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A history of hedgerows

The UK’s hedgerows are iconic; important to us both culturally and historically. It is difficult to picture our countryside without the network of hedgerows, with which we are so familiar. Delving into the history of hedgerows unearths many interesting questions. Have they always been a part of our farming systems? When in history did we start using hedges, and how has that changed? One thing is for sure, many are considerably older than they appear.

A future as rich as their history

Hedgerow history timeline PTES

We don’t know exactly when hedges were first planted, but there is evidence that there has been some form of field boundary since the Bronze Age. Some of these still remain as the banks below some of our most ancient hedges. The lines of feudal boundaries can be traced from our old hedgerows, reflecting social and political changes across the centuries. Old hedgerows also serve as a floral fingerprint of the lands from which they were derived and have collated the signatures of agricultural change over time.

While we may think of the period of enclosure when we think of hedge planting, about half our hedges may well be older than this, some potentially hundreds or even thousands of years old. These ancient hedgerows are hugely valuable thanks to their continuity, undisturbed soils, diversity and seedbanks.

Although it is not always easy to tell the age of a hedge, there can be clues in the shrub mix, in the trees and in the plants that are found at the base. Ancient hedgerows are irreplaceable, both in terms of the wildlife habitats that they provide, and in terms of what they can tell us about the history of our countryside. They undoubtedly still hold secrets about our social and agricultural heritage that is waiting to be discovered.

For all of these reasons, they should be maintained, protected and cherished for their inherent value. We should not only aim for the survival of hedgerows but also for their health. Healthy hedgerows have greater wildlife value and a more secure future. Perhaps we can all aim to be hedgerow champions and help to make sure that their future is as rich as their history.

Hedgerows through the years

Bronze and Iron Age hedgerows

In the early stages of field creation, space was carved out through land clearing. It is thought that strips of woodland left around the perimeter of these fields were some of the first living hedgerows. These fields are known as ‘assarts’ and the hedges that surround them as ‘assart hedges’. Assarts were not restricted to this era, and woodland was cleared for new fields in several periods to follow.

The stone walls that made up the base of the boundaries for some Bronze Age field systems are still visible in parts of Devon. It is likely that these were earthed up and vegetated. They were probably built on even earlier pre-existing earth bank boundaries.

‘Celtic’ fields from the Iron Age can still be seen in our countryside, often visible in aerial photographs.

Hedge type: varied by region, but included some stone barriers, banked and hedged, some banked hedges. Celtic ‘coaxial’ hedges had straight parallel boundaries divided across at irregular intervals.

Hedge abundance: Overall scale unknown.

Saxon and Norman era hedgerows

Over the Saxon period there was a shift away from the field boundaries of past agricultural systems. The infield/outfield system was used, where one large ‘infield’ was cropped, and everything outside of this was used much less intensively, largely for grazing. Having just one main enclosed ‘field’ meant that having numerous hedgerows was not necessary. The decline in the overall population meant that less land was needed and so many field systems were abandoned.

The Norman era strengthened the manorial system, which was a continuation of the open field system, where Lords were granted land tenure and Serfs worked on the open swathes of land. Once again, this system did not require the use of hedgerows. There was also common land that could be used by all for grazing. The open field system gained popularity in much (but not all) of the country, and was the dominant system by the Tudor times.

Hedge type: n/a

Hedge abundance: Few and decreasing with the conversion to an open field system. Some areas did not adopt an open field system and retained the old hedge/boundary network.

Early enclosure hedgerows

In the late 12th Century, both King John and King Richard leased assarts of the Royal forests. It was required by law to maintain a perimeter boundary to prevent game from the forest straying into the assarted land. These perimeter boundaries included hedges, perhaps created using the remnant woodland around the assart (or cleared woodland).

However, the 1235 Statute of Merton gave these Lords the power to enclose this common grazing land for themselves, as long as the commoners still had enough for their needs. Unfortunately, it was not the commoners who decided what those needs were! A period of enclosure followed, with many fields enclosed by newly planted hedges. These were a great addition to the hedgerow network, but not so good for commoners. Sheep farming is thought to be a common factor in early enclosure.

In the Tudor enclosure period, land was enclosed by force. This resulted in great hardship which led to resistance and many rebellions, as much of the population lost access to common grazing land. In order to dampen the revolt, several laws were passed to prevent wholesale enclosure. These largely failed. The famous Midland Revolt in 1607 involved thousands of citizens pulling down hedgerows. These citizens were known as the Levellers.

It is thought that more than half of all enclosures were actually created before the period of Parliamentary enclosure.

Hedge type: a mixture – some assart hedges from wood clearances, some mixed species planted hedges, mostly on hedge banks.

