Benefits of traditional farm hedgerows
Approximately 70% of UK land is farming land and hedgerows are a particular feature of the British landscape where they act primarily to mark boundaries and for stock management. There are 700,000 km of hedgerows which is 1.5 times the distance to the moon. They offer the farmer and the local community many benefits – ecological, economic and environmental – a huge list that we have tried to summarise below.
There is no doubt that hedgerows make a massive contribution to wildlife via the provision of food sources, habitat, shelter and movement corridors. They are Britain’s largest wildlife habitat. Much of our wildlife absolutely depends on hedgerows. Just to embellish that a little, according to the RSPB, hedgerows support up to 80% of woodland birds, 50% of mammals, 30% of butterflies and the majority of our vital pollinating insects. Bats use them as night flight guiding systems between roosts and feeding sites. Dormice make use of hedgerows with lots of different plant species in them as they alter what they eat throughout the year, and the base of a dense hedgerow is a perfect dormouse hibernation place and a safe way (relatively safe anyway!) to move around the countryside. The ditches that flank hedgerows are essential habitat for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles.
What is crucial for wildlife is that the berries, fruits and nuts are left on the plants to give them a winter larder and most of that forms on branches that are at least in their second year (old wood) so hedges that are trimmed every year don’t develop anything like the quantity of wild fruits that a rather neglected hedgerow will generate.
Much as farmers understand and appreciate their role in wildlife protection, there are numerous additional commercial advantages to having well-maintained hedgerows on farms.
Shelter – the shelter provided by a hedgerow reduces livestock mortality and reduces livestock food intake. New born lambs in particular benefit from shelter which reduces wind chill and hypothermia
Reduce feed requirements – shelter provided by hedgerows can reduce feed requirements – in winter months livestock exposed to cold conditions will need greater feed to keep warm
Shade – heat stress in dairy herds is a serious issue, reducing milk yield, affecting fertility, growth rates and disease resistance so the shade provided by hedgerows is essential. Trees increase shade and water retention which keeps grass greener for longer which helps with meat and milk production as well as welfare
Welfare – livestock graze on hedgerow plants because they know it’s good for them, it can increase their gut microbial diversity, and sustain immune function. Livestock may self-medicate by browsing on hedgerow plant species which cause a purging effect or have anti-parasitic qualities. Livestock-proof hedging can separate farm from farm as well as field from field, creating a physical barrier to disease and reducing animal to animal contact between farms. Animal welfare can also be improved through reduction in standing water (see flood control paragraph below), reducing lameness, foot infections and liver fluke
Pollination – we’d be pretty stuck without pollinators and it is largely hedgerows and hedgerow trees where pollinators live and on which they feed when crops are not in flower. Whilst managed honey bees are an essential component of pollination, wild pollinators are also hugely important
Wind reduction – many crops are susceptible to wind damage so windbreaks (or high hedges) are vital in reducing damage and increasing crop yields. We have a separate blog on windbreaks. In addition, because wind speeds are lower around hedgerows, insects can fly in blustery weather and continue their pollination job. Hedging and trees also slow wind-borne diseases blowing in
Pest control – birds and predatory invertebrates (spiders, beetles, wasps) all feed on pest species so good quality hedgerows (tall, wide and thick) increase the populations of predators which are the enemies of crop pests, reducing the quantity of pesticide needed and farmer input
Yield – the benefit of all of the above is that crop yield can be improved when hedges and hedgerow trees are well maintained
The UK has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850 – soil degradation and erosion in England and Wales is estimated to cost £1.2 billion pa. One inch of soil takes over 500 years to form, so protecting it is really important. Hedgerows act as a barrier at the margins of fields to prevent this soil from being lost by reducing surface wind speeds, acting as a barrier to water run off, and by their roots stabilising the soil surface. The deep root structures of hedges and trees help to keep soil firmly in place, reducing the risk of it being blown away during extended dry periods
Shelter – the shelter provided by hedgerows warms the soil, extending the growing season
Cyling nutrients – the roots of hedging plants grow deeper into the soil than crop roots, accessing nutrients and this process cycles nutrients into the topsoil layer
Field run off – heavy rainfall can wash fertile farming soil away into streams and rivers. Well maintained hedgerows and trees help reduce the impact of direct rainfall on the land, and removing water from soils by absorbing and transpiring it. Furthermore, the roots of hedgerow plants go deep into the soil, increasing the amount of soil that acts as a sponge and coping better with flood water
Reducing silt in streams and rivers – much of the silt in waterways is field run off and because silted rivers are more prone to flooding, it is highly desirable to prevent run off and stop sediment reaching the waterways
Slowing the flooding – whilst some flooding cannot be avoided, the presences of hedgerows and trees slows the flow, allowing more time for soil infiltration
Carbon storage – it’s not only trees that store carbon – hedgerows are very effective at this too, capturing and storing carbon both above and below ground. They take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. An extra 2 million tonnes of carbon could be stored in hedgerows just by increasing the height and allowing the hedge to grow wider. In order to achieve net zero the UK Committee on Climate Change estimates that a further 200,000km of hedgerows need to be planted which is a 40% increase on existing hedgerows – and a Natural England report recommended a 60% increase in hedgerows. The total length of arable and improved-grassland field boundaries is approx 1m km so planting 40% more hedgerows is only 10% of these field boundaries.
Air quality – hedgerows improve air quality by capturing pollution particles on rough, hairy leaves from where they are washed to the ground or remain until leaf fall and the pollution is then broken down by soil, without any damaging affect on soil health. Dense, high hedges are most effective at pollution capture
Noise reduction – hedges reduce noise by about 8 decibels and as with all things hedge-related, the higher and denser the better
River quality – they reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilisers that reach watercourses, keeping rivers cleaner
Wood fuel – sustainable wood fuel is a by product of hedge trimming
Using the trimmings to avoid soil compaction – hedgerow trimmings can be laid down to prevent access to muddy areas or laid on top to minimise soil compaction
Game – hedgerows provide habitat corridors for gamebirds as well as wild birds and as dispersal routes from woodland release pens for reared pheasants
Security – with rural crime a big concern, tall hawthorn or blackthorn hedges (or mixed hedging incorporating both of those plus dog rose) are intruder proof especially if allowed to grow thick and dense
Legacy – with the help of government grants, existing hedgerows can be improved or new hedgerows established, leaving a legacy of a farm in better shape for the next generations
It’s worth bearing in mind that in a Countryside Survey, only half of the country’s hedges were found to be in good condition dropping down to 10% in some areas (particularly arable areas) so all of the above benefits will not be achieved without massive increases in “gapping up” by putting new plants into the gaps.
A new report by the Nature Friendly Farming Network Cymru (NFFN) claims an average increase in farm profitability of 42% when farms actively work with the natural environment to manage production sustainably, restore nature and cut input costs.
Most of our farm customers buy mixed native hedging packs of bare root plants but you can choose your own from our full range. We have considerable experience of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and are happy to advise on species selection – please contact us.