Dr Terry Mabbett reports on reactions to news of a brazen rural crime.

THE increased sale of hedge-planting material is a positive message from the forest nursery sector, and demand could rise even further if the large-scale theft of recently planted hedgerow species in Norfolk is repeated on a wider scale.

Removal of well-established hedgerows, many of which were centuries old, has degraded the English landscape since the Second World War, but the recent theft of newly planted trees with canes and plastic tree shelters (within weeks of planting) must be some kind of record.

The theft occurred on a farm between the village of Buxton and market town of Aylsham in North Norfolk, where some 4,000 saplings were uprooted and stolen along with planting accessories from 320 metres of hedgerow planted just three weeks earlier. Material losses, including the hedgerow mixture of blackthorn, hawthorn, hornbeam and other native species, amounted to around £6,000. The 320 metres represented about 20 per cent of one mile of planned hedgerow planting at a total cost of some £27,000.

The aggrieved farmer told the press how he was planting the hedgerow to improve the look of the landscape and for the benefit of wildlife. He was tipped off by concerned neighbours when they noticed the recently planted hedgerow around the corner of his arable field was no longer there. The way in which the plants were removed indicated a ‘semi-professional’ job with the newly planted hedgerow ‘stolen to order’, said the farmer.

READ MORE: Green-tech launches 'new alternative to plastic tree shelters'

The local police appealed for witnesses and asked to hear from anyone in the area who may have been offered cut-price hedgerow planting material. However, according to the national press, which picked up the story, the amount of useful help forthcoming may well depend on the incident being treated for what it is; a serious crime and not an amusing story.

Following a tweet from the police asking for help to catch the thieves and using an image of the missing plants, one responder tweeted “best not to say much in case they take offence”. Another commented how it was a “job for special branch” and a third that it was a case of “coppice and robbers”. What’s more, some newspaper headlines were written in the same vein, with one saying ‘Police hunt for copse and robbers after hedge theft’, while another said ‘Green-fingered thieves steal farmer’s hedgerow’, although “light-fingered” would have been more appropriate.

Forestry Journal:

All this comes hard on the heels of a recent report from CPRE, the countryside charity (formerly known as Campaign to Protect Rural England), which described the everyday hedgerow as ‘nature’s toolbox,’ and wants millions of pounds to be spent on new hedges and for them to be restored to pre-Second World War levels. Hedgerows are havens of biodiversity, with more than 600 plant species, 1,500 types of insects and many mammals and birds, which are recorded living or feeding at some time in our hedgerows, says the report. Hedgerows adjacent to tracks and wooded ground tend to be especially rich in these species.

A steep rise in hedgerow removal after WWII slowed after new regulations were imposed in 1997, when landowners were legally bound to look after hedges which had been categorised as ‘important wildlife habitats’. Hedges coming into this category were at least 20 m in length and at least 30 years old.

Hedgerows are generally thought of as living fences in the rural environment, but there are many hedgerows remaining in urban and suburban environments, of substantial length and provenance, relics of a once rural landscape.

The age of a hedge can be estimated by applying the rule of Max Hooper (biologist and natural historian) who wrote about hedgerows and biodiversity. The number of woody hedgerow shrub species is counted along a 30 m length of hedge. Repeat this three times, take the average and multiply by 100 to arrive at the rough age of the hedge. It was subsequently dubbed ‘Hooper’s Hedgerow Hypothesis’.

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