Pheasant shoots save Scotland's vanishing hedges

A Blackthorn hedge in the Scottish Borders shows off its Autumn sloes

The loss of precious hedgerow habitats in Scotland would have worsened at a much faster rate had it not been for the popularity of pheasant shooting.

That is the view of Scotland’s professional Gamekeeping body as the nation celebrates National Hedgerow Week, which begins on Monday 10th October.

Fruit and blossom-rich hedges are a treasured part of Britain’s landscape, demarcating field boundaries and acting as vital ecosystems in their own right.

However, changes to post-war farming incentives, to boost food production, led to 50% of the UK’s hedges being torn up or lost due to lack of management.

Refuges for wildlife, today they are being re-assessed as vital to Net Zero plans, given their ability to sequester carbon and to reduce air pollution.

And gamekeepers in Scotland say the loss would have been accelerated had it not been for game shoots planting new hedges to provide cover for pheasant and partridge shooting.

Had it not been for shoots, more hedges would have gone from Scotland’s landscape by now. Unless there has been a reason or an incentive to plant or manage hedges, they have tended to be ripped up, which is really sad, given their huge value,” said Scottish Gamekeepers Association Chairman Alex Hogg, MBE, who has planted and managed hectares of privately funded hedgerows where he works in the Scottish Borders.

Pheasants and partridges nest and shelter in warm grasses at hedge bases, benefitting from the insect food source as well as berries and seeds.

That helps to retain birds ahead of the shooting season, which is worth millions to the rural economy.

Hedgerows also benefit many other species of birds as well as hedgehogs, bats, newts and declining pollinators.

A mixed hedgerow in the Lammermuir Hills, Scotland.

Craig Jones, a gamekeeper in the Lammermuir hills, has overseen the establishment of 70 000 hedge plants since 2012, with hawthorn, holly, dog rose, blackthorn and hornbeam amongst them.

Not only has this provided high altitude shelter for gamebirds, it helped the estate he works on achieve Carbon Neutral status.

“Hedge planting was identified as one of the reasons for our carbon neutral score,” says Craig, who tops and lays hedges, to maximise biodiversity benefit.

Shoots have continued to plant and maintain hedges over the years and perhaps the full benefits are only being realised now. It is a good job they did or we would have lost more of them.

“All the planting here is privately funded. The ground is very windswept so it was a way to hold pheasants and partridges, to manage predators and keep the draft out of the drives.

“Roe deer shelter there. We get lots of thrushes and small birds nesting and it boosts vole numbers which is great for the barn owls we have around the place. There are multiple reasons for doing it.”

The Tree Council states that 80% of the UK’s woodland birds find homes in hedges and the Independent Climate Change Committee has called on the UK’s hedge network to be extended by 40%.

In Perthshire, Ian Crawford (now 85), a retired landowning farmer, started planting hedges 53 years ago. He rears beef cattle and supports pheasant, partridge and duck shooting. In total he has planted 5000m of hedges as well as 30 acres of mixed native woodland.

At one stage we identified 139 species of birds here,” he says. “The hedges were planted to improve the wildlife habitat. There are lots of fruit, nuts and seeds as well as shelter. They are wonderful things.”

Gamekeepers and Hedges

  • Julian Fellowes, creator of Downtown Abbey told Country Life magazine.
  •       “Much of the preservation of hedges and woodland is done by gamekeepers, who were conservationists before the word was invented.”
  • Studies by Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) showed that farms with a game shoot have on average 27% more hedges than farms without a shoot.
  • The same study found that important grass margins around hedgerows were 24% wider on farms with shoots than farms without shoots.
  • A study by GWCT of Exmoor Pheasant Shooting Estates found that hedgerows on game estates had roughly twice as many breeding birds and 3 times as many seed-eating resident species than hedgerows on reference sites (National Trust holdings) without game management.
  • As well as hedges, gamekeepers actively manage woodland for shooting, with spin-offs for biodiversity. From an email survey of 965 National Gamekeepers’ Organisation and Scottish Gamekeepers Association members in 2019, 71% reported that they had planted trees.
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