Field Hedge Management

Cornish Hedges remain functional parts of our landscape but they are now valued for additional reasons such as habitat and biodiversity. Appropriate management will see our hedges continue to make a positive contribution to the landscape for generations to come.   

Traditionally our hedges were trimmed by hand with a long-handled slasher, but nowadays economics dictate mechanical trimming. The flail has to be used with skill and care, and at the right time of winter, for it to restore Cornwall's hedges to anything like their former glory, bringing trees, bushes and wild flowers back into the Cornish landscape. 

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The Hedgerows Regulations 1997 were introduced to counteract some of the damage to wildlife, landscape and heritage caused by hedge removal.

Hedges with trees.

With a moderately permeable hedge, there is likely to be a reduction in wind speed of about 20% and appreciable shelter leewards of 8-12 times the height of the hedge. There are significant gains in livestock and wildlife comfort and in crop yields. Crop losses from shade do not typically extend beyond the usual headland or field margin.

Hedges without trees.

Usually too low to give real shelter and shade, though livestock in exposed areas will value it, and there is some reduction of salt-burn in crops.

An unsprayed and unfertilised strip 1-2m (3½ -7ft) wide protects hedge structure, helps combat invasive weeds and encourages beneficial wildlife.

It is simply created by ploughing and allowing natural regeneration. It gradually develops a wildflower-rich tussocky mix with a basal leaf litter for insects and small mammals. Topping at 250mm (10") each year in October is the only maintenance needed, and deals with brambles from the hedge.

The combination of properly trimmed hedge and field margin is best.

Single Payment Scheme Cross Compliance requirements limit the use of herbicides and cultivation close to hedges. See Rural Payments Agency

Coppicing is a traditional way of managing trees on Cornish hedges, to improve shelter and landscape. It involves cutting the tree down to about 0.5m (1½ft) from the hedgebank top, and allowing regrowth.

  • According to need and local tradition, chosen individual trees may be coppiced, or all trees in a hedge length coppiced in rotation.
  • Where shading is a problem, coppice the offending trees only.
  • Plan to minimise impact on the landscape and wildlife.
  • Coppice only during September to February, leaving uncoppiced trees at irregular intervals along the hedge.
  • Conifers cannot be coppiced as they do not regrow.
  • Leave behind on the hedge, some of the old dead and cut wood for fungi and insects.

Laying is where the stem of the bush or sapling is part-cut near the ground and bent over to make a stock-proof boundary.

Layering is more suitable for growth on top of hedgebanks, as the growing tip of the stem is embedded so that it roots.

Both techniques are used in winter or for mending gaps at any time. Properly maintained, a laid thorn or beech hedge will last for 20 years before relaying, a hazel, sycamore or ash much less. Gappy top growth on a hedgebank is layered at the same time as the hedge is "cast up" (where soil, washed down the hedge, is mechanically returned to the hedge top, so fallen seed re-cycles the hedge flora).

Cornish, turf and stone hedges on a farm perpetually need repairs to their structure. Small-scale repairs when weaknesses or gaps first appear are quicker and cheaper, and preserve the hedge better than a rebuild. Replacing a loose stone in passing often saves hours of work later on. Mending a Cornish or stone hedge requires traditional hand work, a turf hedge can usually be repaired mechanically. All repairs should match the existing style, stone and dimensions of the hedge structure to prevent a weakness at the join. Rebuilding costs are high and grant-aid is sometimes available for run-down hedges.

Fencing is usually necessary to stop today's farm livestock from damaging hedges.

Close-wiring. The wire is erected as close as possible to the hedgebank (after trimming). Thereafter the sidegrowth grows through the wire, and is flailed outside the fence.

Off-set wiring. The wire is far enough from the hedge, 1m (3½ft), to trim behind it leaving 0.3m (1ft) of growth to protect the hedge structure. Where a ditch runs beside a hedge, the fence should be set outside the ditch, with growth trimmed 1m (3½ft) above the ditch. This keeps the ditch itself dark and free-flowing, and makes a tunnel for otters and other wildlife.

Electric fencing. Permanent electric fencing is erected 1m (3½ft) from the hedgebank. Annual cutting-back of brambles may be required, but this need be only a light trimming of the hedge side.

Skim cut, rather than follow the 'ins and outs' of the hedge contour, thus leaving a varied growth and saving time. The flails should be kept sharp for good results.

Keep the flail away from the stone, leaving at least 0.3m (1ft) of growth on the sides of the hedge to protect its structure and wildlife.

Trimming around poles and wire stays in hedges is cheaper when done without slowing; the resulting scrub growth around each pole is useful to wildlife and reduces the effect of a naked pole in the landscape.

Leaving awkward field corners untrimmed saves money, and is good for wildlife.

Rabbits should be controlled.

Where the land is of low value and trimming is uneconomic, hedges may be left to fend for themselves, although in time the structure of the hedge deteriorates.