The historical art of hedge laying has been practiced as far back as the bronze age. Valuable in outlining ownership of land as well as the control of livestock, there are additional and crucial reasons as to why hedges are vital for our wildlife.
Hedgerows are teeming with life all year round and provide a valuable lifeline for wildlife throughout the colder months. As the leaves fall, various shrubs go to sleep and after the last of the fruit has been claimed, the late-flowering evergreen of ivy offers juicy berries to feeding birds. The thick cover of ivy also provides a safe home for hibernating bats and insects. Hedgehogs often take refuge at the base of their namesake, sheltering in drifts of fallen leaves. The long grasses and soft soil insulate the ground from the worst of the weather and act as a haven for small mammals such as rabbits and bank voles to see out the winter months. A well-managed hedgerow acts as a vital corridor for many species, none more so than the endangered dormouse. As well as a secure hibernation site, the hedge will provide them with many of the fruits, nuts and insects present in their diet. The dormouse will create a tightly woven nest merely the size of a tennis ball and fall into a deep sleep from October through to May.
Whilst most wildlife is hibernating and awaiting the flushes of spring, the hedgerows remain alive with our resident birds as well as winter visitors such as fieldfares and redwings, relying on the hedges for feeding and roosting. Hedgerows provide a protective pathway across open fields for small birds away from the prying eyes of predators, allowing them to forage more widely for food without using precious energy. Small flocks of tits and finches can often be heard contact calling their way along the twigs and branches of hedgerows throughout the winter. Foxes and badgers will also use hedges as roadways to travel, as these wild animals do not like crossing wide open fields.
Beyond the many benefits they bring to our wildlife, it is important to maintain hedgerows for a number of further reasons. The diverse range of plant life present in hedges can help tackle climate change through the storing of carbon within vegetation and by diffusing pollutants in the air. They will also protect watercourses against polluting fertilisers and sediment by acting as a physical barrier. By preventing the water run-off from agricultural fields, hedges help to ensure that the ground is less likely to dry out and even help to reduce flooding.
The advantages that a hedge can provide are evident. They have acted as a home for wildlife for up to thousands of years. As a robust mixture of scrub, grass and tree life they are an essential habitat promoting biodiversity. Hedges are a part of our history and cultural heritage and many of us have them in our gardens, lining our streets and in our local parks. We can help to improve the benefits of a hedgerow habitat by changing perceptions of what a garden hedge should be – instead of a neat box-like plant, to a more natural and wilder hedge, allowing nature to take hold and to thrive, especially over the harsher winter months.