'Protect hidden green jewels' Branching out: Keeping track of wildlife in 'secret' lane.
A team of Midland scientists hopes vital research will help protect some of Britain's richest and most vulnerable wildlife habitats from being swallowed up by developers.
Ecologists at Staffordshire University are calling for ancient green lanes, which are home to an array of wildlife, to be given official recognition so that they are protected.
The researchers looked at a variety of green lanes across the country and found they had two to four times as many butterflies and more than a quarter more species of plants - even more than the normal hedgerows.
The lanes are bounded on both sides by hedges, dry-stone walls or grassy banks and often sunk below field level.
Ecologist John Dover, from the School of Sciences at the university, believes the lanes act as biodiversity reservoirs in farmland as they are protected by the hedges or walls from being sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.
'They are really worthy of a conservation status but at the moment they have no special protection,' he said.
'They are invisible in land planning terms and no-one has specific responsibility for them.
'It is a worry with the foot and mouth crisis that smaller farmers may sell up and the land will then be bought by larger firms who want bigger fields and therefore get rid of the surrounding hedgerows and green lanes.'
During the research ecologists found an array of butterflies from the Common Blue, which is becoming less common throughout Britain, the Orange Tip, Painted Lady and Meadow Brown.
Butterflies are often seen as excellent indicators of wildlife in an area and now further studies are under way to discover bird species in the enticing habitat.
Some of the lanes are more than 2,000 years old and it is estimated there are around 5,000 miles of them across Britain.
But Mr Dover fears they could be threatened not only from development but also from leisure activities such as off-road driving and scramble biking as well as use by farmers with tractors or herds of cattle.
Mr Dover said: 'Anything that moves the lanes away from a grassy base could be a threat, such as cattle churning them up or people tarmacing them for easier access. But we would not want to stop people from using them, because trees would take over and the lanes would become linear woodlands, losing their special value. What we would like to see is wise use of these beautiful secret places.'
The research, which dubbed the lanes as jewels of biodiversity, will be welcomed by wildlife groups who have seen a dramatic drop in butterfly numbers over the last 200 years.
The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland, published earlier this year, blamed human activity for the drop in numbers, with loss of habitat and changes in farming practices both criticised for the downturn.
It showed half of Britain's butterfly species has declined substantially in the past 200 years, with five varieties becoming extinct.
The report on the green lanes will be presented to the International Association for Landscape Ecology at its conference Hedgerows of the World in Birmingham in September.
Ecologist John Dover strolling along a green lane in the village of Beoley near Redditch