Why hedgerows are important to Cheshire wildlife
- Credit: Claire Huxley
Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Martin Varley looks at the rise and demise of Cheshire’s most iconic habitat and explains why hedgerows are so important to farmland wildlife.
Farmland accounts for approximately 60% of the UK’s land cover – and that figure is slightly higher in Cheshire. The wet and mild conditions of England’s western counties are particularly suited to grass growing and Cheshire is no exception. It’s one of the reasons why we have so many dairy farms.
In order to make room for the rolling farmland we see today, woodlands were cleared and replaced with open areas. Grass is king in Cheshire, so much so, that we are one of the least wooded areas of the UK – with only 5% tree cover compared to the 13% average. Today, the typical scene of rural Cheshire is one of lush grassland. This is not a natural environment though; far from it. Back in the days when the UK was an ancient wildwood, the species suited to open land would have been scarce and confined to woodland clearings, bogs and marshes.
This is not necessarily a bad thing if you’re one of the many species that are adapted to take advantage of this ‘new’ farmland habitat. In fact there are now more than 100 species in Cheshire that we affectionately refer to as farmland species. But these species are still delicately balanced to suit traditional farming methods with pastures and hay meadows brimming with wildflowers. Intensification of farming has created larger and larger grassland green deserts and nothing can live on grass alone.
Thankfully in Cheshire, traditional farming practices have left us with a network of hedgerows which run almost unbroken from Congleton to Chester, and Wrenbury to Warrington. Originally created to define ownership and separate land-use, hedgerows were not created with wildlife in mind. But some are now so important they are called ‘Priority Habitats’ and ‘Local Wildlife Sites’ by conservationists.
Hedgerows and the trees they contain are often thought of as being a distinct habitat type in their own right – and they are. But their true ecological value actually comes from their location within the farmland. Hedgerows are essential in the life cycle and survival of many farmland species. From a newt migrating to reach its breeding pond safely to a species of hoverfly that only breeds within holes of isolated mature trees. Without hedgerows, large patches of land would become inhospitable green deserts. Hedgerows compliment and act as highways connecting habitats, provide food, shelter and breeding sites, and can support important ancient woodland flora, as well as shrub and tree species.
Unlike our wildflower meadows, which were ploughed-up to make way for more productive grassland, ironically it was dairy farming and livestock grazing that saved most of our hedgerows. Compartmentalised grazing suited dairy farmers. While most of post-war Britain entered into state sponsored removal of miles of hedgerows to make way for large-scale arable farming – Cheshire’s hedgerows made it through.
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We should also appreciate them for the roles they play in farm animal husbandry. Hedgerows provide much needed shelter from the elements and separate herds from adjacent holdings – a hot topic amid the rise of bovine TB cases.
However, development poses a threat to hedgerows. Along the short five mile section of Cheshire between the Staffordshire border and Crewe where HS2 will run, 14 miles of hedgerow will be removed, along with hundreds of mature trees they contain. Compensatory hedgerows will be provided (although to what extent, HS2 are still unsure), but it will take many years before the new hedgerows achieve equal condition to those lost, and even longer for the trees to reach maturity. We can only hope that the wildlife which depends upon them sticks around long enough to see that day.
We currently have subsidies paid to landowners as an incentive for them to keep hedgerows. Since 1997, legislation has also been in place to prevent the removal of ecologically or historically ‘important’ hedgerows without consent from the local authority.
Unfortunately, these incentives and legislation only prevent removal of hedgerows and do nothing to encourage management of these ageing relicts. Conversely, perhaps the greatest threat to our hedgerows today is grazing, particularly by sheep, who will nip off any young shoots, slowly killing it. Unable to re-generate, grazed hedgerows have a finite lifespan.
The introduction of EU-funded farm environment schemes in Cheshire has been heavily focused on hedgerow restoration and creation, which undoubtedly has had a positive effect in the target areas. But as we negotiate our way out of the EU, there is uncertainty as to whether we will uphold our commitments to the environment. But Brexit could also present an opportunity to direct our farm subsidies in a more effective way to achieve better outcomes for nature.
For one of the least wooded counties in England it’s hard to imagine where else the value of hedgerows could be so great, or the impact of their loss more severe. Perhaps this highlights a more pressing concern on a much larger scale –with very little in the way of hedge replacement or natural regeneration, the patchwork quilt landscape that we know so well could one day be a thing of the past. Without our hedgerows Cheshire truly would be a green desert.