NATURE NOTESWHAT is a hedge? Well that depends what part of the country you are from to some extent.
Most people immediately think of a hedge as a row of bushes or low trees which are managed to form a barrier. But in some places a hedge may be formed of stone and turf (Devon and Cornwall for instance).
Even traditional bush hedges are managed in varying ways in different parts of the country and may take on a number of distinctive shapes as a result; although these days mechanisation means that there is much less regional variation.
Hedge-laying has nevertheless undergone a renaissance and many places, including the IW, have an annual competition to help to keep the skills alive.
The landscape of fields and hedges with which we are so familiar today, even where hedges have been neglected and cease to perform their original functions, is not a natural landscape but the result of 'agricultural improvement’ over the centuries facilitated by the enclosure of the former open fields.
However, the formation of these boundaries has provided natural highways which are invaluable to wildlife in enabling animals and birds to move easily from place to place in relative safety. You may have heard the term 'wildlife corridors’ and this relates to the policy in recent years of encouraging the replanting and managing of hedges to compensate for development.
These semi-natural highways are important to animals and birds for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they provide cover and shelter, both from the weather and from predators. Conversely, they also provide a food resource — either to predators or because of the berries and seeds which collect on and under them, or the vegetative growth which may be nibbled.
Hedges (and fences) also provide territorial boundaries which can be easily patrolled and defended. Having secured a territory, the hedges then provide suitable homes or nest sites for a variety of species including birds, insects, small rodents and reptiles and larger mammals such as rabbits.
Experiments done in radio-tracking various animals have shown that typical movements bear a high correlation to the pattern of boundaries in a particular area, and allow some animals to roam over long distances in the hunt for food and mates.
Even feral cats have been shown to patrol areas of up to 200 acres (80 hectares) of rural farmland, with 80 per cent of their time spent moving along the field boundaries. A fox may travel over seven miles or 12 kilometres along hedgerows in a single night. Other animals, such as rodents, will use the hedge as a base from which to foray into the adjoining fields, returning to cover at regular intervals.
Within the last 20 years the damage caused to wildlife due to the wholesale removal of hedges has been recognised and in 1997 the government passed the Hedgerow Regulations. It is against the law to remove most countryside hedgerows without permission, and you must write to the local council for authority to do so. If a hedge is removed without permission, the person responsible may face a large fine and have to replace the hedge.
Certain types of important hedgerows are so important it is unlikely permission would be given to remove any part of them. A helpful leaflet which explains the requirements in brief can be obtained from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by emailing the following address, where you can also obtain more detailed information farm firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even in the winter when the hedges appear brown and drab they continue to provide an important habitat for wildlife, helping to get animals through the cold weather by allowing safe hibernation sites and forming food banks.
We may enjoy hedges as landscape features, but for many species they are an essential tool in their survival strategies.
We owe it to them to protect and enhance these havens to mitigate the erosion to habitats that we have perpetrated by our drive towards agricultural efficiency and through the encroachment of our towns and villages into the countryside.