2,200 species of plants, insects, mammals and birds are looking for someone to save their home and 20 mammals

Conservationists hope ministers will protect dwindling hedgerows
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The Independent Online
Ministers are expected to launch new protection measures for Britain's dwindling hedgerows next month.

They provide essential shelter and food for a rich variety of wildlife through the seasons, and some are more than 1,000 years old. Yet the latest Government estimate on hedgerow loss, from the early 1990s, was that more than 10,000 miles a year were disappearing due to neglect and grubbing out.

Whitehall is about to start public consultation on draft regulations compelling all landowners to notify their local council before they strip out any hedge.

The council will then have 28 days in which to decide whether to refuse permission, on the grounds that the hedge is "important" - particularly historic or rich in plants and animals.

Such measures were first proposed in an environment White Paper six years ago, when Chris Patten was Secretary of State for the Environment. Three Secretaries of State later, planning protection for hedgerows is finally coming close to a reality.

Little more than 10 years ago there were still government grants available for removing them in the interests of farm efficiency.

Ancient and species-rich hedgerows are among 14 key wildlife habitats found in Britain on which the Government and leading wildlife charities have agreed rescue plans. The plans are a follow-up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

"In Britain we've planted more than any other country over the centuries, and they're part of our culture and history," said Robert Wolton, hedgerow expert and enthusiast with English Nature, the Government's wildlife conservation arm. "They're also critical natural capital. Over much of intensively farmed lowland England they form a last refuge for wildlife."

Most go back at least 150 years, and a few are believed to be relict fragments of theforests which covered most of Britain until 3,000 years ago - by which time clearance by humans was well under way.

The older they are, the more varied are their shrubs and smaller plants. Some contain species which are associated with ancient woodland, such as the wild service tree and bluebells, and woodland animals such as the dormouse.

In all, more than 600 plant species, 1,500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals have been found to use Britain's 280,000 miles of hedgerows. Among this diverse flora and fauna are 13 species which are either in very rapid decline or endangered globally. Between 1984 and 1990 there was a net loss of nearly one-quarter of Britain's hedgerows.

Some were stripped out by farmers wanting to join fields, making them more convenient for farm machinery and modern livestock methods.

But the majority were destroyed by neglect or mismanagement. The usual method of keeping them tidy is to use a flail cutter which lops off the top growth once a year. Often it is done in the autumn, scattering and mincing the fruits and nuts which provide food to animals in winter.

The hedge grows back, but only at the top. Most hedge shrubs and trees do not put out fresh sprouts lower down, so the shaded hedge bottom grows into thick wood with large gaps through which livestock can pass.

After a few years it no longer looks like a hedge but a straggling, intermittent line of stunted trees.

It no longer works, and there is little reason for the farmer to keep it any more.

Dr Wolton said: "The annual short back and sides has become the new tradition but it's quite unnecessary.'' He advocates a careful cutting every three years, and a revival of the neglected art of laying hedges - partly cutting and bending down the living wood to keep the structure thick and sprouting near its base.

The hedges look less tidy, but they will be far more use to wildlife.

However, the traditional hedging methods are labour- intensive, which is the main reason why they have been abandoned.

There are limited government grants to pay for hedge planting and restoration.

But these are nowhere near enough to offset the loss due to deliberate destruction, poor management and neglect.

The new regulations, which do not apply in Scotland, should help.

The criteria for what constitutes an "important" hedge will be laid down by government, and they are expected to give protection to roughly one in five hedges.

But ultimately the survival of Britain's hedgerows depends on how many farmers and landowners care about them.

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