British hedgerows offer a habitat and vital food source to a range of fascinating species and fruitful foraging for us. Learn why hedgerows are an important part of our landscape and how to identify hedgerow flora in our expert guide.
What is the history of hedgerows in Britain?
Hedges have been part of the British landscape for thousands of years and many of our most ancient examples date from Saxon times. However, most hedgerows were planted between 1650 and 1850 when the controversial Enclosure Acts permitted landowners to parcel up common land for their livestock, which meant many poorer people were driven from the land. Hundreds of thousands of miles of hedge were created – and this is the basic of the familiar patchwork we see, even today.
Old hedges create a typical patchwork of fields seen across lowland Britain. This is the Vale of Edale, Peak District, Derbyshire. Getty Images.
Why are hedgerows important for wildlife?
Hedges often have a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowers, offering food in the form of leaves, flower nectar, berries and nuts as well as nesting and burrowing sites and safe havens from danger. The older the hedge, the wider the range of species. Hedgerows also act as linear woodlands, linking habitats across farmland that might otherwise offer little for wildlife.
A crop of red and black blackberries on a hedgerow beside a road near Battle in East Sussex England/Credit: Gettty
What is hedgelaying?
Hedgelaying is the process where the stems and trunks of living trees and shrubs are partially cut and laid horizontally (a process known as pleaching) where they are interwoven with other living material and stakes of dead wood to create a barrier to livestock and/or to mark a boundary. Hedgelaying was an important rural craft for many centuries and many regional variations evolved across Britain that can still be seen today.
A hedge laid in the traditional Derbyshire style using stakes – not how living branches are laid at an angle to create a barrier impenetrable to livestock. Getty Images.
Why aren’t all our hedges laid today?
With the advent of post and wire fences, especially barbed wire, fence boundaries could be erected more quickly and cheaply than a traditional laid hedge so they have superseded hedges as a means for keeping livestock in a field. Many hedges still exist of course but the majority are in a poor state and are supplemented with barbed wire.
How can you tell how old a hedgerow is?
These is a very rough rule of thumb that a hedge can be aged by counting the number of woody species – trees and large shrubs – in a 30m stretch of hedgerow. Each species counted equals about 100 years of age – so the more species, the older the hedgerow.
The UK has lost half of its hedgerows since the Second World War/Credit: Getty Images
How many miles of hedgerow are there in Britain today?
This is a difficult question to answer – possibly 500,000km of hedgerow still exist in some form of other but no detailed surveys have been done for many years. It’s estimated that Britain has lost half of its hedgerows since the Second World War. Some have been grubbed out to make larger fields to accommodate today’s larger farm vehicles, others have been neglected or replaced by barbed wire. Some have grown up to become small woodlands.
Learn how to identify key hedgerow species
Hazel leaves are almost circular with very defined ribs and finely toothed edges. Getty Images
Hazel catkins are the flowers of the hazel – these are the male catkins. They rely on the wind to blow pollen from them to the female flowers, which are tiny buds on the twigs. Getty Images.
A common hedgerow tree that grows fast and with strong flexible trunks and branches that can be woven and warped to make the ideal framework for laying hedges. Adult hazel has a pale bark like flecked gold leaf, long ‘lamb’s tails’ catkins in late winter and heart shaped leaves that are toothed at the edges and have a soft, furry feel. Hazels were often coppiced in the past for charcoal, fenceposts and other uses but as the need for these materials has waned, the coppices have grown up, creating adult trees comprising several large trunks rather than a single growth. Hazel nuts – cobnuts – are prized by many animals, especially the grey squirrel.
A hawthorn hedge in May bursting with creamy white flowers. Getty Images
Hawthorns produce thousands of tiny hard berries called haws. These are prized by birds, especially winter thrushes such as redwings and fieldfares. The berries are edible and can be made into chutneys and wines. Getty Images.
Another hedgerow regular, the hawthorn’s spiny branches and twigs were useful as in making a hedge stockproof. The leaves also provided livestock with food. Hawthorn is best known for its creamy white blossoms – mayflower – which bloom exuberantly across the countryside for a few short weeks in May. By late August, the hawthorn begins to produce red berries called haws that are a stable for many birds and mammals through autumn and winter.
Cuckoo pint/lords and ladies, Arum maculatum
The young cuckoo pint showing the hood and fleshy spike – normally seen in April and early May. Getty Images.
