Spring and summer brings the pure pale pink of the dog rose
, the fresh scent of hawthorn and elderflower, bright green and copper beech leaves, and the brilliant flash of butterfly wings. At the foot of the hedgerow grow buttercups and bluebells, primroses and campion, mallow and yellow archangel, brightening the shadows with delicate hues, while sticky cleavers
In autumn we find branches resplendent with berries and nuts, and amongst the thick trunks, fungi and seedpods raise their heads. As leaves shrivel and curl, small mammals scurry to gather a harvest that will see them through the coming months.
Now winter - sometimes under a blanket of snow or the lacey shawl of a haw frost, all appears silent, dead and still. But listen carefully and you will hear the twittering and fidgeting of birds puffed up against the cold, or the occasional hum of sleepy insects rousing in the warmth of midday winter sunshine.
A hedgerow is a long row of small trees, bushes and shrubs, either deliberately planted and woven, or, as in the case of ancient hedgerows, the remnants of cleared woodland. A well maintained hedgerow provides shelter, wood for tools and fires, and medicinal plants and food for people and their animals.
Hedgerows are such a familiar sight in the English countryside that they are often overlooked or taken for granted, but they are remarkable in that many are actually centuries old. The checkerboard pattern of fields that greets you as you descend down through the clouds to land at almost any airport in the kingdom is the result of many centuries of both wood-clearing, agriculture and careful planting. There is evidence that thorn hedges were first planted by the Romans to keep their livestock from straying. Hedges were also grown extensively by Anglo Saxons to mark boundaries and borders, but the main thrust of planting came later with The Enclosure Movements and changes in agricultural methods in the 13th, 15th and 18th centuries.
Most of the hedgerows ever planted remained in place until the middle of the 20th century. At this time, poor hedge management and the huge changes to farming methods brought about by the Common Agricultural Policy, caused the rapid and steady decline of these ancient structures. Small fields saw hedges ripped out to make vast open areas that could be farmed more efficiently. Habitats were destroyed and the balance of nature was disturbed to the extent that beneficial plants and animals were lost, resulting in an increase in the usage of herbicides and pesticides, which in turn destroyed more hedgerows. Mainly due to ignorance of the consequences, a vicious circle had begun, and it was turning ever faster.
The statistics for hedge loss over this period are horrifying. In 1955 there was an estimated 620,000 miles of hedgerow in Britain, but by 1993 there were only 236,000 miles left, and this was being lost at a rate of about 11,000 miles per year. By 1998 this loss dwindled to 4000 miles/year, but even this still an incredible amount of destruction in a country the size of Britain, a mere 840 miles from top to toe.
The economical and environmental value of such biodiversity was finally recognised by scientists and policy makers; eventually, in 1989, the government could no longer dismiss the evidence. The extent of damage, not only to the charming landscape but also to the ecology of the whole countryside, was too obvious to ignore. Subsidies and grants were given to farmers encouraging them to maintain their existing hedges, and to plant new ones where possible*. Things improved further, when, in 1997, The Hedgerow Regulations were introduced, making unauthorized destruction of hedgerows a criminal offence. This brought the plight of the hedgerow firmly to the public's attention, although many believe these laws are not strict enough, and are too little, too late.
*SgtP points out that farmers can now get paid to maintain/restore hedges. E.g. there is a " hedgerow restoration supplement" of £4 per metre.
Structure and maintenance
Shrubby trees such as hawthorn, spindle, beech, blackthorn and elm make up the backbone of the hedgerow. During hedge laying, young saplings are planted in rows, and when the stems are large enough, they are cut part-way through and bent over. New shoots soon emerge below the cut and the rest of the young tree is kept alive because of the thin strip of bark that remains attached. The shoots are progressively tied in or woven until the young hedge is thick and green. Plants such as blackberry, briar and honeysuckle emerge when birds take cover in branches and deposit seeds which quickly root in the damp hedgerow floor. Other wild flowers come in on the wind or the coats of animals. Once mature, hedges need to be maintained by regular pruning and coppicing, and sometimes selective replanting, or they would gradually decline or revert to strips of woodland.
It has been estimated that there is one new species of plant for every 100 years a hedgerow has been in existence. Whether or not that figure is correct, the sheer number of plants, insects and mammals living in and around the hedge illustrate the importance of the hedgerow as a unique habitat.
The hedgerow provides a safe environment for the whole gamut of wildlife, from worms to snails, from insects, spiders and small reptiles to amphibians, birds and mammals. A plethora of wild plants grow at its base. Many of these plants are essential components in the life cycle of beneficial insects. For example, Ladybirds lay their eggs on nettles, and ladybird larvae feed voraciously on aphids, thus protecting other plants from these little sap-suckers. The hapless farmer who has ploughed up his hedgerow needs to rely on insecticides to do this job for him; insecticides that may drift and cause further problems for the struggling ladybird population.
And so it goes on...
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow don't be alarmed now.
It's just a spring clean for the May-Queen.
Yes there are two paths you can go by.
But in the long run.
There's still time to change the road you're on.
Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven
It is generally accepted that new hedge laying has now outstripped the rate of hedge destruction, which is surely a good sign. However new hedges take a long time to mature and it could be many many years before a new hedge achieves the complexity of an ancient one, so those remaining need to be carefully maintained and protected. It is the responsiblity of everyone to make sure it happens.
Oh, it makes me wonder...