On a field trip while studying in Ontario, a classmate of mine looked out at the rolling hills and said, “Looks like PEI.” I remember the view: a vast field of perfectly ploughed rows traced the slope, disappearing into the horizon. I could understand how she, a west-coaster, might see a resemblance, but from my local perspective this field looked in no way like those I’d grown up surrounded by.
What was it that made them so obviously different than the rolling hills of Prince Edward Island? The sheer scale. The field was absolutely massive. At least at this time, ten years ago now, you typically didn’t see this scale of agriculture on PEI. Instead, you saw many small fields separated by strips of white spruce and scattered shrubs.
Like a quilt made up of tiny parcels of forest, various crops and pasture, one of PEI’s most defining characteristics is its patchwork landscape.
Anytime I’m on a road trip and return to the Island, this strikes me. The moment the rocky red shoreline comes into view, I’m taken aback by the unique and remarkably defining character of the landscape. While tourism ads for PEI often boast about our white sandy beaches, golf courses and red dirt, without flashy banners the quilted landscape quietly enchants us. It calms our nerves. It makes us breath a long, relaxed sigh. It wraps its peaceful existence around us and forces us to slow down.
Hedgerows are the threads sowing this patchwork together.
Like a thread composed of interwoven fibers, a productive hedgerow is made up of various parts: overhanging tree canopy, thick shrub layers and herbaceous perennials. More than just a strip of trees, these landscape-defining features are ecosystems within themselves. They provide important habitat for wildlife and serve as crucial links to connect patches of forest together within a landscape matrix that is largely dominated by agriculture.
While historically hedgerows were created to keep livestock, today they are relics to a once entirely forest island. You could say they’re relics with cause. These vegetated strips prevent soil erosion, conserve water by capturing and infiltrating it, provide shelter from strong winds and filter out pollutants from the air and runoff.
What happens when the threads come loose? The fabric unravels.
Now when I drive through PEI, I notice a lot of these hedgerows have become scarcely visible. Sometimes it’s just some lumps of grass and a single tree that divide two fields. The pressure to grow bigger to keep pace with industrialized agriculture has led some farmers to expand their fields to the utmost, eliminating hedgerows altogether.
Imagine arriving on the island to see no patchwork at all, but rather a monotonous view of treeless expanses. One big field melding seamlessly into another. Even worse, imagine it in winter! What would come of those fantastic sculptures, with nothing there to capture the snow drifts? When it comes to losing our hedgerows, a lot is at stake.
Our environment unravels.
According to an article from PEI Government website, the percentage of forested areas on PEI continues to decline. In 1700, approximately 98% of the island was covered in forest. Today, as little as 43.9 percent remains for wildlife, scattered in segregated patches.
Without hedgerows, many forest-dwelling animals cannot get from one patch to the next. This is no different than if something took away a main road you use to get to work. Without a feasible means to get from point A to point B, your livelihood would suffer. Losing hedgerows means putting greater strain on our wildlife and saying goodbye to one of our best tactics for conserving water and controlling pesticide runoff.
Our industry unravels.
Tourism and agriculture will surely pay a price if hedgerows continue to disappear. The quaint patchwork will morph into an oversimplified blanket of land; one that lacks the charm that seduces so many visitors. Without hedgerows, agricultural fields will be far more prone to soil erosion. Losing the long bands of ecosystems will decrease habitat for pollinators we absolutely need to pollinate crops and other fruiting plants. During the fierce weather we now see due to global-storming, these fields will have little protection from strong winds and flash floods.
Our cultural identity unravels.
The character of our landscape shapes our cultural identity. It shapes the kind of jobs we have, activities we do, food we eat and so on. When we lose an important feature of our landscape character, it’s not far-fetched to believe this loss could impact our cultural identity.
But at a deeper level, a shift in the character of the landscape can impact how we feel about it. There’s a word for this. It’s called topophilia and it describes the bond between a person and his or her place. For me, this is perhaps the most threatening loss associated with disappearing hedgerows. Growing up here, I feel intrinsically connected to the land. I love the peace and privacy I feel standing in a field framed by trees. To see the land shift into something much less recognizable would be heartbreaking.
How can you help stitch this fabric back together?
If you own land, encourage and allow hedgerows to exist. For some tips on growing hedgerows, check out this article from MacPhail woodlots or look into the hedgerow program offered through the provincial government. What you give, you will get back tenfold. Even a backyard hedge within the interwoven landscape of suburbia contributes to creating important habitat for small animals and pollinators. Every little bit counts.
Observe, observe, observe. Feed your inner topophilia. I know it may sound a little ‘hippy woo-woo’ but I truly believe that our collective conscious as a society can have a huge impact on how we first perceive and then treat our land. Shifting your perspective to one that is even more appreciative and observant of your surroundings is an important first step in shifting the way the land is treated as a whole.
Spread the word. Share this post. Tell your neighbour, your grandmother, your bf, your coworkers... Point out the importance of hedgerows and their decline. After all, when it comes to sowing seeds of thought, we’re all skilled seamstresses.