Amazingly we are still losing our hedgerows, according to a report from the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE). “Amazingly” because I thought they were so well protected by legislation and because people understand how important they are, both historically and environmentally. The CPRE report restates the case again for hedgerows, and calls for more specific regulation and continuing funding to protect them. All power to them.
Forget their environmental value for a moment; like meadows, many hedges are ancient monuments. In Devon nearly a quarter of hedges are over 800 years old, and some are based on Bronze Age banks. They should enjoy the equivalent of Grade 1 listed building status. Unlike the period 1950 to 1975, when many were ripped out, the more recent problem has been neglect. According to the report, from 1998-2007 the km of “trees/shrubs/relict hedge (and fence)” has increased while the km of hedge has decreased by 6.1%. This is an important distinction. Unmanaged hedges turn into lines of trees and shrubs, which have less and less value and eventually disappear. Alternatively, single lines of plants are often mercilessly flailed, and end up looking like stumpy toothbrushes. These are no more hedges than the X Factor is opera.
We’ve restored the hedges here, which had become very X Factor. My educated guess is that they date back to the Middle Ages, but they had recently suffered from being choked with dead elms and having been left to grow out. Their ditches were filled up and sheep and cows had wandered through them. We’ve cleared the ditches and laid most of them over the last few years, replanting the gaps with a British grown and appropriate mix of native hedgerow plants. Hedge laying is not only a brilliant way of creating a lovely thick hedge, with all the attendant benefits that brings, but it’s genuinely good fun to learn and can be a great art. One of the charities we support is the National Hedgelayers’ Association, which might seem an esoteric choice, but it reflects our reckoning of the importance of hedges in our landscape.
You wouldn’t believe the difference it has made. Newly laid hedges look like they’ll take years to recover, especially given the local style is pretty aggressive, but we now have the most beautiful thick hedges. I cut them carefully by hand too, which means the boon to wildlife is tremendous and that us humans get to see everything in flower. As the report points out, managed hedgerows are very important habitats for a variety of birds and mammals in particular, and even I – no great twitcher – can see the difference in the volume and species of birds we now have.
Still recovering from our older son George’s 18th I spent some down time in the garden today looking for butterflies. Appropriately enough, as next week is Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, sponsored by Marks and Spencer. I counted 6 species in half an hour loitering around the herb garden – Common Blue, Large White, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, and Brimstone. Nothing unusual to get the hardened Lep excited, but really good news for me; when we moved here there were only Whites around, so we’ve done our bit to create good habitat for butterflies. I’ve also recently seen Six Spot Burnets and Large Skippers. In a very modest sort of way I feel like a kind of God; there’s a lot you can do to build up a good population of colonial species like these.
In the herb garden Oregano seemed to be a particular magnet for the Browns, and in the borders Veronicastrum for the Brimstones.These guys are a particular success, as I hadn’t seen one around here at all until now. Why have they suddenly arrived? Because I planted a short stretch of Alder Buckthorn, their larval food plant, in a section of hedge. You can see how tasty it has proved. With butterflies it’s not just the nectar plants you need – it’s their whole habitat. When you get that right the effects are pretty much instantaneous.
I’ve just snared our final keynote speaker for the courses we’re running next year, which means we can put out our corporate update for December. Sigh of relief. The courses – on meadows, orchards, hedges, and ponds – should be fab and, frankly, I’ll probably learn as much as the participants. It has not been difficult finding hugely knowledgeable speakers for them, but to be honest it has been tricky to dig out hugely knowledgeable speakers who will enthuse people – which, I hasten to say, I have managed to do. It has been a good reminder of one of the rules I set myself; don’t be desperately worthy and desperately… dull – which gives me the chance to quote some Pope:
More she had spoke, but yawn’d – All Nature nods:
What Mortal can resist the Yawn of Gods?
No disrespect to you Pete, but I don’t suppose for a couple of beakers of infuriator someone like Clarkson might agree to be a guest speaker at one of our hedgelaying days as Alexander isn’t available? I wonder what the insurers would say.
I’ve been itching to think up a new hedge project for ages, and now we have one. Emboldened by Mike the new gardener we are taking a bite out of what is currently pasture and filling it with an extension to our cut flower bed and vegetable garden. We are also putting what should be a fabulous wildlife pond, which will be the centrepiece for our one day course in April. Although that has to wait, of course it’s absolutely the right time to be putting a hedge in. Its longest side is Southwest facing, so perfect for butterflies in particular. The mix I’m getting is heavy on Alder Buckthorn for Brimstones, and Blackthorn to try to help the increasingly rare Brown Hairstreak. Although the soil here is neutral rather than acid, there is a section damp enough for the Buckthorn, so I hope it will do. We are a little light on Blackthorn in our current hedges, and I do like it (not just for the sloe gin); it can be a painful plant to work with, but it lays well and its spiky suckering habit makes for a great hedge and a fantastic habitat for all sorts. Buckthorn and Blackthorn apart, the mix also includes Quickthorn, Hazel, Field Maple, and Dog Rose. I can’t wait for the plants to arrive.