Hedgerow protection: a gap in the system

A recent discussion on the UK Tree Care mailing list explored the question of the amount of protection afforded hedgerows by the legislation in England and Wales.

Surveying a hedgerow

The Ranger surveys invertebrates in a hedgerow

It’s a widely misunderstood subject – and a quick surf around the web will show you that even those you might expect to know really don’t – for example, the Friends of the Earth website says:

…the removal of any hedge longer then 20 metres, requires planning permission. If the hedge is shown to be significant in terms of its age, environmental or historical importance, then the planning authority can refuse such permission and take further measures to protect the hedgerow.

There’s one mistake and a few understatements in this analysis, but they are typical misconceptions. The mistake: the hedgerow regulations are nothing to do with planning permission. The understatements: the establishment of the ‘importance’ of a hedge is very complex, and there is little if any discretion in the process. And even if that is successful, the ‘further measures to protect the hedgerow’ amount to very little. When the Ranger was working with protected trees he dealt with a constant stream of enquiries from people wanting to protect hedges in some way. Almost all were disappointed. It is often imagined that the Hedgerow Regulations 1997 are some sort of Tree Preservation Order (TPO) for hedges – they are not. Key differences are that whilst any tree can (in theory) be protected by a TPO, only certain very closely prescribed hedge types can qualify as ‘important hedges’, and almost all of these will be rural or agricultural hedges, well away from the urban and suburban areas where most TPOs are found, and where hedge-related conflicts usually break out. Furthermore there is no facility to proactively designate hedges as ‘important’, this can only be done in response to a notification from a landowner. Failing such a notification the potential for action in the case of a removed hedge is pretty minimal. Finally there is only really a prohibition of removal, not any lesser works. Works up to and including the ground-level coppicing of an entire hedge would not fall within the regulations in most cases. Data reported by Alina Congreve suggests that “All the criteria combined only protect about 20% of hedgerows from removal.” That’s not many. She also points out many other problems with the hedgerow regulations, and suggests that by widening the scope of the regs this could to some extent be addressed. The Ranger has come to believe that there is a gap in the protection regime that allows most hedgerows to remain in effect unprotected. This gap is not much understood as most people seem to assume that the Hedgerow Regulations cover it. This has arisen because the original Hedgerow Regs were rightly aimed at agricultural hedge removal, whereas today the issues concerning hedge removal are much more likely to be concerned with development and gardens, where the regulations do not apply and the issues are quite different. He takes a more pessimistic view than Dr Congreve because of the qualitative issues that arise once non-rural hedges are considered. The problems with the Hedgerow Regulations in non-rural situations are serious enough that a more radical approach is required. Instead of widening the scope of the Hedgerow Regulations it may be more appropriate to introduce a new category of Tree Preservation Order, complete with the existing constraints and controls that system already carries. TPOs are primarily intended for domestic, not agricultural environments. Such a new category could be applied specifically to hedgerows in any location, for the purpose of protecting their public amenity as opposed to simply evaluating their intrinsic importance.

Hedges in our landscape – recommended link

The Ranger has long been aware of an excellent online essay by professional hedgelayer Paul Blissett. In fact, elements from it have entered into Naturenet and other things The Ranger has worked on – such as interpretation for the Isle of Wight Hedgelaying Competition. Entitled Hedges In Our Landscape this accessible page covers the history of hedges as well as the origins of the craft of hedgelaying; an overview of regional styles; advice on which sort of stakes and heathers to use (and indeed what they are, if you are wondering) and much more. It’s a great whistle-stop tour around the subject of hedgerows, and even comes with some very informative pictures. To whet your appetite, here are a few excerpts:

…Caesar described the process of hedgelaying in detail in 57BC in his Gallic War when he encountered laid hedges in the territory of the Nervii in Flanders… …Richard the First issued an edict that hedges should not exceed 4 foot 6 inches tall both to allow free range to the royal deer and so that he could chase them on horseback… …One plant which should normally be cut out of a hedge is elder since it grows faster than all other hedgerow plants and crowds them out. It is also very brittle and useless in any hedge intended to provide a stockproof barrier… …A recent arrival is the motorway style which dispenses with heathering and, with a post and rail fence on the field side behind it, does not need to be stockproof…

Now go on, go and read it.

