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