Hedgerows might just be the most overlooked ‘super habitat’ we have. Many of us would probably relate to not taking that much notice or interest in them in their own right. A very British feature, they’re often viewed purely as a functional and aesthetic part of the landscape. However, the humble hedgerow is a gem within our heavily modified environment, capable of supporting rich ecosystems and, perhaps even more importantly, of linking together habitats in our fragmented landscape.
Unfortunately, last century the UK lost about half of its hedgerows. This is due to a number of factors, but largely as a result of incentivised removal. This occurred after the Second World War, as it was seen to be one of the best ways to improve agricultural efficiency and facilitate the ‘mass mechanisation’ of post-war farming.
Despite this, we still have around 500,000km of hedgerow habitat spanning the UK, some of which can be considered ‘ancient’. These older hedgerows have particular ‘indicator’ species and characteristics which make them especially valuable for wildlife. Their existence today is a result of ‘an unbroken chain of care, management and periodic rejuvenation…that spans generation to generation, farmer to farmer’ – Megan Gimber, People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES).
However, the quality of the remaining hedgerows differs widely; with many being poorly managed and maintained. These hedgerows are at risk of becoming ‘gappy’ and eventually being lost altogether. That’s where PTES have stepped in to help ensure that we keep the remaining hedgerows as healthy as possible.
Not only are healthy hedgerows a sanctuary for biodiversity through providing shelter, a safe corridor and a food source (one study found over 2,000 species with just an 85m stretch of hedge) – they’re also an asset to farmers. ‘They can provide forage for pollinators, offer crop protection, act as a stock barrier and also as livestock shelters. They can also act as a source of income and have additional environmental benefits including acting as carbon stores, flood control mechanisms and they help to reduce soil erosion and even air and water pollution levels.’ These properties of hedgerows have value to us all and will be become increasingly relevant to the farming sector as the Environmental Land Management scheme is introduced.
To thrive in the long term, hedges need to be managed according to their inherent lifecycle.
For most of their history, hedges were managed by hand. This meant that the woody older year’s growth would remain intact, and so hedges would typically get bigger every year. At some point, they would get too big to easily cut by hand, at which point they’d be left to grow out. When they started to thin at the base, where they were no longer stock proof, they’d be laid – to start the cycle again.
However, modern hedge cutting tools are capable of stripping away most of the energy producing growing part of a hedge, leaving just the older, woody structures behind. While a hedge can cope with this for several years, we’re now seeing the damage it does to hedge structure in the long term.
We have the opportunity now to combine old methods with new tools and insights; using our existing tools, but just tweaking the way we use them to return to more traditional hedgerow management. And people are starting to rekindle their appreciation of what hedgerows do for us and the environment.
In order to help farmers identify how to return their hedges to a healthy state PTES chose to develop an app.
In just 6 questions, Healthy Hedgerows, developed by the Natural Apptitude team, enables farmers to undertake a rapid assessment of their hedges. It then provides instant management advice, which is tailored specifically to the structure and condition of the hedge in question. No matter what stage a hedge is at within its lifecycle, there is a way to return it to its best.
Megan from PTES states; ‘Trying to manage hedgerows according to their lifecycle, especially across a whole farm, is a challenge. But by using an app, farmers gain instant access to customised hedge management options whilst they’re still standing next to their hedge. This is really important both to help them understand the issues and the solutions.’
‘Whilst we still run quite a few surveys on paper, these can present barriers. Obviously, there’s no way to provide dynamic feedback. People also struggle to add accurate locations and paper surveys often don’t mix well with the frequently inclement British weather!
‘Having a phone app removes these barriers and makes the whole survey process more streamlined and accessible.
‘The speed and ease of using the Healthy Hedgerows app means that farmers, who famously don’t have much spare time, are more likely to get involved. This means it can be a tool in the belt of more farmers wanting to help their hedgerows thrive. We’ve had really strong engagement with the app and most farmers love it. Much of that is due to how it’s been designed and put together.
‘When choosing a provider to develop this app, we had no doubts that we wanted to work with Natural Apptitude as they are renowned for excelling when it comes to creating user friendly data recording apps.
‘The team understand exactly what it takes to make an effective and engaging tool, and this is demonstrated by their impressive portfolio of citizen science and data collection apps.”
For those who can’t download the app, more information is available online: hedgerowsurvey.ptes.org/healthy-hedgerows-survey.
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