The importance of hedges

By Richard Wright

Published on Tuesday, November 22, 2016 - 12:30


The importance of hedges

Example of wildlife hedges pic by Angela Hewitt

NO WILDLIFE garden is complete without a native species hedge.

It is an essential wildlife habitat and, although it will make your garden smaller, you will be rewarded with the sight of more birds in your garden and the satisfaction you are providing succour for nature.

A bare fence, while more efficient in space terms will need 'dressing’ with plants and will need maintenance and expensive replacement at some stage.

Hedges also require maintaining, of course, but the only expense is time and it is the sort of job that encourages contemplation.

My mother always said repetitive jobs were much maligned. They allowed you the luxury of being in another place should you not like rhythmic clipping and the satisfaction of taming nature — for a while, at least.

A hedge will provide support for nest builders, shelter for small mammals, such as bank voles, food for chicks and fledglings (a hedge supports more than 1,500 insects) and a corridor for mammals to move along in safety.

Thousands of miles of hedgerow have been lost since the Second World War and tens of thousands of small garden hedge oases have been replaced with boundary fences.

The hedgerow year flourishes at the beginning of spring when the delicate white blossom of the spiky blackthorn blooms, providing early nectar for bees and other insects.

This is followed by the blossom of May, the hawthorn.

Next arrives the dog rose, dog wood and guelder rose.

Then the bright fresh green leaves emerge offering a hiding place for garden birds as they dart backwards and forwards from your bird feeders. Eggs laid by butterflies develop into caterpillars and are the first food for newly hatched chicks.

As autumn arrives the blossom transforms into a prolific harvest of fruits and berries — sloe, blackberry, bramble, rose hips, haws, hazel, crab apples and holly berries.

Now is the time, while we have autumn colour and before things become dour in the garden, to enjoy watching your little birds greedily build up their fat reserves ready for the winter fast.

Hedgerows were first planted more than 2,000 years ago and there are still a few ancient hedge lines remaining but many that remained have matured into trees through lack of maintenance.

Generally there will be at least five different species in a 30-metre run.

Unfortunately, over the past 40 years, hedgerows have been grubbed out to accommodate the larger farm machinery of today in that quest of 'efficiency’.

This is one of the causes of the fearful decline in populations of birds that are fully reliant upon hedgerows, including those species on the endangered 'red list’ — birds, such as bullfinch, house and tree sparrow, song thrush, spotted flycatcher, willow tit, yellow hammer, linnet, turtle dove, marsh tit and grey partridge.

If your garden is really tiny, then plant a small clump of native species plants and place your feeders close by as a haven for little birds to flit into if they feel in danger.

A typical native species hedgerow will include hawthorn, blackthorn, spindle berry, hazel, dog wood, field maple, ash, crab apple, guelder rose, dog and briar rose — and, of course, especially pertinent to the time of year, holly.

Holly, in all its 600 or so species, can be topiarised, set in a container or added to a mixed hedge to give colour.

Its berries are such a prized food that the mistle thrush is known for vigorously guarding them in winter to prevent other birds from eating them.

Holly (ilex) is native to this country, southern and western Europe, north-west Africa and south-west Asia. 

Holly plants will remain healthy and attractive by following a couple of simple tips.

It is particularly hardy and a very easy plant to have in the garden.

It can tolerate both full sun and partial shade and enjoys a normal humus-rich soil that is neither too wet nor too dry.

Ideally, give the plant a mixed fertiliser in spring and autumn to keep it healthy but in the main it will just get on with it.

The best time to prune natural holly is the end of February or beginning of March. Any sooner than this and you run the risk of frost damage.

In fact, it’s only really necessary to prune if the plant grows too big or if it has unsightly or dead branches.

If the holly is used as a hedge or other clipped form, prune it in June and September.

Cutting back to the 'old wood’ will give poor re-growth with few young shoots so it’s a good idea to tend to the hedge every year.

But, if you want a mature tree they can grow up to 15 metres and live for 300 years. Both male and females produce flowers but only the female of the species has berries.

Holly provides dense cover and good nesting opportunities for birds, while its deep, dry leaf litter may be used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation. 

The flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects.

The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly, along with those of various moths, including the yellow-barred brindle, double-striped pug and the holly tortrix.

Holly branches have long been used to decorate homes in winter.

The tree was seen as a fertility symbol and a charm against witches, goblins and the devil.

It was thought to be unlucky to cut down a holly tree and has long been a favourite of mine as a basis for our Christmas wreath.

Should you wish to brave bad luck and fell a holly, its wood is the whitest of all. It is heavy, hard and fine grained.

It can be stained and polished and is used to make furniture or in engraving work. It is commonly used to make walking sticks.

It also makes good firewood and burns with a strong heat when dry.

Now is the time to plant holly and bare-root hedging stock of all varieties.

l On the Island, the Naturezones charity — to whose founder Angela Hewitt I am grateful to for this article — sells stock in its plant centre, which is managed by volunteers.

For more information, visit


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