Hedgerow Planting & Management

Learn how to plant a hedgerow and manage it through laying, coppicing, or cutting.

IMPORTANT: Restrictions on Cutting Hedgerows 

It is an offence to destroy vegetation on uncultivated land between the 1st of March and the 31st of August each year. This is stipulated in Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 as amended by the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 and the Heritage Act 2018. You can read more on the NPWS website

Although it is legal to cut hedgerows outside of this time period, the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland recommends that you wait till later in the Winter season as hedgerows are a vital source of berries for birds and other animals in autumn.

Planting a Hedgerow

It is essential that you purchase native trees of Irish provenance (grown from seed collected in Ireland, ideally local to your area). The Tree Council describe all 28 native Irish tree species on their website, click here to read more.

Plant bare-root stock (whips) from October-March in a double staggered row with 30-40cm in between rows, larger trees should be planted 10-15 metres apart. Click here for a step-by-step overview of hedge planting. Planting early, before January, will allow the plant roots to develop before spring. However, in clay soils, it is best to avoid waterlogged periods (this causes root rot) and wait till after frost periods to avoid frost heave (this causes root exposure).

Recommended species list: 

  • Whitethorn/hawthorn: pollinator-friendly, blossoming May-June
  • Blackthorn: pollinator-friendly, blossoming March-April
  • Hazel
  • Holly
  • Guelder rose: pollinator-friendly, blossoming May-July
  • Crab apple: pollinator-friendly, blossoming April-May
  • Alder buckthorn
  • Spindle: pollinator-friendly, blossoming May-June
  • Rowan: pollinator-friendly, blossoming April-May
  • Bird cherry: pollinator-friendly, blossoming April-May 
  • Wild cherry: pollinator-friendly, blossoming April-May
  • Downy birch
  • Oak
  • Willow: pollinator-friendly, blossoming March-April
  • Whitebeam: pollinator-friendly, blossoming May-June

You don’t need to plant each of the species above. Rather, look at what is already growing in your area and pick a similar species mix. Hawthorn, blackthorn, and hazel will usually comprise roughly 60% of the species mix. The remaining plants should be intermixed randomly between these core plants. There are many more tips included in a Hedge Link guidance document, you can read it by clicking here.

After planting, the whips should be pruned to within an inch (30mm) or so of the ground level after planting, the following year cut about 30mm above the first cut, and on the 3rd year, 30mm above the second cut. This maintains the growth at ground level to produce a denser base and allow the hedge to slowly grow up. This practice was tested by Kildalton College, you can read more by clicking here. Incremental height increase is a key element of hedgerow management.

Retailers & Nurseries:

The retailers and nurseries listed below stock native trees of Irish provenance, but not all their stock falls under this category. We recommend contacting them to see what Irish provenance stock is available this season as it tends to fluctuate frequently. We are not affiliated with any of the retailers or nurseries listed below.

  • None So Hardy Nursery
  • Wild Oaks Nursery
  • Kearneys Nursery
  • Celt
  • Future Forests
  • Cappagh Nurseries
  • Fermoy Woodland Nursery
  • Irish Tree Centre 

Hedge Laying

What is it?

Hedges are largely human-made features of the countryside, with much of Ireland’s network established over the last 100 years. Many of the stems are at the end of their natural life span and since most hedgerow species (especially whitethorn) don’t reproduce well in the shade many of our hedgerows are dying out. Also, a lot of hedges no longer fulfill their basic function as barriers to stock having become gappy or bare at the base.

Hedge laying rejuvenates the hedge by taking advantage of the broadleaf tree species’ ability to re-grow after being cut back. Hedge laying is the art of cutting hedgerow stems partly through near ground level so that they will bend without breaking and will continue to grow in the shape of a stock-proof barrier. New growth comes from the cut stump rejuvenating the hedge and thickening up the base.  If carried out regularly (approx. every 20-30 years), this process can extend the life span of most hedgerow species almost indefinitely.

The technique of hedge laying was widespread in Ireland in the middle of the 20th century but the practice has largely died out. The revival of interest in hedgerows through agri-environmental schemes has resulted in a resurgence in this valuable traditional country craft. The benefit of hedge laying is that it retains a nesting and foraging habitat for wildlife, whereas coppicing or cutting suspends these habitats until re-growth occurs. The cost of professional hedge laying is also shared over the years as the hedge is sequentially laid in small sections. Hedge laying grants are available to farmers through the ACRES scheme. Please reach out to our accredited hedge layers directory for further information and advice. 

