It’s not just about netting hedges – mismanagement is making our hedgerows slowly disappear completely
Jim Jones, Visiting Scientist at the Hedgelaying In the Ontario Landscape Project at the University of Waterloo and member of UK hedgerows steering group Hedgelink, says the distressing occurrence of netting of hedges by developers is not the only threat to our iconic green wildlife corridors
The hedge, a distinctive but hitherto neglected feature of the British landscape, is attracting a lot of attention at the moment. Photos of balaclava-ed hedgerows and trees with nets thrown over them to prevent birds nesting in them prior to their removal during development have caused shock on Twitter. Celebrities Chris Packham and Jeremy Vine have condemned the practice and the storm has reached the pages of the Guardian and Telegraph. Vitriol has been directed at developers and consultant ecologists thought to be complicit with the developers, while others decry photos of flailed hedges, accusing farmers of failing to protect these green arteries of the English countryside that are disappearing from under our noses.
It is clear that nature lovers in both urban and rural areas are finding themselves shocked at the sight of hedgerows being prepared for removal with a shroud of netting. The practice is not illegal and is intended to protect birds from being disturbed or harmed so that the hedge can be destroyed during bird nesting season- otherwise the developers must wait until the end of August. Aside from highlighting the legal inequality between animals and plants under the Wildlife and Country Act, the real offence lies in the intended removal of the hedgerow, a condemned feature of our countryside being readied for the slaughter. Sometimes the nets are being found in place even before planning permission is granted.
Hedgerows have been inexorably disappearing from the British Countryside at an alarming rate through agricultural intensification since the Second World War. In 1974, Pollard1 reported that 8000km of hedgerows a year were removed between 1945 and 1963. The 1990 Countryside Survey estimated that in the six years between 1984 and 1990, the length of hedgerows had been reduced by 23% in Great Britain2. Hedgerows were a barrier to the bigger machinery and larger field sizes of the modern agricultural industry. A further survey in 2007 confirmed that while ‘managed’ hedges stabilised somewhat in the nineties3, hedgerows in general continued to decline, with a 15% decline in hedgerow length between 1984 and 2007, from 620,000km to 500,000km.
However, of even greater concern to me as a member of the UK Steering Group for hedgerows Hedgelink, is the poor management of existing hedgerows. The length of ‘managed’ hedgerows decreased by 6.2% in Great Britain between 1998 and 2007 with a large proportion of these turning into lines of trees and relict hedges, which are of much poorer ecological value.3 Less than half of managed hedgerows were found to be in good condition, suggesting that in spite of good initiatives such as Countryside Stewardship around 250,000km of hedgerows were suffering through poor hedgerow management.
Many simply don’t understand what a hedgerow is, or the value a well-managed hedgerow holds. A hedgerow is often treated just like a fence – but it is a living entity. It is, if you like, an ‘emergent property’ of the plants, trees, and a habitat for the birds, insects and mammals that make it up, but its more than the sum of its parts, much like a bicycle isn’t a wheel or pedals or brakes.
In addition to being a habitat, hedgerows provide environmental regulatory services including improving water quality, reducing flood risk, preventing soil erosion, reducing crop pests and improving air quality beside roads and railsides. Remarkably, one study in the US showed a saving on pesticide use from the planting of a hedgerow5. Rural hedges are also of course a natural form of livestock management, and land managers must convince them to grow according to their needs, most often in a thick, stock-proof barrier. But cutting a hedgerow at the same height, year-in year-out will kill it as surely as pouring poison on its roots, yet this is still the practice among many hedge managers. “Hedgerow” is also a term that causes much confusion and is often used to describe features ranging from the traditional shrubby farm hedge, through linear woodland to shelter belts and windbreaks.
Hedgerows can be protected- or more properly valued- if described and treated as a source of ‘natural capital’, which recognises the rich economic value of natural resources. As a land manager, hedgerows are a source of expenditure not income. More research needs to be done to create a comprehensive map of the economic benefits provided by hedgerows and hedgerow networks which must also include the socio-ecological values such as sense of place which are difficult to assess economically.
Hedgelink and its partners are working hard to protect the UKs hedgerows from declining into extinction through research, lobbying, education, and community participation. In 2000, Hedgelink, produced a risk-based survey for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which has become the standard way of assessing the condition of a hedgerow. It describes a hedgerow as any boundary line of trees or shrubs over 20m long and less than 5m wide, and where any gaps between the trees or shrub species are less that 20m wide.