By late summer, cuckoo pint’s spikes of poisonous red berries can be seen at the foot of hedges. Getty Images.
A hedge bottom plant whose glossy, black-spotted leaves – shaped like an tuba – appear in early February before it produced a hooded leaf enclosing a fleshy spike called a spadix. By autumn, the hood withers and the base of the spadix transforms into a spike of bright red berries that are toxic to humans but devoured happily by mice and voles. This curious and common plant has many names – lords and ladies, wild arum, jack in the pulpit and priest’s pintle. The more ribald names refer to the spadix and hood bearing some resemblance to male and female genitalia.
Dog’s mercury, Mercurialis perennis
The mint-like leaves of dog’s mercury or dog mercus smoothers the foot of the hedgerow. Getty Images.
Common in many ancient woodlands but, lacking conspicuous flowers, dog’s mercury is easily overlooked, even when it carpets the forest floor. Loosely nettle-like in looks, it has a pungent unappealing odour and is highly toxic – these unpleasant aspects have earned it the ‘dog’s’ epithet. The tiny green flowers appear in clusters on short stalks near the uppermost leaves.
Sweet violets have a pleasant perfume – but otherwise closely resemble dog violets. Getty Images.
A delicate, low-growing flower of hedge banks, verges, heaths and old pastures, usually on the edge of woodlands. There are two species that can best be told apart from scent: the sweet violet lives up to its name while the common dog violet is odourless. The latter is by far the more common and is the food plant of the caterpillars of the small pearl-bordered, the pearl-bordered and the silver-washed fritillary. The imperial purple flowers appear from April to June.
Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa
Blackthorn’s blaze of white flowers lifts the gloom in early March. Getty Images.
A branch of ripe sloes in late autumn. Some say they are best picked after the first frost – but most will have been eaten by wild creatures by then. Getty Images.
One of the earliest hedgerow trees to put forth its blossom, the blackthorn offers tiny stars of white flowers to give hope at the drab end of winter. Another small tree that defends itself with sharp thorns, it was harnessed by hedge-layers to create a truly stock-proof barrier. Blackthorn is best known for its autumn fruit, the dark purple sloe famed for its use in flavouring alcholic drinks. This tiny, olive like berry is hideously sour when eaten raw but imparts a delightful colour and fruity flavour when steeped in gin and sugar. (link to sloe gin recipe). Blackthorn leaves are narrow ovals.
Primroses appear in clumps along verges, hedgerows and banks – offering nectar to early emerging insects. Getty Images.
A beautiful early spring flower of hedge bottoms, field edges, clearings, road verges and woodland edges. The primrose – the prima rosa (first rose) – is almost a national symbol, a daring yellow bloom among long, heavily ribbed leaves that appears at a time when even the grass is weary. And unlike so many other early spring flowers, it hangs on until May.
Dog-rose, Rosa canina
Blossom of pink dog rose can be as beautiful as any cultivated rose. Getty Images.
The fruit of the dog-rose, known as the rose-hip. It can make a delicious cordial that is also very good for you. Getty Images.
A scrambler like bramble, this wild rose has gorgeous sweet-scented flowers that vary from white to deep pink. Growing up to 5m high if it has suitable support from surrounding trees and shrubs, the dog-rose loves the sunny side of hedges but is unfussy about habitat or soil types. Also known as eglantine, the dog-rose produces small tapered, cylindrical fruit known as rose-hips. These can be harvested in late autumn to make cordials and infusions. Rose-hip juice several times the vitamin-C content of orange juice.
A small white butterfly enjoys a nectar drink from bramble flowers. Getty Images.
A crop of red and black blackberries on a hedgerow beside a road East Sussex. The red berries are ripening – the black ones are ready to be picked. But always leave enough for the local wildlife. Getty Images.
The archetypal hedgerow dweller, the bramble is a rough, rambling, prickly shrub that hurls itself through thickets and small trees in wild abandon, creating nesting and skulking habitats for a huge range of creatures. In late spring and early summer, its soft pink flowers provide a boon of nectar for bees, flies and butterflies but it’s the generous quantities of edible berries that each plant yields. There are hundreds of different varieties in the wild and each plant’s fruit have their own subtle flavour. Blackberrying is an essential rite of passage for children and offers a lifetime of delights.