What is the best shaped hedge for gamebird nesting?
Most pheasants and partridges which nest in hedges choose sites in the grassy vegetation of the hedge bank, rather than right into the woody cover of the hedge itself. As a result, hedge management should be aimed at keeping shading of this area to a minimum.
So, the best scheme is to keep the hedge fairly low, cutting back to no more than 2 metres, and to keeping the sides trimmed to a vertical. Trimming to an ‘A’ shape results in a wide base, which shades out more of the nesting cover.
How often should hedges be cut to maximise their value for game?
Regular trimming keeps hedges thick and warm, maximising their shelter value for game and much other wildlife. However many hedgerow shrubs only fruit on second year and older wood. As a result, the best compromise for game and wildlife is probably to cut your hedges once every two or three years.
A good scheme for the farm as a whole is to cut one half or one third of your hedges each year, ensuring that these are scattered across the farm rather than all in one area. In this way you will ensure that there are hedges at the right stage to suit the full range of wildlife needs scattered across the whole area.
Our hedges are only a metre high. How best can I let them grow taller and thicker?
Hedges that are kept very low are not really attaining their full value for game and wildlife. However, allowing them to grow on unrestricted may not be the best policy. To help keep their warmth and thickness it is better to trim then back a little higher and wider each year. In this way you can encourage a steadily bushier hedge, rather than end up with unrestricted and rather spindly growth.
A square-shaped hedge of about two metres high is ideal. Some taller hedges can be great for partridge driving, and good for other wildlife too. On the other hand, driven pheasants often fly low along the line of tall hedges, whereas they would climb and spread much more if the hedges were lower.
Integrating hedge management with the needs of both quality shooting and good wildlife conservation is a complex business, and expert help in the form of an on site visit from your local Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust advisor is the best way to get this right.
Which native species should we plant for a game hedge?
This is not easy to answer, as the right choice varies across the country. Both geographical location and soil type can influence your choice. However hawthorn is a basic component of most native hedges. It is also often the cheapest choice, and is relatively easy to establish.
For the rest of your hedge it is a good idea to choose species that are found in the local hedges. To get best establishment of variety, do not plant an intimate mix. It is better to plant groups or short sections of any one species so that the most vigorous does not come to dominate.
One particularly aggressive native species is blackthorn, and this is probably best avoided unless you want a thicket somewhere on the farm for home produced sloe gin. The particular problem with this species is that it suckers freely, and can invade and ruin the grassy bank at the base of the hedge.
How do you protect a new hedge from deer and hares?
One of the sad truths about hedge planting is that the cost of protection is often greater than the cost of the plants. The choice is between fencing and individual guards. A double line of rabbit fence usually gives quite good protection, even from deer. They seem to be loath to jump in to such a narrow strip, and cannot reach in to the newly planted shrubs provided that the fences are far enough out from the planting.
The big trouble, however is that such fences badly restrict wildlife movement, and can be a death trap to game. If they are used, they should be removed as soon as possible.
Individual guards are often criticised as being inadequate to fully protect the plants, with hares or deer browsing plants as soon as they emerge unless full height tubes are used. However, what is often forgotten is that the part which is in the tube (for example a quill) is still growing, and continues to feed the growing root system.
Given good management, and particularly attention to weed control, the plant eventually grows away from any damage, especially if it is part of a reasonable length of hedge.
Can I control the weeds in my new hedge by cutting rather than using herbicides?
Probably no. Cut vegetation is usually even worse than rank weeds, as it transpires away more moisture. Spot treatment with herbicides avoids this, and even leaves the dead weeds as a partial mulch to conserve moisture. If you really cannot face using herbicides, the only alternative is mulching to conserve moisture and suppress weeds. Doing nothing is a bad mistake too, as good weed control makes a big difference to the rate of establishment.
What can I do to thicken out a hedge which has become very bare at the base?
Traditionally, new hedges would have been allowed to grow fairly tall in most areas of the country, and then laid. This gives a wonderful tight hedge, which can then be allowed to grow on and regularly trimmed. Another alternative, which is quicker and requires less skill, is to coppice. By cutting the plants off just above the ground, you encourage a group of stems in place of each one. Laying the cut tops as a dead hedge gives some short-term cover, and protects the re-growth from browsing.
This is also the perfect time to look at the herb vegetation which has developed at the hedge base. This is often dominated by nettles, and other weedy species, which have been encouraged to flourish by spray drift, or the herbicide treatment that was needed to aid establishment. Spray these out and sow a cocksfoot based mix to give good nesting cover for the future.
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