Hedgerows are seen as one of the defining features of the English landscape and are important habitats for wildlife, such as birds, small mammals and invertebrates. They are often the oldest remaining feature in the countryside, providing important evidence of its historical development.
In ecological terms, the most biodiverse part of a habitat is often at the edge where a variety of environmental gradients and interactions exist. This is never truer than at the woodland edge. Light is available at all levels, niches, food and cover are widely available by comparison to the centre of the forest. There is a lot of interaction that goes on at the edges. Consider that a hedgerow is a type of extended woodland edge; bristling with biodiversity.
Doormouse. Image: Guardian Newspaper Online
Hedges are a type of wildlife corridor. Where fields the built environment, and playing fields have destroyed the woodland, often the hedges persist as thin fingers of nature extending into urban areas, alongside roads or canals. Life can propagate between nature hotspots using hedges for food and cover. In some areas, they are the only remaining wildlife; a lifeboat habitat.
Given all the wonderful thins that hedges do for conservation, it is amusing to note they were never planted for that reason. Hedges are a product of a more ancient system of agriculture. They provide shelter for lambing/calving and crops; livestock retention; prevent soil erosion; and act as a reservoir for beneficial predators of crop pests such as spiders and beetles.
It is thought by many people that hedgerows are recent additions to the countryside following the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1850. But at least half of Britain’s hedges are older than this, and many of these are hundreds of years old. In fact, two-thirds of England has had a continuously hedged landscape for over a thousand years. Some hedgerow systems even date back to prehistoric times.
Maps, 1890, 1920, 1955 and 1984 Decline in Hedgerows, 1890- 1984 (Source: Warsop Hedgerow Survey)
From 1870 until 1945 there was very little change in the extent of hedges. But the post-war agricultural industrialization saw a shocking degree of hedgerow loss as confirmed by aerial photography, between years 1950- 1975. Since then, tens of thousands of kilometres of hedges have been taken out. This was not only because hedges were deliberately being removed (e.g. to make larger fields) but also because they became derelict (i.e. they ceased to be cut and managed as hedges and grew into lines of bushes and trees). Between 1984 and 1993, the length of managed hedgerows in the UK decreased by nearly a third. This decline in hedges observed during the 1980s does appear to have halted and in some areas may have been reversed as the Countryside Survey 2000 reported no change in hedge length between 1990 and 1998.
Under the Hedgerows Regulations 1997, it is now against the law to remove most countryside hedges without first getting the permission of your local council. If you are interested in conserving the natural environment, ADL offers a range of online courses for a range of habitats.
Campaign For The Protection Of Rural England. A Little Rough Guide Around The Hedges (PDF), 2016.
Maclean, Murray. Hedges and Hedgelaying. British Trust For Conservation Volunteers. Crowood Press, 2006.
Rackham, Oliver. Trees And Woodlands In The British Landscape. W&N Publishers, Feb 2001