Girton Birdwatch - March 2009
Believe it or not it's that time of year again, when birds are looking around for nest sites. It's this fact which causes problems for many of us: we like to have birds in our gardens and appreciate their song and assault on so many insect pests, but find it difficult to accept that a garden which is a haven for wild life is equally likely to be an untidy garden. This is a particular problem when it comes to hedge-cutting. We'd rather not disturb nesting birds but we prefer the regimented look to the unkempt hedgerows which make for attractive cover for birds and other wild life. So what can we do? First, let me outline the current situation.
It is 'well-known' that when it comes to hedgerow removal 'the farmers' are the villains of the piece! Since World War II hedgerows have been removed at a much faster rate than they have been planted. In some parts of the country 50% of hedgerows have gone, while others are so poorly managed that their value to wild life is much diminished. The RSPB website utilises an Institute of Terrestrial Ecology Survey of hedgerow changes which revealed that between 1984 and 1990 hedgerow length in England had declined by 20% and in Wales by 25%. Significantly, while outright removal of hedgerows accounted for 9,500 km per year, almost half of the loss was the result of lack of management. The good news is that between 1990 and 1993 the removal of hedgerows lessened to about 3,600 km per year, and the rate of planting at 4,400 km per year exceeded the rate of removal. Unfortunately, the RSPB points out, there has been a net decrease in hedgerow length of 18,000 km per year in England and Wales during this period. This, though, was primarily a statistical 'blip' in that it was partly due to a lack of management, leading to hedgerows being re-classified as lines of trees or gappy shrubs. These 'neglected' hedgerows - although registered as lost in the survey - were nevertheless still of value to wild life. Moreover, the welcome news is that these losses of managed hedgerows appear to have been halted in the mid-1990's. The net length of hedges now appears stable or possibly increasing. However, the downside is that newly created or restored hedges do not usually have the same value in terms of wild life, landscape and historical significance as long-established hedgerows. What is more, while government legislation has been introduced to protect rural hedgerows from despoliation, little has been put in place to protect more modest urban, sub-urban or village long-established hedges which, although less dramatic, nevertheless make everybody's environment that little bit more pleasant and rewarding whether we recognise it or not. Many people are now aware that an estimate of a hedge's age may be made by counting the number of species it contains - we recently lost to the village a hedge containing seven species, giving an approximate age of seventy years - and yet these relatively venerable local assets can disappear over-night.
Ironically, measures taken to protect wild life may have the opposite effect to that intended. For example, the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 made it an offence to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built. An intentional act would be to cut, or allow others to cut, a hedge when it is known that it contains an active nest if that nest is likely to be damaged or destroyed in the process. (Given that nesting birds are often difficult to find even by the most observant contractor/gardener it is probably best to err on the side of caution here or accept the advice of the more knowledgeable). This legislation should not create problems for most homeowners/gardeners. The RSPB recommends that hedges should not be heavily cut, or removed, between the months of March and August (although blackbirds, which may have 3 broods in a season, may start breeding as early as February if the weather is kind and, with global warming, extend their activities into September). Autumn, then, is probably the best time to cut a hedge, although with berry-bearing species early Spring is perhaps preferable. Even for the excessively 'hedge proud' the legislation need not cause too much of a problem. It was not intended to prevent all hedge-cutting but rather to discourage the use of overly destructive power tools and too vigorous cutting at inappropriate times. Light pruning to tidy up a hedge and control straggly shoots using hand shears, at any time, is perfectly OK and good exercise to boot! Those behind the 1981 Act certainly didn't anticipate that established hedges might be ripped up and replaced by sterile fences and/or single species alternatives because of the possible inconvenience of following a few simple precautionary measures.