Devon Wildlife Warden Season 2 Episode 2: Hedges, hedges, hedges! 

Welcome to the Devon Wildlife Warden podcast with me Emily Marbaix. In this special episode, I am throwing the spotlight on hedges. I will be looking at why hedges are important habitats and food sources, how they can help in the fight against climate change and how we should be looking after them to keep them in tip-top shape. I’ll also be sharing some useful talks about coastal and waste management in case you’d like to check them out!  

Intro music 

The Devon Wildlife Warden Scheme is run by Action on Climate in Teignbridge – or ACT for short. The idea is to have wardens in every parish or ward who can help their wildlife in a wide variety of ways. I am the wildlife warden for Abbotskerswell, but we have many others and are always looking for more! We do all sorts of things, from promoting wildlife gardening and recording local wildlife sightings to working with clubs and schools and commenting on local planning applications, and much, much more! It’s all about each warden doing what they feel is necessary in their area and which lies within their comfort zone. ACT’s Wildlife Warden Scheme would not be possible without the generous assistance of our donors, details of which can be found in the episode notes. Many thanks to them all!   

As mentioned in the introduction, the focus this month is on hedges. At this time of year, our hedges are about to burst into life – the celandine, 3 cornered leek and many other early spring flowers are starting to bloom, and before long our hedgerows will be awash with pinks, purples, yellows and whites as more and more flowers seek the spring sun. The leaves of the hedgerow trees and shrubs will start to uncurl and the woody, sparse road and field margins will burst into life again. Spring really is a magical time of year and the new life it brings with it gives us hope for the warmer weather to come and the long, easy days of summer which are becoming tantalizingly close.  

Before I go on to talk about all the ways hedgerows benefit wildlife, and how we should be managing them, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate just how important they are for our own mental wellbeing. How many of us were out for daily walks during lockdown at this time last year? And how many of those walks took in the beauty of our hedgerows as they started to bloom? I know that I spent more time slowing down and enjoying just looking at them and all the wonders they contain, and I bet you did too.  

In fact, here in Devon, we have some of the best examples of hedges in the world! One in every 10 hedges in the UK is in Devon and they are also some of the most species rich and biodiverse habitats to be found. This owes in part to the fact that two thirds of the hedges in Devon are ancient – and by that I mean that they are over 600 years old! Add to that the fact that many are cited on large banks and you have the recipe for wonderful species richness, both above and below the soil line. And that’s why I’m talking about them today – they are vitally important habitats and we must do what we can to preserve the ones we have and plant up new hedges to help in the fight against climate change and species loss.  

Now, I’m no expert on hedges and as such, it’s important to note that many of the facts and figures in this podcast come from two main sources. The first one is the training we did here in my little woods with Peter, wildlife warden for Exminster. Peter has been actively managing hedges since he was 7 and has a wealth of knowledge and experience on the subject. Sadly, I couldn’t attend his February training session as I had COVID but I took plenty of notes in his January one and have been reading up on hedgerow management while in isolation!  

On the 22nd of February, there was also a Facebook Live event called “Life in the Hedges”. This was run on the Moor Meadows YouTube channel and is available to watch, so I’ll include a link in the episode notes. The talk included several notable experts on hedges, such as Rob Wolton who has been working with hedges for over 30 years. He has worked for Natural England in the past and now works as an ecological consultant and is chair of the Devon Hedge Group and is also involved with the organisation Hedgelink – suffice to say Rob knows a fair bit about hedges! We also heard from Nigel Adams who focused more on how to look after hedgerows – he talked about different management strategies and how each one impacted on the biodiversity of hedgerows. The talk was brilliant and contained a huge amount of information, so I’d highly recommend taking a look. I will include many of the key points in this podcast, but there is nothing quite like hearing from the experts themselves!  

The talk began with Rob talking about how important hedges are for many of the species associated with farmland. It blew me away to hear that about 95% of the species found on farms are to be found in their hedgerows – provided that they are well managed of course – but we will come onto that later! But when you stop to consider that hedges account for only about 5% of the overall area of the average farm, it makes it all the more astounding that they account for 95% of the biodiversity. So let me just re-state that – in an area taking up just 5% of farms, 95% of the species can be found there… so certainly from a biodiversity perspective, we can see right away how important hedges are. Rob went on to tell us about how he surveyed a single hedge on his farm over a couple of years and identified over 2000 species in total, but was of the opinion that the actual number of species using the space was more like 3000! Again, reinforcing just how important these habitats are.  

