Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Hedgerow History

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.

Take care.


  1. What an interesting post John - I once read a book on this subject and found it fascinating.
    We have some old hedges, in addition to our stone walls (a feature of the Dales as I am sure you know) and I once did a study of the different plants - there was spindle, holly, hawthorne and blackthorne in abundance - some field maple, some wild gooseberry plus bits of various other things. Fascinating.

  2. Wonderfully informative post John. There are still some fields near where my mum lives, at Laxton in Nottinghamshire, that are still marked out in strips like they used to be.

    1. I've heard about Laxton but never visited. I think it's the only open field system left now.

  3. Very interesting about a subject not to common here in the States. The only hedges I've seen are ornamental hedges lining people's front yards. I like the part about estimating the age but the number of different plant species. Hmmm...

  4. A wonderful piece of human ecology/anthropology, John. It stands to reason that the number of species in a hedge would be correlated with age, but I'd like to see the stats that show the number of species in any 30-yard stretch is equal to the age of the patch in centuries. There are a bunch of variables involved there, and that raises one eyebrow. Jim

  5. Hedgerows are very much a part of your landscape John but I never see them in my corner of the world ... What a pity!

  6. Always worth a look at the poetry of John Clare who as a farm labourer at the time of enclosure was devastated by the work he had to do in planting new hedges to fence off the open fields he loved from his days as a bird scaring boy.

  7. A very interesting post. The view in pic.3 is really lovely. Years ago in Quebec, along the St. Lawrence River, the farms were long and narrow so that each farm would have access to the river which was the principal means of transportation. The French people who lived on them also liked to be relatively close to their neighbours as they were a gregarious lot. The Irish who settled north of Montreal in the Laurentians had to contend with terribly sparse soil and they carved out fields wherever the landscape allowed. In Eastern Ontario, the Scots built their houses in the middle of their large square farms so that they had easy access to their fields. I guess work trumped socializing.

  8. The European Common Agricultural policy (CAP) is to blame for all this John. One time we had nice hedgerows which dependant on which county you lived in varied in density. Then the CAP paid Farmers to uproot their hedges, then years later they a paid them to replant them. Someone's having a laugh.

  9. Old hedgerows are fascinating places and can tell you a great deal if you know how to read them - I don't but am trying to learn. We have some ancient ones round here and they have so many kinds of trees and wildflowers woven in among them. I've said before that I love to see a properly laid hedge and loathe seeing the wreckage left behind by the flails which are usually used at exactly the wrong time of year! Bring back the old country skills of hedging and ditching say I - both wildlife and the landscape would benefit.

  10. Great post, John! I'd love to establish hedgerows on my natural area preserve here in the eastern United States to provide wildlife habitat, but our hedgerows are overwhelmed by invasive vines almost overnight. Birds carry the seeds of Japanese honeysuckle, Asian bittersweet, mile-a-minute vine, porcelain-berry, and multiflora rose into the hedgerows and they quickly become blanketed with vines. The birds that use the hedgerows may not care, but the human aesthetics deteriorate rapidly and the vines will eventually kill the underlying hedges. I've given up.

  11. John,
    This post set me thinking about the hedgerows of New England farming country as I knew it growing up in the 1950's. A hedgerow commonly separated a farmer's field from that of his neighbor and sometimes divided grazing land from 'mowing' land. Hedgerows had largely disappeared by 1960--in part, I suspect, because many of them contained elm trees which were succumbing to Dutch Elm Disease. There were shorter, shrubbier plants involved, but these were snaked out also. Likewise the hedges alongside country dirt roads were regularly attacked by huge machines which left behind mangled raw stumps.
    I don't recall ever reading that hedges were laid and maintained in the same way of English hdeging--it was more [I think] a matter of letting native species grow along a boundary.


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