After getting embroiled in slugs and snails last month, here, as promised, are a few words on hedgerows.
When travelling through unfamiliar landscapes, I’m always struck by the differences in the colour of the soil, the size and shape of the fields, the types of livestock, and the plants that make up the living hedge boundaries. In East Anglia many miles of hedgerow have been removed, creating enormous, seemingly empty, spaces. In upland counties, fields get smaller as the altitude increases, here hedges can give way to dry-stone walls. In other locations real rarities can be found. Did you know that on the Stiperstones there are hedges made up solely of flamboyantly yellow laburnum?
Well, what are hedgerows for and why are they important? Apart from the obvious answers of, to keep animals from roaming, and to show where my land ends and yours starts, the three-dimensional habitat of a hedge provides a unique wood-edge environment which is attractive to wildflowers, insects, birds and mammals. Hedges can stretch for many miles weaving in and out diverse habitats, so are vital in connecting dispersed populations of all sorts of creatures across the wider landscape.
The hedgerow provides shelter, nest sites, food and nest material for plants, insects, mammals and birds. Greater stitchwort, hedge garlic, red campion and cow parsley grow up against the hedge-side, whilst at its foot nestle primrose, wild strawberry and even bluebell and wood anemone in old wooded areas. In Worcestershire we have a specific form of white sweet violet which runs for miles along the base of hedges in quiet out-of-the-way locations.
Hedges contain a wide variety of shrubs and trees. Hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, field maple, spindle, dogwood and holly all form an impenetrable barrier, and weaving upwards there may be honeysuckle, bryony and woody nightshade. Dotted along the line may be solitary oaks and ashes, or fruit trees. Damson, wild plum and crab apple grow up, especially in the vicinity of farms. In autumn there’s a feast of berries, fruit and seeds, attracting not only native birds, but migrating ones on the way to warmer climes. Hedges commonly provide a home to blackbirds, song and mistle thrushes, wrens, robins and hedge sparrows. Whitethroats, linnets, yellowhammers, bullfinches, chaffinches and kestrels live there too.
Voles and wood mice are also resident in a hedge, hiding up in holes in the base, before venturing out to look for seeds and insects when the coast is clear. Larger mammals shelter there too. Living hedge leaves provide food for moth caterpillars, shield bugs and leaf beetles. Fallen hedge leaves provide for beetles, earwigs and woodlice which, in turn, become food for larger creatures. Such a web of life is here, thus the importance of the hedge.