Although the importance of hedgerows for sustainable agriculture and conservation of rural biodiversity is increasingly being recognized, obtaining insight into the spatial and temporal dynamics of hedgerow networks remains an important challenge for landscape ecologists, with the key factors driving changes in rural landscape structure especially deserving further attention. The present study analyses the long-term history of a hedgerow network landscape in Flanders, Belgium. A detailed reconstruction of the hedgerow network is made at five points in time, starting at the end of the 18th century until present, for 367 distinct 400 m × 400 m samples. Whilst hedgerows were mainly concentrated around historical village centres and within valleys at the end of 18th century, the network expanded progressively during the 19th century. In the 20th century, the hedgerow network degraded strongly, with hedgerow density and connectivity declining and mesh-size heterogeneity and network fragmentation increasing, although the network recovered slightly during the 1990s. Different trajectories of change in hedgerow network structure were observed depending on landscape position, with both topography and village proximity significantly affecting hedgerow network dynamics. The present network structure was mainly governed by land use, with highly developed networks being predominantly associated with pasture. Three main conclusions arise from the results of this study. First, the role of land use and landscape position as basic factors steering hedgerow network dynamics at the landscape scale is demonstrated. Second, the long-term perspective of the study enabled insight into the poorly known expansion phase of hedgerow networks, linked mainly with the development of small-scale labour-intensive agriculture. Finally, the findings confirm the large-scale degradation of linear semi-natural habitats in European agricultural landscapes during most of the 20th century, and indicate that a pro-active rural policy can halt and even reverse this process. © 2005 Foundation for Environmental Conservation.
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