Hedgerows for nature's recovery

, 26 May 2021
Hedgerows for nature's recovery
Butcherlands © Glenn Norris

By Rina Quinlan

Wilder Landscapes Advisor

Hedgerows are a well-loved feature of the British countryside that create important corridors and much needed connectivity for wildlife. They have been used to form parish, road and land boundaries and help farmers enclose livestock as well as provide them with shelter and forage. There is even archaeological evidence pointing to the likely use of hedgerows for keeping in livestock dating back to the Bronze Age and documented evidence from AD800 in early medieval Britain. A fascinating account of Hedges in History can be found on The Conservation Volunteers website.

A couple of summers ago I was walking with Ted Green, renowned ancient tree specialist, at the Knepp Rewilding Project, where growing out hedgerows have provided perfect conditions for their increasing population of nightingales. He spoke enchantingly of our ancestors who could have learnt such skills of coppicing and manipulating trees and shrubs by watching and mimicking herds of wild large herbivores pruning and shaping vegetation, and later how this led to cultivating them to provide enclosures and ‘tree hay’ for the then domesticated livestock.

Whilst it is generally understood that hedgerows are ‘managed’ for optimal wildlife value, sadly as agricultural and other land uses have intensified in recent years, many hedges have been subjected to overzealous flailing and removal, calling for an urgent need in land modified for human use to replant Britain’s ancient hedgerows to help combat biodiversity loss and restore connectivity in our overly fragmented landscapes. But where land is released for nature recovery, by simply asking to replant missing or repair existing hedgerows, are we aiming our sights too low? Nature recovery corridors shouldn’t be contained to a mere hedgerow but wide, extensive, vibrant areas of land that give a multitude of species full opportunity to forage and disperse

Nightingale © James Duncan

The linear rigid formation of a hedgerow is a manmade environment and unlike anything found in the environment. Should its main components of trees and thorny shrubs be allowed to establish more naturally? Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Hazel, Dogwood and Spindle interspersed with more mature trees such as Oak or Ash and interlopers like Bramble and Honeysuckle as well as many other typical hedgerow plants are commonly open, light-loving or edge species that would readily disperse more disproportionally through the landscape creating thickets and vegetative patches should natural regeneration be allowed. 

When disturbed by large grazing, browsing, gnawing and rootling animals, this can create a more Savannah-like dynamic environment, full of biodiverse and abundant edge habitats and multiple pockets of mini hedgerow-esque thorny scrubby patches. 

This increase in edge habitats with varied associated herbaceous ground flora and healthier soils interspersed through the landscape creates an array of niche environments and micro climates to suit a variety of species unique needs, attracting an abundance of invertebrates, small mammals, birds and reptiles. Furthermore, the reduction of management to allow hedgerows to grow out can create wider larger buffering areas of connectivity, ideal for many different species including the aforementioned and rapidly declining Nightingale, which had previously been categorised as a species found mainly in manmade coppiced woodland, but has now been more rightly attributed to a much more open and scrubby habitat.

Without doubt reinstating lost hedgerows is a vital tool for wildlife recovery but wherever possible allowing the natural colonisation of vegetation and reinstating lost ecological processes should always be the preferred option, giving future generations the opportunity to watch and learn from abundant and dynamic nature as our ancestors once would have done. One, where more species continue to surprise us and can be released from their strict categories and anthropogenic associated names, free from management, in the new wild, complex and nature-rich ecosystems that arise.

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  • Christine Roach:

    Excellent article. Could you advise please on shrubs to plant to infill a hawthorn hedge that has gaps and, also, when is the best time cut a wildlife-friendly hedge, if at all?
    Is it possible to have a decent wildlife hedge/thicket, say 4 m wide, without having grazing animals to keep parts of it clear?

    27 Apr 2022 17:08:00

  • Sussex Wildlife Trust:

    More hawthorn! Or any of the species mentioned here: https://sussexwildlifetrust.or...

    In general cut/prune in Jan/Feb so that fruit and berries can be eaten by wildlife, and this is when plants are dormant. Do not cut in spring/summer as you may disturb nesting birds. Trim to maintain the height/spread you want but cutting less is generally better. Most hedges do not need cutting every year but they do need some level of management so it’s about finding the right balance, and this will depend on various factors including location, species mix and age of hedge.

    We are not sure what you mean about keeping parts clear – in general you do not want a gappy hedge. No livestock is required for hedgerow management.