The hedgerow has a special place in our culture – and in our agriculture. Hedge schools provided iconic refuges to educate Catholics under the penal laws. They are celebrated in Brian Friel’s great play Translations, and indirectly in Seamus Heaney’s imaginative evocation of a contemporary Hedge School of Glanmore in Field Work.
More recently, other values of the humble hedgerow have come into focus. They are now recognised as refuges of a different, but very important kind: for our devastated biodiversity. With our native woodlands almost eradicated, hedgerow trees and flowers form residual but vital corridor habitats for mammals, birds and insects.
The shadow of the climate crisis has cast the multiple benefits of hedgerows as banks of natural capital into sharp relief. They provide essential ecosystem services to our whole society, including carbon sequestration, flood protection, wind-breaks for cattle and pollinators for crops.
And yet, instead of fostering these reservoirs of natural wealth, public policies stimulated their rapid removal over the last century, as agricultural production was intensified. Where hedgerows are not actually removed, they have often been managed so badly, especially through excessive cutting, that they lose much of their value.
More recently, even though hedgerow benefits are now much better known, the Heritage Act 2018 proposed extending the cutting season under certain circumstances, a move which sent exactly the wrong signal.
Studies suggest that close to 2000km of hedgerows are still removed annually. Meanwhile, indiscriminate roadside hedge-cutting, too often by public authorities, turns these beautiful linear parks into brutalised eyesores, and gives the lie to a political establishment that claims to have become nature and climate positive.
It is necessary to reward landowners adequately for retaining, restoring and laying hedgerows, which the new Common Agricultural Policy provisions sadly fail to do. In parallel, we must call out and curb the crass vandalism of some local councils.