Monday, 7 September 2015

Hedgerow Magic

A few miles from here, high up on The Chalk, there is a Hedge.

It forms one half of a boundary of what locals know as The Roman Road, but which my senses tell me is far, far older, belonging perhaps to the time of the Wildwood when the earliest tribes were settling the land here. I suspect it is a pre-historic trackway that has survived the intervening millenia; the crushing of Roman boots, the twisting of horses' hooves and the compaction of tractor wheels, and now it remains as a depleted but determined Green Lane, eventually consumed by the all-in-one identity of the surrounding fields. Perhaps it once stretched the entire length of the hedge?



There are remnants of ancient woodland (all that is left now perhaps of the original Wildwood) all around the Green Lane. There is a margin of it to one side and pockets of stranded coppices marooned far out across the sea of wide open arable fields like green islands on the other. 



Between the marooned coppices and the Old Wood, keeping them connected like a thick, rich, reliable vein pumping life, is The Hedge (seen in the pic below snaking to the left through the stubble fields in a long sinuous green line).

 
Ecologists talk a lot about Hedgerows. We lost a great deal of them after the Second War when the emphasis was all on consumption of land to feed the population. They were pulled out, grubbed up, roots and branches stretched and snapped and torn, plants dragged from their ancient earthy homes and tossed aside like so much green rubbish. Some areas lost 50% of their hedges in forty years. By 1997 the importance of hedges to the land and its wildlife and through them its people, had been recognised, and the Government brought in The Hedgerow Regulations in an attempt to halt the destruction and provide management advice for what remained. There was replanting too, and by the mid 1990s further losses to managed hedgerows had been halted.

There is no space for complacency here- many of our surviving hedgerows are in a bad way. Poor management techniques or no management at all have left them depleted to the point of exhaustion, so that, as a resource, a great many do little or nothing for the wild things that have evolved to need them.

But we still have plenty of woods right? So what's all the fuss about hedges?


8000 years ago Britain was wooded, more or less, from coast to coast. 2500 years ago we'd lost 50% of our woods, cut down to make way for farming and settlement. By the time William the Conq commissioned the Domesday book to take stock of his new Empire in 1086 the figure was down to 15%. It dropped to 5% at the start of the 20th C and is now back up to around 11%. 

Hampshire is one of the most wooded counties in England, after Surrey and Sussex, with around 15% cover. The problem is that not all of it is Ancient Woodland and woods that aren't Ancient just don't offer as much ecologically (White Admirals,Silver Washed Fritillaries, Purple Emperors, Dormice, Large Black Longhorn Beetles are all species of Ancient Woodlands that rarely turn up elsewhere, as are plant species like Dogs Mercury, Lords & Ladies, Bluebells, Wood Sorrel, Primroses, Butcher's Broom, the list goes on....). 

Despite what Boris Johnson says, you can't mitigate the loss of a five hundred year old wood with all its associated flora and fauna by happily planting a new one. In addition, much of our remaining Ancient Woodland has been divided up into small, isolated pockets often with no management at all, making what is left vulnerable to disease and lack of regeneration. For woods to be really healthy they need to be joined to one another, like a pair of strong green lungs and they need to be sympathetically managed.


Hedges matter because they are mini woodlands that connect the Bigger Woods. They offer a life line to vulnerable meta populations, species living in these isolated woods that would otherwise be marooned and therefore vulnerable to extinction. Dormice, for example, can only repopulate a Dormouse-empty woodland if they can get to it along a hedgerow. If the hedge isn't there the Dormice can't migrate to the wood. It's that simple. 

As well as connecting all our bits and bobs of scattered woodland, many species are reliant on hedgerows. Bats use them to navigate by at night, following the line of the hedge to reach important feeding grounds and coming back along them to return to their roosts. If you remove the hedge the bats get lost and can't find food as easily (this is especially important for rare woodland species like Bechstein's (although they will also use rivers for the same purpose). Caterpillars hibernate in the earth at the base of hedgerows where they benefit from the shelter the hedge affords. Badgers snuffle around them on their regular night-time amble-routes, digging up roots and bee's nests at their bases....

A sign Mr Brock has been out at night- a badger hole dug into the earth at the foot of the hedge. You can't see it in the pic but he'd found a succulent root to sup on.
Birds feed from them in winter, nest in them in spring and raise their chicks deep within their woody security in summer. Moths and butterflies feed from them, lay their eggs in them, pupate among them and bees, wasps and hoverflies rely on the nectar the hedgerow plants provide. Small mammals depend on them for food and shelter and owls perch in the trees that should populate any healthy hedge and use the perch to spy their food. Birds of prey rest in them and foxes and rabbits make tunnels through them to get from one field or wood to another. 

Hedges are symbols of safety, shelter, food, and navigation for a great many of our wild things. Take them away and what happens?


They are also hosts to hundreds of plants....

