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Hedgerows

Hawthorn, with berries in hedgerow

Image: Andy Hay

Good hedgerow management will support an abundance of insects on the farm, provide habitat for a range of birds and mammals, and provide a rich supply of food for some species throughout the year.

The management of those field margins abutting the hedge is also critical for a wide range of species.

Key points

  • The main aim of hedgerow management should be to maintain a range of different types and sizes of hedgerow to support a wide variety of wildlife.
  • A hedgerow with a continuous, dense base and adjacent perennial grass margin provides the best cover for nesting birds.
  • Avoid trimming during the peak nesting season (March to August) and trim on a two- or three-year rotation.
  • Funds from Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) can be used to restore hedges that have become patchy or overgrown, and to plant new hedgerows and hedgerow trees where they have been lost.

Benefits to wildlife

A variety of boundary types provides habitat for a diversity of wildlife 

Maintaining a diversity of field boundary types around the farm suits the needs of the widest range of species. Partridges, linnets and yellowhammers prefer short hedgerows (of under 2 metres) with grass margins.

Song thrushes and turtle doves prefer wide hedgerows over 4 metres tall. Many hole-nesting birds such as tree sparrow can use old hedgerow trees. Corn buntings prefer field boundaries in the form of hedgeless wide grass banks.

A dense base protects nestingbirds 

Thick, dense cover at the base of a hedge plays an important part in protecting nesting birds from predation.

A network of hedgerows can act as important links between wildlife habitats on the farm 

Many species such as dormice will benefit from tall hedgerows linking woodlands around the farm.

Old hedgerow treesmay be the richest wildlife feature on a farm 

Mature and dying trees are home to a wide variety of insects and other animals that may be found nowhere else on a farm. Because of their importance as a habitat, such trees require protection and a long-term plan to replace them.

Implementation

Hedge trimming   

The basic principles for good hedge trimming are as follows:   

  • Trim in January or February to avoid the destruction of birds nests (present from March to August) and to allow any berry crop to be used by wintering birds (September to December).   

  • Trim on a two- or three-year rotation, rather than annually, to ensure that thick nesting cover is available somewhere on the farm every year, and to boost the berry crop and populations of overwintering insects.   

  • Rotational trimming saves time and money.   

  • If soil or crop conditions require an autumn trimming regime then it is even more important that this should be done on a two- or three-year rotation.   

  • Avoid trimming all hedges in the same year.   

Long-term management by laying or coppicing   

You are likely to find that trimming will keep hedgerows in good condition for many years, but that occasional restoration work is necessary to prevent gaps developing or hedges turning into a line of trees. Hedgerow restoration can be performed in the winter by one of the following methods.   

Coppicing (cutting the stems at ground level) is the best method of restoration where the hedge is too overgrown to be laid because the stems are too thick.   

Laying (cutting stems part way through and interweaving them along the hedgeline) has a less drastic effect on wildlife and maintains the character of the landscape, but needs skilled labour.   

Both coppicing and laying will reduce birds breeding opportunities in the few years immediately after management and should therefore be carried out over many years rather than managing large sections in one year.   

Planting up gappy hedges   

Use species that are native to your area and use local sources of plants.

Undertake any planting during the winter, provided the ground is not frozen. The best time is early winter, when the ground is warm and some moisture is available.   

Planting up gaps can be done in conjunction with coppicing existing plants if these lack a thick base. This will give the new plants minimum competition.   

Before planting, you should ensure that the ground is free of vegetation, using glyphosate if necessary. Alternatively, you can plant through black polythene to suppress weeds and reduce moisture loss.   

It may be necessary to use plastic tubes, spirals or quills to protect young plants from grazing rabbits or deer. (removing the cuttings if possible).   

Protection from fieldmanagement practices   

Nesting birds need a thick hedge base. You can maintain this by avoiding spray drift, over-zealous trimming, ploughing too close to the hedge or heavy grazing.   

All arable hedgerows should have a grass strip at least 1 metre wide between the hedge bank and the crop. Wider margins can be funded by agri-environment schemes and are particularly important for nesting birds such as yellowhammers and whitethroats, as well as for buffering hedges and other natural habitats from spray drift. 

Maintaining hedgerow trees   

Where hedgerow trees are a feature of the hedge, you should plan to replace mature or dead trees by allowing saplings of native species to be left untouched during trimming.   

Retain old, dying and dead trees where these are not a hazard, as they support important insect communities and may be used by hole-nesting birds.   

Either side of a hedge that includes several mature hedgerow trees, 20-metre set-aside strips will protect the roots from damage during cultivation.

Last updated: 1 December 2008

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