A carefully chosen hedgerow can be much more than a barrier to screen your plot, it can also provide ideal habitats for wildlife. Traditional British hedges contain a range of shrubby species, each of which offers specific benefits to wildlife, and a range of visual attractions from spring blossoms to autumn colours and berries. You can estimate the age of an established hedgerow by counting the number of plant species present in random 30-yard lengths – each species occuring in your sample represents roughly 100 years of age. So, the more species you find, the older the hedge is likely to be.
The hawthorn is one of England’s most common hedging shrubs and can be found all over the UK. But did you know that it attracts more than 200 different species of insect, together with the small birds and mammals which feed both on those insects and, in autumn, on the plant’s prolific red berries. Native species are the best to use for your hedges as they will encourage a much greater variety of wildlife.
It’s easy to establish a wildlife hedge and it’s really exciting to watch the development of your own private nature reserve. Even if you don’t have room for a hedge in your garden, a small clump of shrubs will still help your local wildlife, particularly if you plant them in an undisturbed, sunny place. Be sure to choose species that grow naturally in your local area. Why not think about a mixture of blackthorn, hazel, dogwood, hornbeam (slow growing), holly and alder? The seeds and berries of all of these are good for wildlife, but do be careful if you have young children as they are mildly poisonous and can cause upset stomachs.
The best time to plant your hedge is in late autumn so that the shrubs have chance to get settled in before the beginning of winter, particularly if you are using bare-rooted seedlings. To ensure your hedge is dense and attractive to wildlife, use 9 plants per yard in staggered rows. If you are in a rural area you may wish to consider protecting your young plants against rabbits which will nibble the tender shoots! Mix up your different species in clumps – think how varied a country hedge looks. This will make the end result appear more natural.
You will also need to discourage weed and grass growth as your new hedge will need plenty of nutrients and moisture from the soil and grasses growing too close will compete for these and slow down the development of your hedge.
After a couple of years your hedge will be three to four feet tall, but some of the species will grow more quickly than others which will cause height discrepancies – adding to the natural effect! If you have leggy plants then try coppicing – a traditional, if slightly drastic hedge management practice. To do this, cut the plants back, almost to ground level in the winter. This will encourage vigorous new growth from the base of the plant which will be particularly attractive to wildlife. Don’t forget to continue your weed control after coppicing to promote quick regrowth.
In three or four years time you should find yourself the proud owner of a good thick, wildlife-friendly hedge. At this stage you can start to let grasses grow, or why not try a good wildflower mixture, at the base of your hedge. This will provide extra food and cover for birds, insects and mammals.
Your hedge should need little maintenance apart from a light trim in late winter, after the berries and seeds have been eaten, but before the birds start to build their new nests. You’ll then be able to sit back and enjoy the wildlife in your own thriving wildlife hedge.