OLR Diaries -Biodiversity is living on the hedge!

When we first bought our fields in 2005, the hedges had been trimmed using a flail mower. We decided to let them grow for a few years before implementing our plan to use traditional hedge laying to improve their value for wildlife. We learned the importance of using the right tools and some bought in expertise!

Hedges are our heritage Hedges are a distinctive and valuable part of the British and Irish countryside. They have been used for many hundreds of years to mark boundaries and separate animals from crops. They have come to have a hugely valuable part to play in the conservation of a vast range of species. The oldest hedges are often notable for their huge biodiversity, animals and plants large and small rely on the food, habitats and shelter that they provide.

Under threatHedges have suffered massively over the last 100 years, many thousands of miles of hedge have been removed to make larger fields. Many more have become degraded through neglect or mis-management. In response to this, the National Hedge Laying Society was formed in 1978 to try to revive lost skills and to preserve hedges. They arrange annual hedge laying match and promote the skills involved by running courses.

A hedge that has been flail mowed for many years gets very happy at the bottom and its value for wildlife is lost
There are sadly many miles of hedge like this, offering little habitat or food value for other organisms

Hedge degradation Continual trimming by flail mowers causes hedges to lose their structure. Over time the stems thicken and the hedge loses its dense structure. Flailing can damage the plants and make them susceptible to disease. Flailing is often carried out in early autumn which suits modern farming practice but removes the fruits and reduces shelter for overwintering insects and other animals.

Traditional hedge layingTraditional laying requires that the hedge is left to grow to a height of around 2.5 – 3 meters or more before the hedge is thinned of the older, thicker tree stems. A good axe is very useful for this job although chainsaws are also frequently used. These will re-grow from the dormant buds at the bottom of the stem as in coppiced wood. The younger stems that remain are partially cut through – usually using a bill hook and the stem is laid down and interwoven with others. This work should always be done during the dormant season. Bill hooks were developed over centuries of hedge laying and the shape of them is often associated with a specific county or style of hedge laying. Because they are so little used today, many of the modern ones are not as good quality as the hooks made 50 or more years ago.

When a hedge is first played, particularly if the trees were quite tall, it can look quite devastating but it will soon regrow.
The first stages of hedge laying can look a bit devastating but the end result is worth it
A newly laid hedge showing the stakes and hazel weavers that make it stock proof and hold the structure of the hedge together until it regrows
A newly laid hedge showing the posts and thinner poles that are woven through them to give the hedge stability and structure

Living on the hedgeHedges have the potential to form an amazing wildlife rich corridor that could span the length and breadth of the UK. Making a patchwork of safe ways to travel,connecting woodlands and pastures would give many species that are now struggling the ability to gain the food, shelter and habitat that they so desperately need. Plants can also ‘hop’ along these natural highways by seed transported on animals or by vegetative propagation. A hedge can be an ecosystem within which many micro habitats exist. Native species are always the best choices when planting a new hedge. Species that lay well are Hawthorn, Hazel, Ash, Elm, Chestnut, Blackthorn, Wych Elm and Oak. The Woodlands Trust are still giving away free packs of hedgerow plants that are despatched twice a year so apply now and start planning your wildlife haven or hedge!

A group of primrose nestle in the lee of an overgrown hedge
Primrose love growing in the cool shade of a hedge