Planting New Countryside Hedges
The traditional landscape of fields divided by hedges is characteristic of much of lowland Britain but is practically unknown in continental Europe. The hedges are largely a result of the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Hedges were a purely practical form of demarcating boundaries to fields and preventing stock from straying. They were usually planted with 100% Hawthorn as this was the most effective shrub for making stock proof hedges at a time before barbed or electric wire. Even then shepherds and cowherds would be needed to stop their animals from making holes in the hedges.
At the present time hedges are no longer required to be stock proof, indeed hedges must be fenced to protect them from grazing animals, but hedges are still useful to demarcate legal boundaries between fields under different ownership.
There are now two new reasons for planting hedges in the countryside. Firstly to maintain the traditional pattern of the landscape and secondly for their wildlife value. As fields become increasingly sterile, apart from the crops that grow in them, so the hedges and ditches that surround them become more important to allow wildlife to thrive in an agricultural landscape.
Conserving landscape and helping wildlife are of no direct benefit to the farmer but are demanded by the general public so it is only reasonable that new countryside hedges are grant aided with public money.
Grant aid for hedge planting has two unfortunate consequences. Firstly, the responsible government department has to make a highly prescriptive specification of how to plant a hedge. If it is paying a grant of x pounds per metre of new hedge planted, then everyone must plant hedges to a particular specification or it would be unfair.
The second unfortunate consequence is that as the grant element of hedge planting becomes greater the farmer/landowner is driven more by the desire to secure the grant than the desire to establish a hedge that meets his objectives.
These consequences can be seen clearly in the latest Countryside Stewardship grant, the principal grant for establishing new hedges in the countryside administered by Natural England. https://www.gov.uk/countryside-stewardship-grants/planting-new-hedges-bn11 .
This specification (BN11) for planting new hedges would be quite familiar to an eighteenth century farmer wanting to enclose some common land. The specification for hedge plants seems to have come from a forestry planting manual of the 1960s. The specification for protecting the new hedge must have been written by a committee with little practical experience.
Under the new Countryside Stewardship grant is paid at £11.60 per metre. This is supposed to represent 80% of the costs incurred, so the cost incurred is estimated to be £14.50 per metre of new hedge planted. If you followed the Stewardship requirements and guidelines thoroughly I estimate that that would be about right, but with variation depending on site conditions. On the other hand, if you planted countryside hedges as my company and many others in England have for the past 20 years with excellent results, the cost would be around £4 per metre with little variation.
The problems with the Stewardship specification are summarised as follows:
Plant specification. A 2 year transplant (as required by BN11) has been grown in a seed bed for one season, it has then been lifted and grown on in a transplant bed for another season. This produces a strong plant with a bushy top and strong roots. Unfortunately, the bushy top makes it very difficult to put any 4cm diameter guard on it and the strong roots mean that a large hole has to be dug for each plant. It is also an expensive plant. It may be fine for a small garden hedge but it is impractical for long countryside hedges.
The height specification of 450mm to 600mm is derived from the pre-decimal “one and a half to two foot”, hence my suspicion that it was found in a 1960s planting specification. A modern height specification would be 40-60cm.
For the past 20 years the majority of large hedge planting schemes have used one year Hawthorn seedlings 40-60cm tall as their basis. This plant is easy to plant, it is easy to protect and it is quick to establish. It is also inexpensive to produce and is available from British nurseries.
Plant spacing. 6 plants per metre in a staggered double row 40cm apart (as required by BN11) is unnecessarily dense planting. Earlier Stewardship specifications were for 4 plants per metre and these were fine, why increase the density of planting and immediately add 50% to your costs? The thickness of a hedge is determined by its management, not by the density of planting. As a nurseryman I would always like to see more hedging planted, but I would prefer the result to be longer hedges not more densely planted hedges.
As every grower knows a densely planted crop produces thinner, less branchy plants. Wider spacing encourages stronger growth with more flowering and fruiting. The main objective of new countryside hedges is to produce flowers and berries for wildlife, not stock proof barriers as in the past, so hedges should be planted at wider spacing to achieve this. With careful protection and management the spacing can be safely reduced to 2 plants per metre and still produce the thick wide hedge desired by Stewardship.
Hedge protection. A newly planted hedge must be kept clear of competing vegetation for the first 2 years of its life to enable it to establish quickly. This can be done with a strip of mulch on organic farms but otherwise the only practical way is by herbicide spraying after planting. To do this the hedge plants must be guarded to protect them from the herbicide spray. The guards will also protect the young plants from rabbit, hare and vole damage.
The Countryside Stewardship specification says “avoid using spiral guards as they limit the amount of dense growth at the base of each plant, are unsightly and difficult to remove.”
If you can bear the sight of spiral guards for just 4 or 5 years they will have done their job. By then they will be brittle and quite easy to take off or break into small pieces with a hedge knife or similar. At this age a hedge is ready to be managed. It is this management that produces the dense growth in the hedge bottom.
See our blog on Linear Shrub Features (LSF) for a radical new approach to countryside hedge planting.