Hedgerows create an intimate feel to the landscape of the downs and provide valuable habitats for wildlife. They were originally planted to contain livestock and formed boundaries before the introduction of fencing. They can also develop from woodland edges. The way the land is managed and used has shaped their appearance. Different soil conditions, climate and altitude all have an effect on hedgerows.
The Different Types Of Hedges
All hedges need management to maximise their value for wildlife and for the designs of gardens, and to boost the production of flowers and berries. The best hedges are managed rotationally for a diverse range of ages and structures. They include mature hedgerow trees which are of particular value for bats and insects, as well as standing dead wood. They are often complemented by buffer strips of ungrazed or uncut grassland, which provides additional habitat for wildlife. Where they occur, hedge banks of earth and stone-faced can be of great importance for reptiles for hibernation and basking.
The ‘Traditional’ Hedge
This type of hedge is commonly used to mark field boundaries. Where livestock such as sheep are present, it may also provide a barrier sufficient to prevent their escape. A healthy traditional hedge may vary in height considerably and can be anything from 1m to 2m. Comprised of between one and up to as many as fifteen native species of plant, but is often dominated by hawthorn.
The Shelter Hedge
This type of hedge is grown in areas where strong winds would otherwise damage valuable crops. In Kent, this type of hedge is primarily used for the protection of fruit and hop plants. Tree species grown are typically large-leaved, such as beech, poplar or alder, planted in single lines and allowed to grow on to 3m to 4m (10ft to 13ft) tall.
These large-scale hedgerows (effectively narrow woodland strips of mature trees) are a characteristic feature on the downs. These shaws contribute to a strong separation between the slope and the more open agricultural slope immediately to the south. Replacing these features with small narrow hedges can seem ‘fussy’, out of character and can disrupt the wider landscape.
The Screening Or Privacy Hedge
This type of management practice has sprung up in the last couple of years as a means of screening recent modern developments. The use of non-native species, such as the Leyland cypress and other introduced evergreens, in a rural area looks very unnatural in the landscape and can have a negative impact on wildlife, and is therefore inappropriate.
When Should I Trim My Hedges?
Each of these types of hedgerow requires a different type of management to maintain its health, vigour and appearance. The next few pages show how to look after each type.
Ideally, the hedge should be cut during the winter months when it is not actively growing, to ensure disturbance to wildlife is kept to a minimum. Cutting in January and February allows any fruit to remain available for wildlife until December. The hedge should not be cut between 1st March and 1st September (Section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981), as it is an offence to intentionally damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird whilst it is being used or built. Similarly, under the Hedgerows Regulations Act, 1997, it is a criminal offence to remove a hedgerow without permission.
It is recommended that the hedge is cut on a rotational basis once every two to three years rather than every year. This creates a more natural-looking hedge and adds more cover for wildlife. Similarly, the hedge should not be cut back to the same point every time – particularly if it is flailed. The cutter bar should be raised a few centimetres on each cut, then pruned back hard to the original starting point the third time round. This prevents unsightly scarring of the stems and encourages better, stronger, denser growth.
Traditional or boundary hedgerows require maintenance if the hedge plants are not to eventually grow into trees and lose their effectiveness as a stock-proof barrier and a valuable wildlife habitat. There are four types of hedgerow management: machine trimming, hand trimming, coppicing and laying.
Trimming Techniques –
Using The Flail Cutter
The practice of flailing a hedge is now very common, being quick and cost effective. Careful machine trimming encourages bushy, branching growth that helps to form a dense barrier. However, if done unsympathetically it can be detrimental to the hedge.
The tractor-mounted flail is a powerful machine capable of grinding through sizable stems. However, it is most effective on small diameter stems up to 25mm. Although larger stems may well be within the machine’s stated capacity, it often causes the stems to shatter and split. This causes ugly scarring and damages the plant, so its life span and growth is greatly reduced. This can also arise because the job has been rushed and the machine pushed through the material too quickly.
Trimming your hedge with hand tools is only practicable if the hedgerow is short in length or inaccessible to machinery. Petrol-powered, hand- held cutters are available, but are primarily designed for light duties and will not be able to cut through thick stems. If this is the only way to manage the hedge, it will probably require cutting once every two years. However, care should be taken not to over-tidy and create a manicured smooth-profiled hedge. Otherwise, all advice given for machine trimming applies to hand-trimming.
Not all hedges need regular cutting; where crop-shading isn’t a problem, free-growing hedges can be allowed to develop and then coppiced on rotation. This provides good habitat for a variety of wildlife. This technique can also be used when the hedge has gone past the optimum state for laying. It is more cost effective and requires less expertise compared to laying.
Coppicing involves cutting trees and shrubs down to a few centimetres above ground level. Although dramatic in initial effect, it is one of the most effective and cheapest ways of rejuvenating a deteriorating hedgerow. Coppicing encourages low growth from the tree or shrub, and is only required every 10 to 15 years (or longer if combined with machine trimming). Cut stems should be severed no more than 5 – 10 centimetres above the ground. This ensures that new shoots sprout directly from the base, ensuring the hedge remains bushy where it is required most. It also allows for easy “gapping up”.
As the visual effect of coppicing is so dramatic, and is temporarily detrimental to wildlife, it is recommended that the practice be staggered over a number of years. If a large stretch of hedgerow requires coppicing, then no more than a 100 – 150m stretch should be tackled in one year. This allows you to turn what may once have been a daunting task into a more manageable operation. The cost of coppicing is comparable to machine trimming when taken over several years and, compared to laying, requires less specialist skill.
Hedge laying is a skilled operation used to manage and rejuvenate hedgerows required for stock retention, and therefore more commonly practised on pasture than arable farmland. Traditionally, hedge laying was very labour intensive and time-consuming. Even today, this practice is relatively costly and requires specialist contractors.
BZ Gardens – Designs Of Gardens
Trimming and pruning your hedges is a worthwhile investment of your time if you want slim/profiled hedges on or around your property. It can become a lengthy task which is why our experts at BZ Gardens can step in and assist with your gardening needs. We can help with everything from designs of gardens to estate management and more. Take a look at some of our services here for more information, or get in touch with us on 01483 299 797.