Go native and plant the ultimate wildlife hotel! Winter is the perfect time for hedge planting, and if you seriously want to put conservation into action, planting a native hedge is an easy and effective way to help some of our most threatened UK species.
For most of us, large trees and woodland patches are beyond the scope of our modestly sized gardens, but native hedges function as mini woodlands which are absolutely teeming with wildlife. Supporting up to 80 per cent of our woodland birds, 50 per cent of our mammals and 30 per cent of our butterflies, the benefits of hedgerows to wildlife are indisputable. However, in some parts of the UK, up to 50% of hedgerows have disappeared. This is where gardeners can step in and make a real difference.
So, get planting your Hedgerow Hotel! Here is an introduction to just some of the wonderful guests who will be eagerly waiting to check in.
Hedgehogs are suffering catastrophic declines in their population, numbers plummeting by around 50% just since the turn of the century. The highest numbers of hedgehogs are found in suburban areas where badgers are scarce, and this means that gardeners have a vital role to play in helping save this unique and much-loved animal.
Don’t fence me in!
Hedgehogs may look small and cute, but their nights are spent on strenuous long distance runs of 1-2km every night! Incredibly, each individual will cover a territory of 10-20 hectares. They need to be able to move about freely, but enclosed gardens surrounded by impenetrable walls and fencing carve up their habitats and leave them dangerously isolated. Native hedging composed of species such as beech, field maple and hazel provides essential wildlife corridors for hedgehogs, linking habitats whilst providing shelter and food. The leaf litter from these deciduous trees accumulates at the bottom of the hedge, providing a warm and cosy bed. Meanwhile, the hedge supplies a bountiful larder of juicy earthworms and ground beetles to fatten them up for the winter. Protected by thorny species such as blackthorn, hawthorn and holly, hedgehogs can safely hole up and hibernate.
Hedgehogs are the ultimate gardener’s friend. Help them out by planting a hedge and enjoy the magical sight and sounds of Tiggywinkles snaffling up enemy slugs, caterpillars and earwigs.
Other small mammals such as mice and voles will also hide out in your hedge. Not to be confused with the unwelcome house mouse, the field mouse or wood mouse commonly lives in gardens although, as they sleep in burrows during the day, they can be hard to spot. Keep your eyes peeled in the evenings when they venture out to forage for food and you might catch one making a lightening dash from underneath your hedge. As well as gobbling up snails, insects and fungi, wood mice will collect berries and tree seeds from hedges. Hazel nuts, sweet chesnuts, beech mast, hawthorn berries and cherry stones from wild cherry will keep their winter larders in underground burrows and old birds’ nests well stocked with food supplies.
In urban and suburban areas with little woodland, birds rely on hedges. Many of the species most commonly associated with gardens such as blue tit, great tit, dunnocks and chaffinches were originally deciduous woodland birds.
Hedges provide excellent opportunities for roosting and nesting. By incorporating evergreen species such as holly and ivy you will create additional cover. At the bottom of the hedge, wrens, robins, dunnocks and whitethroats will build their nests. Whilst song thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches and greenfinches will nest higher up. To avoid disturbing breeding birds, do make sure you avoid cutting your hedges from March to August.
Hedges also offer protection from predators such as sparrowhawks and of course, the domestic cat. Meanwhile, Robins and blackbirds will exploit hedge tops as conspicuous but safe song posts to show off their musical repertoire.
Hedges are also living larders, supplying an abundance of seeds, nuts and berries for hungry birds with each species having its own preferred food. Blackbirds favour the haw fruits of hawthorn, but are unfussy in their tastes, enjoying rosehips, sloes, dogwood, buckthorn, elder, yew and holly. Redwings and Fieldfares will feast off holly berries, whilst the larger mistle thrush will happily tackle the bigger blackthorn sloes. Many native hedging plants also produce seeds and nuts which birds enjoy, including alder, beech, hazel, hornbeam and silver birch.
Think you don’t have bats in your garden? Look again. A number of bat species frequent gardens, the most common being the Common Pipistrelle and the Soprano Pipistrelle. Turn your lights off at dusk, look outside and you may catch one flitting by.
Hedges are vital to bats. They use them as navigation features to orientate themselves in the landscape and prefer to move about along these ‘commuter routes’ rather than open areas. Hedges will provide them with roosting sites and plenty of food in the form of moths and other insects.
Butterflies & Moths
When you are thinking about attracting butterflies to your garden, hedges may not immediately spring to mind. But our native hedgerows supply important larval food plants for butterflies and moths, as well as nectar-rich flowers and vital shelter from the elements.
In summer my holly hedges are swarming with holly blue butterflies, whose inconspicuous green caterpillars feed on them along with other hedgerow species such as Spindle.
In spring, the caterpillars of the rare Black and Brown Hairstreak butterflies emerge from eggs laid on the leaves of blackthorn and wild cherry and begin feeding on them. Blackthorn is also an important food plant for many moth caterpillars, such as the beautiful Magpie and the ghostly Swallow-Tailed Moth.
I frequently catch the spectacular pink and green Elephant Hawkmoth in my garden moth traps. Encourage them by planting some honeysuckle to ramble through your hedge as they feed on its nectar-rich flowers. Watch the adults flying at dusk, and in the day keep an eye out for their crazy looking caterpillars which sport huge eyespots to scare off predators.
