Hedgerows are low-cost, high-impact design elements which can be used along pathways, rail lines, power line easements or roads to create habitat corridors in cities, connecting a network of habitat patches together. Homeowners can coordinate to create long, connected hedgerow corridors to provide somewhere for small mammals, insects, pollinators, spiders, birds and herptiles to move around safely, nest in, shelter for the night and provide refuge and food. They also provide valuable habitat and corridors in agricultural land.
What is a hedgerow? The simple definition is that it’s a row of wild trees and shrubs. Hedgerows date back to the time of the Romans, and perhaps even earlier, when they were used as field boundaries as they still are today in much of the UK. One of the earliest mentions of hedgerows comes from Julius Caesar as he described the land of the Belgae during the time of the Roman war with the Gauls. The hedgerows actually acted as an effective defense, despite most likely simply being agricultural borders; “They had succeeded in making hedges that were almost like walls, by cutting into saplings, bending them over, and intertwining thorns and brambles among the dense side branches that grew out. These hedges provided such protection that it was impossible to see through them, let alone penetrate them.” Other ancient civilizations preferred hedges because they were cheaper and more permanent than fences.
Historically in the UK hedgerows were the remnants of woodlands which were cleared for agricultural fields. Later hedgerows were planted in great amounts under the ‘Enclosure Act’ until their eventual decline. During the height of their use in the UK hedgerows were pervasive and frequently mentioned in text using such words as haeg, gehaeg, haga and hege and are often still found in place-names. Today what remains of hedgerows are targeted for protection, which is interesting because despite being man-made features they have become so established in the country they’re a valuable habitat element.
Hedgerows act in much the same way a woodland or forest edge does. They have good vertical structural diversity, from groundcovers up to trees, which provide a multitude of habitat layers. They also serve as an ideal movement corridor for wildlife, connecting small woodland patches. Hedgerows provide other benefits as well such as delineating borders, and they can be more aesthetic than fences. They also help prevent erosion, block wind and provide shade. Indirectly they reduce the amount of pests such as insects and rodents by providing habitat for predators.
The key to a successful hedgerow is diversity of plants and structure. Having structural layers is important for many reasons, different species inhabit specific vegetation layers, more layers provide more refuge and more sources of food. Leaving dead material on the ground is also important because many wildlife species forage in the leaf litter for food and even nest or pupate there. The plants themselves also provide wildlife benefits such as trees which offer nesting and food for birds, shelter for bats, squirrels and insects like moths. When the trees die and turn to snags they provide another set of benefits.
The specific plants to use in the hedgerow depend upon the main goals of property owner. For habitat select shrubs and trees that provide fruit or nuts for wildlife, larval host plants for moths and butterflies and shrubs with thorns or spines to provide shelter. Include a range of plants that flower during various times of the year to provide a constant source of nectar and pollen. Some of the more popular plants for hedgerows include Pacific Serviceberry, Snowberry, Oregon-grape, Douglas Fir, hawthorn, wild rose, bramble, hazel, beech, dogwood, apple, elm, oak, honeysuckle and clematis. Many plants which grow in thickets or forest edges would likely be good choices for hedgerows. For a suggested plant list in the Pacific Northwest visit the King Conservation District website.
Hedgerows can also be a habitat concept that doesn’t quite fit the traditional use of hedgerows. The Urban Hedgerow Project aims to “makes space for the feelings and thoughts that urban wild animals and plants provoke. Instead of a row of trees, we are exploring wall-mounted vertical forms that will comprise varied substrates, from repurposed industrial components like plastic tubing and lumber discards, to habitat for indigenous plants—hosts to indigenous fauna.” This idea is inspirational and challenges us all to examine existing habitat concepts and then to rethink them to see how they can be applied in more urban settings.
Sections of this post were adapted from Hedgerows, originally posted on The Metropolitan Field Guide.
- Hedgerows – Farm to City: King Conservation District
- Farm Hedges: RSPB
- Ancient and Species-rich Hedgerows: Buglife
- Hedgerows: Canadian Wildlife Federation
- Hedgerows: Their History and Wildlife
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