Beech trees in autumn Hedgerow in winter

Woodland is universal in the sense that it can be present in all of the other habitats covered on this website - on the coast, on downland, on heathland, in wet areas and in gardens. The main focus here, though, is ancient semi-natural broadleaved woodland, of which the UK as a whole has 150,000 hectares, with lowland England well stocked.

This figure would be much higher but for the destruction of 350,000 hectares of woodland of all types in the period 1910 to 1950, largely because of the two World Wars, and the ultimately pernicious planting of conifers to replace some of these losses. Removing those conifers is an ongoing policy by the Forestry Commission, an organisation which hasn't always been so helpful to the natural environment.

Despite the broadleaved losses, Britain still has more veteran trees than any other western European country. Yet the habitat is far from safe. Only 14 per cent of our ancient woodlands across Britain are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, when the figure should be nearer 100 per cent. And according to the Woodland Trust, around 500 of them were under direct threat from development of one sort or another, including road building and airport Frosted deciduous leavesexpansion, at the end of 2004.

Moreover, much of our woodland is not always so rich as it should be in flora and fauna owing to lack of vital management functions led by coppicing, pollarding, scrub clearance and leaving dead wood standing (providing it is not by a public footpath or road) or where it lies.

Though labour intensive, this management can be cost effective thanks to the increasing demand for charcoal, biomass fuels and artefacts like willow hurdles, but beyond that it is tremendously beneficial for flora and fauna, some of which are in decline.

Hedgerows are woods in miniature, and a number are equally ancient. They are one of the most distinctive features of the landscape, and offer food, shelter and breeding sites along with transport networks to cross open land. More than 600 types of plant, around 1,500 types of invertebrate, 65 bird species and 20 mammals have been recorded living or feeding in them.

Initially used as animal fences, their heyday was from 1750 to 1850 when the death throes of the ancient strip system of farming, progressively moribund since 1600, occurred.

Their destruction occurred principally in the last century, and from 1946 to 1974 no less than 230,000km (144,000 miles) of hedges were grubbed up to allow more intensive agriculture with larger fields and larger machines. Prairies do not have hedges. Others suffered from neglect, and from 1984 to 1990 there was a net loss of hedgerow in England of 21 per cent.

Of the 329,000km of hedgerow still surviving in England in 1993, getting on for half was Badgers (Meles meles) are one of the glories of our woodlandsancient and/or species rich. Greater protection exists now, thanks to the Environment Act 1995 and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which has been broadened in scope (and appeal) under the title Entry Level Stewardship.

This scheme sponsors wildlife friendly farming and has been taken up for four million hectares compared with one million under the old arrangement. Providing the glitches in government software which seem endemic do not delay payments - a far from confident expectation given the appalling way the system functioned with Single Farm Payments in 2005 - there is reason for hope.

True, there is still a long way to go, but the increasing popularity of hedge planting in the old style, deliberate avoidance of the ridiculous annual ritual of cutting (or flailing) hedges, and creation of conservation headlands and 'buffer zones' between fields and hedgerows, are encouraging.

The last two actions just mentioned are particularly important given the ending of the 15-year set-aside policy in the European Union in 2007. This practice of leaving land fallow was a response to chronic over-production. For wildlife in Britain, set-aside generally was excellent, restoring some of the huge amount of appropriate habitat lost over the previous decades as intensive farming developed. With luck, even if all the former set-aside land returns to production the wildlife-friendly margins will be retained, keeping the inevitable losss to a minimum.

For the record, flying predators such as hoverflies and ladybirds, which are suited by flowery margins and hedges, have been shown to be the most efficient catchers of agricultural pest species, mainly aphids, in the business.

Any inquiries - please e-mail me at Nature Conservation Imaging.

Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.

In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.