Chris Dady celebrates the importance of the hedgerows which criss-cross our county
The CPRE on the importance of the hedgerow
With more than 7,500 miles of hedges in Norfolk it would be hard to imagine our countryside without them. Thorn hedgerows were introduced by the Romans, but it was not until we needed to keep animals from wandering and mark out boundaries about 1,000 years ago that hedge planting was carried out more systemati-cally, becoming commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the original hedgerows still survive today.
A traditional mixed hedge is able to sustain many plants, insects and animals well as being a source of food for us. Hedgerows help reduce flooding in wet periods and protect against drought in dry spells by absorbing and storing water. They can minimise soil erosion, reduce pollution by capturing carbon and act as barriers to prevent drifting of snow, as well as fulfilling their original purpose of marking boundaries and keeping farm animals secure.
Hedges are a beautiful part of our Norfolk landscapes with seasonal changes, blossoms and autumn colours. More than 80% of our farmland birds use hedges for protection and food, and species such as dormice, bats, newts and bees as well as other insects rely on them too, not forgetting the hedgehog.
Our own families would have used hawthorn wood for tool handles and bowls, and its blossom was the original wedding confetti. Other woods would have been used, and fruits, nuts and flowers would have been collected for winemaking, food and decoration.
As a hedgerow ages it will build the number of plant species present. Plants including cow parsley, primroses, nettles and dock will feature alongside fungi. Look for gorse, blackthorn, hawthorn, maple, guelder rose, bramble, dog rose, hazel, apple, cherry, chestnut, crab apple, holly, poplar, elder, oak, beech, ash and elm.
Traditional hedge laying is a technique to help rejuvenate the hedge and ensure it is thick and healthy enough to provide a stock-proof barrier. Partly cutting through a small bush or tree in the hedge, it is then bent without breaking and woven back into the hedge. Properly done, this encourages more growth and is attractive in its own right.
The town hedge is not to be overlooked. A mix of varieties will benefit a garden with plants and wildlife, as well as providing an attractive boundary, shade and privacy in a way that a fence or a single variety of urban hedging never can.
Sadly, significant amounts of hedgerow were lost in the UK mainly through agricultural intensification from the 1940s right through to the 1970s. A key threat today is poor management and removal to make way for large scale developments. Subsidised replanting schemes are more important than ever. There are some rules against removal via the hedgerow regulations, but not all have protection. Some species can be damaged by over cutting, and nests can be destroyed if maintenance takes place during the nesting season. Diseases such as ash die-back and sweet chestnut blight also cause damage.
It is clear that hedges have a really important role in helping to alleviate some of the climate change issues we are facing, and they add value by supporting the diversity of our flora and fauna as well as beautifying our gardens and countryside.
When you next walk past a hedge, have a look at the plants it contains, signs of insect and animal life, and fruits you can use in your kitchen. If you are lucky enough to have a mixed hedge, or have the opportunity to plant one, it will reward you and the environment beautifully.
ABOVE: A hedge-layer at work