An icon of the countryside
- Credit: Archant
Hedgerows are synonymous with our countryside, shaping our landscapes, enriching its habitats and linking us to our past. Elizabeth Hamilton, Herts chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, gives a guide to their richness
Our hedges are important features in the countryside. Together with trees, they help to define the character of the landscape. Originally created as animal stock-proof barriers, they are now also valued as wildlife habitats. They provide shelter and screening, help stop soil being washed away and may reduce flooding.
Ancient and modern.
Some of our Hertfordshire hedges are ancient, dating back to Saxon times or even earlier. They may have been planted, or simply retained, when adjacent woodland was cleared. Old hedges tend to be sinuous and species-rich, bordering winding lanes and irregularly-shaped fields.
These are especially valuable, and it would be difficult to replicate the diversity of habitat conditions and wildlife species they shelter. They often occupy historic sites – marking parish boundaries for example – and a lost hedge can reduce the connectivity of the local hedge network.
Hedges planted when fields were enclosed in the 18th and 19th centuries often form part of a planned landscape of straight-sided fields and roads. In Hertfordshire, this landscape pattern is found mainly to the north and west of the chalk escarpment, especially in the far north of the county.
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From a distance, a hedge may look quite uniform, but up close can be surprisingly diverse. Typical hedgerow species in Hertfordshire include hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, ash, field maple, hornbeam, oak, holly and elder. Some landscape ecologists think you can date a hedge by the number of woody species it contains – with one added each century on average – but diversity is influenced strongly by local conditions and past management. The 18th- and 19th-century enclosure hedges usually contained just hawthorn, but earlier hedges were often planted with a mixture of species, as are newly-planted hedges today. Elm, once widespread, was badly affected by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, but still grows in some hedges.
Through the year.
The white flowers of blackthorn are the first to appear in spring, normally before the leaves. These are followed in late spring by hawthorn or ‘may’ blossom, also white. Later in the summer, climbing plants in the hedges take over the floral display, with honeysuckle, wild roses, brambles and clematis. In autumn, elder-berries, blackberries, sloes (the fruit of blackthorn) and the occasional wild crab apple provide welcome free forage, and, later still, ivy flowers persist into winter – a welcome source of nectar for late insects.
Many plants grow in the hedge bottoms and, where the hedge is accompanied by a bank and ditch, damp-loving plants can thrive. Look out for violets in early spring and later in the year the starry white flowers of stitchwort or the diminutive blue-flowered ground ivy.
Walk along a hedgerow and you’ll see birds popping in and out continuously – highlighting the importance of hedges as habitats. If you are lucky, you might spot the bright pink breast of a male bullfinch, or hear as well as see the distinctive yellowhammer. Bats also use hedges to find their way from their roosts to feeding areas, while hedges connected to ponds are a big help for great crested newts to move around the countryside.
A strip of grassland running alongside a hedge adds to its habitat value, with longer grass supporting small mammals like mice and voles. These in turn are prey for kestrels, which hover aloft looking for a meal, and barn owls, best seen at dusk. Butterflies and many other insects also enjoy sheltered and sunny conditions along hedgerows.
Neglect is bad for hedges. Allowed to grow too tall, they can get thin and full of gaps at the base. A thick hedge can be maintained by the traditional practice of regular laying or plashing, or careful cutting with a flail or circular blade.
Until coal, transported by canal and railway, became plentiful in Hertfordshire in the 19th century, hedges were an important source of wood for fuel. At one time narrow ‘hedges’ were distinguished from ‘hedgerows’, which more closely resembled narrow woodland belts.
The pattern of hedges, which so defines the English countryside, stayed constant for the first half of the 20th century, but large-scale losses by the 1970s caused great concern at the damage this was doing to the countryside. Conservation bodies including CPRE called for hedges to be protected, and this was finally achieved in 1997 with the introduction of the Hedgerow Regulations. These stipulate that anyone wanting to grub out a hedge more than 20 metres long must apply for planning permission, enabling the local planning authority to determine whether the hedge is worthy of protection.
hedgelink.org.uk contains a wealth of information about hedges, their wildlife and management, including downloadable educational materials.
A free leaflet, A Little Rough Guide Around the Hedges, which contains a foldout guide to common hedgerow species, can be downloaded at cpreherts.org.uk or call 01438 717587 for a copy.