The structure and species composition of a hedgerow will determine what management is best applied to keep a hedgerow in good condition. 4 Hedgelink published the Hedgerow Management Cycle which acknowledges two critical facts: the need for hedgerow rejuvenation and for incremental height increases. Plants will grow into simple lines of trees without rejuvenation from the base through hedgelaying or coppicing perhaps once every 20-40 years. Lines of trees are not hedges and don’t function in the same way for land mangers or for the wildlife that uses them. Allowing a hedge to grow through incremental cutting between rejuvenations is also essential. Cutting a plant at the same height every year cause plant stress and thickening of the wood into callouses. Increasing the cut height of perhaps 5cm allows shrubs to grow and when the hedge needs a trim perhaps every 2-3 years the cut is through 2-3 year old wood not 40 year old stems. In planning Hedgerows are currently protected by the Hedgerow Regulations 1997 which require a landowner to notify a local authority regarding hedgerow removal or face a fine of £5,000. The Regulations require the local authority to then notify the landowner if the hedgerow is Important and should be retained based on a range of criteria. In 2010, Hedgelink partner The Campaign To Protect Rural England (CPRE) published the results of a survey of local authorities showing that the Regulations were protecting hedgerows, but that the regulations should be simplified and should include a landscape criterion to protect locally distinctive hedgerows.
In 2012-14 Hedgelink was also involved in a consultation by DEFRA about biodiversity offsetting where we recommended that any hedgerow removed through development should be replaced, after due process, with at least like for like, and that hedgerows in good condition would need to be replaced by two or three times the length of the hedge removed8. We would like to see this adopted in planning guidance.
Working with DEFRA, we are seeking a new Countryside Stewardship offering that helps support land managers to pay for hedgerow rejuvenation through hedgelaying with outcome-based awards focusing on delivering public benefits with hedgerows appropriately valued for the benefits they deliver.
The questions of how we address the apparent surge in hedge netting and how we better protect our remaining hedgerows, will be discussed at the upcoming Hedgelink meeting. If you find yourself feeling hopeless in the face of a netted or recently denuded hedge in your local area, you can support our hedgerows in the following ways:
- Continue investigating netted trees and hedges
- Plant a new hedgerow with members of your local community. You could ask the developer to contribute to the planting costs, apply for a community tree planting grant from The Tree Council or contact the Woodland Trust for one of its tree packs. You may like to consider making a HedgePledge, a new way of connecting with hedgerows through storytelling.
- Get involved with a local hedgerow restoration project in your area, or if one doesn’t exist, organise a community Hedgerow Mapping Project using the DEFRA Hedgerow Survey Guide. Mapping local hedgerows is a step towards protecting them, especially the valuable ones.
Become a Hedgerow Hero with Surrey Wildlife Trust, and you'll learn hedgerow surveying and hedgelaying skills
- If you’re really keen, you can learn hedgelaying with a local hedgelaying society! You can find out your local one through the National Hedgelaying Society.
- Explore all the work being done by our partners to protect and promote hedgerows. For example, the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species have been promoting hedgerows since 2009 when this author managed their Hedgerows for Dormice Citizen Science project. Their work educating people on the value of hedgerows for dormice and all wildlife continues The Woodland Trust and Keep Wales Tidy’s Long Forest project is training volunteers in surveying and restoring hedgerows, with the Woodland Trust providing Tree Packs for volunteers.
If you need more information or have questions about our hedgerows, visit the Hedgelink website [LINK] which contains lots of resources provided by our range of partners.
- Pollard, E., Hooper, M. D. & Moore, N. W. (Norman W. Hedges. (Collins, 1974).
- Barr, C. J. et al. Countryside Survey 1990. (DOE London, 1993).
- Carey, P. D. et al. 2008 Countryside Survey: UK Headline Messages from 2007. CH5. Boundary and Linear Features Broad Habitat. Countryside Survey: UK Results from 2007 (2007).
- Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. Hedgerow Survey Handbook A standard procedure for local surveys in the UK. (2007). doi:10.3182/20080706-5-KR-1001.1297
- Morandin, L. A., Long, R. F. & Kremen, C. Pest control and pollination cost-benefit analysis of hedgerow restoration in a simplified agricultural landscape. J. Econ. Entomol. 109, 1020–1027 (2016).
- Wolton, R., Pollard, K., Goodwin, A. & Norton, L. Regulatory services delivered by hedges : The evidence base. LM0106 Report for Defra and Natural England. 99 (2014).
- Stafford, B. et al. England’s hedgerows: don’t cut them out! Making the case for better hedgerow protection. Campaign to Prot. Rural Engl. (2010).
- DEFRA & Natural England. Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers. 27 (2012).