Where Have All The Hedgerows Gone?

What people need on Twitter is more education and less politics.

I had a classically nonsensical conversation with a couple of twitterati over the weekend. It followed an entirely predictable path and got no-one anywhere other than cross, but it was illustrative of a couple of significant issues which are holding us back in the fight against the crisis in nature here.

The exchange started when I responded to this tweet:

England loses 10,000 miles of hedges every year. With loss of every hedge, a precious piece of countryside disappears forever. If we can’t control borders, overpopulation/urban sprawl will turn this pleasant land into one beastly car park

Chocolates, anyone?

Everything here is wrong. The tweet was accompanied by a photo of supposedly bucolic bliss showing dry stone walls and flowerpots, which might not have inspired confidence to start with.

Why is it wrong? 10,000 miles was the guestimate Max Hooper came up with for maximum annual hedge loss in the 60s. I’m not saying things are ideal (!), but losses now are much smaller, particularly following legislation in 1997. Estimates vary as to exactly how many hedges we’re still losing. The vast majority of lost hedgerow, in those days and now, is/was the result of changing farming practice and/or poor management. It has indeed been a sad and devastating loss in the landscape, but not one caused by urban sprawl.*

Closing our borders isn’t an effective policy response to the collapse in global biodiversity which is – only now – making headlines. As the story behind our hedgerows actually shows, there is no silver bullet, no instant fix, to any of this. We’ve got to stop thinking there is. We need to make many changes to the way we live to tackle these enormous and complex problems. Some are already happening. These changes will have to be driven by education and science, not political agendas. This is what Michael Gove – incidentally – seems as if he might understand.

Pleasant Land?

Not so pleasant…

My twitter spat also illustrated another problem. 10,000 miles subsequently posted a photo showing the kind of “pristine” English countryside which we are concreting over. In this case his problem was the ghastly mooted housing development in the Cambridge-Oxford arc.

This isn’t pristine countryside. The woodland is in retreat. The hedges are heavily degraded (ironically!). There’s a monoculture of some kind of heavily fertilised fast growing grass, which will dominate any other species. This temporary ley will probably have been doused with selective broadleaf herbicides for good measure. Once it’s knackered it will be sprayed with herbicide and replaced. In other words, this pastoral scene is exactly the sort of thing we DON’T want.

We – collectively – seem to have a weird view of the countryside. Much of it is pretty much a green desert. The fields surrounding us here are pretty much as useless for wildlife as a housing estate. Further, the inhabitants of a housing estate don’t spend their time trying to slaughter all the insects thereabouts. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.

Producing a false narrative about the countryside is not going to help us. This has got specific historic precedent in the UK over hundreds of years – and it tends to end badly! Much, much more helpful is doing something practical in today’s world. What some farmers are trying to do now needs a lot more support from us as consumers, and the government. Many farmers are trying to help nature while making a living producing the food we don’t want to pay for. The cards are – currently – stacked against them.

Climate change, food production, consumption, the built environment… We need to action multiple practical solutions and fast, rather than just harkening back to a bucolic idyll we have misremembered and misrepresent. Oh, and get planting.

*The UK does sometimes feel very crowded, but in actual fact urban areas only cover something like a surprisingly low 6-8% of the country. This has been rising following recent planning policy changes, but city dwellers are pretty squished in.

The Green Blob Fights Back

I have avoided politics in my blog as much as I can over the last 10 years. So you can tell I’m pretty upset to break this cardinal rule. For the point of record, I’m one of the two thirds of people who feel that neither of the main parties represents my views. I’m that apparently currently invisible voter, a moderate. I’m a fan of various MPs from various parties. I admire the energy, honesty and bravery of people like Caroline Lucas, Sarah Wollaston, and Mary Creagh.

I have to spend a certain amount of time for work on social media, God help me. Apart from promoting the business, I also try and communicate good science and best practice to people. Sometimes a bit of a struggle, tbh! This also means keeping up with environmental policy. As it happens, this is an area where things might be looking up.

Happy Blob

I was suspicious of Michael Gove when he was appointed as DEFRA minister. What we’ve seen from him so far has been enormously encouraging, however. This week he has hired Tony Juniper – not a natural bedfellow politically – as head of Natural England. To an objective observer, this is a great appointment. He was the outstanding candidate for this currently besieged but potentially critical nonpolitical organisation. This is typical of Michael Gove’s approach; he seems to have taken on board a range of interesting ideas in a completely non-doctrinal way. Some I disagree with, many I don’t. Massive questions remain, but he’s coming up with some interesting stuff. I applaud him. It’s a far cry from Owen Paterson’s tirade against “the green blob”.

