The Pattern of the Land

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Hedgerows are a defining feature of the English countryside, creating a distinctive patchwork over much of the land.  The word ‘hedge’ derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘hecg’ meaning boundary.  But over time these leafy stretches have proved to be so much more than man’s way of marking a plot or controlling the movement of livestock.

Well over half of England has had a continuously hedged landscape for a thousand years or more.  This is despite the removal, in medieval times, of many hedgerows to create an open field system of farming, and the subsequent planting of new hedges under the Enclosure Acts in the years between 1750 and 1850.

Over time different regions developed their own distinctive methods of planting or laying, creating traditional practices that today contribute much to the character of a place.  From the hedges of Cornwall – stone banks topped with turf and adopted over time by a multitude of wild plants, sometimes with their herringbone pattern (known as Curzy Way or Jack and Jill) still showing – to the carefully pleached and well maintained, square-cut hedges of Lancashire and Westmorland, our hedgerows are a distinctive part of our cultural heritage.  And whether created to manage livestock or land (to prevent soil erosion or to regulate water supply for example) they are vital to the survival of much of our native flora and fauna.

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As winter approaches and the hedgerows begin to lose their leaves, we get to glimpse into the thicket of branches and twigs; to discover what the hedgerow harbours.  Long abandoned birds’ nests, a loveliness of ladybirds clustering together to hibernate, a stretch of spider’s web, all provide insight into the role our hedges play as shelter.  For flying insects such as butterflies, sheltered conditions are essential, allowing them to gain and retain the heat needed for flight.  For small mammals it is the interconnectedness of our hedgerows that proves key. Networks of hedges provide safe routes to follow, allowing creatures such as mice and voles to move freely in search of food while remaining hidden from predators.

At this time of year the hedgerow’s worth as a source of food is most apparent too.  Great clouds of bees, wasps, and flies erupt from the starry, nectar-rich heads of ivy flowers, while red admirals flit among them.  And as the flowers fatten into dark berries they become rich pickings for hungry birds.

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Of course it’s not just wildlife that benefits from this natural abundance.  Hedgerows have long provided some of our favourite victuals: blackberry jam, sloe gin, rosehip syrup, hawthorn jelly to name but a few.  And they are a great source of inspiration; particularly on autumnal days, all aglow with hips and haws, and bedecked with strings of berries, garlands of hops, and the tangle of traveller’s joy.  Clusters of woody nightshade berries hang like little lanterns, and robin’s pincushions – caused by the larvae of a tiny gall wasp, Diplolepis rosae  – redden on the wild roses.

Perhaps it is this sheer density of different life forms that makes our hedgerows so fascinating. Our landscape and our lives are certainly made all the more rich by their presence.

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Did you know?

It takes around one hundred years for a new woody species, such as blackthorn, hawthorn, elder or hazel, to become established.  Thanks to this knowledge you can estimate a hedge’s age using what is known as Hooper’s Hypothesis. Just count the number of woody species within a 30 metre stretch, then multiply that number by a hundred.  The hypothesis was formed by the naturalist Max Hooper who died earlier this year, aged 82.

MusingsHelen Duncan