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Rooted in rural history

The Shropshire Magazine, April 2008 - View on the Shropshire Magazine website

The network of the county's hedgerows holds an importance beyond being a much-loved visual feature of our countryside. Mark Sisson reports

Next time you head off down one of the small country roads that make up the network of thoroughfares around our county try to take a little time to consider just what they'd be like if the hedgerows rising above you on either side weren't there.

We're into spring now, so the open nature that they exhibit through the winter months will be rapidly transformed as both the flower of the blackthorn, and the leaf buds of the hawthorn and other shrubs that make up the unique mixture of the hedgerow habitats we enjoy will be bursting into life to provide a greater presence and colour.

Karl Liebscher hedgelaying

They provide an amazing sense of structure to the Shropshire landscape, but we almost certainly take them for granted - the next time you're in the vast agricultural openness of the Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire fens you'll perhaps begin to appreciate the role they play here, from a visual perspective at least.

There is, however, much more to it than that. As part of my quest to understand the vitality of our hedgerows I've met up with John Hughes of Shropshire Wildlife Trust for a biological, rather than a purely aesthetic, viewpoint.

"I've just come back from a working trip overseas and sometimes it's when you look down at an environment from above as you return home by plane that the vital nature of the hedgerows here becomes stark staringly obvious," he says. "The sheer network of paths and habitats that they provide as they connect up across the patchwork of fields they create is really apparent".

The word network is the key here - hedgerows provide not only a habitat for breeding birds, some of whom - like the rapidly declining corn bunting - would count them as almost their only such environment, but also a safe thoroughfare for mammals as they look to extend their territories or move from one habitat to another.

"The dormouse is a great example of just such a creature for whom these hedgerow paths are so essential," continues John.

"We're at the northern edge of their territory in Shropshire and they inhabit little pockets of fast-declining woodland habitats. Our research though shows evidence that they use hedgerows as routes for feeding excursions as well as potentially to discover new territories and even meet up with additional populations. With the onset of climate change the chance for them to establish larger group territories is frankly key to their survival."

When it comes to the management of the county's hedgerows, given their origins as by and large the establishment of territorial boundaries to land ownership they are, just like your garden fence, the responsibility of the landowner. The arrival of mechanised methods of speedily cutting them may have proved a mixed blessing, but it means that when you find a traditional artisan of hedgelaying such as Karl Liebscher then the skills of pruning and shaping are all the more to be appreciated.

I meet up with Karl on a pleasantly sunny early spring morning as he prepares and shapes a display hedgerow at the entrance to Newport Agricultural Showground, and there's no doubt that his work is much more of an art than it at first appears.

"After some initial thinning and clearing, all the main hedgerow trees are carefully cut at an obtuse angle near the base of the trunk" he explains. "The trees are then bent over and secured at an angle that will ensure fresh, controlled and healthy growth as it matures out over the coming years."

The 200-odd-metre hedgerow he lays ends up taking him and a colleague a full two days!

It's certainly a far cry from the speedy traditional winter flailing by tractor that takes place for clipping the vast majority of our hedgerows, generally on an annual basis. There's plenty of debate as to whether this degree of frequency is really necessary, especially as berries and fruits that provide such an important element of the autumnal diet of the wildlife do tend to be at their strongest on the previous year's growth. But the alternative to this economic method of pruning on the necessary scale would almost certainly be more hedgerow removal.

Just look for yourself as you drive around, and you'll see that the large mature trees are very often in a hedgerow; the freestanding ones will be where a hedge stood in the past.

This would have an even more fundamental impact on the Shropshire landscape, as the hedgerows are also the starting places for a large proportion of the veteran trees to be found in the county. Just look for yourself as you drive around, and you'll see that the large mature trees are very often in a hedgerow; the freestanding ones will be where a hedge stood in the past.

Shropshire County Council's conservation and community officer Shaun Burkey is an expert on veteran trees, and is concerned at how many hedgerow trees are of this nature.

"We desperately need a more even age distribution," he explains, "otherwise in a few generations time our landscape will have changed beyond recognition. It's a tough environment for trees to grow in a hedge - there's intense competition for the light - so we are piloting a ‘plant a tree in a gap' programme, and this winter some 60-odd landowners will be planting 5,000 new trees on just such a basis, with species as diverse as English oak, ash and sweet chestnut.

"The key then is to ensure that the tractor drivers are aware of the importance of the trees being allowed to grow above the hedgerow height, so we want to see if there's some form of accreditation scheme that can ultimately be linked into countryside stewardship payment schemes for landowners too.

"Good careful trimming can have a multitude of additional benefits. If they're cut in an A-shape for instance, then birds of prey such as barn owls (who suffer high road death casualties) are encouraged to fly up and therefore over the roads behind them."

As ever when you start to get under the surface of any of the specialised habitats to be found in our countryside, there's more to it than meets the eye.

Whether it be as a home, a thoroughfare, a shelter or an iconic feature in the landscape, the hedgerows of Shropshire are no different, and even though some 200,000 miles worth of hedgerows have been removed from the UK landscape as a whole in the last 50 years, let's just hope that the interested parties look to ensure that they remain an integral part of our county for the future too.

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