What is a Hedge?
A hedge is a man-made boundary made up of growing plants – a line of thick, woody bushes which do not die down in winter. Countryside hedges around fields usually consist of many different types of plants, but in parks and gardens they may be of one species only. Today hedges act as fences for keeping animals either in or out, or as boundaries and screens, dividing fields or gardens.
History of Hedges
The Anglo-Saxon word for enclosure was ‘haeg’ or gehaeg’ and this is were we get the word ‘hedge’. It is believed that the Romans may have first planted hedges in Britain but most of the few ancient hedges date from Saxon times, making some of them 1000 years old. The Saxons organised ‘strip farming’ in which each community of people would have a field which was divided into strips separated by grass verges. Each strip was one furrow long (one furlong or 201 metres). People were given a number of strips to farm by the lord of the manor. This system changed in the late Middle Ages when landlords wanted to put boundaries around their property, so they enclosed their land with walls or hedges. Enclosure Acts in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed farmers to put more hedges round their fields and most of Britain’s 300 000 miles or so of hedges date from this time.
Plants in a Hedge
The most common hedgerow plant is the hawthorn and thus has always been popular for countryside hedges because it has tough thorny branches and thick growth – ideal for preventing cattle from escaping through them. Most hedgerow trees are deciduous (lose their leaves in autumn), except for holly. Some species have been planted deliberately but others have established themselves over the years. Twenty of the most common hedgerow trees and shrubs are listed in the table on the right.
Most hedges have a bank or strip of grassland underneath them where many other plants grow. Some are climbers such as bramble, honeysuckle and ivy.
Over 200 species of non-climbers grow in the hedgerows including ferns and flowering plants such as primroses, foxgloves, garlic mustard, red campion, herb rocket, stitchwort and cow parsley. The numbers and species depend on the age of the hedge, its location and how it is managed.
How can you tell the age of a hedge?
As we mentioned earlier, some hedges date back many hundreds of years. The only certain way of dating a hedge is to find reference to it in some historical records. Old maps and charters recording estate or parish boundaries may refer to hedges. Libraries and your local record office may be able to help with this information. You can roughly work out the date of any hedge by using a formula.
Here’s what to do:
1. Choose a 30 metre length of hedge.
2. Count the number of species of trees and shrubs you find in it.
3. Multiply the number of species by 100.
The answer is the approximate age of the hedge.
One new species establishes itself about every 100 years, so a hedge with 3 species is about 300 years old. Obviously you have to use a bit of common sense when using this formula. A recent hedge may have been planted with several species but the look of the hedge should give you an idea as to whether you have an old, established hedge or a more recent one.