Beyond Hooper’s Hypothesis: hedgerow survey handbook updated

Many people have the rather vague idea that it is possible to estimate the age of a hedge by counting the species in it. This concept is known as Hooper’s Hypothesis, or sometimes Hooper’s Law, after its proponent, Dr Max Hooper who first proposed it in 1965*. Hooper himself, a little facetiously, later called it “Hooper’s Hedgerow History Hypothesis”, and it is summarised as:

Age of the hedge in years = number of woody plant species x 100

As a rough rule of thumb Hooper’s Hypothesis has proven to be a remarkably robust yardstick. Indeed in modified form it is even included as part of statute law in the form of the Hedgerow Regulations (1997) in England and Wales. However, as Hooper himself explained at the time, this test is a very rudimentary one and much more information is needed to really report on the condition of hedgerows in the countryside. To this end, many others have followed Hooper’s lead and developed more complex means of surveying hedgerows. Now a new edition of an old stalwart publication in this field has been produced: the Hedgerow Survey Handbook, first published in 2002, has been updated.

Hedgerow Survey Handbook

The handbook sets out a standard way to record and survey hedgerows, looking mainly at the biodiversity element. There is plenty of practical detail, ranging from the mechanics of organising a systematic survey, to finding the funds to do so. It also gives the alarming assessment that

In 2006, we believe that only some 22% of the UK’s hedgerows are in a favourable state.

Reason enough to continue to record and survey hedges.

*there is some dissent about when the hypothesis was first published but Hooper himself said it was in the Devon Naturalists Trust Journal in December 1965.

How to plant a hedge

The Ranger received an enquiry today about planting a hedge:

Hi, our neighbour has just ripped up our old hedge. The birds loved the old hedge and we had several nests, alas no more. Could you suggest what hedging we could use to replant, bird haven being most important. Area to cover is about 40 feet, possibly with one or two small trees and a shrub or two. Our side of the fence is west facing. Many thanks.

The Ranger is feeling all fired up about hedges, after the Hedgelaying Competition recently. So he went off on one… and thought you might like to see his response too. The Ranger writes back: Sorry to hear about your hedge. But it’s a great chance to plant a new one. Assuming you are in England or Wales, and want native trees (best for wildlife), you have several choices. One of the best things to do is to go out to a hedge near you on similar soil and with similar aspect that is doing really well, and see what species of plant are growing there. Then try to get a similar mix of species. It’s a good way to be sure to get plants that will be successful in your area – I don’t know where you live, but here on the Isle of Wight the best plants for a hedge can vary from one village to another so this can be a useful exercise. However, there are some stalwarts that will do well pretty much anywhere. Hawthorn and blackthorn spring to mind – the majority of agricultural hedges in SE England are made predominantly of hawthorn, and it’s good for birds and insects, providing shelter and food. Blackthorn is a bit nastier to handle (very thorny), but does have wonderful blossom and those attractive sloes on it which make such lovely gin! In some parts of lowland England hazel is an important component of hedges, and a few hedges are made of nothing else. This attractive little tree is very important habitat for wildlife such as dormice and other small mammals; it’s also a treat to lay as it comes with its own stakes and heatherings already supplied. So what mix to plant? A personal choice, but typically I’d choose about 60% hawthorn, 20% blackthorn, 10% hazel and then a scattering of other locally-appropriate species which will give some interest and diversity to the hedge. These could include field maple, guelder rose, broom, ash or even gorse on a sandy soil. As you want to include a couple of standard trees to grow up, maybe let one or two of the ash get away without trimming, or if you’re in a rush put a birch or two in there – they grow quickly but don’t really like hedges much and will probably not do very well in the long term. Of course, if the location is suitable you can always stick an oak in there and see how it does.

