Hedging Our Bets

Good fences make good neighbors…
Why do they make good neighbors?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.   

~ Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

One of the interesting things about England, and other places in Europe, is how their roads and fields are bordered by hedgerows and tree lines. Some of the roads I drove in the Lancashire countryside were so narrow that we scraped the roadside shrubs when passing another car (eliciting excited cries from my passengers). Some of those fields and hedgerows had been in place for hundreds of years, and the stone walls that often accompanied them reflected decades and centuries of rocks pulled from those fields.

As a kid in Texas and Oklahoma, our country roads were often bordered by small trees and bushes entangled with the barbed wire laid down years before. These barriers were seldom managed as the English ones were, where hedges are pleached, coppiced and pollarded (see below) to improve their density and overall health, and served as fences to contain livestock. Our hedgerows were inconsistent tangles of bushes, trees and vines, and no sure barrier to cows or goats. When out on the land we would often scare up a covey of quail or flight of doves from these border areas. We also knew this was where we could see rabbits, possums, armadillos, raccoons and other creatures, including snakes. The borders served as habitat for all kinds of animals, birds and insects.

In suburban environments, the trees and shrubs are also a major factor in bird density and diversity — where it is now higher than in the country. Once, farms’ hedgerows and windbreaks provided safe habitat. Now, due to widespread industrial farming, with no tolerance for the border “walls” of legacy farms, according to the Xerces Society:

“The U.S. is currently undergoing the largest conversion of wildlife habitat to cropland since just before the Dust Bowl. Over 11 million acres of prairie have been converted to cropland since 2008.”And, this new cropland is not small farms and bucolic havens for farming families (and critters), but wide open sections of land devoid of anything— most notably hedges— that would interfere with the monoculture providing the corporate cash crop. The result is loss of habitat for local and migratory species.

Do hedgerows matter? Xerces says infertile farm edges can become fertile refuges for plants and animals that provide valuable ecosystem services. If you plant hedgerows, wildlife will follow.

“Hedgerows provide farms with environmental, social, and economic values. For example, hedgerows support wildlife with food, such as nectar, pollen, foliage, fruits, as well as undisturbed soils and stems for shelter. The same hedgerows can intercept, reduce, and screen airborne pollution, such as chemicals, dusts, and noises, while sequestering carbon in biomass and soils. These living fences simultaneously beautify farms and offer cultural and ornamental resources, including wicker for basket weaving and poles for plant supports. What’s more, hedgerows provide humans with foods, medicines, and other products, such as fruits, nuts, herbs, and firewood. Harvests of hedgerow fruits for jams, jellies, syrups, tinctures, and teas can be abundant, nutritious, and profitable.

“Overall, research shows that creation and conservation of hedgerows on farms enhances native beneficial insect communities, and exports ecosystem services to adjacent crops.”

Can we change our monocultural approach? Probably not totally, but one step might be to use the hedgerow concept wherever we can. Certainly most field borders would be suitable for hedgerow-type planting with native species. Planting along fence lines could be suitable for range properties, as well.

But a major opportunity would be to create hedgerow-type plantings along roadways. Most state and federal road projects have a budget for landscaping. If it could be applied to borders, along with any support from adjacent landowners, then significant progress toward re-establishing native habitat could be made. Other advantages of roadway borders would be the aesthetic and climate effects. Vegetation bordering a road is likely more pleasing to the eye and senses than parking lots and buildings. In addition, such borders could help with snow accumulation on roads, wind effects on traffic, and possibly temperatures.

Hedgerows provide functional margin areas where nature transitions between uses. The edges attract all matter of plants and animals, and offer the opportunity to help restore small slices of nature that we have destroyed. Whether it’s restoring pollinators or other beneficial insects or birds, or just providing pleasing scenery, hedgerows are a good bet.

Additional reading: “Farm for Wildlife with Hedgerows,” By Jarrod Fowler, Sarah Foltz Jordan, & Eric Lee-Mäder, Xerces Society, in Organic Broadcaster, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, May-June 2016
Xerces Society, www.xerces.org

Pleach – entwine or interlace (tree branches) to form a hedge or provide cover for an outdoor walkway
Coppice – cut back (a tree or shrub) to ground level periodically to stimulate growth
Pollard – A tree whose top branches have been cut back to the trunk so that it may produce a dense growth of new shoots

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