When managing hedges, it’s vital to employ a contractor who understands the lifecycle of a hedgerow, knows how and when to prune it and, most importantly, when to leave it alone. Good hedgerow management is about saving money while making an immense contribution to halting biodiversity decline, minimising soil erosion and tackling climate change.
Cycling or walking around your neighbourhood is a good way to see the health of the hedgerows in East Anglia. Hedge numbers have declined rapidly in the last century. The Woodland Trust estimate that around 118,000 miles of hedgerows have disappeared across the UK since 1950, due largely to intensification of agriculture. Whilst this loss has slowed since the 1990s, it is quite clear, especially in winter, that neglect, lazy flailing and pruning damage remain significant threats. In East Anglia where much of the hedgerow has been removed, soil loss through erosion is twice the global average. This is partly because the hedgerow acts as a natural windbreak, as every cyclist knows, and hedge roots act to hold the soil together.
Creating a hedge is a skill and an art
Plainly there are many landowners and farmers who know how to grow and maintain a thick, healthy hedgerow. It is a joy to pass these and hear the bird song of its inhabitants or see the fluttering of butterflies and bees. But there are far too many hedgerows flayed to an inch of their lives by blunt mechanical flails, cutting far too deeply into the main tree stem, weakening or worse gradually killing the plant. Furthermore, the spraying of agricultural chemicals right up to the hedge foot and badly timed cutting causes further damage, reducing the health of a hedgerow.
Planting hedgerows is very labour intensive. It can take man weeks to plant a long hedgerow – typically planting in a staggered double row 40cm apart with a minimum of 6 plants per metre. Given this is done in the winter months, the task can be a cold, back breaking job. The road to becoming a recognisable hedgerow is even longer. So why are so many farmers and landowners wasting their money and allowing untrained workers to effectively weaken and kill their hedges?
Manage not massacre
In March 2023, North Norfolk District Council announced that their tree planting scheme had planted 110,000 saplings and hedging whips – 37 native species of tree and shrub across 134 tree planting projects. During the early years the saplings need protection, especially from deer that find the plants a very tasty morsel. Hence one sees row upon row of plastic or cardboard protectors in a newly planted hedge. Then it can take years for hedgerow saplings to mature. Unless the management of hedgerows becomes recognised as a skilled art, the prospects for the thousands of saplings recently planted is very bleak.
A common sight in Norfolk is the over-trimmed hedge, cutting repeatedly to the same short height. This stresses the plant, causes gaps to appear and the hedge just fades away. What should be done is to leave the hedge alone for two or three years and allow it to gain height and growth, not least as most blossom and berries only grow on two-year-old wood. A hedge that grows for a couple of years and then is cut 10 cm higher each time, will take at least ten years to grow one metre taller. Slow and steady growth which facilitates reshaping without weakening.
Why are hedges important?
The strong, thick hedgerow offers a food source and habitat for diverse wildlife. However, a recent tendency is to manicure in September which denudes the plant of the berries that birds and mammals require during the winter. Better to leave the cutting until late winter, after berries have been eaten by birds, but before the nesting season. If the hedgerow is allowed to grow to two metres, it becomes more attractive to nesting birds. In turn the birds act as predators to unwanted insects which potentially will help save money on crop sprays. Similarly, a hedgerow comprised of flowering plants is an attractive food source for bees and other pollinating insects which can assist the pollination of field crops.
Hedges go through a life cycle. Nigel Adams, award-winning vice chair of the National Hedgelaying Society, defined a 10 point scale to assist with identifying this. Hedgerows will respond well to sensible and rotational pruning. Good hedge management recognises this and the good hedge manager knows to intervene only when appropriate.
Appraise your local hedges
So as spring advances with flowers and leaf buds starting to shoot, now is the time to examine the health of your own and your neighbour’s hedges. Has the hedgerow been maintained or massacred? Is it constantly over-trimmed? Are there dying plants and gaps from excessive and brutal cutting? Should you give your hedges a chance to regenerate and hence, save money, by cancelling this and next year’s hedgerow cutting contract? And if your neighbour has very healthy hedgerows, should you employ his contractor?
Planting hedges costs a lot of time and money. Some of our hedges are medieval in origin. Understanding where a hedgerow is in its lifecycle and managing accordingly not only will save money, but it will improve biodiversity with resulting agricultural (and cycling) benefits.
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