The role of the British hedgerow

Countryfile presenter Adam Henson explains how hedgerows provide a vital habitat for wildlife and play a vital role in farming 

2nd May 2017
Colourful Northumbrian landscape Early summer in the Northumbrian landscape in the North East of England. A view over a hawthorn hedge to a field of bright yellow oilseed rape and the hills called the Cheviots in the distance.

The much-admired patchwork-quilt effect of the landscape has a great deal to do with our tradition for hedgerows. Rows of trees and shrubs were originally grown to stop cattle and sheep from roaming, to provide shelter from poor weather or as a simple way of marking farm and parish boundaries. Until the 17th century, most of Britain had an open-field system but the Enclosure Acts put an end to common grazing in many places, and the tilling of a single piece of land by different groups of peasant workers. New landowners found that hedges were the best way to enclose their fields. Today there are around 500,000 miles of hedgerow in the UK, but that’s still less than half the amount we had before the Second World War. Many were grubbed up to make way for new housing and motorways, while the push to produce more food for the nation saw fields merged and enlarged. 

An important job

Hedges don’t just give character to the countryside, they also play a vital role in shielding crops and reducing soil damage. And a tightly packed, well-laid hedge on top of a raised bank can withstand sheep or cattle for years. In some parts of the country, hedges are a common feature – however, to stop livestock damaging them, they may have a wire fence running parallel to the hedge. Conservationists love hedgerows because they’re Britain’s biggest nature reserve – providing home, shelter and food for everything from hedgehogs to bumblebees and songbirds. Wildlife will also use the protection of a hedge as a corridor to move across the countryside.

On the straight and narrow

The countryside might look ‘natural’ but everything we see in the landscape has been moulded by man. Every year, landowners spend considerable time and money to make sure their field boundaries are in tip-top condition. Hedges can be trimmed, coppiced (cut back to ground level) or layed. The ancient craft of hedgelaying involves bending and weaving the branches to create a strong, neat hedge.

Hawthorn

The hawthorn makes the perfect deterrent hedge due to its spike-covered branches. It also provides food and shelter for starlings, blackbirds and thrushes.

Blackthorn

A fast-growing, early-blossoming species with pretty white flowers, Blackthorn grows well in wet and coastal areas and its fruit is the sloe (used in sloe gin).

Field Maple

Autumn is the time to see the field maple at its best. The wide flat leaves turn a deep golden-yellow and its winged-seeds are blown on the wind.

Hornbeam

The hornbeam, with its hard twisted wood, likes clay soil in the south and east of England. Look out for its hair-covered twigs and yellowy male catkins in spring.

Dogwood

Dogwood provides a dash of colour to a mixed hedge with its red twigs, white flowers in spring, crimson leaves in autumn and clusters of blackish berries.

Dog Rose

This is the UK’s most widespread wild rose, with curved thorns and bluey leaves. In the autumn its red rosehips provide valuable food for birds and small mammals.

 

Main image: Early summer in the Northumbrian landscape in the North East of England. A view over a hawthorn hedge to a field of bright yellow oilseed rape and the hills called the Cheviots in the distance. /Credit: Getty

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