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A brief history of hedgerows

16 October 2018 No comments

From Bronze Age farmers clearing woodland for fields, leaving woody strips as boundaries, to the creation of enriched natural wildlife corridors around new residential and commercial developments in the 21st Century, there's no denying - the humble hedgerow is an integral part of the UK countryside. And nothing beats seeing that familiar checkerboard pattern from the air when you fly back in from your holidays, does it?!

With the beginning of a new planting season hurtling towards us, we thought we'd look back into the origins of hedgerows, their history, their make-up and how they've become the most British of British landscape characteristics.

Hedges in the British Landscape

The interwoven network of hedgerows, peppered with dry stone walls, covers most of the UK countryside.The hedgelines pick out changes in the landscape, its soil and underlying geology.The patterns define current, past and often ancient land use, from agriculture to land ownership.It’s the most archetypal British characteristic of all in the UK countryside.

Hedges through history

Let's look at some historical hedge turning points - a few hedge facts that will bring us up the present day and help explain how our distinctive hedging formed.

When did we start having hedges?

Planting of new hedgerows started around Roman times and continued on and off, particularly in Anglo-Saxon times and through to the mid 18th century, when the Enclosures Act prompted a great boost in hedge planting, mostly around the Midlands.

Why were hedges planted?

Predominantly following the Enclosures Act, where hedge planting practices were adopted by wealthy landowners, who enclosed common fields ith for their own use, usually to raise sheep. Hedge planting made the perfect boundary border.

Many were lost in the Napoleonic Wars when the countryside was ravaged and a battered British population was threatened with starvation.

Where are hedges most common?

You'll find the highest concentration of hedgerows in the lowland regions of England, with more northern counties favouring the dry stone wall to define and protect.

What are the most common hedge plants?

As you'd expect, you'll be most familiar with hawthorn, blackthorn and holly - the hardiest of varieties, perfect for hedge planting, with foliage and berry for wildlife and thorny protection against intruders.

Crataegus monogyna - Hawthorn Prunus spinosa - Blackthorn Ilex Aquifolium - Holly

How many hedges are there in England?

It's an estimate... but experts gauge that there is in excess of 700,000 km in England alone. That's a hedgerow taking you to the moon... and back!

How old is my hedge?

There's some maths behinds this! The Hooper Formula is often cited where you count the number of species in a 30 metre length and use this as an indicator of age:

  • 1 species for each 100 years. Single species hedge=100 years old
  • 10-12 species = 1000 years old

This is to be used with caution, as we now that it has been common practice for some years to specifically plant hedges with mixed varieties, to encourage a natural blend of native species.

Why is it called a "hedge"?

It is believed to come from the Saxon word for "living boundary" - hege.

And finally... what is Hedgelaying?

A significant part of the history of hedgerows lies in the practice of Hedgelaying - and there's a national charity dedicated to keeping this traditional skill alive: The National Hedgelaying Society (NHLS) Their Patron is HRH The Prince of Wales.

Modern hedgelaying (geograph 3734710)

The practice of "laying hedges" was commonplace hundreds of years ago and involves bending the cut stems over and securing them with stakes or binders to create a living, stock-proof barrier. It is believed to be the best maintenance method to promote regrowth from ground level - vital for long, healthy plant life.

There is a national competition every year and an accredited craftsman certification scheme. The NHLS is also partners with Hedgelink, a group of organisations working together to share knowledge, encourage new hedge planting and collaboration with farmers and land owners to conserve Britain’s hedgerow heritage.

Plant your hedge this bare root season

Has this whet your hedging appetite? The bare root planting season will start around the beginning of November. You can pre-order now to get a head-start and get a 15% discount. Here's to a happy hedgeplanting season!

Posted in: Environmental news