Hedges for (Wild) Life

A Plea for Less Tidy Hedgerows


I was recently lucky to visit Robert Crocker on his farm near Witney, Oxford and to see his good work on caring for the natural environment and in particular the way he manages his hedgerows.

The modern hedge trimming flail has let us maintain a very well kept hedgerow and to do it very quickly, but have we gone too far? Perhaps our hedges are now a bit too tidy?

Robert Crocker certainly thinks so and has a mission, together with his brother in North Cornwall. His wish is to create a continuous line of hedgerows managed for wildlife, to connect up their two farms. This will become a super-highway for animals and plants to move between west Oxfordshire and north Cornwall. Robert is realistic it will not happen overnight but he hopes to do it bit by bit, and neighbour by neighbour, as each sees the advantages of what is happening next door.

Robert Crocker inspecting hedges

Flailing a hedge removes last year’s growth so reducing next year’s blossom and no blossom means no pollen and nectar, no insect feed and no berries for winter bird feed. Robert’s approach to hedge management has come from his own observations; as hedgerows reach maturity their growth rate slows in favour of fruit production. He points out that farmers can do less work rather than more, saving both time and money. Not all hedge species are as suitable for this type of management as they grow too quickly. Robert tackles such species as ash, sycamore and willow with a chainsaw every 8 to10 years which provides him with a ready supply of firewood.

Robert is being realistic and only asking farmers to manage 10% of their hedges in this way, with the reasoning being if you think back to the 1950’s hedges would have been in a cycle of relaying – with 10% not being cut in any one year but being allowed to grow up ready for laying again. There are approximately 250,000 miles of hedgerows across England (2007 survey) – so 10% of this will be 25,000 miles of more fruit, flowers, nectar and blossom.

dog walk along a hedgerow