Using an Agricultural Relic to Create a Wildlife Haven

A hedgerow can provide shelter and a rich supply of berries, seeds and nectar for wild animals

  • Thomas A. Lewis
  • Oct 01, 1997
AMERICAN FARM FIELDS were once delineated by hedgerows--thick tangles of vegetation that cloaked, and often replaced, the fences designed to confine livestock. Farming practices have changed dramatically in recent decades, and the hedgerow has all but disappeared from the American landscape. Now, however, some natural-gardening experts are taking another look at the benefits of using such vegetation on a smaller scale. Once used to control the lives of domestic animals, a hedgerow today can be a superb way to enhance the lives of wild animals.

Hedgerows, also known as fencerows, should not be confused with hedges. A hedge is a row of plants of a single species, neatly spaced, aligned and trimmed. Its neatness and uniformity, while pleasing to the eye, drastically limits its appeal to wildlife. A hedgerow, by contrast, is a welter of various plants, small trees and vines that offers insects, birds and small animals an abundance of shelter from predators and a profusion of food.

In the past, hedgerows on farms often were not planned. They started with a stone, wood or wire fence; birds perched on the fence and, by doing what came naturally, sowed their favorite fruit or berry seeds until the fence disappeared under a tangle of bird-selected plants. The typical thicket in the eastern United States started with native plants such as ragweed and blackberry and European grain weeds such as burdock and wild carrot, according to environmental educator Herb Eschbach of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. As the years passed, native shrubs--sumac, viburnum, dogwood, exotic buckthorn and rose--became dominant, then gave way to taller hardwoods such as cherry, elm, oak, maple and ash.

Hedgerows were a casualty of modern times, observes Craig Tufts, chief naturalist of the National Wildlife Federation. “Going from pasture to row crops necessitated an increase in field size to accommodate large machinery,” he says. “Farms are no longer multi-purpose family operations made up of a mixture of livestock, row crops, pasture and perhaps an orchard, with those diverse uses delineated by hedgerows.”

Agribusinesses may regard hedgerows as obstacles to efficiency. But organic farmers are rediscovering their value as “an incredible repository for beneficial insects,” says Tufts.

Creating a hedgerow like those of old--thorny, tangled, heavily fruiting and, above all, diverse--can provide a rich supply of berries, seeds and nectar for wildlife. Its leaves and branches conceal birds and nests from predators, while its tangled stems and thorns stand fortlike around burrows, nests, warrens and trails. Studies at the U.S. government´s Northern Prairie Science Center in Jamestown, North Dakota, and elsewhere have found hedgerows especially attractive to songbirds like cardinals, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, indigo buntings and several varieties of warblers.

A hedgerow is essentially unmanaged, and you can create one in the traditional, easy manner. In early fall, till the area where you want the hedgerow, then string a bird perch of twine or wire on posts 15 feet apart. (Caution: Do not use monofilament; because birds cannot see it, they will fly into it and may kill themselves.) The birds will plant what they eat. A straight, double perch will create a hedgerow of the length you want, while concentric circles will yield a thicket.

There are disadvantages to the passive approach, however. “The result could look very bedraggled,” says Andre Viellet, a horticultural expert who writes, lectures and conducts a weekly syndicated radio talk show. “You will get some plants you may not want, like deadly nightshade, poison ivy, pokeberry or Russian olive, which will take over everything. “Letting your hedgerow get too big, or too unmanaged, could put you in conflict with local weed-control ordinances.

You can exert some control over the result by propagating local plants or buying rootstock from a nursery. This can be as easy, Viellet says, as “gathering some twigs and branches from things that are growing in your area and sticking them in the ground.” You can also try layering: bending down and burying a stretch of living branch of a plant you want for your hedgerow and, when it develops roots, transplanting it to the area you´ve selected.

The idea is to establish a basic array of shrubs and beneficial plants and then let the birds add their own selections to the mix. “Forsythia is a great cover, and so is mock orange and lilac,” says Viellet. The plants you select for your hedgerow will vary, depending upon the climate in your area. But you should strive for a mix of berry canes (blackberry, blueberry, barberry), fruit trees (crab apple, wild cherry) and flowering vines (honeysuckle). Tolerate, if you can, such plants as pokeberries and mulberries; birds adore their abundant berries.

The rewards of this minimalist approach are considerable. “A hedgerow offers incredible diversity, says Tufts;for some of the most beloved birds in our landscape.” You do not have to mow it, prune it or thin it, and demands for fertilizer and watering are nil. In return for so little work, you gain much: concerts of bird song and knowledge you have helped repair the fabric of life where you live.

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