Lisa Schneidau from Devon Wildlife Trust illustrates how our landscape in North Devon is changing
Hedges are a human construct. Most of Devon’s hedges had been created by 1450 - it was a way of saying not only ‘I want to keep my stock contained’ but ‘this is my land’. So hedges are quite political things. But from a wildlife point of view, they are effectively strips of linear woodland, wildlife highways going through the landscape. Whatever is happening in the field, if you have a healthy well-managed hedge, wildlife can thrive in it. You might call it an artificial, managed wildlife habitat that we all take for granted as part of our landscape.
We like to see a lot of diversity in a hedge, where trees are allowed to flower and fruit, and any one section of hedge is not cut every year. In this photograph, it looks like there’s nothing on the hedge but those stumps will regenerate.
These days it’s much cheaper and quicker to use a flail cutter on your hedge but over-flailing weakens the plant and eventually you end up with a gappy, straggly line of sticks. Traditional hedgelaying is a true country craft, it is more time-consuming and expensive but produces much better results. Together with Devon Hedge Group, we’re organising a number of hedge management workshops to pass on the skills depicted in these pictures and give people the practical confidence they need.
In the very old days every bit of a hedge would be used: even the leaves would have been used for fodder. Now, we’re seeing a lot of interest from landowners wanting to use hedgerows for different reasons - wood fuel for example. Imagine if you could heat your whole farm with the wood from your hedges! But for that, you need the hedge to grow up for a good number of years and that’s brave for a modern farmer- nobody wants their neighbours to say ‘look at the state of their hedges!
Any river is a living, moving thing and, particularly at DWT’s Halsdon nature reserve, the river has been busy eroding the little bit of meadow there, really carving it away. A lot of the trees that used to be there have gone. The river is busy depositing the land that it’s eroded onto the other side of the bank Ideally, we want to try and stabilise our riverbanks. Bankside trees are really good for that and, where they add shade, they also add to the diversity of the river’s wildlife habitats.
Wetland can be really important in a landscape: It can hold floodwater back and it can manage pollution filtering through the site, as well as providing good habitat for specialist plants and animals. Yet for a farmer, wetland can be very difficult to manage so they will add drainage to make it more workable. From a farmer’s point of view, it is often not about ‘loss of wildlife’ through drainage: the site’s being gained because they can farm it more easily. In the old days farmers didn’t have the machinery or the technology to be able to manage the land so intensively. As our ability to manage the land has intensified there has been less and less space for wildness. Now we have to consciously make space for wildlife and we can’t assume it will be a by-product of farming because it won’t, unless the farmer makes it happen.
Devon Wildlife Trust’s aim is to enable farmers to have productive land which also makes space for wildlife. It’s important as a community that we restore our impoverished wildlife and create a real living landscape, but it’s also important for farmers to have a thriving business and to produce good food, so we have to find a way for them to have both. Investing in North Devon’s natural assets, if you like.