How to make your hedge wildlife friendly

Hedges don’t have to be dull. With a little planning, you can turn even the smallest hedge into a major asset to your wildlife garden – and it will look wonderful.

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How to use your garden hedge to attract wildlife

It’s easy to think of hedges simply as strips of neatly cut privet, but they don’t have to be so dull and uninspiring. With a little planning, you can turn even the smallest hedge into a major asset to your wildlife garden – and it will look wonderful. 

We have lost more than half of our rural hedges in the past 50 years and many that remain are in poor condition, dominated by one species of shrub. Gardeners cannot make up for that loss, but flocks of winter thrushes feeding on the berries of native and ornamental shrubs are a visible sign of the value of garden hedges, especially during harsh weather.
 
Good hedges help wildlife by providing cover, food and ‘connectivity’ – they act as green corridors through urban areas. But this doesn’t mean they have to be untidy. Tall hedges, besides being inconsiderate to neighbours, are unmanageable, and the shade they cast reduces the wildlife diversity of your garden.
 
If you have a small garden it may be impractical to plant a hedge, but the alternative – a bare fence – can cause air turbulence and temperature extremes, neither of which is beneficial to animals. The solution is to cover the fence with climbers such as ivy, hops, clematis or dog rose, creating shelter for insects and spiders. Plant Pyracantha, Berberis and Cotoneaster beside the fence to provide berries for birds in the autumn.
 
 
TOP SPECIES TO ATTRACT TO YOUR HEDGE:
 
In spring
 
  • Magpie moth larva
    This large, distinctive caterpillar feeds on blackthorn and hawthorn in hedges and overwinters as a larva. It pupates the following May or June. The adult moth is also attractive, with a variable black-and-white wing pattern.
     
  • Flower crab spider
    The female flower crab spider is common on white or yellow flowers, including those of blackthorn and hawthorn hedges. It lies in wait among the petals to grab passing insects, even large hoverflies and wasps.
     
  • Plants: Guelder rose, holly and hawthorn thrive at this time of year.
 
In summer
 
  • Dunnock
    This delightful if retiring bird, also known as the hedge sparrow, chooses a dense part of the hedge to build its neat, cup-shaped nest.
     
  • Speckled wood
    A species of woodland glades, the speckled wood is often seen flying along garden hedges in dappled sunlight. It lays eggs in long grass at the base.
     
  • Plants: Buckthorn and hazel thrive at this time of year.

 

In autumn

  • Redwing
    One of the highlights of autumn and early winter is flocks of redwings stripping berries from garden hedges. Waxwings are another, much rarer visitor, mainly in the north and east.
  • Robin’s pincushion gall
    Galls are frequently the first evidence of the smaller insects in your garden. In hedges with wild roses, you may spot robin’s pincushion, made by a small wasp. The wasp larva lives in the hard centre of the gall.
  • Woodlouse spider
    This predator can be found throughout the year. It emerges at night to hunt woodlice, and the leaf litter that gathers at the bottom of garden hedges is a productive hunting ground.
  • Plants: Buckthorn, hawthorn and guelder rose thrive at this time of year.
 
In winter
 
  • Blackcap
    Normally a summer visitor to the UK, the blackcap is becoming increasingly common in our gardens in winter. Thick hedges provide it with good foraging and roosting sites. Only the males have the distinct namesake; females have a russet cap.
  • Hedgehog
    The overgrown base of a hedge makes a perfect hiding place for hibernating hedgehogs, which build nests from dry grass and leaf litter. They also build nests in hedges where they sleep during the day in summer.
  • Plants: Ivy and hazel thrive at this time of year.
 
HEDGING YOUR BETS: Three easy ways to get the most from your hedge
 
If you’re lucky enough to have an established hedge, you can still enhance it by planting a mix of woodland and hedgerow flowering plants along the base. Species to try include violets, celandines, primroses, wild strawberry, lords and ladies, stitchwort, anemones and campions, all of which provide a colourful spring show and will attract insects. Underplanting the hedge with ivy and grasses, building a bank at the bottom, or adding a few rock piles will also increase its wildlife value.
 
Wildlife-friendly hedges are also excellent for security: after all, two-thirds of burglars gain entry via the back garden. Boundary hedges comprising Berberis, Pyracantha, hawthorn, blackthorn, buckthorn and holly form a prickly barrier to intruders, while attracting a wide range of wildlife. Training Pyracantha, Berberis and wild roses up drainpipes and under vulnerable downstairs windows also deters thieves – and it’s fantastic to have birds feeding only feet away.
 
Even conifer hedges have wildlife value. They offer snug roosting sites for small birds on cold nights, and places where insects such as ladybirds can hibernate. Several species of garden bird nest in evergreens, too. But conifer hedges need regular trimming: if they get too large and have to be cut back hard, they will rarely regrow from the dead wood. Conifer and privet hedges can be made more attractive, and better for wildlife, by allowing wild roses and clematis to grow into them.
 
 
STEVE'S TOP TIPS: 
 
  • Plant new hedges in the autumn, in a trench with plenty of compost. Stagger the bushes in two rows about 30cm apart, as this will improve the density of the hedge. Remember that hedges are not only suited to boundaries – they can be used within the garden as well, to divide it into sections.
     
  • Mix four or five different species in your hedge. Choose native trees and bushes such as hawthorn, dogwood, field maple, hazel, yew, holly, beech, native privet, spindle, guelder rose and blackthorn, depending on whether cover, privacy or berry production is most important to you. Only plant climbers in the hedge once it is established.
     
  • Protect young hedges from rabbits or deer with a wire fence. Avoid planting bushes in plastic tubes, since the resulting mature hedge will have little or no growth near ground level.
     
  • Create texture and variety in your hedge by avoiding straight edges. You can achieve this by planting additional bushes along the edge of the hedge or by allowing some sections to grow longer. This reduces the effects of the wind and produces a mix of sunny and shady patches.
     
  • Prune hedges to improve the cover that they provide. New hedges must be cut back hard for the first two or three years to make sure they sprout from the base. The best time of year to prune is late winter, after the last berries have been eaten; it is illegal to do so if you know there are nesting birds present.
     
  • Cut sections of the hedge in alternate years if possible, as species such as guelder rose and hawthorn only flower and fruit on the previous year’s growth.

 

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