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Ancient and/or Species-rich Hedgerows

Ancient hedgerows are defined as those which were in existence before the Enclosure Acts of 1720 to 1840. Post-enclosure hedges dominated by hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, beech Fagus sylvatica, privet Ligustrum spp., yew Taxus baccata or exotic species are not included. Species-rich hedges are defined as those that contain four or more native woody species, on average, along a 30 m length. They also include hedges with fewer woody species but possessing a rich flora along the hedge bottom. This definition includes recently planted species-rich hedgerows.

Hedges are a vital habitat for a wide range of wildlife. More than 600 plants, 1500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammal species are known to live or feed in hedgerows. Within the intensively farmed lowlands they are a very significant habitat, often being the only refuge for many farmland and woodland species which rely on them for food, shelter and dispersal. Among the species that rely strongly on hedgerows are brown hare, pipistrelle bat, tree sparrow, grey partridge and song thrush, all of which are priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Hedges may also act as wildlife corridors, linking up areas of semi-natural habitats and allowing the movement of plants and animals throughout the countryside.

Current status

Since 1945 there has been a dramatic loss in hedgerows in the UK through neglect and removal. The current UK resource of hedgerows has been calculated to be around 450 000 km, of which some 190 000 km is estimated to be ancient and/or species-rich. It has been estimated that only about 10% of hedgerows are currently under favourable conservation management.

Many of the North Eastís hedgerows date from the Enclosure Acts. A proportion date from before this period and can therefore be classed as ancient under the definition given in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. In only a few cases does antiquity have any additional consequence for the biodiversity of the Regionís hedges, as hedges which are both ancient and species-rich are rare. However, some species-rich hedges of great antiquity do survive. In Tynedale, for example, some hedges bordering drove roads have been estimated to be up to 1000 years old based on the number of species they contain.

No comprehensive survey of the Regionís hedgerows has been undertaken so information on the presence and extent of ancient and/or species-rich hedgerows is patchy.

Threats

  • Neglect of hedgerows (lack of cutting or laying) leads to the development of gaps and often effectively turns a hedge into a row of trees. Gappy hedges make poorer wildlife corridors than intact hedges.
  • Unsympathetic cutting practices, such as over-frequent or badly timed cutting or the cutting of hedgerow trees, can reduce the suitability of hedgerows for plants and animals and lead to a loss in biological diversity.
  • Hedges may be removed to create larger fields, better suited to modern farm machinery, or may be destroyed during development.
  • The use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers right up to the base of hedges can cause damage to hedgerow vegetation and can cause nutrient enrichment which leads to a reduction in habitat suitability and species diversity.
  • Hedgerow trees may be lost through senescence, plough damage to roots and felling and are not replaced.
  • High livestock densities in fields can damage hedgerows and lead to a need to fence boundaries, which in turn reduces the need to maintain existing hedgerows.

Opportunities for protection and enhancement

  • Payments for the restoration and planting of hedges are made under the Environmental Stewardship Scheme administered by Natural England.
  • A Field Boundary Restoration Grant scheme is administered by Durham County Council. This is available for works on hedgerows and dry stone walls in County Durham.
  • The 1997 Hedgerow Regulations offer protection to some ancient and/or species-rich hedgerows against removal. However, in practice all but a tiny proportion of the North Eastís hedges are too species-poor to be considered important in terms of the Regulations.
  • The Wildflower Ark has undertaken a survey to identify ancient hedgerows in the Stockton area.  It is currently undertaking a similar survey in Redcar and Cleveland.