In this article I want to discuss and focus on one specific element of our wonderful landscape. The topic is hedges, and the value of them, what they provide, and how they have shaped the landscape whilst, at the same time, providing many solutions in both rural and urban environs.
Hedges have been an intrinsic part of the British landscape since Roman times - extraordinarily, some pre Roman hedges still survive. In the ancient countryside of Devon and Kent, the majority of existing hedges are medieval. At that time, they were left to be untidy, broad hedges, almost like linear thickets.
|Hawthorn in full bloom in a hedgerow separating agricultural land from a golf course. Hawthorn, also known as the May Bush because of its striking blossom appearing in late spring, is thought to be the origin of the saying 'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out'|
In 1603, the first Enclosure Act was passed, to be followed by over 5,000 separate Acts enclosing over seven million acres of open fields or common land. Enclosure Acts specified that plots of land be enclosed by hedges and ditches, with their maintenance the responsibility of the landowner. It is estimated that over 200,000 miles of hedge were planted following the introduction of the Act - this was as much again as in the previous 500 years.
Some counties, such as Lancashire, Kent, Devon and Cornwall, were not subject to Enclosure Acts whilst, in others where the Act was enforced, a large proportion of open field land was lost.
Enclosure involved considerable expense and was of greatest benefit to the bigger landowners, consolidating their previously scattered landholdings. Enclosure and the new hedges were less welcome to the poor who were deprived of their common grazing rights. As a sop, a small proportion of the land covered by enclosure was allotted close to dwellings for growing food - hence the term allotments.
Elm and oak were frequently planted in hedges for timber and remain much in evidence today. Elm remains widespread in hedges, having suckered from the root systems of elm stands felled by Dutch Elm disease. Here, it can often become dominant, suppressing all other shrubs. A row of mature oak through a field invariably denotes a former hedgerow.
Although some started calling for a reduction in the number of hedges, on the grounds of efficiency - even as enclosure was still taking place - the number of hedges did not start to decline significantly until after the Second World War. In 1946, there was an estimated 500,000 miles of hedge in England.
From 1947 to 1990, however, around forty percent of our hedgerows were lost to make fields that could be more efficiently managed by larger farm machinery. A higher percentage have fallen victim to neglect. It is only relatively recently that hedges have had the attention they deserve.
How Old is That Hedge? - The Application of Hooper's Rule
Hedgerows that were subject to the Enclosure Act are generally quite easy to spot as they follow arrow straight lines. In contrast, hedges of previous centuries tended to respect local topography and hardly ever followed a straight path for any great distance. Hedges planted upon a lynchet (a medieval bank) or embankment, perhaps with ditches on one or both sides, are almost invariably of medieval or even pre-Conquest date, as are hedges which contain trees such as ash, alder, yew and holly, or any pollarded trees such as hazel. These dating methods are all rather vague, however. So, how else can one effectively date an English countryside hedgerow?
In the 1950s, Dr. Max Hooper discovered a close correlation between the number of different species of tree and shrub contained within a hedge and the actual age of the hedge itself, subsequently forming what has since become known as Hooper's Rule or Hooper's Law.
This rule states that the count of certain standard species within a thirty yard stretch of hedge gives the age of the hedge in centuries, thereby an Enclosure Act hedge would contain a couple of species, whilst hedges exhibiting ten or more species are likely to have first been planted in Anglo-Saxon times. The reason why Hooper's Rule works is due to the fact that it had been common practice, since Saxon times, to plant hedges of a single species, into which other species have been introduced naturally over time, at the rate of approximately one new species for each century elapsed.
Hedges have come about in three different ways:
- Where woodland was cleared and the edges left as hedges
- Undisturbed, hedges populated themselves by an existing feature such as a ditch, bank or fence
- As a result of deliberate planting
Today, new hedges are almost always planted but, in the past, many hedges were formed by the other two methods.
