Tuesday, 8 May 2012
The English landscape with its patchwork of fields divided by green hedges is so deep-rooted in our consciousness that it's tempting to think that it's always been like this. How could farming have taken place any other way?
But only 200 years ago the pattern over large parts of the country was much different. Around the village were small fields with hedges to keep stock near to the farm. But beyond that lay large "open-fields" with no hedgerows. The land was divided up into strips and each farmer would cultivate a number of strips scattered around the open-field. As you can imagine this was an inefficient way to farm the land and with the advent of even the earliest machinery became nigh on impossible. So the land was re-parcelled into fields with hedgerows and farms moved out from the villages to where their allocation of land happened to be.
This re-allocation of land required an act of parliament for each village. These were known as The Enclosure Acts and gave rise to many of the hedges which we have today (and many more which have disappeared since). Some land was never enclosed and moved from the old open fields to large modern fields without hedges ever being planted. Such a landscape, around the village of Bygrave, is shown above.
But old hedges do exist, very old hedges in some cases. Of course it's not the same bushes and trees that formed the original hedge. Or is it? Some hedgerow plants spread by sending up suckers from their roots, so genetically at least it's the same bush or tree. If these "new" plants spring up in the field they'll be removed by ploughing but if they come up in the hedge-line they'll still be there.
Here's a piece of modern mysticism, by which I mean something which has been discovered by man, is held to be generally true, but nobody can explain exactly why it works. By studying lots of hedges whose date was known from old maps and documents Max Hooper established that old hedges contained more species of hedgerow plants than new ones. Further investigations revealed that if you count the number of tree and shrub species in a 30 yard stretch of hedge then that number is equal to the age of the hedge in centuries. This apparently works over large parts of the country regardless of climate, soil-type or the whims of the original planter of the hedge.
When you stop to think about it it's hardly surprising that hedges of perhaps 1,000 years old are still in existence. After all until recently there was no pressure on the land and no big machinery that could only operate in large fields. Furthermore hedges were a valuable resource: they supplied firewood, wild berries, hops, fruit, timber and so on, as well as marking boundaries and keeping the stock in. Anyone destroying a hedge would upset a lot of his neighbours.
Of course maintaining hedges meant a lot of work and unsurprisingly if you want to see a well-maintained hedge in this day and age you'll have to know where to look. How about the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge?........
....or else on an estate managed by the National Trust ....
Hedge-laying, or "plashing" as it's sometimes called, is extremely labour-intensive and even in its heyday could only be completed on a rotation. This was wonderful for the wildlife as you get more berries and fruit when the hedge is left for a few years in between each tidy-up. And remember much of the wildlife was also a resource in those days. Nowadays with mechanical flails the hedge can quickly be transformed into this....
Not very pretty is it? But despair ye not, a lot of new hedge planting is also taking place in an attempt to replace some of what's been lost. And where this is happening the wildlife is making a return too.