The great British hedge: A food bank, a windbreak and a flood defence

There are sound practical, economic and environmental reasons why we should be saving and renewing our ancient hedgerows, argues Christopher Hart in his new book, Hedgelands.

The traditional British hedge is the greatest edge habitat on earth. It is a green food bank, a windbreak, a stock fence, a flood defence system, an immense storage unit for excess carbon dioxide and an incomparable haven for wildlife. “Hedges may support up to 80 per cent of our woodland birds, 50 per cent of our mammals and 30 per cent of our butterflies,” says the RSPB.

A hedge provides singing posts for birds, a crucial navigational aid for bats, and a cross-country route for any number of small mammals safely hidden from predators. Hedgerow shrubs and trees, bathed in sunshine, will also produce far more fruit than in a woodland. You won’t find many juicy blackberries in the heart of a dark oak forest, no matter how many brambles might be trying to grow there. The most generous kind of hedge should include shrubs, trees and bushes, coppiced and/or cut and laid, forming a row.

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Due to their effectiveness in containing livestock, the thorniest of our native shrubs and trees will predominate, such as blackthorn, hawthorn, dog rose and crab apple. And, again, by happy chance, these thorny species are also among the most valuable for wildlife. Hawthorns, for instance, are the equal of beech or sweet chestnut for providing fruit and seeds, while their leaf litter – an often-overlooked micro-environment – is rivalled in importance only by the ash. A unique double.

A hedgerow in AberdeenshireA hedgerow in Aberdeenshire
A hedgerow in Aberdeenshire

Hedges are far more than quaint relics of the old-fashioned countryside that should either be left to quietly die out to make things more ‘efficient’ or else be flailed to within an inch of their lives. They form an unbroken line back through history, quite literally in some cases, to the native scrub of our ancient landscape. The celebrated Judith’s Hedge in Cambridgeshire, for instance, is at least 900 years old – older than either Windsor Castle or Westminster Abbey, first sprouting at about the time the Crusaders were capturing Tyre. At the same time, carefully nurtured hedgerows hold out a promise for the future as few other features of our landscape do. In a time of increasing food scarcity and supply-chain disruptions, a richly flourishing hedgerow can offer an abundance of free wild food, from greens in the spring to fruit and nuts in the autumn, as well as measurably increasing yields in the field it protects.

In a time of increasing rainfall, flood risk and soil erosion, hedges form a resilient living barrier to such challenges. And in a time of deeply destabilising and unpredictable climate change, they offer not just a vague, romantic sense of stability and continuity with the rose-tinted past, but a literal stability, locking up megatons of carbon dioxide in their complex and artful structures.

The key case study in my new book Hedgelands, was a hedge at Underhill Wood Nature Reserve, a small rewilding project in Wiltshire. The hedge was relaid using conservation hedgelaying techniques, which promote nature and wildlife, and was transformed from what had been a straggly, grown-out hedge to its former glory: a mighty burgeoning barricade, twice the height of a man and almost as deep from front to back; festooned with buds and flowers in springtime; in summer a tumultuous carnival of insect life; in autumn a dazzling spread of numberless fruits and nuts, first come first served; and in winter a precious haven for hibernating animals or fluff-feathered birds, sheltering from the silent frost and the long, iron-dark night.

Seeing this hedge roar back to abundant life, seems a template for how many thousands of miles of hedgerow across the country might look. With a small initial investment of time, energy and craftsmanlike skill, they will repay huge dividends. The campaign group Rewilding Britain has stated their ambitious aim of seeing fully a third of our native hedgerows renewed as conservation hedgerows. This would create a stunning living latticework of some 150,000 kilometres of conservation-laid hedgerow across our countryside. And, unlike some rewilding projects or tree-planting programmes, which can cause controversy by taking food-producing farmland out of production, the restoration of our existing hedgerows merely means better management of these fabulous linear ecosystems already in place, and uses up no extra land whatsoever.

It is hard to imagine a greater monument to our faith in the future. But hedges need maintaining, and a truly wildlife-friendly hedge needs to be laid, by hand, so that it can continue to grow and thicken in perpetuity. Where this has been done, we now still have flourishing hedgerows that go back certainly to Anglo-Saxon times, and arguably to the Bronze Age.

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At first glance, the cost of hand-laying all the hedges on our country’s farmland seems so prohibitively expensive as to be a mere pipe dream. But costing such things is more complex than it looks. Farmers currently flail their hedgerows every year, whereas a well-laid hedge only needs laying once every ten years – and was sometimes even done on a 40-year cycle – resulting in colossal cathedral-like hedgerows.

There are also the vast environmental benefits of flourishing ancient hedgerows, and their ecological services from flood control, soil protection and climate moderation, to the conservation of innumerable species of hedgerow-dwelling insects – especially at a time of devastating invertebrate decline.

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With better management of at least a good proportion, if not all, of our incredible half a million kilometres of hedgerow, we might not need to worry so much about insects disappearing, bird numbers falling or our targets for carbon capture. Our lovely native hedgerows would do much of the work for us, if we only looked after them.

These accidental nature reserves stitch our countryside together into that famous ‘patchwork quilt’ that can be seen from virtually any hillside, moorland or downland. But when the stitching starts to fray and fail, and the patchwork quilt starts to come apart… What will we have to keep us warm when winter comes?

We should be saving and renewing our ancient hedgerows with the same zeal as our ancient woodlands. They are just as valuable.

It isn’t just farmland that has hedgerows, of course. There are some 23 million gardens in the UK, the majority of which will have at least a few yards of hedge. There are more hedgerows around allotments, public parks, school playing fields, churchyards, hospital grounds, university campuses… This is an incredible potential resource for wildlife, yet many are machine-clipped, monocultural privet or beech hedges. It would be far more imaginative and fun, and produce much greater sensory pleasure, to ‘rewild’ a boring suburban hedge by introducing delightful flowering climbers like honeysuckle and bindweed, or even, if you really wanted to annoy the tidy-minded, a few flower-and fruit-rich brambles.

And if all such non-farmland hedges were supplanted wherever possible by the richly diverse and conservation-laid kind, and allowed to grow higher, thicker, thornier, with wide bases and wide grassy verges mown only once a year, late in summer, like mini hay meadows, the effects might be immense.

This extract was adapted from Christopher Hart’s new book Hedgelands: A Wild Wander Around Britain’s Greatest Edge Habitat (Chelsea Green Publishing, out now, priced £20)

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