Heroes of our hedgerows
CPRE Volunteer and blogger Lorna Mann writes for us about her “Heroes of our hedgerows”.
Natural treasures are the stitchery of our landscape where we ramble through patchwork fields wishing to learn the lore of hedgerows. Here, entangled in these magical boundaries, we discover ancient flora with roots that penetrate the bones of our heritage.
These are the heroes of our hedgerow that lay dormant in the depths of winter but burst forth when the sap rises, the first being the blackthorn, with delicate flowers that bloom before it is in leaf, a wayside beauty here in our Somersetshire.
As each month passes, more beauties are revealed, from the dusky pink dog roses with their heavenly musk to the long-lived crab apple, a symbol of fertility and true forager’s delight bringing strength and security to our network of hedgerows.
No hedgerow tale is complete without mention of its true Queen, the hawthorn. Although her abundance of milky white flowers are no longer in synergy with our Gregorian calendar, it is still known as the May-Tree, and one whose mythology enthrals.
Take the old drovers way to espy cow parsley froth in the hedgerow’s company and smell heavenly honeysuckle scrambling through the boughs.
For those of us who have time to stop and rest awhile, nestled among the hedge bank, we may uncover our lesser-known heroes. Distinctive flowers of rose-red campion that are a favourite with our pollinators, and in abundance there are cleavers known to us locally as ‘sticky backs’ and held in the highest regard among children for their tenacious capabilities.
Some hedgerow familiars are ones we do not always look fondly upon; still, their role is elemental among this intricate community. There are the nettles who sting but are a tasty meal for many a declining butterfly – from the Small Tortoiseshell to the European Peacock. On narrow footpaths the prickly bramble snags our coat yet bears us plump black berries near summer’s end, the sweetest and best-loved hedgerow harvest.
All these native species and many more have made up our varied pattern of hedgerows for centuries before, harking back as far to the iron age when hedges first came to be a countryside characteristic, one that offered our settlements protection from the wildwoods. The English landscape we know today began to form during the 17th century when the enclosure acts were passed and in abundance we planted our hedgerow favourites, the blackthorn, hawthorn and hazel.
Follow a hedgerow through fields today, and few will resemble the hedges our ancestors knew. Long gone are the days when all were laid by skilled craftsmen. This dying art has been replaced by the metal arms of machinery that make light work of this laborious task. You will find some neatly cropped once, even twice a year and others straggling boundaries with gaps aplenty where tightly woven shrubs are now towering trees.
Though not all are the impenetrable boundaries they used to be, our hedgerows are still very much beloved. For now, they are also precious strips of green where our wildlife has time to breathe between an industrial scene that dominates farmland in our county. They are a highway; a wayside; for creatures to pass safely between fields, a larder to feast on and a sanctuary to seek shelter.
Dating a hedgerow
Our hedgerows are a magical leaf in the tapestry of our landscape’s history. To date these vibrant features, Hooper’s System is widely renowned. Designed by Dr Max Hooper, a biologist and historian who pioneered the study of our native hedgerows, he has taught us to determine the age of a hedgerow (within 100 years) following this simple method.
Add 100 years for every shrub present in a 30-metre stretch of hedge. For example, one shrub equals 100 years, two 200, and so on. Shrubs include those that will grow into trees if left, including blackthorn, ash, hawthorn, hazel, elder and holly, to name just a few.