10 years ago, on a long car journey with a friend, UK ecologist Rob Walton accepted a rather unusual challenge: make a list of every plant, animal, and fungus inside an 85m hedge close to his house over the course of 12 months. Little did he know that his endeavours would help influence fundamental policy to help the UK reach net zero carbon by 2050.
Walton had given himself a year to study the hedge inside and out, but by the end of the first year, he was still finding loads of new species.
Although not everyone’s idea of fun, Walton decided to carry on for yet another year, finding an incredible 2,000 species along the way. There were two rules to Wolton’s challenge – wildlife had to be seen within two metres of the hedge and big enough to see with the naked eye. “They are reservoirs of life,” he says. “We’re so big, that when you walk past a hedge, you see very little. If you were an ant or something, you would see a vast array of life … It’s only when you look closely that you find all this stuff. And it’s an extraordinary amount of stuff.”
Alongside quaint villages and rolling hills, hedges are an important feature of UK heritage. There is a cultural, and potentially aesthetic, benefit to hedges too - lots of people who live in England think of the hedge landscape as being quite archetypal, and the UK is one of the most hedge-dense countries in the world. These ecological hotspots are the seams of the country’s “patchwork quilt”. There are roughly 500,000km of hedges, compared with 400,000km of roads. From insects such as butterflies and moths to animals like toads, badgers, and long-eared bats, hedges are truly teeming with life. And not only that, the deep roots of hedges help sequester carbon. On top of this, the European commission’s Joint Research Centre recently argued that planting new hedgerows was one of the best ways to combat ecosystem fragmentation in intensively farmed landscapes.
The original purpose of hedges was to mark boundaries and keep livestock from escaping, and some hedges have appeared on maps that are hundreds of years old. In fact, some Cornish hedgerows are believed to date back 4,000 years, making them among the country’s oldest man-made features.
Although the original boundary-making purpose of hedges may be less important today, the expanding research detailing the environmental benefits of hedges is leading lawmakers to consider a new policy to expand the UK’s network of hedges. Natural England, the country’s environment watchdog, has even recommended that England’s hedgerow network should be increased by 60 percent.
And to think all this happened just because a car journey got two men chatting about wildlife, and one issued a challenge to the other.