It’s a cold January morning around 3°C and the hedges are on the maintenance schedule for the ‘wilding’ management this year. Excitement: we are to try out the recently purchased electric chain saw and hedge trimmer! We had learnt the importance of using quality equipment for this heavy work – easier, kinder and faster. We were hoping the equipment would do the job well, as its purchase was in part a ‘climate change’ choice.
The real challenge in these few days is to tackle the hedge planted six years ago with over 200 metres of hedge plant whips, and deciding what and how to trim to enable the future years’ hedge growth. It turns out no one knows what to do when you need a hedge for nature and don’t need a stock proof hedge of hawthorn as the base hedge plant – we don’t need to layer the hedge to keep animals in or out.
It seems most of the planted hedges today seem to include at least 80% hawthorn plants. Most newly planted hedges are never layered at five years plus. It was a puzzle to us as to why have a hedge so dominated by a thorny, injurious bush. Even more so when you don’t need to layer it!
Thriving hedges now needed managing
The main focus of our hedge areas is on wildlife and its regeneration. New hedge areas were created with diverse planting, guelder rose, spindle, hazel, briar rose, cornus, viburnam lantana, field maple. So, a rich mix of mostly non-thorny planting apart from the ‘briar rose’. In some places the old hedgerow of ivy and ancient hawthorn needed hedge gapping and we filled in with hazel, guelder rose, elderflower. No blackthorn, you may wonder? The thorns are ‘horrid’, a hedge layer’s nightmare. The black thorn already on site was left to expand and would then be contained.
When it now came to the issue of management, long discussions on height, width and cutting ensued. We were clear: reduce the thorny hedge plants, if not remove them. The ten acres has hundreds more plants than it ever had before, and the planting had made the site a carbon sequestration site of 9.0 tonnes, probably greater. This is twice our annual carbon footprint of 4.5 tonnes. Enabling diversity was reaping benefits already, expanding the numbers and types of birds and insects, especially moths.
Taking guidance from nature
Decisions were not easy to come by, when the information on hedge management lies within just a few wise hedge layer heads and an old copy of the former BCTV (now The Conservation Volunteers) hedge management book. Even with these sources the predominant focus was on ‘stockproofing’, not wildlife regeneration. So we observed how nature, especially the birds, used the hedges on the site.
They loved the hedgerow that had not been cut for three years except for a containment topping at three metres last year. It was beginning to sprawl wide and higher. This ivy, hawthorn, hazel, holly and elderflower hedge with clematis planted to crawl over it, along with nature’s contribution of blackberry plants which also clambered over, was just the favourite highway for many birds. All types of tits, chaffinch, bullfinch and chiffchaff constantly sped up and down all day. The birds just adored it and still kept their traffic up and down it even when we were cutting and trimming. It was a safe place, a sanctuary, it gave food via berries and insects, and provided nest sites and protection in poor weather.
We kept observing and realised that where the deer have browsed the recovery within the bush meant more possibilities of a nest site. The deer trimming created a kindly trimmed hedge plant with even more cross over branches which meant a wren or chiffchaff could nest securely. So the bird activities told us what to do and then the People’s Trust for Endangered Species seminar in darkest January with its focus on hedges and nature regeneration added further understanding and ways to cut and trim to benefit nature.
Clear targets and good tools make for an easy job
The cutting proved easy with the sharp and well powered trimmer. The battery powerpack lasted 50 minutes, enough to cut one side of the six years’ growth of a new 100-metre hedge planting line. The hedge trimmer was lighter, which meant cutting was easier, and it was more manoeuvrable and so went faster with less effort. We trimmed to 2.5 metres high and took off around 10cms in places along the width. This was to encourage more side shoots, more protection for birds, more nesting possibilities and more flowers for pollinators. The hedge line width was allowed to creep out into the field spaces like the billowing of skirts and the cover for wildlife expanded, as would its use!
With the focus on wildlife regeneration, targets for width and therefore containment and gradual cutting back became clear. The hedges for wildlife may need in places to be at least 5 metres wide. This is in contrast to the short back and sides of 99% of UK hedges of 2 metres wide at best. Every foot counts in hedges in farming and so the narrower the better for farmers – and the worse for wildlife.
UK hedges slashed to the detriment of wildlife
Sadly, even those hedges attracting specific environmental payments are slashed to a width of 1.5 metres or less and usually two metres high. This reduces every possibility for wildlife to survive, diminishing food supplies, often to zero, as annual slash and cut just removes growth points that will flower and provide berry food.
It leads to fewer flowers for pollinators like bees and fewer possible nesting sites. Older slashed and cut hedges may offer some protection from weather and predators like the sparrowhawk, as they have a more interconnected structure despite the hacking. But the reality is that the ‘number one’ hedge cut is a waste of effort and it offers little contribution to the nature of the countryside in the UK.
Nature can take the brunt of man’s unkindness and adapt in order to bloom. But bending just a little towards nature’s preferences by letting the hedges become centres of regeneration will be a blooming marvel!
Wisdom gained and nature wins through
Cutting with the machinery and using loppers, bill hook, the 200 metres of hedge were cut and trimmed within two hours. We now understood the hedge and the plants and how they grew in relationship to the wind, sun, each other and the consequences of errant deer and hare browsing. We were gaining wisdom, and nature might win through.
So, all good news. No slash and splinter, no ‘short back and sides’. Holly, with its secure hiding places, now a firm favourite with the ten acres birds, whose choral sounds at early February sunrise are a true mindful joy.