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.

A traditional countryside hedge was designed to establish legal boundaries and prevent stock from straying. 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  "wildlife" hedge will provide plenty of shelter and nest sites. It will also provide plenty of food for wildlife. A succession of flowers through Spring and Summer will support pollinating insects which will in turn feed nesting birds. Similarly a succession of nuts, berries and other seed through the Autumn will allow wildlife to survive the Winter months.

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 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 specifications 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 new wildlife hedge should be planted in groups of 2 or 3 of each species in a single or double row at 2 metre spacing within each row. Shrubs should be individually protected with a guard to prevent animal damage and protect from herbicides. The shrubs should be kept weed free with a spot treatment of herbicide for the first two summers after planting, thereafter they should be strong enough to thrive on their own. The guards can then be re-used.

A new wildlife hedge should be planted with a wide mixture of species that will flower through the spring and into the summer, followed by autumnal fruits and nuts to provide food well into the winter. Trees such as wild damson. dessert cherry and bullace would also appeal to the forager and wine maker.

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, Ligustrum vulgare, 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 wildlife hedge will not be regularly trimmed, saving more expense, but will be allowed to grow freely. 3 metres either side of the shrub line should be left uncultivated. After 10 years of free growth sections of the wildlife hedge could be coppiced during the dormant season. The cut branches should be laid over the coppice stools as a dead hedge; this will discourage deer from grazing the coppice regrowth. 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 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 a wildlife hedge could be as little as £200 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.