The Benefits of Hedges
Hedges serve to keep stock in a pasture and out of crop fields. They also provide shade for stock and protection from the wind and guard against soil erosion. Hedges are an attractive feature of the British countryside and a valuable wildlife habitat, not just the hedge itself but also any associated ditch and bank. Hedgerows provide a rich source of food for birds and small mammals. They may also link otherwise isolated wildlife habitats thereby creating valuable corridors. Once planted, hedgerows require only periodic maintenance to provide a permanent barrier.
Popular hedgerow species include field maple, hazel, plum, crab apple, holly, sweet chestnut, elm, beech, hornbeam, ash, whitebeam, wild privet and spindle. Poisonous shrubs, such as yew and box, are not planted in stock hedges. Beech is not commonly found in farm hedges, since it is attractive to stock.
Both beech and hornbeam retain their leaves throughout the winter when managed as a hedge, shedding them only in spring, when emerging new shoots finally dislodge them, and it is this, along with their lush summer colour, that makes them so popular in gardens.
It was the plant collectors of the Victorian era who brought to this country a whole new variety of plant species that provided new material for landscaping and hedging in many of the Victorian parks and gardens. Over the years, these new species became very popular and widely used in all manner of environments.
Hedge or fence?
Local Authority housing associations, back in the 1940s, began building new houses with front and back gardens that were fenced with live plant material, mainly in the form of privet hedging. Privet hedges have stood the test of time, with many fifty year old hedges still providing a great screen/fence line.
I remember, during my role as client officer for the local council, we had hundreds of miles of privet hedge to maintain on the council housing estates. When cut regularly (2-3 times a year) they looked marvellous, however, some bright spark on the council decided it would be more cost effective, in the long term, to grub them out and replace them with wooden post and rail fencing.
After spending a lot of time and money grubbing out the entire lot, buying and installing new fence materials, the council were soon faced with ongoing repair bills for the replacement of panels and posts due to acts of vandalism, theft and graffiti. It soon became apparent that it was not the best cost saving solution they had ever dreamed up!
I see many sports clubs, particularly bowls clubs, who are still maintaining natural hedge/fence lines that continue to provide a valuable asset in terms of providing security fencing, screening and a wildlife haven. Long may that continue.
Natural hedging and planting of trees on sports fields and golf courses has been popular for years, and there are many examples of old plantations, for example, a line of poplar trees being used to shield between fairways and tees. In the early 1970s, many parkland golf course started planting conifer trees around greens and tees as they were fast growing and provided colour all year round. The same can be said for football clubs, schools and many parks who used hedges and trees, especially conifers, for screening purposes.
Hedgerows and wildlife
The popularity of hedges is that, not only do they provide a practical aid in creating barriers between properties and land assets, they offer an essential resource for wildlife.
Hedges support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies. The ditches and banks associated with hedgerows provide habitat for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles.
In areas with few woods, many species of birds depend on hedgerows for their survival. At least thirty species nest in hedgerows. Many of these, such as bullfinches and turtle doves, prefer hedgerows over four metres tall, with lots of trees, whereas whitethroats, linnets and yellowhammers favour shorter hedgerows (2-3m) with fewer trees. In winter, hedgerows offer feeding and roosting sites for birds.
Wrens, robins, dunnocks and whitethroats usually nest low down, but song thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches and greenfinches nest well above ground level. Grey partridges use grass cover at the bottom of a hedge to nest. It is, therefore, very important to manage for a range of heights and tree densities, and to maintain a grassy verge at the base of the hedge.
Grassy hedge bottoms and field margins provide nesting material and insect larvae for chicks to feed on. Wild flowers and grasses growing up into a hedge also help to conceal nests from predators.
Thick hedges with wide bases that provide plenty of cover are best, but there should be a variety of shapes and sizes from formal hedges to naturally developed stretches. Hedgerows with large numbers of woody species hold more birds. Trees, particularly oaks, support a rich variety of insects and are good song posts. Old trees have holes where blue tits, owls and kestrels, as well as bats, can nest.
Dead timber is also a rich source of insect food and should be left in the hedge unless it is unsafe.
Maintenance of Hedgerows
Never cut hedgerows during the nesting season (March to August). Hedge trimming is best left until the end of winter to leave the larder of fruits and nuts for wildlife.
