How old is the hedgerow landscape that we see today? Over what time span have present forms of management and regional variations developed? These questions are important not only to the landscape historian, but to all those who appreciate the living tradition represented by hedges.
Documentary evidence proves that there were hedges in existence in AD 800 which can still be seen today. This evidence from Anglo-Saxon charters has been used to develop the technique of hedgerow dating, which is based on the number of shrubby species in a 30 yard length of hedge. The problem in trying to look back before AD800 is that there is no documentary evidence available for Britain, and hedgerow dating by species number becomes more difficult to substantiate. Another method is to look at archaeological evidence.
As Rackham indicates (1986), there are two archaeological sites so far discovered which suggest the presence of hedgerows in Britain in the Roman period. At Bar Hill Roman Fort in Dumbartonshire, a ditch was found under the fort which had been partly infilled with bundles of hawthorn. The hawthorn showed the remains of growth which indicated that it had been cut two or three years previous to the date when it was cut and put in the ditch. This could be evidence of hedge management. At Farmoor in Oxfordshire, waterlogged deposits of blackthorn, hawthorn and rose may indicate the site of a hedge.
A survey of prehistoric and Roman iron agricultural implements in Britain (Morgan Evans, in Watt and Buckley, 1994) showed that heavy billhooks and lighter pruning tools were in use, possibly for cutting leaves for fodder, or for hedge trimming. Modern types of billhooks were in existence before the end of the Iron Age.
Along with literary evidence from Roman times of hedges in Italy and Flanders, this archaeological evidence indicates a strong possibility that there were hedges in Roman Britain.
Possible archaeological evidence goes back even farther, to the Bronze Age. At Shaugh Moor on Dartmoor, water- logged remains of hawthorn and rose were found, having been apparently cut and placed in a ditch. The hawthorn was 15 years old when cut. Split oak, possibly part of a fence and gateway were found, along with hoofprints which showed that the boundary was stockproof. The technology and techniques of coppicing go back as far as the Neolithic period, so hedges may have a very long history.
Have any of the Roman or Bronze Age hedges survived? Topographical analysis studies have shown extensive areas survive in England with pre-Roman boundaries. If continuity of use has allowed the survival of these boundaries, it could also imply that significant amounts of the hedgerow still survive.
Dead hedges, that is interwoven poles or brushy cuttings stuck in the ground, apparently were in use before Domesday as suggested by Anglo-Saxon manorial documents. dead hedges are known to have been built to fence in deer from the start of the Tudor period (Pollard, Hooper and Moore, 1974). The dead hedge was the ancestor of the barbed wire fence, and as such immediately drops out of this history. However, it is owed a debt of gratitude as quite possibly allowing many early live hedges to spring up by providing a protected ungrazed strip for colonisation by hedge shrubs. This method of origin is the second of five recognised by Pollard, Hooper and Moore (1974) as possible for British hedges:
- Hedges may have been formed around woodland clearings (assarts) made for agricultural purposes. These could either have been planted with shrubs taken from the woods, or may be relics of woodland plants managed to form hedges.
- Hedges may have been formed by managing scrub growth which colonised field boundaries marked, and protected from grazing, by dead hedges.
- They may have been planted as mixed hedges.
- They may have been planted as single species hedges.
- They may originate through a combination of factors.
Once in existence, hedges were exploited for all they offered including shelter, firewood and coppice timber, wild foods such as blackberries and hazelnuts, and small game especially birds. By medieval times these products were codified in law, with ‘hedgebote’ being the right of commoners to use the hedgerow for fuel and branches to feed their stock in winter (Beddall, 1950).
These early hedges were probably very rough and often were allowed to grow quite high before being cut. Some were wide as well, really linear thickets more than tidy hedges, and invariably they grew on banks. Extreme examples, which can still be found in central Dorset and occasionally elsewhere, are the double hedges associated with ancient parish boundaries. When these are overgrown the central gap is an almost inaccessible tunnel, but if maintained this gap may have served as a path.
