Benefits of laying hedges

Richard Negus extols the virtues of laying hedges and scrubbing up in order to show better birds and to allow grey partridges to flourish in a feature first published in Shooting Times.

Grant schemes encourage the use of sympathetic hedge-cutting regimes

Every hedge that my business partner, Richard Gould, and I lay, coppice or cut, is done with wild game in mind, even if the farm on which we work doesn’t shoot. It’s a pragmatic ideology—if it suits grey partridges, it suits all lowland wildlife.

Richard was a headkeeper and his mantra is that a pheasant only becomes a good one if it has spotted the Guns. Partridges, particularly greys, are the total opposite. “The secret in presenting grey partridges well,” says Richard, “is to remember that a wild covey is a family unit. When they are driven with the wind, rather than harried, they fly together in the direction of safety. If they think that is over a hedge to their front, they fly confidently, not knowing what lies behind it.”

The grey’s fame as a sporting bird is largely due to its spectacular behaviour when a covey spies the Guns as they come into range. This can only be achieved if the shooting line is well hidden from the birds’ view. The hedge, if it is of sufficient height and density, makes for a perfect natural blind. Guns are traditionally spaced 40 yards apart. The height of the hedge will dictate how close the pegs are placed to it—the taller the hedge, the further back they can go. 

A well-managed laid hedge will provide the perfect mix of food and cover for wild game

The first thing the oncoming covey knows about danger ahead is as it skims over the hedge and spies the Guns. Then self-preservation kicks in, and the covey ‘starbursts’ as it becomes every bird for itself. Obviously, there are few shoots these days where greys predominate in the bag. The Frenchman, which has replaced the grey as the UK sporting partridge, behaves differently—more pheasant-like, most would agree. 

However, Richard believes that hedges have an important role to play in driving redlegs, too. “The usual sight on a shoot day is of French partridges being driven out of a cover crop on the brow of a hill, towards a line of Guns standing in the open at the bottom of the slope.

However, if the pegs are placed sufficiently well back behind a hedge and the French are driven over, using the wind, while not starbursting like the greys, it makes for extremely challenging snap shooting and in more natural surroundings.”  

Planted by hand

The hedge is a wonderful thing, worthy of our care and attention. Every hedgerow in Britain was planted and managed by human hand. Originally devised as a means of delineating boundaries, retaining livestock or keeping predators—or invading Romans—out, wildlife swiftly grew to appreciate and utilise these linear ribbons of scrub and thorn. 

With the decline of mixed farming and a transition towards overwhelmingly arable land use in East Anglia, the hedge became somewhat surplus to requirements. The grandsons and great-grandsons of the men who planted them grubbed out the hedgerows to allow for increased production and the ever-larger machinery required to make crop growing pay. 

All this destruction was subsidised and encouraged by successive post-war governments. From 1946 to 1963, it has been estimated that 4,800km of hedgerows were removed a year. In 1950, the Forestry Commission claimed there to be 1,000,000km of hedgerows in England; by 2007, the Countryside Commission tallied up a mere 477,000km. 

Inevitably, politicians make U-turns faster than Jaguar-driving baddies in The Sweeney. In the late 1990s, Government grants became available to plant new hedges, frequently in the places where they had been ripped out. 

Driving French partridges out of cover over a hedge makes for challenging snap shooting
(© RICHARD NEGUS; Paul Quagliana; ANDY HOOK; Steven Taylor; ALAMY)

Stuff of life

This was excellent news for farmland wildlife. The hedge acts as a wildlife corridor, snaking vein-like across farmland, linking woods and wetlands, cover and meadowland. It is a rich provider of food for birds, mammals and invertebrates. Depending on the height and density, numerous bird species call it home, or nest within the jagged mesh of limbs. For lowland game, the lee of the hedge is the stuff of life. 

Wild game thrives on a three-legged stool conservation model—abundant suitable habitat, readily available quality food and protection from predators. A wide margin, filled with grasses and wildflowers butting up to a thorny hedge, rejuvenated by laying or coppicing to make it thick from bottom to top, then subsequently managed by alternate annual cuts at different heights, does all of the above for pheasants and, particularly, partridges. 

The margins, if managed sympathetically, hold ample food, both in seed and invertebrate form, and provide nesting material and cover. Quite simply, the combination of wide margin and well-managed hedge is a yesteryear-like, wildlife-friendly buffer from the high-tech, modern farming going on in the middle of the field. 

Hedgerows act as a highly efficient carbon store, capturing carbon at twice the rate of woodland

The hedge itself attracts insects, the larvae of which are those famed ‘squishy bugs’ relied upon by partridge chicks. The hedge also gives shelter from the elements and is a bolthole under which game hides from avian predators, particularly raptors. 

The importance of hedgerows for game and wildlife within the farmed landscape has been understood for a number of years. Defra’s Countryside Stewardship schemes gave grants to farmers and landowners, enabling new plantings and the management of existing hedgerows by laying, coppicing and encouraging sympathetic cutting regimes. 

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, these schemes will be replaced by the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM). Some 90% of the customers in my hedgerow management business are farmers. Most feel somewhat in the dark about what ELMs will mean for their enterprises. ELM’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) trial is under way. Like a wedding buffet, everything looks delightful but we will only know whether this new agri-environment revolution is an array of delicious dishes or a table full of costly, bland disappointments once the findings of the SFI are in.

If ELMs can be made to work, both in financial and practical terms, for farmers and landowners, the potential benefits for hedgerows and margins, and therefore wild game and shooting, are huge. This is not only because hedgerows provide food, habitat and cover from predation. The hedge itself can turn a drive in lightly wooded or flat landscapes from mundane into challenging.

Shooting alongside a hedge can transform a mundane drive by providing a real challenge for Guns

Income stream

The hedge is a vital tool in conservation and can improve the experience of a shooting day. However, there is another benefit the hedge provides that is only now being realised. The GWCT is involved in a groundbreaking project at Allerton that aims to produce a tool capable of calculating the carbon capture potential of hedgerows. 

Hedgerows sequester carbon at twice the rate of woodland because of their three-dimensional structure. It is estimated that nine million tonnes of carbon is currently stored in England’s hedgerows. Well-managed, established hedges and maturing newer plantings can only add to this. 

The new Hedgerow Carbon Code will include a tool that will enable the carbon stored in a hedge to be calculated and verified. The tool will also have the potential to be developed further, monitoring hedgerow biodiversity and calculating biodiversity credits. 

Dr Alastair Leake, director of the Allerton Project, explained these benefits further. “Developing
a Hedgerow Carbon Code has huge national potential to enable farmers to increase the amount of carbon stored in their hedgerows and to trade those carbon credits,” he said.

“Applied across a national scale, there is scope to deliver more than £60 million of income to the farming community through carbon credits for hedgerow management and planting.”

A wide margin of grasses and wildflowers next to a thick hedge is ideal habitat for grey partridges

Health assessment

Out of the hedging season, Richard and I produce 10-year hedgerow management plans for landowners. This involves lots of trudging and map reading as we walk the hedgerows on farms, assessing their health and prescribing what management processes they will need over the next decade. The aim is to achieve a mosaic of ages, heights and widths, avoiding wherever possible a monoculture of size and species. 

This is an exhaustive and detailed process. However, there is now an app available that can help to provide a more generalist snapshot of the state of your hedgerow. The Healthy Hedgerows app from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species enables the user to plot and note the overall state of the hedgerows on your farm or shoot. 

Fascinating, then, that the hedge, a landscape feature that so recently was grubbed-up or ignored, is now worthy of its very own app and could even help to save the planet. 


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