There is a widely held assumption that the hedgerows that criss-cross Britain, parcelling up the countryside into the unmistakable network of green and pleasant fields, are all relatively recent, deliberately planted fixtures. They are not. The misconception stems from the belief that every hedgerow is a consequence of the land enclosures that took place from the 1600s until the outbreak of the first world war. The enclosures – or as they were known at the time, “inclosures” – were a series of acts of parliament that removed the rights of use of the peasantry over common land and granted legal property rights to landlords.
The Enclosure Acts have been held responsible for huge social changes, such as the creation of an impoverished working class, which – fenced off the land that would have provided livestock with grazing – headed for the smoggy factories of the industrial revolution.
The acts have also been credited with the very shape of the British countryside, due to the fencing and hedging of enclosed land. It is true it led to new hedge boundaries being planted, but the history of the hedgerow is much older.
Documentary evidence in the form of land deeds and tithe maps shows that many hedges are at least 1,000 years old. Some probably date back to the Bronze Age, possibly even earlier.
Of the 450,000km of hedgerows in the UK, about 190,000km are believed to be ancient. While our ancestors may have deliberately planted some of these, many are simply the result of woodland cleared to create small fields for crops or livestock, a remnant row of trees and shrubs retained as a stock-proof boundary.
Others have formed as a result of seedlings taking hold at the unfarmed borders of fields – out of reach of ploughs and scythes – along the sides of ditches, or on the fringes of ponds and streams. On one side of the wonderfully named Creephedge Lane, near South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, there is, indeed, a creeping hedge.
Plants of Prunus spinosa (blackthorn or sloe) have found a niche on the deep sides of an old swale (field ditch) that weaves along one side of the lane. Blackthorn colonises by means of running roots, and so, protected by the banks of the swale, it has crept for several decades along the ditch until now, where it forms an almost continuous and near impenetrable mass.
Long before the enclosures, there was a tradition of adding fruiting trees to planted hedgerows, which turned a practical stock-proof boundary into a linear orchard with apple, damson, bullace, crab apple and pear. Often the line of a ditch follows an ancient landscape feature – the route of a natural spring, or a spot where the ground is hard, rocky, and difficult to cultivate and farm, but good enough for wild shrubs to take hold. Once woody plants have a foothold, climbing plants like honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) and old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba) have the framework they need to thrive, further adding to the biological complexity of the hedge.
Our ancestors valued hedges as stock boundaries and providers of shelter, but also for what they could use them for. The wood of Euonymus europaeus, known as spindle, is hard and straight, making it ideal for whittling into a point and using as a wool-working tool (spindle has stuck as a common name to this day). Hedges provided wood both for burning and crafting into tools and walking sticks. In addition, they supplied nuts in the autumn and berries in the summer.
The misconception that hedgerows are new and man-made hasn’t helped in their preservation. The belief that these are comparatively recent and artificial creations may have devalued their ecological currency and made it all too easy for them to be removed in the name of agricultural efficiency and the reclamation of marginal land for farming and development.
Between the second world war and the early 1990s, 121,000km of hedgerow was removed – grubbed up and torn from the ground. The adage of “you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone” could have been written for hedgerows as much as for long-lost loves.
In parts of East Anglia, where arable crops dominate, field sizes were maximised to increase the available cropping area and enable large-scale sowing and harvesting machinery to be used. In the same fields graced by the creeping hedge of Creephedge Lane, the practice in the 1950s was to use surplus TNT to blow trees and hedges from the ground, resulting in one local farmer earning the sobriquet of “Dynamite Dick”.
Sentinel trees, usually oaks, isolated and forlorn in the middle of a vast cornfield, are often all that remain of the route of an old hedgerow. Even so, in some of the supersized fields the hedgerow ghosts can still just about be seen: a cleft or bump in the land, a slight discolouration in the soil when under the plough.
The role of hedgerows is far from simply that of a field boundary. They are part of the historical fabric of the countryside, defining the shape of the land as readily as the streets of an ancient city. And they are vital to maintain biodiversity. Hedgerows connect disparate habitats like railway lines between stations. In areas where woodland has been squeezed out of the landscape and the land intensively managed with chemical feeds and pesticides, the hedge acts as a surrogate, linear wood, providing a bastion for woodland animal species.
The plants within them provide food and shelter for the animals and a safe haven from predators, so when a hedge is removed, the effects are more than aesthetic. The demise of once common bird species such as the hedge sparrow, linnet and song thrush is at least in part attributable to the decline of hedges. There are bat species, such as the greater horseshoe, that use them to get to their feeding grounds, and when these navigational aids are removed bats can become disorientated and starve to death.
The diversity of plant species usually increases with age, as does the complexity of the habitat they offer wildlife. The generally agreed field method for dating a hedge – put forward by Dr Max Hooper in his 1974 book Hedges – is to count the number of species within 30 yards, the result being roughly equivalent to the age of the hedge in centuries.
Caveats apply because recently planted hedges are often deliberately “species-rich” and can date much older than they are, while during the enclosures hedges solely comprising hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) were often planted.
In livestock farming areas, hedges were laid to create a dense stock-proof barrier. At its best, hedge-laying is an art form. The technique involves slicing through the stems of the component plants almost all the way through, so they can be laid over at about 45 degrees to the ground. Stakes are driven in and sometimes long, flexible stems of willow are bound together to connect the stakes. The brash wood trimmed off the plants is added back to the hedge to make it more stock-proof.
Laying hedges almost died out in the postwar period but has survived thanks to a rising interest in crafts. If a newly laid hedge is a work of art, a really old one is a living marvel.
We should care about hedges for their historical, cultural and wildlife significance, and for what they can offer us today and in future.
Hedges help stabilise soil and reduce erosion – significant in heavily cultivated arable land – and ameliorate the effects of flooding. They improve air quality locally and filter pollution. Hedgerows are the British countryside in microcosm and no more should be allowed to fall.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries, London