Hedging Your Bets!
Bernie Leahy, B&T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc, Galway/Clare discusses the legacy of a hedge here as she makes connections with Cheltenham, and the numerous benefits of a hedge. She also reminds farmers of REAP planting date commitments this March.
Hedgehunter, the Irish bred National Hunt horse won the Aintree Grand National in April 2005. His schooling ground was over hunting fields of formidable hedges, point-to-point fences made up of natural Birch and Spruce and hurdle jumps made up of Brushwood.
It is fitting that, as Cheltenham approaches Irish National Hunt graduates of those courses will once again delight the crowds.
Legacy of a Hedge
Up to 12,000 years ago, Ireland was covered with snow and ice. When the ice receded, many seeds were carried from Great Britain and Europe. Ireland had a land bridge with GB and rest of Europe. However when sea levels rose Ireland was cut off from rest of mainland Europe.
This is why native trees such as the strawberry tree found in Kerry but grows naturally in parts of the Mediterranean. Botanists have said the seed may come to Ireland via land bridge from Brittany.
Irish Hedges Connection to our Ancient Woodlands
Ireland was covered with natives tree such as Alder, Strawberry tree, Ash, Aspen(native Poplar),Silver and Downy Birch, Blackthorn, Bramble, Broom, Buckthorn(Viburnum), Cherry (Bird and Wild), Crab Apple, Dog Rose, Elderberry, Gorse, Guelder rose, Hawthorn, Hazel, Honeysuckle, Ivy , Juniper, Sessile and Pedunculate Oak, Mountain Ash, Scots Pine, Spindle, Whitebeam, Willow, Witch Elm and Irish Yew. The leaves and berries of the Yew tree are poisonous to animals and humans but are a source of food and shelter to birds.
6,000 years ago, forests started to disappear with the growth of blanket bogs and the development of farming. From 1556 – 1690 large areas of land in Ireland were gifted to English, Welsh and Scottish property owners (Plantation Era). Large areas of forests were cleared to create agricultural land. However in the 18th and 19th century, Landlords were responsible for planting of Estate type trees some non-native, which still adorn our landscape today. Lime, Elm, Red oak, Horse Chestnut (English and Spanish), Sycamore, formidable Red Cedars and Larch. Maple trees of imported varieties have also added colour and pattern to the Irish landscape.
Shelterbelt Value against Climate Change
I spoke with Kilrickle farmer Finian Doyle who was finishing his new hedge planting work along his field boundary. He said “My grandfather Paddy Doyle left a legacy of hedges planted in 1922. Farmers should be doing this each year”. He makes it his business to plant every few years. Not only the regular species such as Whitethorn but a mixture of species from Alder, Holly, Birch, Rowen and Beech to add a bit of colour and diversity. Several years back he had planted a tree and hedge shelterbelt made up of native species with Alder forming the main framework of the hedge. He has great faith in his nursery supplier Kearney Nurseries who supply him with quality native Provenance produced trees and hedging. All plant seeds are Irish grown with no imported pests or diseases.
Planting Hedges like these on a much larger scale than the REAP and GLAS style hedge protect farmland and community from damaging winds. These hedges create microclimates, which speed up grass growth in springtime.
Hedge Schools - Seats of Learning
"Hedge Schools” took place outdoors next to or behind a hedgerow, but were also held in a house or barn. In the most humble of “Hedge Schools” students were taught classes in Irish history, tradition, and ancestry in spite of the Irish Penal Laws of 1695. These laws were to suppress the Irish Catholics from education and learning if they did not practise the new Protestant religion brought in under the reign of Henry 8th.
Planting native shrub and trees species as shelter and feeding ground and “mini motorways” for wildlife such as the Irish Stoat, Native Black Bee and Bumble Bee species as well as our native Irish hedge birds. Of the 110 species of birds nesting in hedges, 35 nest in them. Species found in hedges include blackbird, song thrush, robin woodpigeon, chaffinches, bluet its, bullfinches and gold crest and of course, the wren. Of the 77 solitary bees, 21 bumblebees and one honeybee species, one third of our bee species are under threat of extinction. It is important to incorporate flowering hedges native and accessible to visiting insects and particularly bees. For instance, Gorse and Broom provide high value nectar as well as Hazel, Willow, Whitethorn and Blackthorn. By leaving at least a 3-year gap between cutting hedgerows, (if at all) the hedge completes its cycle of flowering and fruiting.
On my back door in Kilrickle, NUI Galway have conducted a Stoat project which records activities of this protected mammal by recording its movements in the hedges of Lecarrownagappogue townland. Other mammals found in hedges are the Hedgehog (Grainneog), Pigmy Shrew, bats and sometimes (but hopefully not) the protected Pine Martin.
Agroforestry and Diversification Value
Planting native deciduous trees alongside grazing animals namely sheep is the basis of the New Agroforestry scheme. Up to 15% fruiting trees e.g. apples, plums; walnut, hazel and cobnuts are permitted under this DAFM grant aided scheme. Grant aid up to €6,600/ha including fencing costs is attractive but only lasts for 5 years.
For schemes such as REAP, hedge and tree planting must be completed by 31st of March 2022 with photos submitted as proof via DAFM Agri Snap app on Planner’s phone. For those farmers planting without grant aid, bare roots stock of hedging and trees, the same dates apply but cold store hedging and trees are available after this period. Container trees are planted all year round but are more expensive.
Fines & Penalties against Damage and Removal of Hedges and Trees
Removal ,cutting, of trees and hedgerows and burning of waste branches is not permitted during Bird Nesting Season under Section 22 of the NPWS Wildlife Act 1976 for periods between September 1st to February 28th. If burning of waste branches is needed, a permit must be approved by local County Council. Large fines can be imposed for non-compliance.
Isn’t it truly fitting that last year’s Cheltenham Hurdle winner Honeysuckle is “odds on favourite” to win Tuesday 15th March. God save the Irish Hedge!