Environment

Hedgerows are amazing. Here's why we must plant more of them

The unsung heroes of the countryside play a pivotal role in the ecosystem while providing us with an unbroken line through history

A flowering hawthorn hedgerow

Image: Shutterstock

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. According to the RSPB, “hedges may support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies”. 

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 that 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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Owing 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. 

Hedges are far more than quaint relics of the old-fashioned countryside. 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 hedge-laying techniques that 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, dark night.  

Seeing this hedge roar back to abundant life seems like a template for how many thousands of miles of hedgerow across England 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 150,000km 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. 

Hedgelands: A Wild Wander Around Britain’s Greatest Edge Habitat by Christopher Hart is out now (Chelsea Green Publishing, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops. 

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