A-Z of Nature:
Dr Ben Aldiss on the fascinating story of the not-so-humble hedge
Expert writer Dr Ben Aldiss is in the hedge this month
We’re moving up in scale this month, from tiny, gallcausing insects to features that give the landscape of Norfolk so much of its special character. We’ve reached the letter H: H for hedge.
I suppose many of us take hedges for granted, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re the arteries that keep Norfolk’s nature alive. Not only are hedges vital wildlife corridors – they also add a quintessential Britishness to the landscape, recognisably unique, as any tourist from abroad will tell you.
Perhaps the greatest expert on hedges and their origins was the academic Oliver Rackham who died three years ago aged 75. Born in Suffolk and educated at Norwich City College, he became hugely influential by virtue of his research on the British landscape at Cambridge University. His book The History of the Countryside is not only astonishing in its scholarship, but also a delight to read.
So how did hedges start? Around 11,000 BC the retreating ice from the last glaciation allowed trees to return to Britain. As far as we can tell, virtually the whole country was then eventually clothed in what Rackham described as the ‘Wildwood’, remaining then apparently unchanged until Neolithic man arrived. Prior to that, humans were huntergatherers and rarely stayed in one place, so their effects on the wildwood were slight. Neolithic man, however, had developed the ability to grow crops and domesticate animals. This required space and light and sufficient time to plant and harvest, so the first settlements were established.
Until Rackham put his mind to it, we were all taught in history lessons that Neolithic tribes simply cleared the forest and constructed their villages, putting up fences to protect and tend their livestock. Just hang on a minute though… how do you simply clear a forest when the only tools you have are made of flint? Even if you could chop down a tree, how would you dig up the stump and roots? Rackham argued it was much more likely that Neolithic man relied upon nature to help him clear the wildwood. Ailments like Dutch elm disease probably killed large patches of trees, which then quickly rotted and fell, to leave natural clearings, more easily managed with flint tools.
It seems probable that settlements started in this way would have been bounded by hedges to keep livestock in and predators, like wolves and bears, out. The easiest way to make a hedge would have been to clear the forest, leaving a small strip of trees and undergrowth at the edges. Some of the oldest hedges in Norfolk may have originated in this way, though most are very much younger.
Later on, when tools were made of bronze or iron, management of the wildwood
became easier and more efficient. People learned that the stumps of certain trees and shrubs, such as hazel and lime, would sprout multiple stems. These stems could be allowed to grow for varying lengths of time depending on the use required for the timber. Young stems were handy for basket-weaving, older ones for fence posts and the very biggest for beams. This practice of cutting a tree at ground level to encourage regrowth is called coppicing and has the added advantage that it effectively extends the natural life of the tree far beyond its normal span.
On the other hand, there were disadvantages, the main one being that the livestock living in the same space tended to eat the young coppice shoots, until some bright Neolithic spark had the idea of pollarding. This is effectively the same as coppicing, but higher up the tree, putting the useful re-growing timber safely out of reach of domestic animals. Quite how the timber was subsequently gathered, we can only guess: presumably the ladder had been invented by then.
If the most ancient hedges started out as woodland borders, by far the majority probably began as natural or deliberate seeding of woodland species around the base of man-made fences and stockades. Long after the original wooden fence had rotted away, shrubby plants characteristic of modern hedges would have firmly established themselves.
In more recent times hedges were deliberately planted – often with just one major woody species, frequently hawthorn. This was done extensively at the time of the Enclosure Acts, especially in the midlands, when parcels of land were demarcated as proof of ownership and to prevent animals straying into neighbours’ fields.
Hedges have been valued throughout the ages, not only as boundary markers and livestock barriers, but for food, medicines and sources of timber. A good mixed hedge can provide an abundance of nuts and berries, as well as useful plants growing in the under-storey. Blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants can all be found growing wild in ancient hedges, as can hazelnuts and wild strawberries. Another edible plant, clearly visible in February on coastal hedgerows in Norfolk, is Alexanders. Brought to Britain by the Romans, it was eaten as a vegetable until celery replaced it.
Many plants with medicinal properties can be found in well-established hedgerows. Two common examples are Hedge Woundwort which, as its name suggests, can help in the healing of wounds, and Perforated St John’s Wort, a proven anti-depressant and antiinflammatory. In fact any plant with the suffix ‘wort’ was used historically by herbalists and is likely to contain chemicals of value to health.
In the Middle Ages hedges were exceptionally important as sources of oak timbers for ships. Apparently, shipwrights would scour the countryside for naturally curved, massive branches. They would even train young oak trees to grow to the correct shape using a template, knowing that it might take as long as 150 years before the branch would be suitable for harvesting.
Leaping forward to the years of the Second World War, we reach a watershed in the fortunes of hedges. Artificial fertilisers had been invented and the war
‘Many plants with medicinal properties can be found in wellestablished hedgerows’
had accelerated the advance of mechanisation. Consequently, many Norfolk farmers realised that they no longer needed livestock to fertilise their fields, nor as beasts of burden, so hedges were suddenly redundant, and as machinery increased in size, it made sense to enlarge fields for the sake of efficiency. The government approved of this strategy and actually paid farmers to grub out hedges, many of which had stood there for centuries. In consequence over 11,000 miles of East Anglian hedgerows were bulldozed between 1947 and 1985.
Recently planted hedges are of huge worth, both aesthetically and as refuges for wildlife, but the ancient ones are especially valuable. These strips of historic woodland have helped to maintain Norfolk’s biodiversity down the ages and we should treasure them.
ABOVE:Hedges are vital wildlife corridors