When I moved to Britain as a teenager, hedgerows were something I resented. Where I had grown up in Madagascar and Kenya, once you were out of the town you could roam freely across the landscape. In England, a walk in the countryside consists of navigating endless zig-zags from one parcel of land to another, because everything is chopped up into discreet fields with hedgerows.
To be honest, I found this restrictive and unwelcoming at first, a constant reminder that every inch of the landscape was owned by somebody and you only had the right to walk in straight lines across it. Heavily domesticated Hertfordshire didn’t offer the freedom and wild open space that had fed my soul (though I soon compensated for this by discovering urban exploration and the joys of trespassing, which is another story.)
Largely alien to the rest of the world, the hedgerow is a defining feature of the British landscape. There are 700,000 kilometers of hedge in the UK. It takes different forms in different regions, with traditional techniques for creating them. In Cornwall, where I was last week, they have a stone wall in the middle – long buried in moss, climbers and grasses, but unforgiving if you pull too close in your car while trying to squeeze past oncoming traffic in a narrow lane. Elsewhere they might have an earth bank underneath, and where I live they take the most common form of closely planted shrubs and small trees.
Essentially, what they have in common is that a hedge is a boundary made of plants rather than fencing or walls. There’s usually some elder or hawthorn providing some height, brambles and climbing roses for thorny deterrence, and a leafy host of wildflowers, grasses and smaller shrubs at the base. Together they make a two-metre wide edge, with stiles or gates for access.
Many are older, but a lot of these boundaries date from the enclosures, a centuries-long process of land privatization and exclusion that began in the 1300s and ended with the final seizing of commons land in the 1700s. In that sense my teenage instincts weren’t wrong, and the partitioning of the countryside in this way is partly a legacy of disposession. In his magnificent A Natural History of the Hedgerow, John Wright dates just under half of hedges from the period of enclosure.
The enclosures marked the end of subsistence farming in Britain, and the sweeping away of the old traditional manorial land patterns. A second re-shaping has occured since the Second World War, as many hedgerows have been dug up to expand field sizes and make space for mechanised farming. That’s led to a 50% loss in hedgerow habitats, and that is significant. Hedgerows are home to 80% of woodland birds and half of mammals. They support some 2,000 different species in total, many of which are in decline.
Because they host so much wildlife today, hedgerows are described as “the UK’s largest priority habitat” by the Woodland Trust. There’s something rather sad about that. One of our highest priority habitats is literally the edge bit of the land used by us humans. While I agree with the general idea of conserving hedgerows for the benefit of wildlife, I can’t help but think that we could do a whole lot better than that. How about rewilding more of the space in-between, rather than packing wildlife into narrow corridors in between fields?
Perhaps the coming decades will write a new chapter into the history of hedgerows. I hope so, because they are significant from a climate change perspective. Trees get all the glory when it comes to carbon capture, but a good hedge is a serious carbon sink. The government’s net zero plans call for 200,000 km of new hedges. Hopefully that will be part of a rewilding agenda rather than further enclosures, with old hedgerows absorbed into new forests. And perhaps, in a couple more centuries, we’ll have created enough new wildlife habitat that we can hold hedgerows more lightly, and roam more freely across the landscape again.
- This post was inspired by National Hedgerow Week, which was actually last week. Lots of celebratory information and folklore to enjoy on their site.