Thursday 27 April 2017

Slashing life out of hedgerows

THE great fields had been ploughed for potatoes or cereals, the soil spread over many acres like the surface of a confection of chocolate crumble. There were no divisions within and the whole was enclosed by shorn hedging that bristled like military haircuts of 20th Century armies.

This large tract looked smart and tidy. No doubt the contractors involved and the farmer-businessman who commissioned them were proud of their work. Thousands of other creatures would not and doubtless suffered as a consequence.

Hedge cutting can be one of the curses of the countryside. It need not be so. Much has to do with timing. The damage caused by tractor-borne flailing machines to the countless species of flora and fauna dependent on hedges for shelter, food and life is incalculable.

There are many and varied excuses for this whirling-blade warfare. The impersonal Local Authority is primarily held responsible. A farmer sweeping a stone-and sod-banked stretch of harmless brambles once told me he was forced to so by "the council". But what of bird cover and berry crops, I inquired. Sure, they'll grow back, was the response.

For some farmers and bureaucrats, cutting hedges with machinery as quickly as possible before summer is just another day's work -- and a bit of a nuisance at that. Such landscaping may be a part of a con-acre (letting) contract. There is little concern for nest-building, egg-laying, wild growths or the mammals that forage beneath. The passing public can be vigilant and, where relevant, question the necessity for this destruction. The natural habitats of hedgerows that are the backbone of landscape can be destroyed by poor management practices. Continuous flailing, often with blunt blades, tears the tops and sides of hedgerow trees damaging them so that growth is not uniform. What remains is top-heavy growth with gaps below, useless as an animal barrier. The unnecessary expense of wire fencing follows.

The weather is sometimes cited as the reason for spates of hedge cutting in recent weeks but not many people are aware that such work after March 1 is illegal under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act. This lasts until the end of August. There is plenty of time to trim in the autumn.

It may be easy to blame farmers and county councils but they may be quite innocent and may not be aware that another body, the Roads Authority, is flailing away in the interests of "public safety". If you are concerned that they are cutting corners unnecessarily they must provide a written explanation. Otherwise complaints may be made to council environment departments, heritage officers or wildlife rangers.

There was a time when hedge laying was a skill carried out by men wielding bill-hooks. The thickest stems were cut and bent almost horizontal to knit into the growth. Support stakes were driven in making the hedge almost impenetrable. Re-growth was dense and vigorous and, apart from trimming once a year, such hedges did not need attention for up to 10 years. Up to 60 yards of hedge could be covered by methodical workers in a day. But of course, that was a snail's pace compared to the tractor-slashing and much too labour intensive for today's 'landscaping' practices.

Sunday Independent

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