This started off as “the mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape”. In certain quarters the green blob has come to include, apparently, the entire environmental lobby.

Interestingly, Michael Gove’s rapprochement with the extended blob has significantly irked some of his erstwhile allies.

I was moved to anger – and to write this – by a wildly intemperate and nonsensical article I stumbled across on Twitter: Michael Gove Has Sold Out Britain to the Green Blob. It was written by James Delingpole about Tony Juniper’s appointment.

Who is James Delingpole? He’s a kind of clever right wing shock jock of now depressingly familiar type, who drove me to cancel my subscription to The Spectator. He still writes for them, which irritatingly gives him a degree of credibility and – oddly – means he shares column inches with nice nature people Simon Barnes and Isabel Hardman. James is now editor of Breitbart in the UK, which is where the green blob article appeared. Occasionally you’ll see him on TV, where he performs with the kind of chutzpah you would imagine from a man who has raised £21,000 through a gofundme page to cure his Lyme disease, then sort his teeth out and buy his wife a holiday with anything left over.

I’m sorry about his illness*. Ironically, Lyme disease is on the rise because of global warming. “Ironically”, because James made his reputation as a “bad boy” climate change denier. He still has it in for renewables. The green blob.

Some of what he says I do have sympathy with. I have seen the solar industry up close, and there’s no doubt that it has had its fair share of charlatans and chancers. My business lost a lot of money from a horrendous bankruptcy in the U.S. involving criminal fraud. The subsidy system the government used here to catapult the UK into one of the world’s leading countries for renewable power was always going to be clunky, abused and inefficient. Government subsidies usually are. But it was a demonstrably effective means to an end.

James also dislikes the look of wind turbines, with which, again, I have some sympathy. It doesn’t exactly seem to be a big issue in the scheme of things but I imagine goes down well with his readers. He complains about birds and bats being chopped up. The green blob is actually destroying nature. In actual fact, perhaps counter-intuitively, the short term net gain to biodiversity from renewables has been significant. We have helped seed hundreds of acres of solar farms with wildflower meadows, planted with hedges and copses, etc. etc..

I really, really don’t agree at all with much else of what else he has to say, particularly in this Breitbart article. Nor the way he says it, which is patronising and offensive. I know it’s a living for him. I know it’s written to provoke and I shouldn’t get upset by it. But I do. It really poisons discourse in an area which should transcend dogma.

I don’t think James has much grasp of his subject matter generally. He has – a familiar bugbear – conflated climate change and other green issues. Tackling biodiversity loss, for example, while related, is a very different beast, requiring completely different responses from the green blob.

No matter.

What really gets me going is this kind of nonsense:

“Like most if not all Conservatives, I understand better than anyone the importance of conservation. Unfortunately, the cause of real environmentalism has long since been hijacked by hair-shirt ideologues in thrall to the religion of Gaia-worship, obsessed with (environmentally damaging) renewables, antipathetical to free markets or freedoms of any kind because essentially they’re all Malthusian misanthropes who want to bomb Western Industrial Civilisation back to the dark ages.”

Where to even start?

It has always been easy to label environmentalists as misanthropic and “antipathetical to free markets.” Is it any wonder that they have been in the past? I absolutely believe now that it’s possible to align our business customers’ commercial and ecological interests. We also work hard to get consumers to understand the actual costs and benefits of making the purchases they do. It’s a struggle but it’s possible with education. We’ll get there in the end, but this is relatively new ground and new thinking, of the kind Michael Gove seems to be promoting too.

No-one has a monopoly on wanting to conserve the planet. This isn’t an issue of competing ideologies. Nature isn’t just another political battleground. Conservatives no more understand the importance of conservation than Labour supporters.

I simply don’t accept the description of environmentalists as “hardcore left activists using environmentalism as a cloak for their ongoing mission to dismantle the capitalist system”. Yes, there are some, of course. My guess is there were more in the sixties. There are some left leaning campaign groups I’m wary of. And yes, of course there are “Gaia types” – more or less knowledgeable, but absolutely genuine.