Hedge laying is a system that should be part of the annual (winter) work on the farm. E.g. If you have 1000m of hedge suitable for laying, then every winter you should lay or get laid 50m to 100m and after 10-15 years the length is completed and you start again at the beginning. This perpetual management process protects habitats and ensures resources are available for wildlife while also producing a predictable amount of firewood either for sale or domestic use.

It is the systematic nature of the process that ensures the both health of the hedge and that the work is not arduous, never working on stems more than 15 years old. It also maintains the skill itself as it is learned over time and handed on by the hedge managers.

How to lay a hedge.

The following steps were featured in Teagasc’s piece on hedge laying with one of our Directors, Eoin Donnelly. You can read the full piece by clicking here

  1. Stems (pleachers) are cut at the base, 70-80% of the way through, keeping the cuts as low as possible to the ground.
  2. Stems (pleachers) are laid at an angle of 45 degrees running up the slope, producing a hedge approximately 1.2m in height.  Always lay a hedge uphill if the ground slopes to get better transpiration of moisture so the sap rises and the hedge remains living. Stems (pleachers) are left attached to the cut stump by a long living hinge and woven into each other.

Here are some of Eoin’s top tips:

  • When laying, try to keep the angle even. This is not always possible because the stems (pleachers) are multiple shapes. As stems are woven in, you have to work out the shape as you lay the hedge down. Each piece has got to fit into the piece below. So when looking at a standing stem you’ve got to work out the shape and where it’s going to fall into the hedge. It’s all got to knit together.
  • When you lay it down sometimes you get pieces that stick up. You can make cuts on the stems higher up to flex the hedge into the shape you want. These also act as points from which the hedge grows. Those cuts will send up shoots, thickening the hedge at the same time.
  • Don’t lay the hedge directly down on the line of the cut base. Roll the hedge back slightly from the ground cuts. This is to allow light to get into the hedge and for the hedge to rejuvenate and re-shoot up along the cut face. If the hedge is too far forward on top of the cuts, shading suppresses new growth. Exposure of the cuts to sunlight maximises regeneration.
  • The hinges are fairly strong but if they get enough wind or enough movement, they will start to tear. You don’t want it rocking around, so especially on a windy site, in order to hold the laid hedge in place, a gawlog or hooked pin cut from the hedge can be used. It hooks over a stem in the hedge and is hammered down to pin the hedge in place. Alternatively, stakes can be used every half metre woven in with hazel rods (binders) to hold in place. Don’t tie stems down with bailer twine because it doesn’t rot down and it will strangle the stems, resulting in losses.  
  • It is good practice to leave some mature trees or straight stems (pleachers) uncut within the hedge. The structure of the laid hedge is ideal for nesting thrushes, blackbirds, and robins. Preferably smaller trees like whitethorn or cherry because large broadleaved trees such as beech oak and sycamore cause shading.

Coppicing

What is it? 

Similarly to hedge laying, coppicing involves cutting a tree to stimulate re-growth. However, while hedge laying retains the stem’s connection to the cut stump, in coppicing the entire stem is cut to just above ground level and the cut stump is allowed to re-grow. Coppicing is less skillful and much more invasive, entirely removing a usable habitat for most species for at least three years. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, therefore, recommends hedge laying as the preferred option because the hedge continues to flower and produce food whereas coppiced hedges may not flower for a number of years. 

Do not coppice all of your hedges in one go; really no more than 5% of a hedge should be coppiced annually in order to maintain resources/habitats. This makes it a long-term but really rewarding practice. Similarly to hedge laying, doing it in small sections every year retains wildlife habitat and provides a reliable and consistent source of firewood.

Coppicing is necessary for hedges that are too gappy to be laid. In these cases, coppicing is usually combined with a lot of infill planting between the gaps. The stump itself will re-grow quickly due to the extensive root system already established underneath.

How to coppice a hedge.