Bumblebees & Beneficial insects
Compared to individual garden flowers, a hedge provides a surprisingly large volume of pollen and nectar for foraging insects. By selecting a variety of species which flower at different times of the year, you can ensure that there’s food for bees all year round as well as blossom for you to enjoy. Moreover, different flowers will attract different pollinators, so the more variety the greater the diversity of insects your hedge will support.
Early spring is a crucial time for hungry bees. We often fail to notice the inconspicuous flowers of native hedgerow tree species such as willow, hazel and field maple, but these flowers produce an abundance of early pollen and nectar. Hedges come alive in the spring, first with blackthorn blossom and then the creamy white scented flowers of hawthorn, wild cherry and crab apple. In late spring and early summer our native Viburnums, the wayfaring tree and the guelder rose, begin blooming. In early to midsummer, come the strongly scented flowers of elderberry and the wild dog rose. Adding ivy to your hedge provides nectar sources in the autumn when few other sources are available and for this reason a clump of ivy will hum with hoverflies, bees and other insects when in full flower. These late sources of food will fatten up new bumble queens so they are in tip top condition for hibernation.
As well as sources of food, hedges also provide homes for insects. Bumblebees nest and hibernate in the bases of hedges where they are protected from predators and the weather whilst remaining close to food. The cover provided by hedges will also provide plentiful nesting sites for spiders and other insects.
Selecting native hedge species
Traditionally, hedgerows contained predominantly hawthorn and blackthorn, with about 60-70% of the hedge being composed of these thorny species which quickly provided a dense hedge and a prickly barrier to livestock. If you are using hawthorn or blackthorn, bear in mind that these are very vigorous and plant your other chosen varieties in groups of two or three so that they aren’t outcompeted by them.
However, you can compose your native hedge mix with whatever native species you wish. Our Native Hedging Collection includes 5 species which will provide varied interest. Alternatively make your own selection from the list below. Aim for a range of woody species and to maximise wildlife value, include some rambling plants such as wild rose, honeysuckle and ivy.
Of course, there is no law which says you have to use native species. Although our wildlife has evolved a unique relationship with native trees and shrubs, there are also non-native hedging plants which provide wildlife value. For a full list, consult our Native & Wildlife Hedging page.
Flowers and Fruit
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Sweet Briar (Rosa rubiginosa)
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba)
Maintaining your hedge for maximum wildlife value
Maintaining a hedge may seem like more hassle than putting up a fence but think again! Fencing requires painting, goes rotten and is frequently toppled by storms. Whereas a well-maintained hedge lasts a life time.
Bushy is Best
To grow a good-looking dense hedge which will also harbour plenty of wildlife, you need to encourage lots of side shoots from the outset. Hawthorn and Blackthorn are especially vigorous, so on planting be brave and cut them back to about a foot (30cm). Lightly prune other deciduous species but leave evergreens like holly alone.
Ongoing pruning regime
How often and when you prune your hedge will depend on how big you can allow it to get and how tidy a hedge you prefer. However, the more regularly you prune and the smaller your hedge, the less value it has for wildlife. Therefore, try to affect a compromise which suits your situation whilst maximising wildlife value. Above all, avoid pruning between March and August when birds are nesting.
Smaller, tighter hedge
Regular pruning in the early autumn will keep your hedge in check. Native hedge species are vigorous and pruning at this time helps to restrict vegetative growth. However, autumn pruning will inevitably remove some berries, seeds and insects over the winter when birds and mammals need them most.
Larger, less tidy hedge
Leaving your regular pruning until Jan or February allows wildlife to feast on insects and fruits during the winter months. However, winter pruning encourages the growth of vigorous new shoots which will leave your hedge looking more straggly for the rest of the year.
Most flowers and fruit are produced on 2–3-year-old wood and so annual pruning will reduce the amount of food available to wildlife. To ensure plenty of spring flowers for pollinating insects and autumn/winter berries for birds, then adopt a rotational system. Instead of cutting it every year try trimming it every other year or cut alternate sides. As well as encouraging wildlife, it will also save you time and effort.
Go wild about hedges!
Whilst planting a legacy woodland is beyond the scope of most gardens, planting a hedge is also leaving a lasting legacy. Over time, a hedge will develop a complex ecological web, supporting a diverse community of animals all the way up the food chain, from the humble bumblebee to the much-loved hedgehog.
So, if you are thinking of planting a hedge this winter, don’t hedge about! Go wild and plant some native tree species. Not only will wildlife enjoy it, but you will enjoy the wildlife too.
Find hedge-growing help and planting guides at our tree and hedge hub page.
Annelise Brilli is the Horticultural Copywriter for Thompson and Morgan. Annelise caught the gardening bug from her mother, whose tiny backyard was crammed with a huge collection of plants. As an adult, she had a career change into horticulture, gaining a training apprenticeship with the National Trust at Powis Castle Garden in Welshpool. She went on to work in a range of private and public gardens, later running a garden design and maintenance business. She is passionate about sustainable gardening and has developed her own wildlife-friendly garden which she has opened as part of Macmillan Coastal Garden Trail.