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Hedgerows were once a common feature of farmlands in Europe, providing numerous benefits to the environment and farm production. They were valued as a source of food, medicine and crafting materials, as well as offering vital habitat and corridors for wildlife – ever wonder how a hedgehog got its name?

Traditional hedgerow in farmland in France

Traditional hedgerow in farmland in France

Hedgerows were first planted in Neolithic times, 4000-6000 years ago, to define fields and farm boundaries, and as living fences to control livestock. Some existing hedges in Europe date back to over 2000 years. The original hedgerows were often planted on raised earth mounds with trees and shrubs planted on the mound.

Early last century, with the mechanisation of agriculture, many of the ancient hedgerows in Europe were removed to increase the space available for cropping and enlarge fields for machinery and ‘efficiency’. There’s now a revival of interest in hedgerows in many parts of Europe, and by applying permaculture design approaches, hedgerows can be restored and redesigned into rural landscapes with all their traditional functions, yields and environmental benefits, plus more.

Permaculture approach to regenerating hedgerows

Sloe berries and a great diverse range of small fruits are found in traditional hedgerows

Sloe berries and a great diverse range of small fruits are found in traditional hedgerows

Mixed species hedgerows have a good vertical plant structure from ground covers to trees, providing niches and habitat at every level. Design your hedgerow as a diversity of evergreen and deciduous varieties of shrubs, trees, climbers, brambles and herbs to enhance biodiversity and yield a wide range of useful products and functions.

Pollard and coppice species can provide crafting materials, animal fodder, firewood and a plethora of other products. Coppicing and pollarding is usually done during winter before spring nesting begins, or for harvesting green animal forage during summer and autumn check for sign of nesting and pupae. It’s generally recommended to not cut too much in one season as valuable habitat can be removed, thus it’s recommended to cut a section each year in a 2-4 year rotation. Hedges provide special niches for specific wild flowers and herbs such as trefoils, nettles, violets and wild pansies, plantains, self-heal, campions, cleavers, yarrow, mallows, wild carrot, cow parsnip, comfrey and even some woodland herbs.

The benefits of hedgerow for wildlife include habitat, refuge, nesting and forage opportunities for small mammals, birds, insects, spiders, reptiles, pollinators, butterflies, moths, native bees and bumblebees. Ideally the hedgerow should have a good layer of sticks, deadwood and dead leaf matter on the ground for food and for species that nest and pupate in the ground , in detritus and the hollows of dead twigs and sticks.

Ancient hedgerow on Andy Darlington's permaculture farm in the Pyrennes, Sth France

Ancient hedgerow on Andy Darlington’s permaculture farm in the Pyrennes, Sth France

Hedgerows can be designed as living, productive fences. The nature of the design and species will depend largely on what the function of the fence will be. Is it a property boundary or keep animals in or out? Is it to support water management and microclimate enhancement? Hedgerows for livestock control will be need to be very closely planted and include thorny hedges and brambles at ground level.

Hedgerows can provide valuable forage for grazing animals, you can think of them as vertical pastures. Goats and cows are particularly fond of browsing on tree and shrub fodder, though do monitor the impact of goats

Hedgerows can be planted along the bunds (mounds) of contour swales. In cold climates the swales will also collect snowmelt as well as rainfall, which can infiltrate into the soil to recharge ground waters. A hedge and swale system can be designed to function as a Ha-ha or living fence to control livestock.

When hedgerows are planted within fields as alley cropping systems it’s critical to consider the needs of farm machinery to manoeuver and turn and space the hedgerows accordingly.

It’s important to give thought to the microclimate created by a hedgerow. Will it create a windbreak or will it tunnel the wind? Will it be a suntrap or create a cold lake in winter? Be particularly mindful of your aspect and the shade impacts of taller species, especially of evergreens in winter. Hedges on the sun side of a production system are best planted with predominantly deciduous species to permit maximum winter and early spring sun exposure. Regarding windbreak effectiveness, you need to consider prevailing wind directions, what time of year or season they occur and how the placement and plant selection of your windbreak will impact on solar gain and shading.

 

Elderberry (Sambucsus nigra) growing in a hedgerow - great for wine and jam making

Elderberry (Sambucsus nigra) growing in a hedgerow – great for wine and jam making

Selecting suitable species

Be sure to include lots of local native trees and shrubs in your hedgerow and avoid planting introduced species that have weed potential. It’s worth doing some research to find out what suitable plants will support threatened and endangered species (butterflies, beetles, moths, song birds, small mammals) in your area, and include plenty of habitat and food for them. Hedgerows are ideal for wild fruits, native plums, medlars, sloe, quinces, mulberry, pears, apples and seedling fruit trees rather than grafted cultivars. Observe what plants tend to grow on the forest edge in your area, as these are usually ideal candidates for hedgerows. Include lots of shrubby flowering plants and small fruits (berries), including thorny cane fruits like wild raspberry, blackberry and dog rose, and non-thorny woody climbers like the woodbine honeysuckle. In temperate climates hazel is a classic nut-bearing hedge plant.

Avoid planting trees that get too huge or will impact negatively on neighbouring cropping systems, such as large eucalyptus, walnuts, poplars, large conifers and bamboo.

 

Functions and yields of hedgerows can include:

FUNCTIONS:WindbreakSuntrap

Cold air trap

Living fence

Animal barrier

Animal forage

Wildlife habitat

Wildlife food

Wildlife corridor

Hibernation habitat

Pest predator habitat

Privacy screen

Snow collectors

Erosion control

Water management

Bee forage

Native bee habitat

YIELDS:Crafting materialsWeaving materials

Natural dyes

Herbal medicines

Herbal teas

Brewing herbs

Wine berries & fruits

Berries & Fruit (eating & conserves)

Cut Flowers

Edible flowers

Edible leaves

Fragrant plants

Culinary herbs

Kindling & fuel

Mulch materials

Animal food

 

 

Notes re Hedgerows in Australia

Riberry fruiting

Riberry fruiting

Hedgerows definitely have a place for creating microclimates, increasing biodiversity and enhancing ecosystem services on Australian farms. Most of the above notes still apply, however some of the classic European species noted may be problematic weeds in some Australian environments, so please check for local suitability and choose non-native plants with care. There are so many wonderful native trees and shrubs suitable for hedgerows, including native bushfoods such as LillyPillies, and smaller shrubby species of Callistemon, Melalueca and Grevillia. Research your local bird and wildlife habitat plants. Plant selection will also be influenced by where a hedgerow is planted and neighbouring production and landuse systems.

In broadacre grazing/pasture cropping systems, hedgerows can be planted along swales and permanent fence lines, as hedges in alley cropping systems and grazing systems can benefit from forage hedgerows of leguminous and high value fodder trees and shrubs.

In a fire-prone landscape, it is critical to select fire retarding species and avoid plants with a high oil content that could fuel a bushfire.

 

Robyn Francis is a leading international permaculture teacher and consultant, with experience in over 14 countries and all major climate zones from cold temperate to tropical, including in Europe, USA, Central & South America, Australasia, India, China and South East Asia.