Field hedge management

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Cornish Hedges remain functional parts of our landscape but they are now valued as much for their habitat, biodiversity and cultural importance. Appropriate management will see our hedges continue to be an important part of our landscape for generations to come.   

Traditionally our hedges were trimmed by hand with a long-handled slasher, but now a mechanical flail is often used. The flail has to be used with great skill and care. Trimming has to be carried out at the right time of winter, so that Cornwall's hedges can be restored to their former glory in spring. 

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

Hedges for shade and shelter

Hedges with trees

With a moderately permeable hedge, there is likely to be a reduction in wind speed of about 20% and shelter leewards of about  8-12 times the height of the hedge. There are significant gains in livestock and wildlife shelter 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.

Field margins

An unsprayed and unfertilised strip of a minimum 2m (7ft) wide will help protect hedge structure, combat invasive weeds and encourages beneficial wildlife. It gradually develops a wildflower-rich tussocky mix with leaf litter for insects and small mammals. Topping at 250mm (10") each year in October is the only maintenance needed, and will deal with brambles from the hedge.

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

Coppicing

Coppicing is a traditional method of managing trees on Cornish hedges, which improves shelter and the 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 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.
  • Coppice only from 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 and layering

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 for mending gaps. Properly maintained, a laid thorn or beech hedge will last for 20 years before relaying. While a hazel, sycamore or ash will need relaying much sooner. Gappy top growth on a hedgebank is layered at the same time as the hedge is "cast up". This is where soil (washed down the hedge) is mechanically returned to the hedge top and fallen seed can increase the flora.

Keep hedges repaired

Cornish, turf and stone hedges constantly need repairs to their structure. Small-scale repairs when weaknesses or gaps first appear are quicker and cheaper. They also 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, while 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.

Fence hedges to prevent damage

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.

Other beneficial methods

  • Skim cut, rather than follow the 'ins and outs' of the hedge contour, thus leaving a varied growth and saving time. 
  • 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.

 

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