Given Ireland's low level of broadleaf forestry cover, a paltry 2% of our land area, our native often ancient
hedgerows are a vital source of habitat for our threatened wildlife.
We are fortunate in Ireland in that we still have a large amount of old native hedgerow intact. Though as the agricultural sector is put under more and more pressure to increase output, often at reduced prices for their produce, farmers often now are removing these vital habitats at an alarming rate to use the land to increase yields. Replacing these old beautiful species rich ancient hedgerows with strip wire fencing to segregate fields and livestock.
Additional to providing a vital habitat for our beleaguered under threat wildlife. Hedgerows provide many often overlooked additional benefits, in the form of
Vital wildlife habitat
Shelter, in the form of an effective windbreak
Wildlife corridors, linking different areas of wildlife habitat.
A scenic amenity.
Managing hedgerows to optimize them for wildlife is an essential practice.
One might say leave them, let them grow and evolve as nature intended. Though in our altered landscape in reality in the near absence of natural scrub land and broadleaf forest cover, this managed hedgerow habitat is of even more importance , To leave it and let it grow without management over time would result in it deteriorating from an optimum wildlife habitat perspective,.
We would end up with top heavy growth and full of gaps at the light starved base. Whilst with some management such as "layering" we can achieve a dense flowering and fruiting hedge, providing an excellent habitat for all sorts of nesting birds mammals and invertebrates.
Another beneficial action to take in managing a hedgerow for wildlife, is allowing some trees to grow to their full height at well spaced intervals. Species such as Crabapple Malus sylvestris, Ash Fraxinus excellsior (though Ash die back disease continues to be a major problem) Oak Quercus robur or perhaps our native Cherries Prunus padus and Prunus avium.
Over time these full height trees within the hedgerow will provide additional habitat and nesting opportunities for all manner of additional animals. For example birds that prefer to nest higher in trees to the myriad of animals and plants that would live in the fissured bark and crevices, from bats to lichens and much more.
Hedgerow plant species.
Hedgerows can be stunning to look at, as the flowering trees and shrubs start the show in late winter and early spring.
The first show stopper is the Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa which carpets itself in a dusting of small pristine white flowers from early march before even its leaves have even appeared. A vital first source of pollen and nectar for pollinators emerging from hibernation. It follows in autumn with a profusion of purple little plums known as sloes, another food source for our birds and mammals and a fruit that can be used to make a fantastic fruity sloe gin liqueur!.
Then follows the Willow, Salix sp. which explodes into flower next in late march. It interestingly has separate male and female forms, the male tree covering itself in pollen laden yellow catkins and the female in nectar rich lime green catkins.
Then comes in late April and into May our stunning Whitethorn Cratageus monogyna which is covered in flowers that can range from white to white infused with pink. Following on later in Autumn with branches laden down with scarlet red berries, haws, a feast for our native birds and slightly later, our visiting migrants escaping the colder winters from more northern countries.
There are many other stunning displays from the Elder bush Sambuca nigra with its umbelliferous heady scented creamy white flowers, followed by mop heads of purple berries to our Holly with its insect covered nondescript flowers in spring and scarlet bunches of berries that follow later.
Then we have such wonders as our Hazel tree with its yellow catkins cascading down, showing sometimes as early as February. A wonderful sign that spring is coming, and then later in the year following up with a wonderful crop of hazlenuts,.
And we have much the much maligned Ivy, a hugely important wildlife plant, which quite uniquely flowers in late September and into October, when most other plants are slipping into their winter dormancy. This provides a vital, late profuse source of nectar and pollen for our pollinators to stock up on before the winter kicks in. It then follows up with clusters of olive green/black berries which many birds rely on as a late winter food source once most of the other berries have been stripped from their branches.
There are so many more wonderfull hedgerow plants,. what about our gorgeous native Crabapple Malus sylvestris with its delicate pinkish spring blossom and small tart crabapples. Or our two native Cherries, Prunus padus and Prunus avium, again with their wonderful spring blossom so important to pollinators and their delicious cherries that follow., Gotta be quick to get to try these these though as the birds snaffle them in no time at all !.
Or our native wild pear, Pyrus communis again with wonderful spring blossom and little gnarled pears that follow later. Or our Spindle bush, Euonymous europaeus, which gets its name from the fact its hard timber was used in the making of spindle wheels for spinning fabrics. With its tiny green flowers in spring and its stunning autumn display of orange berries that crack open on the plant to reveal a gorgeous pink inner coated seed and then follows up with a fiery display of red leaves as they prepare to drop.
Or what about our Gorse Ulex europaeus, with its coconut scented yellow/orange blossom that appears at different times throughout the year, but reaches a wonderful crescendo in April and May and follows up with little black seed heads that pop like popcorn in the sun dispersing their seed.
Or our lovely Guelder rose, Viburnum opulus with its beautiful spring blossom and autumnal scarlet berries. What about our scrambling Honeysuckle with its often tropical looking unusual flowers differing in color from orange to pink or cream, that open at night and are sweetly perfumed to attract moths to be pollinated, and which then follows up in autumn with its gorgeous semi transparent red berries.
And how could we forget our incredible Blackberry, with flowers ranging from white to pink.
Flowering in succession from mid July right through August and following up with branches laden with tasty, antioxidant packed blackberries, And thorns not to be taken lightly as we can all testify to battling with at some stage !. Though it is another hugely important wildlife plant often cursed with names with seemingly negative connotations such as "Briars" and "Brambles" and often seen as a nuisance to be cleared and torn out. Interestingly it has many subspecies growing side by side in our hedgerows and ditches, hence the differing flower color and fact that it flowers and fruits not alll at once, but in succession over a number of weeks Another hugely beneficial trait in providing a great source of pollen and nectar, and later fruit for our wildlife that depend on it..
Planting native hedgerows and trees, as opposed to non native, is so much more beneficial to our wildlife.. Animals over millennia have evolved, adapting their breeding patterns to coincide with the flowering and fruiting times of our native plants. An example of this would be our Solitary Bees emerging in Spring, just as the Willow and Dandelion come into flower. So it is highly recommended when planting a new hedgerow to plant blocks of our native trees and shrubs as listed below, ideally a mixture to provide a broad spectrum of flowers and fruit in the form of berries and nuts. Such a mixed native hedgerow will also look fantastic and be an endless source of wonder and beauty as if progresses throughout the seasons flowering, fruiting and as it matures, bursting with joyous birdsong and endlessly fascinating !.
The following is a list of native hedgerow plants and trees, click on each to see a photo.
Hazel Corylus avellana
Wayfaring Tree Viburnum lantana (Non Native but beneficial to Wildlife)
Wild Pear Pyrus communis
Wild Cherry Prunus avium
To manage the existing hedgerows on our nature reserve as an optimum habitat for wildlife.
To plant new native species hedgerow with an array of native flowering fruiting trees/shrubs to provide food and nesting opportunities for our wildlife.
To plant and maintain at the herbaceous layer at the base of these hedgerows an array of native wildflowers.