Oxfordshire farmer, Robert Crocker, champions the setting up of a farmer-led national network of hedgerows for wildlife. Rob farms mostly tenanted land, raising organic beef cattle and arable crops.

Farmer Rob Crocker

September 1st is the start of the Hedge Cutting Season.

Imagine a new National Park stretching 25,000 miles, linking every existing habitat in England!

For decades, ecologists and environmentalists have agreed that habitat decline and the fragmentation of remaining habitats are major contributing factors to species' decline (as cited in the 2016 State of Nature report). Our neat and tidy countryside is quite simply over-managed, and hedgerows are the annual casualty.

Before the advent of the flail hedge trimmer (only 50 years ago), hedges were cut and laid in a circa 10-year cycle, so only 10% were cut in any one year. There were also more hedges - and the remaining 90% of uncut hedges would have been of varying growth stages. Hedgerows were the countryside's larder - pink and white with blossom in the spring, and red with fruit in the autumn. Every living creature had a corridor linking to the diverse farmland around.

Hedgerow left uncut for five years

Then, every farmer was, by default, an environmentalist. The style and pace of agriculture suited wildlife, and species evolved around farming practices (farmland birds, for example). The picture is very different today, with farmland birds a major casualty. Modern farming methods are so efficient, so fast and so total, that nature struggles to adapt. 

I am a farmer, and therefore a pragmatist. The nation needs feeding and farmers do recognise the impact that our industry causes. It is because of this recognition that many farmers actively participate in agri-environment schemes, designed to give nature its own space.

But - I believe that we can do better, much better. If all the good work carried out by farmers, conservation NGOs etc., were to be physically linked, then the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

A voluntary 'National Hedgerow Network' dedicated to wildlife, can join the dots of conservation, link fragmented habitats, and turn the tide of species' decline.

Why voluntary? Because it would be too big and expensive to police. But in a post-Brexit world, if there is to be aid of any kind for the countryside - make it conditional. If your farm is not linked to the National Hedgerow Network - no money! And not just for farmers - developers too. No wildlife corridor, no planning permission.

What does this mean in practical terms, you ask? It is very simple. The farmer / landowner looks at their land and identifies existing habitats - woodland, copse, river, stream, uncropped banks, dry stone walls etc., and links them together with existing hedgerows of appropriate fruiting species (slow growing, not sycamore / ash / elm). And then, most importantly, the wildlife corridor is linked to your neighbour.

So, no extra work, no cost - in fact, for the first few years, no work at all. Just watch the hedges blossom and grow.

A simple fact often overlooked, is that blossom is mostly borne on last year's growth. Once flailed, the next year produces no blossom, no pollen, no nectar, no berries, fewer insects... (you get the picture).

We currently have 250,000 miles of managed hedgerows in England. Just leave 10% of our hedges for wildlife, and watch the difference. It really is this simple. I have... it's amazing.

Sloe berries on blackthorn hedge

Going in to more detail...

I am finding mostly a positive reaction to this modest proposal, with Blenheim Palace Estate (of whom I am a tenant) fully behind the concept.

From those less convinced, common reservations are as follows:

'I prefer to cut my hedges annually because it makes a better hedge.' Reply: 'Better for what?'

'If you let your hedges grow away, they become leggy, bare at the base and eventually fall over.' Reply: 'If you are contemplating a full-grown hedge, you need to choose the appropriate species. Perhaps not one formally cut and laid, as they can indeed fall over.'

'What would my landlords say if I didn't cut my hedges?' Reply: 'We are only talking about 10% of your hedges.'

Either by design or chance, many farmers already link their varied habitats with sensitively managed hedgerows or other forms of wildlife corridors. The challenges is to take this exemplar ad roll it out across the country, through the many barren deserts of monoculture and fastidiously tidy food factories. It is such as small ask for a potentially huge gain.

Diversity within the same hedgerow is a huge benefit to nature. A loose and taller section of hawthorn, for example, will produce a good harvest of berries and certain species of birds prefer to nest in such habitat, but if the hedge species or the ground conditions change, it may be preferable to cut sections of this hedge more regularly - thus creating a mixed habitat within the same hedgerow. If the management regime is left to the farmer, it can be infinitely variable.

As farmers we need to 'Think Holistically, Think Nature'.

Rob's brother, Chris, is also keen to see this initiative take off. Read his own thoughts in Part 2 of this blog here

Could you take a similar approach on your own farm? If you're interested in finding out more or getting involved, get in touch via admin@farmwildlife.info

(All views shared are those of the individual farmer and have not been edited by the RSPB)

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