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This year, National Hedgerow Week starts on Monday 10th of October and runs through to the 17th. Celebrating its second year, this week-long appreciation of hedges aims to highlight just how important these often-overlooked wildlife havens are. And we need to appreciate them; despite being a quintessential part of the English countryside, hedgerows are disappearing at an alarming rate, with drastic consequences for wildlife and for us.
A Brief History of Hedgerows
Hedgerows are, of course, a manmade feature of the countryside. Far from being a recent addition to the landscape, though, they have been with us in some form since at least the Bronze Age. By about 4,000 years ago, with agriculture widely established across the British Isles, early farmers were leaving strips of cleared woodland to act as boundary markers. Some of these early hedges still exist today and the presence of woodland flowers such as the bluebell, dog violet and wood anemones betrays their woody origins. Some of these early hedges were on top of banks and stone walls.
Enclosure, Enclosure, Enclosure
The Romans began the process of planting new hedgerows. Much of this was undone, however, by the Saxons and then the Normans. They favoured an open field system that required less hedgerows. Three periods of hedgerow creation followed, beginning in the 13th century and continuing in the Tudor Age. The most famous period of enclosure peaked between 1750 and the early 1800s. A series of Acts of Parliament, known as the Enclosure Acts, led to the planting of thousands of miles of new hedgerows during this period. Although larger fields led to more efficient farming than the old strip system, with the unintentional bonus of prime wildlife habitat creation, there is a dark side to enclosure. Concentrating land rights into the hands of fewer people meant that commoners lost their traditional rights to the land and faced great hardship. Many migrated to towns and cities.
The last 80 years have seen ups and downs in our treatment of hedgerows. Food security fears stoked by the Second World War led to the post-war government paying farmers to remove their hedgerows in order to farm every inch of land. The need for bigger turning circles for ever larger machinery also played a part. Historians estimate that approximately 50% of our hedgerows were ripped out over the next half-century. Thankfully, in 1997 it became illegal to remove most non-residential hedgerows without permission from the local authority in England and Wales. There are still threats to our hedgerows, though. Mechanised flailing on an annual basis causes hedges to deteriorate in quality and results in gaps forming. Lack of any management at all also leads to issues as the feature becomes a line of separate trees rather than a dense and healthy hedge.
Why Are Hedges Important?
Hedgerows are incredibly important features of our countryside, as well as our gardens. One of their most crucial functions is to link different habitats together. They act as wildlife corridors through which creatures can travel safely from one territory to another, allowing them to find more food and potential mates. Without hedgerows, there is the potential for populations to become isolated and vulnerable to local extinction. As wildlife-friendly habitats become ever more fragmented, these links become even more important. They can also provide more permanent sanctuary in the form of seasonal or year-round homes for wildlife. Hedgerow loss is one possible factor for the huge decline in farmland bird species over the last 50 years. The removal of hedges reduced the number of nesting sites, cover from predators and some of their food sources.
Food is another vital aspect of our hedgerows. A large range of organisms forage in or over hedgerows, from bats and birds to insects and small terrestrial mammals. Older hedgerows tend to contain more plant species which in turn provides food for a bigger range of species, promoting biodiversity. Nuts, berries, leaves and nectar can all be harvested by different organisms at different times of year, such as birds fattening up for autumn migration or insects feeding on late flowering ivy. These species might then in turn become food for creatures further up in a food web. As mini woodlands, hedges are also important carbon stores and can reduce the threat of flooding.
The best hedges for wildlife are a thick and bushy mix of trees and shrubs. And the more species of these the better. These more diverse hedgerows are also usually the oldest. In the 1970s, Dr Max Hooper came up with a dating system for hedgerows that highlighted this correlation between age and diversity. The rough rule of thumb is that in a 30-metre stretch of hedgerow, each species of tree or shrub indicates 100 years of history. This means a stretch containing 3 species is roughly 300 years old. It’s not just about trees and shrubs, though. The basic structure supports a range of other plant species, all providing food for a variety of organisms. So, what plants can you expect to see making up a healthy hedgerow?
Hazel, with its distinctive catkins and toothed, oval leaves is a common hedgerow tree. Because of its flexible branches, it is often used in hedge laying, when new hedges are made or older ones maintained. Their catkins are one of the earliest signs of spring, appearing from February. Their nuts, meanwhile, are an important source of autumn food for dormice and squirrels.
The English oak is another common feature of older hedgerows. This species is extremely important for biodiversity as it supports more species than any other native tree, from bats and fungi to a huge number of insects along with many of our birds. It has easily recognisable lobed leaves and can be separated from our other native oak, the sessile oak, by looking at the leaves and acorns. English oaks have stems on their acorns but not their leaves, while it’s the opposite way round on sessile oaks.