Hedge abundance: Increasing. It is difficult to put a figure on the total hedge abundance but, some estimate that 190,000km of our hedges are ancient, so would have been established before enclosure.

Parliamentary enclosure hedgerows

1603/4 saw the first bills of enclosure. More parcels of land were enclosed with hedges, resulting in large-scale hedge planting and a huge increase in the length of hedgerows up and down the country, which peaked between 1750 and 1820.

The hedges planted were often single species hedgerows, largely hawthorn, many of which can still be seen today. Each section of land enclosed needed its own bill passed in Parliament. Land enclosed under these parliamentary acts often required a perimeter ditch, with a planted bank on the inside. These needed to be completed within a year for the act to be binding. With the ensuing rush to plant hedges at this time, many people were employed to source thorn saplings from woodlands. However, as knowledge surrounding early tree care progressed, nurseries began taking over the bulk of supply.

In the 18th century, hedges were still planted on banks using the bank and ditch system. In the early 19th century, it became more popular to plant ‘on the flat’ which was quicker and cheaper. By the end of peak enclosure, there were 52,000 enclosure bills. These accounted for 6.8 million acres of land in England alone (1/6 of the country!) and 200,000 new miles of hedgerow.

By 1801 the General Enclosure Act was passed. This made it easier to enclose land. Enclosure was brought to an end when influential city dwellers realised that areas for recreation were being greatly diminished.  In the annual enclosure bills for 1869, only three out of 6,916 acres of land scheduled for enclosure were allocated for recreation. After much campaigning, the 1876 Commons Act ruled that enclosure should only take place if there was some public benefit.

Hedge type: Mostly single species thorn hedges, planted in straight lines. Early enclosure hedges planted on banks, later planted on the flat.

Hedge abundance: By the end of the enclosure era, there were thought to be over 1 million km of hedgerow.

Modern history hedgerows

Large-scale hedgerow removal took place after the Second World War. In 1947, the Agriculture Act was passed. As food independence was a political goal at the time, the Act financially rewarded farmers for removing their hedgerows. It is thought that we lost up to half of our hedgerows in this way over the coming decades.

In 1950, a Forestry Commission assessment concluded that we had 1 million km of hedgerow. By 2007, this reduced to 477,000km, a loss of approximately 52%.

This hedgerow loss ended towards the end of the 20th century, and the total length of hedgerow stabilised. In fact, the 1990s brought a welcome change for hedgerows. In 1992, it became illegal to burn the stubble in fields, a practice that damaged many hedges. In 1997, the Hedgerows Regulations Act offered hedges greater protections, making it an offence to remove most hedgerows without official permission. In some areas total hedgerow length began to increase as farmers began re-planting previously lost hedges.

During the 1970s, there was a huge loss of mature elm trees as a result of Dutch elm disease. Approximately 60 million mature elm trees were lost. Those that were trimmed as part of the hedgerow structure largely escaped and are still to be found in our hedges today.

The 20th century brought large changes in the management of hedgerows. Mechanised trimming has made it possible to cut all the hedges on a farm every year. This reduces the number of hedges that are regularly layed, or managed on a life-cycle. Unfortunately, this has had an impact on the health of the remaining hedgerows, which cannot tolerate this sustained trimming regimen without (often imperceptibly) slow but steady deterioration in health and quality. Over-management and a complete lack of management are now among the biggest threats to the hedgerow network, as both ultimately end in hedgerow loss.

For information about the hedge lifecycle, and how this can help keep hedgerows healthy long term, please click here.

Hedge type: Modern hedge mixes being planted are often mixed species. Hedges are often planted on the flat. However, hedges from all the previous eras are still represented. Many hedges are now trimmed annually, but many are also no longer being actively managed.

Hedge abundance: A loss of 52% in just over 50 years, in 2007 we had 477,000km.

Contemporary hedgerows

Despite hedgerow length stabilising, and increasing in some areas, we still have a long way to go if we are to recover the hedgerows lost in the last century. Although hedgerows have been in and out of agricultural favour over the centuries, we know that their value to wildlife increases as the area of other semi-natural habitats slowly erodes.

While hindsight is a cruel teacher, we now recognise the value both to wildlife and to farmers of a good hedge. We can use this knowledge to make significant change. Schemes are available to pay for new hedgerows to be planted. We now know how to integrate hedge cutting machinery into a healthy hedgerow cycle, rather than simply using it to box-cut hedges annually. Many farmers are already leading the way by incorporating age-old techniques back into their businesses. Such techniques include pollarding hedgerow trees, coppicing stretches for wood-fuel and harvesting hedgerow foods as part of farm diversification projects.


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