With a little care, you can maintain the aesthetics of your hedge AND maximise its attractiveness to wildlife. The following tips are relevant to all hedges including
• To offer wildlife the maximum benefit, restrict your hedge trimming to an annual event – low maintenance gardeners won’t complain – and, ideally, carry out the task in late winter after the birds have taken all the berries – I use the term in its general sense. The earlier you cut, the less food will be available – berries are a vital winter food for many species including fieldfares, redwings and other thrushes.
Hedges can be an excellent food source for bees and butterflies looking for nectar and for birds in search of berries, so, for example, let your Privet flower and your Laurel produce its fruit
• The best hedge shape to maintain for wildlife is the classic ‘A’ – a broad base tapering to the top. This also permits water and light to reach the bottom. And resist excessive tidying up – an undergrowth of leaf litter, seed heads and other organic matter will attract and help sustain hedgehogs, birds, small mammals and insects
• You should also keep your hedge dense and thick. This can be easily achieved by cutting no less than 2 cm above the previous year’s growth
Many small birds (including finches, hedge sparrows, robins, thrushes and wrens)nest inside a hedge and require a network of closely interwoven branches. Over-trimmed hedges with an open structure will encourage wildlife that is less in need of a helping hand and more likely to threaten other wildlife and your garden. Of course, if you want your hedge to make your garden to be a haven for crows, magpies, pigeons and squirrels, then clip away.
Maintaining a hedge for wildlife does require a little planning and the occasional compromise. For example: to keep a hedge thick, it must be cut but if it is cut every year to maintain a constant shape and size, the growing tips become too woody to produce new growth, so reducing the production of flowers and, consequently, berries. Possible compromises therefore include, starting with the most drastic first:
1. Only clip every other year
2. Only cut a single side or the top every year
3. Cut every year, but keep a few centimetres of the new growth
4. Cut every year, but leave untouched any areas hidden from view
NB: 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.”