From biodiversity and carbon capture to soil retention and water quality, the humble hedge provides a solution to a plethora of environmental problems.
Everybody is talking about hedges. Well, it’s about time that, after years of abuse, they’re being recognised for the incredible life-giving wonders that they are.
Our country was once very different, with more woodland, some enclosed land bordered by ancient hedges and open-field or strip-farming systems. In the 18th century, Enclosure Acts led to turnips and winter-fodder crops, which allowed more stock to be over-wintered and, in turn, required hedges to keep livestock secure, as well as protect crops.
A massive 186,411 miles of hedgerow were planted between 1750 and 1850, doubling the number planted in the previous 500 years. Much of our flora and fauna has evolved and thrived in this new landscape, which gave us the pastoral scene we know and love.
Everything changed after the Second World War, when farmers were encouraged to increase production and hedges were seen as being in the way. Indeed, it’s estimated 3,000 miles of hedgerow a year were lost from 1946 to the early 1960s, as fields were made bigger for machinery. Stubble burning took its toll and, in more recent times, the flail hedge cutter and careless operators have thrashed many hedgerows to sticks.
“Ultimately, wildlife will be more productive, which is the only way to recover Nature”
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Yet, in those intermediate years before the advent of wire, we looked after our hedges and the skill of ‘pleaching’ or laying them was an art. Each county developed differing styles, depending on what kind of stock and hedging shrubs thrived in those areas: from the 4ft 6in Midland Bullock, finished with smart hazel binders — woven from stake to stake and strong enough to hold back cattle and horses — to the very low, tight Devon style, whereby the ‘pleachers’ are pinned down by crooks to encourage the roots to strengthen the bank on which the hedge sits.
Thank goodness things are swinging back in the hedge’s favour. We need more of them, for biodiversity, carbon capture, soil retention and water quality, as well as beauty. More grants need to be available not only to plant, but to maintain these vital structures. Those with fewer acres should be encouraged to plant hedges as boundaries and for conservation. Landowners with beetle banks could easily plant them up with hedgerows on top.
Each species in a 30-yard stretch is thought to represent 100 years in the hedgerow’s age. Now, we can create mixed hedges, with old staples such as hawthorn and blackthorn, but also spindle, guelder rose, dogwood, cherry plum, hazel and more. In as little as five years, these provide food and shelter for a host of animals — flowers will appear or can be added, too. Ultimately, wildlife will be more productive, which is the only way to recover Nature. Let’s get planting.
On his annual October sloe-picking harvest, John Lewis-Stempel admires redwings, greenfinches and wood mice gathering their haul of autumn’s bountiful