Our forgotten wildlife haunt

Our hedgerow network tells a rich story of the UK’s rural past. Many hedges are ancient and might have existed for thousands of years: some simply mark the former woodland edge where a field was cleared from the “waste” for agriculture. These premedieval hedges tend to follow contours and often have a characteristic “S” shape that resulted from the necessary turns made by the horse-drawn plough. As a very general rule, the number of species in a hedge indicates its age, with more species suggesting greater age.

In some parts of the country, the Midlands in particular, hedges tend to be arrow straight and comprised largely, if not entirely, of hawthorn (also known as “quickset” for its ability to rapidly form a stock-proof boundary). These were planted during the Parliamentary Enclosures, which heralded the start of the Agricultural Revolution and marked a period of profound social change. Entire villages were abandoned as inhabitants left to seek a living in the rapidly expanding towns and cities. Sophisticated forms of crop rotation were developed that allowed more food to be produced from less land worked by fewer people. Sheep farming reached its zenith and the fortunes of those lucky enough to have been on the right side of the Enclosures were made.

The intensification of agriculture has continued unabated, but our hedgerows have been sadly neglected along the way. Hundreds of thousands of kilometres have been destroyed in the last 60 years, with the nadir of the 1980s and 1990s marked by the grubbing up of around 185,000 kilometres before the introduction of the Hedgerow Regulations in 1997. Things have recovered a little in recent years, but losses are still happening due to infrequent or inappropriate management.

Neglected hedgerows become gappy and tall, eventually turning into broken lines of mature trees, often bearing evidence of their former management, or pleaching. These “ghosts” can be good for wildlife but they tend not to persist. A more valuable option is to maintain them as dense, stock-proof barriers, cut at the right time of year and relaid on a regular cycle. This allows them to maintain their function; in terms of wildlife habitat (hedgerows support 11% of all Biodiversity Action Plan priority species) and the many additional, often overlooked benefits they deliver.

Hedges are a haven for pollinating insects and the birds that feed on them. They limit soil erosion and runoff, store carbon, and can even act as a barrier to crop diseases such as potato blight. Hedgerow trees, or standards, are particularly important. In the past they were usually maintained as pollards for fuel and winter forage for livestock.

Hedgerow trees are seldom replaced when they fall because they are not perceived as having a value that justifies their sustenance. Ash trees are common in hedges, but with the country in the grip of ash dieback (caused by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus – the “correct” name for Chalara Ash Dieback) these now look set to be lost on an unprecedented scale. This will have a significant impact on the resilience of the landscape – its ability to absorb, recover and adapt to change – yet hedgerows’ vulnerability to loss is seldom considered in the debate around the national response to tree disease.

With hedgerow management forming part of the next round of the Rural Development Programme, there is a real opportunity for farmers to maximise the benefits they get from their hedges. This would include restocking gappy areas, planting successor standards and wildlife sensitive management. Keeping our hedgerow network alive will benefit everyone: let’s not allow our chapter in the history of the UK’s hedged landscape turn into a ghost story.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Advisor

About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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9 Responses to Our forgotten wildlife haunt

  1. Mechanical trimmers wreck hedges. The BTCV provide courses in Hedgelaying and i enjoyed it in 1985 on the Blagdon Estate in Northumberland

  2. aldwick says:

    We are about to move into a home that has a hedgerow along the rear of the garden which does look somewhat depleted, can you suggest what we can plant to restock the hedgerow for the benefit of our wildlife.
    Valerie smith

  3. Kay Haw says:

    Nick Atkinson says:
    “Thanks for your positive comments. The thing about our hedgerow network is that it already exists – it’s just that in many places it’s not in a very good condition. The potential loss of landscape connectivity through tree disease (ash dieback in particular) is massive and the time to take pre-emptive measures is right now. The Woodland Trust is a member of Hedgelink (www.hedgelink.org.uk) and is actively seeking ways to promote better protection and management of this vital yet neglected natural resource.”

