It’s such a familiar sight – the hedgerows dividing up our fields across the country are an integral and beautiful part of the English countryside. You may have gazed at them countless times whilst looking out the car window on a journey, or walked past them while you are out for a stroll.
What you might not know is how vital they are for wildlife, and how our way of life is posing a threat as hedgerows become increasingly more broken up and removed due to things like changes to farming methods or house building. In fact, we sadly have lost about half our hedgerows since World War Two.
Hedgerows form an amazing ‘network’ of corridors of wildlife across farmland, and if they become broken up can threaten the survival of some species and impact the numbers of countless others. Hedgerows can be home to such things as hedgehogs and bats, as well as birds such as thrushes who nest within the branches. Did you know that bees use hedgerows as navigation aids! Beetles such as stag beetles might live at the foot of them as well as caterpillars and other insects.
Hedges can be made up of all sorts of plants and might include hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, as well as bramble and rose which will intertwine and mingle with everything else. You’ll often find lots of vegetation surrounding hedgerows such as cow parsley or bluebells.
Many of today’s hedgerows were originally planted in medieval times, and a lot of them have been around since the 18th century. According to the RSPB, hedges may support up to 80 per cent of our woodland birds, 50 per cent of our mammals and 30 per cent of our butterflies. They will also help with soil erosion and reduce flood damage, and they can provide shade for animals during the summer months and protection from the wind for animals and crops too.
Here at the farm, Barry understands the value of hedgerows for the environment. After he had finished using his land for a market garden, he split it into four areas with hedgerows, planting around 4000 traditional hedgerow plants including hawthorn, blackthorn and acer. These are called ‘whips’ and start about 60cm high, and are planted closely together to form a thick hedge in time. Hedges might take up to seven years to reach the desired size.
Barry estimates that he has over half a mile of hedgerows at the farm and attests that they are teeming with wildlife. Birds nest at the tops, and up to eight deer graze at them constantly. He is sure to keep the tops uncut while the birds are nesting and so trims them in late summer when the chicks will have all hatched. He’s noticed that during the lockdown period there are even more birds, and is really enjoying the increased volume of the birdsong as a result.
With over 70% of the UK being turned over to agriculture, hedgerows are an important safe haven for wildlife – providing food and shelter for many species. It’s made us realise that they are not just a feature of the landscape, they also provide an amazing habitat as well as a whole host of other benefits for our environment too.