush ahead, check you won’t be impacting negatively on existing habitats and that a hedge is appropriate for the location you have.
Even if you only have a garden you can still grow native hedgerow species. Hawthorn, hazel and blackthorn make a good thick hedge, but, for variety, you might want to consider other species such as holly, dog rose or field maple.
Depending on where you live, a good hedge mix might comprise half hawthorn, a quarter blackthorn (bear in mind this can spread to nearby fields), about a sixth field maple and then a bit of holly, some wild privet, guelder rose, dog rose and buckthorn. Local experts can advise what’s best for your part of the world. Before deciding on your mix of plants, check the hedges in the local landscape and consider matching up with what thrives in your area.
The best and most wallet-friendly results come when you plant 60-90cm ‘whips’ rather than established plants when growing a hedge from scratch.
Aim to create a thick hedge rather than a thin, gappy one – a double row of plants helps, spaced about 20 to 30cm apart.
Plant some trees along the hedge at five to ten metre intervals – species like ash, oak and hornbeam – to help attract more wildlife into the area. Prune hard in the first spring after planting to help the hedge fill out and thicken.
Once your hedge is established, leave a margin of about two metres next to it, undisturbed, which will further encourage and help wildlife.
Healthy hedgerows – what you can do to help
Get in touch with your local Wildlife Trust or your local hedgelayer for advice on planting and maintaining hedgerows. Experts suggest the best hedges for wildlife are a mix of species with a range of different shrubs, trees and climbers intertwining. Originally a lot of the older hedgerows in the countryside would have been hawthorn to start with, planted to contain livestock, which have been colonised by other species of bushes over time to create the rich habitats and hiding places they offer today. Here are some useful tips:
- Aim to manage your hedgerows for the benefit of the local wildlife by leaving rough grassy margins around hedges to make hedgerows more wildlife-friendly
- Avoid cropping hedges too closely or too often
- Encourage native shrubs
- Don’t cut hedges back when birds are nesting
- Link your hedge to other habitats nearby and don’t leave any gaps, so the wildlife has safe corridors to pass through
- Go on a hedgelaying course to improve your hedgerow management techniques and learn some traditional countryside skills.