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Why we must preserve and replant hedges, the case of Brittany

Since the last century, the Breton bocage, a true regional heritage, has continued to disappear. Today, despite aid programs for planting hedges such as Breizh bocage, the line of hedges is still declining under the effect of uprooting and because of their ageing. Indeed, no longer being integrated into the dominant agricultural model, the hedges are no longer provided with the young trees that will ensure their renewal. Not only does this generate a profound change in Brittany’s landscapes, but it also affects biodiversity, the water cycle and ultimately harms agriculture itself.

Since 1950, 70% of hedgerows have disappeared from French bocages. The French Office for Biodiversity (OFB) recorded the disappearance of 750,000 km of living hedges, uprooted under the joint effect of agricultural consolidation and the decline in livestock activity in favor of intensive cereal farming. A 2014 Agreste study shows that the surface area of ​​hedges and rows of trees in metropolitan France is constantly decreasing, with a 6% drop since 2006 (Sénat, 2019).

Hedges were once common in the Breton landscape, useful for agriculture and rich in biodiversity. But due to the new practices of industrial agriculture, hundreds of thousands of linear meters of hedges have been cut in Brittany alone (and many more throughout France).

In 2008, there were less than 182,500 km of embankments and hedgerows left in Brittany, 60% of the hedged hedgerow disappeared from Brittany between 1960 and 1980 then continued to decrease by 12% between 1996 and 2008 (Source: regional survey of Draaf Brittany).

If the hedges are disappearing, it is because the farmers, who are fewer and fewer, lack the time to maintain them and are moving as quickly as possible by creating large plots.

At a time when the Regional Council and the State are taking stock of Breizh bocage, Bretagne Vivante calls for a real awareness and mobilization of all on the importance of the Breton bocage. In a context of global warming, soil erosion, water pollution, loss of habitats for biodiversity, the disappearance of the bocage is a fundamental issue for Brittany.

It is clear that regional policies, although endowed with significant funds, are not enough to stop this disappearance.

Why are hedgerows so important, both for the environment and for farmers?

  • They absorb carbon and actively participate in the fight against climate change: planting 1 km of hedges stores 550 to 900 tonnes of carbon equivalent over 100 years.
  • They have a very useful windbreak effect in a region like ours: a hedge protects a crop 15 to 20 times its height.
  • They serve as shelter for farm animals: the yield (milk, meat) can increase by 20% if the animals are well protected.
  • Managed well, they can provide renewable wood, including timber.
  • They limit soil erosion and flooding: bare, sloping ground can lose between 11 and 86 T of soil/ha/year.
  • They purify water by filtering runoff water: some hedges consume nitrates (function as a purifying filter).
  • A hedge rich in humus is home to many decomposing micro-organisms which improve the quality of the soil and provide many ecosystem services (in particular that of breaking down all or part of chemical products such as pesticides).
  • They serve as a refuge for a wide variety of animals (birds, small mammals, butterflies, reptiles, etc.) and constitute an ecological continuity between the natural environments.
  • Flowering hedges are essential for pollinators while beautifying the landscape.
  • They limit exposure to pollution linked to automobile traffic (on the edge of the road) and to the spreading of pesticides (near homes).
  • fruit hedges can contribute to the food resilience of the territory and are a link between local residents and nature.
  • They preserve the privacy of walkers and cyclists along the roads, but also of children in schoolyards.
  • They make it possible to fight against crop pests by sheltering their predators or by offering them food that will not be taken from the fields.

We can all plant and preserve hedges

Despite all the benefits of hedges and communications on the interest of their protection, too many local authorities avoid the subject and many owners of houses pull up those in their gardens to replace them with concrete block walls.
This last phenomenon has been very striking in recent years in housing estates in Charente-Maritime, where residents are literally walling themselves up more and more and destroying the hedges that brought some biodiversity to the city.

Here are some tips for working on hedges:

  • Don’t tear them off. Even a sparsely treed embankment has a value that can be improved.
  • Never maintain them with chemicals, always prefer mechanical cuts. Do not make cuts in spring / early summer, so as not to disturb the nesting period of birds.
  • Keep a flowery and wild herbaceous strip at the foot of the hedge. Do not level the embankments.
  • Plant hedges, when you have the land to do so, with local species, which will grow better and attract more biodiversity.
  • We can also alert the town halls so that they classify certain hedges that are part of the heritage of their municipality on the local urban plan. Even if such protection is at the goodwill of the municipalities, during the development of local urban plans, this remains one of the best existing solutions to be able to protect certain hedges.

In addition to individual action, Bretagne Vivante asks public actors, and in particular local authorities, to develop real action programs in the bocage, with farmers, residents and environmental associations, for the benefit of all.

When to plant trees and shrubs?

Late November is the best time to plant hedges, outside of frost or drought. Many sites give gardening advice!

For the choice of shrubs, it will depend on the nature of your land but also on the height that you want your hedge to reach. Prefer mixtures of shrubs to hedges composed of a single species, and favor local varieties, which will be well adapted to your land. Then the hedges, depending on the species you choose, are also a source of food: you can make delicious pies or jams with blackberries or elderberries!

Individuals, farmers, communities, preserve the bocage and plant hedges with local species adapted to our region!

  • Gwénola Kervingant, President of Bretagne Vivante
  • Christophe Magdelaine,
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