“Hedgerows are an integral part of the English countryside,” says Emma Marrington, the senior policy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). “They are the patchwork quilts of our countryside.”
Hedgerows—rows of shrubs or trees planted as boundary lines—share many qualities with a comfortable quilt. They offer warmth, protection and a place to nest for a wide range of species: butterflies, bats, birds, hedgehogs, and dormice.
The CPRE, a London-based organization dedicated to keeping the English countryside a thriving place, has noted the many ways hedgerows have become essential to plant and animal species in England.
“Bumblebees, for example, they will shelter within the grass and bottom of hedgerows over winter,” Marrington says. “They are almost housing for nature I suppose.”
Bats, on the other hand, often use hedgerows for navigation.
“They [hedgerows] are almost like the bat’s motorways,” Marrington says. “Instead of going across fields, they will follow the hedgerow line.”
The protected hazel dormouse utilizes hedgerows in a few ways.
“They will hibernate [in hedgerows] over winter and emerge in spring, and spend a lot of time above ground in the trees and scrub,” Marrington says. “Then they start feeding on the [two prominent hedgerow plant species] blackthorn and hawthorn in April. They also use it as a dispersal corridor so it’s a link between small woodlands for foraging as well and for breeding populations too.”
Emily Ledder, Natural England’s lead adviser on biodiversity delivery, explains in an email why this distinct feature has been a part of England’s rural landscape for hundreds of years.
“Hedgerows are lines of shrubs which were originally planted to mark ownership and provide a barrier to prevent the movement of stock such as sheep and cattle,” she says. “In the UK, many were planted as part of the Enclosures Acts in the early 19th century, however, many are much older than this. In Devon, for example, we believe that a quarter of our hedges are more than 800 years old. That’s older than many parish churches. And some are underlain by banks built in the Bronze Age times four thousand years ago. Others are older still, being remnants of the original wildwood that covered Britain and Ireland before man started to carve out his fields.”
Marrington says some hedgerows began to be ripped out of the English countryside in the mid-1900s.
“During the Second World War, a lot of hedgerows were taken up so that you had large fields where you could actually grow food and resources to help feed the people and feed the nation,” she says.
Since the 1970s, CPRE had lobbied to pass legislation that would protect hedgerows if they were historic or provided habitat for a large amount of plants and animals. Regulation for a majority of countryside hedgerows became law in 1997.
“If a landowner was going to remove that hedge, they would have to apply to a local council for permission to remove that hedgerow,” Marrington says.
The law doesn’t protect all hedgerows, however.
“If it’s a younger hedgerow, say under 30 years old, and it is shorter than 20 meters [66 feet] long as well, then it doesn’t come under hedgerow regulation,” Marrington says.
Ledder notes how hedgerows are important to more than plant and animal species. “Today, predominately due to the invention of barbed wire, they are no longer able to fulfill their original function as a stock-proof barrier,” she says. “However, hedgerows and their associated trees, banks, ditches and margins provide a wide range of valuable services that benefit people. They include not only biodiversity services, but also regulating services such as landscape aesthetics and historical heritage, and provisioning services such as firewood and food.”
Hedgerows can also assist in the fight against climate change. Each kilometer of a new hedgerow has the capacity to store 600 to 800 kilograms [1,323 to 1,764 pounds] of carbon dioxide per year for up to 20 years.
The lines of hedgerows drawn all over the English countryside have given people like Marrington something else for hundreds of years: peace of mind.
“I certainly find when you see a really good hedgerow—really sort of bushy with loads of flowers—it is really peaceful,” she says.
Marrington suggests downloading the CPRE’s “A Little Rough Guide around the Hedges” and then utilizing it for a greater appreciation of hedgerows when visiting the English countryside.
“Try to identify different plant species within it,” she says. “Just get engaged and look at the bottom of a hedgerow and start pulling back a bit of grass to see what insects and creatures are within a hedgerow.”
Judith’s Hedge in Cambridgeshire is estimated to be more than 900 years old.
Hills of Hedges
Devon, a hilly county in southwest England, is known for its rich hedgerows. Devon’s hedges allegedly stretch close to 53,100 kilometers (33,000 miles).
person who offers informed advice about an issue.
study of beauty.
a slope of land adjoining a body of water, or a large elevated area of the sea floor.
twisted metal with sharpened points, often used for fences.
obstacle or object that prevents movement.
to be helpful or useful.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
line separating geographical areas.
to produce offspring.
time period between the Stone Age and the Iron Age. The Bronze Age lasted between 3000 BCE and 500 BCE.
cows and oxen.
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
group of people selected to act in an advisory, administrative, or legislative capacity.
to scatter or spread out widely.
unique or identifiable.
to develop or come into view.
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
to search for food or other needs.
material that provides power or energy.
to work or work correctly.
environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.
line of bushes and trees forming a boundary.
cultural or family background.
to reduce activity almost to sleeping in order to conserve food and energy, usually in winter.
the geographic features of a region.
law, legal act, or statute.
animals raised for human use.
to try to influence the action of government or other authority.
border or edge.
British highway, or road for fast-moving traffic.
art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.
subdivision of a church diocese, having its own church and member of the clergy.
authorization to do something.
set of actions or rules.
total number of people or organisms in a particular area.
strongly or overruling.
important or standing out.
to take action to prevent injury or attack.
materials necessary to complete a task, such as food or tools.
coverlet made of two layers of fabric with a soft material between, decoratively stitched together.
rule or law.
something that is left over.
to restore or begin again.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.
area of arid grassland covered with low-lying trees and bushes.
structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.
type of plant, smaller than a tree but having woody branches.
to develop and be successful.
land covered with trees, usually less dense than a forest.