Hedgerows are a vital but disappearing habitat in the UK, and planting one can be one of the best ways to help wildlife in your garden or community
Hedgerows are so wonderful for wildlife. They provide food and shelter for hundreds of different species of mammals, birds and insects, and act as corridors for creatures to travel safely from one area to another.
Birds nest in hedges, and seek protection from predators in the impenetrable thorny thickets provided by blackthorn and hawthorn. And the fruits of many hedgerow trees and shrubs – blackberry, elderberry and holly, to name a few – provide food. Birds such as thrushes, fieldfares and redwings rely on hedgerow berries as a winter food source; and hedgehogs, foxes and mice will feed on berries too.
Early in spring, blackthorn flowers bloom – they're one of the first blossoms of the year to appear, so are a fantastic source of nectar for hungry insects emerging from hibernation.
Hazel catkins offer early nectar to insects too. And later in the year, hazelnuts are a welcome feast for many animals, particularly squirrels, who will gather the nuts and stash them away to eat during the cold winter months.
In autumn, leaves from hedgerow plants fall to create a thick leaf litter – the ideal hibernation spot for hedgehogs or toads.
Because they support all this biodiversity, hedgerows are one of the most significant wildlife habitats we have.
It's a real shame, then, that we have lost hundreds of thousands of miles of hedgerow since the middle of the last century.
We once had 500,000 miles of hedgerow in England – but by the early 1990s, this had fallen to 236,000 miles.
During this period, hedges were removed – for farming or development – at a much faster rate than they were replanted. One reason for this is that government policy after World War Two encouraged hedge removal to make space for growing more crops, and improve Britain's food security.
Since the mid-1990s, this rate of loss has halted – thanks, in part, to the efforts of many farmers working to replant, restore and manage hedgerows on their land. According to the NFU, more than 18,000 miles of hedgerows have been replanted or restored on farms in the last few decades.
To encourage and support biodiversity, though, more hedges need to be planted. And long-established hedgerows need to be protected – older and ancient hedges create their own special habitat that can take decades to replace.
One way that we can help is to plant a native hedge – even a small hedgerow can help boost the biodiversity in your garden or community.
Hedges can have benefits for humans too. They can reduce soil erosion, and lessen the risk of flooding.
As many hedging plants have prickly, thorny branches or leaves, they can deter unwanted intruders. And, with their fragrant spring blossoms and colourful autumn berries, they can also be more attractive than a fence.
As an added bonus, if you choose your hedging plants carefully, you can grow your own edible hedge. Blackberries, elderberries, crab apples, and damson provide a fruitful feast for autumn foraging. Blackthorn produces sloes – mixed with sugar and gin they make a fabulous liqueur. And hazel can provide protein, in the form of hazelnuts.
How to plant
Planting a hedge is easy. You can buy bare-root saplings at garden centres and nurseries.
Planting time is from November to the end of March – but avoid planting if the ground is frozen or water-logged.
Keep bare-root plants in a bucket of water during planting. Dig a trench about 60cm wide, and about as deep as the head of your spade. Plant each sapling one at a time, covering the roots with compost and firming in gently. For a mixed native hedge, using different types of plant, plant two or three of the same species next to each other – they need to be roughly 30cm apart.
Some people recommend angling the plants at 45 degrees – this can keep the bottom of the hedge from becoming bare and straggly as it grows.
When the hedge is planted, mulch with compost and keep watered in dry weather until established.
In the first spring, cut back to 45-60 cm above the ground to encourage bushy growth. In subsequent years, wait until late winter or early spring to prune to the desired height, so that wildlife can take advantage of the insects and fruits provided during the winter months.
To keep nesting birds safe, don't trim hedges during the nesting season, from March to August. It's also a good idea to trim different sections of a wildlife hedge at different times – this way there's always an area of hedge that's left undisturbed.
A hedge doesn't have to be planted in a straight line – it can curve to follow the contours of your garden. And as well as creating a boundary, hedges can also be used to create garden 'rooms' in larger spaces.
What to plant
For the best biodiversity benefits, stick to native species. Grow rambling plants – such as bramble, ivy and honeysuckle – through your hedge to provide even more shelter and food for wildlife. Here are a few suggestions for hedging plants.
Beech. Good for structure and colour, with bright green leaves that turn russet in autumn and stay on the branches throughout winter.
Dog rose. Deliciously scented flowers, and colourful hips in autumn. Made into syrups and sauces, rosehips are a good sauce of vitamin C.
Hawthorn. Spring blossom for bees, and winter berries that are loved by birds. Thick thorny foliage that's fantastic for nesting birds.
Holly. Dense, evergreen cover with protective prickly leaves. The bright red berries are eaten by birds and mammals.
Blackthorn. Masses of white flowers in March and April provide nectar for insects. It's vital for the rare black hairstreak butterfly, which lays its eggs on blackthorn. When the caterpillars emerge in spring, they feed on the plant. And you can make sloe gin with the autumn berries!
Elder. Blossom and berries provide food for many creatures, and elder leaves are a source of food for moth and butterfly caterpillars. Elderberries have reputed health benefits for humans, and can be made into an immune-boosting syrup.
Hazel. Catkins in spring provide nectar, and the hazelnuts can be gathered in autumn – if the squirrels don't get to them first!
Little Green Space March 2020
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A quick guide