Last night a low pressure weather system from the Atlantic roared into the South West. High winds and rain tore through the countryside screeching and wailing along quiet lanes, rattling and crashing through hushed farmsteads and howling over silent meadows. Trees and branches bent, twisting and gyrating under the onslaught; their leaves, whipped into a rattling frenzy, hung by tenuous thread before being ripped, torn and hurled into chaotic cyclones spiralling across the countryside. And how appropriate! How fitting that Nature should use her elemental power to scour and cleanse herself for the ancient festival of Samhain.
This morning the ground has changed into a confused tapestry of molten bronze, burnished copper and liquid gold. The trees, denuded of their autumn finery, silhouette a filigree of delicate lacework branches against the skyline. It’s only now that it becomes obvious that most of the trees around here are hedgerow trees, as the details of the landscape become apparent. But for how much longer will these trees grace our countryside?
Nationally, over the last decade we’ve lost one in twenty of our hedgerow trees, a 5% decline between 1998 and 2007. Quite simply, there are not enough young trees being allowed to grow up to replace those that are dying or being felled.
It’s true that hedgerow trees often cause problems for the farmer. If not carefully managed, as they grow up the shade they cast can result in gaps in the hedge beneath, making it less stock-proof. Trees add considerably to the time taken to cut a hedge, and their limbs can get in the way of farm machinery and overhead lines. And there’s always the risk that they will be hazardous later in life. But they are of great value to wildlife and the landscape.
Old, veteran, trees are of special wildlife importance, their cracks and holes providing nest and roost sites for birds like tits, woodpeckers and owls, and for many bats. Their rotting wood is home to huge numbers of different invertebrates – insects and so forth, especially beetles – and for fungi. All these forms of life would otherwise not be able to survive in hedges or the surrounding farmland.
Recent research has shown that even before they become veterans hedgerow trees, especially isolated ones, greatly increase the amount of wildlife in an area. Moth numbers, for example, have been shown to increase by as much as 60% where such trees are present, and their species diversity by 38%. Hedgerow trees act as beacons in the landscape, attracting the moths and other insects, and in turn these attract birds and bats which use the trees as service stations in their movements across the landscape. The crowns of trees are important for larger birds such as buzzards and rooks to build their nests in, and the trunks can carry rich lichen floras, including some great rarities.
To maintain hedgerow trees numbers nearly half (45%) of all trees need to be young, that is with diameters of 20cm or less. The good news, though, is that to stabilize the population we do not need to recruit many more trees each year. Indeed, if just 15,000 extra trees are planted or allowed to grow each year across the country, that will do the trick. If each farmer encourages just one additional tree each year, our hedgerow tree population will quickly start to recover and rise.
Others can help too. To survive their early years, until they stand proud of the hedge and are safe from the flail cutter, young trees need to be marked clearly. Experience shows that tags need to be renewed each year, and surrounding vegetation cut away so the saplings are clearly visible. This takes more time than farmers like us have available, so offers of assistance from people in the local community can be more than welcome.