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Bring Back the Hedgerow
Hedge n. – A row of closely planted shrubs or low growing trees forming a fence or boundary (The American Heritage Dictionary).
Hedgerows have been a part of the agricultural landscape for thousands of years and were originally used to confine and protect livestock, define property boundaries and provide crop fields with windbreaks. The first hedgerows were used to protect cereal crops during the Neolithic Age, 4000-6000 years ago.
Hedgerows are typically long linear habitats that are generally narrow and made up of trees, shrubs, grasses and flowering annual and perennial plants. Across the Eastern Shore of Maryland, hedgerows are typically found along road ways, property boundaries and field borders. The best hedgerows, from a wildlife point of view, are at least 15 feet wide, are structurally complex and are made up of a wide diversity of native plants.
Hedgerows started to disappear when agricultural machinery increased in size and this, coupled with the rise and heavy use of fertilizers farmers allowed farmers to plant much larger fields in shorter periods of time. “Edge to edge” or “clean farming” became the norm. Only recently with conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has this begun to change. Even with the increase of CRP land on the Eastern Shore hedgerows are still an integral missing component across the landscape.
Quail thrive in agricultural landscapes dominated with hedgerows. Hedgerows provide great winter cover and very important escape cover from predators all year round. The structural complexity found in hedgerows is formed by a diversity of plant types such as trees, shrubs, vines, annual flowering plants and grasses. This tangle of plants forms protective cover for birds to fly to while being pursued by a predator, open ground free of snow during the winter, and safe areas to roost during the day (any time of year).
Quail can spend a considerable amount of time with their broods late in the summer in soy bean fields. Once these fields are harvested the birds are forced to move and find other areas of shelter. This is a particularly vulnerable time for quail as they get forced into unfamiliar territory and move into smaller areas of habitat. With less habitat across the landscape, the birds are under even greater pressure from predators because the predators have less area to search making hunting easier. Simply by adding woody cover such as hedgerows or islands of shrubs can have a positive impact on quail survivorship. More habitat means more choices for an escaping quail and forces predators to search a larger area to find prey.
Quail aren’t the only animals that benefit from hedgerows. Dozens of early successional nesting birds such as Orchard Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks, Brown Thrashers, Northern Cardinals and Eastern Kingbirds use hedgerows in the summer. Insects of all varieties make use of hedgerows including nectaring butterflies, parasitic wasps and of course dozens of pollinating insects. These pollinating insects, including hundreds of native bees, spend most of the time pollinating nearby crops leading to better fruit set.
The best way landowners and farmers can make a difference for quail is to leave all existing hedgerows in place and to add hedgerows wherever possible. You can jump start the process by buying native shrubs, (which can be as cheap as 27 cent each) and planting them along property boundaries, field margins or areas of marginal cropland. Another alternative is to let these areas go fallow and eventually they will mature into a hedgerow. Remember, these hedgerows only have to be 10-15 feet wide. The loss of crop acres are minimal, but the impact for wildlife is tremendous.
- Reduce chemical drift
- Living fence
- Boundary delineation
- Screens and barriers to noise and dust
- Improvement of landscape appearance
- Wind breaks
- Linking fragmented habitats
- Increase carbon storage
- Food, cover and travel corridors for wildlife
- Water quality – trapping sediments and preventing them from entering waterways
- Increase biodiversity
- Habitat for pollinators