• George McGavin

Flailing wildlife

If there is one thing that spoils my enjoyment of the British countryside it is the sight of mile after mile of butchered and battered hedgerow. It really shouldn’t be like this and despite all the recommendations and scientific studies, landowners, farmers and Councils are slowly but surely destroying one of the oldest and most important semi-natural habitats we have. Hedgerows are an iconic element of the British landscape. They have existed since Neolithic times and fulfil many important roles. They mark boundaries of course but they are more than just a line demarcating ownership or an impenetrable barrier to keep livestock from straying. They are significant habitats and refuges for thousands of species across much of lowland Britain. More than this, they are wildlife corridors running through our largely man-made landscape. These green arteries provide links between patches of woodland and forest and support thousands of invertebrate species, more than three-quarters or our woodland birds, half of our mammals and, if they have wet ditches and hollows, homes for reptiles and amphibians.

One of the most beautiful sights in our countryside is a well managed hedgerow, broad at the bottom with woody species such as field maple, wayfaring tree and spindle as well as taller specimens of oak and ash. Adorned with climbing plants such wild honeysuckle, bramble, dog rose and clematis and with a profusion of flowers growing along the margins - the whole glorious thing alive with insects. What you will mostly see however as you drive around our country highways and byways today are threadbare tatters of a once great habitat.

In the days when hedgerows were managed properly, wildlife thrived but the advent of larger, open fields to allow the use of bigger agricultural machines and maximise profits, brought about the removal of tens of thousands of kilometres of hedgerows. Amazingly it took until 1997 when the Hedgerows Regulations afforded the first legal protection for hedgerows in the UK. But it’s not perfect because even hedgerows that are regarded as important can be removed in cases where planning permission for development has been given. But the regulations really do not go far enough. It seems that making money and protecting nature are mutually exclusive. In the past hedgerows were cut infrequently and gently by larger versions of the same sort of cutters that would be used to trim a garden hedge. - reciprocating shears. These made neat, clean cuts and the cuttings fell intact to the bottom of the hedge. Any insect eggs, larva or pupae would generally survive this treatment and the cut vegetation would recover the following year putting out a profusion of new shoots thereby enhancing the bushy structure of the hedge. But hedge cutting needs a certain degree of skill and the cutting blades need to be sharpened so it wasn’t long before someone came up with a new approach.

The invention of the mechanised chain flail around the middle of the last Century must surely rank as one of the worst ideas anyone ever had. The machines are simple. A large bar of metal equipped with metal struts or knives is rotated at high speed. Carried on a hydraulic arm and powered by a tractor, flails can reach the top and sides of a hedge with ease. They do not make a neat job. The hedge is very efficiently mangled and macerated and the result is an ugly mess. The branches and stems are flayed open. Small trees will often have their trunks split lengthways. The typical “toothbrush” appearance of a recently flailed hedge provides a huge surface area of wounded tissue which allows access for all kinds of bacteria and fungal spores. To make matters worse, hedges are often flailed year after year at the same height, producing a knobbly mass of gnarled scar tissue from which few new shoots will ever appear. How can people, some who claim to care about the countryside, be so utterly stupid? Do they look at their handiwork and think it attractive? Do they not understand what they are doing or do they just not care? The end result of a few years of this butchery is a line of straggly vegetation, barely alive and devoid of all other life. In the end, the last few pathetic remnants of the hedge will often be taken away and the field it once bounded is left unfenced or surrounded in barbed wire.

These monstrous machines are chewing up and spitting out our natural heritage. Is this any way to treat a national treasure?