Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hedging my bets #1

I am feeling the heavy weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

You see, I have a proper hedgerow to look after. Actually, that's about the understatement of the year: I have about half a mile of hedgerow, as it forms the entire border of my very long and very thin garden.

Hedgerow is a proper recognised wildlife habitat: it's a priority habitat, in fact, protected under the Biodiversity Action Plan which describes them as 'particularly important for biodiversity conservation'. About 130 vulnerable species (so rabbits don't count) depend on them for their survival, including moths, birds, lichens and fungi.

Around here, there are miles and miles and miles of hedgerows. They are a wonderful, atmospheric feature of the landscape, turning lanes into green tunnels and patchworking the fields. They are, let's remember, essentially man-made: the farmers around here have formed them over centuries, with traditional management techniques which are still, essentially, unchanged (although these days they use tractors and flails, not billhooks). If farmers didn't manage hedgerows, they would disappear.

The OPAL project (it stands for Open Air Laboratories) is currently running a biodiversity survey which uses hedges to measure health of your local ecosystem. So I thought I'd put my own hedge to the test: you take a three-metre stretch of hedge and analyse the state of the hedge, its plant species, evidence of mammals living there, and any other creatures you find (mostly invertebrates like woodlice and snails).

I must admit mine was quite a cursory inspection: you're supposed to do these things in groups, and record it on a proper form, which I'd forgotten to print out. But in my randomly-chosen three-metre stretch here's what I found:

Hart's-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
Herb robert (Geranium robertianum)
Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)
Brambles (Rubus fruticosus)

Ivy (Hedera helix)
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)
Nettles (Urtica dioica)

and I also happen to know (because they're now starting to come up) there are also;
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum)

Other things:
Lichens, most of which I can't identify
Mosses, ditto
Little yellow fungi, ditto
Bracket fungi on the rotten bits

Woody plants:
Elder (of which the above is the oldest example I've yet found in the hedge)(Sambucus nigra)
Hazel (lots) (Corylus avellana)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

It's also a sign of the health of my hedgerows that there is a good mix of dead wood and live: the live provides the fruits, berries etc while the dead wood is colonised by tunnelling insects and the like.

However the hazel is undeniably taking over: there is less blackthorn than I would like (though my poor prickled fingers don't agree) and I could do with some more elder too.

I didn't find much to look at since it was winter and very cold when I looked at my hedgerow, and most sensible things were tucked up warm and weren't remotely interested in being surveyed.

However I did find this rather fine evidence of rabbits (as if I needed any proof: they scatter to right and left as you walk down the garden here). I have also, since I've been here, seen voles, mice, fox footprints and hundreds and hundreds of birds: wrens, sparrows, bluetits, wagtails, blackbirds, thrushes, robins, and that's not counting the ones I couldn't identify. And buzzards, and crows, and seagulls. though I don't think they rely too heavily on the hedgerows for day-to-day sustenance.

You see? What a responsibility. But though I like wildlife as much as the next person, and have a sense of tradition and history, and a great love of the countryside: I must also garden. And my hedges are undeniably taking over my garden, to the point where there is little garden left. They are 8ft wide in places, for goodness' sake.

My next step? What would you do?


Gabriel Rochard - architecte de jardins said...

Very happy to discover your blog! I'll follow your garden with pleasure. See you soon, Gabriel

Plantaliscious said...

How wonderful - and how challenging - being the guardian of such a wonderful wildlife habitat. I assume the looking after is mostly about cutting it at the right time of year and in the right way? Is it a laid hedge? Does it have wild roses in, or honeysuckle? Sorry to pelt you with questions, I am just interested because I would dearly love to plant a proper wildlife friendly hedge of British natives some day, but don't really know what I would be taking on...

The Constant Gardener said...

Gabriel - lovely to have you here, and come back soon :D

Plantaliscious: Yes, wonderful and challenging about sums it up. This particular hedge isn't laid, though I do have a laid hedge around my top field which is ironically rather better-behaved - i.e it stays in bounds and doesn't have a tendency to spread sideways and eat up bits of the garden! I think there are wild roses in there but haven't yet spotted honeysuckle.

In terms of what you'd be taking on... I think the basic rule is just to give it far more room than you would an ordinary hedge. Wildlife hedges are a little wayward, and don't always look neat: but then that's kind of the point. So if you're going to plant one, go ahead, but don't expect it to be anything it's not meant to be.

Also one last thing - our hedges are up on banks (naturally) which makes them all the more wonderful as the banks hold far more wildlife and smaller plants like ferns than the hedges ever would if planted on flat land. So if you can raise your hedges up too I'd highly recommend it ;D

Rowan said...

What a marvellous sounding hedge, so full of life and interest. As for what to do - take a course in hedgelaying?:)
I've only just discovered your blog so have a lot of exploring of your archives to do. Not just yet though as for the first time ever I'm taking advantage of the weather and gardening in January!

The Constant Gardener said...

Hi Rowan! I think my hedge is a little beyond laying - it's old and rather too woody I think - but I've always rather fancied having a go. I think it might be more to do with the tools though - I have a friend who works in forestry and have long coveted the wicked-looking billhook he uses for laying hedges :D

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