  4. Dr Ken Brown says:

    Of course, I agree, but it seems worth registering the point that wildlife/biodiversity is facing devastating damage in the (so far) most unspoiled areas of the UK. I’m referring to the scramble by the international corporate sector to establish wind turbine arrays on Scotland’s wildest hills – in the Highlands in particular. Here is one letter of concern by the iconic conservation charity, Trees for Life, that gives some impression of the kind of threat posed to our wildlife:

    ‘Moriston Wind Farm proposed by EON Statement of Concern from Trees for Life
    Trees for Life is very concerned about the planned wind farm of up to 30 turbines proposed by the company EON for Glenmoriston, and if/when the proposal is submitted for planning permission, we will lodge an objection against it.
    The reasons for our concern include:
    1. Glen Moriston is a relatively unspoilt Highland glen, and a major scenic tourist route, for visitors travelling between the top destinations of Loch Ness and Skye. The glen is already blighted visually by the newly upgraded Beauly- Denny transmission line and by the Millennium Wind Farm, to the west of that proposed now by EON. Another wind farm project, at Balaraidh on the north side of Glen Moriston, has just been approved by the Scottish Government, and although no plans have yet been submitted for how that scheme will connect to the National Grid, it is highly likely this will involve further pylons in Glen Moriston. Adding the EON proposal to this will result in Glen Moriston becoming an ‘industrial alley’, ringed by the steel of numerous highly visually intrusive turbines and pylons, and totally inappropriate for a major tourist route.
    2. As we pointed out in our formal objection to the Bhlaraidh Wind Farm, the A887 road in Glen Moriston is unsuitable for the transport of turbines, being a single track road for parts of its length.
    3. The proposed wind farm includes part of the area of Inverwick that is covered in forest. This area includes some of the last remnants of the original Caledonian Forest, and has been subject to restoration measures by Forestry Commission Scotland in recent years. Trees for Life has been a partner in this process, and it is unacceptable that these restored areas will be damaged and seriously impacted by the tracks, powerlines and turbine bases of this project, all of which will require clearance of the trees. With the Scots pine having recently been declared the National tree of Scotland, and the Inverwick area being targeted by FCS for restoration to Caledonian pinewood ( a priority habitat under the EU’s Habitat and Species directive), it is completely incompatible with those objectives for this wind farm to be proposed here now.
    4. At Dundreggan, just across the glen from the proposed wind farm, we have a population of brown long-eared bats, a species which is listed in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority for conservation. Recent evidence has demonstrated that wind turbines pose a real danger for bats, with individuals being drawn upwards by the swirling air currents around the turbines and killed. If the wind farm were to be constructed, the bats at Dundreggan would undoubtedly be at risk from the turbines, and the proposal there is at complete odds with the governments commitment to protecting and enhancing the brown long eared bat, through its listing on the UK BAP.
    5. Above the existing trees, where much of the wind farm is proposed to be sited, there is a significant population of dwarf birch plants, an important species in the very rare montane shrub community in Scotland. Dwarf birch plants on Dundreggan have recently been shown to be hosts for two species of sawflies never recorded in the UK before, and are also the only food source for a rare micro-moth ( Swammerdamia passerella ) that is included on the Sottish Biodiversity Action Plan list. It is likely the two sawflies also occur on the site of the proposed wind farm, and their abundance and survival, and that of the micro-moth, are likely to be compromised if the wind farm were to be constructed.
    6. The access tracks and roads associated with the wind farm will provide an invasion route for non-native species of plants and trees into the area. This is already the case for hydro roads on the north side of Glen Moriston, and would undermine the work being carried out by FCS and Trees for Life to restore the area to native woodland.
    7. At a time when great emphasis is being placed by the Scottish government on community empowerment, and taking account of local communities in planning projects (and for every grant application to organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund), it is imperative that the views of the local community about this proposed wind farm are taken account of. This does not appear to be the case at present, and is a matter of considerable concern to Trees for Life.

    Alan Watson Featherstone, February 2014′

    You can see more about this irresponsible proposal by E.ON on our website:


  5. jpeggytaylor says:

    Hedges are amazing and fabulous for biodiversity. Traditional hedgelaying is an insufficiently practised art in the UK – instead we see the butchery produced by powered hedge cutting machinery that passes as ‘hedge maintenance’. Hedgelaying is an enjoyable and fulfilling activity, I found.

  6. Derek West says:

    Hedges are certainly a great asset for biodiversity,but they must be managed properly,you see many hedges here in East Anglia that are cut to frequently and crops grown to within inches of the hedge.

  7. Peter Kyte says:

    Hedges are part of our historical heritage and should be conserved.

  8. Ash says:

    Hooray for hedges! There should be a Hedge Trust on the same lines as the Woodland Trust!

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