And yes – many of the species counted were small insects which might seem insignificant to some, but of course these organisms provide food for other animals higher up the food chain so are certainly crucial, if a tad unassuming. If you’re looking for more show-stopping hedge creatures, you might prefer to consider dormice, hedgehogs and birds such as the cirl bunting which use the space for shelter, food and breeding. But other species such as bats also depend on hedges in more indirect ways, too – such as for navigation. They are essentially 3D roads, easy to locate and follow for bats which need to find their way at night using echolocation.  

But what makes a hedge a hedge? We should probably cover that question before going any further into the benefits of these wonderful habitats. They are essentially rows of closely growing shrubs and bushes but a good hedge should also have mature trees or standards placed at regular intervals for maximum species richness. The trees provide huge food and shelter repositories for a great many species and can also act as stepping stones for the dispersal of other creatures, so they are an important feature of a healthy hedge.  

Hedges were originally planted to create field margins and enclose livestock so are most often associated with farmland but modern intensive farming practices have seen decades of hedge removal to allow for larger fields, bigger machinery and higher yields and profits. However, this move has been short sighted and farmers are now being incentivised to plant new hedges. But why? Well, there are a lot of benefits for farmers of having hedges and I’ll talk a bit about them now.  

Firstly, hedges provide habitats for many of the insect species which are useful pollinators for the crop plants themselves – so hedges are directly contributing to the success of the crops, providing a place to live and feed for these pollinating insects when the crops are not in flower.  

Lots of research has also been done on how hedges act as pest control. With the escalating financial burden of chemical pesticides, farmers will be pleased to hear that some of the insect species that live in their hedges actively control aphids and other crop pests, so can actively contribute to the success of their arable crops from this perspective, too.  

Hedges and hedgerow trees also offer shade, shelter and wind breaks for crops and farm animals, improving yields in a measurable way.  They can also help to slow down the flow of water after heavy rains, reducing flood risk and they also help to soak up nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals that might otherwise pollute our waterways. 

Air pollution can be captured by hedges too, so their presence can improve local air quality, and carbon is also stored in the hedgerow plants themselves and in the soil beneath them – so hedges even help in the fight against climate change! In fact, they are so effective as a carbon sink that retaining hedges and planting new ones is one of the methods farmers are being offered for offsetting their carbon footprint. 

So lots of benefits for farmers there… but what about benefits for the creatures that inhabit our hedges?  

Well, another huge benefit of hedges is the habitat connectivity they can offer. When species like the hazel dormice breed and disperse to new locations, they need to be able to move around the countryside, and they do this via our hedgerows. If we have two areas of woodland, one with dormice present and another without these well-loved creatures, they can only access the latter if they can get there… so hedgerows offer valuable highways for plants and animals to disperse to new locations. A fantastic project to get involved with in your local community would be to look at habitat connectivity – if you can study maps and physically survey the hedges, field margins and woodland spaces in your area, you can quickly see how fragmented habitats have become and potentially make plans to help the system to recover. This is exactly what many conservation initiatives look to do – restore habitats to create a network for our wildlife.   

So hedges are important – I think that much is clear. But how should we be managing them? We know that we shouldn’t be cutting them in summer – in fact in many cases the law prevents cutting from March to September to support nesting birds. But many conservationists are also saying don’t cut in winter because the nuts, seeds and berries provide an important winter food source… but then we are also told that not cutting hedges at all is bad because they will mature into trees and stop being hedges altogether – at which point the biodiversity of this vital habitat starts to drop back off again… and of course if a hedge borders a road, allowing it to grow out of control would prevent us from being able to use some of our rural lanes – so as with many things in life, it’s all about finding the happy medium, the sweet spot at which we can have maximum value for wildlife as well as being able to enjoy the other benefits hedges can bring us and that means we must manage our hedgerows.  

If you are out and about during the winter months (and I say winter months because it’s easier to see the evidence when there are no leaves on the hedgerow plants), you can identify a hedge which is over managed because it will look woody, gappy  and sparse, whereas a hedge that has been under managed might look more like a row of trees than a hedge – so how should management take place and what should it look like?  