If it is not possible to get on the field at this time of the year, on these occasions trimming can be brought forward to early winter. The most important consideration is to avoid work during the breeding season. Retain ground cover at the base of the hedge over winter for ground-nesting birds such as partridges.
These best practice guidelines are agreed by conservation groups and agriculture departments. Constraints on hedgerow management have been set out in the legally defined Codes of Good Farming Practice, which applies to all farmers participating in an agri-environment scheme or in receipt of Less Favoured Area payments.
Under these guidelines, hedgerow trimming is not permitted between 1st March and 31st July in England, in Scotland, between 15th March and 31st August and, in Wales and Northern Ireland, between 1st March and 31st August.
Vigorous, healthy hedges require only regular trimming to keep them to the required height and width, and to encourage bushy growth. Today, this is universally achieved using tractor mounted hedgecutting equipment.
In the amenity sector, we now have an array of hand-held hedgecutting tools at our disposal - petrol, electric or battery powered as the job requires. Coupled with towers and hydraulic lift platforms, the job of looking after high hedges has become more manageable and safe.
Management of hedges will be dictated by location, age, plant species, size and functionality.
Many hedges have been in situ for years, and, therefore, have been maintained in a set way, primarily to keep them neat and tidy.
Hedges around sports facilities are usually planted to provide boundaries, security, wind breaks and noise buffers. In the 1970s, conifers were often used for this purpose, but the speed of growth - up to half a metre per year in some species - meant they were difficult to manage. In addition, they are not particularly wildlife friendly.
The species of hedge has a big influence on the amount of clipping work. Some, such as privet, lonicera, cotoneasters, Leyland cypress and Monterey cypress are very rapid growers, capable of making a decent hedge in four or five years, but they also need most maintenance. Lonicera and privet may need clipping as often as four times each year.
Slower-growing hedges, such as beech, yew, griselinia, thuya, lawson cypress, hawthorn, hornheam, berberis, olearia and holly hold their neat look with a single clipping each year. Feeding has an influence on the growth rate of hedging.
These slower-growing varieties can be speeded up in the initial years of establishment by feeding and watering. If this is done, they lose nothing in speed of establishment to the faster-growing kinds, but have the distinct advantage of easier maintenance for life.
The other deciding factor that may influence the welfare of the hedge is location and soil type. For example, pollution from road traffic can often affect plant growth, leaving hedges stunted, whilst a poor soil type or pH level will dictate the choice of species.
Timing of hedgecutting is crucial. Appropriate signage will be required to warn of the work being carried out. All operatives should be trained and qualified to use powered equipment in public places.
It is best done in the late winter when any berries will have been eaten, and should not take place annually, as most plants will not flower on year old wood.
Hedgelaying is a traditional method of management and has been practised for hundreds of years. It involves cutting nearly all the way through the base of the stems and laying them over at an angle of about thirty-five degrees. The cut stems, called pleachers, are tucked tightly together and laid parallel to each other. Trimming should follow the direction of any previous hedgelaying to minimise damage to the wood.
Carried out correctly, cutting twigs rather than major stems, mechanised cutting can achieve satisfactory results, as regrowth in subsequent years will show.
The cost of maintaining hedges is broadly equivalent to that of fencing, which has to be replaced about every fifteen years or so.
The flail trimmer is designed to cut through material up to a maximum of 2cm thick. When it is used on thicker branches, the result is ragged and/or split wood. Whilst this looks terrible, most healthy hedgerows are able to survive and recover. This misuse of the flail trimmer, however, leaves the shrubs very vulnerable to attack by fungal diseases, particularly if the flail is used annually.
So, to conclude, hedges provide a valuable asset for us all, and should be recognised and considered more favourably when managing sports facilities, as they are a natural sustainable product that offers many uses - wind breaks, shelters, fence lines, wildlife havens, noise barriers and much more. And their aesthetic value compared to wood panelled fencing certainly should be added to the equation.
We should be encouraging the planting of new hedges and plantations at every opportunity, as it gives us the chance to leave some sort of legacy for future generations to come.