English Hedges

by frankbeswick

Hedges in England have a variety of characteristics and whether they can be ancient or modern can be told by the trained eye.

It's just a hedge, some might say, but hedges differ in the content of species found in them, and they differ in how they are made and how regular they are. You can examine hedges and learn something of the social history of a field by examining the hedges around it. Styles of hedge also differ according to which parts of the country they are found in, and there is a distinct style in the South Western counties of Devon and Cornwall, which might be quite ancient.

The image above shows traditional hedgelaying tools, courtesy of Iorentot81

Hedges Ancient and New

If you go to the South West of England, the counties of Devon and Cornwall, you will notice that the lanes are quite sunken in many places and the hedges grow on high banks. The banks seem to be the bulk of the field boundary, and sometimes the banks are stone faced. The hedge on top tends to be small. This style of hedge is found also in other south western areas, including parts of Pembrokeshire, Wales' most South Western county, and scholars think that it might be a very ancient style that has survived to shape the landscape. In northern parts of the country, the stony hills of the Pennines and Cumbria [where the Lake District is situated] hedges tend to be few as dry stone walls are the norm. But across most of England hedges are common and they shape the patchwork of fields that give the English landscape its distinct character. 

Scholars can confidently assert that some hedges are really ancient, possibly going back beyond the dawn of recorded history. One way of telling such hedges is that they grow on top of low banks, and it is thought that these hedges used to surround woodlands that were hedged against marauding deer. The woods are often gone, changed into fields, but the hedge remains as a relic of an ancient pedigree. Sometimes such ancient hedges were simply carved from the ancient wood and allowed to grow.When this happened people took the scrub at the edge of the wood and managed it into a hedge. One of the signs of hedges like this is that they contain wild, woodland flowers, such as anemones and bluebells. Some such derelict hedges appear in the landscape as lines of mature trees. What happened here is that the hedge was of a kind known as hedge with standard trees. Parkland owners or farmers cut down the hedge but left the trees, so you can trace the line of the hedge though it is gone.

One of the criteria by which the age of a hedge can be determined to a rough degree is the straightness or otherwise of it. Mediaeval hedges reflect the state of England at that period, a hotch potch of fields without clear pattern. The ancient hedges from this period are often curved, sometimes tracing an S pattern, sometimes a c along the winding English lanes, themselves ancient routes. In these ancient hedges there is a wide variety of species, often reflecting local woodland conditions, for people often went into the woods to dig up the  plants for the hedge. Later hedges from the period of enclosures, the late eighteenth century, are often in ruthlessly straight lines reflecting modernist rationalism  and contain either entirely hawthorn,or a mixture of hawthorn and blackthorn, a spiky plant well suited for hedging. Some earlier attempts at hedges formed of barberry [Berberis] foundered, for despite its savage spikes well capable of deterring intruders, it hosts a fungus inimical to wheat, so many barberry hedges were grubbed up to be replaced by hawthorn.

A more recent type of hedge has grown up besides walled fields, where the all has been lined by untrimmed vegetation. This is more common in Northern England, where stone walls are the norm. 

If some of you wonder why I have not discussed  Hooper's Rule, which attempts to assess the age of a hedge by counting the number of species in it, my refraining is because there is criticism of this rule, and even Hooper thought it at best a rule of thumb, so I believe that it misleads and should be abandoned.  


Traditional hedgelaying

Traditional hedgelayer
Traditional hedgelayer
Image courtesy of Chris Mann

Laying Hedges

If you were to walk around the Highgrove Estate in the beautiful South Western county of Gloucestershire on a Saturday afternoon you might find the heir to England's throne, Prince Charles, striding determinedly across the fields,  bearing in hand one of the tools that you espy in the thumbnail sketch above, a billhook. Now, centuries ago he might have been on his way to dispose of a rival to the throne, and you need not be worried that he is coming to dispose of a republican,  a wayward servant or uppity peasant. One of the ways he enjoys his Saturdays is to work on the estate, especially laying hedges the traditional way. So what is the traditional way that the prince enjoys so much that he is sometimes asked to judge hedgelaying competitions?

Study the picture above and you note that the branches seem to be laid nearly horizontally. There is a reason for this and a technique behind it, the technique being known as pleaching. This technique involves half cutting the stems of the bushes of the hedge so that they can be bent over, always  in the same direction, generally nearly horizontally. Through these bent stems are pushed stakes of whatever height the hedgelayer desires. 

The benefit is that the stems throw out branches that grow towards the light, growing upwards and entwining with the stakes, so the hedge is composed of horizontal but still growing branches, that can become quite thick, and newer upward growing branches that throw out side shoots, which entangle with the stakes. The result is a hedge quite difficult to break through. As the main stems have been laid horizontally the height of the hedge is easy to maintain, with just a little trimming to keep it at the desired height.

