They are biodiversity highways and precious carbon stores. Meteorologists are among those seeking solutions in the UK’s hedges.
Close your eyes and think of England. In English rural areas, to be exact. Chances are, you draw a row of green fields, made up of hedge lines. And that should come as no surprise. They have been a prominent feature of the landscape for hundreds – in some cases, thousands – of years. We have very old hedges, Oliver Reckham as a naturalist. He described them as “wildland ghosts”: linear fragments of the original wild wood, left as field boundaries when the Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers first cleared the land.
Many, especially in the west of England, are middle-aged, said Dev Walton, a farmer and hedgehog expert, pointing out the window of his farmhouse. “This landscape is the same as it was 600 years ago. We’re looking at history, in hedgerows.
And they have a lot of hedge history. Recent research confirms that our agricultural predecessors knew for centuries: Hedges have a huge store of benefits. Megan Gimber, Chief Resident Officer. People’s confidence in endangered species. And the self-proclaimed “massive hedge fan” ticks them off. Hedges act as windbreaks, and help save valuable soil by absorbing rainwater that would otherwise wash it off the fields. They are a haven for important pests, which pollinate our crops. They protect their livestock from rain, sun, storms and snow, as well as add variety to their diet. (Sick sheep and cattle hedgehogs seek herbal medicine from plants.) They can be harvested for everything from nuts, berries and herbs to an impressive crop of sustainable wood fuel. And Hedges Store and Sequist Carbon – literally putting them in the front line. Our bid to deal with the climate crisis.
They can also be a rich source of wildlife. Just how rich, Walton explains, he takes me down the lane just to show me a typical Devon Hedge. Like all properly managed hedges, it is thick and tangled and no one is clean. Trimmed every few years, her ‘skirts’ land in a row of bubbles. Some mature trees grow from above. It’s short, dirty, but wonderful.
And that’s where Walton decided, a few years ago, to count the wild species he could find in the hedge. Restricting himself to people he could see with the naked eye, with the help of insect nets and local insect experts, the last number was just over 2,000. A very impressive collection for a hedge, with a whole array of worldly (numerous parasitic straps) umbrellas, toads, grass snakes and birds from the moment and the argument, from black caps to belfins, dormes and hedgehogs. Dangerous gems thrushes to drnocks.
Hedges are a haven for wildlife, including dormes, hedgehogs and a whole range of birds. Photo: Hans With
Despite the many benefits, hedges in rural areas are having a hard time after deforestation, farmers are encouraged to mow them to get maximum yields, large fields to accommodate large machinery forever. Want a hedge that is left on your devices to eventually turn into a (less useful) line of trees. One inadvertently loses its regular fill structure every year, becomes a ‘gapy’, and thus fails in its primary duty as a stock-proof barrier. About half of the nation has lost Hijras in the last century.
Recent decades have seen them protected first by law, and then by various incentives for farmers to take better care of them. But, as Wilton puts it, “a lot. [farmers] Don’t just value them. “
However, he added, hedge management does not have to be so complicated, or expensive. New tools, such as tree shears, can be sensitively fitted to keep each hedge healthy, with tractor failures. And hedgehog handicrafts can be taught “in an hour.” Every hedge is different, he says, and requires different arrangements. But this work does not have to be cumbersome. his Devon Hedge Group Helps to spread such strategies in the county with practical advice.
Our best protection
More broadly, Gambar says, there are signs that “the tide is turning”. The search for pure zero has aroused interest in the role of the humble hedge as a carbon sink. The Climate Change Committee (the National Advisory Council on the Issue) is recommending a 40% increase in Hijro: an additional 200,000 km – equivalent to half the UK’s road network. And if that sounds ambitious, the government’s environmental adviser, Natural England, is proposing a further 60% increase.
The Climate Change Committee has recommended a 40% increase in migration. Photo: George Hales
Such recommendations are starting to drive policy. Cash-strapped farmers will be encouraged to create new hedges, and existing ones will be better managed under the new ones. Environmental Land Management Scheme, Which will replace many of the current agricultural aid payments in the coming years.
Meanwhile, measures such as Close the gap., Led by the Tree Council, is providing funding and assistance to fill the gaps in existing hedges, including planting new ones. There is even one. Healthy Hedgehog App.Do quick surveys to help farmers who are under pressure to find out if their hedges need some help.
The UK’s first National Hijro Week, held in late May / early June, encouraged people to join in by learning to love their local Hijro. From planting people and caring for their hedges without disturbing the nesting birds or depriving them of animal food, lobbying local authorities to protect valuable trees and ancient hedges. There were points about everything.
Cash-strapped UK farmers will soon be encouraged to build new hedges. Photo: Mario Mendes
Put it all together, and as Walton puts it, “it’s a good time for hedges.” Take on some of the most difficult challenges facing rural areas and indeed the world – climate crisis, soil erosion, ‘pest infestation’ and loss of vast biodiversity – and hedges are part of the solution.
But if that’s not enough, he added, standing next to one of his lovely dirty hedges, which resonates with summer mornings and birds, is another reason. “Hedges are just bloody monsters,” he says.
Main image: Annie Spratt