Nature-friendly hedgerow management

United Kingdom
Farm Practices

Why is hedgerow management important?

Hedgerows are more than just field boundaries. They are a central characteristic of a thriving nature-friendly farm. 

Hedgerows are synonymous with the UK countryside and have been present in our landscape for centuries. They contribute immensely to our sense of place, and they can provide multiple benefits for public health, farm business and the environment.

Recent research by CPRE found that planting hedgerows on arable land can boost populations of pollinating insects, increase crop yields by 10% and reduce pesticide use by 30%. The study examined what it would mean for farmers if the UK’s hedgerow network was expanded by 40% by 2050, and it calculated that for every £1 invested in hedgerows, farmers would see a £1.73 return from higher crop yields. 

Britain’s many miles of over-trimmed hedgerows are a huge opportunity – if we can just let them grow taller and thicker, they will create homes for millions more wild animals, as well as soaking up carbon, protecting soil, and giving livestock better shelter. It’s such an easy yet effective change to make.

Tim Martin, Farm Wilder

Hedges are one of the most valuable assets found on farms. To reap all the benefits they can provide, well-maintained and managed hedgerows are crucial. This means striking the right balance between under and over-management. Too much management and hedges will be devoid of structure and complexity, which birds, mammals, and invertebrates need to survive throughout the year. Not enough, and a hedgerow will slowly become a ‘leggy’ line of trees, failing to provide the proper structure that hedgerow wildlife needs. 

A network of well-managed hedges can provide numerous services to farm businesses. They can help save costs, sequester carbon, prevent soil erosion, improve livestock health and welfare, Improve crop pollination rates and pest predation, and make farms more resilient and adaptable to extreme weather. 

Saving time and money 

Healthy hedgerows are home to several beneficial insects which can help improve yields and reduce the need for pesticides through pollination and natural pest control. Adopting nature-friendly hedgerow management will support the productivity of your business and reduce your reliance on costly inputs to maintain production. In livestock systems, hedgerows can provide a vital source of shelter against the elements, improving the health and welfare of your animals. Similarly, many hedgerow plants, such as willow, contain medicinal properties that enhance livestock vitality. Managing hedges on a rotation to secure these benefits can also reduce fuel and labour costs associated with more frequent cutting.

Adapting to a changing climate

Crops and grasslands are impacted by extreme heat, drought, heavy rainfall, and flooding. Severe weather is linked to adverse effects on yield, winter animal feed supplies and field operations such as drilling and harvesting. Hedgerows can help build a farm’s climate resilience by providing an essential cooling effect, shade and shelter. They can also reduce flood risk due to increased infiltration, decreased water flow and reduced soil erosion. 

Carbon sequestration and storage

Hedgerows are an undervalued asset in efforts to mitigate climate change. They can help reduce your farm’s carbon footprint, providing environmental benefits and an alternative income stream. It’s estimated that an additional 500,000 tonnes of CO2 could be sequestered each year by hedgerows by adopting different management and allowing them to grow. Hedgerows are an undervalued asset in efforts to mitigate climate change. 

Timing is key 

Carefully managed hedgerows are essential for many birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Legally, hedgerows must remain uncut from March through to September to protect breeding birds during the spring and summer, leaving the autumn and winter months available to implement a hedgerow management plan. A healthy hedgerow network across a landscape provides connectivity and corridors for wildlife to travel safely. A rotational and late-season management schedule provides optimal nesting and feeding habitats. Generally, this means delaying management to the end of the winter, if possible.  

In the summer, hedgerows provide nesting space and an abundance of pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and hoverflies. In the winter, they provide shelter against the elements, while berry-producing plants offer a readily available source of energy which helps sustain many species throughout the colder months.    

A bit at a time

Hedgerows benefit from a rotational schedule where they are cut once every three years. This break in management allows enough time for hedgerows to recover, creating a dense structure which benefits biodiversity. A farm could be blocked into thirds so that a portion of the hedge network is cut yearly instead of all hedgerows once a year. This helps reduce fuel and labour costs while ensuring a diverse network of hedgerows across the farm.

We’re now laying one hedge every winter depending on where I need shelter and where I can go without shelter while it regrows. We’ve divided small fields by planting hedges because I’d rather see livestock behind a hedge than behind electric fencing where possible. A fence line without a hedge is a wasted opportunity for more green infrastructure on our farm.

Sam Kenyon, North Wales

A healthy hedgerow starts at the base 

Approaching management from the ground up contributes to healthy hedgerows. The base of a hedge can be an essential feature for biodiversity, with grass margins harbouring a range of beneficial invertebrate species, including beetles, spiders and butterflies. Legally farmers must leave a margin of at least one metre from the hedge’s base and avoid spraying fertilisers or pesticides near the base. This would not only impact biodiversity at the margins but would undermine the health of the hedgerow itself. 

Create and regenerate

On top of managing existing hedgerows well, there are opportunities to create new hedgerows. An expanded hedgerow network is seen as a vital opportunity to increase the benefits they can deliver for farm businesses and address the impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, much of the UK’s existing hedgerow network is in poor condition. However, this provides an opportunity for regeneration. If hedgerows have lost their structure over time from a lack of management, they can be improved through coppicing, hedge-laying or gapping up. Coppicing and laying provides the perfect solution for leggy hedges by promoting regrowth from the ground level. Gapping up involves filling gaps with hedgerow plants or trees, which improves the diversity of your hedgerows by adding new woody plants. 

Coppicing old hedgerows has been a huge success here: fresh new growth, dense wide bases, and mega habitat.

David Lord, Essex

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