Hedgerows can be superficially tamed with the brutality of a modern flail hedge trimmer. But without the care and renewal of occasional laying or coppicing, these historic boundaries and wildlife sanctuaries are slowly dying – along with the industry that once created and tended them. Who will do this skilled, largely manual work once farmers have been brought to their knees?
Our hedges were built 600 years ago. On top of the banks, farmers planted a mix of hawthorn, blackthorn, and hazel, with the occasional spindle, oak, elm, alder, and ash. For centuries, the hedges were maintained by periodic ‘laying and casting up’: bending over select stems and pinning them down, allowing them to continue growing horizontally. New shoots in the spring grow vertically, creating a thick, impenetrable lattice.
South Devon has the UK’s oldest, densest, and most diverse hedgerows, and consequently an abundance of food and nesting sites for finches, robins, wrens, thrushes, and blackbirds, as well as hedgehogs, dormice, butterflies, and insects. Can the provision of such priceless riches be factored into what a farmer is paid? Not if an exploitative supermarket buyer can help it.
The less farmers are paid, the fewer skilled workers will be on the land, and the more hedges will be lost. The larger fields and machinery grow, the less socially and biologically diverse our countryside becomes. As for a transition to regenerative agriculture? There will be no one left to do it. Almost half (49 percent) of British fruit and veg farmers fear closure within the next year, citing supermarket buyer behaviour as a major cause.
Riverford’s petition urging the Government to curb supermarkets’ unfair treatment of farmers already has over 74,000 signatures, including figures such as Deborah Meaden, Rick Stein, and Chris Packham. Support has also come from the House of Lords Select Committee on Horticulture, and the British Growers Association. Despite this, the campaign has been met with a stony silence from supermarkets. If we make it to 100,000 signatures, the petition will be debated in Parliament, and that silence will have to be broken.
Thank you to all who have signed already. If you haven’t yet, please go to the petition here, and help us ask supermarkets to #GetFairAboutFarming.