Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

Heritage in the Hedgerows

Lost footpaths

The Heritage in the Hedgerow close to my heart.

What is the heritage in the hedgerows of Britain? When I was a child growing up in rural Hampshire, it was common practice to be sent to school in Spring with a slice of bread covered with a scrape of beef dripping and told by my Gran to gather the fresh hawthorn leaves and make them into a sandwich. We thought nothing of rifling through the hedgerows in search of the newest, freshest leaves to fold into the bread.

Gran used the hedgerow outside her back door as an extra larder, a medicine cabinet, a place to gather kindling, a place to sit, her chair tucked up hard against its spikey arms. In Summer the constant burring of insects and sudden startled flap of birds wings. Wrens, blackbirds and of course the ever attendant Robin all putting in an appearance.

I suspect the hedgerow being part of a persons heritage has long gone and I consider myself lucky to have been brought up in a household where money was limited but the resourcefulness of our parents and grandparents certainly wasn’t. Where growing fruit and vegetables and foraging the hedgerows was common place.

When I walk, which is several times a day, I like to walk with a purpose and many of the walks I take are along field margins and hedgerows. I go slowly and take note of what is going on in amongst the branches and it changes daily. Adopting a piece of local hedgerow to observe can bring a great deal of pleasure and a wonderful opportunity to learn about our native fauna and flora.

History of the hedgerow?

The hedgerows around my childhood home kept the cows from grazing our vegetable patch and where it had thinned out a nimble young heifer or steer who had been previously nibbling the tender young leaves of the hedge would appear in the garden. So in some instances hedges formed a barrier, they were planted to create enclosures for animals and many of the hedgerow plants have long thorns such as Quickthorn and Hazel for this purpose.

Hedges are managed systems, that is they have been planted by and then managed by man. Roman and pre- Roman tools such as light cutting implements and billhooks show that our ancestors were cutting light branches, maybe for fodder or hedge laying. Archaeological evidence has revealed ditches with hedging bundles in them and also evidence of dead hedging. Dead hedging was the practice of pushing thorny cut branches into the ground to create a fence to corral animals. Some of this ‘dead’ hedging could have rooted and become a live hedge.

Heritage of hedgerows

The hedgerow is cut as late as possible

Other hedges may have been laid to mark out boundaries such as manorial or parish lines. There are double hedgerows that still exist that mark out old parish boundaries, presumably the pathway in-between was intended to allow passage around parishes without the person needing to enter the parish.

For further information on hedgerows there is a completely brilliant website called The Conservation Volunteers who produce handbooks on practical conservation and we at Honey Bee Barn are a complete fan of them.

Over hundreds of years the landscape changes and field systems in Britain have altered. A major time of hedge laying was during the Enclosure Movement where the open arable field system was changed in favour of a small number of land owners and land was enclosed by hedges. Although enclosure began in the early Medieval period, much of the landscape of Britain was defined by the hedge laying from the end of the C18th and into the C19th.

How old is a hedgerow?

I was also told as a child and have repeated it often so I am hoping for a vestige of truth in it, that you could date a hedgerow from counting the number of species of tree and shrub in every 100 feet. Each species found would equate to 100 years.  Can this really be true and will this give me a clue to the heritage in the hedgerows?

Well a small amount of investigation has revealed a formula called the Hooper Formula named after Mr Hooper who believed that the age of hedgerows could be calculated. The assumption is that the hedgerow being a static fixed entity will increase in diversity over time. Seeds brought into the hedgerow by birds or blown in by wind and caught in the floral mesh that is the hedge can grow in the shelter of the other plants. Also hedges have historically been cut and so the established plants are controlled.

Heritage Hedgerows

How to age a hedgerow

Hedgerows, a living heritage.

As important as ancient woodlands, hedgerows deserve our attention and just as important as giving time for our trees we could learn to really get to know a local hedgerow. They are a significant part of our landscape heritage and we are all now aware of the importance of keeping those we have remaining in good health. If we could all learn more about them and their possible historical purpose and use to us now, then they stand a better chance of survival. They are a vital resource for food and shelter for our native wildlife, acting as corridors across the countryside.


A bit of Laurie Lee and his capture of the heritage in the hedgerows.

As always, in a few short lines Laurie Lee manages to capture the feel, the mood, the love of the British landscape. In this poem ‘Day of These Days’ written in 1914, he paints this glorious scene of Autumn, including a nod to the British hedgerow,

Such a morning it is when love
leans through geranium windows
and calls with a cockerel’s tongue.

When red-haired girls scamper like roses
over the rain-green grass,
and the sun drips honey.

When hedgerows grow venerable,
berries dry black as blood,
and holes suck in their bees.

Such a morning it is when mice
run whispering from the church,
dragging dropped ears of harvest.

When the partridge draws back his spring
and shoots like a buzzing arrow
over grained and mahogany fields.

When no table is bare,
and no breast dry,
and the tramp feeds of ribs of rabbit.

Such a day it is when time
piles up the hills like pumpkins,
and the streams run golden.

When all men smell good,
and the cheeks of girls
are as baked bread to the mouth.

As bread and beanflowers
the touch of their lips,
and their white teeth sweeter than cucumbers.

Heritage hedgerows

Sloes, the fruit of the thorny Quickthorn, common in British hedgerows.