Book of the week: A natural history of the hedgerow

John Lewis-Stempel enjoys this fascinating new guide to the hedgerows of Britain

A Natural history of the hedgerow
John Wright
Profile Books, £16.99
Buy this title for £14.99 at the Country Life Bookshop

John Wright has written a book about hedgerows. I have three miles’ worth of them. Such is Mr Wright’s botanical addiction to hedgerows that he counts the cherry plum trees dotted in them while driving along, a self-admitted ‘lethal’ distraction.

Apparently, there are 147 cherry plum trees on the road between Dorset and Oxford. I, too, have a preoccupation with hedgerows, one that is altogether prosaic, namely maintaining them. As I write, my forearms are spreckled livid with blood and scratches from some emergency gap-plugging to keep the lambs in. Obviously, I have posted a selfie of victim me. Mr Wright, the well-known forager, loves hedges. I’m a farmer and, frankly, at this moment, I’m lacking the love. We shall compare notes.

There is nothing, I suggest, ‘natural’ about a hedge. They are unnatural, manmade and a rather English anomaly. Only our cousins in Normandy, the other descendants of William the Bastard, have so laced their countryside with such inefficient, time-consuming, space-hugging field dividers. In Scotland, Mr Wright reminds us, hedges are ‘less an integral part’ of the rural scene. In Scotland, the stone wall is king. Oh, the canny Scots.

The English once had hard sense on the matter of field edges. For 1,000 years, Mr Wright writes in almost rueful tone, ‘hedgerows were almost entirely dispensed with in about half of England and Wales’. (Indeed, so absent is the hedgerow from English history that, up to page 127, he is penning general landscape history of Albion of the sort well trod by Hoskins, Rackham et al.) Medieval open-field farming utilised stones as property separation and, if livestock needed to be contained, then ‘dead hedges’ of sticks or walls of stone or earth were used.

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Yes, there is evidence that the first English hedge dates to 2500bc and ‘hedgerow’ is rooted etymologically in the Anglo- Saxon hegeroew, but hedgerows only took off with the parliamentary Enclosures of the 18th century. By the time of the last enclosure, 1914, some 200,000 miles of hedges had been planted, mainly with the cheapo arboreal triumvirate of blackthorn, hawthorn and hazel. England had its hedgerow and, despite the great grubbing-up of the post-Second World War decades, sometimes at the rate of 3,000 miles per annum, the green wall remains the living icon of English pastoralism.

But really, what is a hedge, but an edge with an added ‘h’? These days, not much. As little as a century ago, a hedge would have provided firewood, plus food and herbal medicine for beast and human alike, in addition to its putative corralling and sheltering of animals. Time was, folks foraged hedges because they actually needed to.

Gloucestershire lad Ivor Gurney (1890–1937) caught in verse a cameo of children picking ‘bread and cheese’, meaning hawthorn leaves:

And they turn and laugh for the unexpensiveness
Of country grocery and are pleased no less
Than hedge sparrows

What purpose the hedgerow in barbed-wired 2016? Apart from its aesthetic enhancement of England—admittedly, a great thing, for our soul as well as for the tourism dividend—the hedgerow’s purpose has shrunk in the wash to, primarily, conservation. And that is sufficient. In this age of agribusiness, Mr Wright is absolutely right that the hedgerow is a ‘reservoir of species set in a landscape that has been despoiled of them’.

The wounds on my arms have dried and Mr Wright has moved on to detail all the fascinating things that abide in the hedgerow, their lives, their lore. His book grows von me, like honeysuckle. When I’m relieved from hedge-work, I, too, love hedges. Mooching a hedgerow, that mysterious and miniature and linear wood, is the unalloyed privilege of living in the English countryside.

A good hedge can be home to 3,000 species of animal, plant, bug, things smaller than bugs. ‘My particular interest,’ Mr Wright tells us, ‘is largely in hedgerow trees and plants and what may be called their “diseases” and symbionts —organisms living in symbiosis.’

This, then, is not the embellished, Fabergé nature-writing of Robert Macfarlane. No matter. Mr Wright’s prose shows a clean limb and a sense of humour. The hop, he tells us, ‘is proof of the existence of God’. He really is a genial guide.

I knew most of the information in A Natural History— apart from the microscopic organisms that press the author’s particular pleasure button—but, sometimes, what matters is the way that you do it. He does the hedgerow good. I will, however, be giving him a wide berth if I see him driving.

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