The reason for the use of this technique is that merely planting bushes is not sufficient to keep livestock in. Cattle can push their way through a domestic hedge, and pigs will grub and dig up anything shallowly planted, while sheep are small enough to squeeze through. Maintaining the older stems that are pleached to be horizontal allows for older roots systems to be maintained, and these are difficult to grub up, as they spread wide and go deep. The only problem is deer, which can leap over hedges, and so the height of the hedge needs to be raised if there is a deer problem.    

The Benefits of Hedges

The traditional appearance of England was a patchwork of fields separated by hedges, but after the Second World War the drive for food production led to certain farmers grubbing up hedges to make large, prairie style fields. This process was driven by people who understood economics but not ecology, and failed to see that hedges were essential in the preservation of the soil of this country. Fortunately, wiser minds have prevailed, and so hedgerows are being preserved and replanted, this time with a wider range of species than previously. 

One of the first signs that grubbing up hedges was a mistake was in the wide, flat lands of East Anglia, where agribusiness folk [I will not call them farmers]  bent on profit, but with limited knowledge of the landscape [and the stubborn refusal to see wisdom that characterizes these people] grubbed up field boundaries. The peaty soils began to disintegrate and we began to have dust storms. Soon the better minds began to draw comparison with the Dust Bowl of the United States and measures were taken to replace the hedges. 

What happens is that hedges protect the soil in several ways. They provide windbreaks, essential anywhere especially in places like East Anglia. The land there is so flat that the wind from the East sears across it with nothing to bar its progress, lifting soil in its path. The deeply ploughed soils are vulnerable to being blown away. Secondly the roots of hedges bind soil particles together, as do the roots of all trees. Thus they maintain soil in all fields with hedgerows.

But thirdly hedges are a reservoir of wildlife. For the agribusiness folk wildlife stole the crops, but ecologists pointed out that pests were eaten by the wildlife that often dwelt in hedges. The birds such as the tiny hedge-dwelling wren would flit out to eat insects. Hedgehogs eat insect pests. But hedges are sources of insect pollinators that farmers need to bring their crops to fruition. Nectar bearing plants in hedges allow bumble bees, pollinators a hundred times more effective than honeybees are, to thrive, and they will spread across the field pollinating crops.

Though I don't have much hedge space my apples are thriving because I make room for pollinating bees in my allotment, with lavender and borage that the bees love. This shows what can be done by pollinators on a farmer's fields. We need to treasure our hedgerows, for they  are the protectors of our soil, the source of fertility in what is a rich and fertile land, and they are a home to our fellow islanders, the other species with whom we share this land and who have a right to home, just as we do. 

Updated: 08/05/2015, frankbeswick
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blackspanielgallery on 08/06/2015

It would seem that with a design so old and reliable that taking them out would cause pause, and those so inclined would allow the hedges to remain. Yet, greed in using every foot has obviously proven folly in certain areas.

Well done.

frankbeswick on 08/06/2015

Yes, it is believed that some hedges were hacked out of the ancient wood, but I could not tell you which ones or any specific one. There are none round where I live. Unfortunately, local people don't know which ones. You would need an academic specialist on hedges to tell you, but I did point out that many hedges in Devon and Cornwall are possibly quite ancient. That's the area where the most ancient hedges will be found. The reason for this is that despite what many people say about English history, that the Saxons came in as invaders, many areas in the South West suffered no disturbance during that period and there has been continuity of population there for thousands of years. Generally areas on the English/Welsh borders might be the place to find really ancient hedges. In general across the lowlands of Britain farm boundaries have changed over the years and hedges felled and replanted,, which is why I think that the further west and South West of the country would be the place to find such ancient treasures.

The important thing about these very ancient hedges is that they are continuous in time with the wood, and they might have been cut out in Anglo-Saxon times, when woodland was being felled to make fields. Since then they have been trimmed and maintained so that only the wild flowers will reveal that they are ancient, though they will tend to have several species of tree in them.

The late Patrick Whitefield's book, How to Read a Landscape, says something about this. Patrick was my first Permaculture teacher, and he was a real expert on British land use.

Digby_Adams on 08/05/2015

So if I read your piece correctly, there are hedges, living hedges, that go back to the dawn of recorded history, thousands of years ago? WOW! I really want to see this.

WriterArtist on 08/05/2015

The demarcation of plots or garden areas could be a science, I never knew. I did not think before that hedges could be so beneficial, all I knew was they were there to beautify and mark the borders.

Our ancestors did provide a natural solution to prevent soil eradication. Instead of using concrete or stones, it was better to grow different plant species that could benefit the garden. Hope gardeners take the trouble of growing hedges employing traditional techniques.

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