10 years ago, UK ecologist Rob Walton decided to take on a rather strange challenge: make a list of every plant, animal, and fungus inside a hedge 40 meters from his house over the course of 12 months. Little did he know that his challenge 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.
“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.”
The UK is a country with hedges, with some 500,000km (310,685mi) 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. In the UK, hedges did not just appear out of nowhere.
The original purpose of them 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 new focus on hedges started with Rob Walton’s challenge 10 years ago…