Like the rest of the population, people interested in nature have their own political views. There are “watermelons”, as James would derisively describe them, and turquoise Tories. The overwhelming majority of environmental professionals I have met in the course of the last ten years have, however, been professional, objective, scientific.

As for “Eco charities which depend for their income on ramping up green hysteria” – this is laughable nonsense. The charities I work with spend a lot of their time doing the opposite. I’ve even objected in the past to phrases like “ecological apocalypse“; fundamentally true but presentationally unhelpful.

It would be really helpful if James switched to receive rather than broadcast mode for a bit, and moderated his language. Perhaps he could take up gardening. He can’t just characterise people who disagree with him as corrupt, feeble minded, lunatic or fanatical. Many of us are sensible, moderate and pretty well informed. Many of us feel deeply concerned about what we see going on around us. Many of us are trying in our own ways to do something about it.

We all share the same planet, and we all need to sit down like grownups to understand how best to conserve it. Not just how to make a few quid by shouting in the playground.

*If indeed he has it, which seems in doubt. Yes, the NHS does treat Lyme disease.

Best Trees For Windbreaks

Before we start, a little about what a windbreak actually is. What’s the difference between it and a shelterbelt or hedge? What are you looking for in a windbreak?

What Is A Windbreak?

To start with, what it’s not. It’s not a shelterbelt. A windbreak is a line or double line of trees and/or shrubs, whereas a shelterbelt consists of at least three lines of planting. I’d usually think of a shelterbelt as being planted at at least 1m spacings. To be honest, though, I’m not sure where “windbreak” stops and “large hedge” begins. A windbreak potentially has more large trees in it, I guess, and is not necessarily stock proof. A decent hedge has a good fat bottom to it. Native hedges are typically planted in double staggered rows up to 50cm apart, whereas windbreak rows will be planted wider.

All three – hedges, windbreaks and shelterbelts – provide semi-permeable barriers against the wind. The “semi” bit is important. You don’t want too solid a barrier, as might be created by fences or walls, or planting dense evergreens – you’ll have problems with wind turbulence.

Why Do I Need A Windbreak?

Too much wind in a garden or orchard has several effects. Most obviously, it creates structural damage to trees and plants. This isn’t just to stems, limbs, and fruit and flowers. Wind rock causes even worse problems. Wind also induces a chilling effect, which slows the metabolic activity of plants. On the other hand, you don’t want no air flow at all; this will mean pests and diseases.

What Trees Should I Use?

There are all sorts of odd trees for windbreaks used. To declare my interest, I think some of them look rather…peculiar. Eucalyptus, Lombardy poplars, various bamboos – they’re not really my thing. Most people planting windbreaks are in rural or semi-rural situations. If you are, have a look at what’s around you – use these species and they won’t look out of place later on. They’ll be good for local wildlife too. By the way, plant your trees as 60-90cm plants maximum size, or they won’t stand a chance! They will also need support.

You will need to work out how tall a windbreak you want. Here our prevailing winds are generally southwesterly or westerlies. This might produce problems; if your windbreak is too tall it will shade out some of the area you’re looking to shelter. According to the RHS, a windbreak is effective to 10 times its height – so if it’s 2m tall, it will shelter up to 20m of ground behind it. Typically this means that trees for windbreaks tend to be bigger than hedge species, or used in combination with them.

My short list might consist of the following:

Medium / Large Trees

Alder: There are three alders to consider as trees for windbreaks – Alnus glutinosa, which is the native one, A. cordata and A. incana. They have slightly different habits but the same helpful characteristics. They grow quickly (around 1m a year) in a wide range of conditions, including cold wet soils. Alders come into leaf early and hold their leaves relatively late, and you can mess about with them – they don’t mind drastic pruning. They were traditionally used to protect orchards as they don’t carry the same diseases that can afflict fruit trees.

Scots Pine and Friend

Scots Pine: You could think about a number of pines, but P. sylvestris is our native one. It will grow bigger than an Alder, but more slowly. It’s typical of heathland but is regularly seen planted next to isolated farmsteads.

Small Leafed Lime: Tilia cordata is a recent favourite, particularly for a more formal look. Very pretty conical habit, tolerant of a wide range of soils.

