I recently went to an inspiring, international Hands on Hedges meeting in Bemmel near Nijmegen in the Netherlands. The Foundation that organised it has grown out of a desire to see the remaining Dutch hedges managed for their beauty as well as the restoration of lost hedge landscapes in Netherlands. They talk about hedges but the hedges are full of old trees, mainly pollards or trees that have worked as hard as the shrubs in the hedge and could be as much as 250 years old.
Hedges with trees can be really important features of the landscape. In 1905 a Belgium forester, J Huberty, said “The region looks as if it is a great forest, but one only finds a small number of woodlands there. The reason for this is the high density of rows of trees, hedges with pollard trees, small woods and orchards.”
Groups from Belgium, France, UK (Hedgelink in particular) and of course the Netherlands as well as individuals from other countries spoke about the disappearance of the hedge landscape or ‘bocage’ across Northern Europe. All of them highlighted the important roles of hedges with trees as ecological corridors, for creating local landscape identity and as green monuments –cultural features full of history and people. They emphasised the scientific evidence that hedges provide valuable ecosystem services to farmers but despite this in front of our eyes they are melting away through agricultural intensification and lack of care. Trees within hedges have a specially important part to play in increasing biodiversity value especially ancient and veteran trees. There are over 8000 trees recorded in the Ancient Tree Hunt as being found in hedges.
Perhaps one of the most successful restoration projects has been in an area where it was severely damaged. What was once beautiful, rich ‘bocage flamand’ or Flemish bocage in western Belgium around Ypres was almost entirely destroyed in the First World War.
After the war, there were attempts at restoration but Dutch elm disease arrived and there was always plenty of barbed wire ready to hand as an alternative. However in 1995 a regional project started up and built one to one, long term relationships with individual farmers and their families, especially wives. All the farmers that participated have been visited at least once a year since then to monitor the hedge progress. Through this scheme the interest in restoring the landscape has gone to the heart of the community and farmers who maintain the hedges now encourage others to increase their hedge creation. Another project in France, Prom’haies, plants 3 million trees a year, many grown from seed collected locally. Other groups called on the financial institutions that provide loans or grants for farmers to play a greater role in brokering a better return on ecological capital at the same time.
Later this year will see the publication of a couple of landmark, richly illustrated, volumes by Georg Müller titled “Europe’s field boundaries”. These are the result of a personal research project over the past 30 years and will showcase the range of unimaginable diversity of hedges and field boundaries across 32 European countries. Let’s hope that this is not the last glimpse of what we once possessed but stimulates increased conservation and protection –part of our physical history of human endeavour.
There is nothing quite like sharing a green interest with like minded people in other European countries. The conference was held in English and we were very warmly welcomed and we delighted in seeing the Maasheggen – an almost unique, remaining patch of rich hedges and pollard trees in the Netherlands – it’s well worth a visit.
Jill Butler, Ancient Tree Adviser