Farmers and ecologists replant hedges to save birds

Freycenet-la-Tour (Haute-Loire)

Knees on the ground, hands in the earth, Ethan is concentrating on the shrub he is planting. The teenager tamps the earth, checks that the roots are firmly planted, waters. Around him, other little hands are busy. One after the other, the young plants line up: wild pear, rosehip, blackcurrant, gooseberry, hawthorn, white service tree. On the bare trunks, the buds are still waiting for the right moment to hatch. We alternate a low bush and a tree that will grow tall »describes Sébastien Nottelet, the coordinator for the day, project manager at the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO) of Haute-Loire. Having both low and high density will allow the hedge to act as a windbreak. »

In this mid-April, the sun finally shines on the Haute-Loire, a light wind refreshes its ardor, a few clouds punctuate the blue sky. In the middle of the tree-lined meadows, five young people aged 16 to 17 are present, along with their leaders. In school dropouts, they are part of a specific youth support program [1]. On the program, participation in a hedge planting project organized by the LPO. Seventy trees, one tree per meter, must be planted on the edge of the municipal orchard and vegetable garden of Freycenet-la-Tour.

The mulching technique consists of covering the soil with organic, mineral or plastic materials to nourish and protect it. © Moran Kerinec / Reporterre

Some residents of the town also came to lend a hand. Manon Mouret, first assistant, grabs a plant: Between the roots and the future trunk, you have the collar. When you plant, it should be just level with the ground. »

Initially, when I was told “land, trees”, I felt like it was going to be hard »comments Léa, 17 years old. But, to save the animals, I am always present. » She retained the main objective of the operation: replanting hedges helps to protect the shrikes.

Sébastien Nottelet, project manager at the Haute-Loire Bird Protection League, details how to plant the shrubs. © Moran Kerinec / Reporterre

There has been a sharp decline in populations since the 1960s, since agriculture began to intensify », deplores Sébastien Nottelet. The shrike particularly likes environments alternating hedges, groves and flowery meadows: it nests in trees, and perches on the edge of open spaces to hunt insects and voles. Measuring between 17 and 26 cm depending on the species, a black mask over the eyes, the curved beak, the bird looks like a small raptor. And a striking habit: it impales its prey on the thorns of trees. A way to be able to cut them up more easily, or to build up a kind of pantry called larder ». It is also a migrant that only comes to our latitudes to nest in the spring, except for the gray shrike, which is also present in winter.

But the disappearance of the hedges and trees of the meadows, and the insects on which it feeds, have made it an increasingly rare bird in France. Six species were present until recently in metropolitan France [2]. They are only five since last year. The rose-breasted shrike (Lanius minor), no longer nests with us. Next on the list might be the gray shrike (Lanius excubitor), listed as endangered on the French Red List of Threatened Species. The national action plan for shrikes counted just over 1,000 pairs of this species in 2021. 85 % of them live in the Massif Central.

A few residents of Freycenet-la-Tour came to lend a hand on the site. © Moran Kerinec / Reporterre

The Aura region is therefore on the front line for the preservation of shrikes. The LPO Auvergne Rhône-Alpes concentrates its action on the three species present on its territory: gray shrike, red-headed (lanius senator) and flayer (lanius collurio). The latter is not yet considered threatened. Her sisters are less fit: The gray shrike and the red-headed shrike suffer from a drastic reduction in their numbers, as well as a worrying contraction of their ranges »explains the LPO. The gray shrike is almost only found in the Massif Central, while nesting in almost all of France ». As for the red-headed shrike, we observe a contraction towards the southeast that has been going on for about a century, with a clear acceleration since the 1960s. »

Dialogue with farmers

In an attempt to stem the decline, the LPO Auvergne-Rhône Alpes has a whole programme, first with farmers. Limit plastic waste, which, carried into the nests, strangles the chicks ; reduce animal pest control treatments because they are found in cow dung, it kills the insects that eat these dung, and therefore it makes less prey for the shrikes »says Sébastien Nottelet ; to favor diverse meadows in terms of their flora, therefore a diversity of insects, therefore a greater quantity of food for birds », he continues. And above all, plant trees and hedges in the fields, an essential habitat for them.

Feet in the water, Doniel fills the watering cans. © Moran Kerinec / Reporterre

The LPO contacts farmers and municipalities, provides the trees free of charge, offers species adapted to each case, and organizes the site if the farmer does not plant himself. Here is how the municipality of Freycenet-la-Tour requested it. Around us, the landscape still seems relatively preserved, the hedgerows numerous. But farmers see the hedge as a constraint, because it must be maintained »notes Manon Mouret, first deputy of the commune. Here, we are quite protected, but that could quickly change. It is important to inform everyone [de l’intérêt des haies]. »

The LPO skilfully highlights the agronomic interest of hedges: windbreaks, shade for animals, fight against soil erosion, shelter for birds of prey and other predatory voles that invade fields… The shrike is a “umbrella species” »explains Sébastien Nottelet. Conservation measures are put in place, which benefit many other species that live in these agricultural grassland landscapes. This is a good pretext for working more globally for the biodiversity of agricultural environments. »

70 trees, one per meter, must be planted on the edge of the municipal orchard and vegetable garden of Freycenet-la-Tour. © Moran Kerinec / Reporterre

Hedges are a shelter, a habitat, or a place of movement safe from predators for many animals. The naturalist lists the birds: European goldfinch, yellowhammer, melodious linnet, serin cini. All are in decline », he says. Mammals: hedgehog, weasels, ermine. Reptiles: asp viper, green lizard. But also most species of amphibians that overwinter in the hedge or associated low walls, such as the common toad, the spotted salamander. As for the biggest birds, there is also the little owl, an owl that can nest in old hedges. »

If we do not maintain them, they can disappear »

So many species put in difficulty by the disappearance of the hedges. We went from 2 million kilometers of hurdles at the start of the XXᵉ century at 566,000 kilometers in 2006, notes a summary study. That is a reduction of 70 %. The heyday of clearing took place in the 1960s to 1980s. This has since slowed down, and the uprooting of hedges is now strictly supervised. But there is destruction without authorization, urbanization, and an aging of the hedges »notes Sébastien Nottelet. If we don’t replant the trees, if we don’t maintain them, they can disappear. » He therefore participates modestly in this painstaking work. Since 2020, the LPO has planted 4.2 kilometers of hedges in Haute-Loire in twenty different places. And we can’t meet all the demands »he observes.

After being planted, the shrubs are stabilized using a substrate of straw and earth. © Moran Kerinec / Reporterre

I didn’t think a hedge could be so important », recognizes Lea. Planting is progressing quickly. A second line is started at the edge of the vegetable garden. The motivation of young people is weakening. It’s heckling, it’s teasing. Teamwork is what we love ! » laughs Doniel, dressed in a firecracker blue work suit. The teenager takes matters into his own hands, pulls the tarp to prevent the weeds from growing at the foot of the young trees. This time, willows are planted: we are on the edge of a stream. I like because I like plantations, green spaces », he rejoices. His comrade Damien, nonchalantly leaning on a spade, watches him work.

The heads are raised, contemplate the work accomplished. The shoots are still stunted. You will have to come back to see when it has grown », offers Manon Mouret to the young band. Before being able to observe shrikes there, patience is necessary: It takes four to five years to see the first effects of hedges, and ten to fifteen years for them to fulfill all their ecological functions. »says Sébastien Nottelet.

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