Celebrating the great Irish hedgerow
Is there a more ubiquitous element of the Irish landscape than the hedgerow? That softly mounding linear dissection of our fields, often accompanied by stretches of native walling, is something so uniquely Irish and found everywhere from the northern tip of Rathlin island to the South of Bantry. Today, after returning from a recent trip abroad, I find myself smiling happily out the train window at the almost movie like beauty of our native landscape.
Where now these hedge-rowed fields feel so much like home and have become as much a part of our landscape as our dry stone walls, initially many of these hedges would have been planted as property or field boundaries not even that long ago. Many of these hedgerows would have been planted from the 18th Century onwards where legislation required all landowners to enclose their land in order to clearly mark their property boundaries. An interesting statistic today is that Ireland has an overall estimated hedgerow length of around 300,000km, creating a vast network of habitats for native wildlife.
Many hedges are still grown today to border fields which contain livestock, with many spinose varieties such as blackthorn or hawthorn being great deterrents at edges of fields and roadsides. Asides from the agricultural farming uses of hedges as boundaries, there is also a growing awareness of the importance of our native hedges in the wider context of biodiversity and how they create valuable habitats for our native wildlife.
Most hedges contain a variety of native species and this is exactly what makes them so unique. According to a survey conducted by the Irish Wildlife Trust in the late 1980s, our native hedgerows are home to 37 different species of shrubs and trees and almost 105 species of wild flora. The most common variety of shrubs tends to be hawthorn, which quickly grows into a dense shrub, perfect for containing livestock while supporting up to 200 different insect species, making it one of the most valuable native shrubs. The interesting thing about the overall make up of our native hedgerows is that they mimic edges of native woodland. Forming a series of different levels we can find different habitats in higher tree levels, lower shrub levels, dense bramble and roadside verges which add an extra layer of wildlife sustenance in terms of perennial herbs such as wild cow parsley, hogweed and wild angelica as well as wild grasses. This unique mix of layers makes it possible for many different varieties of wildlife to thrive. It’s no wonder our native hedgerows truly are teeming with life.
When it comes to creating successful habitats for wildlife hedges need to have a three dimensional structure which provide different types of habitats for a variety of wildlife.
One of the most valuable elements are older specimens which have holes or hollowed out sections in their bark, creating nesting places for many birds such as blackbirds, sparrows, finches, robins, linnets, tits and sometimes even the now rare barn owl. The under-storey of the shrubs also allow birds to build nests in them and these places are also ideal for bats who hunt insects in and around the hedgerows at nighttime.
The dense base of the hedgerow is another layer teeming with life. It contains leaf litter and branches from the hedges and is home to many invertebrates such as snails, worms and other insects which in turn feed animals such as hedgehogs. Such a fascinating cycle of life!
What grows in our hedge rows?
The native hedgerow contains many different species of trees, shrubs and plants. From the taller hawthorn, elder, hazel and willow, to the evergreen holly and guelder rose shrubs, all the way to brambles, the diversity is key to its flourishing wildlife. Here are three of my all time favourites:
Wild Rose (Rosa canina alba)
The wild rose grows native all over Ireland and in the West of Ireland at this time of the year it covers entire hedgerows in delicate white flowers with fluffy yellow centres. Delicately scented, this scrambling rose is a gorgeous choice for a native hedgerow and is also a good choice for an arch. The white variety of this rose is a stunning pure white colour and really stands out in the hedge, making it easy for bees to pollinate it. In some countries the rosehip of this plant, which has high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants, is used to make tea and marmalade.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
This densely shaped shrub is a fantastic one for so many reasons. It is a great nesting place for birds and also provides food in the form of berries from the tree as well as the caterpillars of moths which eat the leaves of the tree. The pollen from the scented flowers in Spring also provides a rich source of nectar for bees. The berries which the birds love so much, are unpalatable to us but can be used to make wine, jam and to flavour delicious sloe gin.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
This well known perennial climber is found in most hedgerows around the country and its heady scent never ceases to amaze me. A firm favourite for garden trellises and arches, this vigorous climber grows to 7metres in height and can quickly cover a vast area. In the wild this plant will curl its way around tree branches and through dense canopies, stretching its flowers towards the sun. It is invaluable for many different species of wildlife being a favourite of moths and long-tongues beds who pollinate the plant. Doormice also enjoy this plant, using the bark to make nests and eating the flowers for their delicious nectar and hummingbird moths are said to be able to detect the scent from up to a quarter of a mile away!
Did you know? The Blackthorn tree is steeped in folklore and mythology and it is said that witches brooms were made from blackthorn wood!
Planting your own native hedge:
The best time to plant a native hedge is in Winter when it’s bare root season. This begins in November and ends in March and many garden centres sell mixes of native hedging which you can plant straight away. Most mixes will include hawthorn, field maple, spindle, hazel, buckthorn, viburnum, and wild rose and planted a foot apart, these will form a dense canopy of hedge which is ideal for wildlife.
The law on cutting hedges
One important thing to know is that in our legislation we have a law which protects the wildlife living in our native hedgerows. Section 40 of the Wildlife act 1976 as amended by Section 46 of the Wildlife (Amendment Act) 2000, restricts the cutting, grubbing, burning, or destruction by other means of vegetation growing on uncultivated land or in hedges or ditches during the nesting and breeding season for birds and wildlife- from 1st March to 31st August. This law applies to all private land-users, local authorities, contracts or public bodies and is an important one which ensures the thriving of our diverse native flora and fauna. For more information go to the National Parks & Wildlife Service- www.npws.ie under Policy.