OPINION: Farms should redefine hedges as "wild edges" for nature

Farmers need to redefine their hedges as "wild edges", says WildEast trustee Hugh Somerleyton

Farmers need to redefine their hedges as "wild edges" to maximise their massive nature potential, says WildEast trustee Hugh Somerleyton, of the Somerleyton Estate - Credit: Olly Birkbeck / Mark Cator

An abundance of wildlife could return to East Anglia's farms if neglected hedges are reimagined as nature-rich "wild edges" says Hugh Somerleyton, a founding trustee of nature movement WildEast.

The vocabulary of our countryside has evolved over time - and the dictionary definition of our hedges needs to keep changing to maximise their potential for wildlife.

  • Old English: HECG, meaning fence, to retain and protect livestock.
  • Present Day: HEDGE, meaning emaciated living field boundary, a 1x1m minimum where nature clings on.
  • Future: WILD EDGE (WildEast English), meaning 5-20m wide wild field boundary pulsating life through our hardworking farmscapes.
  • 2050: WEDGE (Wild Edge abbreviation), replacing Hedge in the English Dictionary as nature is restored to pre-1970 abundance.

In previous, persuasive columns by WildEast trustees, Olly Birkbeck talked about the importance of boundary hedges and Argus Hardy talked about hedges though the lens of the nightingale which, like so many of our birds, loves dense low scrub - so much of which has been grubbed out or over-managed. And, alas, where man isn’t present then deer are on hand to nibble up the browse line. A lack of space for nature impacts on all species, including our own.

We three founders call for 20pc of our land to be given to nature – farmyards, churchyards, schoolyards, backyards, industrial estates, housing estates, country estates, train stations, bus stations, police stations – all celebrated on our Map of Dreams.

Our collective desire to save nature was, we admit, the result of hours poring over old maps of our region, agonising at what we had lost but also shamelessly dreaming over what could be. 20pc is the "magic number" most metrics of life needs to thrive and be abundant in our hard-working landscapes – but how do we get there?

Here is a carbon-storing, life-giving, cost-nothing answer which would return about 6pc to nature overnight – just by farming a little bit less.

The hedges and field boundaries of a typical East Anglian farm in 1945

The hedges and field boundaries of a typical East Anglian farm in 1945 - Credit: WildEast

These images show a typical East Anglian farm in 1945 and then again in present day after the removal of internal hedgerows. The biodiversity and carbon store net loss (B&CNL) unwittingly caused by the removal of hedgerows - especially between the 1960s and 1992 when this was finally banned - shows this average farm of 136ha lost 7ha of vital space for nature and 250 tonnes of carbon storage.

The same East Anglian farm in 2021, with many hedgerows removed

The same East Anglian farm in 2021, with many hedgerows removed - Credit: WildEast

The shifting baseline, or shifting perception, of what is "normal" is important. Hecgs or fences which evolved into hedges may be where nature clung to life in our farmed landscapes but they were never planted with nature in mind; so much that they have become treasured, and rightly so. Alone they are simply not enough especially when they are over-managed or expect to provide a warm embrace for nature around a 100-acre field.

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This is a typical story across England where around 50pc or 400,000km of hedgerow were removed between 1945 and 1992.

WildEast's vision of how the farm could look in the future, with a network of nature-rich "Wild Edges"

WildEast's vision of how the farm could look in the future, with a network of nature-rich "Wild Edges" - Credit: AREA

The final image is a glimpse of how the same farm might regain B&CNG, its carbon store and biodiversity simply by allowing the boundary hedges that remain to balloon out into what WildEast calls Wild Edges.

Farms could do this voluntarily as part of their "debt to nature", but they might also qualify for ELMS (the government's new Environmental Land Management Scheme) or the emergent carbon and biodiversity trading sector. But, either way, its free - it just needs farmers to stop farming a few metres either side of their hedge.

It’s a complete reversal of 50 years of creeping closer and closer to field boundaries. The planet-saving trick now is to creep out into the field - saving time, saving money, storing and saving carbon and saving nature.

It is a mark of our profound confidence in our total mastery of our environment that now allows the progressive among us to stand back and let nature, in all her fecund chaos, take the lead as we finally accept she knows best.

The final two images really speak to the very essence of WildEast – a "human nature recovery network" powered initially by the Map of Dreams, an expression of our collective will to save nature but, more than that, how powerful we become together. WildEast is truly more than the sum of its parts.

Hedgerows like these can provide a 'multi-layered superhighway for nature', says Olly Birkbeck

Hedgerows like these can provide a desperately-needed haven for farm wildlife, says WildEast trustee Hugh Somerleyton - Credit: Olly Birkbeck

Much of the restoration on this 136Ha farm, in isolation, represents exactly what the problem with nature recovery has been for the last few decades. Little islands of conservation pumping nature into acres of overwhelmingly hostile terrain so populations cannot recover and remain at risk.

But what if we all took a stake in nature recovery? Linking arms, linking farms, railway and bus stations, schools and council pitches – these give real human-powered nature recovery networks and gets us towards the magic number 20pc.

If we farmers all allowed our hecgs and hedges to become Wild Edges (Wedges) of an average of 10m wide, we would already have contributed 6pc to nature and, moreover, where it is needed – wild corridors pulsating with life like arteries of oxygenated blood coursing around our bodies. It is quite literally planet-saving, and it means we can all truly live and work in one of the world’s great restored landscapes – WildEast country.

WildEast's founding trustees, from left, are Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy

WildEast's founding trustees, from left, are Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy - Credit: Mark Cator/UtterBooks Mark