THEOn New Year’s Day, environmentalist Rob Wolton had an unusual resolution: spend the next 12 months studying a hedge 40 meters from his home in the middle of Devon. I wanted to make a list of every plant, animal, and fungus that used it. Why? Because a wildlife enthusiast friend challenged him to do it during a long drive.
“I thought it would take me a year, but by the end of the first I was still finding masses of new species, so I decided to go on for another,” he says.
That was 10 years ago. After two years of observations, he had found 2,000 species, many more than he imagined. Not everyone’s idea of fun (even in the enclosure), perhaps not surprising that such a detailed study of a single hedge has not been done before or after. Wolton says he enjoyed it immensely and his recommendations They contribute to the growing body of evidence that humble hedges should not be overlooked.
“They are reservoirs of life,” he says. “We are so big that when you go through a hedge, you see very little. If you were an ant or something, you would see a great variety of life … It is only when you look closely that you find all these things. And it’s an extraordinary amount of things. “
The UK is one of the most densely covered countries in the world. These ecological points are the seams of the “patchwork quilt” of the country. exist 500,000 km of hedges (compared to 400,000 km of roads) and there are signs that this quintessential feature could grow. “There has been a lot of political interest in hedges here in the UK recently,” said Jo Staley, hedge ecologist at the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology. Oxford Royal Agriculture Conference in January. “There are some strong policy drivers emerging to potentially expand coverage.”
Wolton’s challenge had two rules: wildlife had to be seen within six feet of the hedge and large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Every week, Wolton spent a few days studying the hedge, with the help of a handmade net, a discomfort trap, and a light trap. As expected, the vast majority of the species found (83%) were insects. He found 17% of all recorded royal flies, butterflies and moths in the British Isles at his 85-meter-long study site.
Thrush, dunnock and bullfinches nesting indoors, as well as a dormouse raising its young in the brambles. Among its inhabitants were also common toads, lizards, snakes, long-eared bats, pipistrelles and hedgehogs.
The hedge is 20 meters from a pond, 130 meters from native broadleaf forest, and surrounded by nature-friendly farmland, which means it is probably particularly good for wildlife – Wolton estimates that the hedge supports more than 3,000 species in total. “It is increasingly recognized that, in intensively farmed landscapes, much of the wildlife finds refuge in hedges. But they are much more than just wildlife corridors – they are really important as habitats in their own right, ”he says.
The Joint Research Center of the European Commission recently discussed that planting new hedges was one of the best, if not the only, ways to combat fragmentation of ecosystems in intensively cultivated landscapes.
As the climate crisis intensifies, hedges are expected to become even more important as roads for wildlife as they move forward in response to environmental change. Its deep roots also help sequester carbon, and the UK Climate Change Committee 2019 report suggested that the network coverage be extended by 40% as part of the UK’s net zero target by 2050.
Hedges also reduce the likelihood of downstream flooding, absorb nutrients and pollutants from the water, and prevent soil erosion. Birds, butterflies, and bees have been shown to navigate landscapes using hedges. Earlier this month, the National Botanic Garden of Wales He noted that the UK needs more outdated, flower-filled grasslands and hedges to help drive declines in populations of bees and other pollinators. More hedges would make them less dependent on crops such as rapeseed (which can be treated with neonicotinoid insecticides that harm bees) and the invasive Himalayan balsam flower.
Due to its high biodiversity value, Natural england, the country’s environmental watchdog, has recommended that England’s coverage network be increased by 60%. the National Union of Farmers He has also told members that hedges should be allowed to grow longer and taller to support more wildlife.
Along with picturesque villages and hills, hedges are also an important feature of UK heritage. “Hedges also have a cultural and potentially aesthetic benefit; I think many of us who live in England think that the hedgerow landscape is quite archetypal, ”says Staley.
Consulting maps is the best way to date hedges, but species diversity is also a good indicator of age. The Wolton Hedge appears on an 1845 parish map, but could be older. A quarter of the hedges in Devon, known to be healthy, broad and mixed species, are believed to more than 800 years, which means that they predate many historic buildings, such as parish churches. Some Cornish hedges are believed to date back 4,000 years, making them one of the oldest man-made features in the country.
Its original purpose of marking boundaries and keeping livestock became less important with the advent of modern fence materials, and after World War II many hedges were removed as part of a drive to create more productive land.
However, its role in protecting wildlife was a key justification for its continuation, and England and Wales incorporated the Hedge Regulation 1997, so they were among the first countries to provide protected hedges. It became illegal to remove hedges in England and Wales without permission from the council.
Despite these strong protections, only one in three hedges in England is in good condition, according to the latest research, which was done in 2007, and solving this problem is as important as expanding the existing network. “In terms of improving the quality of coverage, this is a problem everywhere. Even in Devon, many of our hedges are not as good as they could be because they are not well managed, ”says Wolton.
The main problems are hedges that are cut too severely and too often, leading to loss of wildlife and ponds. The gaps mean that the habitats are isolated from each other; a dormouse, for example, will roll over if there is a gap of five meters. New hedges are being planted with individual species, rather than many, diminishing the wildlife they can support.
It is difficult to say whether the policy interest in the hedges will translate into action at the national level, and much depends on which landscape features the government subsidizes as part of its post-EU (Elms) environmental land management scheme.
Wolton has quiet confidence. “Elms is there to support the delivery of public goods by farmers, including biodiversity. We’d all be hugely surprised if coverages weren’t a major element of that.
“They are great for carbon, they are great for wildlife, and they are great for many other public benefits as well.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism