History of Hedges
HEDGES: THEIR PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
Britain’s landscape has been extensively reshaped to accommodate changing farming methods – most noticeably, perhaps, by the creation of hedges in the 16th and 17th centuries to enclose fields, and now, in the 20th century, by the wholesale removal of these hedges to make huge fields suitable for large machinery.
Hedgerows are a prominent and distinctive feature of the British landscape, particularly in the lowlands. The oldest hedges are probably remnants of the continuous woodland that once covered most of Britain. As villagers and landowners cleared the forest for agriculture, they would leave the last few feet of forest standing to mark the outer boundaries of their domains. Today, some of our most ancient hedges are the remnants of such boundaries perhaps even now marking a parish border.
Hedges were also formed to enclose patches of land to contain domestic animals. This would have been done close to the buildings of farm or village, and in many places these small, irregular enclosures can be seen today. They indicate old field patterns and ancient hedgerow.
For many centuries crops were grown in large, open fields which were divided into small strips. Each of these strips was tilled separately in an “open-plan”, communal style of farming. There was no need to fence off the arable land and divide it into sections with hedges.
Gradually. however, the old system changed, patches of land being enclosed and assigned to individuals. The main period of enclosure was the century between 1750 and 1850. during which Parliament passed a series of acts empowering landowners to add to their estates large areas of what had previously been common land. Rapid carving-up of the landscape, under the supervision of government officials, meant that patterns of straight hedges developed. forming regular, rectangular fields. Wire fences were unknown, and wooden ones were expensive, difficult to make and required frequent repair and maintenance. A planted hedge was a self-renewing, cheap and effective way of dividing up the open countryside into private compartments.
The fields enclosed by these old hedgerows were of sizes appropriate to the farming procedures of past centuries. Modern ways of farming the land operate according to a different set of “rules”. What was a convenient sized field to plough with a horse is now an inconveniently small patch in which to manoeuvre a large tractor that can pull a plough along several furrows at once. The hedges have become a nuisance. necessitating more time-consuming turns with the tractor and. of course, “wasting” the space on which the hedge itself grows.
The result is that the landscape has undergone extensive reshaping to accommodate modern farming procedures, the main alteration being large-scale hedgerow removal. Since the early 1950s the length of hedgerow in Britain has sharply declined in many parts of the country, especially in East Anglia. The 1980s have seen continued attempts to encourage the preservation and maintenance of hedgerow. In counties such as Devon, where arable farming has not expanded so rapidly, the traditional kind of farming, based on stock rearing, persists and so does the extensive network of hedgerows associated with it.
A common method of creating a hedge or repairing gaps in an old one is one way of making good. First, young shrubs are planted close together. After a few years the stem of each is partially cut through and the whole plant bent to one side and woven between a row of stakes driven into the ground. This forms an effective barrier, and regular trimming keeps the bushes dense.
An A-shaped hedge provides a good wind-break for the farmer, and is less liable to be damaged by a heavy fall of snow, and is easy to trim mechanically. The tapered shape allows saplings to grow into trees and so there is more shelter for wildlife, while nesting birds, small mammals and insects find good cover in its dense branches.
When a hedge is just cut straight across the top and sides, as in the third example. saplings are not given a chance to grow into trees, and the hedge tends to thin out at the base, leaving less cover for wildlife.
For the naturalist, the loss of hedgerows means loss of wildlife diversity and the creation of a more uniform and monotonous habitat.
Hedges are an important refuge for wildlife in otherwise open, inhospitable arable fields. Hedgehogs are often found in a hedge bottom, and the mole has responded to the enlargement of field sizes by establishing itself under hedges, from whence it makes its forays into the open. Voles, field mice and shrews, including the pygmy shrew, are safely protected in the hedge undergrowth and for the insect-eating species hedgehogs. shrews and moles-the hedge contains abundant prey.
Hedges are also “wildlife highways”, allowing plants and animals to disperse from one area to another.
History of a hedge
The older a hedge is, the more shrub species it is likely to comprise, having had more time to accumulate additional plants. Indeed, the age of hedgerows can be estimated from the average number of shrub species found in a 30m (100ft) stretch of hedgerow. The newest hedgerows usually contain hawthorn, the species favoured for rapid hedge planting in the 18th and 19th centuries because it grew fast and quickly formed a dense, thorny barrier. For every additional shrub species found, one can estimate that the hedge is probably a further 100 years old.
Hedgerows also harbour large numbers of fine trees, particularly elms and oaks, which become a feature of the landscape and also home for many species of birds and insects.
Predators and pests
The farmer needs to produce crops as efficiently as he can. but there is possibly a risk that by removing hedges he could incur losses which may outweigh the gains. For example, the hedge may be an important base from which predatory beetles make their raids on aphids that cause so much damage to beans and many other crops. The birds of the hedgerow include corn and reed bunting, whitethroat, yellowhammer, song thrush, blackbird and linnet. The lesser whitethroat is most closely associated with hedges – hardly ever is its nest found anywhere else. The insect-eating habits of the hedge birds help to reduce the numbers of insect pests.
On the other hand, hedges also shelter many farm pests, notably rabbits, which make raids into the fields. The farmer may prefer not to weigh up the pros and cons of pests and their predators, but hope to do away with both together-by removing the hedge and treating the land with pesticides.
One beneficial role played by the hedgerows is to modify the climate around them. They act as barriers to the wind. When they are removed the wind can blow-without hindrance in any direction over enormous areas. In dry winter weather this presents the farmer with the serious threat of drying out his ploughed fields, which can be harmful in the extreme. The crops have not yet grown much, so their roots do not bind the, nor do their leaves protect it. The wind whips up the surface layers, including seeds and costly fertilizer, and all this literally disappears over the horizon in a cloud of dust. The presence of hedges does not prevent this altogether: a hedgerow only shelters a downwind area equivalent to 20 times its own height; but as a whole, a succession of hedges will combine to slow the wind and ameliorate its effects. Thus, by sheltering fields and wildlife. they make their contribution to the countryside.