In Praise of Hedgerows

Jon Keane
Sunday, 7th July 2013

Hedgerows are wildlife habitats, climate stabilisers and much more. Jon Kean explains why they are under threat, why they are of such value and what we can do to save them.

Recently a farmer in Shropshire applied to remove 11,393m of hedgerow; that is over seven miles – all the hedges in his 142ha (350ac) farm. The current Hedgerow Regulations in the UK appeared to be unable to prevent this. Officials from the council and environmental bodies knew in their hearts that this was wrong, but their heads could not find a reason to prevent it. This has exposed a dangerous precedent and shows that the current Hedgerow Regulations need reviewing. At least a third, possibly as high as two thirds of our hedgerows have no protection and can be removed simply by giving six weeks notice!

The RSPB states that hedges may support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies. The ditches and banks associated with hedgerows provide habitat for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles. In areas with few woods, many species of birds depend on hedgerows for their survival. At least 30 British bird species nest in hedgerows. Hedgerows are in fact linear nature reserves and should be recognised and cared for as such. Many hedgerows are degraded by the current use of flailing that reduces the woody species that live in them – as current protection of hedgerows depends on the number of woody species found in them, this treatment effectively reduces the level of protection.

The reason given to remove those hedgerows in Shropshire was that the fields were too small for the machinery needed to spray the fields to increase food production. As 50% of all food produced does not make it to the plate (EU figures) this reason is at best questionable. We need to be more efficient in the food supply chain, not to remove our hedgerows which we need for many reasons.

Functions of Hedgerows

What do hedgerows do for us?

Homes for wildlife

A recent survey of an English hedge revealed the presence of 1,671 species including butterflies, moths, bees, birds, small mammals and numerous invertebrates.

Food for stock

Horses, sheep, cattle and goats all benefit from browsing hedges gaining a varied diet and so being healthier, eg. hawthorn is said to regulate the heart.

Food for wildlife

In this universe everything eats something else. Hedges feed insects which feed birds which feed mammals. All the species associated with hedgerows are important, not just the rarer ones. They all depend on each other. Bees and other pollinators thrive on hedgerow flowers. Many birds travel many miles in the winter to feed on our hedges, such as fieldfare and redwing. Many travel in the summer to raise young and feed on the invertebrates that thrive in hedges. We have an international obligation.

Medication

Animals self medicate, eg. hogweed found growing at the base of most hedges is said to remove worms and other parasites. Shelter Stock need shelter from wind and sun.

Food for people

Young hawthorn, beech and lime leaves add flavour to salads; elderflower and elderberries make great drinks. Elderberry is a noted immune system booster. Rosehips are full of vitamin C. The list is endless.

Flood control

Hedges drink lots and water is stored around the roots. They are also a barrier against water run-off and consequent soil erosion. Hedgerows mimic the 'edge' between woodlands and pastures They can make a 'tubular wood' which is more resilient than an actual wood and more beneficial to wildlife as a whole. Engineers know that hollow structures are generally stronger than solids.

Safe 'highways' through the countryside bringing in new blood

This prevents in-breeding which leads to local extinctions. This makes them more important to the longevity of species than isolated reserves.

Wind breaks and soil retention

Soil is our most precious resource and is being blown or washed away at unsustainable rates. In places we are running out of soil quicker than oil due to wind and floods, eg. parts of the fens.

Protect against the new diseases appearing in stock from midge bites

The problem is just as likely to be a shortage of midge eating birds due to shortage of available nesting sites and a shortage of other insects which in their turn would keep the disease bearing insects at bay. All wildlife is important to keep a balance.

Carbon capture

Plants take in carbon from the air.

Nitrogen fixing

Some take in nitrogen from the air and 'feed' it to the soil, eg. gorse and alder.

Timber and fuel

They can provide wood and other biofuels.

Beauty and local distinctiveness

They look good and give many areas their distinctive looks.

The Vision

The UK would be healthier with an enlarged network of hedgerows, with broad bases and if allowed to grow higher. Hedgerows should be regarded as a valuable resource rather than a nuisance that gets in the way of machinery. Fruit trees and bushes could be planted in hedgerows to produce food. Species could be planted to fix nitrogen into the soil. Flayed and regularly cut hedges do not yield fruit but hedgerows could be harvested for wood on a longer rotation, thus yielding wood fuel for people and berries or nuts for birds and mammals. These tend to grow on second year or older wood, so close cut hedges bear no fruit. With imagination, hedgerows could be a major win-win between the needs of wildlife and people, with all better off.

What You Can Do... SIGN THIS ePetition! 

The petition asks that Environmental Impact Assessments and Landscape Characteristic Assessments should be undertaken before hedgerows are removed. Please sign and ask your friends, relatives and colleagues to sign to properly protect our hedgerows. You can also ask member organisations you belong to, to bring this petition to the notice of other members. We need 100,000 signatures for Government to be required by law to respond to this petition. 

Further resources

Replanting Hedgerows Using Permaculture Design

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty Under Threat

Foraging for Wild Food and Medicinal Plamnts - Hedge Mustard Plant Profile

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