Hedgerow Management. Annual flailing and wildlife

I woke up at the crack of dawn this morning. As I lay there in the graying morning light, the sound of a tractor and hedge flail crept into my consciousness. My heart sank. I hate the annual flailing of the hedgerows that occurs locally to me, and not only because of the punctures I will be mending on my bike wheels.

Hedgerows for wildlife….and farmers.

I expect people are familiar with the wildlife value of hedgerows. They are important for everything from fungi and plants to invertebrates, birds and mammals. They connect habitats (wildlife corridor), provide shelter, food sources, nest sites and more.

They are also useful to farmers, providing shelter to animals, increasing dietary variety by providing browsing opportunities and could even help prevent the spread of disease. Farming activities benefit from the increased biodiversity that a well maintained hedge can bring (“ecosystem services”)

All hedges are not the same.

But not all hedges are of equal value. I have lived and worked in the countryside for over 15 years. Whilst building my own knowledge and connection with the countryside around me, I have become increasingly aware that many of us have lost a true understanding of what we are seeing. It’s easy to look around, see green hedges and think all is fine. It is not.

Just as there is a world of difference between the wildlife value of a species rich hay meadow and a (green, lush) high intensity silage pasture, management can drastically alter the wildlife value of the hedgerow. Annual flailing of hedges is an especially destructive part of modern hedgerow management.

Over-management of hedgerows is one of the biggest problems facing species that live in this habitat type. The practice of annual cutting using a mechanical flail creates a uniform and species-poor hedgerow that is of little value to wildlife.


Why is annual flailing an issue?

Whilst it looks “tidy”, annual flailing creates a hedge with a fairly open structure. Have a closer look at one next time you are out for a walk. At this time of year it is easy to see that the hedges are not nearly so dense as they appear when in full leaf. This open structure decreases the opportunities for, say, hibernating hedgehogs or nesting birds.

Another issue is the removal of food sources. Many hedgerow plants flower on two year old wood. If hedgerows are cut annually, there is a lack of branches of the correct age to flower. Think about it – have you ever noticed many trees flowering in a flailed hedge? And yet blackthorn is often a major component of such hedges, which should be providing an valuable nectar source for our native pollinators in the spring. And if there are no flowers, there will be no fruit to feed birds and mammals in the autumn

Annual flailing can disrupt the entire lifecycle of some species. Brown Hairstreak butterflies lay their eggs on 1-2 year old branches of blackthorn. The eggs overwinter and hatch out the following spring. Annual flailing removes potential egg laying habitat and destroys any overwintering eggs. Brown Hairstreak butterflies are one of the target species in Carmarthenshire County Council’s Biodiversity Action plan. The detailed action plan for butterflies states that:

Carmarthenshire has roughly 60% of the recently (since 1995) recorded sites in
Wales. Its known range runs roughly north of the line of the main A40 road, with a handful of sites marginally to the south, mostly in Tywi valley. The best-known concentrations are in the Tywi and Teifi valleys and their tributaries.

The principal factor thought to be affecting the species is the annual flailing
of hedges and trimming of young and sucker growth inside field boundaries,
changes in woodland management, including loss of woodland edge habitat.
The Tywi valley population has diminished significantly – likely due to
loss of egg laying habitat because of hedge flailing.

Butterfly Conservation volunteers have undertaken annual egg surveys for more
than 10 years and work with landowners on management of sites for this butterfly.

I have memories of a successful project that was run in our local area. Brown Hairstreak butterfly numbers were increased by working with local landowners to change management of blackthorn. On searching, I couldn’t find any references to it. If you know anything about it, please do get in touch.

I have highlighted some of the issues associated with annual flailing. There are many others, including worries about the longevity of flailed hedges and the lack of promotion of new hedgerow trees to become the full grown trees of the future.

Managing Hedgerows for biodiversity by flailing less

An especially frustrating aspect is that it is well known that annual flailing is a problem. Wildlife charities, NGOs and Government bodies such as DEFRA and local councils have produced a wealth of advice on good hedgerow management, including recommendations such as flailing a hedge no more then once every two to three years, except where access is an issue and rotating flailing such that not all of the hedges on a farm are trimmed in any one year.

Proper management of hedgerows to ensure their longevity and enhance their wildlife value is a complex issue, of which if and when to flail is just a part. Hedgelink have a very useful 10 Top Hedgerow Management Tips on their website and a useful leaflet about hedgecutting.

We have an ongoing program of hedge laying here at the Trust. While traditional management by laying is great for the wildlife value of a hedge, it is time consuming, and therefore expensive in terms of labor and may not attract a busy farmer.

I am becoming increasingly aware that carrying out “best practice” on the smallholding where I live has limited value if the surrounding countryside is seriously degraded. The 20 odd acres of the Trust just isn’t large enough to provide a refuge for wildlife on it’s own. We need to encourage good practice from our neighbors in what ever way they can manage, create links between habitats and trying to recreate an interconnected countryside for our wildlife.

We need to be aware that there are many different solutions and we need to use the most appropriate one in each circumstance. I am not, at the moment, advocating abandoning the flail altogether.

What can we do?

I don’t know all the answers, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Here are some suggestions to be going on with.

Get educated. Learn about the flora and fauna around where you live, what is there and what SHOULD be there. A surprisingly large number of people can’t name common wild flowers. If we don’t know about our wildlife it is easy to miss the decline. In my experience, learning about the natural world gives a great deal of pleasure and a greater motivation to halt the decline.

Walk the talk. If you manage land yourself, do some research into best practice hedgerow management. If your land is out on tack, talk to the people managing your land about hedgerow management

Raise awareness. Do you know the people who own land / farm in your area? Would you be willing to open conversations with them about how they manage their hedgerows?

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