I love a hedgerow. I mean, a real hedgerow, tangled like a long lean jungle with mysterious flowers and bizarre fungi at its feet, cloaked with white blossom in the spring and stuffed with berries throughout the winter. The Surrey countryside used to be full of such hedgerows, dividing pasture and hay meadows and abuzz with all kinds of life.
Was. It’s not a coincidence that the gorgeous scene above with its thick hedgerows separating chalk grassland meadows is in a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and thus fully protected – and thankfully also managed by a very good landowner. The more typical state of a hedgerow these days is this:
Mechanical flailing is not only ugly. It wounds the hedgerow and shrinks it, and outright kills any invertebrates or mammals that get in the way – or birds. Breeding birds and their nests are strictly protected by law, but that hasn’t stopped one of my local landowners trying to flail hedges in summer. Flailing also tends to happen every year, which stops the hedgerow producing berries. In the past, hedges were cut by hand once every three to seven years, and only a proportion on any given farm would be cut at a time. That was the practicality of hard work, but it was far better for wildlife – and for local employment, come to that.
And now, it is bitterly cold and migratory birds that have flown over a thousand kilometres to overwinter here are looking for food that’s been flailed out of existence. We cannot carry on abusing the Surrey Hills like this, or accept a situation where residents with 30 foot back gardens are making space for nature while landowners with 200 acre golf courses (or vast horse liveries) do not. But my immediate concern is keeping some birds alive. Food, shelter and water is what they need.
This unreasonably cute bundle of feathers is a long-tailed tit, an extremely social and talkative miracle in miniature. In the summer, they weave bottle-shaped nests out of cobwebs; in the winter, they huddle together and try to keep warm.
Even smaller is the goldcrest, which at 5.5 grams is about the same as a 20p coin.
I’m keeping a particular eye on the redwings, our Icelandic guests. They are too nervous to approach the bird feeder but fresh blueberries at the back of the garden seem to have gone down well.
And their English cousins, the blackbirds, pose against the snow.
The temperature seems set to rise this week but I hope greater awareness of the need to tread gently on the countryside grows with it.