Hedgerows came under threat as farming became more industrialized, with bigger machinery requiring bigger fields to work efficiently. This resulted in the loss of 150,000 miles of hedgerow across Britain. Many hedges now receive some legal protection from removal (see The Hedgerow Regulations 1997).
Devon was relatively unscathed compared to other counties and can be proud of the fact that it has more hedgerows than any other county – an impressive 33,000 miles! Many of the hedgerows are on earth banks and at least a quarter of them are over 800 years old and are home to a wealth of wildlife. In the spring and early summer they are full of wild flowers, with species such as primrose, bluebell, red campion and stitchwort providing a riot of colour.
To keep hedges healthy and attractive some management is required. However, it is important they are not ‘over-managed’. For example, a hedge that is flailed hard and to the same height year after year will offer wildlife less shelter, less berries and nuts and will eventually become gappy at the bottom.
The main aim of hedgerow management should be to maintain a range of different types and sizes of hedgerow across a given area, which can then support a wide variety of wildlife. Good hedgerow management will support an abundance of insects, provide habitat for a range of birds and mammals and provide a rich supply of food for some species throughout the year. Partridges, linnets and yellowhammers, for example, prefer hedgerows under 2 metres in height with grass margins, whereas song thrushes and turtle doves prefer wide hedgerows over 4 metres high.
A network of hedgerows can act as important links between wildlife habitats and form corridors between isolated woodlands. Dormice, in particular, can benefit from tall hedgerows linking woodlands.
Mature and dying trees, including those within hedgerows, are home to a wide variety of insects and other animals that may be found nowhere else on a farm. Indeed, they may be the richest wildlife feature on that farm. Due of their importance as a habitat, such trees require protection and a long-term plan to replace them.
Hedge laying, a traditional management technique often referred to in Devon as ‘steeping’, is a good way of managing a hedgerow and can be done as a community project. Not only does steeping increase the life of a hedge and produce thick dense cover at the base helping to protect nesting birds from predation, it also helps to keep a traditional rural skill alive and forms a hedge that is a genuine barrier to stock. Stems of several years’ growth are partially cut at the base, leaving a small portion attached to keep the branch alive, and then laid down and held in place by stakes. Next year’s growth rises vertically from the laid branch to form a dense hedge. Where Devon hedges are to be steeped, they should be allowed to grow to a height of between 3 and 6m (10 to 20ft) to give sufficient material to work with.
Today, the majority of hedges are flailed as it is much quicker than laying. However, it can be particularly devastating to wildlife if done at the wrong time of the year. If the following principles are followed the effect on wildlife can be reduced:
- Flailing should only be carried out between January and March – as birds will not be nesting, plants have finished seeding and most fruit and berries have been eaten by birds and other wildlife.
- The hedge should be trimmed on a minimum three year rotation, not annually – this allows the hedge to fruit prolifically (and can save money due to reduced management costs).
- Vegetation growth should ideally be at least 2m high.
- Carry out a hedgerow survey of your area to identify important ancient or species-rich hedgerows (those with 5 or more woody species in a 30m stretch).
- Work with landowners to encourage appropriate management.
- Encourage sympathetic management of hedges around public areas, such as playing fields and village halls.
- Replant gaps in hedges and maybe even replant hedges that have been removed (look at old maps to find out where hedges used to be).
- Look at the area and see if the hedges are linking other habitats, especially woodlands, if not try to plant up the gaps to provide the links.