One of the most damaging post-war developments in hedgerow preservation was the increase in mechanised cutting of hedges, in particular using the flail. Here is a picture of a blackthorn hedge that has recently been flailed (picture by Donato Cinicolo). The damage is obvious.
Traditionally hedges were either trimmed or laid by hand. This was laborious work, but it was done with care and attention to the individual plants. Flail cutting means that hedge trees are repeatedly cut at the same point, this causes them to become gnarled and unhealthy, and can lead to a decline in the quality of the hedge (with resultant loss of biodiversity in the local environment). It also leads to a loss of mature hedgerow trees (as the older hedgerow trees die out and insufficient younger specimens are allowed to grow to maturity).
One can understand the problems farmers face in a more intensive farming environment – hedgelaying is the most effective way to maintain a hedge but is considerably more expensive than machine cutting.
There have been some improvements in the guidelines farmers follow when cutting hedges. The Tree Council suggest tagging trees to be allowed to grow to maturity, there are guidelines on how often a hedge should be cut and so on. However the most effective way of protecting our hedges would be to change the way that subsidies for hedgelaying are administered.
Currently there are two government schemes encouraging good environmental practice to which farmers can belong. The schemes are called Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS). Subsidies for hedgelaying are only available to HLS members, a scheme that is restricted to certain landscapes and areas, such as heathland, moorland, coastal land, wetland, and small woodlands, especially where these exist on or adjacent to Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
It would cost money to extend hedgelaying subsidies to members of the more common scheme, the ELS, but it would be a simple and effective way to direct help to hedgerows in all areas, and to foster the art of hedgelaying*.
These are difficult economic times, but if as a nation we are going to place obligations on farmers as stewards of the land, it is only reasonable that we sometimes share the costs involved. Hedgelaying is not a cheap or easy process, but it makes a huge difference to our environment.
*This idea was suggested to me by Robin Dale of the National Hedgelaying Society.