Hedgerows: the unsung heroes of the landscape

Landscape view of fields

The humble hedgerow is an often-overlooked feature of the landscape. You can find them lining roads, footpaths and gardens and they come in all different shapes and sizes. However, what is not always understood is the vital role hedgerows play in the stitching together our patchwork countryside.

Hedgerows are such an important asset to the Dedham Vale’s cultural heritage, wildlife, and landscape. In addition to their beauty and changing colours through the seasons, hedgerows provide homes and corridors for wildlife, as well as helping to tackle the climate crisis by capturing carbon.

This connectivity is vital for so many species particularly for bats and dormice, our flagship species, who use hedgerows to nest, forage, and refuge. Hedgerows also reconnect isolated habitats, recreate lost landscape features, contribute to the stabilisation of soils and the flow of water on farms. All of these will result in improved soil health and water storage capacity so improving resilience for both food crops and semi-natural habitats.

Early in 2021 we were approached by the Stour Valley Farmer Cluster with regard a hedgerow project in the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

The Cluster had received funding from the Suffolk Preservation Society (representing CPRE Suffolk) for a Hedgerow Heroes Phase 1 project, one of 5 in England. The aim being to plant and restore hedgerows in the Dedham Vale. We jumped at the opportunity to work in partnership, especially as this project would create and improve wildlife corridors across the landscape to some of our Nature Recovery Zones.  

The Cluster asked us whether our volunteers would be interested in surveying the hedges to help identify where the hedge work needed to be done. When I discussed how this was going to happen with Adrian Silvertown, one of our volunteers, he questioned why we were going to use pen and paper when there were good field based apps on mobile phones that could be used.

Roll forward 6 months (summer 2021) and Adrian, who has a background in technology, had created a Hedgerow Heroes App on ArcGis Survey 123. The development of this app not only facilitated the surveying of hedgerows, but it made it easier for the Cluster Facilitator to select which hedges needed to be restored /created as all the data was in one place. For his outstanding contribution in creating this app Adrian won the Robert Erith National Landscapes Award in 2022.

Interested volunteers attended a training session to find out more about the project, hedgerow management and how to use the app in the field. They were then assigned farms in the area by the Cluster Facilitator.  Over the summer/autumn our volunteers surveyed 28km of hedgerows, assessing the quality and needs of the hedgerows, which the Cluster facilitator then used to prioritise hedgerow restoration work in the winter.

In total 4.65km of hedgerow were planted and 2.72km of hedgerow were restored by either gapping up, coppicing or conservation hedgelaying. There were 12 farms involved in the project. Much of the work was done by contractors but our volunteers helped on 2 hedge planting days and 1 hedgelaying day.

This project enabled us and our volunteers to work with farmers which has led to improved local relationships and the identification of volunteer tasks such as the removal of tree guards from historically planted hedges. People using the footpaths also commented positively on the hedgerow work.

As the Hedgerow Heroes phase 1 Project was so successful the Suffolk Preservation Society (representing CPRE Suffolk) has funded a Hedgerow Heroes Phase 2 project for 2022/3. Volunteers have completed farm surveys leading to 2km of coppicing of hedges, 500m conservation hedgelaying, 3km new hedge planting and 1km gapping up.

Again, much of this has been done by contractors with our volunteers doing two hedge planting work parties. On one of these tasks, we were joined by a group of adults from the Greenlight Trust charity as part of their Earth: Rebuild and Support programme. The adults, who experience poor mental health and well-being, really enjoyed the day, getting stuck in to help us finish planting the hedge.

This project is a legacy project; the survey information that is collated, with the relevant landowner consent, will hopefully lead to many more kilometres of hedge being restored and created across the Dedham Vale landscape as funding becomes available.

Whilst the biggest impact in restoring hedgerows in the Dedham ValeArea of Outstanding Natural Beauty can come from large scale projects, we can all play a role in creating wildlife corridors for beloved, but at-risk, species such as hedgehogs. If you can, consider planting hedgerows in your garden if you have space, or if not, ensure there are holes or gaps in any fencing you have to allow wildlife such as hedgehogs to come and go.

The hedgerow may be an unsung hero for biodiversity, but together we can all ensure this vital habitat thrives in the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley,

Emma Black
Countryside Projects Officer
Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley