Climate Crisis and the Environment

The Humble Hedge And The UK’s Net Zero Target

A hedgerow with many colourful flowers grows next to a winding country road
Lucy Woodward

They might not seem like the Bahamas to you or me, but Britain’s hedgerows are something of a paradise for a plethora of species that live there, and they play a surprisingly important role in carbon storage, too.

A humble hedgerow can easily support over 3,000 different species – roughly the same as the number of university students Rock City can hold at Crisis on a Wednesday night. That’s right, even hedges have had a significantly busier social life than us in the last year. Ouch.

Moving swiftly on, hedges are of course an amazing habitat for wildlife, providing a broad range of ecological niches and facilitating safe and efficient travel for all the mice, rabbits, badgers, and insects, to name but a few of the hedges’ inhabitants. This highway network stretches over 500,000 km in the UK which, in comparison to the 400,000 km of roads we’ve built, is pretty vast.

In 2019, the UK’s Commission on Climate Change suggested that we increase our hedgerow network by 40% as part of the UK’s 2050 net-zero greenhouse gases emissions target. This would not only protect the high level of biodiversity present but would improve our ability to capture carbon. Hedges sequester carbon in their roots, leaves, and soil, soaking up some of our emissions. This balancing act is crucial for preventing further catastrophic climate change.

Considering the predicted increase in flood risks in coming years due to urbanisation, deforestation, and rising global temperatures, increasing the quantity (and quality) of hedgerows in the UK would also help to mitigate potential damage from soil erosion and flooding. According to the European commission’s Joint Research Centre, “planting new hedgerows was one of the best – if not only – ways to combat ecosystem fragmentation in intensively farmed landscapes.”

One way of achieving farmland restoration, is through improving our hedgerows

Such intensively farmed landscapes are the result of our agricultural practices that involve relentless tilling, which destroys the natural structure of soil and depletes its fertility. This leaves land “farmed out,” making it increasingly difficult to grow crops for food. Seeing as the global food demand isn’t decreasing any time soon, this is a sizable issue. Strategies to address the problems associated with farming and growing food demands include switching to regenerative agriculture methods and bringing abandoned cropland back to health.

As mentioned, one way of achieving farmland restoration, especially in the UK, is through improving our hedgerows. This can be done by planting new hedges, widening them, and improving the condition of existing hedges. These practical and relatively low-cost solutions must be implemented if we’re to meet that net-zero target by 2050.

The hedge’s ability to support high levels of biodiversity is also a big perk. Every organism, no matter how big or small, has a part to play in creating a healthy environment. Therefore, a biodiverse ecosystem is more resilient to change, regulates water and resources more effectively, can breakdown pollution, and can recover better from unpredictable events.

I think we’ve all realised how important adjusting to unpredictable events is with the pandemic, and with the potential for unforeseen disasters growing due to the climate emergency, it’s clear that resilience and recovery are pretty useful skills to have. Here’s to more biodiversity in our environment.

In my mind, it’s about time we stopped hedging our bets with climate change and committed to sustainable, eco-friendly living. Upgrading our hedge network could prove a really great way to do that.

Lucy Woodward

Featured Photo by Natural England via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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