Not all these great double hedges are necessarily so old; some date from the start of the enclosure movement. Witness the case of John Spencer, who was hauled before the Commissioners for Inquiry in 1517. He had bought the manor of Wormleighton, Warwickshire, in 1506 and had converted the whole place to pasture.According to Pollard, Hooper and Moore (1974), ’Spencer was a grazier and it is no surprise to find that his fields were double ditched and double hedged. Part of his defence at the Inquisition was that hedges provided fuel for the poor, who hitherto had burnt straw that should have been used for cattle. He had set acorns in the hedges because timber was more valuable than corn or grass’. Many more depopulated villages in the Midlands may have been enclosed at this time although few records have come to light.
Most commonly the big hedges were on a single bank, and in this form they continued to be built throughout the enclosed lowlands well into the 19th century. LeSueur (1951) says that the tall tree-covered banks of the North and South West are survivors of this ‘bank and ditch’ hedge type, although it seems possible that they may derive from the early clearance walls in this stony landscape. Whatever their origin, the later evolution of the high stone or turf-faced South Western bank can be traced in some detail. Pollard, Hooper and Moore (1974) quote a Devon account of 1800 which probably referred to hedges put up in earlier centuries:
The fences on the first of these improvements, were raised upon a base of seven feet wide, with a ditch of three feet on each side, and which, including the foot for the sods or facing to rest upon, occupied about thirteen feet width of ground. The mound was raised six feet high from its base; the sides faced with turf and left nearly five feet wide on the top: these were planted with two rows, consisting of oak, ash, beech, alder, hazel and hawthorn, purchased at 1s 6d per seam or horse-load, from those who collected them on the waste hedgerows and woodlands in the country.
Rule (1974) quotes 19th century agricultural manuals which recommend similar large banks, but made rather narrower. These apparently were intermediate forms leading towards today’s precisely styled pattern, illustrated in the preceding section.
The Enclosure movement, which in a sense started with the Celtic field clearances, really got underway in the 16th century, changing forever the open landscape of most of the country. Enclosures continued up to the mid 19th century. Beddall (1950) quotes a sour saying from the Tudor era: ‘Horne (i.e. sheep farming) and Thorne shall make England forlorne’, but then goes on to quote Thomas Tusser ’s rhyme in praise of hedges (1573):
The country enclosed I praise,
The tother delighteth not me,
For nothing the wealth it doth raise,
To such as inferiour be.
There shepherd with whistle and dog
Be fence to the meadow and corn.
The horse being tide on a balke
Is ready with theefe for to walk.
Town layeth for turfe and for sedge,
And hath it with wonderful suit,
When tother in every hedge
Hath plenty of fewell and fruit.
Evils twenty times worser than these,
Enclosure quickly would ease.
This ditty may not have made the poor man’s Top Ten, but the prospect of appropriating lands was too tempting for his wealthy neighbour.
Parliamentary Enclosure Acts usually stipulated that newly enclosed lands be marked by boundary ditches, and then planted up with hedges on the bank created within. Work had to be finished within a year for the act to be binding, and suppliers of hedging shrubs did an increasingly brisk trade which verged on the frenzied by the middle of the 18th century.
These hedges were ‘quickset’, a word which indicates both the hedge itself and the act of planting such a hedge. LeSueur (1950) says that ‘quick’ at first meant any living hedge, not necessarily of thorn as later understood. At this time the hedge was still a multipurpose item, coppice for fuel and fencing being as important as thorn for barring stock. He quotes Norden’s advice (1607) that the best way to make a ‘quick set’ is to mix the seeds of oak, thorn and ash together, wind them into a rough straw rope and bury the rope along the top of a bank.
