No matter the size of your greenspace there is likely room for a native hedgerow. British hedgerows have been in decline since the 1700s and continue to suffer losses through neglect, poor cutting, spraying, overstocking and even removal. Yet our hedgerows are important for many species of British wildlife.
130 BAP (biodiversity action plan) species are associated with hedges, as are over 1500 insects including many important pollinators. Bats use hedgerows for commuting and foraging, stag beetle larvae can live in the dead wood, dormice spend most of their time following spring emergence in the bushy branches and great crested newts take refuge at the base.
If you don’t have a hedgerow, or the one you have is a bit gappy, there’s still time to get planting as the planting season runs from Oct-March. There are many options on which species you can plant, and the Woodland Trust offers packages of hedging whips of local provenance (and so reducing the biosecurity risk of importing plants) including free packages for schools and community projects. Hazel (Corylus avellana), hawthorn Cratagus monogyna), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), oak (Quercus robur), sweet chestnut (Castanaea sativa), field maple (Acer campestre), elder (Sambucus nigra), holly (Ilex aquifolia), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) all make great hedging shrubs. I like to add in dogrose (Rosa canina), guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), and spindle (Eunonymous europaeus) for colour.
It’s recommended to plant hedgerows in two rows with plants approximately 30cm apart (or 6 per metre) with the plants zig-zagging to keep the gaps smaller. By doing this you will create a nice dense hedgerow which could later be laid making it an ideal stock-proof boundary, and if managed well, will probably outlive you!
Once you have your hedgerow it is important to care for it. Hedgerows benefit from being cut, by doing so you encourage new growth and extend the life of the plants and the size of the hedge will determine the way you do this. I love hand pruning smaller hedgerows finding it therapeutic, especially on a bright winter’s day when the birds have started singing again. If your hedges are meters long or are field boundaries, you can still hand prune the hedge however this may not always be practical.
Instead you could use a flail which is the most common method for longer hedgerows, although they may damage stems greater than 2.5cm, weakening the hedgerow. Using a tractor mounted circular saw can avoid this. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to consider the shape you’re cutting to – the ideal is an A-shape of around 2m high and 1.5m wide at the base. You can top this if you wish, but not doing so allows some tree species to grow tall.
Cutting should be carried out on a rotation of approximately 2-3 years (though cutting season has finished now to allow birds to nest). Many invertebrate species such as the skippers overwinter in hedgerows as eggs, cocoons or in dead stems and cutting on rotation allows these species to survive.
Other ways you can help wildlife include leaving dead wood in situ, maintaining hedge banks and ditches, and enhancing the ground flora. Emorsgate have some wonderful hedgerow seed mixes for wildflowers and grasses suited to semi-shade and the you can buy quantities appropriate for your hedge, whether just a couple of meters or entire field margins! I’ve used them many times with great success.
Originally written for The Harrowing Times (Norfolk smallholders training group).