Our nationwide canal and riverbank hedgerows are to be reinvigorated to provide better shelter and food for many threatened species, including farmland birds such as blackbirds, thrushes and tree sparrows. Small mammals such as hedgehogs and dormice will also benefit from the work, as well as increasingly rare butterflies including gate keepers, orange tips and brimstones.
Work will begin this summer, as we survey all 600 miles of our waterside hedgerows to establish where gaps can be filled, invasive species removed and where hedgerows can be extended to connect with nearby woodland and other important habitats.
The programme, made possible by £50,000 funding from players of People's Postcode Lottery, will identify hedges to be coppiced, left to grow up and then ‘laid' and where simple improvements can be made to existing cutting regimes.
Stuart Moodie, ecologist for the Canal & River Trust, comments: “The hedgerows along the nation's canals are vital refuges for many much loved and threatened species – they are places to seek shelter, feed and are highways to connect with other canal-side habitats.
“Changes to farming practices in the UK have seen a dramatic decline in hedgerows, with traditional hedges removed or supplemented with barbed wire fences. Modern management of hedges often fails to get the best out of them and can lead to hedges dying back and becoming isolated.
“We manage many stretches of hedgerow that are 200 years old and were planted by the original canal builders to protect the towpath from cattle and other livestock. Consequently the hedges are as much a heritage feature of our landscape as an ecological one, and they are our oldest established habitat.
“Although in recent years the rate of removal in the UK has been exceeded by the amounts planted, it is the old species-rich hedges such as those on our canals that are the most valuable for wildlife. It will take many years for new hedges to be of comparable value to those that have been lost in the last century. This is why it's vital to retain our old hedges and manage them sympathetically.”
Kate Pearson, trusts manager at People's Postcode Lottery, comments: “Hedgerows are a defining feature of the nation's countryside and at this time of year they are coming to life. A walk along a towpath really does get you close to nature – whether it is the springtime sights and sounds of nesting birds or bright yellow of nature's earliest brimstone butterflies. Hedgerows are such an important part of our countryside heritage and it's great to see players of People's Postcode Lottery support this exciting project.”
As part of the survey, we're recruiting a network of 40 volunteers across England and Wales to survey our hedges between June and September. Volunteers will be trained to identify the existing physical and biodiversity condition of hedges and to pick and map appropriate improvement measures.