British environmentalists are taking action over the disappearance of what they thought would be their nation's most distinctive and abundant agricultural feature: its bristly green hedgerows.
Home to hundreds of plant and animal species, some hedgerows date back to medieval times. Apart from being a chief source of British biodiversity and primary to native agriculture, they also play an important role in local culture, and throughout the centuries have figured prominently in paintings and folk tales.
But England and Wales are now home to only about 234,579 miles of hedges, about half the length that existed before 1947, according to statistics provided by the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. And in the past four years, more than one quarter of all of England's existing hedgerows have disappeared due to intensive agricultural practices.
"Hedgerows are an integral part of our countryside, as they provide the character of the countryside. They represent the quintessential British landscape," says Dennis Patton, who runs the Council. "To remove them in a twinkle of an eye because someone wants to extend their field boundaries is a shame."
As British as tea and crumpets
For many Britons, the sight of the dark green corridors criss-crossing the rolling landscape evokes more patriotism than either the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, or the British flag.
Hedgerows are as British as tea and crumpets. They are featured in paintings by John Constable, among others, and are mentioned in the literature of Shakespeare.
But despite their significance, they have been disappearing for decades. They suffered the greatest loss during the war years, when the government implemented new incentives to maximize food production. Many farmers were actually given grants to dig out their hedges, and use the space to plant crops.
"Because of misguided policies, hundreds of thousands of hedgerows have disappeared. Some of them could have been quite ancient and are impossible to replace," says Sian Phipps, head of rural policy of the London-based branch of the Council. "We have lost a historical source. You cannot go and replant a Roman hedge, for example."
The practice stopped only when agricultural authorities realized there were significant advantages to keeping hedgerows in place. One was that they warded off the dust-bowl effect. "If you take hedges out, a portion of the topsoil gets blown away," explains Barry Watson, an environmental education officer.
Public opinion also made an impact. "People are very attached to the landscape as it appeared when they were children. It may sound a bit childish, but people are generally like that," Mr. Watson says.
While hedgerows may appear fairly uniform to the untrained eye, they are actually home to a variety of plants, such as bluebells, hazel, crab apple, blackthorn, wild rose, oak, and ash. Most hedgerows are made of primarily hawthorn, however.
Particularly old ones also represent Britain's biodiversity. In fact, you can date a hedge by the number of species which reside within it.
"Hedgerows form green corridors that allow the species to travel the country. They are also a refuge for beneficial insects that prey on crop pests," says Keren Jones, operations director at Groundwork Thames Valley, a network of environmental charities.
Centuries ago, Britons used to build dried brick walls instead of hedges to keep animals out of fields and mark farmers' boundaries. But the walls demanded constant repairs, and eventually hawthorn hedges were grown in their place.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, hedgerows were planted as part of Parliament's Enclosure Act, which permitted land to be taken under the management of different owners.
As a result, hedgerows increasingly were used as boundaries. Once they were established, they worked beautifully. But they often took as much as a decade to develop fully and required constant maintenance. Now, some activists are worried that some farmers may once again resort to fences - made from barbed wire.
"Hedges look better, while a fence is a fence. But it takes a long time to reestablish a hedge and people often just don't want to bother anymore," says landscape designer Bryden Gunn.
In fact, hedgerows are so much a part of British tradition that in the old days subjects who harmed or removed them from royal forests faced being flogged, transported, or losing their hands, according to Mr. Patton.
"But that was a long time ago," he says, laughing. "We are much more civilized now." On June 1, new legislation to protect hedgerows came into effect under the Environment Act, thanks to intensive lobbying from environmental activists. The new laws require hedgerow owners to apply to local authorities for permission to remove hedges, and mandates that any hedgerow over 30 years of age be given special consideration because of its historic and possible environmental value.
But the laws aren't enough. "The new regulations are rubbish," says Patton. "We have been lobbying for hedgerow protection since the 1970s, and what they came up with is too soft, not really one thing or another."
In particular, he takes umbrage at a 42-day waiting period farmers must endure for hedgerow removal permission. "There is very little information about how hedgerows contribute culturally and historically to the landscape," he says. "Local authorities do not have the resources or the time to make decisions within such a short period of time."
A new committee will be set up by the new government to look at existing legislation, but Patton sees no reason to rejoice. "I am not holding my breath. I am not optimistic for the future of hedgerows," he says.
Despite the new legislation, hedges are still taken out in some parts of the country. Until recently, pressure on farmers to increase their output has encouraged them to make use of larger fields, on which larger machinery can operate. So only boundary hedges next to the roads remain, while ones that divided up fields are being removed.
"Equipment became bigger and bigger to make it possible to cultivate more land and to make arable crops more profitable," says Mr Bradford. "It thus became more efficient to have larger fields, as that meant less maneuvering between narrow gateways. Rather than nipping between four fields 25 hectares in size, it was better for farmers to simply have one field 100 hectares in size."
Support for farmers needed
In some areas, however, a positive cycle is beginning to take root. Tony Bradford, a manager at the government-funded Countryside Management Services, based in Hertfordshire, says hedgerow loss has slowed down in his area. "There is some loss, but we have spent lots of work replacing and planting hedgerows, and there is actually a net gain within this county," he says.
"That is a positive thing for native bird and plant species. But we still need more money to subsidize or compensate the farming community."