Well, as is so often the case in life, there is no one simple answer but a single fact remains which is true to all hedgerows – hedges MUST be cut in some way if they are to remain as hedges – so it’s a case of how and when rather than to cut or not to cut.  

The most common method used these days is the flail or thrasher – you’ll have seen them – tractors with a cutting arm that smashes through the hedge leaving behind split and twisted stems and branches. And although seeing flailed hedges might make your eyes water, it is still better to flail a hedge than to not cut it at all – it’s the cutting back which allows light to hit the banks and which gives us the resulting displays of spring and summer flowers. According to Nigel who spoke in the Moor Meadows talk, it’s not so much the use of flails that is the issue, but more the standard cutting height and frequency they seem to use. He explained that as hedges get older, the shrubs become more mature and the growth lower to the ground becomes thicker and more woody – making it less able to produce new green growth – so a hedge which is flailed at the same height year after year will gradually become more gappy and woody at the bottom and less green at the top as there is nowhere for the new growth to come from or go to.  

This is why the practice of hedge laying can be so valuable. Hedge laying involves cutting the woody stems almost all the way through and literally laying them over horizontally rather than simply cutting them off – when a hedge is laid, there is greater opportunity for new growth to develop and hedges become thicker, healthier and have more potential for a long and healthy life. But hedge laying is both expensive and labour intensive making it difficult for farmers to employ as a management strategy. It is, however making a big comeback with conservation groups – and is why I welcomed Peter to my little woods to run training in January and February on this ancient art. I managed to get a quick recording of Peter talking about hedges in our January session – as usual, as the recording was taken outside, the sound quality isn’t brilliant, but I thought was worth including – so here it is:  

Peter talking about hedge laying  

Thanks again to Peter for taking the time to share his knowledge and skills with some of the Teignbridge wildlife wardens.  

But going back to farmers for a moment – as they are in control of many of the miles of hedgerows in the UK, how can they improve their management technique if hedge-laying isn’t an option for them?  

In the Moor Meadows talk, Nigel explained how he has developed the idea of incremental cutting, which is essentially cutting hedges yearly, and possibly still with a flail but adjusting the cutting height each time to allow a little more growth – it might be only a few inches extra, but it gives the hedge breathing space and allows more growth to develop which in turn supports wildlife more effectively. So that’s an easy option which wouldn’t change the cost to farmers at all..  

But if a hedge has been under-managed and has started to develop into a row of trees, another management strategy is to simply coppice it. I spoke about coppicing in the last podcast and although it might present a bit of a shock to the wildlife in the short term, it can be an effective way to rejuvenate a hedge and a great opportunity to plant up any gaps with new shrubs. It probably isn’t a great idea to coppice huge swaths of hedge at the same time but it is a viable option and in the long-term can provide more ecological benefit.  

Using a circular saw to cut hedges is a third option and will provide cleaner cuts than a flail, which may potentially aid regeneration of the cut stumps – so that’s another method farmers and landowners might wish to consider.  

However, whether you lay, coppice, flail or cut hedges, the management doesn’t stop with just an annual haircut! There is also regular trimming to consider. From an ecological perspective, the ideal shape for a hedge profile is like a capital A – wide at the base and narrower at the top – this provides excellent cover for many creatures and will help to maximise species richness, so regular light trimming to help maintain this shape is also needed, but again it’s important not to cut too hard otherwise you risk losing the flowers, seeds and nuts which are of vital importance for many creatures.  

It is also worth mentioning that if a hedge doesn’t border a road, bi or even tri annual cutting might be an option – this allows for growth of different ages to persist which increases the number of species which can utilise the plants which grow there – it has been suggested that farmers might consider cyclical cutting, this involves cutting one side of the hedge one year, then the other side the next year – and possibly even then doing the tops in a third year. This would be a valuable strategy from an ecological viewpoint – but there are difficulties associated with this such as the desire for a farm to appear neat and tidy – which might sound silly but is a real issue for many farmers – it’s a matter of pride and respect to have neat and tidy hedgerows and many farmers might consider this to be an indicator of how good a particular farm or farmer is. Another issue is rooted in subsidies – farmers might be given grants or subsidies based on workable area – and this area can be calculated using aerial maps by outside agencies – if hedges encroach into fields then the areas calculated for grants might be lower – resulting in a financial loss to the farmer – so these factors are all worth being aware of if consulting with a farmer to try and encourage alternative hedge management strategies. 