The following steps were featured in Teagasc’s piece on coppicing with one of our Directors, Eoin Donnelly. You can read the full piece by clicking here

  1. Identify a few occasional trees that will be left uncut and let grow into mature single-stem trees above with a full canopy above the body of the hedge. These are marked and protected with tree guards. Such trees are important for hedge-nesting birds who like to have a song perch above the hedge from which to sing. Ash is good for songbirds but leaving a whitethorn, blackthorn or crab apple as a flowering tree is good for pollinators – bees and other insects, and provides fruit in autumn.
  2. A tractor-mounted circular saw can be used to reduce the height of the hedge (except for the previously selected trees) to take out the heavy material, but will cut all at one level and is unlikely to cut low enough. 
  3. The hedge must be cleared out of ivy, bramble, and briars by hand, using a slash-hook – down to bare soil if possible. Make sure to check for stones and remove any wire.
  4. The remaining stems are cut back to ground level, to 2-3 inches all along humps and hillocks, and dips. A chainsaw can be used to make a sloping cut so water runs off and keeps the stump healthy.  A key point is to get the cuts as low to the ground as possible, but not right into the soil, just above the soil to produce new shoots.
  5. The hedge and the margin or verge both sides must be protected from livestock, at least one metre so animals can’t reach in and take out the tops of the hedge.

Cutting/Flailing

What is it? 

Flailing is the mechanical removal of vegetation from the top and sides of a hedgerow, using a tractor-mounted rotating drum that has hanging heavy-duty blades attached. Cutting can also be done using a circular saw which produces a neater cut but does not mulch woody growth like the flail, although the brash is larger and so easier to clear.

The annual cutting of hedgerows has, unfortunately, become popular in Ireland in an effort to make them look neat and tidy. However, this is not necessary and reduces the biodiversity benefits of hedgerows because hawthorn blossom is produced on the previous year’s growth. This means that annually flailed hedges will not produce blossom to the same extent, which leads to no pollen for pollinators or berries for birds. The hedge itself is also damaged and stressed, with stems becoming knarled and twisted due to the constant cutting at the same height.

Cutting/flailing is usually less time-consuming than hedge laying or coppicing, so is a more commonly used management tool. If you do not have the capacity to lay or coppice your hedge, please follow best practice guidelines to cut it in a biodiversity-friendly way. See some top tips below and learn more using our references list. 

How to cut a hedge?

Here are some top tips for cutting your hedge so it retains biodiversity benefits:

  • Cut your hedge on a 2-3 year cycle in rotation, resulting in some areas producing blossom each year.
  • Delay cutting till January or February; although the restrictions on cutting are lifted in August, hedgerows are a vital source of berries for birds in Autumn/Winter. Cutting away the growing point too early in the season removes this food source.
  • Gradually reduce cutting intensity each year; cut taller and wider. 
  • Cut with a circular saw rather than a flail; this produces a cleaner cut and improves re-growth.
  • Retain a variety of hedge types.
    • Some escaped hedges that remain untopped but can be side-trimmed. If any overhanging branches become a safety hazard, a circular saw can be used to lop them off. 
    • Some topped hedges where the growing point is trimmed to a triangular profile (or ‘A roof’) from a wide base and occasional single-stem hawthorn trees are kept uncut. Keep these to at least 1.5m tall or as tall as your machinery can manage. Sloping sides on an ‘A roof’ cut allows the hedge base to access more light, which encourages denser growth that is better for ground-nesting birds. Contractors also say it’s faster and easier to cut an ‘A roof’ because you run the cutter at a 45-degree angle on both sides and move on, whereas for a flat-top cut you need to go over them a couple of times to get an even cut.
  • Do not remove hedgerows (unless they are a safety hazard or prevent tree regeneration). Even dying hedgerows support insect communities, bat roosts, and cavity-nesting birds.

Conclusion

Hedgerows are dynamic and have different needs depending on their life cycle stage. Understanding this life cycle will help you decide whether hedge laying, coppicing, or cutting is most appropriate for your site. The references below dive deeper into this life cycle; we particularly recommend the HedgeLink management cycle leaflet, which you can read by clicking here.  The image below was produced by Farming for Nature and illustrates what we should strive for in our hedgerows.

 

Before undertaking any management, carry out a simple assessment of your hedgerows to map where they are. Next, you can judge what condition they are in using the Hedgerow Appraisal System, which you can read by clicking here. This will allow you to make an informed management decision.

References