When you think about orchards, it is easy to focus solely on the trees. But, orchards are much more than a collection of fruit trees. A traditional orchard is a mosaic of different habitats, the grasses, herbs and vegetation on the ground – known as the sward – scrub, and hedgerows. Each plays a vital role in the life of the orchard – both for its custodian and the wildlife it supports.
Hedgerows are the traditional boundary for orchards. They perform a number of functions. As well as determining its limits, once established, hedgerows can provide an extra source of fruit [crab apples, plums, damsons and cherries are often planted in them]. They prevent livestock from escaping and create natural windbreaks.
Rather than stopping gusts of wind, hedgerows regulate them and limit the damage from sudden accelerations that break branches and push over trees. Solid boundaries like walls and fences actually increase windspeed as the wind boils over the top. The turbulence causes more, not less, damage in their lee.
Hedgerows are mini-ecosystems that provide natural corridors for wildlife to travel between different habitats. They provide year round food, shelter and nesting sites for myriad mammals and birds. Small mammals such as mice and voles live in the bottom of hedges particularly where there are areas of longer grass close by.
Hedgerow shrubs, such as blackthorn, hawthorn and gelder rose, provide a rich, year round nectar source for invertebrates. Insects will use the hedge as shelter, feed on the nectar, and in return will pollinate the fruit trees when the conditions in the orchard are right (not too cold, not too windy).
Maintaining the hedgerows is important, but the timing of cutting can affect the wildlife value. Avoid cutting between March and the end September when birds are nesting and the hedgerows are either in flower or fruiting. From a wildlife point of view, January and February are the best months. Leaving hedgerows uncut for two or three years will allow them to develop the second and third year growth necessary for the shrubs to flower and fruit.
Hedge laying can rejuvenate ageing hedgerows by encouraging new growth. If you would like to learn more about this ancient skill, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust run hedge-laying courses every year in January.