As the rush to plant hedges continued, many people found employment gathering wild hawthorn seedlings from the woods. For many years, it was thought that these survived better when transplanted to a bank than would pampered ‘nursery’ or ‘garden quicks’. However, by the 1790s it was realised that proper early care aided the survival and good growth of hedge shrubs. Soon the garden quick was being grown in vast numbers specifically for hedge plantations. Wild hawthorn seedlings may have been either of the two British species, Crataegus monogyna, known simply as hawthorn, or Crataegus laevigata, the ‘woodland hawthorn’. The garden quick however was exclusively Crataegus monogyna, and it is this species which has been the ‘typical’ shrub of newly planted hedgerows ever since. A total of about 200,000 miles of hawthorn hedge was planted in the Parliamentary Enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries (Mabey, 1996).
Planting ‘on the flat’, as opposed to setting the hedge on a bank, was rare before the 19th century. It first came into common local use in Yorkshire’s Vale of Pickering where as early as 1785 hedges were made by digging a trench, setting the plants along the vertical side and then backfilling. But it was the advent of the railways which encouraged flat planting, for the engineers preferred their hedges unbanked and often unditched as well. Soon farmers in many areas adopted this practice, which was cheaper and often made for better growth. The old ‘bank and ditch’ was finally outmoded. Flat planting gradually evolved in its turn so that the most usual modern method is ‘ditch and hedge’. In this method a ditch is dug beside the hedge and the hedge is planted on a bank which is so low as to be negligible compared to older banks (LeSueur, 1951).
A spectacular 19th century type of hedge was the Leicestershire ‘bullfinch’, a term thought to have derived from ‘bull fence’. LeSueur (1951) quotes an 1832 definition of it as ‘a quick set hedge of perhaps fifty years growth, with a ditch on one side or the other, and so high and strong that one cannot clear it’. Understandably, the bullfinch was disliked by fox hunters (and their horses).
According to Pollard, Hooper and Moore (1974), hedge laying was relatively little practised until the 18th and 19th centuries, although the craft may have its origins much earlier than this. Beddall (1950) indicates that during the 18th and 19th centuries farm leases came to include specific clauses relating to hedge management. In many cases these followed and legitimised local custom. For example, on the Hawstead Estate, Suffolk, in 1732, the tenant was allowed bushes and stakes for hedge repair. A Warwickshire lease of 1786 stated that the tenant was ‘when required to cut and plash the hedges and make ditches 3’ by 2’, or pay or cause to be paid to the landlord one shilling per rood for such as shall not be done after three months notice has been given in writing’. It is not surprising then that hedge laying became a skilled craft and a well-laid hedge a point of pride to farmer and labourer. Some men specialised in hedge cutting, working on a contract basis all winter, and hiring out as general farmhands each summer.
The Enclosure movement reached its climax in the first half of the 19th century. Thereafter fewer hedges were planted, while existing ones matured and in some cases aged past their prime. In the late 1870s, British farming entered a slump. Hedgerows on marginal lands suffered both through neglect and short-term reversals of land use policy. From a wildlife viewpoint, times of neglect may have been the best, especially where hedges were allowed to sprawl into the headlands, forming dense thickets. Repeated changeovers from pasture to arable and back again brought the main purpose of hedges into question, for traditionally they had been features of stock-raising areas. However, despite temporary changes the agricultural landscape looked much the same in 1950 as it had in 1850. It was a landscape formed by enclosure, in which hedgerows and hedgerow trees dominated the scene.
All this time, of course, some parts of the country remained unhedged. The mountains and moorlands of the north and west, much of the chalk belt stretching diagonally from the Yorkshire Wolds to the Dorset coast, a large part of Bedfordshire, the Fens, Romney Marsh – a vast acreage in total. These areas developed their own form of fencing: dry stone walls, stone-faced banks, wattle hurdles, drainage ditches. Thin lines of trees or shrubs hardly figured here, although the Brecklands and southern Scotland for example had their shelterbelts. Thus, when looking at hedges past or present, whole regions of Britain remain outside the field of view.