Prince Charles’s fight to save Britain’s hedgerows

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Photo: Peter Nicholls / Highgrove Estate

Prince Charles is on a mission to save our fast-disappearing hedgerows.

As patron of the National Hedgelaying Society and a keen hedgelayer himself, Prince Charles has presented awards at the National Hedgelaying Society’s Patron’s Day event at his Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire yesterday (Saturday).

Hedgelaying is a country craft which has been practised for hundreds of years. There are 11 styles of hedgelaying across the UK – including Welsh Style, Midlands style, and the South of England style.

Around 50 hedgelayers took part in the competition at the prince’s private residence yesterday.

Charles, hosted the hedgelayers at a reception before handing out the awards and spoke of his teenage “horror” at watching miles of hedgerows being dug up “in the name of agricultural progress”.

“I don’t need to tell you of the destruction that has been wrought over our hedgerows over the last 60 years,” he told the assembled hedgelayers.

“As a teenager I watched in horror as miles and miles of such a wonderful part of the British landscape was grubbed up in the name of agricultural progress.

“Hedges which had stood for hundreds of years – even thousands – disappeared in an instant and now our hedgerows are under a new threat of disease with ash dieback threatening to destroy the vast majority.”

However, the future heir said he hoped for “many more miles” of hedges to be planted as part of the Queen’s Green Canopy campaign in the lead up to her Platinum jubilee.

Hedges are one of the most complex and wildlife-rich elements of the British landscape. There are half a million miles of hedgerows in Britain and they provide vital shelter and food for a vast range of species, from birds and butterflies, to bugs, mammals and reptiles. 

However, more than half of the UK’s hedgerows have been lost since the end of World War Two.

Hedgelaying itself also declined after the 1939-1945 war due to many factors such as the availability of labour, the introduction of machines to cut hedges, wire fences and changes in agriculture that placed emphasis on production.

By the 1960s hedges were declining at an alarming rate. Many hedges were grubbed out to make larger fields that could be more efficiently managed by larger machinery.

According to Prince Charles some 100,000 miles of the country’s hedgerows – four times the circumference of the earth – were lost between 1945 and 1985 in part due to this rapid industrialisation of farming.

The Prince has planted more than 15 miles of hedgerows at his Gloucestershire home Highgrove in recent years and in a piece for Country Life magazine he suggested avenues of hedgerows could be planted across the country to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Covid-19 pandemic. He said:

‘I have always felt that avenues are a wonderful enhancement to the landscape and give great pleasure to so many people, as well as providing another way of planting more trees in general.

‘Over the past two years of this dreadful pandemic, I have also felt that commemorating all those who have so tragically died through planting avenues in their memory in different parts of the country, whether in towns, cities or the countryside, might be something worth considering.’

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To find out more about hedgelaying go to the National Hedgelaying Society website.

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