Hedgerows – a natural history
Today a rare treat – a guest blog from Ms Markontour, reviewing ‘A natural history of the hedgerow and ditches, dykes and dry stone walls’, by John Wright.
When I think of hedgerows I think of nature, green leaves, fragrant May blossom and noisy, busy birds. John Wright puts the hedgerow in historical context starting with pre-history which turns out to be fascinating. Piecing together archaeological and ancient written records, he walks us through time from the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
For hedges, or hedgerows (which are hedges with trees in them – an important distiction that is not revealed until page 44) there need to be humans deliberately shaping the landscape – making barricades to keep animals in or out, protecting crops from weather damage, building boundaries to delineate land, or creating edge areas rich in nuts and berries for food.
Britain would not have been a hospitable place for the first settlers “once the tundra had lifted its icy hand” reflects Wright. “As someone who spends a great deal of time in forests, I can say with some authority that they are not good places to find food”.
It is unclear just how much of a dent Mesolithic humans [as Ms Markontour explained to me the other day, the Stone Age is divided into three stages – Paleolithic, followed by Mesolithic, and finally Neolithic, ed.] made in the thick native woodland. “Cutting a tree down is all but impossible with stone axes, and primal woodland trees would have been enormous”. But we do know from datable charcoal layers in the soil that natural clearings were widened through burning trees. And we know from hazelnut middens (piles of opened shells) from the period that hazelnuts were an important part of the Mesolithic diet – hazel trees are disinclined to grow in canopy conditions underlining the importance of forest edges in early human settler lives.
Did Mesolithic humans build hedges? That might be a stretch. But it is likely the temporary clearings they made on their nomadic travels attracted animals with the fruit and nut rich plants, and the trap could be seen as an enclosure.
Somewhere between 4300 and 4000 BCE a new way of life, long experienced by the inhabitants of the Near East, found its way to Britain – agriculture. Arable farming required that larger areas of forest be cleared. Over the two and a half thousand year Neolithic period there is evidence of clearing and cultivating land. “This is the first time that the inhabitants of Britain faced the problem of keeping vegetation and animals apart. Enter the British hedge”.
Wright then unfolds what is clearly the result of the life’s work of generations of archaeologists in piecing together evidence of Neolithic agriculture, and what can been gleaned from that in regards to hedges. On balance Wright thinks they likely used a combination of live hedges (evidenced by traces of blackthorn and dog rose pollen from the time) and dead hedges with piles of wood or even woven hazel to fill gappy forest perimeters.
Their better equipped Bronze Age heirs embraced agriculture as a more permanent and organised way of life with a field system that continued through the Iron Age to the Romans, Saxon England and beyond. Stone walls can survive for thousands of years (many in upland Wales and Scotland are thought to date from Roman times) but even the lines of some living hedges can trace their origins back through generations to Bronze Age field edges. Archeological excavations at Fengate near Peterborough have confidently identified an extensive Iron Age field system “by the high levels of phosphates in the drove roads… sure evidence of thousands of nervous cattle passing by over the centuries”.
A well laid hedge will remain stock proof for decades if it is occasionally trimmed and repaired – so technique, honed from ancient generations, is critical. In case you are inspired to have a go, the basic method is: plant a row, or two staggered rows of saplings (called whips) and allow to grow for about ten years. Trim the stems a little and chop or saw into a diagonal just above soil level leaving a thin and fairly bendy strip of live wood attaching the tree to the base of the stem. Then lay the wood almost horizontally and hold in place with crooks of wood. Such a hedge laid in the winter will produce a mass of new side shoots by spring – become denser and denser as the years go by. Each county, it seems, had its own particular twist on this hedge laying method. In Wales leaving a single stem standing every two or three feet to act as living posts is common – something I spotted on my afternoon walk.
As you might expect, Wright expounds chapters on hedgerow plants and the animals that make their home there. I loved how he brought history into natural history sharing pre-Shakespearean records of hedge planting: “On the choice of tree, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, 1534, suggests ‘whyte thorn and crabtree, holye and hasell for the woode countreye (woodland areas)’ and ‘ashe, oke and elme for the playne countreye’ (open fields).”
If hedgerows are your thing then this book is well worth a read. Just the list of hedge species (page 143) brought joy to my heart: Hart’s tongue fern, Birds foot trefoil, Common knapweed, Cuckoo pint, Field Scabious, Hairy St John’s wort, Meadow vetchling, Oxeye daisy, Red Campion, False oat grass, Hairy brome.
I started reading this book somewhat ambivalent about hedgerows. Whilst thriving hedgerows are vibrantly alive with nature “the natural inclination of a hedge is to become a wood”, as Wright observes. It seems brutal for humans to intervene to prevent that. But now I am convinced that the rich variety of edge habitat serves nature well – especially with mature full-sized trees forming part of the ecosystem.
Surveys of British hedges reveal that a range of heights and widths is needed to suit our feathered friends. The evidence shows “For the robin, song thrush, willow warbler, long tailed tit, great tit and chaffinch, there is a strong and clear case of the higher the better, although the long-tailed tit seems to lose patience beyond six metres. The yellowhammer and the linnet prefer short hedges. The frequency of wren, robin, blackbird, lesser whitethroat, yellowhammer and blue tit increase markedly with hedge width, though several species are not interested in hedges wider than five metres.”
The last word to a hedge layer that John Wright met on his explorations. Pleased with his repair job he said “T’was as gappy as m’teeth, mind”.
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