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Top tips for managing hedgerows

Manage a hedge on a cycle

Hedgerows are a dynamic organism, just like the individual plants from which they are created. They consequently require a dynamic management approach which respects their position in the hedgerow management cycle. The ultimate goal in hedge management is to create a thick, dense hedgerow. This maintains the wildlife and nature value, while providing the most benefits to landowners.

When hedges are cut at the same point year after year, fewer flowers and fruit are produced and the food available to wildlife is reduced. Following this management regime, the hedges will lose their lower branches over time and become leggy and at risk of invasion. Eventually, the hedes will become ‘gappy’ and in some instances, can be lost altogether. Trimming to a slightly higher and wider point each year by following a system of incremental cutting, will help to prevent this outcome. The hedge can then be re-shaped when needed.

Regardless of the annual management employed, eventually the lower parts of the hedge vegetation will thin and the hedge will require rejuvenation. This can be done through laying or coppicing the hedge and only needs to be done every 40+ years to keep the hedge healthy and valuable for wildlife. See the hedgerow management cycle for more information. The hedgerow management 10 point scale on which this illustration is based was created by Nigel Adams. For more information visit Nigel Adams’ Countryside Management website here.

Hedgerow management cycle

Care for hedgerow trees

Hedgerow trees, especially native ones, are fantastic for wildlife and will increase both the abundance and diversity of species inhabiting a hedge. Old trees are especially valuable as their rot holes and dead wood are amazing roost sites for birds and bats. They can also provide the increasingly rare habitat needed for an incredible array of rare invertebrates.

Take care not to damage any hedgerow trees when trimming, and select some new young trees growing in a hedge to save from the flail. These will then become the big old hedgerow trees of the future.

Trim at the best time for nature

Leave trimming to late winter wherever possible, ideally January or February. This allows birds and small mammals to feed on wild berries and fruits, keeping them sustained through the winter. Cutting earlier removes the majority of this food source, making the winter months harder for wildlife.

Hedges should never be cut in the bird breeding season which extends from 1st March to 31st August (unless safety reasons necessitate it). This is because cutting can disturb or destroy nests, egg clutches or chicks, all of which are protected by law.

When not to trim

The good news is that, it is best not to cut every year! Cutting once every two or three years increases flower and berry abundance, as these are often only produced on two year and older stems.

The benefit of this is that hedges can be cut on rotation, so that only ½ or 1/3 of hedges are cut in any one year. An alternative is cutting just one side of each hedge every year, which will halve the cutting time and leave berries on each hedge.

Plant up gaps

Gaps in hedges not only reduce the total area of a hedge habitat, but also their value as a corridor for wildlife. Even small gaps in a hedgerow can be an obstacle to dormouse dispersal which can lead to isolated populations more at risk of local extinction.

Any gaps can be planted up with a range of native shrub or tree species. Young whips can be protected when doing this, in areas where they are at a high risk of being foraged. Increasing the number of plant species in a hedge will help to provide food in the form of flower forage or fruit throughout the year. A greater plant species diversity also helps to increase the diversity of insect and animal species, some of which depend on particular plants to survive.

Native shrubs and woody species provide habitat for more insect and animal species than those that are introduced from abroad, as more of our native wildlife have adapted to eat them.

Health-check your hedgerows

The Healthy Hedgerows survey provides instant feedback about the health of the hedge and bespoke management advice. The data that you contribute helps us to understand the overall health of hedgerows at a national scale so that we are able to direct our conservation work. Learn more:

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