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Hertfordshire County Council

Why are hedgerows not always cut regularly and kept 'tidy'?

Hedges can be fantastic habitat for wildlife. Even in the middle of towns they provide shelter and cover, somewhere to nest or somewhere to feed.

The best hedge is thick and bushy, with lots of cover. Plants within the hedge like brambles and hawthorn flower, bringing colour in the spring and summer. Later in the year they produce fruit and seeds, providing valuable food through the autumn and winter.

The best way to encourage the production of this natural food supply is to cut hedges in alternate years, or on one side each year. This is because fruits are often borne on growth from the previous year. Cutting less often like this is far better for wildlife – many kinds of bird and small mammal find food in hedgerows.

This doesn’t mean all hedges should be cut less often – there are lots of places like footpaths and formal parks where frequent hedge cutting is still most appropriate.

What time of year is best for cutting?

It is best to cut hedges in the winter. That way birds and mammals get an opportunity to feed on the fruit and seeds that the bushes produce.

The best time of all is February, leaving food on the bushes for as long as possible but avoiding the time when birds start nesting. The most important time to avoid is between March and July because of the bird breeding season – it is illegal to intentionally damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird.

Song thrushes are one of our most familiar hedgerow birds, but they are declining rapidly. Thick, bushy hedges full of insects and snails in the summer and berries in the winter provide excellent habitat for this species, which is as happy in towns as it is in the countryside.

Hedge laying and coppicing

Hedges can easily get overgrown or straggly. At this point they need management more drastic than a simple cut.

Hedge laying is a traditional way to create a thick, bushy hedge from a thin and straggly line of plants. The stems are almost cut at the base, then laid horizontally. Stakes cut from side branches are knocked into the ground, and the stems woven between them. As the bushes regrow, branches come from the stems in all directions.

Coppicing is another traditional technique. Bushes are cut close to the stump, which encourages vigorous fresh growth. Several stems will grow from each stump, making the hedge much thicker.

However it’s achieved, a thick-based hedge with a long grass margin is excellent for nesting birds like yellowhammers and linnets.

Planting to fill gaps

One of the best things about hedges is that they are a continuous strip of natural habitat, which animals like mice and voles can move along safely. A gappy hedge doesn’t do this job so well, and it looks worse too.

You can solve this problem by planting new bushes in the gaps. It’s best to pick the same kinds of bush that are found in the hedge already. Native species are the best choice, especially the ones which provide flowers and berries for animals. They’re not only much better for wildlife but also just as colourful as ornamental shrubs.

The new bushes need lots of care to get going. Plastic guards protect them from rabbits and deer, which could otherwise eat them. It might seem strange not to plant large bushes, but small plants grow much more quickly, and survive better.

Why plant new hedgerows?

Hedges are natural corridors, linking habitats for wildlife. Planting a new hedgerow in the right place extends these vital links.

The choice of what to plant is really important. Native shrubs are best for wildlife, especially if they provide flowers and berries for animals. For example, hawthorn and blackthorn are very commonly found in hedges in southern England. Planting occasional trees like oaks along the hedgerow will make the habitat even more valuable as it develops.

The new bushes need lots of care to get going. Plastic guards protect them from rabbits and deer, which could otherwise eat them. It might seem strange not to plant large bushes, but small plants grow much more quickly, and survive better.

Another way to create habitat for wildlife along boundaries is to build dead hedges: barriers constructed from cut branches. These provide shelter for small animals like mice and are good for insects too. However, they are only appropriate on a small scale, not across a whole site.

Contact the Countryside Management Service

northeast.cms@hertfordshire.gov.uk

01992 588433

Countryside Management Service Office (Car Park H)
Environment Department (CHG001)
County Hall
Hertford
SG13 8DN

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