U.K.’s countryside losing its green

Christopher Werth Sep 20, 2010

U.K.’s countryside losing its green

Christopher Werth Sep 20, 2010


Bob Moon: The Brits are bracing for big cuts in public spending. Britain’s new coalition government plans to announce its new austerity plans next month. Welfare and defense are conspicuous big-ticket targets. But British conservationists fear a less obvious casualty: Will the country’s cherished hedgerows get chopped?

Christopher Werth has the story.

Christopher Werth: If you’re wondering what hedgerows are, they’re the long rows of wild shrubs and small trees that line many of England’s country roads and fields. The kind of thing you might come across in postcards depicting traditional English scenes, and the lyrics of English rock band Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin: If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now…

But here in the U.K., people are becoming alarmed. Emma Marrington is with the Campaign to Protect Rural England. She says over the past decade or so, the country has lost over 16,000 miles of hedgerows. And those that remain aren’t always kept in good condition.

Emma Marrington: They’re part of our heritage. They’re part of the landscape, and it would be quite a different countryside if we didn’t have them.

That thought send shivers up the spines of rural Brits. The hedgerow at the edge of this field in Oxfordshire dates from around the 10th century. Saxons built hedgerows to pen in livestock and divide farmland for horses and plows. After the Second World War, that all changed. The government gave farmers grants to rip out their hedgerows, and grow more food through large-scale, mechanized farming.

Geoff Radley: A field system that’s designed for a man with a horse plow isn’t going to work for a huge John Deere tractor and a combine harvester.

Geoff Radley is with Natural England, a government conservation body that now spends about $100 million paying farmers to replant hedgerows, and to take care of those that are left. He says hedgerows are still good for things like preventing soil erosion, and because they’re what everyone expects to see when they visit the English countryside, they’re also good for tourism.

Radley: That’s why the taxpayer supports hedgerow conservation, because they produce all this range of benefits for wider society.

But with budget cuts looming, no one’s sure how much longer that government support can last.

Nigel Adams: So I’ve cleared my way into the hedge.

Working on this hedgerow is Nigel Adams of the National Hedgelaying Society. Its members include Prince Charles, and its mission is to keep alive many of the age-old pruning techniques that have kept hedgerows going for centuries.

Adams: I’m using a billhook, which is an old traditional ancient cutting tool, double-sided cutting tool.

It looks a lot like the kind of weapon an ancient Saxon might have carried. Adams carefully cuts into the base of a hedge, and then lays it over to generate new growth. He says without the money to pay for this kind of love and care, England’s hedgerows could become a thing of the past.

Adams: In the next 30 years, I fear if we look at this same landscape, there will be no hedges there whatsoever because they will have just faded out.

And that could be bad news for England’s wildlife as well.

Richard Winspear: This hedge is ideal for linnets, yellowhammers, whitethroats.

Richard Winspear of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds peers at a group of swallows through a pair of binoculars. It’s estimated around 130 species depend on hedgerows like this for their survival.

Winspear: We’re very concerned about the potential for the budget cuts to restrict the ability of farmers to get funding to manage their land better for wildlife. In fact, it’s probably the biggest issue we face in the next few months.

In the meantime, conservationists are looking for new ways to entice farmers to take care of hedgerows as government support is cut. You could even say they’re hedging their bets.

In London, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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