Small Trees & Shrubs

Windbreak trees
Damson

Prunus: I’m lumping several plants in here, with similar characteristics. P. cerasifera, Cherry plum, P. domestica subsp. insititia, Damsons, and
P. domestica subsp. insititia var. nigra, Bullace. I know – the botany is confusing. All are tough as old boots and excellent windbreak plants for a range of sites. Cherry plums flower very early and grow quickly, although rarely produce fruit (and when they do it’s inedible!). Traditional windbreak plant for orchards. A tough damson like ‘Westmorland’ will give you fruit as well as good performance, as will a bullace.

Hawthorn: Crataegus monogyna is your basic traditional hedge plant; tough, forgiving, fast growing (hence “Quickthorn”) and well behaved (unlike its unruly suckering friend Blackthorn). Good for wildlife, nice blossom.

Sea-buckthorn and Gorse: Not related, but both can be viewed with horror! Many folk spend their lives trying to get rid of them, as in the right conditions they can be invasive. Both Ulex Europaeus and Hippophae rhamnoides are very hardy, although they won’t grow very tall – gorse to say 2m and Sea-buckthorn rather taller. Sea-buckthorn is salt tolerant, as you might imagine.

Roses: R.canina and the non-native – but naturalised – R.rugosa might be favourite. They’re both vigorous, attractive and will tolerate pretty tough conditions. To something like 4m if left alone.

Hedges In Cities Are Good For Our Health

I’ve always been a big fan of urban hedges. I reckoned that – like trees – they must help manage water runoff and moderate temperatures.
Planting relatively large numbers of mixed native plants together in cities had to be good for wildlife too – maybe even more so than trees because of their diversity, volume and value as a wildlife corridor and resource. I had supposed – partly because of that – hedges in cities would also be good for human mental health.

It turns out that they have much more significant and direct benefits.

We have thought for a while that trees can reduce particulates from, for example, car exhaust. The plants either absorb them through their stomates or catch them on their leaves, to be washed off or fall to earth in the autumn. Earlier studies suggested that well positioned trees could reduce particulates by up to a quarter.

It makes sense that hedges should be pretty good at this too. They’re not only denser but also at a better level to intercept exhaust fumes. A recent study supports earlier findings supporting this. Although its efficacy varies according to conditions, a roadside hedge can reduce near road air pollution by up to over 60% in some cases (including the cancer causing pollutant black carbon). Remarkably, hedging is not only much more effective than trees, but also seems to be more effective on its own than in combination with trees.

We have a massive problem with air pollution in our cities. The UK has regularly breached legal standards in London. Many thousands are dying from the consequences, and heart breaking individual stories are emerging. A recent WHO report found that over 4 in 10 primary school pupils in the UK are breathing dangerous traffic generated particulates.

The government seems short on practicable ideas to tackle the issue, at least in the short term. Why not plant hedges?

Urban Hedge

We recently planted this specially selected triple width mixed native hedge at a school in Yorkshire. It will be a dense filter (and impenetrable barrier!) soon enough, running over 100m along the school’s boundary.

Planting hedges in cities is simple and cheap, and they are demonstrably effective at reducing harmful pollution. Mixed native hedges like you would find in the country are attractive too, with lots of wildlife value. What’s not to like?

Wot! No Hedge Plants?

The commercial world of native hedge plants is a funny one. There are a few hardy folk out there selling British hedge species which they themselves have grown. Things like Hawthorn and Blackthorn. As you can imagine, it’s not an obvious way to make a million. There’s quite lot of time and manual intervention involved and – like last summer – you’re dependent on the weather to a degree, even if you can afford glass (greenhouses) and water.

Worse, it’s quite difficult to persuade people to pay a lot for them. They look around and ask why they couldn’t just liberate the odd sapling, or at worst grow plants from seed. Some do.

Worse still, it’s much easier to grow them abroad. Most of the “native British” hedge plants planted here are in fact imports from Denmark, Holland, Italy… Our few remaining “forest nurseries” are mostly small and struggle to match the economies of scale of their continental competitors.

British Hedge Plants To Be More… British?

Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel for them. We’re beginning to be more picky about where we source our plant material. For good reason. Plants grown here from UK seed are going to be more helpful in UK ecosystems. They’re going to be better genetically equipped for life here. They also reduce biosecurity risk. Regulation is never going to be as effective at reducing the risk of imported plant disease as… not importing plants. Increased controls on imports may be part of horticultural life in post Brexit Britain.

