In praise of the humble hedgerow

Most people pass by them in a blur, just a green line framing the country lanes that surround us here at Ffynnon Beuno in a hurry on their way to somewhere else but did you know that the 400,000 odd miles of hedgerow provide critical wildlife habitats for creatures as diverse as butterflies and bees to voles and frogs?). Some hedgerows are ancient and it is said that the more species of plants that you can count in a 6 foot length of hedge, the older it is.

Not only does the healthy hedgerow provide valuable stock proof fencing and wind break shelter for livestock in bad weather, it also behaves like a woodland edge habitat which is the most biodiverse part of the forest. As if an abundance of glorious wildlife wasn’t enough, according to John Wright’s brilliant River Cottage handbook “Hedgerow”, there are at least 70 different edible species to be found. The edible benefits don’t just stop at food though. The common hedgerow contains species that humans have used in herbal remedies for millennia for ailments like acne, heartburn, backache and even depression . With this in mind, it’s a surprise that we don’t value this precious resource more.

Back in my younger days, I learnt to hedgelay with both the National Trust and BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers). I ran many holiday breaks for volunteers to tackle neglected hedgerow all over the UK so when we were looking to buy Ffynnon Beuno, when I saw the hedges that enclosed the small holding I knew what I was letting myself in for! Lines of spindly hawthorn trees stood bowing under the weight of decades of ivy ( we named 3 trees with ivy hairdos “The Beverley Sisters”), gnarly elders sprawled both sides of the boundary fence and in places, there was no hedge at all as trees had been crowded out by taller neighbours. To keep a hedgerow in tip top condition, it needs to laid rather than cut but unfortunately, it is much cheaper and faster to cut the hedge. This then causes the hedge to produce lots of growth at the height of the cut which then shades the base, creating gaps. Ultimately, the cut hedge turns into a line of widely spaced “lollypops” that are a common sight today. Hedgelaying is an ancient skill and involves cutting branches two thirds of the way through then carefully bending them to a 45 degree angle and weaving back to create a dense “fence”. By the miracle of coppicing, the cut branches – called “pleachers” – spring back into life from the cut and the hedge then grows back denser. The cycle is repeated every 7 to 10 years and far from damaging the trees, management in this way massively prelongs their natural lifespan as the mature root system supports less material above ground. To work in harmony with wildlife, the hedgelaying season starts in November when the birds have removed most of the berries as winter food and ends in February to allow the birds to nest.

Our major program of hedgerow restoration has now finished and already, the noise from happy sparrows chattering away tells us that we have created a great habitat. A lot of the work has been replanting in the gaps so whilst this year’s growth will be thin and whippy, 2020 should see a valley alight with glorious snowy blossom. For maximum benefit, we have selected a variety of species for our hedgerow : hawthorn, hazel, dog rose, wild cherry and wild plum as well as trimming up the existing elder, sycamore, ash and crab apple. We have just bottled last years harvest of hawthorn, elderberry and rosehip and crabapple as a limited edition of hedgerow cordial and I have to say, it’s delicious!

If you are interested in learning more about hedgerow, it’s history and bounty, the following books are favourites of mine.
River Cottage Handbook : Hedgerow by John Wright
Hedgerow by Anne Angus (I’m not sure that this is still in print but it is available second hand on line for a few pounds)
Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
The Hedgerow Cookbook by Wild at Heart

Enjoy your hedgerow, always forage responsibly and the further away from the road the better!