Abundant Benefits of Hedgerows & Bird Biodiversity on the Farm

Hedgerow

Hedgerow buffer between two fields

Today we cover hedgerows, also known as “living fences”.  The term hedgerows is an old English term that refers to narrow planting strips that grow along field borders, fence lines and waterways.  They often consist of trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials, annuals, and vines depending on the function, size, and location of the planting strip.

What are the benefits of hedgerows?  Many!

  • Enhance Wildlife – Hedgerows provide habitat for a large variety of mammal, bird, reptile, and insect species – including bees and other pollinators – many of which are beneficial predators of plant pests. Encouraging game birds can provide recreation for the landowner and a potential source of revenue.
  • Diversify Farm Income – Tree, shrub, and herbaceous plants can be selected for production of additional sources of farm income. Lumber, fire-wood, fruits and berries, medicinal herbs, seeds for collection, and ornamental plants are some products that can be grown in a hedgerow.
  • Reduce Soil Erosion and Soil Conditioner – Water flow from rain and irrigation can cause serious erosion. Clean cultivation and vacant field borders increase erosion potential. Hedgerows provide a barrier that can slow water flow and trap soil particles. Soil conditioners act to increase water holding capacity and nitrogen fixing plants.
  • Conserve Water – Hedgerows retain water and reduce evaporation and desiccation by blocking drying winds in summer thereby reducing irrigation needs and the energy necessary for pumping water.
  • Decrease Wind Damage – Wind can disturb pollination and damage fruit and flowers when plant parts thrash against each other. Plants under wind stress put energy into growing stronger roots and stems. The result is smaller and later yields. Strong winds cause grain and grass crops to lodge making harvest more difficult. Properly designed hedgerows dramatically reduce wind speed, thereby improving crop performance.
  • Farm Animal Fodder – Hedgerows provide animal fodder and protection for livestock from winter winds and summer suns. Trees may need to be have tree guards to prevent girdling of trunk or the browsing of young shoots.
  • Create Borders and Privacy Screens – Hedgerows provide attractive borders or boundary markers. They allow for privacy screens along roadsides and between properties. As they mature and become dense they can reduce noise and serve as fencing.
  • Biodiversity in Agriculture – Which leads us to the article below, describing the wonderful bird biodiversity fostered by hedgerows in agricultural regions in California. . .

The following article first appeared on the UC ANR Green Blog on October 31, 2012. UC ANR helps solve farming and ranching issues with the science-based research of farm advisors, specialists and faculty. Working hand-in-hand with industry, ANR’s mission is to enhance agricultural markets, help balance trade, address environmental concerns, protect plant health, and provide farmers with scientifically tested production techniques and Californians with increased food safety.  Written by Rachael Freeman Long, UCCE Yolo County Director & Farm Advisor for Field Crops & Pest Management.

California’s Central Valley is home to a rich diversity and solid abundance of birds. Many are year-round residents, while others are migrants that winter in our valley or travel to destinations further south. Currently more than 400 species of birds call the Central Valley their home; these include raptors, songbirds, ducks, geese, shorebirds, hummingbirds, and others. (Download a checklist of Central Valley birds here.)

Goldfinch

Goldfinch

All birds depend on habitat for food, shelter and nesting sites. With a decline in habitat in the Central Valley, primarily due to agricultural expansion, urbanization and water diversions, there has been a significant decrease in the numbers and types of birds. Many bird species are now endangered, threatened or listed as species of special concern. Approximately 36 percent of our state’s historical grasslands, 9 percent of the original wetlands, and 2 to 7 percent of the original riparian forests remain. The Central Valley alone has lost more than 90 percent of the riparian, oak woodland, and shrub land habitats.

Despite this loss and fragmentation of habitat, many birds continue to use remnant or restored riparian and upland vegetation around farms. Crops such as rice and alfalfa also provide important habitat and foraging areas for birds. Interest is also surging in restoring lands to enhance habitat for birds, including planting hedgerows of California native shrubs and grasses along field edges.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous hummingbird

In a recent study by UC Cooperative Extension and Audubon California in Yolo County, researchers determined that hedgerow plantings along field margins helped increase the abundance and species richness of birds on farms, both for winter migrants and year-round species. Their data analyses, examining farms with and without hedgerows, showed that the presence of hedgerows tripled bird abundance and doubled bird species richness in these linear habitat features, but did not increase the bird abundance in the adjacent crops. Of the 2,203 birds counted during the winter and spring of 2011-12, hedgerows drew 41 species of birds, as compared to 22 species in control areas (weedy, semi-managed field edges). In addition, more than three times as many birds used the hedgerows during wintertime, compared to the spring breeding season. This highlights the importance of this habitat for migrating and overwintering birds.

Of significant interest was the finding that bird pest species were using crops regardless of field edge habitat. That is, crop fields with hedgerows showed the same numbers of bird pest species (such as blackbirds that can damage seed crops), compared to crop fields without hedgerows. The researchers observed a total of 1,642 birds, representing 30 species using the adjacent agriculture fields. The minimal species overlap indicated that a different bird community was using crop fields, regardless of the presence of hedgerows. The researchers also found that crops were more heavily used in the winter than during the breeding season.

Yellow Billed Magpie

Yellow billed magpie

Hedgerows provide a variety of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, such as attracting native bees to enhance pollination and natural enemies to control pests in adjacent crops. Birds also feed on insects and rodents, potentially helping with pest control in crops. The value of hedgerows on farms for enhanced biodiversity and ecosystem services will hopefully encourage more landowners to establish them on field edges for conservation purposes.

For more information on establishing hedgerows on farms, download the free UC ANR publication Establishing Hedgerows on Farms in California. A more thorough discussion of the study results highlighted in this blog can be found in the December 2012 issue of the California Society of Ecological Restoration newsletter, Ecesis. A conservation innovation grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) will help expand and continue this important research.


Read a more detailed summary of the benefits of hedgerows.

For more information on hedgerow management in Yolo, Sacramento & Solano Counties, contact Rachael: rflong at ucanr.edu.

For related content on hedgerows and on-farm water and irrigation management, visit our Water & Irrigation Toolkit!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with Eva: evaa at farmsreach.com.

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