A good hedge is not just a boundary feature. It can function as a windbreak for both crops and livestock, intercept pollutants, provide feed and habitat for farm wildlife, and sequester carbon on to the farm. Yes, there is an additional cash cost over installing a livestock fence, but are we overlooking the additional benefits a traditional hedge can bring?
The RSPB suggest that hedges may support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies with food and/or shelter. Different species will have their preferences, but generally, thick, species rich hedges with wide bases will provide cover for a range of different birds, insects and small mammals on your farm.
Hedges can attract pollinators including butterflies, moths, and bees. These benefit oilseed rape, legumes, and other crops, thereby helping to support agricultural yields. Hedgerows can offer a safe and sheltered place for beneficial insects to breed and overwinter, with a well provisioned hedge providing a source of pollen and nectar for food from spring through to autumn.
Small mammals also benefit; from bats using the hedges as feeding sites and navigational aids, to providing shelter, food, and cover for other species. In effect, hedges can act as wildlife corridors, helping small mammals such as hedgehogs and voles expand their range, link to other populations or access existing woodland or other habitat features.
The addition of hedgerow trees can be of benefit too. Trees sequester carbon and add to diversity through alternative nesting and roosting sites, flowers and fruits, plus additional shelter and shade for livestock, another bonus in our unpredictable climate.
Leaf fodder or ‘tree hay’ may be more practical on a smaller scale but can be a source of occasional grazing. Tree fodder provides a range of different minerals and trace elements, with claims that species such as willow bring medicinal benefits. Ash, elm, rowan, and hazel are all palatable to livestock. Willow is also the focus of research by Queen’s University Belfast, looking at the efficacy of willow leaves in reducing livestock methane emissions.
With Scottish Government funding potentially available for creation of hedgerows in 2024 under the Agri-Environment and Climate Scheme (AECS), is now the time to consider what other benefits a good hedge could bring to your farm?
Rebecca Audsley, Principal Consultant, SAC Consulting