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Volume 21: debated on Tuesday 6 April 1982

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3.31 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect hedgerows.
This Bill is designed to protect the more important hedgerows left in our countryside. They are usually the older hedgerows which form farm and parish boundaries or which border the highways and byways of Britain. Many of them are a thousand years old or more. It is unfashionable to refer to the classics, although the disposition of the House in recent days might make it more likely, but it is certain that Caesar referred to the hedgerows of Britain during his excursions to our country 2,000 years ago.

The Bill that I propose could not be seen as standing in the way of progress, although sometimes that progress is questionable, but it is designed to contribute to the maintenance of an attractive landscape and to provide an essential skeleton of conservation in these islands. Across our country, from the tall hedges beside the sunken lanes of the South-West to the more stunted hedges of the exposed northerly areas, hedgerows have shaped our landscape. They continue to provide the definition of direction of that most popular of British pursuits—walking in the countryside. Increasingly, however, they offer an economic advantage, since tourists visit Britain today as much to see our landscape as to observe anything else. That offering must remain attractive.

There are traditional benefits, too. Hedgerows were designed to enclose stock and provide them with shelter. They may do so still, and there may be only a temporary superfluity in some areas. They also offer their useful products of fruit and coppice.

However, my argument is not entirely an economic one. The hedgerow is important, above all, as the provider of habitat. Indeed, 250 British wild plants grow only in hedgerows. Numerous bird species depend upon them for their existence. Without the hedgerows, winter visitors such as the redwing and the fieldfare would scarcely survive. Without the hedgerow, many resident species of birds would be imperilled. The incidence of birdsong and the useful contribution that birds make in pest control would be much less frequent if the current rate of hedgerow clearance continued.

This is described as the year of the butterfly. It is worth noting that 20 species of British butterfly rely on hedgerows for their breeding habitat. As far as insects are concerned, the hedgerow could be described as the harbour for the crop pollinators, for many hedgerow insects are beneficial.

It could be argued that the continuing agricultural revolution means that the hedgerow is no longer either necessary or desirable. Certainly, modern agricultural methods have proved disastrous for miles of hedgerows in many counties. Large-scale mechanisation and the transition from traditional rearing of stock to concentration on arable production has impelled that destruction.

There can be argument about the actual pace of current change, but it is clear that hedgerow destruction has been extensive. It is estimated that one fifth of our total hedgerows have gone in recent years, and in some counties the destruction has been colossal. In Huntingdonshire, 88 per cent. of the hedgerows have been lost.

There have been some astonishing examples of destruction in the last few months. Last year, while the Wildlife and Countryside Bill was being considered in Committee, one fanner in Nottinghamshire created a 320-acre field, and had his local authority not drawn attention to the existence of tree preservation orders, the field would have been much larger than that. On one estate in Northamptonshire, the hedgerow has been completely cleared to allow ploughing to go right up to the road. The hedgerow has gone along a one and-a-half mile stretch of highway. In my area, a small minority of farmers seem to have been particularly ruthless. One removed his farm's hedgerows, and after the removal asked that the footpaths be realigned. Many constituents have complained and expressed regret, and that regret is not restricted to South Yorkshire.

The House, of course, recognises that food production is important. As I said, the Bill does not seek comprehensive protection. However, if we acknowledge that life without food is impossible, we may also agree that life has to be worth while, and, in the living, the landscape and the natural heritage of are important. This suggests—a suggestion that would be endorsed by many millions of people, including many farmers and rural residents—that a measure of protection is now necessary. Therefore, before it is too late, the House should recognise that this additional conservation proposal is much to be desired.

I should add that I present the Bill not as a publicity stunt but because I am led to the firm view that the measure is now extremely necessary. There should be a still significant place for beauty and the retention of our natural resource, even in a power-driven landscape.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Hardy, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. Alan Clark, Dr. David Clark, Mr. Jack Dormand, Mr. David Ennals, Sir Marcus Kimball, Mr. Kenneth Marks, Mr. Charles Morrison, Mr. John Parker and Mr. Stephen Ross.