Hail the hedgerow

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By Chris Dady

Chris Dady celebrates the importance of the hedgerows which criss-cross our country.

With more than 7500 miles of hedges in Norfolk it would be hard to imagine our countryside without them. Thorn hedgerows were introduced by the Romans, but it was not until we needed to keep animals from wandering and mark out boundaries about 1000 years ago that hedge planting was carried out more systematically, becoming commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the original hedgerows still survive today.

A traditional mixed hedge replicates the conditions found at woodland edges, and they are able to sustain many plants, insects and animals well as being a source of food for us. Hedgerows help reduce flooding in wet periods and protecting against drought in dry spells by absorbing and storing water. They can minimise soil erosion, reduce pollution by capturing carbon and act as barriers to prevent drifting of snow, as well as fulfilling their original purpose of marking boundaries and keeping farm animals secure.

Hedges are a beautiful part of our Norfolk landscapes with seasonal changes, blossoms and autumn colours. More than 80% of our farmland birds use hedges for protection and food, and species such as dormice, bats, newts and bees as well as other insects rely on them too, not forgetting the hedgehog.

Our own families would have used hawthorn wood for tool handles and bowls, and its blossom was the original wedding confetti. Other woods would have been used, and fruits, nuts and flowers would have been collected for winemaking, food and decoration.

As a hedgerow ages it will build the number of plant species present. Plants including cow parsley, primroses, nettles and dock will feature alongside fungi. Look out for gorse, blackthorn, hawthorn, maple, guelder rose, bramble, dog rose, hazel, apple, cherry, chestnut, crab apple, holly, poplar, elder, oak, beech, ash and elm.

Traditional hedge laying is a technique to help rejuvenate the hedge and ensure it was thick and healthy enough to provide a stock-proof barrier. Partly cutting through a small bush or tree in the hedge, it was then bent without breaking and woven back into the hedge. Properly done, this encouraged more growth and was attractive in its own right.

The town hedge is not to be overlooked in its importance. If it has a mix of varieties it will benefit a garden with plants and wildlife, as well as providing an attractive boundary, shade and privacy in a way that a fence or a single variety of urban hedging material never can.

Sadly, significant amounts of hedgerow were lost in the UK mainly through agricultural intensification from the 1940s right through to the 1970s. A key threat today is poor management and removal to make way for large scale developments. Subsidised replanting schemes are more important than ever.

There are some rules against removal via the hedgerow regulations, but not all have protection. Some species can be damaged by over cutting, and birds nests can be destroyed if maintenance takes place during the nesting season. Diseases such as ash die-back and sweet chestnut blight cause further damage.

It is clear that hedges have a really important role in helping to alleviate some of the climate change issues we are facing, and they add tremendous value by supporting the diversity of our flora and fauna as well as beautifying our gardens and countryside.

When you next walk past a hedge, have a look at the plants it contains, signs of insect and animal life, and fruits you can use in your kitchen. If you are lucky enough to have a mixed hedge, or have the opportunity to plant one, it will reward you and the environment beautifully.

This article appeared in the July 2018 edition of the Norfolk Magazine.

Norfolk Magazine July 2018

The laying of a traditional hedge
The laying of a traditional hedge near to Surlingham, Norfolk Evelyn Simak - geograph.org.uk/p/1750502
A footpath alongside a hedgerow and farmland in the Norfolk countryside