The humble hedge is a place of safety for many birds, especially
in urban areas, as they may be the only suitable nesting places for birds – The RSPB
In the last 60 or 70 years, we have lost around half of our hedgerows; a man-made habitat that nonetheless supports up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies.
A hedgerow, by the way, is a “hedge used to separate a road from adjoining fields or one field from another, and of sufficient age to incorporate larger trees.”
So, to create a hedgerow, you first have to create a hedge and any hedge – privet, yew, beech etc. – will provide a welcome habitat for wildlife and a potential home for many bird species.
Even a formal, well-trimmed single-species hedge will offer local wildlife opportunities that a panelled fence can only dream of. Indeed, no songbird has ever been heard to declare its love for the smell of creosote in the morning.
But the potential benefits of a new garden hedge for local birdlife go further than the provision of a nesting site and autumn berries.
Any hedge is not just a plant but a micro-habitat, a mini eco-system that helps confirm a garden as part of the natural world rather than a barren extension of the urban – or man-made – landscape.
Plant a hedge and you can enjoy your patio or decking with a clear conscience.
Of course, if your aim is to create a true des. res. for birdlife and you are happy for your hedge to be more shrubby chic than geometrically trimmed Victorian perfection, you can go further.
So, in descending order, here’s a list of hedge regimes seen from an avian perspective:
- A mixed hedge that is allowed to flower and produce fruit/berries before being lightly trimmed
- A mixed hedge, left untrimmed between March 1st and August 31st – the bird nesting season
- A trimmed mixed hedge
- A single-species hedge, left untrimmed as 2. above
- A well-trimmed, single-species hedge
Regardless of the regime, letting a hedge’s undergrowth develop once the hedge itself is established is highly beneficial as it will encourage bugs and insects which, in turn, will serve as a living larder for the birds who move in a little higher up. It could also make a potential home for ground-nesting birds like the Willow Warbler and Yellow Hammer.
But the really important thing is to plant a hedge – and please don’t feel guilty (I speak as a keen ornithologist) if you then decide to adopt a formal approach to its maintenance. Any hedge that is appropriately planted is a good hedge.
Your reward will be to welcome a wider variety of bird species either as permanent residents or passing visitors looking for shelter, food or both. Of course, which species your hedge helps attract will depend on its constituent plants and their maturity; your location (not all bird species are found across the country) and on the immediate landscape – but your visitors may well include any of the following:
Blackbird: Will nest in most hedges but only if there is at least one nearby tall tree from whose top it can perch and sing
Blue Tit: Prefers to nest in tree holes and nest boxes
Bullfinch: Nests in taller hedges 4m+
Chaffinch: Nests in a tree or a bush close to the trunk or a firm branch
Common Chiffchaff: Nests in concealed, dense undergrowth and low vegetation
Coal Tit: Nests in a hole towards the base of a rotting tree-stump or in the ground
Dunnock: Nests in medium or tall hedges
Garden Warbler: Nests near the ground in dense vegetation. Despite its name, it rarely nests in gardens
Goldfinch: Nests in the outer twigs of tall leafy trees
Great Tit: Prefers to nest in a hole in a tree or a wall.
Greenfinch: Nests in evergreen or bushy plants
House Sparrow: Prefers to nest in tree cavities and under eaves
Lesser Whitethroat: Nests in medium/tall hedges
Linnet: Nests in 2-3m hedges
Long-tailed Tit: Builds a suspended nest low in gorse or bramble or high in the forks of tree branches
Robin: Nests in thick, mixed hedging
Song Thrush: Nests in bushes or trees
Whitethroat: Nests in 2-3m hedges
Wren: Ground-nesting in thick, mixed undergrowth
Yellow Hammer: Nests in 2-3m hedges
One final point – if birds do move in (with or without your encouragement), you have a legal obligation to keep them safe.
Every year, the RSPB reminds all hedge owners that “It is an offence under Section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built. It will be an intentional act, for example, if you or your neighbour knows there is an active nest in the hedge and still cut the hedge, damaging or destroying the nest in the process.”