A-Z of Na­ture:

Dr Ben Ald­iss on the fas­ci­nat­ing story of the not-so-hum­ble hedge

Norfolk - - INSIDE - Dr Ben Ald­iss wildlife jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, deputy man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of World Agri­cul­ture Dr Ben Ald­iss is a wildlife jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, deputy man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of World Agri­cul­ture and an ad­viser in bio­di­ver­sity and ed­u­ca­tion on farms. wasp

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

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