Also known as ‘May’ because it usually flowers for a just a few weeks of that month, the hawthorn is a feature of many hedgerows. Unusually, its lobed leaves appear before its white or pink flowers. Its thorns meant that it was good for hedges keeping livestock in. In the autumn and winter, its berries, or ‘haws’, are a source of food for many birds and animals.
Like the hawthorn, blackthorn has long been popular in hedges as its dense, thorny nature means livestock can’t get through it. This density also provides security for birds nesting within its thick, shrubby body. Unlike May, though, its white flowers appear before its leaves in early spring. These are a vital source of nectar for insects before many other flowers bloom. In the autumn, its distinctive sloe fruit is popular with birds. They are also good for flavouring drinks like gin.
Elder flowers form characteristic flat, creamy-white clusters and have a strong scent. They are extremely popular with insects and some small mammals eat the flowers. At the end of the summer, elder produces lots of deep purple berries. These are edible by humans if cooked and were also used to dye Harris Tweed in the past.
This is a scrambling, climbing plant that uses bigger hedgerow shrubs and trees as a support. Its curved prickles grip surrounding plants as it climbs through a hedge. The dog rose has large flowers of pink or white and in the autumn produces small clusters of red fruits called hips. As well as being popular with birds and mammals, these have a high vitamin C content and can be used in jams and syrups.
Bramble, or blackberry, is probably the hedgerow plant many people are most familiar with due to its easy to identify and delicious to eat fruit. The berries provide food for humans, small mammals and birds, while the flowers are a good source of nectar for a range of insects. Like its relative the dog rose, it is a climber, using other plants for support as it grows through a hedge. Its dense, prickly nature makes it a secure refuge for birds and animals.
This small tree is a classic ancient wood indicator and when present in a hedgerow can hint at its age. It is also popular as an ornamental plant. It has broad three-lobed leaves and in spring flat clusters of white flowers. In autumn, bright red berries are another popular food source for many of our bird species, including winter visitors like redwings, fieldfares and the less frequent waxwing.
Another indicator of ancient woodland, this tree got its name from its use in making spindles for spinning wool. It has dense, hard wood. In the spring, tiny yellow-green flowers bloom, each with four petals. Its most distinctive feature, though, is its fruit. Bright pink lobed cases each contain an orange berry or seed. They look like nothing else, which is just as well because although they are popular with birds and mammals, they are toxic to us. Spindle leaves attract aphids in large numbers which in turn attracts a range of predators.
Although many gardeners hate ivy and are quick to remove it, it is extremely valuable to wildlife both as food and shelter. In hedgerows, it uses larger trees and shrubs for support. Contrary to popular belief, though, it doesn’t parasitise them or harm them in any way. Its dense, waxy, evergreen leaves provide cover for insects and roosting bats and birds all year round. Because it is late to flower and produce fruit in the autumn and winter, it is a vital food source for a host of animals when most other plants have gone over.
Honeysuckle is a climbing plant that weaves its way through hedgerows. Like so many hedgerow plants, it is extremely valuable to a range of creatures both as a food source and as cover. Its trumpet-shaped flowers are instantly recognisable. They produce more scent at night, attracting a range of pollinating moths, which in turn attract hunting bats. The nectar is also popular with butterflies and bees. Dormice eat the flowers, and a number of birds, including those feeding up for autumn migration, eat the berries.
Hedgerows might seem small strips of habitat, but they pack a huge punch. As vital corridors, they link habitats that would otherwise be isolated from each other, allowing animals to move safely over large distances. The best, most diverse hedgerows provide food and shelter for a large number of insects, birds, mammals and reptiles throughout the year. As mini woodlands, they capture carbon and prevent erosion.
Despite a halt to the levels of hedge removal promoted after the second world war, though, a sizeable proportion of our hedgerows are classed as in poor condition. Many of our rural hedgerows are flailed too harshly and too often. Some face the opposite problem and have no management at all, which brings its own problems. At a time when our wild spaces are under more threat than ever, it’s time to champion these wildlife havens and appreciate their continued importance.
For a much more detailed look at the history of our hedgerows, see this brilliant resource from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species.
If you are interested in planting your own hedgerow, the Wildlife Trusts‘ introduction is a good place to start.
It’s not just wildlife that likes to eat the abundant fruits of the hedgerow, humans do too. But it is vitally important that we forage responsibly, leaving plenty for birds and animals, as well as ensuring we don’t jeapardise the plant’s health or break any laws protecting them. It is also extremely important that you know what you are picking as there are some very toxic plants out there. This brilliant book not only covers plant ID, but also highlights endangered species as well as covering the law. And of course, details of how to use each species are included too.
John Wright’s A Natural History of the Hedgerow is a highly readable and in depth exploration of the natural and cultural history of this most English of features.
For a more general history of how we have shaped our countryside over millennia, Oliver Rackham’s book is a classic. Covering hedgerows, fields, roads, woods and more, this is a great introduction to the immense changes the countryside has undergone.