What's in a Hedge?

There are many great reasons to plant a hedge, and it is a practice that has been used in Britain in all probability since the Bronze Age. On farms they can form a natural stock proof barrier, a wind break and help prevent soil erosion. They provide a habitat for wildlife and vital food source to pollinators, birds and mammals, increasing biodiversity. They can also mitigate climate change and provide colour, texture and amazing aromatics when in full bloom.

Between mid-November and late March tree roots are dormant and can therefore cope better with being moved, making it the perfect time to plant, as long as the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged.

As a Ranger for Fife Coastal and Countryside Trust I have been planting hedges throughout the winter with the help of local volunteer groups. These hedges will make future wildlife corridors to connect habitats and to improve biodiversity. To achieve these goals it is important that the hedge is made up of the correct species. A Beech hedge may keep its leaves throughout the winter, but provides little in terms of food for wildlife.

The hedges are therefore comprised of native wildlife friendly species, with each species adding its own unique food source and characteristics. So what’s in a hedge, the answer is lots, using a mixture of trees and shrubs the hedge is planted along the following proportions;

40% Hawthorn
5% Dog wood/Dog Rose
30% Hazel
5% Rowan
10% Field Maple
5% Crab Apple
5% Guelder Rose

Hawthorn - the most common used hedge species, the name even derives from hagathorn, probably meaning literally ‘hedge thorn’. It can grow up to 5-9meters and live up to 300 years, possibly more. This shade tolerant species does well on acidic soil. The fissured bark and spiky thorns make it easily identifiable and perfect for livestock fencing. In late spring the white flowers burst into life and their red berries feed birds well into winter. Hawthorn can provide a food source to more than 300 insects, including many moth caterpillars. Its pollen attracts many bees and other pollinators. The berries are a food source to redwings, blackbirds and fieldfares. The foliage provides home and shelter to many birds.

Hazel - A great species for hedging and also an ideal species for coppicing, the products of which can be used in hedgelaying and rural skills practices, (more on this in part 2). Hazel is not a tall growing tree, rarely reaching more than 6meters. Its shrub like characteristics make it well suited in a hedge, however it does grow well in the shelter of other trees such as oak and ash, and even among scots Pine, as long as the canopy isn’t too dense. It produces leaves in April, providing a food source to caterpillars and produces hazelnuts in late October-November. This late food source can sustain woodmice, woodpeckers, tits and other birds well into winter and is a particular favourite of the Red Squirrel.

Field Maple – the only native maple species, within a hedge it can provide cover into late winter. Its leaves are fed on by caterpillars, with the flowers providing nectar and pollen to bees. The fruits are eaten by small mammals.

Guelder Rose – plant in wet sites, on woodland edges, same family as the elder and honeysuckle. Berries provide food to wildlife, bullfinches and thrushes. This shrub can grow up to 4meteres, but doesn’t have a long life. Many parts are poisons, bark, leaves and berries.
Rowan; allowing a Rowan to grow as a stand-alone tree within a hedge can add great biodiversity and texture. Its leaves are a food source to caterpillars, the flowers supports pollinators and the berries support a wide range of birds in the autumn, including mistlethrush, redwing and waxwing.

Dog Rose – This species is planted sparingly throughout a hedge, one plant per 20-30meters, owing to its suckering nature. If too many were planted it would take over the hedge and suffocate the other species. However it is worth including in the hedge for it provides nectar to pollinators and the berries are fed on by Blackbirds, redwings, and waxwings.

Dog Wood - a small native shrub, with a southerly bias, again planted sparingly. This shrub adds colour to the hedge and is fed on by to insects, birds and mammals.

Crab Apple – the ancestor to the cultivated cider apple species, it is a shrub or tree, growing to 10 meters with a life span of 100 years. It is a great species to add to a hedgerow as the leaves provide food for moths, and the long flowering period provide pollen and nectar to insects, supporting an important pollinator bee community. The fruits don’t ripen until October provide food to wildlife going into winter, birds and mammals.

Planting a hedge

When planting a hedge you want 5/6 plants per meter, in staggered lines, see diagram below, with each meter comprising a different species. This will create a thick and robust hedge made up of many individual plants. You want to allow your hedge to bush out at least 50cm from the centre, so allow for this in your plans.

To give the hedge saplings the best start they are protected from the wind and browsing with plastic tree guards and a wood stake for support. It will take a few years for the plants to outgrow the plastic spiral guards and reach a height were they are safe from browsing. Once this has happened remove the plastic guards and stakes and recycle/reuse were possible. The guards if left on to long will start to damage and inhibit the proper growth of the hedge/tree.

Many organisations are encouraging tree and hedge planting with communities able to access free tree packs from The Woodland Trust, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/plant-trees/free-trees/ and The Conservation Volunteers, If you want to see more hedges and biodiversity in your area, why not get your local community or school to order some free tree packs and get planting. If you need any advice on getting started with hedge planting or management don’t hesitate to contact the Ranger Service at FCCT.

Blog contributed by Nicola Williamson FCCT Countryside Ranger. (28/1/19)

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