Sue Whigham takes a meander along nature’s verdant and vital corridors

Recently the BBC’s Today programme carried a feature about England’s hedgerows which created a lot of interest among listeners. On the strength of that, Martha Kearney interviewed one of them, Emma Bridgewater, the pottery business founder, and someone who likes to get ‘close and personal’ with the hedgerows in her North Norfolk garden. I very much liked the sound of her creation of a place not only to sit and have a cup of tea or a drink but one where she can actually get inside her hedge – accessing it through (or over!) an old garden shed. I can just imagine it, although I’ll confess I’m finding it rather tricky to describe.
A project led by Dr. Richard Broughton of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology based in Lancaster has spent the last five years mapping the hedgerows of England using advanced laser scanning. They have announced that England’s hedgerows would stretch ‘almost ten times around the Earth’ if lined up end-to-end, which is a reassuring statistic, bearing in mind that hedges are so often being grubbed up or left unmanaged (which does them no good at all). The technology is fascinating, recording as it does the state of our existing hedgerows, measuring their height and condition and being able to work out how much carbon can be removed from the atmosphere and stored in the structure of these hedgerows.

England’s hedgerows would stretch ‘almost ten times around the Earth’ if lined up end to end

It’s hoped that this advanced mapping will guide both planning and restoration of our exceedingly vulnerable wildlife corridors. Under its Environmental Improvement Plan, the current Government has pledged to support farmers and landowners in the restoration or creation of 30,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2037 and an increase to 45,000 miles a year by 2050.

Let’s hope that this plan remains in place regardless of who is in power. And to quote Rob Walton, “Hedgerows are manmade green veins that wildlife have adapted to and are dependent on.”
The BBC then diverted me to Lionel Kelleway’s lively interview for the Living World programme of a few years ago when he walked and talked with a hedgerow ecologist farming 80 acres in Devon, north of Dartmouth, with its high rain count and acidic soil and where hedges grow in profusion and have done for centuries, many appearing on ancient maps. Some West Country hedgerows are even believed to be 4,000 years old.
Rob Walton has 18 fields on his farm and they are all surrounded by hedges, some of which are 10-15 metres wide. He was full of knowledge, facts and advice about how to maintain them to keep them at their best. He put paid to the old Max Hooper rule of dating a hedge by the number of species there are in a 30 metre length. The old rule of thumb was to multiply the number by 100 and that gave you the age of the hedge. Mr Walton has been planting hedges for twenty years or more and said that if this rule worked, some of his hedges would be a thousand years old!
The South West is lucky to have at least ten species to the four found in the same length of hedge elsewhere in the country, and he was especially proud of the fact that he has more dormice in his hedges than he could count. Oh, lucky man. I hadn’t realised that dormice are creatures that favour woodland edges. They build damp nests deep in the hedge which can vary in size from that of a satsuma to a grapefruit, using green leaves, shredded honeysuckle and various grasses or rushes. They then hibernate from October to April and for the rest of the year they are pretty torpid, never travelling too far from their nests. And whilst dormice can travel on the ground when they are searching out their diet of nuts, fruits and insects – oh, and pollen too – they prefer the shelter and safety of a hedgerow to scurry through.

He then described some of the plants to be found in his hedges, amongst them hawthorn, the berries of which are good at reducing blood pressure but ‘dull’ to eat; to wild angelica, Angelica sylvestris, a firm favourite with his cows; and sweet smelling meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria. And then there are the hedgerow trees that sometimes grow away between cutting and are often given a reprieve to grow on. It seems that hedges with trees such as oak, ash, holly and alder growing in with them increase the numbers of creatures like bats, moths and birds hugely. Another interesting statistic was that a mature hawthorn can have berries on the one plant equivalent to two hundred metres of regularly cut hedgerow.
We know here that hedges tend to be cut every winter but whilst they need to be managed, it seems that a cut every three years produces far greater quantities of berries and fruits for wildlife as the plants flower on the previous year’s wood. I must say that here we have extremes and that is just down one lane. On one side we have a fifteen foot hedge which hasn’t been touched for several years and which is now thin and straggly and falling into the road with alarming regularity and on the other side we have a hedge which is usually cut down mercilessly just as the blackberries are at their best! This year we’ve been glad to see that it was left until most of the fruit was picked over by the birds. Mr Walton was right about walking slowly sometimes just to take in the different birds and other wildlife who inhabit our hedges – voles, wood mice, shrews, weasels and the shyer stoats are all in there – along with all manner of small passerine birds. It’s lovely to see wrens hopping through the hedge during a dog walking meander only giving themselves away with their amazingly loud voices – surely a Tiny Bird with a Giant Voice.

Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and help in the sourcing and supply of interesting garden plants.

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