According to the great Dr Oliver Rackham, hedges may be the oldest manmade structures on earth still used for their original purpose. The Pyramids are old as well, of course, but we don’t bury pharaohs in them any more. Nor do we still use Stonehenge to predict eclipses. But hedges continue to be used to demarcate field boundaries and enclose wandering livestock.

And some of them are very, very old. The farmer and archaeologist Francis Pryor has unearthed evidence of hedges being deliberately laid – blackthorn hedges, to be precise – some 4,500 years ago, at the extraordinary Must Farm site in Cambridgeshire. There are further field boundaries – often earthen banks flanked with stones and topped with heather and gorse – on our wild moorlands such as Dartmoor, which also date straight back to the Bronze Age. And a wealth of Anglo-Saxon land charters show that the hedgerows carefully described in them are still very much standing today. King Æthelred II, for instance – the famously Unready one – granted some land to Abbot Wulfgeat of Burton Abbey in Staffordshire in 1012, very specifically describing the boundary of gifted land as running “up the ridge to the boundary thorn, then to the ploughland, then along a hedge to a brook”. This boundary can still be clearly seen today.

There’s a popular misconception that most of our hedges only date from the time of the Enclosures – about 1500-1800 or so – but many are far, far older. And the longer any feature has been in our landscape, the more important it becomes to wildlife. (Compare ancient woodland to new tree plantation.) As I explain in my new book Hedgelands, dating is more complicated than you might think, but you can often get a good feel for an ancient hedge just by looking: does it contain massive old stumps, coppices or pollards? Does it contain multiple different woody species, from hawthorn and hazel to spindle and even, if you’re lucky, wild pear? Does it contain ancient woodland indicator species such as bluebells, dog’s mercury or wild garlic? Then the chances are it’ll be much, much older than the Enclosures, and quite probably older than Westminster Abbey.

There’s another fascinating reason why our native hedgerows are so precious to our natural landscape. A further misconception held until quite recently that, without human intervention, the “natural” state of Britain would be a dense oak forest from sea to shining sea, a kind of dark, mossy, atmospheric Ent-haunted Fangorn, magical in its way, but rather silent and sunless and dominating. A squirrel, it was said, could have traversed the length and breadth of Britain, from Suffolk to Gwynedd, without once touching the ground.

We now know this is false, and for an intriguing reason: we no longer “see”, “hear” or miss what isn’t there. And what isn’t there in most of our countryside is vast, snorting, vigorously dunging herds of free-roaming grazers, browsers and herbivores, like wild horses, cattle, bison, and even, only 35,000 years ago, short-tusked elephants. These herds were the tanks and bulldozers and blunderers of our pre-farming landscape, preventing the woodlands from taking over and creating a far more appealing terrain called wood pasture: a rich mosaic of grasslands, ponds, bogs, heaths and scrub.

A trio of friends, Jonathan, Harry and I, decided we’d re-lay a hedge in Wiltshire and monitor the result

It’s that unassuming diminutive “scrub” that explains the value of hedgerows today. Because they are the scrub of the farmed landscape, the perfect proxy for the dense, thorny thickets and spiky fortlets of Mesolithic Britain, in which so many of our native birds, mammals and reptiles found their habitat.

And today, a pasture field with some cows in it, surrounded by a thick thorny hedge, perhaps interspersed with a few veteran pollarded oaks, and a boggy old pond in the corner, is a fair approximation of ancient wood pasture. If the farmer is as interested in wildlife as beef or milk yields (plenty of them are, incidentally), it might still be a wildlife haven, while producing around 300 kilos of prime beef per acre per year.

But if you want to see actual ancient wood pasture today, the New Forest is a perfect example, though there are also exciting plans to turn swathes of Epping Forest back to wood pasture with careful tree thinning and cattle grazing.

So much for the antiquity and incredible value of the hedge. Now some statistics – and I’ll keep it quick, I promise. We had some 600,000 kms of hedgerows in this country when I was born in 1965; today it’s down to 400,000 kms, and around half of them are what is grimly called “relict”, barely recognisable as those thick, briary, tangled, birdsong-filled havens of wildlife that we picture. Instead, they’re the depressingly familiar lines of wind-blown stumps with a peculiar flat top that you can only create with year after year of dogged flailing, barely four or five feet high and often literally fruitless. The charity Buglife has unforgettably described these sorry substitutes for hedgerows as “little more than a mass of scar tissue”.

So, five years ago, a trio of friends – Jonathan, Harry and I – decided we’d relay a hedge in Wiltshire and monitor the result. Jonathan had a hedge on his land that was very much “relict”, but ideal for a traditional-style relaying. None of us were what you’d call experts. We had only a rough idea of the principles of hedgelaying, and certainly wouldn’t have won any prizes. We hacked and bodged and cursed – but it’s true what they say on the willowy Somerset Levels: “You can’t kill a willer,” and you can’t easily kill a hazel, a hawthorn or blackthorn either. Cut them two-thirds through at the base, push them over and peg them down, and they’ll just grow back the stronger.

Soon, what was formerly a row of sad, gappy stumps with weird, gnarled, deformed tops, offering no shade in summer, no shelter in winter, once again looked like a laid hedge. The old countrymen with their venerable billhooks, who lay hedges with such consummate skill, might have favoured stricter and more elegant styles: the Midland Bullock, the Leicestershire Bullfinch, the Glamorgan flying hedge… the regional names for hedging styles are just as magically evocative of our countryside as the names of rare apple varieties, or breeds of sheep. But for maximum wildlife value, a rough-cut conservation lay is actually the best, as well as the quickest and easiest.

By the following spring, sure enough, the old principle proved true: a relaid hedge is “new shoots on old roots”; and the numerous sliced and inclined pleachers, or stems, were now sending up a forest of rich new growth skywards. The veteran stumps were magically rejuvenated, and soon it was a song-filled thicket, bursting with bramble blossoms and darting hoverflies, with visiting brimstones above and faint, furry scurryings deep within: a linear ancient woodland, you might say.

Harry, studying for a degree in Wildlife Conservation, did detailed surveys before and after, and the results proved astonishing. Within three years, he had clocked an increase of insect abundance of 40 per cent, and an average of 6.7 more species of insect at each measurement site. He estimated that insect numbers could quadruple within ten years. Oh, and foliage density increased from 20 per cent to 100 per cent.

The implications are huge. Hedges don’t need to be physically removed to disappear. They’ll disappear anyway if you just do nothing, and with them disappears a uniquely valuable habitat and a rich wild food buffet of shoots and leaves, blossoms and nectar, hips, haws and hazelnuts.

But if you were to relay at least some of the 200,000 kms of our relict hedgerows, the effects could be colossal. Such an increase in foliage density on such a scale would mean major carbon capture. Insect numbers could recover, and with them, all the other species that depend on them. Hedgerows also lower wind speeds, reduce soil erosion, soak up rainfall, and offer a year-round buffet of free wild food for humans as well as wildlife. And all of this without ground clearing and planting, without plastic tree guards, or taking up any more room in our overcrowded and much-contested land. The hedgerows are already there, their root systems deep and centuries old, ready to bud and shoot, blossom and fruit once again.

“Hedgelands: A Wild Wander Around Britain’s Greatest Habitat” by Christopher Hart is published by Chelsea Green, £20

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Columns, June / July 2024, Opinions, Walden

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