Act now to save our hedges

Those of us who live in the country have seen 30 years of rural vandalism by farmers and councils
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VISITORS TO the British countryside, at this time of year, can be forgiven for thinking that the rural idyll is alive and well. They may remark upon the post-harvest tidiness of the fields and roadsides with their newly mown verges and trimmed hedges. They may even take these suburban attributes as a sign that landowners, farmers and local authorities alike are playing their proper part in conserving, managing and safe-guarding for the future the rich diversity of our natural heritage.

If they do, they are very wrong. Those of us who live in the countryside know only too well that these are the latest signs of rural vandalism, perpetuated in the interest of mechanically efficient agricultural production without regard to their effect on the environment.

The destruction or neglect and mismanagement of our ancient hedgerows over the last 30 years has led to a shocking loss of the historic, archaeological, landscape and amenity value of the environment, quite apart from its seriously adverse effect on the more than 500 plant species and the wide range of animal life partly dependent on hedgerows for habitat or food.

A 1994 survey by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology first revealed that in the previous 10 years more than 110,000 miles of hedgerow had been destroyed, and that further loss continued at the rate of 15,000 miles per annum. This finding led to the belated realisation by the last Conservative government that the subsidised annual loss of hedgerows at that rate was an unacceptable price to pay for continuing agricultural expansion. The then government also realised, with remarkable perspicacity, you may think, that this was especially true, given that a high percentage of agricultural land was concurrently also being subsidised to be taken out of agricultural production under the set-aside scheme, to reduce both over-production and the cost of storing unwanted grain surpluses.

Accordingly, the government introduced, in the 1995 Environment Act, powers enabling ministers in England and Wales to introduce regulations to prevent the removal or destruction of "important hedgerows". Parliament approved the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 in the last weeks of Conservative government, prior to the general election.

On taking office on May 1997, Michael Meacher, the new Labour Environment Minister, announced a review of the regulations by a group composed of representatives from the farming and conservation bodies, the utility companies, other statutory bodies, local authorities and government departments.

Their report, which has been published by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions in the last few weeks, sets out the existing legislative framework, refines the definition of "important [ie, protected] hedgerows" and recommends further research to widen the scope of the regulations. However, a major lacuna is the complete lack of provision in the regulations for ensuring that "important hedges" are neither neglected nor mismanaged.

There is now overwhelming cumulative evidence, from the British Trust for Ornithology, the Bio-Diversity Action Plan, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others, of significant declines in once common farm bird populations. For example, the RSPB has identified more than 130 bird species that use farmland, of which 28 species are largely dependent on lowland arable fields or field margins. Of these dependent species 88 per cent have shown severe declines, of between 41 per cent and 87 per cent, over the last 25 years. Apart from these, there is increasing concern that hedgerow mammals and plant species may also be declining at alarming rates.

The evidence also shows clearly that these losses are no longer solely the result of hedge destruction, but increasingly are the result of hedgerow neglect or mismanagement. When I was a young farm pupil in the Fifties, it was common practice to trim the hedges and banks and clean the ditches by hand in February and March, at the time of year when these operations did no damage to the dormant hedgerows. Increased mechanisation has replaced the clean cut of a hand-held hedging knife with the indiscriminate action of the chain flail. The hand-held sickle is similarly replaced by the heavy rotary mower which flattens hedgerow banks and shaves into the soil.

While mechanical damage in the winter months may be sustainable, unseasonable damage is not. Every rural hedge and every bank and roadside verge cut between the start of the growing season at the end of March and the end of the farming year in January diminishes or, more seriously, destroys, not only nesting-sites and ground cover, but also the fruition of all the hedgerow species, to the detriment of the domestic birds and animals and the over-wintering migratory birds that depend for their survival on the availability of hedgerow fruits and seeds.

Good husbandry and the best practices of hedgerow management have been known and understood by generations of British farmers and landowners and are still practised on the best farms and country estates. The new hedgerow regulations should make these practices obligatory for all "important hedgerows". Winter hedge-cutting and bank-mowing should be standard practice for all those responsible for "important hedgerows". However, local authorities could be given the right to grant exclusion orders in those circumstances where heavy or wet ground conditions, for example, render mechanical cutting impracticable.

The countryside lobby would gain considerable kudos and increased respect for its claim to look after the countryside if the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association were to take the lead in negotiating with the Government to develop new hedgerow management regulations, perhaps with some built-in incentives to offset additional costs, instead of defending the status quo and thus contributing to the further diminution of the rural environment.

I am sure that such a constructive and transparent commitment to the future of the countryside would be enormously well received, not only by all the rural conservation bodies and by the Government; it would also give the Government a perfect opportunity to respond to the countryside lobby's reasonable request to "Listen to Us".