Reconnecting the Countryside

Reconnecting the Countryside: wildlife charity announces winners of a national competition to save our native woodlands and hedgerows

A Welsh landowner has scooped the top prize in a UK wide competition organised by the charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) to reward the conservation efforts made by the farming and landowning community to protect and restore our hedgerows and woodlands and safeguard native wildlife. Keith Allen from Monmouthshire triumphed in the Reconnecting the Countryside competition, because say the judges, he demonstrated a clear vision for the wider landscape: connecting up the largest continuous stretch of dormouse-friendly habitat (over 200 hectares in total); planting and managing his hedgerows; at the same time as working in close collaboration with his neighbours. Three runners-up were also announced, including one of Keith Allen’s farming neighbours, Alan Morgan, also from Monmouthshire; together with Bob and Anne Cowlin from Assington, Suffolk and Antony Martin from Lydden, near Dover in Kent.

Hedgerows and woodlands represent iconic features of the British landscape and support a huge variety of native wildlife, such as the threatened hazel dormouse and other vulnerable species, yet the decline of these vital habitats is widespread. Many of our native animals are suffering the effects of habitat fragmentation, leading to localised extinction and contributing to an overall decline in populations.

For the hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), good quality, species-rich hedgerows provide not only a habitat in themselves, but also a source of food and a means of dispersal between other areas of woodland habitat. Unsympathetic management of hedgerows therefore, can have a disproportionate impact on the local dormouse population which may become isolated. So whilst improving hedgerow conservation will certainly have a positive impact on our dormouse population, many other species will also benefit, including other small mammals, bats, birds, butterflies, moths and other invertebrates.

In the period following the Second World War, the decline of Britain’s hedgerows accelerated substantially due to increased use of mechanised agricultural machinery permitting the removal of many boundaries to increase field sizes. In 1946 Natural England has estimated there were half a million miles of hedgerows in England, which had more than halved by the early 1990s.

However the greatest threat to our remaining hedgerows is neglect and inconsistent management and this emphasises the importance of the work undertaken by the winner and runners up of the Reconnecting the Countryside competition.

The judges visited each of the six farms shortlisted in the competition and each of the entrants were required to demonstrate how they had improved habitat connectivity and created continuous cover of dormouse-friendly habitat through planting, coppicing and/or filling in gaps in existing hedges and woodlands, and managing them in a sensitive manner. Both new and established woodland and hedgerows were counted, providing that in the long-term the newer habitat will become suitable to support dormouse populations. Entrants were also encouraged to join forces with neighbouring landowners in order to maximise habitat connectivity.

Nida Al-Fulaij, Development Manager for PTES says: "The standard of entries was extremely high and it was a tough call to decide on a winner, but Keith Allen truly stood out. Not only did he succeed in efforts to create the most amount of dormouse-friendly habitat: including creating hazel staging posts’ along hedgerows and an aerial bridge across a road, but his efforts demonstrated a tremendous dedication to work in partnership with others to maximise the benefit for local wildlife populations; as well as acting as a local dormouse monitor and taking part in the training of dormouse volunteers. He is an inspiration for farmers and landowners in how it is possible to make a huge impact through a relatively modest investment of time and effort. He truly deserves this accolade."

When asked about how he felt about the award Keith Allen said: " I have learnt how precarious is the existence of the dormouse, and with the encouragement of PTES and Gwent Wildlife Trust I am doing all I can to help preserve it, and other endangered species. The prize money will enable me to purchase dormouse monitoring equipment and a special camera system to film dormice and thus try to further understand how we humans can best help them."