Country Matters: The English hedgerow massacre

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The hedge that separates our lowest field from our next-door neighbour had grown into a formidable barrier of hazel, hawthorn, elder and bramble, with a few young elms rising above the thicket. For 12 years we had deliberately left the hedge untrimmed, letting it increase in height and width so that it made a good wind-break and gave our animals shelter from the westerly gales that roar up the valley.

Then, alas, the elms began to die. They had looked extremely promising, and had reached a height of maybe 20ft; but I had feared all along that they were doomed, because it is common knowledge that once young trees become big enough to act as hosts, the beetle bearing Dutch elm disease returns to infest them. Sure enough, by last summer our new elms were moribund, and now they are dead as dodos.

Our only option is to fell and burn them - a melancholy task, on which we are now engaged. At the same time, we are cutting back the underbrush to the line of the fence, which had become deeply buried.

Not owning a flail mower, we are tackling the job on foot, I wielding a chain-saw, my wife peeling away swaths of intertwined branch and bramble as I cut them free. The trunks of the elms are at most six inches in diameter, so that they are easily sawn through; but the fact that they rise through mounds of thorns and spikes makes them uncomfortable fellows to tackle.

Several times I have been forced to my knees by a tree keeling over and squashing a mass of brambles down on top of me - an event that puts me into intimate contact with the hedge and encourages me to think about field boundaries in general. One obvious fact is that, quite apart from their primary functions of defining property and controlling stock, they make tremendous havens for wildlife.

The one we are pruning is home to numerous rabbits, and its dense foliage contains many old nests of blackbirds, chaffinches, tits and so on. In autumn, blackberries, elderberries and hawthorn berries provide birds with food. At several points, badgers and foxes have forced passages under the sheep-wire, and at low level there is a mass of the dead wood and litter beloved of entomologists (hawthorn is believed to support more than 200 species of insect; blackthorn over 150). As for shelter - the grass on the first five yards above the leeward side always grows more lushly than that farther up the field.

For the past half century, hedges have had a bad time: many thousands of miles have been grubbed out in the name of agricultural efficiency, and thousands more spoilt by neglect. Between 1984 and 1990 alone, 75,000 miles disappeared; from 1990 to 1993 the loss continued at the rate of 11,000 miles a year.

This massacre caused widespread public outcry. People clearly feel in their bones that hedges are part of our history, an essential feature of the English landscape. Countless fields were created by the Enclosures Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries, when millions of seedling thorn bushes were planted, especially in the Midlands.

Regular shapes, square or rectangular, are likely to date from that time; but there is ample evidence to show that many hedges are far older, some dating back at least a thousand years. A celebrated formula lays down that the number of woody species found in every 30-yard stretch approximates the age of the hedge in centuries.

It is criminal that farmers have so abused an ancient asset. Now, though, there are signs that the tide is turning. The main agent for improvement has been the Hedgerow Regulations issued by the Department of the Environment during the summer of 1997. These rules require anyone wishing to remove a hedge to get permission from their local authority. Anybody who does grub out a hedge without leave may face an unlimited fine, and may also be required to reinstate the barrier.

A considerable amount of damage was done in the months preceding the new legislation, when farmers, anticipating the changes ahead, amalgamated small fields or straightened out awkward boundaries. But now that several people have been fined, the rules do seem to be working - especially as their prohibitions are reinforced by incentives in the form of grants for restoring and creating hedges and walls. These can be obtained under the Country Stewardship scheme run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), or the scheme for Environmentally Sensitive Areas.

Here in the Cotswolds, ESA field boundaries consist of walls (on top of the hills, where stone abounds) and hedges (in the valleys, where far less stone is readily available). We can now get a grant of pounds 4 per metre for planting a new hedge and pounds 28 per metre for building a field wall - sums that probably cover about half the costs involved. As a result, an encouraging amount of walling and hedging is in progress.

Along with enlightened government policy on boundaries has come a better understanding of the benefits that well-managed field margins offer to agriculture and wildlife. Research by the Game Conservancy Trust has shown that a six-yard-wide "conservation headland" round the edge of an arable field, which is then selectively sprayed so as to leave some broad-leaved weeds and the insects associated with them, is of incalculable benefit to birds such as partridges and pheasants, whose chicks depend largely on protein from insects in their first few weeks of life.

Similarly, a 400-yard beetle bank - earth heaped up in a line across a field, and planted with long, tussocky grass, costing altogether about pounds 80 to create - can harbour so many beneficial, aphid-eating insects that it may save the farmer pounds 300 a year in labour and pesticides, and earn him the same again in extra grain harvested.

In this climate, it is no surprise to find that the South of England Hedge-Laying Society is flourishing as never before. At its launch in 1984 it had 10 members; now it has 124. The National Hedge-laying Society has more than 200 members, and so many people want to go in for each year's national competition that it has become difficult to find long enough runs of hedge on which to let entrants loose. With 100 entrants tackling 10 yards each, 1,000 yards are needed - and lucky is the owner who gets all that expertly cut and laid within a single day.