Yorkshire hedge landscape from ‘A Natural History of the Hedgerow’

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

5th May 2017

There’s more to a simple hedgerow than meets the eye, reports Jack Watkins…

Someone once suggested to me that my role as a writer was to point out things that other people were in too much of a hurry to notice. I’m not sure I’d attribute to myself something so high-minded, but naturalist John Wright certainly seems to have that philosophy in view when he takes people on his hedgerow forays. Participants come, he says, mainly to learn about foods they can find in the countryside which taste pleasant, are free, and “won’t have them in A&E.”
He duly obliges them, but with only a few able to tell an elder from an alder, also tries to show that hedges have a lot more to offer than just a free lunch.

What’s in a hedgerow? A lot of history, that’s for sure, as well as different varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers, various mammals, reptiles and insects, and – most overlooked of all – nature’s all-important recyclers, the fungi. In all their wondrous diversity, hedgerows are uniquely British features, and Wright’s A Natural History of the Hedgerow is an engaging, heartfelt attempt to explain how they have helped shape the history of our landscape and its wildlife.

It’s difficult to write about this subject, though, without featuring a conservation element. The reality is that, while hedges were introduced by early settlers for practical livestock management purposes, modern agriculture has little use for them. As such, like most things that no longer have an economic value, they can be considered under threat. It takes education and subsidies to protect them, and that’s one of the prime values of Wright’s book. It tells us why hedgerows are worth the bother.

I suspect many city-dwellers may be completely unfamiliar with the concept of a hedge. If they’re visually aware of them at all, it’s as some neat, tightly clipped single species feature, perhaps of laurel or privet, in the garden of one of the better class of properties. Shorn of diversity, or any hint of unruliness, these hedges are actually of great value in the urban scene which can sometimes resemble a concrete desert, but they have none of the wild character of a countryside hedge.

Yet ‘real’ country hedges do exist in the cities – even in London – and they may be closer to than you think. On the undeveloped undulations of Barnet, for example, you can follow a network of hedges and trees in the Dollis Brook area, across to Totteridge Fields, one of the few remaining tracts of traditional English countryside left in the capital.

Horsenden Hill, in the borough of Ealing, is another priceless survivor. And one of my favourite ways to pass a quiet afternoon is strolling across Hampstead Heath. There are old hedge lines on the Heath itself, and on the flatter Heath Extension at Golders Green you can walk beside the hedges and by the towering oak trees that are the survivors of the old farmland that was here until the development of Hampstead Garden City at the turn of the 20th century. This is one of the few places in London where the scents coming from the bushes and long grasses in summer remind me of the true countryside.

Who knows how old these hedges are? If a hedge line is known to have existed in medieval times, there’s a good chance it’s even older still, for centuries ago they were less inclined to destroy landscape features, lacking the required machinery or even the incentive. The earliest chapters in John Wright’s book look back to the origins of hedgerows, which pre-dated the Romans, and their place in the ‘murky’ picture of medieval agricultural practices in England. He speculates on the character of the prehistoric beech woodlands of the New Forest, and looks at efforts to drain the Fens, a plan that was causing alarm as early as the late sixteenth century. And so, as well as learning about the history of hedges, you get a sideways look at the history of farming.

Famously, the great age of hedge planting came during the parliamentary enclosures, from 1750 onwards, though ironically many of the hedges planted at the time, which we now so value, arrived at the expense of much valuable woodland, and the loss of the medieval open-field system and most common land.

While enclosure hedges were thought to usher in a new age of more efficient and productive farming, even in their heyday there were complaints about the excessive shade they threw over the grass or crop, and of the ratio of hedge to field size, which lessened the amount of soil in production. The magnificent hedgerow trees that grew within them – the oaks, ashes and elms, so beloved of landscape painters – only exacerbated the problem.

It was the post-Second World War drive to become more self-sufficient in food production, however, that did for many hedgerows. Flower-rich meadows went under the plough, and with bigger and better machinery demanding larger fields, miles and miles of hedges were ripped out. If that sounds like appalling vandalism, it’s worth remembering that there were fears in 1950s Britain that starvation posed a greater threat than the atom bomb. The worst hedgerow losses were sustained in the 1960s, and then in the 1980s. Since then the pace has slowed, and it may be that the biggest threat today is one of neglect, although we should never be complacent. Farm subsidies could be under threat in the aftermath of an EU withdrawal and, already, relaxations on restrictions to build on the Green Belt will have meant it’s curtains for many an old hedge.

Farm subsidies have been used to encourage farmers to look after hedgerows, and I can vouch for the accuracy of Wright’s assertion that many of the latter are proud of their work, and ‘speak excitedly’ about the buzzards which circle the air above their farms, or of picking sloes and plums from their hedgerows. ‘To the true farmer the countryside is not a factory floor, it is a home.’

For the rest of us, he says, “a walk along a hedgerow is always full of delight for anyone who takes time to walk slowly and observe.” Few are ever quite the same, and I’d suggest one way to increase interest is to find a good stretch and admire its changing qualities and colours through the four seasons: the early white flower of blackthorn, the red berries of the wayfaring tree later in the year, and the hedges’ sheltering qualities in the bleak winds of winter. Then there are the birds. We might not notice the quieter denizens of the hedgerows, the dormice or the hedgehogs, but a hedge can be a good way to develop your bird identification skills. And while Wright’s book is a little too large to ‘stuff into our pocket for country walks’ as the dust jacket note suggests, it does succeed in bringing hedgerows to life, whether your interest is in active study, or just reading about them ‘before a roaring fire’.

John Wright’s ‘A Natural History of the Hedgerow and ditches, dykes and dry stone walls’ was released in paperback (£9.99) at the beginning of this month. Published by Profile: www.profilebooks.com

Find Your Local