We’re at an interesting moment of inflection, and seeing a change which will accelerate. And not just because of potential political changes.

Current Problems

It was a terrible growing season here because of the Beast from the East, which meant plants were knocked back, followed by the dry summer. Many plants which should have been saleable as “60-90cm” grade are only 40-60cm. Some plants aren’t saleable at all. There’s an acute shortage of stock.

This effect has been worsened by higher demand. That’s partly because people are choosing to use plants grown here – I think possibly in the wake of the Ash dieback fiasco. Landscape architects are asking for British grown plants for their projects – and there is some large infrastructure work about at the moment. Individuals are planting more hedges too.

So bear with us if we are struggling to find exactly the hedge plant you want. It’s actually a sign of exciting change.

How Do I Store Apples?

I’m sightly nervous about putting together a brief guide to help people store apples. My other half had a lovely grandfather who doted on her – nearly as much as he doted on his garden. In that garden he had lovely old apple trees, which miraculously seemed to produce fruit until spring. Cyril ought to be writing this. Anyway, here goes.

In the days before freezers and global trade, gardeners planned which tree varieties they planted to allow them to eat apples until the following spring. Some keep much better than others. Interestingly and  understandably the “heritage” varieties tend to perform the best. “Understandably”, as some were selected for their longevity once picked. 

Typically russet types last well, for example. Ashmead’s Kernel was known as the “Christmas Apple”. Several others last until March – or even longer. Good keepers are Kidd’s Orange, Newton Wonder, Beauty of Stoke, Striped Beefing, Sturmer Pippin, Lord Hindlip, Lane’s Prince Albert, and the longest of all – Edward VII… These are generally late cropping apples, and many actually taste better after several weeks of ripening once harvested.

They’ll only last, though, if you pick and store them properly.

How To Pick Apples

When you pick an apple, don’t pull it off its stem. Twist it a quarter of a turn and see if it comes off. Be careful not to bruise the skin, and put the apple very gently in a basket so as not to damage it. There’s amazing variation on a single tree as to colour and ripeness. Apples on the north side of a tree will look quite different and ripen more slowly than on the south side. Those on the outside of the tree will ripen quicker than those in the middle. You’ll pick apples at different times from the same tree, so will need to revisit it. Only pick ripe fruit, which has the most colour.

Check over the apples you have picked. If any look bruised or damaged, or they’re windfalls you have picked up, then either eat or juice them if they’re eaters, or cook and freeze them if they’re cookers. ONLY keep the perfect looking ones.

Where To Store Apples

Cyril used to store apples in his shed. Perfect. It was dark but it wasn’t exactly hermetically sealed, so good ventilation and no build up of moisture. It was shaded too, so didn’t get to o hot on a warm autumn day. His big problem was mice, for which, gentle reader, you can reach your own solution… Our roof space here would be hopeless – too well insulated – and the cellar wouldn’t be ideal either – too damp. The garage is much better. You want somewhere cool, frost free and dry. 

Don’t keep them with something else with a strong smell which will taint them – paint, or onions, for example. 

How To Store Apples

However careful you are there will be at least one bad apple in your harvest, and you won’t be able to spot it. If it touches another it will spread rot, so either store apples so that they’re not touching or, if they are, wrap them in paper. When you do find that bad apple, chuck it out. Try to keep different cultivars apart, and label accordingly.

The ideal containers for your apples are crates, slatted shelves, polystyrene or papier-mâché trays or shallow wooden boxes. Ideally, these will allow air to move through the sides and top. You can buy wooden storage racks – the posher ones even have drawers.

Keep an eye on the apples in store and, once you think a tray is ready, remove it to use – and enjoy.

 

 

 

Planting or Not Planting Woodland

A little while ago I was involved in a great nonsense about wildflower seeds. Plantlife, the wildflower charity, essentially said all wildflower seed mixes were cr@p and should be avoided. OK, perhaps it was a slightly more nuanced message, but you get the gist. The idea underlying this was to get people to be more aware of their local botany, and that trying to replace lost wildflower areas could be done more sensitively and cheaply in some instances by using locally sourced seed.

This is a message I’m enormously sympathetic to, and which we actually do our best to promote ourselves. What I wasn’t at all sympathetic to is having the seed we sell – including seed with specific provenance – lumped in with the rubbish that the unwary can buy. It’s hard enough for responsible producers without this kind of misinformation.

