Saturday, 10 March 2012

Hedgerow History and a New Project

One of the greatest and most picturesque, natural aspects of lowland Britain is its patchwork of fields divided by neatly clipped hedgerows.  In hill country, or where there is a wealth of stone, the fields are divided by dry stone walls and the Cotswolds are renowned as much for these as for the limestone cottages and houses built of the same material.  Here, domestic and farm buildings merge into one with the landscape for, as the fields were cleared of stone, it was natural to use it as a building material. 

The overgrown hedge on the left; the drystone wall starts a little further up on the right of our little country lane 

However, the Cotswolds also have their fare share of hedgerows and these often go unnoticed - overshadowed by the craftsmanship, colour and texture of the old walls.  In the secret valley we are fortunate for we have both: outside our little cottage - also built of stone 160 years ago - one side of the lane is bordered by a hedge, the other a dry stone wall.  At a glance, the hedgerow is unremarkable whereas the wall attracts attention for its weathered appearance and moss encrusted stones.  But not all is as it seems.


 The drystone wall was probably built only a couple of hundred years ago

The wall was probably built at the time of the great land enclosures, when large areas of England were partitioned, the ground cleared and 'improved' to grow crops (or here, in the Cotswolds, more likely wool) and may not be more than a couple of hundred years old - 'new' to us Brits.   However the hedge, shabby and overgrown in places, could well be a relic of the ancient wildwood, the forest that once covered most of lowland Britain in the days of pre-history before man started cutting it down. 'Our' hedge would almost certainly have been part of the Wychwood Forest, a royal hunting ground, for written records go back to the time of the Domesday Book of 1086.  As the forest was cleared (for more details click here) to make way for fields, it was easier to leave strips standing than to create new dividers. 


In places, the hedgerow is barely recognisable for trees have grown to huge proportion

How do we know that it is an ancient hedgerow and not one planted at the time of the enclosures?  There is an accepted formula for dating them known as Hooper's Law: the number of tree and shrub species found in a thirty metre section x 100 is equal to the age of the hedge.  It is normal practice to take three thirty metre sample lengths and apply an average for greater accuracy.  There is also a second method of deciding if the hedge is of ancient origin: by the types of wild flowers that grow in it.  Certain species are very slow to spread, or perhaps only would normally grow in certain conditions such as woodland shade.  These key species are known as ancient woodland indicators and we have a number of them growing at the foot of our hedge.


 Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator.  Here their new leaves emerge at the foot of the hedge - it will be several weeks before they flower

What is even more remarkable is that the plants tell us what is old and what is new hedge with such accuracy that it is possible to follow the old even after it has left the roadside. For our little lane that winds uphill as it leaves the secret valley to join the main road ('Turnpike') is also part old and part new.  Before the Turnpike was built in the late 1700's, the lane beyond our house took a sharp turn left and crossed the fields, it's way now marked only by sunken turf and yes, you've guessed it, also by the old hedge and its associated flora.

 
 The 'old' road had been trodden for centuries by countless generations of drovers moving their cattle and sheep to market.  It was probably still used after the opening of the turnpike in the late 1700's to avoid paying the tolls

I always consider March to be the start of the gardening year, the month when nature turns its back on winter and spring moves rapidly forwards.  Leaf buds burst, seedlings germinate and the first of the flowers remind you that long, hot days are not too far away.  It is the same with the plants that are beyond our garden gate.   And so on our first really warm, sunny day of 2012 I have decided to embark on a new project: to catalogue and photograph a year in the life of our hedge on a month by month basis.  Watch this space!

In places, the ancient hedgerow is still tightly clipped and, over time, has become very wide

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13 comments:

  1. Oh I am delighted with this decision as I know I will learn quite a bit about a subject I know little about, except, that I know how lovely the hedges are, and the bounty they provide and home as well, for so many birds and wildlife. Great idea!!

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  2. Hi Johnson...lovely countryside and interesting to read about how things have evolved over the years...How interesting it would be to see an aerial view of the area!
    Hope your plan works out with your monthly view!!
    Grace

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  3. "Hedgerows" always reminds me of those wonderful Brambly Hedge stories. I'll be interested to see your "Year in the life of a hedgerow" posts.

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  4. Yes indeed, I too am looking forward to a month-by-month breakdown of events. It said that something in the region of 80% of our farmland bird species use these hedges, for shelter and nesting and for feed. I am very glad that I stumbled upon your blog.

    Kind Regards

    Tony Powell

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  5. Many thanks for your interest and taking time to comment.

    We are lucky here to have many of the farmland birds that are becoming less common elsewhere - skylarks (yes, I do know that they aren't hedge nesters!) and yellowhammers, especially.

    Welcome Tony to my blog - I do hope you will continue to enjoy it.

    Johnson

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  6. I never fail to learn incredible things from your posts! Although I grew up in New England (where 400 year old buildings are still fairly common), I'm in Atlanta now, where virtually nothing is older than 150. I find it delightful that you refer to your walls as only 200 years old!

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  7. Thanks, Tim, for the kind words.

    You may also be amused by this story about the Turnpike road. After I had lived in the secret valley for just over a year I finally asked "Where is the white gate that everyone says turn left at?" It turned out to be the toll gate that had been removed in the 1870's when the road became free to use for all traffic.

    It takes rather a long time for people in England to consider something as old!

    I'm really looking forward to the prospect of meeting you in the Cotswolds in 2013. I do hope it can be arranged.

    Johnson

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  8. Hello

    Just came across your blog and how wonderful that you love hedgerows! Not everyone does, I know.

    I'm in Lincolnshire, have only had a garden for a year (and I'm nearly 60!) and am loving every minute of it :-) My south and west boundaries are old hedges adjacent to farmland. The east has a fence but also a hedge on my side where there used to be a ditch (drain in this part of the world).

    I am sure I will learn from you. I'll call in again :-)

    Jane

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  9. Hello, Jane

    Thank you so much for visiting and taking the time to leave a comment.

    I have always lived in parts of the country that have a lot of hedges and have many happy memories of crawling about in them as a small child. Perhaps that is why I still have a fascination for them!

    I don't know Lincolnshire as a county at all well but imagine that you are lucky to have old hedges on two of your boundaries - a real opportunity to study as well as nurture them.

    Another passion is gardening - I earn my living from it apart from anything else. One thing I am certain of is that you are never too old to start gardening and always too young to stop. Even when you are ancient and creaking you will be able to tend a window box or a couple of house plants and see and learn something new. And, of course, gardening is the original 'green gym'. A terrific way to keep fit!

    I am planning on writing at least one post a month about the progress of the hedge so do hope you will pay a regular visit. Apart from that there should be other posts that will include gardening so, hopefully, you will find those interesting too.

    And finally, you can find Life in the Cotswolds on Facebook too where there are regular updates on whats going on in this tiny part of the Cotswolds.

    Johnson

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  10. Fascinating...and great photos. Thank you so much for sharing. Greetings from Montreal, Canada.

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  11. Thanks Jess & Wren.

    Ah, Montreal - one of my favourite cities!

    Did intend to write more on the hedge by now but work keeps getting in the way :-(

    Hopefully, will write over the weekend.

    Johnson

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