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We need to talk about hedges: a new campaign encourages restoration


Tree planting has never had a higher profile. The excellent plan for a tree-bilee has just hit the news, the Green Canopy scheme to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee, her 70 years on the throne.

From October to the end of 2022, concerted tree planting is to be encouraged across Britain through those important local conduits, the Lord-Lieutenant of each county. The aim is to capture carbon and increase biodiversity. In my private hopes, there may be a further royal gain: a denser tree canopy might block out any more from Meghan, Harry and Oprah before it filters on to the airwaves.

The scheme will be wonderful so long as it does not stop at hyped-up number-planting: “100,000 new trees in dynamic Preston”, whether or not they live. Trees need to be intelligently spaced and maintained. The dry months of the first lockdown are a warning to number-planters.

On daily rural walks I watched how saplings had been crammed in at a high density, conforming to a grant-linked condition that they will then somehow grow up straighter. Left to fight for survival, they were drying out and dying.

A green canopy needs able planters and maintainers who know what they are doing. There is a massive opening here for training, employment and regeneration, not just in northern cities but in ravaged areas of the former treescape from Norfolk to Wiltshire, East Yorkshire to Northamptonshire.

There is also a massive opening for hedge planting and maintenance. The treescape is all very fine, but the hedge-scape is just as important. This week is a milestone in official recognition of a rural disaster of my lifetime, the removal and mismanagement of thousands of miles of hedgerows across Britain. They took decades, even centuries, to develop, but mechanical grubbing out, the removal of an old farm hedge, took a week at most.

Since 1945, up to half of Britain’s hedges have been lost. Their massacre was encouraged by urban-based planners in the then Ministry of Agriculture, eventually with EU backing, which provided generous subsidies. Its top-down view of prairie farming in ill-suited bits of Britain has at last been branded an eco-disaster.

In late 2020, a hedge-restoration project, Close the Gap, received £1.8m from the government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund, a welcome change of tack. The Tree Council with its national partners has now declared our first ever National Hedgerow Week, running until Sunday night (treecouncil.org.uk for details). They are aiming to activate farmers, environmentally concerned participants and Britain’s gardeners, including the 3m new gardeners gained since first lockdown.

Why do hedges need to come back? So far they have played a lesser role than woodlands in debates about attaining carbon zero. They are just as important. Hedgerow Week emphasises their role in fostering biodiversity, capturing carbon, countering flooding and much else.

The one detailed study of a hedgerow is a recent study by Rob Wolton, a meticulous observer of a single hedge in Devon. Admittedly, it was an old established one in a green setting but Wolton identified 2,070 species in it, even with the naked eye. What woodland can match that tally?

Many were insects, but all to the good. Hedgerows also help species that like to interrelate with other species. If they are not gappy, they even please dormice, who are otherwise wary of entering wide corridors.

Talk to the Hedge campaign
National Hedgerow Week’s Talk to the Hedge campaign © The Tree Council

In Hedgerow Week we are being encouraged to get to know a hedge and talk to it. After months of lockdown it might make a change from the family but, like hundreds of thousands of fellow sportsmen, I do not need this advice. For more than 60 years I have done so between November and March. In the debate about the vital role of copses and hedges in the British landscape, nothing is ever said about the invaluable role of field sports, especially fox-hunting, now illegal.

The finest hedges in Britain are those planted and cared for by hunters: even as legal trail hunters, they want to be able to jump them with pleasure on horseback. For that reason, swaths of Leicestershire, say, or Herefordshire have been transformed and treasured. If hunters knock a hole in them they are promptly fenced at their own expense and cut and laid so as to grow back.

I will not be going out tomorrow to talk to hedges. I bless them anyway, thinking of my close encounters with them whenever an urban meeting starts on to topics like “disinvestment”. Hunting helped to transform the English landscape from the mid 19th century onwards. Eco-warriors need to acknowledge this legacy.

Before enclosure, open fields had their fans too: the status quo always does. “Enclosure like a Bonaparte, let not a thing remain”, lamented the rural poet John Clare, a lover of the unenclosed landscape of his youth. Most of us, hunters or not, now love green grassland with thick thorn hedges, rolling away to the horizon: think of being stuck with a Britain that looked like hedgeless Flanders.

Apart from the look of it, what else does a hedged landscape achieve? In 2019 the Committee on Climate Change urged that about 200,000km of new hedges must be planted across Britain if the 2050 net zero target for carbon is to be met. Hedges are great for carbon capture. Just ponder what that figure means: an increase of hedges by 40 per cent, a length as big as half the existing UK road system.

In Devon, Moor Trees are leaders in growing and supplying young trees for the purpose, with backing from the Close the Gap project (moortrees.org). Here gardeners too have a role. Few of us can plant a wood, but many of us can plant a hedge. It really makes a difference, especially, say the experts, if the chosen plant’s leaves are slightly hairy, varieties of cotoneaster being good examples. There is no special need to plant “native” hedges in an urban garden. Biodiversity will flourish in non-natives too.

Hard science has analysed the effects. A hawthorn hedge, if kept at a height of 2.2m and a width of 2.6m, can capture 7.95 tonnes of carbon per kilometre, with even more captured in the surrounding soil. Hedgerow trees grow with less competition than woodland ones and so capture much more carbon.

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In 2007, careful modelling concluded that about 13 per cent of the carbon in France’s Brittany landscape is trapped in hedges. In towns, hedges reduce wind tunnels and also reduce pollution. A scientific study sets out the case, published by KV Abhijith and co-authors, ranging from Bologna to Ann Arbor, USA. It appeared in May 2017 in the journal Atmospheric Environment and is of international importance.

Here is one obvious point, so far lost in public discussion. The government wants to free up planning permission and encourage housebuilding, but developers are seldom friends to the cause of hedges as green infrastructure. It needs to be made imperative in any new plan.

Gardeners, meanwhile, have a role worth playing. Beyond the garden fence they can support the excellent charity Hedgelink (hedgelink.org.uk), pioneers in hedge-revaluation in the landscape. They can also plant and maintain hedges in a garden. Collectively their total makes a carbon-captured difference. Farmland, as ever, is the main arena, but gardens are not bit players in this drama.

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