They are highways of biodiversity and valuable carbon pools. Climate experts are among those seeking solutions in UK hedging.
Close your eyes and think of England. From the English countryside, to be precise. Most likely, you envision a variety of green fields, interwoven with lines of hedges. And that would be no surprise. They have been a defining feature of the landscape for hundreds, in some cases, thousands of years. Our oldest hedges are, like naturalist Oliver Rackham He described them as “ghosts of the forest” – linear fragments of the original wild forest, left as the boundaries of the field when Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers first cleared the land.
Many more, especially in the west of England, date back to the Middle Ages, explains Devon farmer and hedge expert Rob Wolton, pointing out his farm window. “That landscape is very similar to that of 600 years ago. We are looking at history, on the lines of the hedges. “
And those hedges have much more than history. Recent research confirms what our farming ancestors had known for centuries: hedges contain a host of benefits. Megan Gimber, Key Habitats Officer at the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and self-confessed “huge fan of hedges”, infuriates them. Hedges help conserve precious soil by acting as windbreaks and absorbing rainwater that would otherwise wash it off the fields. They are a haven for vital insects that pollinate our crops. They provide shelter for cattle from rain, sun, gales, and snow, as well as adding diversity to their diet. (Sick sheep and cattle seek herbal medicines from hedges.) They can be harvested for everything from nuts, berries and herbs to an impressive sustainable firewood harvest. And hedges store and sequester carbon, literally putting them on the front line of our commitment to tackling the climate crisis.
They can also be a rich reserve of wildlife. How yummy, Wolton explains as he leads me down the road to sport “an ordinary Devon hedge.” Like all properly managed hedges it is thick and tangled and not overly neat. Trimmed every few years, its ‘skirts’ wave across the field in a variety of brambles. Some mature trees sprout from the crown. It is, in short, messy but gorgeous.
And it was here that Wolton decided, a few years ago, to count the wild species that he could find in and by the hedge. Limiting himself to those he could see with the naked eye, aided by insect traps and local entomologists, his final tally was just over 2,000. A pretty impressive total for a single hedge, ranging from the tiny and possibly mundane (numerous parasitic wasps) to endangered gems like dormice and hedgehogs, along with lizards, toads, snakes, and a wide variety of birds, from warblers to bullfinches, thrushes. to dunnocks.
The hedges are a haven for wildlife, including dormouse, hedgehogs, and a wide variety of birds. Image: Hans Veth
Despite such a plethora of benefits, hedges have struggled in the postwar countryside, with farmers encouraged to uproot them in pursuit of maximizing production, wanting larger fields to accommodate larger and larger machinery, or, more recently, suffering by negligence. A hedge left to its own devices eventually morphs into a (much less useful) line of trees; one that is shaken with thoughtless regularity each year loses its structure, becomes “crooked,” and thus fails its primary duty as a stock-proof barrier. About half of the nation’s hedges have been lost in the past century.
The last decades have seen them protected first by law and then by various incentives for farmers to better maintain them. But, as Wolton puts it, “many [farmers] just don’t value them ”.
Although, he adds, coverage management does not have to be so complex or expensive. New tools, such as tree shears, along with the tractor-mounted flail, can be applied sensitively to keep all hedges healthy. And the essentials of the ancient craft of hedging can be taught “in an hour or so.” Each coverage is different, he says, and needs different management. But it doesn’t have to be too onerous a task. its Devon Hedge Group help spread that wisdom, along with practical advice, across the county.
Covering the best of us
More broadly, says Gimber, there are signs that “the tide is turning.” The search for net zero has spurred interest in the role of humble hedge as a carbon sink. The Climate Change Committee (the national advisory body on the issue) recommends a 40 per cent increase in hedges – an additional 200,000 km, which is equivalent to half of the UK’s road network. And if that sounds ambitious enough, the government’s environmental adviser, Natural England, goes further and suggests an increase of more than 60 percent.
The Climate Change Committee recommends a 40 percent increase in hedges. Image: George Hiles
These recommendations are beginning to drive policy. Cash-strapped farmers will be encouraged to create new hedges and to improve the management of existing ones, under the new Land environmental management plan, which will replace many of the existing farm support payments in the coming years.
Meanwhile, initiatives like Close the gap, led by the Tree Council, is providing funding and support to literally plug the gaps in existing hedges with new plantings. There is even a Healthy Hedgerow App, to help time-constrained farmers do a quick survey to spot where their hedges need help.
The UK’s first National Hedge Week, held in late May / early June, encouraged the public to get involved as well, learning to love their local hedges. It included advice for people on everything from planting and caring for their own hedges, to foraging for food without disturbing nesting birds or depriving wildlife of a food source, to lobbying local authorities to protect valuable trees and hedges. ancient.
Cash-strapped UK farmers will soon be encouraged to create new hedges. Image: Mario Mendez
Put all of this together and, as Wolton says, “this is a good time for the hedges.” Take some of the most pressing challenges facing the countryside and indeed the world as a whole: the climate crisis, soil erosion, ‘insect armageddon’ and a wider loss of biodiversity – and hedges are part of the solution.
But if that’s not enough, she adds, standing next to one of her prized messy hedges, which is filled with hums and birdsong on an early summer morning, there’s another reason. “The hedges are just wonderful,” he says.
Lead Image: Annie Spratt