I started the Devon coast to coast (Two Moors Way) walk today, as a little project to tackle through the year. We started on Wembury beach, and made our way through the muddy countryside of south Devon, and the occasional snow shower, towards the southern edge of Dartmoor. Some way to go on that yet…
It’s easy, in February, to see the bare bones of the countryside, the shapes and features that tell its story over the centuries. Looking at the landscape, aside from hazel catkins at the edge of the woods, and the odd keen primrose dotting the banks, everything still seems to be asleep.
But it’s in the tiny detail that life is starting to shift already. And it’s in the detail of how it’s being managed, that we can see something of the story ahead for a place, for the year to come.
Most of us take hedges for granted as one of the defining features of our countryside. Devon is blessed with more hedgerows than any other county in England. Rob Wolton, in his excellent book Devon Hedges, estimates we have 33,000 miles of hedges, usually defined as the hedge bank, whether or not there is vegetation on top. The majority of Devon hedges were in place before 1450, and they tell a story of how the land was owned and managed since that time.
Hedges have provided stock proofing, boundary marking, fodder and wood over the years, for landowners and locals alike. A happy by-product of this has been wildlife. Hedges at their best are like a linear mini-woodland. These days, they are a lifeline for many animals and plants in an ever-more-industrial lowland landscape.
Hedges need to be managed in order to stop them naturally developing into lines of trees. Since the 1940s, a new farming tradition has erupted: the ritual flailing of hedges, a cheap and quick way to keep hedges hedge-shaped (if not stock-proof). It’s much easier than hedge-laying or cutting by hand. It’s also very easy to be over-enthusiastic with the flail, and produce a scalping, rather than a cutting, effect.
Sure enough, much of our walk today was serenaded by the whirring of flails, in addition to the squawking of pheasants and the occasional punctuation of a shotgun. On every hedge bank, hundreds of little green shoots and herbs were starting to push their way towards the sunlight: dog’s mercury and cleavers, purple violets and the round green coins of pennywort. But above that? The vast majority of hedge trees had been boxed back to their main stems by the flail; a few unlucky hedges had been maimed beyond that.
To me, this is completely unnecessary, and a huge missed opportunity. There will be no flowers on these hedge trees this year, and no fruit; if I were the hedge in this picture, I would struggle even to push a few leaves out. Apart from those undercover herbs in the hedge bank, nothing will be able to grow and be glad. All the rest of our wildlife, and our own experience of the place, will be poorer as a result.
What harm would it be to leave half the hedge one year, half of it in another year, to allow a little diversity and joy back into our hedgerows? Wouldn’t it save money and effort for the farmer as well? Interesting questions. If a farmer chooses to go into an environmental scheme, he can claim money to do just that – to not cut for a year or two. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But at the moment, it seems to be only way that many farmers will listen. And many choose not to.
Walking through south Devon’s countryside today, I couldn’t help but wonder: how much more life could this place be bursting with, if only our hedges were managed a little differently?
Meanwhile, spring begins to spring once again, as much as it is allowed.