Here is a section of The Hedge. Looks like nothing much, eh? Raggedy, wild, overgrown, a tangle of indistinguishable branches, old bramble and drying grasses.

 
Look again, more closely...

Honeysuckle among the tangles...





An oak sapling which will one day be an Oak way-marking the route for owls...


Hazel catkins forming along with nuts to feed the Wild Ones over winter...
 

There are blackberries enough for everyone...



And Field Rose..


Field maple...

 
Holly...


Ash...


Dogwood (Top Tip- told by the strings inside the leaf)...


Purging Buckthorn (beloved of monks so you'll find it still growing among the ruins of Abbeys that were dismantled courtesy of King Henry over five hundred years ago)...


Hedge Woundwort (beloved of one of my most favourite of all the Shieldbugs)..


Hawthorn...


Ferns..


And Thistles blowing their seeds to the winds...


I counted seventeen plant species in a fairly cursory look. No doubt there are twice that number, in all likelihood many more. Makes you think, doesn't it?

How many times have you walked past a hedge and taken it's presence there as mere background material, unimportant because you're used to it? I know I have. Next time, take ten minutes to look at it properly and count of the different plants you can see (it doesn't matter if you don't know their names, you'll be able to tell from the leaf shape and size that they are different plants). As a general rule of thumb, the more species you count the older the hedge. Often hedges are all that is left of Ancient Woods and I suspect some of them have in their deepest hearts a secret whisper that comes direct from the Original Wildwood that grew here after the last Ice Age ten thousand years ago.

A post wouldn't be complete without my two faithful Companion Hedge Explorers, T and P, so here they are....




And a Final Fling in the shape of a Rather Splendid Heat Haze that was shimmering away, just across the fields...

 
Blackberry ice cream (M's simple and delicious recipe which you can find here) has already been made from some of the fruit we collected. I will make some Blackberry brandy for Christmas recipes and some will go in the freezer for blackberry cake during the winter and M's favourite blackberry and apple crumble. Thank You Hedge.

Happy Days!

CT :o)

33 comments:

  1. i love, love, love, love, LOVE this post! LOVE IT! i'm such a hedge-nerd and get all frothy when i think about the magnificence of the 'design'. and then i get all overwrought with how vital they are and how fragile their existence.

    we don't have such ancient pathways over here -- it's such a different ecological history -- but the same worries apply. happily, around these parts at least, much of the farmland is bordered by hedge-ways...at least the smaller fields are so i take heart in that. then again, our area is designated as part of the 'Greenbelt' so i don't know how much that influences things.....other than stopping the construction of McMansions and cookie-cutter housing developments...thank heavens.

    and yes, blackberries are just one of the gifts of the Hedge...and such a scrummy gift indeed!

    xo

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    1. How funny you should have been having similar thoughts across the pond on the same day :o) Some kind of mind-meld going on there for sure. xx

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  2. Hedges are magic living things. I love to see where hedge laying has been happening. I also love that Prince Charles loves hedges. Look at those tongues!!

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    1. He does some good work for the Wild, I reckon :o) x

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  3. Loved this post...so interesting! I'm fascinated with England's hedges. (Prince Charles's hedges at Highgrove first peaked my interest). Good job with this post!!

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    1. Love the fact both you and Rachel mentioned Prince C :o) Glad you enjoyed the post, Juliet x

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  4. What. a wonderfully written post about the hedgerows. I found it so interesting. You illustrated your narration beautifully. Now when I go down to my old caravan, I am going to count the number of plants in the hedge. I often look at what a hedge is made up of but do not count em.

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    1. Many thanks, Margaret. I'll be interested to hear what you find x

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  5. oh thank you for highlighting hedgerows. Despite the hedgerow protection legislation people still remove them willy nilly to build two houses where there used to be one, to create a second driveway for trades vehicles, to plant something more manageable like laurel!!! I've seen it all sadly. In my village we have many ancient oaks growing out of our hedgerows dating from the days when oaks were planted along field boundaries as a crop to be harvested for the ship building industry. I have an old mixed native hedge growing along the back of my allotment plot which is full of hips and hawthorn berries and blackberries at the moment. I love the fact that some of our oldest trees in Surrey (the most densely wooded county in England) could date back to the end of the ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Great post.

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    1. Part of the problem is no coherent management plan for them- do you cut annually, rotate the cutting, cut only one half one year etc etc. Here some farmers cut them more pointed at the top with wider bases. Some leave trees in others take them out. Our agri/ eco approaches seem in flux at the moment I really don't know what will happen with them.

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  6. Beautifully written
    Here on our Dales farm we have many dry stone walls, but we also have our share of hedges - and we love our hedges. They are ancient - we know this because of the enormous mix of species in them - hawthorn, blackthorn, beech, holly, field maple, hazel and more. We have them cut professionally at the right time of year - some are left to grow tall too. A goodly mix of birds nest in them - we have quite a few pairs of yellow hammers who bring their babies to our bird tables, there are countless blackbirds' nests. I agree absolutely with what you say about them.