Blow me down if a similar thing hasn’t just happened with native trees.

You can buy native species trees and shrubs as “whips” – these are small plants, usually graded between 40-60cm or 60-90cm. They’re used either for hedges or for woodland planting schemes. People like the Woodland Trust have done a huge number of schemes using them.

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire
This kind of new planting is usually blighted by plastic spiral guards or larger tubular guards for trees. Unless the new plants are fenced off these guards are vital. We have so many deer running around the countryside now we would lose most of our new planting schemes to them if they weren’t protected. The guards are often not removed, however, and just photodegrade – i.e. get brittle and just break into smaller and smaller pieces. The industry has failed miserably to come up with a biodegradable alternative, which does my head in.

There are other issues too. Species selection can be wrong for the site. The species mix might be inappropriate. Plants might be imported, so bringing the risk of disease or non-native variation. Planting densities might stop the development of a healthy understorey. And, of course, natural regeneration is much cheaper.

In short – despite the fact we sell the plants! – I’m very sympathetic to the “rewilding” view that in some instances the best way to reforest areas is not to plant them, but to let them naturally regenerate. Thorny scrub can protect emerging broadleaf trees, which means no guards. The new woodland self selects. The understorey develops entirely naturally.

Let’s not, however, exaggerate the evils of whips, which suddenly seems the thing to do.

Without knowing enough about the ecological arguments, I understand that this way of establishing woodland might not work all the time. I can think of lots of instances when it wouldn’t work for practical reasons either.

Many whips ARE imported. Many aren’t, however, and are painstakingly grown from seed in British nurseries – so there’s no biosecurity risk. Rather than not using them at all, customers should be informed about their provenance.

Planting schemes using good quality whips usually establish very well. If grass is kept clear from the base of the plants, they’re planted correctly and don’t get whacked by deer, we only usually see around 5% failures.

It seems daft that in order to promote one’s own agenda, alternatives have to be demonised. Planters and regenerators, both sides want the same thing – more of the right kind of woodland in the landscape.

Farming With Wildlife in Mind

Farming With Wildlife in Mind

This weekend the Times recommended Isabella Tree’s excellent Wilding as one of its books of the year. It “forces us to rethink farming”. More accurately, it forces us to rethink not farming. For those not in the know, Wilding is about the Knepp Estate. The estate is really poor quality farmland (grade 3 and 4), which has been in the Burrell family for generations. They were struggling on, losing money, living off grants and pouring chemicals into it to try to generate economic yields. They gave up the unequal fight and “rewilded” their land. It has been an inspiring story, as their exhausted land begins to recover and support a huge range of rare and sometimes unexpected animals. The point is, however, that they’re no longer farming:

While the Estate is still producing food in the form of organic, pasture-fed meat from our free-roaming herds, the emphasis now is on ‘ecosystem services’ – the other vital public benefits that the land can provide, such as soil restoration, flood mitigation, water and air purification, biodiversity, pollinating insects, carbon sequestration and, of course, an amenity for human enjoyment.

This is a great model to promote for the post Brexit agricultural settlement, of course. It would be fabulous to offer owners of poor quality land – like lakeland sheep farmers – grants for public goods like this. BUT, it’s not very helpful for those farmers on more productive holdings who want to continue to… farm.

I visited a productive local farm last week, which offered an interesting potential model for the future. Pertwood Organics are based on a 2,600 acre farm to the west of Salisbury Plain. It’s high quality grade 1 and 2 farmland, and the land bears the marks of hundreds of years of agricultural use. There are barrows about and a large visible Medieval – at the latest – field system. The farm is organic, mostly arable, with some sheep and cattle. Yields are similar to non-organic farms, input costs are – of course – lower – and their organic produce fetches higher prices. You can read about how they do this on their website. It sounds disarmingly simple, but needs commitment, experience and, sometimes, technology.

farming wildlife
Corn Bunting
Photo: Nick Adams
What’s doubly interesting about this is that it’s done with wildlife in mind. I was kindly shown around by Nick Adams, the farm’s wildlife consultant – is that even a thing? Nick is ex RSPB, so birds in particular are his thing. And birds are the first thing to strike you if you visit. There are flocks of linnets, goldfinches, starlings, etc etc. Higher up the foodchain there are kestrels, kites, buzzards, barn owls… they’ve seen 109 types of birds, including 30 red list species. They have 60 species breeding there, including 5% of the entire estimated UK population of Corn Buntings. Invertebrate populations – impossible to see in November! – are also great. They have been very excited by the recent appearance of brown arguses and marsh fritillaries.

