OPINION: Why farmers must cherish their undervalued hedgerows

Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group advisor Eliza Emmett

Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group advisor Eliza Emmett - Credit: Chris Hill

Creating nature-rich hedgerows could be the single most important thing farmers can do for their landscape says Lizzie Emmett, advisor for the Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group.

It’s a calm, sunny day and I’m walking with one of my Wensum farmers alongside blackthorn hedges spilling out into the margins, buzzing with insects, and we discuss the seemingly endless benefits of hedges.

The hawthorn branches bursting with bright new leaves will later bear blossom. And blossom means berries, the essential food source for our wildlife in winter months.

The hedge base is thick – providing protected highways for wildlife such as the great crested newt. The Tuscany grass edges are brimming with invertebrates. The hedge mix is preciously diverse - bramble, crab apple, field maple, ivy and dog rose.

As I walk, I explain that if there is one thing we farmers must do for the landscape, it’s to have the most plentiful, species-diverse, linked-up hedges we can.

A Norfolk hedge in springtime

Norfolk farmers have been urged to 'truly value' their hedgerows as a nature resource and a farmland asset. Pictured: A Norfolk hedge in springtime - Credit: Lizzie Emmett

Our Norfolk hedges are commonly undervalued and over-managed, seen as a hindrance or given up on and abandoned. We need to value these tremendous assets and reinstate the cyclic management our forebears performed.

Can you tell a good hedge at glance? Yes. Too many Norfolk hedges are made up of too few species that have developed into mushroom shape with little density or cover at their base - standing disconnected from other habitats.

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I’m often asked if a good hedge has to be one left alone. The answer is no.

Good hedges can also be managed to be functional - to access to a ditch or trimmed so machinery can pass in a green lane.

The trimmed side can be balanced by leaving the other side untrimmed, or another hedge uncut elsewhere on the farm. The key is diversity, but appreciate the fact that hedges change, grow and constantly adapt.

My advice is to truly value your hedges. Not just for food resource, field protection, carbon sequestration but as a farmland asset.

My management top tips:

  • Cyclical laying, rolling or coppicing should become a part of your normal trimming routine (trim a hedge if you like, but not all of them and not every year)
  • Plan to have diversity and don’t be afraid to leave some scruffy
  • Create a dense and protective base

Healthy young or adolescent-aged hedges are the best to lay or roll (when it reaches around 8-10ft in height). But despite grants, uptake is low.

In the Wensum Farmers Group we have been trialling the technique of flattening the hedge with a digger bucket. We’ve found this works best when the hedge ‘trunks’ are pre-cut with a chainsaw.

It’s fast, cost-effective and makes completing a section of hedge each winter very achievable for every farm. It promotes new growth from the base and starts the cycle again.

Coppicing is a good option for the ‘mushroom hedges’ but with heavy deer browsing, the new growth is very vulnerable, even when the brash is placed on top, and in some cases we have had to start planting the hedge again in between the old coppiced thorn.

So while we admire Norfolk farm hedges bursting into life again this spring, it is certainly worth looking and considering what more we can do.

A Norfolk hedge in summer

Norfolk farmers have been urged to 'truly value' their hedgerows as a nature resource and a farmland asset. Pictured: A good example of a Norfolk hedge in summer - Credit: Lizzie Emmett


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