I’m just back from a very wintry dog walk with my very slow and elderly dog. There is something to be said for the slow walk and the honesty of bad weather, how a really good soaking freezes you so deeply it’s like it’s cleaned the very bones of you. And going so slowly allows for a close examination of the landscape; not just the valley and the hills around you, but of the landscape with a small L, the place where we exist every day, the areas that, in some ways, become background. I think of hedgerows like that. Hedgerows are a constant in the landscape, acting as dividers, boundary lines, shade for livestock. They sew the lands together, tracking across the countryside and lining the lanes. The hedgerows around my village feel timeless, and some are in fact likely to be boundary lines going back a thousand years or more. Hedgerows are like that – timeless, ancient, magical. Even the name – hedgerow, feels old and rounded with time, so close to the old english hegeræwe I can feel the weight of all those years in my mouth as I say it. I like the way you look at a hedge and see its history. Here’s a picture of a hedge in my village that has a history of being maintained in the traditional way, in which the living Hawthorn is cut down through the stem almost to the ground and then bent over and woven through the other stems to create a living fence. This is called ‘plashing’ and the bent part is the plasher. It’s an ancient technique that is lovely to see still in use. Sometimes you might see a lovely old hawthorn on its own and you might notice that it has a strange ‘elbow’ shape to some of its lower branches. That is the history of the tree, its brethren all gone and only the angle of its branches telling how once it was part of a hedgerow, a living fence that kept sheep in.
In some ways, hedgerows are the ultimate nature reserves. Even in winter the hedge is a hub of biodiversity. Beneath the soggy leaf mulch round the base and in the bark and branches of the plants, insects are hibernating, worms are turning, birds are feasting. I am lucky enough to live in a village in which the biodiversity of the area is important to the farmers who have lived here their whole lives. The hedges are well managed, but not over managed, and the fields tend to have small oases of copses and bogland which is allowed to just be – the trees that fall are not removed, for example, the thistles and seed heads are left for the birds. As a result we have a good range of wildlife around the village and I regularly see buzzards, kestrels, barn owls, roe deer, hares and foxes, as well as rooks, crows, jackdaws, hedge sparrows, tits, fieldfare, woodpecker. Most of these animals I see around the field lines, where the hedgerow provides cover and food for them. The rabbits in the top field have riddled a hawthorn with burrows, the foxes on the other side of the same field have dug below another hawthorn and into the bank of a diverted stream. Where the hedgerow becomes a small copse, the buzzards nest. In the barn that sits behind the hedgerow on the other side of the village, the barn owls nest. The small birds – sparrows, dunnocks – spend a lot of time deep in the hedgerow in winter where the air might be slightly warmer and food easier to find. Mice and other small rodents nest there too, which brings the fox, and the kestrel. Once upon a time people too, common folk, used the hedgerow as part of the common land, they foraged it for berries and plants and it was an important tool in their ability to survive. My own mum remembers picking rose hips from the hedgerows around the council estate where she lived, selling them to the council so they could make rosehip tea and give it to the poor kids to stave off vitamin deficiencies. She herself was one of the poor kids who received it. An old hedgerow will have lots of different plants and trees, many of them forgeable. Foraging doesn’t happen so much these days and actually, because we’ve decimated the wild areas of Britain so utterly throughly, any food in the hedgerows should probably be left to the animals living there. If you forage, go carefully and think of the non humans who rely on the hedgerows for food.
My dad remembered the hedges and orchards around the farm where his family were tenants being ripped up and burned to give the farm owners more land to farm. I wonder how many of the red list birds might not have been red-listed, how many floods prevented if we’d known then what a disaster it would be for the environment. I came across this poem by American writer Stirling North published by Poetry Magazine in 1937. The lighthearted rhythm and rhymes overlaying something tragic underneath, I think. When I think about the pulling up of the hedgerows it makes me feel queazy, and I think about the people doing the labour of removing it, how they might have been local people who had known those hedgerows and the animals that lived in them, grown up with them, took pleasure in them – it must have been heartbreaking, done in the name of progress, and of course done to ensure people could eat. I know it broke my dad’s heart to see it, the memory was very vivid for him.
You can’t turn back the clock, you can only go forward. I’m reminded of my place in the world, and the interconnectedness of everything and how really we are all a part of everything and if you want to make change you should do that with whatever skills you have, but that enjoying and celebrating the small wild places is important too, to take joy in the moment of observation, the way we might look at a hedge and see our ancestors, how we might imagine the felt hatted hedger with his billhook, mallet and hand rake and the constant work of remaking and maintaining and how his handiwork is right there, in the crooked elbow of an old hawthorn tree in the middle of a field.
Thanks for reading.
until next time