Call me a man of simple tastes but I do love a good hedge.
In Suffolk’s agricultural landscape dominated by vast expanses of ploughed fields, they are often the only wild places to be found providing a vital resource for mammals, birds and insects; important corridors that allow wildlife to move between small pockets of habitat.
I’ve been thinking about hedges this month after I saw what a great job volunteers had done laying a hedge in Cornard Country Park, which is managed by the Sudbury Common Lands Charity. This particular hedge is relatively young and was planted in the past couple of decades, so laying it in this way, by cutting part way through the upward stem or ‘pleacher’ and bending it over horizontally, encourages new growth. Taking on tasks such as this is also the charity’s attempt to preserve some of the old country skills.
Planting hedges is in vogue with numerous organisations, from the RSPB to Historic England, calling for the creation of new hedgerows to boost biodiversity and combat climate change.
On the roads out of Sudbury, I’ve seen evidence of new hedges being planted: on the verges heading to Newton Green, on field borders towards Ipswich and lining the road to Castle Hedingham. At the moment they are unattractive rows of plastic tubes with small saplings poking out the top but hopefully they will flourish in the years to come.
Many of these are likely to have come about because of grants now available to farmers and landowners to plant hedgerows. The irony is that these new hedges are partial replacements for the vast number of established hedgerows that were grubbed out in the decades following the Second World War – a practice that at the time was also aided by government grants in a drive to boost agricultural efficiency.
It is widely accepted that we’ve lost around half of our hedgerows since 1945. As late on as 1969, a study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) estimated hedgerow loss to be approximately 10,000 miles of hedgerow per year.
But substituting an old hedge with a new hedge is not a ‘like for like’ replacement. Remove an established hedge and you can lose a wildlife habitat that has taken centuries to develop.
Established hedges will have originated in a number of ways. Some may be woodland hedges, formed out of woodland trees and shrubs left as remnants after woodland clearance. Others may derive from scrub growing on boundaries between cultivated fields while others will have been planted with individual or a mix of species. Many hedges were planted in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century because of the Enclosure Acts, which saw many new fields created.
And these old and ancient hedgerows will have a much more diverse composition of shrubs and plants that flower and fruit at different times and are therefore important sources of sustenance to a far greater number of species. Native hedge trees such as blackthorn and hawthorn will support climbing plants like honeysuckle, ivy, dog-roses and brambles while the build-up of deadwood and plant litter inside the hedge provides homes for many insects, which in turn will attract predators such as bats, shrews and birds.
I read of one ten-year study that identified over 3,000 species, mostly insects, interacting and using an ancient hedgerow in the west country where many of the older hedges are found.
Indeed, the ‘Hooper Formula’ - a technique for estimating the age of a hedge is based on plant biodiversity. The formula works by counting the number of tree and shrub species found in a 30-metre length with one species for each 100 years. A single species hedge is likely to be less than 100 years old whilst a 1,000-year-old hedge is likely to contain ten to twelve species.
Hedgerows are also expected to become even more important to tackle the very modern challenge of climate change. As temperatures rise and environments change, wildlife will need a healthy hedgerow network to move around. The deep roots of hedgerows also help to sequester carbon, and, according to the Guardian newspaper, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change 2019 report argued that the hedgerow network be extended by 40% as part of the UK’s 2050 net zero target.
But we also need to look after the hedgerows we already have. Too often I see hedgerows that have been vandalised and flayed back violently – destroying the autumn fruits that wildlife depends on and reducing the chances of a decent bloom of hedgerow flowers the following spring.
A greater appreciation of the value of hedgerows is what is required. They are not just simply glorified fences and boundary markers but a living ecosystem and habitat that we should preserve and care for properly.