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Planting and Managing Hedgerows

The definition of a hedgerow is a planted line of woody plants (minimum 80% native shrubs) that is longer than twenty (20) metres but less than five (5) metres wide.

Information in this section explains some of the benefits for the environment when land managers establish and manage hedgerows in the United Kingdom.

Establishing and Managing a Hedgerow UK

Some of the benefits that businesses can get from hedgerows are:

  • A reduction in flooding and soil erosion (shrubs slow down wind speed and water flow so it can soak into the ground).
  • Partitions to block out unsightly buildings and developments.
  • Forage for livestock and shelter from severe winds which helps to boost health and yield.
  • Wood supplies (e.g. used for fuel and timber).

Note: You can view a list of National Character Area (NCA) profiles to help you get data for decision making in your region (e.g. for boundary features and field patterns).

A long hedge of wild shrubs and small trees spaced closely together, bordering a road or several fields, provides wild animals with:

The primary benefits that establishing and managing hedges and hedgerows provides for the environment in the United Kingdom, include:

Note: You can learn more about hedgerow components and the importance of the United Kingdom’s hedgerows on the Hedgelink website (including information about National Hedgerow Week).

Best Place to Plant a Hedgerow

Knowing where to establish and manage hedgerows will increase the opportunities for maximising the benefits of enclosing or separating fields.

Hence, try to focus on rows of hedges that:

  • Connect with other shrubs and trees used as windbreaks (e.g. Boxwood, Cyprus, Spruce) or other diverse habitats (e.g. traditional orchards and woodlands).
  • Contain different hedgerow components, such as bushes and small woody trees, or surviving fragments of ancient woodland that may include some of the rarest plants in the country.
  • Get the benefits of extra buffers by planting them near to ditches or the ‘lesser productive’ field margins (e.g. boundaries and perimeters).
  • Create, or form part of, interesting landscapes (e.g. some of the original parish boundaries are marked by hedges and hedgerows).

Planting New Hedges along Historic Boundaries

As a rule of thumb, it is best to plant new hedges along historic boundaries whenever practical to do so (e.g. to help prevent soil erosion). It also helps to reinforce the natural character of local landscapes.

For Example:

The National Library of Scotland contains about 250,000 old maps of England, Scotland and Wales. Thus, you can see where the historic boundaries used to be on land structures (including lines of mature trees within adjoining fields).

It is important not to plant a new hedge on an historic feature, such as barrows or parish boundaries (marked by stones) or earthworks (artificial banks of soil used as fortification).

Important: The bats protection law in the United Kingdom highlights the importance of hedgerows as habitats for some bat species (e.g. to roost and forage).

Establishing New Hedgerows

Best Months to Plant a Hedgerow

In the United Kingdom, planting hedges in late autumn (e.g. November) and before the Spring (e.g. March) will produce the best results.

The gardening and pruning guide has more information about supplying bare-root during the ‘dormant’ months for shrubs and trees.

Planting hedgerows as winter is about to start (e.g. January) gives the roots more time to establish themselves on drier sites.

Whereas, it is better to plant a new hedge when winter is finishing (e.g. March) on wetter sites. Doing so tends to stop the roots from rotting in the wetter ground.

You can use indoor container plants to establish new and clipped hedges all year round. But, it tends to be more expensive and the new growth will need lots of watering if planted during the hot summer months (e.g. June to September).

When planting a hedgerow:

  • Always use appropriate tree guards or fencing to provide protection for young hedges (e.g. from grazing cattle).
  • How to establish and manage hedgerows in the United Kingdom.Use species of trees and shrubs that are native to Britain and found in other hedgerows in the nearby area.
  • Mixing different species helps to support a wide variety of flora and fauna (plants and animals).
  • You may not be able to manage certain tall-growing varieties. Try to identify them and plant them appropriately so they can grow and establish themselves as mature hedgerow trees.

Note: Land managers often establish trees along field boundaries to increase cover, food, nesting sites – and for the benefit of the environment.

Managing an Existing Hedgerow

Most gardening experts recommend mixing up the hedgerow with a combination of different heights and widths.

Yet, even though you can leave them to grow by themselves, most land managers will use some form of active management of hedgerows to retain a healthy structure.

