I’ve had a fascination with hedges for many years, and feel profound dismay at the sight and sound of the annual flailfest along the roads and lanes here in Sussex. I still have my “The History of the Countryside” by Oliver Rackham which was a course textbook for my Agriculture and the Environment degree at Wye College back in the 90’s. It’s one of those textbooks I looked forward to reading, and voluntarily read passages beyond that which I was asked to study as I found it so illuminating, and I think this is probably what sparked my interest in landscape use; medieval history is another subject I find deeply absorbing and being able to detect markers from this time period (and before) in the fields we walk is pretty mind-blowing.
It is too depressing to quote the stats on post-war hedgerow (and meadow, and woodland) loss, but what about the hedgerows we do still have clinging on? And what does this have to do with regenerative beekeeping?
It’s often a surprise to people to learn that honey bees are a woodland species. They nest in tree cavities, and are part of the fauna that utilise these valuable and wholly underrated voids alongside many species of birds and mammals. Honey bees also preferentially forage on tree flowers, so having hives on our land really focusses the mind on what we can provide for them. In turn, this benefits a vast number of other species, and this principle – in essence – is the concept of regenerative beekeeping.
I live in rural Sussex, and my house backs on to conventionally-farmed arable land with my apiary nearby. Consequently the hedges are cut regularly, giving that well-known profile of varying depth of congested top growth and bare trunks with all the pastoral charm and beauty of a breezeblock. They are far from achieving their potential, but nonetheless form an incredibly valuable haven for the birds, and I often see yellowhammers, dunnocks, robins, whitethroat, blackcap and stonechat singing from the odd twig poking out from the flat top. They are not stockproof so the deer, badgers, rabbits, foxes and pheasants use the ‘musits‘ to pass between the fields, and there is the ubiquitous and useless barbed wire trailing at mammalian eye/ear/antler height (ironic that it is so frequently pointless even though it is covered in well, points…).
Ned the Yellow Lab for scale.
Ok, so some hedgerow better than no hedgerow, and these form a boundary for a bridlepath and cropped fields so there is some justification for keeping them pushed back to the bare minimum.
Move a few hundred yards up to the rough pasture alongside the Cuckoo Trail, and we see some very different and wholly more positive examples:
This too was once clipped, which you can see if you peer under the marvellously messy canopy:
The hedge here is about 6-8m wide with long branches providing dense cover for tits and larger songbirds. These spindly twiggy ends are perfect for butterflies and moths to lay their eggs, as outlined in this file from Butterfly Conservation, and the blackthorn so favoured by hairstreaks flowers profusely making it one of the first proper pollen and nectar sources to come on stream for our bees. Aphids love new growth too, providing essential wet food for birds feeding their fledglings in spring. This land is topped once a year in late summer, and the rest of the time used by walkers, so the only grazing is by deer – of which there are many, both fallow and roe.
There is a lot of literature about pollinator seed mixes and their benefits, but allowing hedgerows to fulfil their potential could be an easy way to massively increase the food and habitat for honey bees without the soil disturbance and issues with residual chemical applications that come with planting short-lived flowers. Those with land that is not farmed or only grazed lightly often have hedges cut from convention and ‘looking tidy’ but as with all our inveterate fiddling, is this really necessary? Just a few stretches free from the constant cutting regime would allow nature to breath a bit.
Interestingly, this hedge has seeded along its edge, forming a tunnel between the older trees and saplings that have dropped from the parent and found a footing on the periphery:
This clearly demonstrates how woodland ‘walks’ across a landscape. Using these self-seeded saplings to plug gaps and create new hedgerows is far better than buying in from elsewhere, and also shows how in spite of deer and rabbits, no tree guards are necessary. In this brambly scrubby hedge, small oaks and hawthorn are growing up within the protection of the thorns, where you can also see mammal runs:
Bramble flowers are fantastic bee plants, and their thickets are unrivalled as safe nesting spots for birds. Many caterpillars feed on the leaves, and the tussocky grass provides cover for rodents, which in turn feeds the barn owls that hunt over this land. Mouse holes at the base of hedges are sought by bumblebees as nest sites, so a good mouse population can help both birds and bees.
Granted, this land is not being used for food production, but my bees would have no food if they were relying on the farmland to provide it. There is OSR every fourth year in among the wheat but that is 2 months in 4 years that there is any quantity of nectar available from an arable source, so thinking that rape provides anything other than a rare influx of food for bees (not discussing the quality/neonic/monoculture question just at the moment) is inherently wrong: honey bees need both nectar and pollen from February to November, every year. If farmers are wanting pollinators (wild and managed) to increase their seed crop production there needs to be long term, diverse forage on offer and hedgerows can provide this, if they are allowed to grow. Leaving a headland was a “thing” when I was at University on the grounds that nothing really grew there anyway so the costs of production on the field margin outweighed the benefits, and it generally gave room to manoeuvre and for access. It would be so worthwhile to let the hedges enjoy extra growth where at all possible, so perhaps around paddocks or sides not encroaching on paths or crops; as with the no mow policy, doing less would provide so much more.
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