Anyone travelling the roads at this time of year will inevitably note examples of crude hedge-cutting. And the irony is that local authorities, which should be prime protectors of the environment, are often responsible for this.
We tend to take our hedgerows for granted. Though teeming with wildlife and wild plants, their value to nature and a wide variety of animals is not always appreciated. It is estimated we have about 300,000km of hedgerows; a beautiful and distinctive feature.
Places like West Cork and the Dingle Peninsula are further adorned by the lovely fuchsia plant which is still dancing in all its red glory along the roadsides at the start of November. Under the Wildlife Act, the hedgerow cutting season runs from the start of September to the end of February and this applies to private landowners, contractors and public bodies.
On a welcome note, Teagasc, which is promoting a code of practice for cutting hedgerows so as to manage them properly, held its Hedgerow Week at the end of last month. There were events for machinery contractors, farmers and others, including a hedge-cutting demonstration at the Salesian Agricultural College, Pallaskenry, Co Limerick.
Teagasc countryside management specialist Catherine Keena said contractors and farmers trimming hedges are asked to shape the hedge in a triangular way from a wider base. The idea is to allow light at the base, leaving the peak at least 1.5m from ground level and to allow occasional thorn saplings to grow up into individual trees.
This will create the ideal conditions for birds to nest, offering cover from predators above and below the nest, providing flowers in summer for bees and other pollinators, as well as berries in autumn for birds and small mammals, she said.
“The quest for neatness and tidiness should not override ecological considerations,” said Ms Keena.
Many of our hedgerows were planted from the 18th century onwards after laws were enacted requiring landowners to enclose their land. Hedgerows are chosen by a sizeable number of common bird species for nesting and roosting. About half of 110 bird species recorded regularly in Birdwatch Ireland’s Countryside Bird Survey use them during the breeding season. These include the linnet and yellowhammer — species which are declining.
Withering leaves, dead branches and twigs contains insects and snails that birds and mammals, such as wrens and hedgehogs, feed on. Significant threats to hedgerows are poor management and land clearance for the building of houses, commercial property and roads. Changing farming practices in the last half-century also led to large-scale removal of hedgerows, with a commensurate fall in numbers of birds and other animals.