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Why hedges are vital for wildlife
"If the wood is the beating heart, the hedge is the artery."
Last spring I had the pleasure of working with WildEast, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing nature back to East Anglia in the UK. They invited me to film and edit a series of short videos on hedges, something that I’ll admit I never spent longer than a minute thinking about before.
Today? I’m hedge mad. Love ‘em. Can’t get enough of hedges.
In a nutshell, a properly made and maintained hedge is a nature superhero. As well as providing shelter for small animals and birds, it acts as a kind of wildlife highway when connecting two or more larger habitats like woods and meadows. They also absorb pollution and sequester carbon, act as barriers for sound and wind, reduce flooding, and give the British countryside many of its iconic defining features.
Since the end of the Second World War and the explosion of mechanised, industrialised farming, we’ve removed more hedges than we’ve planted. Up and down the country we’ve destroyed nearly half of them. The RSPB dives into the value of hedges in this brief history.
An Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) survey of hedgerow changes revealed that between 1984 and 1990 hedgerow length in England had declined by 20 per cent and in Wales by 25 per cent. While outright removal of hedgerows accounted for 9,500km per year, almost half of the loss was a result of lack of management.
Yep, there’s such a thing as a bad hedge. You can’t just prop up a line of sticks, call it a hedge, and expect it to have the same value to wildlife as a long-established, thick and diverse hedge that has been part of the landscape for several generations. By restoring and thickening hedges we can increase available wildlife habitat in East Anglia alone by 5%.
It doesn’t end in the countryside, either. Although hedges are synonymous with marking field boundaries on farms, there is plenty of space for them in our towns and cities. A green, healthy living hedge does a much better job of cleaning air along a street than a brick wall or a wooden fence. Yet time and time again we see homeowners replacing the natural features around their houses with tarmac or plastic lawns. With almost half of UK bird species in decline, every hedge torn up is one less habitat for a family of nesting sparrows or starlings.
WildEast invites homeowners to pledge a small percentage of their garden to nature, from gardens to allotments to churchyards and everything in between. If everyone across the country set aside space for nature to move and live and grow it would quickly give us a fighting chance to reverse the frightening declines of nature and biodiversity up and down the country.
Inspired to dive further into the world of hedges? Hedgelink is an organisational partnership championing hedges through National Hedgerow Week. The Tree Council discusses how urban hedges reduce air pollution, and of course you can watch the short documentary on hedges I made right now.