Beautiful Boundaries: In Praise of the Humble Hedge

Hedges help shelter crops and livestock from wind, and provide a habitat and food for birds, insects and other plants.

The trees bordering these fields in upland North Wales were once well managed dense
hedges, but with the advent of affordable wire fences, they’ve been left to fall into neglect.
Huge numbers of farm hedges in lowland areas have been systematically removed in order to
make small fields into larger ones, so we have far fewer hedges in Britain than we once did.

Viewed from above, Britain’s agricultural landscape is a rolling patchwork quilt of fields and meadows, most of which were first cleared and farmed hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years ago. Many of these ancient fields are bordered with hedges, or, in some cases, the remains of hedges.

Very often, these hedges too will be ancient in origin, with the trees that reside in them having been preserved into an unusually old age by many years of careful management. Trees that are managed as part of a hedge can live for a very long time. Some of these ancient hedges might even appear on old maps, and can be just as historic as the old routes that they flank.

There is a method for dating the age of a hedge known as Hooper’s Rule. Hooper’s Rule is based on data obtained from old hedges suggesting that the age of a hedge can be determined by the number of species found within that hedge. The age is found by counting the woody plants in a hedgerow over a 30-yard distance and multiplying that number by 110.

Using this method, an old hedge bordering a lane near my house is dated at 800 years. This might sound ridiculously old, but this hedge borders a lane that leads to a church known to have been in use for around 1,000 years, so it is quite possible that the hedge is as old as Hooper’s Rule suggests.

The hedge as a historic landmark

Many of our British hedges are, in fact, hundreds of years old. Many were planted during the periods of the Land Enclosure Acts, the bulk of which took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. Hedge planting was so popular then that nurseries selling part-grown trees for hedging sprang up as rural businesses.


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