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The history of hedgerows reflects huge political change, agricultural development, invasions and riots. The hedges that criss-cross our landscape sometimes have a checkered past, their history is entwined with ours.
The UK’s hedgerows are iconic; important to us both culturally and historically. In fact, it’s difficult to picture our countryside without its network of hedgerows, and not at all pleasant when you do. But 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.
We don’t know exactly when hedges were first planted, but there’s evidence that there’s been some form of field boundary since the Bronze ages, some of which still remain as the banks below some of our most ancient hedges. Our old hedgerows can still map the lines of feudal boundaries, reflect the social and political changes the country has lived through, retain the floral fingerprint of the lands they were cut from, and collate the signatures of agricultural change.
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 hundreds or even thousands of years old. Of course the individual shrubs and trees in a hedge aren’t all this old, but the continuity, the undisturbed soils, the diversity and the seedbanks are often fantastic in these ancient hedgerows. Although it isn’t always easy to tell the age of a hedge, there can be clues in the shrub mix, in the trees and in the plants you might find at the base.
Ancient hedgerows are irreplaceable; both in terms of the wildlife habitats they provide, but also what they can tell us about the history of our countryside. They undoubtedly still hold secrets about our social and agricultural heritage, waiting to be discovered, and should be maintained and protected for their inherent value.
In the early stages of field creation, space was carved out through land clearing. It’s thought that strips of woodland left around the perimeter of these fields were some of the first living hedgerows. We know these fields as ‘assarts’ and the hedges that surround them as ‘assart hedges’. Assarts weren’t restricted to this era, and woodland was cleared for new fields in several periods to follow.
The stone walls that made the base of the boundaries for some bronze age field systems are still visible in parts of Devon. It’s likely these were earthed up and vegetated, and very probably built on even earlier pre-existing earth bank boundaries.
‘Celtic’ fields from the iron ages can still be seen in our countryside, often visible in aerial photographs.
Hedge type: varied by region, but some stone barriers, banked and hedged, some banked hedges. Celtic ‘coaxial’ hedges with straight parallel boundaries divided across at irregular intervals.
Over the Saxon period there was a shift 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 having numerous hedgerows wasn’t necessary, and the decline in the overall population meant that land-use 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. Again, this system didn’t have much use for 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 open field system. Some areas didn’t adopt open field system and retained old hedge/boundary network.
In the late 12th Century both King John and King Richard were leasing assarts of the Royal forests, around which it was necessary by law to have a well-maintained 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).
The 1235 Statute of Merton, however, 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 wasn’t the commoners who got to decide what those needs were, and a period of enclosure followed, with many fields enclosed by newly planted hedges. Great for the hedgerow network, but not so good for Commoners. Sheep farming is thought to be a common factor in early enclosure.
In the Tudor enclosures, land was enclosed by force, which resulted in great hardship. This enclosure didn’t come without resistance as it essentially meant much of the population lost access to what used to be common grazing land. There were many rebellions and so several laws were passed to prevent wholesale enclosure to dampen the revolt, which largely failed. The famous Midland Revoult came in 1607 when 1000s of citizens pulled down hedgerows, they 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’s difficult to put a figure to total hedge abundance but some estimate that 190,000km of our hedges are ancient, so would have been established before
1603/4 saw the first bills of enclosure, and yet more parcels of land were both enclosed and inclosed with hedges. This period saw large-scale hedge planting and a huge increase in the length of hedgerows up and down the country, peaking between 1750 and 1820.
The hedges planted were often single species hedgerows, largely hawthorn, many of which you can still see today. Each bit of land enclosed needed its own bill passed in Parliament, and land enclosed under these parliamentary acts often needed a perimeter ditch, with a planted bank on the inside, and for these to be completed within a year for the act to be binding. With such a rush to plant hedges, many folk were employed to source thorn saplings from woodlands, until discoveries were made in early tree care and nurseries began taking over the bulk of supply.
In the 18th Century, hedges were still planted on banks with the bank and ditch system, but 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, accounting for 6.8million 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 which made it easier to enclose land. Enclosure was brought to an end 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 Enclosure it is thought there was over 1million km of hedgerow
There was largescale hedgerow removal after the second world war. In 1947 the Agriculture act was passed, with a political goal for food independence which rewarded farmers financially for removing their hedgerows. It’s thought 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 1million km of hedgerow. By 2007 this was down to 477,000km, a loss of about 52%.
This loss ended towards the end of the 20th century, and the total length of hedgerow stabilised. In fact, the 1990s seemed to bring welcome change for hedgerows. In 1992 it became illegal to burn the stubble in fields, a practice that damaged many a hedge, then 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 what was lost.
During the 1970s there was a huge loss of mature elm trees from Dutch Elm Disease. We lost around 60 million mature elm trees. 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 made it possible to cut all the hedges on a farm every year, reducing the number of hedges that get regularly layed, or managed on a life-cycle. Unfortunately, this has had an impact on the health of the remaining hedgerows, which can’t 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, planted on the flat, but hedges from all the previous eras are still represented. Hedge management change saw many hedges trimmed annually, but also many no longer being actively managed.
Hedge abundance: A loss of 52% in just over 50 years, in 2007 we had 477,000km
Despite hedgerow length stabilising, and in some areas even increasing, we still have a long way to go if we are to recover the hedgerows we lost last century. Although hedgerows have gone in and out of agricultural favour over the centuries, causing the total amount we manage to fluctuate – we know their value to wildlife just increases as the area of other habitat available is slowly eroded.
Hindsight is a cruel teacher, but we know more than ever before the value both to wildlife and to farmers that a good hedge can bring. And with this knowledge are signs of change and of hope. Schemes are available to pay for new hedgerows to be planted. We now know how we can integrate our hedge cutting machinery into a healthy hedgerow cycle, rather than simply using it to box-cut our hedges annually. And many farmers are leading the way bringing age-old techniques back into their business, such as pollarding hedgerow trees, coppicing stretches for wood-fuel and even harvesting hedgerow foods as part of their own farm diversification projects.
What is certain, is that many hedges are considerably older than they first seem. Whether a hedge is decades, hundreds or even thousands of years old, it holds enormous value both to us and to wildlife. These should be cherished, nurtured and championed. We shouldn’t just aim for their survival but also for their health, as healthy hedgerows multiply their benefits and help secure their future. Perhaps we can help make sure their future is as rich as their history.
If you would like to give hedges in your area a health-check, please consider our hedgerow survey . Not only does it provide instant feedback about the health of the hedge and bespoke management advice, the data helps us understand the picture at a national scale so we are able to direct our conservation work.