We've just had the most lovely weekend hiking in the Black Mountains, just over the border in Wales. The landscape - for those of you who don't know it (and you should get to know it!) is absolutely stunning.
The valleys there are still managed by small sheep and cattle farmers. Goodness knows what will happen to them, but that's not the subject of this blog. You can still see a complicated web of ancient field systems, bordered by old hedgerows, mostly hawthorn. But these hedgerows are sometimes in a bit of a state.
As the National Hedgelaying Society's latest newsletter points out, we seem to be winning the battle against the outright loss of hedgerows. They're not grubbed out any more, although we've still lost over 50% of them since the war. Herbicide drift can kill them though, or ploughing too close, but the numbers are apparently generally encouraging.
Hedges can be over managed too - which we see around us here in Somerset. Cut them too often and too aggressively and they will finally disappear completely.
What we came across in Brecon, though, was mostly the opposite - under management. This seems to be a really significant cause of hedgerow decline, accounting for something like half the hedges we're losing. If hedgerows aren't managed properly the plants in them grow out to be small trees. Livestock wanders through them, so soon you have just a line of trees in the middle of a field. Over time these too will disappear.
Most poignantly, we saw vestiges of hedges once laid which were now individual trees along a fenceline.
Does this matter? You bet. Hedges are one of the most under-appreciated assets in the British countryside. They are corriders for wildlife, linking up fragmented habitats. They provide food from Blackthorn blossom to Rose haws, and protection for mammals, birds and invertebrates.* Hedgerow species have thousands of animals associated with them.
Encouragingly, though, there was also some new hedge planting along degraded hedgelines. There's a Brecon hedgelaying group, working the intricate local style. Perhaps it's not too much to ask that in the brave new world of farming subsidy, where public money pays for public good, we might see more replanting and more sympathetic management.
*In towns they also reduce temperatures and pollution.