A lovely hedge

Hedge cutting: when and how to do it – some balance.

There is a lot of outrage over hedge cutting. This gives me so much hope, as it shows a level of emotional investment in these wonderful habitats. Often, this frustration is justified, but sometimes it’s a little misplaced. Let’s have a closer look……..

Is it natural to cut a hedge?

I often hear that it is much more natural not to cut hedges at all. That cutting is not natural.

This ignores the fact that hedgerows aren’t actually a “natural” habitat. Hedges are a man-made habitat that depends on some form of management to survive long term.

Why?

Hedges that aren’t cut at all race upwards, becoming trees.

They lose the thick dense structure at the base (so valuable for wildlife) and eventually many will topple as they are spaced too close to all be full trees. This line of trees thins as more fall down. The hedge is eventually lost.

An uncut hedge may become a treeline
Tree line

The last countryside survey (2007) saw a 9% increase in hedge losses to tree lines over the decade.

Trees are great, I love trees, but a line of trees is not a hedge. It isn’t as species-rich, as taller tree species outcompete the smaller, and lines of trees aren’t so permanent a feature in the countryside as hedges can be.

Ok, so we’ve gathered that hedges need to be cut, however, the devil is in the detail. How should they are cut and how often hedges are cut makes all the difference.

When young, or recently rejuvenated, cutting them frequently is a good thing! It changes the balance of hormones, helping create a dense structure.

Cutting a hedge makes it thicker
Cutting makes the hedge thicker

But what about when they’re established?

Flowers and fruit.

Well, most blossoms and berries only grow on second-year wood. So hedges should absolutely NOT be cut every year.

These photos were taken 5 minutes apart. One hawthorn hedge is in a non-intervention stage, the other cut every year. I know which one supports more wildlife.

Difference hedge cutting makes to fruiting
Fruiting or not

But the longer we leave them in their rotational cutting, the more drastic it looks when we finally cut them. Cutters have to go through thicker stems, more get splintered and it’s these that get shared on social media with the “ecocide” tag.


Surely we want longer cutting rotations?

When to cut a hedge.

Next up – WHEN? Many hedges are cut as soon as is allowed, in September. But this cuts off all the berries that could otherwise see our birds through the winter. It’s best to cut late winter, where possible. However, sometimes this isn’t possible because of wet soil/compaction issues.

And of course, as much as we hear complaints when hedges are cut, farmers also get complained about when they’re not! Trimming in September has become a sort of traditional in some areas- tidying up all the summer growth before it gets too woody.

How to cut a hedge.

Ok, now to HOW.
Firstly, if we trim to the same height each year, over time this damages the hedge structure. A scar knuckle forms at the trim line, the base growth thins, stems are lost and gaps form.

Hedge Scar Knuckle
Hedge Scar Knuckle

Hedges are a dynamic living system and should be managed as such.

Over time, these hedges, trimmed to the same height, get gappy. The remaining hedge stems stretch to accommodate the gaps, but eventually, they too may die without a change in management. How do we avoid this?

Gappy hedge

Hedge cutting, how to do it.

Well, cutting slightly higher and wider every time you cut is a great start. it may be just 10cm each time but it will make a difference.

Image
Cutting a hedge higher and wider at each cut prevents structural damage and creates a thick, dense hedge structure.

You will avoid structural damage, keep young wood so will always have flowers and fruit even on cutting years, &you get a thick dense hedge

But won’t it get unmanageably big? Well if you cut every 3 years, and 10cm higher each time, it will take 30 years before your hedge has grown 1m taller. So it isn’t desperate.
At the end of this, you can either leave it with no cutting at all for a while or reshape/rejuvenate it.

I’ll add to this, that it looks like cutting a hedge in an ‘A’ shape helps. It keeps the base vegetation thicker which is crucial for birds and small mammals.

No matter how well you manage your hedge, it will always require rejuvenation at some point. This could be laying or coppicing and the hedge will thicken it up from the very base, add new stems, and start the whole process afresh.

laying or coppicing a hedge basically makes it immortal.

A well laid hedge
Well laid hedge

Frustrations at hedge cutting are sometimes justified, but not always. Look closely at a hedge to see whether you can see signs of over-trimming, signs that it may be in a long rotation.

Learn to read a hedgerow here:
https://hedgerowsurvey.ptes.org/reading-hedgerows

The flail has made hedge cutting easier. This means they can get cut too often and ignoring their lifecycle. But it can still be a useful tool if used sensitively. We no longer have the agricultural man-power to cut hedges by hand, let’s face it.

When & how its used is key.

So I hope this has been helpful!

In summary:

Hedge cutting is not the enemy however, it is best done less frequently, and later in the year than we often see.

Hedges can’t have one kind of management all their lives or they will perish. They NEED to be managed on a lifecycle.

Hedge management diagram
Hedge management diagram

When we manage for healthy hedgerows, we are rewarded with a whole host of other benefits too! Even if you didn’t give two hoots for wildlife, healthy hedges are in our own interest.

I am optimistic about the future of hedges. There is a lot of emotion attached to them, and we are waking up to their plethora of values.
They have seen some dark decades but I genuinely believe they are on the up again. Hooray!

The benefits of heathy hedgerows
The benefits of heathy hedgerows

For more information, visit Hedgerow survey

Key Habitats Project Officer at | Website | + posts

Megan Gimber is the key habitats officer for People's Trust for Endangered Species, and is a self confessed hedge addict.
PTES hedgerow conservation started from their value to our focus species such as dormice and hedgehogs, but given their value to all manner of wildlife, our interest in hedges extends far beyond any individual species now.

We run a hedgerow survey project that encourages enthusiasts to health check their local hedges, and this gives instant feedback about the hedge as well as some management guidance based on the results.

We are working on some new exciting projects with hedgerows so keep your eyes peeled for more from us.
Together we are working towards a healthy future for our incredible hedges, and all the wildlife they support.

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