The History of Hedgerows

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The first hedgerows were merely strips of woodland marking the boundaries of fields carved out of the landscape by Bronze Age farmers. The oldest remaining hedge boundaries today are to be found in Cornwall. They are stone-faced earth banks often with vegetation growing at the top. They can be up to 4,000 years old.

New hedges were often planted in Roman times and the practice continued through the following centuries to some degree. But The Enclosures Acts implemented between 1750 and 1850 prompted a great surge in hedge planting by powerful landowners in their avid quest for land acquisition and desire to mark boundaries. This helped to create the patchwork of fields we so associate with the English countryside.

The beginning of the hedge losses started in the Napoleonic Wars when a besieged Britain struggled to become self-sufficient in food or face starvation; as much land as possible had to be used for growing crops. This situation was repeated in the Second World War when surrounding seas became dangerous for ships carrying imported goods.

Then from the end of the war until the early 1960s, about 8,000km of hedges were lost. Since 1930, 97% of wild flower meadows have too been lost too.

Now it seems that the policy to enlarge fields by removing hedges in order to accommodate modern agricultural vehicles was too far-reaching. After the Environment Act 1995, grants were available to plant hedgerows again, and the act also prevents the removal of important ones.

The most ancient hedgerows incorporate the largest ranges of plant life which in turn can support the widest diversity of animal life that relies on hedges for survival. Bushy hedges with the occasional tall tree create the best shelter for birds and animals. Hedgerow flowers, fruit and nuts provide rich food sources for birds, mammals and insects.

Some hedgerows that exist today were deliberately planted to act as boundaries or to keep livestock contained. Others were naturally produced as birds perching on fences would deposit seeds from berries they had eaten. These seeds would produce trees or bushes that would be left undisturbed by farm machinery passing by on the surrounding fields.

Rural hedges afford protection for farm livestock in spells of cold and wet weather and act as corridors for wild animals; as travelling under the canopy gives them protection from predators. Hedges also protect soil from wind erosion.

Farmers are now encouraged to leave wildlife margins at the sides of their fields. These will create safe harbours and food sources for wildlife and help to keep the eco-system in a healthy balance.

The gardens in Britain add up to about one million acres, offering a huge opportunity to create a network of wildlife havens. Hedges in a suburban setting can be as useful as rural ones if the plants in them are carefully selected.

Plants need to be chosen according to a site’s soil type and position. But just one addition of a nectar producing plant in every garden would make an enormous difference in adding to the network of wildlife corridors.

Now that the ancient woodlands have largely disappeared, hedges are the last refuge for some of our native small mammals and birds.

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