Often farmers talk about Hedgerow Farming, which describes how we look over the hedges as we drive around the countryside, to see what other farmers are doing. What I am referring to here, is how we actively manage the hedges on our farm. It’s a scene you will see across our beautiful, British countryside; the patchwork quilt of fields divided up by hedges, stone walls, banks and fences. In medieval times, farming was based on large open fields. Some areas at the time were divided by some form of enclosure, which made managing the land easier. It wasn’t until the Enclosure Act of Parliament in the 17th Century that this became the normal way of farming. There were some 5200 bills between 1604 and 1914 enacted by Parliament, which turned open, common land into enclosed land areas and so began the formation of a road and communication network and the start of a more efficient agricultural system. The latter was greatly needed at the time due to a fast increase in population, so demand for food was at an all time high. Sound familiar?
Anyway I digress, although a little of the history behind hedges might help to put things in perspective before we discuss why we actively manage them. It’s often quoted that farmers are responsible for ripping out miles of hedges. That may well have been the case in the middle of the last century, as mechanisation lead to larger machinery and post war we were encouraged to produce more food. I like to think we have learned a lot since then. Most of the hedgerow destruction nowadays is through infrastructure, for example roads, high speed railways and of course building developments, such as out of town stores and housing. However, in the last 20-30 years British farmers have planted or restored over 30,000km of hedgerows. Here on the estate at Dunsden and Binfield Heath, we have established and improved over 10 km of hedges.
You can tell a lot just by looking at a hedge. Its age for example; the more species in its length the older it is, what shape is it, how wide and what grows alongside it. Think of hedges as a conduit linking different habitat areas. They also provide food and somewhere to live and breed for birds and small mammals. Then there are the arable plants as we call them, growing alongside the hedges. We have several red list (endangered) plants on the estate growing in our field margins. Notably a rare orchid, Pheasants Eye and Shepherd’s Needle. So how do we actively manage the 50 odd kilometres of hedges we have here? I am sure you will have come across Trevor over the last few months, working his way around the roadsides with his hedge cutter, making a beautiful job of ensuring cars can safely use the lanes without losing wing mirrors or getting their paintwork scratched. We cut roadsides every winter after the nesting season and a proportion of the field hedges. The latter we do in an annual rotation to leave some food for the birds and to allow hedges to fill out and grow in width. We ensure that any fertiliser we apply to crops drops short of the field margins and also any sprays that we use. We do not apply anything to our crops to control pests, only to treat diseases and control weeds. By not using insecticides we hope that we can build up populations of beneficial insects which will feed on the crop pests. You can all help too with our hedgerows, by staying on dedicated public footpaths and bridleways and not wandering across crops and disturbing the flora and fauna that we are working so hard to protect. Due to the understandable desire for people to get out and about to enjoy the countryside during lockdown and the wet winter we have had, our footpaths are under enormous pressure. The legal width for a footpath is 1.5m, but some of ours are now over 4m wide where walkers have moved further into the field and killed the growing crop. Please try to avoid this, that is our livelihood you are walking on, it feeds us all and gives us an income, some of which we then use to look after the wider environment like the hedgerows and wildlife. Thank you and enjoy your walks.