The Cornish Hedge
The Wildlife of Our Amazing Cornish Hedges
A Cornish hedge is a lot more than just a stone wall with earth or rubble inside. Cornish hedges are renown throughout the country for their unique wildlife. Our mild, wet, maritime climate provides opportunities for seed germination year-round resulting in an abundance of plant species. Salt laden sea winds sweep over the Cornish countryside leaving gnarled, stunted trees twisting over and out of hedges, and encouraging an array of maritime plants to grow.
Did you know that we have about 30 000 miles of hedgerow in Cornwall? Hedges are our largest semi-natural habitat. They provide many different habitats and microhabitats in which species can take refuge from intensive farming practices. Hedges can be grassy or wooded, sheltered or exposed, shaded or sunny, dry or damp, and they have varying rock aspects that can be shallow or deep.
Amazingly, species from the Bronze Age, before the farming landscape was formed, still survive today in some of the older Cornish hedges. These included original woodland species such as bluebell and wood sorrel, and also original heathland species such as heather and tormentil.
Cornish hedges illustrate different wildlife according to the time of year. Summer (that’s supposed to be now!) is the best time to see wildflowers and insects. Suppose you were to spend a day this week studying the wildlife found in the stunning Cornish hedges around Boscastle
In the early morning small mammals go home to their hedgerow burrows and the sound of bird song fill the air as birds awaken.
When the sun comes out grasshoppers and crickets start cherping too. Insects, beetles, bugs and hoverflies mingle among the hedgerow flowers. Reptiles including the slow worm, common lizard and poisonous adder thrive in the warm south facing hedges, while toads and frogs prefer the damper areas of hedge perhaps in the trees. The common harts-tongue fern, male fern and soft shield fern also enjoy damper hedge conditions. The hedge sparrow and robin are typical of the sheltered hedges in the valley where tall trees provide shade for hogweed and foxglove. In open areas larger birds of prey such as the buzzard scan the hedges to prey on rabbits and large insects. Hedges on the coast support many maritime plants, for example; thrift, sea campion, wild carrot and scurvy grass. Other wildflowers seen around Boscastle at this time of year include red campion, vetches, ground ivy fumitory, hawkweeds speedwells, yarrow, plantains, sorrels, trefoils, betony, woodsage and toadflaxes.
Butterflies that may be seen include hedge brown, wall brown, green veined white, red admirable, speckled wood and painted lady. If you are lucky enough you may glimpse the comma with its ragged wings or the pretty or silver-washed fritillary. It is not uncommon to see the day flying burnet moth, or the occasional swallow swooping over a hedge in search of insects.
On the other hand, if the day is wet (but this never happens!), then the colourful pink-brown snail may be found feeding on hogweed in the midst of a number of other slimy slugs and snails.
Evening sees the birds going to roost and bats come out to hunt along the hedges. The pipistrelle bat is a common sight, but Cornwall is home to other bats such as the rare Greater Horseshoe bat. Moths (bat food) wake up to feed on hedgerow flowers, whilst badgers and foxes forage along the hedgerow boundaries. Tawny and brown owls are out also, hunting the hedges for mice and voles.
Our hedges provide an extremely valuable and unique ecosystem that should be disturbed as little as possible. Therefore management of a hedge could simply involve trimming alternate sides on rotation, and if possible, only during the winter.