Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Last spring I was preparing for a bike ride that would take me across the UK from Aberystwyth to Great Yarmouth. And on my training route, I'd always cycle a particular lane - it had the most fabulous hedges, all overgrown and shady and bursting with wildlife. I saw a bullfinch there in March, a hare lolloping down a side track, brimstone butterflies right into summer - when I returned in the autumn the hedge was heavy with sloes.
On Saturday I was back on my bike, starting my training for another charity ride (you'll hear more about that in another post). I was looking forward to that lane; indeed, as I approached it I was thinking how, when passing through much of the middle of England, it was the hedgerows I'd liked best. Throughout the ride, there'd been pretty much a direct correlation between bushes and birdsong - I remember commenting as much to one of my colleagues.
So I was in a light mood as I pressed on the pedals and into Common Road. Only the day before there'd been goldcrests in my garden, long-tailed tits on the silver birch and a blackcap on the forsythia. The warmer weather was hinting at spring - perhaps that bullfinch would be there again - or a flock of yellowhammer? There was a sharp cerulean sky.
Some people might think it peculiar that a little bit of hedge trimming could conjure any sadness. After all, it's only a few gnarly trees - overgrown bushes really. Didn't I read somewhere that it's good for certain species if the lanes are kept in order? And doesn't pruning make the trees more robust in the long run?
It's true that pruning makes the hedges thicker. And cutting every few years, even quite severely, is probably better for wildlife than annual trimming. For every summer of growth, it's estimated two additional bird species will come to nest - so cutting less frequently is a good idea. On the other hand, there are butterflies which only lay eggs on new growth and many birds prefer low hedges - for these species, regular trimming is what's needed. The ideal is to prune every three years in careful rotation, ensuring no area is reduced too severely at any one time.
But all that is clearly too much hassle for the farmer on Common Road. I reckon it was ten years since he last cut those hedges (ironically quite good) - and when the time came that something had to be done, he wasn't going to be worried about the niceties of yellowhammers or bullfinches. Judging by the results of his mechanical flail I don't reckon he's bothered about much in nature at all. He's not only cut the thinner growth, he's slashed the nearby trees, splintered the blackthorn into shards, even smashed his own fences. In all, he reduced the hedge by over six feet.
I know most of it will grow back; I know that Common Road isn't a conservation imperative, and I know it probably looks worse than it is. But there's something quite brutal about all this. Something that doesn't feel right - a sense that with just a little more care, it would have made such a difference. As it is, there'll be less birdsong on my training rides this spring, and I guess this autumn I'll be going elsewhere for sloes.