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  Hedges for Wildlife

Hedges are wonderful wildlife habitats. If you are considering planting a hedge, imagine it in years to come, providing thick shelter for wildlife amongst some of our most attractive native shrubs, glowing with vibrant colour in the autumn. Butter-yellow field maple, crimson dogwood, bright red hips and haws and sloes of the deepest purple could be adorning your new hedge in a very short time.  In springtime the blossom of sloe and hawthorn will provide nectar and pollen for bumblebees or butterflies, and the fluffy flowers of pussy willow will be awash with rich pollen. Spring is when a hedge comes into its own as a nesting place for birds.  Several of our native shrubs and climbers are prickly, and blackbirds, song thrushes, chaffinches and greenfinches make good use of this natural protection.  A nest surrounded by blackthorn or hawthorn stems and wild roses is likely to be a safe place to bring up a family.  And plentiful food is right on the doorstep in the form of the tiny caterpillars and other invertebrates that nestlings need. Hedges also provide food for bats, hedgehogs, shrews and mice.  They really are fantastic habitats all year round! 

The native shrubs mentioned together with many others provide the backbone for a good hedge, but this habitat is a great deal more complex than a simple row of bushes.  Once your shrubs are established in two or three years time, you will be able to enhance them by planting climbers such as honeysuckle, blackberry, tufted vetch and old man’s beard to weave their way through, or primroses and foxgloves can be planted underneath.  The moist conditions that build up beneath a hedge over the years, as leaves drop to the ground and enrich the soil, will encourage a huge range of invertebrates to attract mammals, amphibians and birds.  A good garden hedge can have many species of shrubs, flowers and grasses in even a short length, and lots of creatures are associated with this very specialised habitat. 

So where do we start?  Our first imperative is to find a supplier of bare rooted native shrubs, preferably locally grown.  If your shrubs are of a local provenance, there is a better chance that local invertebrates will find them attractive and be naturally adapted to them, plus these plants will be happy in your soil and climatic conditions.  If local isn’t an option, ask around to see if friends have used a supplier they are happy with.  In some areas local councils or other organisations will advise and may even fund schemes whereby plants are available free of charge, so do a little homework before you buy.   

Why is it important to use bare rooted shrubs?  Plants bought in this way establish quickly in their new homes, whereas those in pots are much more expensive, and are less likely to quickly get their roots properly into the soil.  However once purchased, bare rooted hedge plants must either be planted immediately, or heeled into the ground and looked after well until you are ready to plant them.  Their roots must be covered at all times and not allowed to dry out.  Potted shrubs may be used, but often their smaller bare rooted cousins grow faster and overtake them, establishing your hedge in a far shorter time. 

When you have decided exactly on the line of your hedge (and if it is to be on a boundary, make sure that you know exactly where that is) your next task is to decide on a single or double row of plants. The thicker the hedge the better from all viewpoints – wildlife attracting potential, shelter and screening – but bear in mind that a double row of shrubs, even well maintained, can produce a hedge up to 2m or more in width, which in a small garden could be a sizeable amount.  In areas with limited space, a single row is adequate and of course all these native shrubs can be well clipped as necessary, keeping them tight and thick.  Normal spacing is usually one every 50 cms, and in a double row these would be staggered to give a closely planted screen. 

Many suppliers will put together a ‘hedge pack’ for you, the bulk of which would be hawthorn and blackthorn – the backbone of your hedge – plus a sprinkling of others such as wayfaring tree, guelder rose, spindle, field maple, hazel, dogwood, buckthorn, goat willow or holly.  If you have especially difficult soil, either very wet or very dry, mention this to your supplier who will adjust your species accordingly.  Guelder rose for instance, flags on a dry soil but flourishes in heavy clay. Planting can be done at any time until early March but the winter months are definitely the best time, unless the ground is frozen or covered with snow.  Either prepare a trench, or dig individual holes for each plant, add organic compost and ensure the plant is firmed in well.   Staking is up to your personal preferences, but I never stake, allowing these small shrubs to establish strong root systems without help.  Rabbit guards are another matter!  If rabbits (or deer) abound in your area, protect your new hedge with plastic spiral guards or tubes – these also have the advantage of creating a little greenhouse-style micro-climate inside, encouraging growth early in the year.  Be prepared to water your hedge through its first year if the weather is dry, and mulch if you can. 

The future management of your hedge is also something to consider.  Clipping by hand late in the winter when berries have been devoured is an easy yearly task as long as your hedge is fairly short.  However, you may like to try your hand at hedge laying, a traditional way of hedge management enjoying a revival now.  One real advantage of this traditional craft is that the rich larder of berries and fruits is always preserved, not cut off and wasted, so thrushes like redwings and fieldfares, plus small mammals, can still find food when weather conditions are at their most harsh. A newly planted hedge is usually ready to be laid after about 7 years of growth – so plenty of time to learn this new skill!! 

Don't forget that other non-native plants, perhaps a Buddleia, can be added to a new hedge for extra nectar and pollen for the invertebrates that will inevitably use this habitat.

Hedges matter. They are the arteries of our countryside and towns. They provide corridors whereby wildlife can move in safety from one area to another, find shelter and food and often a breeding place too. Hedges are still being removed and abused in our countryside, but new hedges are being planted or revived by traditional management.  We can help with that revival and renewal by planting native in our gardens. 

 Related Topics...

* Grow a Native Shrub * Helping Garden Wildlife through the Winter
* Create a Shady Wildlife Habitat * Making a Wild Corner for Wildlife
* Buddleias for Wildlife * Growing the Wild Dead Nettles
* Growing Fruit and Berries for Birds * Winter Homes for Insects
* Dead Wood as a Wildlife Habitat * Grow Native Trees and Shrubs from Seed
* Growing the Wild Vetches * The Moths in your Garden

* Planting Trees and Shrubs for Garden Birds



© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017