Shoots – our unsung hedgerow heroes

Conor O'Gorman

Conor O'Gorman

Conor O’Gorman has worked in a variety of conservation, policy and campaigning roles at BASC over the last 16 years. A zoology graduate with a PhD awarded for grey partridge research, he has over 25 years’ experience in conservation and land management.

Following the launch of a campaign to increase our hedgerow network by 40% by 2050, Conor O’Gorman outlines the positive relationship between shoots and hedgerows and why shooting interests are vital to the success of future conservation projects.

A place in folklore

Hedgerows are wonderful and perhaps unique in both their diversity and extent, not to mention their place in folklore, within the British Isles.

There are windswept horizontal hedges withstanding the worst of gales on the tops of mountains and along our exposed coastlines.

And deep in the shires there are ancient secret ways guarded on both sides by hedges standing tall over banks and bunds hundreds of years old.

Despite the ravages of the post-war economic drive to increase field size for more efficient farming outputs, we still have at least half a million km of hedgerows of all shapes and sizes across our diverse landscapes.

Many of these hedgerows survived because they were needed as field boundaries to divide ownership and to control livestock. Some were left alone due to superstition, whilst others were kept and improved on wild bird shoots.

#40by50

Hedgerow loss was abated with legal protection in the 1990s, but many of those remaining were shadows of their former selves. Agri-environmental schemes encouraged and supported the creation of new hedgerows and the rehabilitation of existing ones but there is much left to do.

However, the winds of fortune may be about to change for our neglected and missing hedgerows and this will be of interest to every shooting conservationist.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has published a report  ‘Hedge fund: investing in hedgerows for climate, nature and the economy’ detailing new research on the environmental and economic benefits of hedgerows.

The research findings were launched in parliament, attracting media and political interest and breathing new life into the CPRE’s #40by50 campaign calling on the government to commit to extending the hedgerow network by 40% by 2050.

Hedgerow conservation, climate change and shooting

Making the link between hedgerow conservation and tackling climate change is timely because the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021.

The CPRE report explains how hedgerows reduce flooding, protect soil and provide key habitats for plants and wildlife.

Analysis also found that hedgerows can deliver almost £4 on every £1 spent in ecosystem services and economic returns.

So, what’s this got to do with shooting?

Every year 41% of shoots create or maintain an estimated 7,000 hectares of hedgerows and the labour involved is equivalent to 790 full time conservation jobs.

A hectare of hedgerow can sequester as much as 131.5 tonnes of carbon per year. That’s up to 920,000 tonnes of carbon being locked up annually by shoots managing hedgerows actively for game management, which is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 730,000 passenger cars.

Hedgerows alongside game crops provide vital cover and food for game and song birds. It’s always an adventure scanning such hedgerows with binoculars in winter and spring as you never know what rarity you might spot amongst the various flocks of ‘little brown jobs’.

People that shoot have long appreciated the value of hedgerows for game and wildlife. While hedgerows were being torn up to further agricultural gain, there were thousands of kilometres being maintained by those with shooting interests.

The GWCT has carried out many studies on hedgerows and provide advice on their creation and management.

The GWCT has estimated that planting a tree every 20 metres in English hedgerows would meet the government’s policy target of increasing planting to 30,000 hectares a year with trees by 2025.

Farms with a game shoot have, on average, 27% more hedgerows than farms without a shoot. In addition, the all-important grass margins on either side of hedgerows tend to be 24% wider on farms with a shoot. Studies have also demonstrated that hedgerows on game shoots are more likely to be bordered by a wildlife margin like wild bird cover.

The bigger picture

Looking at the bigger picture, hedgerows provide a network of wildlife highways between larger woodland habitats. Shooting features heavily here too, with game shoots managing half a million hectares of woodland and 100,000 hectares of copses.

Shoots are actively curating hedgerows and planting trees on nearly two million hectares of land annually, which represents 12% of the UK’s rural land. This is more than ten times the total area of all national and local nature reserves.

Surprisingly, the CPRE report makes no mention of the significant evidence base on the conservation of hedgerows by shooting conservationists and the potential of thousands of game shoots to help meet their #40by50 campaign targets. We have contacted CPRE querying this oversight.

Get involved

Whilst shoots may be the unsung hedgerow heroes, our collective conservation effort continues daily across the country.

BASC’s Green Shoots mapping service and bag recording website is an excellent way of recording your conservation work. Click here to get involved.

Case studies help to reinforce our policy work and given the current interest in hedgerows we would love to hear from hedgerow heroes in the shooting community. A great example of this is BASC members taking part in the Cheshire Dormouse Project, helping to connect 32 km of woodlands and hedgerows.

To let us know about your shoot’s hedgerow conservation work, email me at conor.ogorman@basc.org.uk with photos and explanatory text.

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