What the Romans started; the 13th century Anglo Saxons copied and The Enclosure Acts between 1760 and 1820 finally made law, is now in danger of being lost altogether, changing the internationally renowned appearance of this once great land.
I talk about the demise of the hedgerow that creates the so called traditional patchwork quilt pattern of the English countryside. The English Hedgerow Trust along with Government legislation is going some way to halt the destruction of this unique self contained eco system.
It was under The Enclosure Acts that a whopping 21% of the land was enclosed; approximately 7 million acres of common land and open fields were divided up amongst the wealthy landowners, with around 200,000 miles of hedges being planted between 1750 and 1850.
By 1945 there were approximately 500,000 miles of hedgerow but now there are around 310,700 miles and about 42% of these are ancient and/or species rich and it is these that have been included as a Priority Habitat in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) published in 1995.
Hedgerows are protected by the Hedgerows Regulations 1997, making it illegal to remove or destroy certain hedgerows without permission from the local planning authority.
Ironically until the mid 1980’s there were grants available for hedge removal under the auspices of agricultural improvement, but now there are grants available to reverse the trend.
The remaining hedgerows have become essential lifelines not only for animals, but also the success of the crop in the field they border. The length of ‘managed’ hedgerows decreased by 6.2% between 1998 and 2007, if left to their own devices, the hedgerows become simply a line of trees and relict hedges.
So what makes a good hedgerow? The thicker or deeper the bush is at its base the better and it must have different plants; the most common are alder, blackthorn, holly and hawthorn.
As a general rule of thumb, each plant species (excluding elder) in a 30 yard stretch of hedgerow represents 100 years growth. In Cambridgeshire there is a hedgerow known as ‘Judith’s Hedge’ that is thought to be 900 years old and there are many throughout England that are over 500 years old.
Some of the other plants to look out for are ash; beech; blackberry; crab apple and hazel. Wild flowers that might eventually establish themselves are the bluebell; cowslip; foxglove and primrose. Some of the more interesting names are dog’s violet; ragged robin and yellow rattle.
This biologically diverse ecosystem (BDE) has its own unique modus operandi and its survival relies on our help. Something of a human/nature dichotomy i.e. we created the system of hedgerows to satisfy our thirst for land, Mother Nature adopted and nurtured our creation to the benefit of wildlife and now we must in turn make an effort to maintain our original creation.
Other than the multitude of plant species that make up the BDE, the hedgerow is also home to a large number of mammals, birds and insects. There are 21 out of 28 lowland mammals; 69 out of 91 birds and 23 out of 54 butterflies that breed, feed and hibernate in the bowels of the hedgerow. A well maintained hedgerow is also a source of food with berries, nuts, insects, slugs, snails and spiders. The pygmy shrew and dormouse are amongst the more unusual animals that benefit and if there is a ditch alongside, then amphibians such as frogs, toads or newts may be found.
The hedgerow also acts as a wind-break sheltering crops and animals and will help prevent soil erosion and water runoff.
Trimming a hedgerow is also a science; there are rules on how, when and with what. Trimming is not allowed during the main nesting season between 1 March and 31 July unless there is a safety hazard e.g. adjacent to a road or footpath. Then there are certain bushes e.g. berry bearing that should not be cut more than every three years to allow the fruit to properly form.
It is also important to use the correct equipment e.g. a flail can be used on some hedgerows but not others and whilst plant debris should be removed from the roads for obvious safety reasons, any dead wood that falls into the hedgerow can continue to be of value as a habitat for some creatures.
Then there is hedge laying that is making a comeback. This involves cutting nearly all the way through the base of the stems and laying them at an angle of about 30 degrees. The cut stems or pleachers are laid parallel to each other, so that as the hedge grows through, it is strengthened by the woven branches. This can also be used for gapping up where a hedge has become thin or gaps have appeared.
If a hedge has been neglected so much so that it cannot recover, then a more severe treatment is coppicing. The final choice might be as simple as replanting and to stop animals eating the new plants, they are protected with special collars.
So the next time you get stuck behind a tractor that is cutting back the hedgerow, don’t be too impatient with them, the hedgerow is a wonderful world for wildlife and an important part of our national heritage; and no one can deny the sight of individual fields boxed in by a well kept hedge is a far more interesting landscape than the huge prairie size fields that exist in some parts of the country.