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Tree and hedge management in Ballyhaise College

Tree and hedge management in Ballyhaise College

Steven Meyen, Forestry Development Officer, Teagasc talks from experience about how trees can add so much to farm hedges. Benefits include shelter, biodiversity, improvement in microclimate, carbon sequestration and landscape value. We also get a glimpse of tree and hedge management at Ballyhaise

(Field corners are often underutilised but make excellent woodland locations. Photo above: Teagasc)

My dog and I enjoy our daily walks – come rain or shine. I'm lucky that during the current lockdown I can walk straight out my front door and go for walk up a nice, quiet country lane. My dog chases sticks and I enjoy a bit of fresh air – it also clears my head.

This morning the weather wasn’t great. Plenty of rain and wind but I was amazed the difference a few roadside trees can make. Sections along the lane where there are trees in the roadside hedges are so much more sheltered with less rain and wind. I can now fully appreciate why animals (and crops) also enjoy such shelter.

And that is exactly the point that one of my colleagues Kevin O’Connell was making in a recent video: trees can add so much to farm hedges. The video was produced entirely at Ballyhaise College in Co Cavan.

Ballyhaise College

The principal of Ballyhaise College John Kelly was telling me that they are spoiled for choice as the college is situated on an estate of 220 hectares of grass and woodlands. It allows the college to offer a wide range of land-based courses in agriculture including dairying, sheep, beef, mechanisation, pigs and poultry as well as forestry courses.

He added that running a training college on such an estate allows them to build important topics like sustainability, environment, biodiversity and habitat into their training programmes.

It hopefully will give these young farmers ideas how to incorporate those important elements into their own farms at home.

Kevin made the point that it is of critical importance to connect hedgerows with the woodlands on the college farm. This will provide an ecologically rich network across an intensely farmed landscape, allowing flora and fauna to ‘travel’ across the landscape. Wild plants such as bluebells or wood anemones will not be able to spread across a large field. Or can you imagine a small chaffinch trying to fly across a large field without any protection? I'm sure a hungry sparrowhawk may have other ideas… But where hedgerows are interconnected with woodlands, it will provide that all-important landscape interconnectivity.

Growing quality trees in hedges

However it is not only about biodiversity either. While maximising ecological value, you can also grow quality timber successfully with appropriate management within hedgerows.

When Ballyhaise College plant new hedgerows, they will add top quality trees such as wild cherry at the same time. As the hedge grows up over time, it will provide a stockproof barrier, shelter and an improved microclimate to animals and crops but at the same time, this hedge will also grow top quality hardwood timber.

Hedgerow trees need intensive and careful management. For instance, when the hedge is being trimmed, tie a large coloured piece of plastic around the trees so that they can be easily seen and avoided.

Hedgerow trees also need regular pruning to produce a long length of straight sawlog and knotfree timber. Formative shaping and high pruning can be done in summer and winter dependent on the species but must be avoided at all costs during spring and autumn.

Hedgerow and tree function

Also consider carefully the role you wish the hedge to play. Are you looking for a stockproof barrier, maximise biodiversity value or provide shelter? Yes, most hedges are multipurpose but sometimes you may wish to focus on a particular objective.

Roadside hedges for instance -either along internal or external roadways- need to be regularly trimmed back to ensure safety of all road users. The same is true for hedges planted close to farm structures – sheds, yard, cattle crush or various types of machinery. Farm safety comes first – always.

However, where hedges do not obstruct road users or do not overhang the cattle crush, it is a good idea to mix in a much wider variety of other hedgerow species such as spindle, guelder rose and hazel. Management can also be less intensive: allow the hedge and hedgerow trees to grow up taller and broader at the base. This management and species choice will make the hedge less stockproof but adds greatly to their biodiversity value.

Kevin O’Connell, Teagasc explains that quality timber such as wild cherry here can be successfully grown within hedgerows. Photo: Teagasc.

Caring for special trees

Sometimes the focus is on the preservation of special, rare trees that also have great biodiversity value. A good example in Ireland are wych elms. Since a highly lethal and virulent strain of the Dutch elm disease was introduced into Europe in 1967, most elm trees have been killed over the next twenty years or so. It is important to try to preserve our few surviving specimens.  When Ballyhaise College comes across wych elm trees, management is focused on preserving such special trees.

Field corners

Field corners are often awkward to farm and as a result underutilised. However, they make excellent locations to place small but valuable woodlands. They don’t impede on road safety while benefitting the surrounding agricultural land. It is important to ensure that such small woods are connected into the already existing hedgerow network on the farm to maximise its environmental (and economic) benefits.

Field corners are often underutilised but make excellent woodland locations. Photo: Teagasc

Rejuvenating hedges

Not all hedges need to be planted. Sometimes, existing farm hedges that are maybe a little worse for wear can be successfully rejuvenated.

A couple of years ago, Ballyhaise College cut back to ground level an old blackthorn hedge, planted up the gaps with a variety of plants such as hazel, guelder rose and spindle. The hedge was then allowed to regrow for a number of years. The hedge is now managed by breasting it every couple of years to maintain an A-shape. Tall and narrow at the top while much broader at the bottom. This approach maximises shelter, biodiversity value and makes is also very stockproof.

Take home message

Kevin’s conclusion is very clear, “Trees and hedgerows bring many benefits to any farm. Benefits include shelter, biodiversity, improvement in microclimate, carbon sequestration and landscape value.” Ballyhaise College certainly has benefitted from this approach.

Watch this video

If you want to hear John Kelly and Kevin O’Connell talk about their approach to tree and hedge management at Ballyhaise College, then watch this video

You can also visit www.youtube.com/teagascforestryvideos where you can find videos on a wide range of forestry-related topics.

The Teagasc Forestry Department issues an article on a Forestry topic every Friday here on Teagasc Daily Keep up-to-date with the Teagasc Forestry Department here  More on Teagasc Forestry Social Media here