In the 10 years since ministers first proposed limited safeguarding measures, well over 80,000 miles of hedges have vanished from the landscape. But draft protection regulations, finally unveiled by ministers last week, would apply to less than one-fifth of the country's surviving hedgerows, and the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, refused to give an undertaking that they would be in force before the general election.
Meanwhile, the Countryside Commission, the Government's own wildlife adviser, believes that farmers are accelerating the rate at which they grub them up in order to dodge the new rules.
Between 1986, when the first plans were announced, and 1990, Britain lost more than 50,000 miles of hedgerows. Figures produced by the official Institute of Terrestrial Ecology show that each year nearly 6,000 miles of old hedges were completely uprooted while less than 1,200 miles of new ones were planted. More than 3,000 more miles of hedgerows were allowed to disappear through neglect each year than were restored. A further 7,600 miles were replaced by fences or other forms of field boundaries, compared with 2,800 miles over which this process was reversed.
In 1990 a government White Paper undertook to legislate. But between then and 1993 another 33,740 miles were lost in England and Wales alone. In this period, new planting actually exceeded the grubbing up, but the mileage lost through neglect - hedges being allowed to degenerate into lines of isolated shrubs and trees - soared; 10,400 miles a year were lost over the period in this way alone.
There have been no official surveys since then, but experts assume that another 30,000 miles or more have vanished, making the total loss more than 110,000 miles over the past 10 years. Yet even these figures underestimate the damage, for the hedges that go are often old and ecologically rich (as a rule there is one type of tree or shrub in a 100ft stretch of hedge for every century of its age), while newly planted ones often contain only one species.
Hedgerows have long been part of the English countryside. Oliver Rackham, Britain's foremost countryside historian, believes: "The probability is that the Romans found Britain an already hedged land." Some are older than almost any structure in Britain, apart from Stonehenge, and perhaps a fifth of the hedgerows in the South of England have been undisturbed since Saxon times.
Special to Britain (only Ireland and Normandy really compete) and celebrated by Rupert Brook and Keats - and in the Middle English poem "The Owl and the Nightingale" - they are perhaps the country's most important wildlife havens. Nearly half of Britain's lowland butterflies, more than two-thirds of its lowland birds, and three-quarters of its lowland mammals breed in them, and they are home to 250 species of plants. Britain's hedgerows increased until around 1870 and remained about the same until after the Second World War. Their length has since been cut in half, but the Government has dithered and obstructed counter-action.
The 1986 proposals for protection would have affected only hedges in national parks and were dropped a year later. Ministers blocked a Private Member's Bill in 1987 and removed clauses that would have implemented the White Paper promise from a 1991 planning Bill after they had been inserted at the initiative of Tory MPs.
John Major professed a passionate commitment to hedgerows at the launch of the 1992 election manifesto. Limited grants to help farmers to restore them were introduced soon afterwards., But their effect - preserving about 500 miles of hedge a year - is small compared with the rate of loss. Another Private Member's Bill to limit destruction was killed by Conservative backbenchers in 1993.
Broad measures were finally included in last year's Environment Act and ministers undertook to have detailed regulations in place by last July. But they were only published in draft this week, and still have to go out to consultation, be redrafted, and passed by both Houses of Parliament. Environmentalists fear this will not happen before the election. Mr Gummer repeatedly declined the chance to deny this last week.
Farmers would have to notify local authorities before uprooting historically or ecologically important hedges, and the councils would have 28 days in which to stop the destruction, if they wish. But the Council for the Protection of Rural England says the definition of "important" would leave 82 per cent of hedgerows unprotected. It says that all hedges are important in the eyes of the public.
Sian Phipps, its Land Use campaigner, says: "This is far too little far too late. While the Government has fiddled, our countryside has seen the ripping up and burning of mile upon mile of much-loved hedgerows."
EVEN a small stretch of hedgerow shows a riot of colour and a wealth of wildlife at this time of year, as in this section from a painting by Eric Thomas, a countryside artist who has made hedges his speciality. The species include, from top left: dog rose showing its red berries (rosehips); hawthorn, also with red berries, one of which the blackbird is eating; a truncated oak tree, with oak-apple fungus growing on its young stems; black bryony, with berries turning from green to yellow to red; and the dried stems of cowparsley, the familiar summer white flower of the hedgerow edges.
Along the bottom of the hedge can be seen the male fern; bramble and its blackberries, with a woodmouse sitting on the stem; clinging to the base of the oak tree is bracket fungus.
Mr Thomas, 66, lives in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border. "Marvellous hedge country," he says. "Hedges are magnificent things, as much a part of the heritage of this country as Salisbury Cathedral."
See the autumn hedge approaching its best this weekend - if the weather holds.
Painting taken from Hedgerow, by Eric Thomas and John T White (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 6.99)