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.

Nowadays 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 (BN11) 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 that particular specification. This discourages any innovation.

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/her objectives. In January 2023 Countryside Stewardship grant for new hedge planting doubled to £22.97 per metre of hedge planted.

The specification for hedge plants seems to have come from a forestry planting manual of the 1960s. It must have been written by a committee with little practical experience.

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 new 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, weaker 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.

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 (or any other) guards for just 3 or 4 years they will have done their job. By then they could be removed and recycled and perhaps re-used. depending on the material they are made from. At this age a hedge is ready to be managed. It is this management that produces the dense growth in the hedge bottom.

So what would be a better specification for a new farm hedge? I suggest planting 100% hawthorn at 3 plants per metre in a single row. Each plant to be protected by a 60cm guard supported by a 90cm cane. If it is regularly trimmed this will produce a dense hedge of whatever shape, height and width is desired. It will provide good shelter for crops and wildlife at half the price of the Stewardship specification. Planting in a single row will allow machine planting, so reducing the costs. Hedgelayers have told me that it would also make it easier to lay such a hedge.

A totally different specification is needed for a new wildlife hedge. This is described in the blog on Alternative Countryside Hedges.