Branchage – Threat or Opportunity?

NatWest International Environmental Education Initiative 2024-25

Jersey’s roadside banques and hedgerows are full of grasses and wildflowers, providing habitats and support for wildlife including hedgehogs, birds, critically important pollinators (such as bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies) and predators of garden and crop pests (such as ladybirds, soldier beetles, earwigs and hoverflies).

Or at least they were. Just as they were reaching their prime, many have been cut, some far enough back to expose the soil.

It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss and concern for the wildlife in the undergrowth. However, if you follow Guidelines on Best Branchage Practice (a brilliant booklet produced by the Branchage Action Group, the branchage can potentially help protect wildlife and boost biodiversity by:

  • Preserving endangered species
  • Reversing the decline in insects including pollinators, butterflies, moths and pest predators
  • Fulfilling the amazing potential of our 350 miles of roadside banques and hedgerows as a resource to address the environmental challenges we face.

As the First World War was getting underway in 1914, a local law was introduced, requiring our roadsides and pathways to be trimmed twice a year. Its purpose was to improve visibility and make our roads safer. However, it also plays to the human instinct to subjugate nature and “tidy it up”.

David Attenborough has appealed to the nation to resist mowing until mid-July, saying:

“It’s all about the timing. Delaying mowing until mid-July allows birds and insects to complete their breeding and flowers to set their seed.”

Here in Jersey, however, strimmers and flails are unleashed in late May, in anticipation of the Visites du Branchage. This is when roads and pathways are inspected with fines issued to those who have not complied with the Branchage Law. Although the law states that inspections start on June 24, most are carried out in early July. (Visites du Branchage and Guidelines 2024).

The law requires that if you occupy any land that borders public roads and footpaths, you must ensure:

  • Minimum clearance of 12 feet over main roads and by-roads
  • Minimum clearance of 8 feet over footpaths
  • Clearance of all trimmings from the road or footpath

However, as a signatory to the Convention of Biodiversity (Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro 1992), and in its own States of Jersey Biodiversity Strategy, Jersey has pledged to:

  • Conserve its biodiversity and maintain the ecological integrity of its ecosystems.
  • Use its biological resources in a sustainable manner, ensuring that their use does not lead to the decline of biodiversity
  • Raise public awareness about biodiversity and its importance as well as promoting education and training on biodiversity conservation.

Do these obligations conflict with the Branchage Law or could the branchage be an opportunity to embrace them?

Our hedgerows and banques comprise a large area of potential prime wildflower habitat (approximately 170 hectares or 243 football pitches). Nurturing this habitat would certainly honour the first two pledges and help with the third.

Plantlife, the organisation behind “No Mow May” and “Let it Bloom June”, has established that the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows. This has had a calamitous impact on insect populations with harmful consequences along the food webs. Life, including humans, depends on plants and insects at the foundation of life cycles.

Roadside verges are potential wildflower habitats that could partially address these losses, potentially resulting in 650 million more flowers locally.

By following the Guidelines on Best Branchage Practice, many Jersey farmers, individual land occupiers and Jersey Trees for Life are safeguarding wildlife and promoting the conservation of biodiversity, “a common concern of humankind” (Convention on Biodiversity, 1992).

A walk around our lanes around branchage time indicates the potential for improvement. Meanwhile a lack of awareness of the branchage’s full impact remains.

The Guidelines on Best Branchage Practice and gov.je branchage has advice and links explaining the optimum approach to protect wildlife and encourage biodiversity, the key points being:

Check before you chop

Leave a minimum 10 cm (4 inches) length of vegetation

Nobody wants to strim a hedgehog. Many suffer serious injury and death due to poor branchage practice and it was their suffering that prompted the formation of the Branchage Action Group, instigated by the Jersey Hedgehog Preservation Group.

Checking the banque or hedgerow reduces the risk of injuring a hedgehog or destroying a bird’s nest. It also alerts other small mammals, nesting birds, lizards and slow worms. Keeping the flail or strimmer at least 10 cm above ground level further reduces the risk of wildlife injuries.

There are additional benefits to these two guidelines:

  • A layer of plant life is retained, preventing soil erosion and potential collapse of the bank.
  • Important habitats for wildlife are preserved and the ground temperature is kept cooler and more hospitable – this helps maintain the vital role that our banques and hedgerows have as wildlife corridors.
  • Plant biodiversity is supported; overzealous cutting back to bare soil actively selects for the more robust species like nettles, brambles, docks and hogweed which outcompete the more diverse, delicate (and more attractive) wildflowers.

