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Let hedgerows grow! 1 Mar 2022 (Notes from the North) Several reasons are put forward for regularly cutting back hedgerows, but the counter arguments are more powerful.

2. Early March 2022 – Hedgerows

The poem ‘An Overlooked Hedge’, which was published in Eynsham News in January this year, described some of the biodiversity in local hedges. Over winter, and especially throughout February, many of the hedgerows in the surrounding countryside were systematically cut back by tractor-and-flail to a fraction of their former size. Around here it looks as though they have been savagely attacked by a methodical monster.

You may, like me, be asking “Why and why now?” I have been told or can think of four reasons.

1, To make them neat and tidy.

At a time of drastic ecological decline and urgent need for nature recovery, this argument no longer carries any weight (if it ever did).

2, To remove obstacles to roads, cycleways and footpaths, and sight lines at junctions, and dangerous tree roots or overhanging branches.

This is a strong argument, and clearly such obstacles should be regularly removed. But that does not mean that whole hedges have to be decimated. It would be far better to monitor hedgerows at intervals throughout the year, removing vegetation only where it was necessary. Most of the hedges around here are not in anyone’s way.

3. To save money, because it would be more difficult and would cost more money to cut them less often than every year or every other year.

This is the economic argument, which has some validity. But there is another way of saving money: cut the hedges in sections on rotation over a number of years,[1] allowing most of the hedgerow network to grow in the meantime. The bigger the hedge, the greater the biodiversity.

4. To get the cutting done before the bird-nesting season.

There appears to have been a great rush to get the hedgerows cut by 1 March, in order to avoid nesting birds. Birds have in fact been checking out nesting sites for some time before that date, and in a warming climate the current fixed deadline is no longer appropriate.

But it is a misleading and unjustified reason in other ways too. By reducing the volume of hedge by a third or a half (or more), you are removing that much available habitat space for nesting and roosting sites, and for shelter. Furthermore, since trees such as hawthorn and blackthorn blossom on the previous year’s growth, by removing that growth you are preventing that blossom from forming and depriving pollinating insects of a valuable source of food in spring. And then, of course, the hedges will not produce fruit for birds and mammals in autumn and winter.

To take just one example, in the two hedges mentioned in the January poem, a wild apple tree in one produced as usual a rich crop of apples that fed the fieldfares, insects and other creatures. The apple tree in the other, cut, hedge, produced none. There are a number of wild crab apple trees in the hedgerows up here whose fallen fruit in autumn squish rather satisfactorily under foot and then feed small animals or fertilise the soil.

Hedgerows need to be managed. Occasional controlled and sensitive pruning will stimulate healthy growth. But mechanically flailing them on a regular basis is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: and there won’t be any nuts if this practice continues.

[1] One local farmer recommends ten-year cycles.

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