The Anglo-Saxons referred to an enclosure as a “haeg” or “gehaeg”, and it is from this that we get the word hedge. Whichever word you choose to use, hedging isn’t just a decorative feature, however, as it is extremely important to wildlife.
Because of the Enclosures Act of the 19th Century many of the open fields and commons that existed at the time were divided up into much smaller parcels of land with the planting of hedges. These hedges, together with older ones that date as far back as medieval times offer a fantastic look at the past and how people used the land.
Unfortunately, since the Second World War field sizes have increased and there has been considerable development of land that has led to the removal of many of the ancient hedgerows that made up such a large part of the countryside. It is believed that by the 1990’s around 121,000 km of hedgerows had been removed
It is estimated that there are currently around 450,000 km of hedges, hedgerows, in the UK. The highest numbers are mostly concentrated in southern England and southern Wales; there are however relatively few in Scotland. With around two thirds of England having been continually hedged over the last thousand years it is not surprising that many of these hedgerows contain a wide variety of different bushes, some native to the UK and others that have established themselves within our hedgerows.
A familiar sight all over the British countryside, hedgerows criss-cross the fields; the long rows of bushes interspersed by the occasional tree. They divide the landscape and separate farmland, their main purpose is to provide boundaries between the parishes, and prevent any livestock from escaping from the fields.
But their importance does not end there, whilst there is no denying the usefulness of the hedgerow when it comes to containing farm animals and dividing land, they are of vital importance to much of our wildlife, offering them both a varied source of food and a place to shelter.
The leaves, nectar-rich flowers, berries, seeds and even nuts of the hedgerows provide a diversity of food that is vital for a wide variety of small mammals, birds and even insects. In turn the insects themselves provide an important source of food for some predators who seek out insects and other invertebrates from within the shelter of the hedgerows.
This use of natural boundaries, rather than fences or walls, offers a much better choice where so many different types of wildlife is concerned and this is especially true where native shrubs and trees are found in greater concentrations.
Hedgerows are nature’s windbreaks, providing natural protection from the wind and creating sheltered pockets of land especially in gardens, which are of importance when it comes to butterfly populations. They also create areas of shade, which helps to make a greater variety of habitats in any garden. This helps support a greater variety of small mammals, birds and insects.
Hedges provide shelter from the elements to a huge variety of creatures and protect them from larger predators such as birds of prey by offering them cover, which makes them harder to spot. As Britain’s areas of woodland have decreased many small animals have had to adapt themselves and find new places to live, in many cases this has meant living in hedges even adapting what they eat to what is provided by the hedgerows. As these hedgerows decrease in number, once again so do their habitats.
Hedges offer a variety of different habitats. Small birds nest amongst the branches and tiny mammals make their homes closer to the ground. Living together near one another they are dependent on each other for their survival. They all form part of an important food chain; beginning with the hedge or the food it provides and ending with the predators for whom the wildlife of the hedgerow provides a veritable selection of food. The removal of hedgerows therefore not only affects those animals and birds which live in it but those that rely on the hedgerows to provide them with food.
Soil erosion, where the wind blows away valuable topsoil and alters the eco system of a field, can also occur when too many hedges are removed, leaving vast areas of land unprotected and open to the elements.
Hedges are a vital network of pathways that all types of wildlife use as a means of travelling across the land. They offer cover that protects them from being easily protected from predators, whilst also offering them all the things they need on their journey – food and shelter. Removable of the hedges makes small mammals and birds particularly vulnerable to predators as they are forced to cross wide open spaces to get from one area of shelter to another – they are more easily spotted from above and this can lead to dwindling numbers of certain types of mammals. Larger mammals such as foxes and badgers also make use of hedges as a means of getting from one place to another whilst under cover – they do not like to be out in the open in a position that makes them vulnerable.
What can we do to help wildlife?
To look after our wildlife, we need to learn to take care of our hedgerows. Whilst it is okay to trim hedges back it is important to wait until the right time in the year to do so, they should not be cut whilst birds are nesting. You should also avoid trimming hedges until the berries have gone; otherwise you are removing a vital source of food, and above all avoid cropping too closely or too frequently as this can inhibit the growth of flowers and berries.
Maintenance of your hedges is not just limited to trimming them back, as there may be occasions where you need to do some replanting. This could be due to a large gap in the hedge or a damaged plant. If in doubt as to what type of plant will work best speak to a reputable supplier who will be able to help you.