Another thing to mention is that the products of cutting, coppicing and laying can be useful – they can provide a range of materials from wood chip for mulch to pea and bean poles and even firewood if thicker, more mature wood is being removed. Using these products can help reduce our reliance on things like imported bamboo canes and hence help in our fight against climate change… So if you’re helping to manage a hedgerow, try to make use of the products, too!  

So what hedgerow work has been going on with other wildlife wardens? Well, it’s certainly true that we’ve heard from some who have either planted new hedges or are planning to do so, or are helping to lay or manage hedges in their parishes or wards, which is all great to hear about. And over in Doddiscombsleigh, Elliott has a fantastic project in the pipeline which aims to regenerate hedges in the parish. He plans to survey the local hedges, identify priority ones for developing things like better carbon sequestration, flood alleviation and habitat connectivity and then use this information to get local contractors and nurseries involved in helping to improve hedges for the intended purposes. It’s a well thought out project and with his background in conservation one that Elliott is well placed to undertake, so we wish him all the best with this and would love to hear updates as the project progresses.  

Now, I’ve talked a lot here about hedges and I will finish up by tying it into a small project we have been undertaking in our parish. Here in Abbotskerswell, we have a hedgerow in the local park. Within that hedge are a few Wych Elm trees – but each year they are flailed along with the rest of the hedge and as such never allowed to develop into trees. Wych Elm is important for the white letter hairstreak butterfly because it feeds exclusively on Elm – and the devastation caused by Dutch Elm Disease has resulted in a huge decline in this butterfly species, so we have been doing what we can to help by attempting to protect these trees from the flail and allowing them to develop into mature trees. Previous efforts have failed, so when I saw that the Tree Council were inviting people to take part in a tree tag trial – aimed specifically at labelling trees that we don’t want flailed, I volunteered to take part! We received 6 brightly coloured labels made from off-cuts from the sail making process for boats and attached them to the relevant trees. With any luck this will prevent them from being cut and in a few years we will have some trees stretching up out of the hedge, hopefully helping to aid the recovery of this butterfly species – so watch this space!  

I will finish up this podcast with a bit of news from Action on Climate in Teignbridge. They are planning to launch a project that will support community-based volunteers or existing groups who are looking for ways to enthuse and inspire their community to reduce their carbon footprint, and they are looking for people to help them to do this – I’ll include a link with more information in the episode notes in case you’d like to get involved. 

ACT have also shared the recording of a couple of talks they have recently hosted – one on coastal management and one on waste and recycling – I’ll include links to both talks in the episode notes for anyone who wants to watch those.  

I am going to leave it there for this episode, and will sign off as usual by saying that I hope you feel inspired to do something, however small to help your local wildlife – and hedgerow in particular!  

This podcast was narrated and produced by me, Emily Marbaix. Music by  

by Poddington Bear 

Episode Notes:  

ACT’s Wildlife Warden Scheme is run by the Action on Climate in Teignbridge (www.actionclimateteignbridge.org) Ecology Group. The idea is to have Wildlife Wardens in every Teignbridge Parish who can help their local nature in a wide variety of ways – through promoting wildlife gardening, recording local wildlife, improving local habitats, working with clubs and schools, keeping an eye on planning applications and development and more! ACT’s Wildlife Warden Scheme would not be possible without the generous assistance of: Devon Environment Foundation; Teign Energy Communities’ Community Fund; Cllr Jackie Hook’s DCC Locality Fund; Dartmoor National Park Authority; the Nineveh Trust; anonymous donors. Many thanks to all. 

Devon Wildlife Warden Podcast – Wildlife Warden News and Updates (wordpress.com) 

Links referenced in episode:  

wwwactionclimateteignbridge.org 

Life in the hedge: how to manage hedgerows for wildlife – YouTube 

Cutting carbon emissions: a new district-wide climate project – Action on Climate in Teignbridge (ACT) (actionclimateteignbridge.org) 

Coastal Management Presentation – 19 January 2022 – YouTube 

Waste & Recycling Services – YouTube 

This podcast was written, presented and produced by Emily Marbaix. Music by Poddington Bear  

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