Hedgerows: Restoring the Connections

The Link, Summer 2017
| by Amanda Newell Chambers |

My husband and I bought a house in the countryside west of Peterborough. It’s not much land but much more than we had. Our pretty road is lined with wetlands, woods and farms connected by cedar and stone fencerows growing old with trees, shrubs and forbs (a herbaceous flowering plant). These corridors, the borders left behind as blocks of land which were cleared for agriculture throughout the 1800s, are also called hedgerows. They create scenic vistas and are key to sustainable landscape management.

For over 7,000 years our little plot of land grew, covered in varying types of mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. In the 1800s someone’s hard work and dreams turned it into pasture. Grazing ceased a short hundred or so years later. Cedar, aspen and a small plantation of white spruce grew until the late ‘80s when our house was built. The land was reshaped and converted to lawn and the pasture’s roadside hedgerow was cleared out. Thankfully the large trees were left. They welcomed us with fiery colour as we moved in last fall and gave some protection from the north wind through the winter.

“Hedgerows should be considered an agricultural asset…”

We’re falling in love with this place but the road is busier and our house is closer to it than we’d like. To create some separation we plan to re-establish the hedgerow. This will serve as a small piece of a larger conservation movement to preserve and restore hedgerows throughout agricultural lands. There is a theory the only way to save ecosystems is to preserve and rehabilitate remaining big patches of green space and provide corridors between them. These connections allow for movement of animals between key habitats and the migration of genetic diversity that will keep populations of all life forms strong and able to adapt over time.

Hedgerows can be great corridors between habitat islands, making them vital to big-picture, long-term preservation of biological diversity (and therefore human well-being).They themselves are habitat, providing food and shelter for countless species of insects (including native pollinators), birds, mammals and herptiles (a reptile or amphibian).

Unfortunately, through urban development and changes in farming practices, hedgerows are disappearing. Every fall and winter my heart breaks as I see farmers ripping out fences, rocks and every single living thing between fields. These are spaces where the ground may have existed untouched, left to develop and support life since glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Hedgerows should be considered an agricultural asset and farmers should be compensated financially by our government for the ecological services their lands provide.

And new home builders – why do you get so excited with the excavators? If you’re lucky enough to have a hedgerow be a rebel and keep it.

To everyone else, encourage your local government to protect agricultural lands through sustainable urban planning.

I don’t have a recipe for hedgerow restoration, although they likely exist. Under and between the existing trees we will plant native species appropriate for soil and light conditions. Wider is better for maximum conservation benefit (and separation from the road in our case). The best hedgerow I’ve explored was 30 metres wide, full of diverse mature trees and sensitive forest species. Since that size would envelop our house and take up most of our property ours will be about five metres.

Our plan goes like this…

Take inventory. We have maple and cedar, with a bit of sumac, serviceberry and chokecherry coming in.

  1. Stop mowing! Let it grow.
  2. Plant trees and shrubs. We want white pine and eastern hemlock because they are noble and practically sing in the wind. As evergreens, they will provide year-round screening while they are young. With more space we would include birch and black cherry. We will plant a few favourite shrubs. Like the trees they will be species that provide significant wildlife habitat, are beautiful and/or grow food for us. Our list includes elderberry, highbush cranberry, red osier dogwood and alternate leaf dogwood. The existing young serviceberry, chokecherry and sumac are great wildlife species and will be kept. I wouldn’t be unhappy to see some raspberry, grapevine or even wild apple come in.
  3. Allow the understory to grow in naturally, supplementing with native forbs from plant sales and rescues.
  4. Control invasive species using best management practices from the Ontario Invasive Plant Council.
  5. Enjoy watching it grow!

To learn more about the native plants I’ve mentioned and to explore how you might be able to use them in your own projects, hop online and check out an amazing resource I use often, Evergreen’s Native Plant Database at nativeplants.evergreen.ca