by Nikki Darrell (For Cork Branch of the Irish Wildlife Trust)
Hedgerows may be a habitat that was originally planted by humans but then we are part of nature too and these habitats serve many valuable purposes. They act as windbreaks, help with land drainage and healthy water tables, and provide food and shelter for many small mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows also act as ‘highways’ for these creatures to travel along and as reservoirs for many native species. Hedges are like miniature woodlands and within a healthy hedge there are several layers of growth as there are in a woodland. Our hedges are especially important here, due to the low level of forestation on this island.
Traditionally hedges were maintained by laying but sadly today this art is rarely practiced. It is good to see that there are people beginning to re-introduce this craft which, although labour intensive, makes for a far healthier hedge and one that looks much more pleasing. Hedges need good care. According to the website of the Hedgelaying Association of Ireland (http://www.hedgelaying.ie) many of our hedges were planted over 100 years ago.
Within a healthy hedgerow there may be several layers of growth. There may be some mature trees of our native species such as Oak, Ash, Holly, Wych Elm, Crab Apple, Wild Cherry, Bird Cherry, Whitebeam, Willow and Rowan. Some of these species do well when managed as hedging, others do not. The ones that fare particularly well include many of our native shrubs; Holly, Hawthorn, Guelder Rose, Wild Roses, Blackthorn, Gorse, Willow and native Privet. Elder and Spindle also occur in hedges. In some areas there will be a predominance of naturalized species such as the Fuchsia and Escallonia. It is good to recognise that some naturalised species integrate well and enrich the hedge, providing food for our fauna and insect life. Others do not and are less desirable such as the Rhododendrons.
Woven through a healthy hedge there will be some of our native climbers: Wild Roses, Honeysuckles, Brambles, Field Bindweed and Ivy, as well as naturalised climbers like Traveller’s Joy (wild Clematis) and Large Bindweed. It is worth pointing out that Ivy is a very valuable food plant for bees in the autumn and is the overwintering habitat of some of our native caterpillars.
At the foot of a hedge there can be a great diversity of some of our native wild flowers such as Ground Ivy, Primrose, Violets, Bluebells, Forget-Me-Nots, Wild Strawberries, Vetches, Cow Parsley, Foxgloves, Red Campion, Chickweeds, Speedwells and maybe a few early Purple Orchids.
These are just some of the plants that will grow in a hedgerow. Often other woodland plants, meadow plants or wasteland plants may join the ecosystem. There may be garden escapes and naturalised species such as Montbretia, Rosebay Willowherb, Wallflowers, Buddleia, Alexanders, Three Cornered Leek, Daffodils or, less popularly, Japanese Knotweed.
Hedgerows can be seen as part of our woodlands and fundamentally important with our low level of woodland cover. They are a rich source of all sorts of fruits and berries that can be used in forage food recipes, hedgerow wines and herbal medicines. Some of the wild flowers such as Ground Ivy were once used to brew ale before Hops became the main herb used in beer and many of them are delicious wild greens. Many of the plants have delightful folklore attached to them.
A well-managed hedgerow is a rich ecosystem. It is really worthwhile to plant a native hedgerow if you have space for one, as it will attract more birds and insects than a non-native hedge. It is really worthwhile reminding farmers and growers that hedges should not be cut during the nesting season (March 1 to August 31) to protect the dwindling numbers of our wonderful birds.
There are some good videos on the importance of hedgerow habitats at http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/habitats/hedge
To help to identify the plant species in our hedges and other habitats you might be exploring you can take a look at this website http://www.irishwildflowers.ie/ for some good photos.
For information about using forage foods that you find in the hedgerows go to www.veriditashibernica.org
For more facts about the species in hedgerows