The five-year-old emerald green hawthorn hedge sparkles in the autumn sun. In the apple orchard and the grassy pastures below, young hedges soar towards a fast-flowing trout stream.
History has come full circle at Blackmore Farm, nestled at the foot of the Quantocks in Somerset. Owner Ian Dyer remembers helping his father, who arrived as a sharecropper in the 1950s, pull up old hedges in the 1960s and 1970s. But – like a growing number of landowners – he hired a hedge trimmer. to bring back its hedges to provide habitat for wildlife, capture carbon and slow down water flowing from fields into rivers.
“In my life, I’ve probably pulled out three miles of hedges. It was seen as progress at the time. The government was pushing for more and more production, ”he says, standing in the tall grass of his 750-acre arable and beef farm. “But we are putting back all the old hedges. History is cyclical, everything revolves around it.
Dyer, 62, has planted 1 km of new hedges over the past five years and has noticed more insects, nesting birds and small mammals, including water voles, since construction began.
One study found that hedges provide 21 ecosystem services – more than any other habitat. “My views have changed over the past 10 years. I want to live in a green and pleasant country – not in a [ecological] desert, ”he remarks. “It’s starting to look like what I remember as a five year old boy.”
The National Hedgelaying Society, which hosted its national championship this weekend, says its members have been inundated with requests for hurdling this season, which runs from September through April. “There is more work than anyone could ever do for the rest of their life,” says Claire Maymon, one of the charity’s trustees. “Our founders in the 1970s feared the profession would be lost forever, but now we fear that we don’t have enough young hedge trimmers to keep up with the demand.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that more than 25,000 workers will be needed to respond to the Climate Change Committee’s call to plant 200,000 km of new hedges in the UK. The committee calculated that the country’s hedges will need to be enlarged by 40% in order to reach net zero by 2050.
Environment Secretary George Eustice called hedges important ecological building blocks that provide shelter, nesting habitat, flowers and berries for a wide range of wildlife. The government wants the post-Brexit farm subsidy system to encourage farmers to better maintain hedges. A pilot project, offering farmers up to £ 24 per 100 meters of hedges, starts next month.
Hedges need to be carefully managed throughout their life, otherwise they will thin out and eventually gaps will appear. Paul Lamb, the hedge trimmer helping transform Dyer’s farm, “pricks” – or splits – hawthorn, blackthorn and spindle stems to grow back dense and thick next spring. “Each hedge trimmer has their own style,” he says, pushing back a curtain of thorny foliage to reveal an intricate, woody interior. “For me, it’s so satisfying to plant and lay a hedge, then see it full of birds, insects and wildlife.”
Business is booming for Lamb, who lives in a campervan on a nearby farm. He has never been so busy, with commercial farmers making up an increasing part of his work. Lamb’s two biggest jobs this season are on farms, with 850 meters of replanting on one farm and six weeks of labor laying over 500 meters of hedge on another.
“When I started hedging it was a way to make some money for beer on a Saturday. I never thought I would be full for an entire season. But here I am, booked for this season and half of the next – and people are still calling me to offer me jobs. There is a renewed interest in conservation and crafts – and the feeling that we need to live more sustainably.
Britain lost half of its hedges in the decades following World War II as farmers were encouraged to create large arable fields to increase production. Since then, legal protections have been introduced and the hedges are no longer pulled – but the decline has continued due to mismanagement, including some landowners mechanically pruning the hedges, without simulating new growth underneath. But the growing demand for traditional hedging is leaving many in the business optimistic.
Nigel Adams sits on the HedgeLink Steering Group, which advises Defra. He says there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes, everyone from the National Farming Union to Natural England, calling for more hedges. “The hedges have gone unnoticed for years, but suddenly everyone realizes that they are the veins of our countryside,” he says.
Adams, who sets hedges across the country, including on Prince Charles’ estates, believes the role of hedges should not be underestimated. “The insects follow the hedges and the bats hunt along the hedges,” he says. “If we didn’t have hedges, we would be living in a barren desert. “