Preserve rare flowers and tussocks and identify invasive species

A benefit of walking the length of the banque before commencing work is that you could spot rare flowers such as common toadflax, Jersey fern, wild strawberry and orchids. This enables you to place a marker so that they are preserved. Any clump of wildflowers and grass tussocks deserve preservation for their benefits to insects.

You might even identify invasive species such as Japanese knotweed or Asian hornet nests, meaning you can then seek appropriate guidance.

Clear all trimmings

The law requires that all cut vegetation and trimmings are removed. This prevents obstacles on the roads and paths and prevents drains being blocked. It also makes a vital contribution to enhancing biodiversity.

Leaving the trimmings produces a mulch, inhibiting the growth of a variety of more delicate wildflowers whilst encouraging a small number of robust species that can break through the mulch, such as nettles, brambles, hogweed and docks.

When the trimmings decompose they add nitrogen to the soil, encouraging nutrient responsive species (the nettle gang!) as opposed to a multitude of wildflowers requiring less fertile soils.

Do not use weedkillers (including Glyphosate a.k.a “Roundup”)

Weedkillers kill all plants unless they have been genetically engineered to be resistant. This removes vital food sources for many insects decreasing their abundance as well as the populations of birds and bats that eat them or their larvae/caterpillars.

Twice as many plants have become extinct as birds, mammals and amphibians combined (571 since records began). Why drive further loss of species with unknown but inevitably harmful consequences?

Glyphosate is harmful to insects, including bees, making them more vulnerable to disease, and interfering with their navigational and learning abilities.

It is probably harmful to humans too. Three USA court cases have judged this to be the case and 13,400 more lawsuits have been brought.

Three countries have banned its use and several states and provinces in Canada have imposed restrictions too.

Cut only the sides of the banks on the first branchage (June)

There is no requirement to trim the top of the banques for the June branchage.

Leaving the plants on the top of the banque supports David Attenborough’s heartfelt plea to avoid mowing until mid-July, supporting and encouraging numbers and diversity of insects.

Hedge and tree trimming

The benefits of trees are far reaching and well documented. Damaging them with a flail, intentionally or otherwise leaves them vulnerable to infection. Tree work should be done in winter months with appropriate saws, leaving a clean cut.

Hedgerows provide more ecosystem services than any other habitat. Managed well, they are powerhouses for biodiversity, providing shelter, food and vital corridors for our wildlife, connecting fragmented habitats across Jersey.

  • Hedge trimming for the branchage should be minimal – cutting hedges between March and September is disruptive and harmful to birds (RSPB) and between September and November to butterflies (Butterfly Conservation). You should therefore plan to carry out corrective work in the winter months.
  • The wider and denser the hedge, ideally to ground level, the greater the benefit to wildlife and biodiversity; we can advise on hedge management and Hedgelink is an excellent on-line resource.
  • There is no requirement to cut the inner hedge margin; to optimise biodiversity, let this grow and manage for optimum hedge and wildlife wellbeing.
  • Maintain as much groundcover as possible at the base of the hedge as it is a valuable area for wildflowers, an excellent habitat for insects (in particular predators of crop and garden pests) and increases carbon sequestration by the hedge and associated soil.

Our final thoughts

When the Guidelines on Best Branchage Practice are diligently followed, the branchage could be seen as a surrogate for herbivores chomping their way through a grass and shrub habitat. Creating varying lengths of shrubs and grass, produces different microhabitats, encouraging biodiversity, as does good hedgerow management. It takes more time and requires diligence but Jersey Trees for Life and many Jersey farmers and land occupiers are putting “best practice” into action, helping to mitigate climate change and reverse biodiversity loss.

Times have changed since 1914 and we now understand that humankind has caused terrible harm to the natural world, inflicting severe consequences on ourselves. Managing the branchage for biodiversity gain is a small but significant step islanders can take to redress some of that harm whilst enhancing the beauty and enjoyment of our very precious banques and hedgerows.

Our thanks go to:

Anne Haden, Secretary of Société Jersiaise Botany Section and member of Branchage Action Group.

Chris Perkins, former Chair of Action for Wildlife and member of Branchage Action Group.

Piers Sangan, founder of Sangan Island Conservation and member of Branchage Action Group.

All Branchage Action Group members for their incredible work and for their booklet that is the source of most of this article’s information.

June 2024