How’s it done?

Farming wildlifeThere’s no single answer, apart from the obvious – i.e. it’s organic. No chemical intervention brings unexpected bonuses, too. There are no tracks from spraying machinery to make it easy for predators to find ground nesting birds, for example. Access is made even more difficult by the way crops are drilled, with dense and slightly wavy rows of plants, impenetrable to weeds and foxes and badgers and giving animals no clear sight lines. Pertwood use a high tech inter-row cultivator to weed between the rows.

farming wildlife
Sunflower Margin
There are colourful pollinator strips along field margins – long flowering phacelia and late flowering sunflowers (good for seeds too), for example*. There’s a lovely butterfly bank. Red clover and other legume leys. Tussocky field margins too. This is insect nirvana – I hope I’ll be able to have a look around next summer.

The corn buntings – among other birds – love all the winter stubble which is deliberately left. I imagine this regime is also good for soil health.

Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It?

I don’t know, but then I’m not an agronomist. I guess there may be limited markets for organic cereals? It’s also true that we are only now exploring ways to farm with wildlife in mind. Groups like the Nature Friendly Farming Network are relatively new. The subsidy systems we have been using haven’t encouraged it enough, nor have they ensured compliance.

Anyway, the point is that there seems to be an alternative way to farm for wildlife, without not farming for wildlife. This looks as if it works in straight commercial terms. It also has significant value for the Pertwood brand, which at least helps pay for Nick and his efforts. People drive past on the main road and see the pollinator strips. Organic food consumers love to hear they’re helping corn buntings. Some might even read this blog.

Only Connect

I left the farm with a mixture of emotions. I’m so impressed by what they’ve done, and thoughtful about what more could be done (I hope we’ll be able to help!). This was tinged by a degree of sadness.

What a disastrous period we have gone through. Pertwood – despite their size, budget, will and knowledge – is struggling to repair the terribly degraded and fragmented habitats around them. There are still no dormice on site, for example, even after 30 years and despite the perfect home it would make for them. Smalls mammals simply can’t physically get there. It’s an oasis in the middle of a green desert. While this can be partly sorted out by planting hedges etc., it’s a sobering reflection on the state of the wider countryside.

*I’ll have to work on the native wildflowers angle…

Foodplants for Butterflies and Moths

What would you think about if I asked you for good foodplants for butterflies and moths? Buddleja? Verbena bonariensis? Hebe?
It’s true – they’re all great nectaring plants, and non-native to the UK. So why should I bother with native plants if I want to encourage butterflies and moths?

Well, many native plants are very good sources of nectar, of course. Hemp agrimony, knapweed, honeysuckle, wild marjoram and field scabious spring immediately to mind. These are all attractive and in some cases long flowering wildflowers. As nectar plants are they as good as the ornamentals? It’s a far from straightforward question and not my topic here!

Celastrina argiolus
Holly Blue on Holly leaf
Where native plants incontrovertibly DO win is as foodplants for caterpillars. British caterpillars, by and large, need British plants to munch. This can, of course, extend to cultivars, which explains why cabbages are regularly written off. There are exceptions too; I offer up nasturtiums (from South America) in my veg patch as a sacrifice to happy Small White caterpillars.*

At this point gardeners say they have a nettle patch for caterpillars. Well yes – good foodplant but not enough on their own. Atropos Publishing has a good guide which shows which species of butterfly and larger moth depend on which foodplant. Urtica – nettles – have 35 associated caterpillars. It highlights the difference between imported plants and native. Buddleja are a good example; the book lists only 3. This is very different to a native plant – field scabious has 14.

Grasses too are good larval foodplants, which is one of the reasons why we encourage people to sow meadow mixes rather than just wildflowers. Cocksfoot, for example (although not ideal for a meadow), comes in as supporting 35 different types of caterpillar.

Trees and hedge species are even better. Sometimes they have almost exclusive or totally exclusive relationships with individual plants. I think of Yellow Brimstones and Buckthorn, Purple Emperors and Oak, Brown Hairstreak and Blackthorn. The king of all our plants is the Oak; according to the book, both oaks support over 120 types of moth and butterfly caterpillars. It’s said an oak tree will lose around half its leaves to insects in an average year.