Before you start any hedge cutting or restoration, check with the local council or national park authority to see if any of the trees are:

Furthermore, the Forestry Commission can issue a tree felling licence if you need to (either):

  • Remove trees from a hedgerow.
  • Manage overgrown hedges (e.g. when felling more than five cubic metres of timber in a calendar quarter).

Important: Another section explains how to check if a hedgerow is protected by law in the United Kingdom.

Cutting Hedges

In most cases, you will be using mechanical cutting to trim off excess growth. So, you should take extra care to avoid damaging any mature trees as well as the young ones.

The method of hedge cutting you use will determine the diversity of benefits for local wildlife and the surrounding landscape.

Hence, cutting hedges too low (e.g. near to the ground) means most birds – and the majority of nesting animals – will avoid using them.

As a rule, hedgerow shrubs will not produce berries until the growth is at least two (2) years old. Thus, trimming your plants back to the same point on an annual basis means it is unlikely to produce many berries.

In simple terms, hedgerows cut back to the same height generally have poor structure, because they:

  • Offer fewer nesting sites for birds.
  • Provide easier access for predators.
  • Tend to form bottomless shapes (like mushrooms) and die out over time.
Best Time to Manage Hedgerows

The general management of a hedgerow should take place during the cold winter months when trees and shrubs are dormant.

Deciduous species start shedding leaves in the autumn. But, you should aim to finish the restoration work before they start to grow again towards the end of spring.

The undertaking of work on existing hedges should only take place outside the bird breeding season (e.g. from early March to the end of August).

Note: UK law protects all wild bird species, their eggs, and their nests. You can read more about activities that can harm wild birds and how to get a licence if you need one.

Ways to Improve Hedge Structure

Some of the methods used to improve the general structures of hedgerows, and increase the number of berries available for wild animals, include:

  • Cutting in increments (e.g. increase the height and width of each cut by ten centimetres – about four inches).
  • Leaving the hedge trimming until the back end of winter to provide more berries for birds to feed on during the cold weather.
  • Cutting one time every two (2) years (not cutting all the hedgerows in the same year or one cut every three years is even better).
Benefits of Hedge Coppicing

Land owners and managers use hedge coppicing to restore the structure and stimulate new growth to shoot up from the base. As a general rule, coppicing occurs on hedges that are too big to lay or trim (e.g. overgrown and unmanageable).

You can use most of the cut material as piles of branches and twigs (e.g. dead hedging to form a barrier). Doing so also helps to protect new growth and offer temporary cover for native fauna.

Forming a bushy hedge, or laying and cutting afterwards, helps to manage regrowth. Regular coppicing used to be the traditional – and only – management technique used for trimming hazel hedges.

Main Reasons for Hedge Laying

Land managers have used wire fences in Britain since the 1950s instead of hedgerows. The wire creates secure boundaries for livestock. Thus, nowadays hedge laying is generally used for the benefit of cultural heritage and landscape features.

The principles behind laying are much the same as those in coppicing. Hence, layed material provides sheltered habitats and it can protect the new growth from browsing.

Tip: You might choose to replicate the characteristics of some regional hedging styles used around Great Britain and Ireland.

How to Fill Gaps in a Hedgerow

Filling gaps in hedgerows, for example with new shrubs and large trees, is a restorative process. You can reduce competition from an existing hedge that shades new growth, and help it get established, by coppicing or laying it next to them.

The Hedgelink website contains extra information about the importance of proper hedgerow management and how to recognise the life cycle of a hedge.

Well-Managed Hedges and Hedgerows

When people access to public and private land and come across a well-managed hedgerow, they will see:

  • A range of shrub species native to the local area with a selection of domestic trees planted along its length.
  • Banks or grassy strips buffering the hedge forming tall and wide hedgerows (e.g. gaps make up less than 10% of the entire length).
  • Bushy, thick hedges showing little daylight from the ground upwards and plants that produce lots of blossom and berries for native wildlife.

Note: The People’s Trust for Endangered Species has a selection of useful tips for managing hedgerows on a cycle to help ensure health and long term survival.

Related Information and Help Guides

Note: This short video highlights some of the ways that hedgerows work for the benefit of humans and animals in the United Kingdom (e.g. reducing soil erosion and producing shelter for livestock).

How to Establish and Manage Hedgerows in the United Kingdom