Hedgerow - Blackthorn Hedge - Nigel JonesHedgerow - Blackthorn Hedge - Nigel Jones

What are they?

Criss-crossing the countryside, hedgerows – long rows of bushes, often with trees rising among them – can be seen dividing up our farmland and landscapes. They may be planted or they may be the remnants of ancient wooded areas, but they are mainly used as barriers to prevent livestock from escaping from the fields or to form boundaries between parishes.

Two thirds of England has been continuously hedged for over a thousand years, so many of our older hedgerows are a window into our past. They can range in date from medieval boundaries to the results of the 19th century Enclosures Act when many of the open fields and commons were divided up into smaller pockets. These older hedgerows support an amazing diversity of plants and animals and often have archaeological important old banks and ditches associated with them.

Where are they found?

In the UK, there are currently about 450,000 km of hedgerow left. Of this, about 190,000 km are thought to be ancient or species-rich. These hedges are mainly found in southern England and southern Wales, and are much scarcer in Scotland.

Why are they important?

With nectar-rich blossom in the spring, insects buzzing in the dense thickets in summer and red berries abound in autumn, hedgerows provide wildlife with a rich larder. In fact, they are so good for wildlife that 130 UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) priority species are associated with them.

Hedgerows are often a mix of shrub and tree species such as hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, ash and oak, interwoven with climbers like traveller's-joy and honeysuckle. Banks and ditches fill with flowers like hedge bedstraw and red campion, and butterflies, such as the rare black and brown hairstreaks, purple emperor and pearl-bordered fritillary, use them for nectar or to lay their eggs.

Mammals like the European-protected hazel dormouse, bank vole, harvest mouse and hedgehog nest and feed in hedgerows, and bats, such as the greater horseshoe and Natterer’s bats, use them as green ‘commuter routes’ for foraging and roosting. Woodland and farmland birds such as blue tit, great tit, yellowhammer and whitethroat can be found along the hedges.

Hedgerows can also prevent soil erosion, capture pollutants such as fertilisers and pesticides running off fields, store carbon to help combat climate change, and provide homes for predators of many pest species. They also provide vital links across the countryside for wildlife, helping it to move about freely and keeping populations healthy.

Are they threatened?

Since the Second World War, the UK’s ancient hedgerows have dramatically declined due to removal to increase field size and to make way for development. By the 1990s, 121,000 km of hedgerows had been lost across the UK.
Neglect and poor management are major problems. Many of the UK's hedgerows are in poor condition as a result of the excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides in intensive farming, a decline in traditional management techniques like hedgelaying, and general neglect leaving gappy and thin hedges.

How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?

Across the UK, Wildlife Trusts manage many miles of boundary and farmland hedgerows using traditional methods for the benefit of all kinds of creatures. We also run courses for different groups of people on hedgelaying and looking after species-rich hedges whether in town or country. And we provide advice to farmers and landowners about the best ways to keep their hedges healthy.

The Wildlife Trusts have a partnership with Ribena to help blackcurrant growers to work with wildlife in mind. The initiative includes trimming hedges at an appropriate time, leaving rough grassy margins beside hedges and erecting bird and bat nesting boxes.

What can I do to help?

  • Look after hedgerows in a favourable way for wildlife on your land: don’t cut them when birds are nesting; don’t crop them too closely; planting trees along the hedgeline can help to attract wildlife; and avoid using chemical sprays on or close to hedges.
  • Plant native hedge species in your garden to encourage wildlife.
  • Support the work of your local Wildlife Trust for hedgerow wildlife and become a member.