Wild Wanstead part IV

Hedgerows are vitalHedgerows are vital

In the fourth of a series of articles charting the Wild Wanstead project – which aims to transform Wanstead into a multi-garden nature reserve – Nicola Steele explains how hedges are Britain's unsung garden heroes, helping protect both wildlife and Londoners.

Last year, research highlighted the benefits of hedging in protecting urban residents from air pollution, as well as being fantastic for wildlife. With box blight having a devastating effect in many Wanstead gardens – and Redbridge one of the worst places in the country for air quality – maybe now is a good time to rethink the use of hedge plants in our gardens. They're far cheaper than walls and fences, and thorny species like berberis, hawthorn, holly and mahonia deter burglars.

Britain has lost many of its hedgerows. Since World War Two, hedgerows have been removed at a much faster rate than they've been planted, and in some parts of the country, 50% have now gone. Although hedges are being replanted and old techniques, such as hedge-laying, are being revived, many agricultural practices eradicate wildlife. Therefore, urban habitats like Wanstead gardens provide important wildlife resources.

Hedges support up to 80% of woodland birds and 30% of our butterflies. Bird species common in our gardens, such as blue tit, blackbird and robin, prefer tall hedges, which also provide a linear route for foraging bats. Nighttime invertebrates also benefit; they love white or cream flowers, so hawthorn and viburnum are perfect.

When planting a hedge, choose a species mix that provides year-round interest with berries and seeds or evergreen species, for example:

  • Dog rose: sweet-scented, pink-white blooms and red hips in the autumn
  • Holly: slow-growing, creating an impenetrable evergreen hedge, even in deep shade
  • Yew: birds and small mammals love the berries and use the hedges as a habitat
  • Hawthorn: attractive blossom and red berries
  • Guelder rose: lovely flowers, bright red berries and autumn colour – popular with birds
  • Wild privet: helps butterflies and moth caterpillars, attracting insects and birds

The cheapest way to create a native hedge is from whips. They are bare root saplings, usually a year old, and can be bought in bundles or single plants from November to February. They will be dormant, so don't be put off if they look like sticks; they will burst into leaf in the spring.

A double-staggered row will create a thicker hedge. Help the plants develop quicker by using tree guards, which create a micro-climate, promoting growth.

Whilst the hedge is developing, mulching the base will reduce competition and promote development. Once established, leave the hedge base to grow grass or plant some wildflowers to provide ground habitat.

Native species will quickly form a dense barrier that tolerates pruning. Periodically cutting it back hard will encourage it to thicken up. Avoid cutting during the bird nesting season (March to August) – it is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while in use or being built.

The London Wildlife Trust has produced a guide on how to plant a native hedge – visit wavidi.co/hedges. Mixed hedging packs are available from suppliers like Habitat Aid, Wriggly Wigglers and Crocus.

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Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 early deaths annually in Britain and is worse in London than elsewhere in the UK. A Surrey University study published last year found that hedges (especially evergreen ones) reduce the impact of pollution from vehicles. Researchers concluded that hedges act as a barrier, slowing down airflow from car exhausts, catching pollutants on leaves and offering protection for homes.

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For more information on the Wild Wanstead project, including 10 'wild ways' to make your garden more welcoming to wildlife, visit wildwanstead.org


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