We all recognise the importance of planting millions of new trees to help tackle the climate crisis by capturing carbon but how many have considered the plight of the humbler hedge. Statistics tell us how many miles of hedges have been lost either scrubbed up to increase grain field sizes or just totally neglected, particularly since WWII.
Take a closer look at those hedges when you pass by. They are not only beautiful, but they also provide vital habitat and corridors for wildlife. The best hedges are thick and broadest at the bottom with a range of species – blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, spindle, field maple, wayfaring tree, and wild service tree. They are then often interwoven with rambling roses, honeysuckle, brambles, and wild clematis. Then topped by occasional pollarded oak or ash and decoratively berried elderflower or rowan. At the base of the hedge, there is usually an abundance of wildflowers and grasses.
You will see seasonal fruits – hazelnuts, blueberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries, hazelnuts, and strawberries. Whilst there will be many small animals and insects out of sight, the hedge often chirps with sparrows or bluetits, bumblebees buzz around and butterflies flutter by.
The Government regulates and issues guidance providing some protection for hedges. Developers are not allowed to remove a hedge that is more than 30 years old without permission with older and ancient hedges having added safeguards. A Tree Protection Order may be applied. It is recommended not to cut or trim hedges between 1st March and 31st August to protect nesting birds and lay a hedge October to March. Thirty recorded hedgelaying styles have been recorded throughout the UK with their own organisation, the National Hedgelaying Society. There is a new Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot scheme with standards applied to pay landowners for looking after hedges.
Many hedges are believed to be medieval with the type of species within the hedge helping to inform the age. Hooper’s Rule (after Dr. Max Hooper) suggests that by counting the number of woody species in a thirty-yard stretch multiplied by 110 years, gives the age of the hedge.
Some of our finest and impressive hedges are in Devon where an earth bank is topped with shrubs. A quarter of Devon’s hedges are believed to be 800 years old preserved by traditional farming practices over the centuries.
Enjoy the autumn hedgerow colours and tasty mellow fruits but leave some for the wildlife.
Here is a recipe for Sloe Jelly 1lb sloes 1lb apples 1lb sugar (see below) Prick the sloes and chop the apples without peeling or coring Put both fruits into a pan and cover with water Bring to the boil slowly, simmer until soft Strain overnight through muslin Put 1lb sugar: 1 pint of juice to heat and keep stirring until the sugar dissolves, then boil to set. Introducing a little gin flavouring or juniper and arranging in glasses, gives an adult party jelly.