Which are the top five foodplants? They’re all native trees or shrubs:
English and Sessile oaks (Q. robur and petraea)
Willows (Salix spp.)
Birches (Betula spp.)
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

*and thence happy blue tits etc.etc.

Why Hedgelaying Makes a Better Hedge

Hedgelaying now seems hopelessly quaint. It’s incredible to think that there would have been thousands of agricultural workers spending months and months painstakingly managing hedges with slashers and axes. The time it took is mind boggling. This sweet video from 1942 would have been completely unremarkable – I guess the landgirl would have seemed the most unusual thing about it!

Each area had its own style; in the video it’s Midland, with “binders” to support the cut stems, or “pleachers”, while they regrow. The local tradition where we live is much more rustic but clearly identifiable, as a Dorset hedge. Its development is easy to explain; it only needed to be proof against the lowland sheep which were such a familiar part of Hardy’s landscape.

Laying hedge, SE SomersetI have to say I love pretty much everything about hedgelaying. I learnt how to lay (or “layer”) hedges on a weekend course many years ago. It’s something you have to do if you would like to pick it up. The Conservation Volunteers produce an excellent practical handbook, too. My skill levels are pretty basic (!) – I don’t lay 100s of metres of hedge every year to practice and I don’t have an expert watching over me – but Dorset hedges are pretty simple.

Why do I like it so much? To start with there’s the connection with that rich rural tradition. Like planting local apple trees. It’s genuinely interesting and demanding work too. Even with a chainsaw (not available in 1940s Northamptonshire!) it’s taxing and rewarding labour. Last off it makes a much better hedge.

Why hedgelaying is usefulIn the days before barbed wire, hedges had to be stock proof – that was kind of the point. This photo shows another section of Hawthorn hedge I planted a few years ago. Stockproof it clearly isn’t. Lambs etc could cheerfully wander through it. Left unmanaged and you have a series of small trees, which is what many of the common hedge species (like Hawthorn and Blackthorn) want to be.*

Hedgelaying - DorsetThis couldn’t matter a row of beans in terms of our hedges – a barbed wire fence protects the garden from rampaging cows. It does matter for other reasons though. Hedgelaying makes for a much thicker, denser hedge with a really solid base. You can see that these young hawthorns, planted around 50cm apart in a standard staggered double row, already look as if they will form a much wider barrier because of the brash I’ve left on them and the way their stems are lying. Even in its current state it provides a much denser – if much reduced – barrier. It will whistle up in no time, incidentally.

We’re pretty exposed, so the new hedge will provide a more robust and more substantial windbreak. More than that, though, it will be excellent for wildlife. That’s not surprising. Enormous numbers of invertebrates feed on common native hedge plants. In Hawthorn’s case it’s apparently 149. Its early blossom is a boon for pollinators too, and its berries in autumn for small mammals and birds. These species in turn bring exciting predators. Some insects lay their eggs on hedge plants to overwinter. Pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies enjoy not just spring blossom but also summer flowering hedgerow shrubs like roses and honeysuckle. Managing these plants through laying and then trimming them, rather than flailing, keeps those resources intact.

Laid hedgeHedges can provide fabulous shelter and safe corridors for movement – “wildways”. Their value for this is enhanced considerably if they’re laid and allowed to breath a little. We’re lucky enough to have dormice running around in our mature hedges, and shrews and voles use hedgerows as permanent habitats. Toads and other amphibia and reptiles find their dense, damp cover helpful. Birds are attracted by the insects, berries and nuts that a dense hedge provides, but also benefit from the protection of larger, denser hedges. They’re a great substitute for the wood pasture or woodland edge habitat that’s so rich in biodiversity.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on the progress of our little hedge. It’s always slightly unnerving to see this kind of reduction but it’s something I won’t have to do again for up to a decade, and won’t take long to look mightily impressive. It’s only about 30m long, but should be a lovely and important addition to the garden. Here’s one I did a few years ago – pictures at the end of the blog.

*In modern times flailing the bottom and surrounds of hedges and using herbicide around them exaggerates this tendency. You end up with a series of plants which look like forks; a single stem supporting a few prongs. Not really a hedge at all. Eventually the forks give up the ghost completely.