An important consideration is where to get the trees from. You might need to seek a local recommendation, perhaps from your local Wildlife Trust or ranger service. Specialist nurseries will deliver, and you may be lucky enough to have one near to you that stocks your local plants. If so this will definitely be the best place to go and will save you money on delivery too. Almost all garden centres will be next to useless. If you want exotic plants in pots at high prices, that’s the place to go. But for countryside hedging with native species you should expect to pay little more than a couple of pounds per tree for bare-rooted stock. The right nursery will deliver them freshly-dug for planting. It’s a very useful tip, and can save you a fortune, but you do need to know how to deal with the trees when they arrive. You can get plenty of practical tips here, but the executive summary is simple: plant during the winter only; prepare the ground before the trees arrive (so you can get them in the holes quickly); don’t ever let the trees’ roots dry out by leaving them uncovered for more than a few minutes. You can keep the trees’ roots damp by keeping them in bags (they’ll probably be delivered in bags) or if you’re going to keep them for more than a couple of days then you might consider heleing them in – an old term for digging them into a shallow temporary trench before replanting later. Once the trees are planted, protect them from rabbits/deer/strimmers if needs be and mulch around them with plastic, old carpet or chippings. Keep this mulch on for a couple of seasons to minimise weeding and watering requirements. Hope this helps! Best of luck with your hedge planting project.

Pleacher comforts: the Isle of Wight Hedgelaying Competition

The Ranger has been for many years involved in organising the Isle of Wight Hedgelaying Competition. Actually, these days, he usually just turns up on the day and stands about reflecting on how terribly well everyone has done. But it’s still a real pleasure. But what’s this? You don’t know what a hedgelaying competition is about? You’re in the right place to remedy that, for sure. Read on…

Hedgelaying competition sign

At the start of the day, competitors assemble from across the Island. Each is allotted a stretch of hedge – either nine yards or eleven yards, depending on the class they are entering. They are provided with stakes (the thick sticks) and heathers (the long spindly sticks) cut recently from hazel, which is a very flexible and strong wood when green – you’ll see just how flexible soon enough.

About to start the hedgelaying competition

Competitors line up to start the hedgelaying competition

The idea is to cut the main stems (called ‘pleachers’) and lay the stem down (hence ‘laying’ a hedge) without breaking it off. This way the stem remains alive and the hedge will regrow thick and strong; suitable for keeping stock in the field. A careless hedgelayer might break off the stem – for this you would definitely lose points in a competition.

Cutting the pleacher

Cutting the pleacher with a billhook

It’s also necessary to cut a lot of the top growth out of the hedge. A laid hedge is a lot smaller than it started off, at least at first. Within a few years it will be growing more vigorously than ever. There are various regional styles of hedgelaying and on the Isle of Wight our competition is in South of England style. In this style, as the pleachers are laid in, stakes are driven along the hedge to keep it together. The heathers are then woven into the top to keep the whole thing strong and resilient. This is one of the hardest bits, and very important in a competition, as the quality of finish of the hedge is one thing the judges will certainly be looking at.

Weaving in the heatherings

Rangers Rick Temple and Karl Dyson twist and weave the heatherings into their prize-winning hedge

When the hedge is finished it is a fine sight, and as this one was alongside a main road it is a good advertisement for the craft. The lucky landowner who lent his field for the competition will have a splendid hedge for many years to come.

A laid hedge

All that remains to do is to give out the prizes. In this competition, everybody wins a prize! Spending a whole day working at a hedge is very hard work however good or bad you are, so they deserve it. Many prizes are donated by local businesses and landowners. The runners-up get gloves, pruning saws and other small tokens. This year the overall winner got a brand-new Stihl chainsaw. Not a bad prize!

Giving out the prizes

The Ranger presents the prize to the IW College Girls’ Team. Mmm, nice jacket, Ranger!