Alternative Countryside Hedges
An earlier blog described the shortcomings of the Countryside Stewardship hedge planting grant. I am proposing a very different type of hedge planting, one which is designed from the outset to be good for wildlife and to be visually pleasing. Because it is so different from a traditional countryside hedge I have given it the snappy name of a Linear Shrub Feature or LSF.
A traditional countryside hedge was designed to prevent stock from straying. For this reason it was planted with hawthorn at close spacing and managed by hedge laying to produce horizontal branches. It was trimmed every winter to keep the hedge dense and prevent it becoming “leggy”.
A 21st century hedge does not need to be stockproof, but it needs to be the best for wildlife and to look good. It will need plenty of flowers in the spring and plenty of fruits in the autumn.
If a shrub is given enough space to grow it will produce flowers and fruit, but if it is planted too densely it will put its energy into vegetative growth, not reproductive growth. Similarly, if it is cut back regularly it will keep sending out new growth but will not produce much in the way of flowers.
New “wildlife” hedges are often planted with 75% hawthorn and a 25% mixture of native shrubs such as hazel, guelder rose and dogwood. But if these are planted and managed according to Countryside Stewardship guidelines you will never get a crop of hazel nuts, a luxuriant show of guelder rose berries or the heady scent of insect filled dogwood flowers. These shrubs will provide some autumn colour but in winter they will show up as holes in an otherwise dense hawthorn hedge.
A good LSF should be planted in groups of 2 or 3 of each species in a single or double row at 2.5 metre spacing. Shrubs should be individually protected with a guard to prevent animal damage and protect from herbicides. The shrubs should be kept weed free with herbicides for the first two summers after planting, thereafter they should be strong enough to thrive on their own.
Species selection should aim to produce a succession of flowers for insects through the spring and into the summer, followed by a succession of fruits and nuts to provide food well into the winter.
The season can be extended by using species that are not strictly native for example cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera, can start the flowering season off in mid-February and has a fine display of edible plums which are ripe by mid-July. Wild privet is the last native shrub to flower in mid-June but planting garden privet, Ligustrum ovalifolium, will extend the flowering season for another month to the delight of butterflies. Adding a few Buddleia to the mix will provide flowers right through to September.
Obviously a new LSF will not be regularly trimmed but will be allowed to grow freely, so 3 metres either side of the shrub line should be left uncultivated. After 10 years of free growth sections of the LSF could be coppiced during the dormant season. Any trees such as oak, elm or crab apple should of course be left. The result is a linear “coppice with standards”, a very traditional management for a new type of planting.
The costs of planting shrubs at 2.5 metre spacing is obviously only a tiny fraction of the costs of planting a Countryside Stewardship hedge at 6 plants per metre. The cost of planting an LSF could be as little as £100 per 100 metres. It would make sense to eliminate Countryside Stewardship hedge planting grant altogether and simply compensate for taking a strip of land 6 metres wide out of production.
Once freed from the bureaucracy of a grant the landowner can then decide on their own specification for species and size of plants and type of protection according to their own preferences and circumstances. Local and regional variations in planting and management will soon evolve.
If the landowner pays for the planting in full he will have full control over what is planted and will care for the planting accordingly.