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    1. I was reading how dry stone walls are a valuable ecological asset in themselves with all the mosses, lichens and certain plants that are only found among them.
      I love the sound of your hedge and I would be THRILLED to have yellow hammers on my bird feeders. I do see (and hear!) them in the fields a few miles away all summer long, but we're not in the middle of farm land here so we don't get them at the house. So pleased you enjoyed the post.

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  7. What a wonderful post. I shall examine the hedge at the back of my allotment on my next visit. I'm a big fan of hedges, I'm always raving on about them when we're out and about. The children tune me out a bit I think, but I'm hoping one day they'll be raving on in turn. At this time of year there's always lots of fruit and nuts to be seen, it really draws the eye. CJ xx

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    1. It will have gone in on some level I'm sure. It seems hedgerows do have a deep pull for people. Just shows how connected to our landscapes and The Land we are still. I take great comfort from that xx

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  8. Oh CT, what a wonderful, wonderful post. Our walk yesterday took us along whole stretchs of hedgerows that have bordered the famers fields for donkeys years. There was such a diverse array of plants and animals. Not only did we collected enough sloes and blackberries to sink a ship, we saw loads of different insects, butterflies, bees and hoverflies and something that I couldn't get a picture of. Olly was entranced, and so was I. Thank you hedge indeed.
    Leanne xx

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    1. Your walk yesterday looked so lovely. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post, my friend xx

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  9. Such a lovely post. I'm surrounded by hedges where I live & remember them form when I was a child. Full of lovely species but you're right... no management, they seem to be doing well though. I've taken great pains to plant my own hedge a mixed edible/wildlife one an unusual choice for a front garden - Blackthorn, dog rose, wild pear, wild plum, crab apple, elder & hazel. A couple of more additions will be put in this autumn though definitely another hazel. Take care xx

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    1. That's good to hear that your hedges near you are Happy Hedges. I think the management needs to be minimal, but present, for them to really thrive.
      I LOVE the hedge you've planted at home- what a great list of species. The wildlife around you will be flocking to your garden and it will look beautiful in the spring- imagine all that fabulous blossom! x

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  10. A wonderful post and dear to my heart. My special interest is botany and I love to count the hedgerow species and the wild flowers supported along it. Fascinating to see where the Dog Mercury and Wood Sage grow, showing the oldest hedges/woodland remnants.

    I once went on a Uni Field Trip (Archaeology was my course) to Ireland and when we went to the limestone Burren area, I was amazed to find relics of the Ice Age still keeping a foothold amongst the slabs of stone - again Wood Sage, tiny Hazels etc.

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    1. I'm a keen botanist too- love seeing what grows where and interpreting the story of the land from its vegetation. I've been to The Burren- seems amazing that anything survives there at all. An incredible environment. I haven't seen wood sage before so I envy you that.

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  11. Hedgerows are a symbol of England. They should be nurtured and maintained. Shelter, sustaining life and rebirth ...hedgerows are the back bone of the UK country side.
    Interesting information and I learned a few things.
    Thank you! x

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    1. I suppose they are- I hadn't thought of that before x

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  12. You've probably made a better case for hedgerows in the post,than a whole bunch of TV wildlife peeps has done in the last twenty years!
    Jane x

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    1. I take that as High Praise, coming from you x

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  13. A lovely post CT with lots of great photo's as always. Apple and Blackberry crumble sounds just what is called for.

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  14. Hedges really are wonderful things aren't they. Although I totally get and understand all that you are saying about wildlife and so on, I think they are just as important for us. To see so many different plants, to have things to admire and find in the hedge. So although I am not a dormouse or an owl I love hedges too!! xx

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    1. They are wonderful things and I am so pleased their value is increasingly being recognised. Imagining the countryside without them is almost impossible xx

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  15. A lovely post CT - I love walking along hedgerows and seeing how many species I can find :)

    Get so angry about the amount of ancient woodlands the dreaded hs2 is going to damage directly or indirectly :( and don't get me started on biodiversity offsetting - it makes me almost as angry as the badger cull :(

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    1. I'm always amazed at the abundance of life they support. As to HS2 and the woods, I just don't understand how seemingly intelligent people can fail to see that Ancient Woods can't be replaced by new ones. Biodiversity Offsetting- quite possibly the most nonsense expression ever devised x

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  16. We don't have hedgerows quite the same here in Brittany but as field margins they serve the same purpose. When I'm in England I really do stop and look at the hedgerows - particularly the lovely up on a bank from a narrow lane with old layered trees type of hedgerows. I'm always amazed by all the plant and insect life in and around them! Love that last pic - heat haze can produce some amazing images! xx

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    1. I think we do take them for granted sometimes, which is why I wanted to highlight how wonderful they are :o) x

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x