British hedgerows have become iconic but very few are familiar with the history behind our hedgerows. The history of our hedgerows is reflective of agricultural improvements, invasions and riots, and even much political change. Their history is intertwined with ours in a way that few have been able to appreciate. Read on to find out more about the history of hedgerows!
Bronze Age and Iron Age era hedgerows
In the early stages of field creation, there was plenty of space that was carved out through processes of land clearing. It is routinely thought that the strips of woodland which end up left around the perimeter of these fields are some of the first ever forms of historical hedgerows.
The stone walls which ended up contributing to the bases of the boundaries for field systems in the Bronze Age can still be seen in areas of Devon today. It is more than likely that these structures were earthed up and vegetated to form different kinds of hedgerows, and were most likely built upon earlier forms of pre-existing earthen bank boundaries.
‘Celtic fields’ can still be seen today in our countryside that remains from the Iron Age too, usually quite clearly in visible in aerial photography.
Saxon and Norman era hedgerows
During the period of the Saxons there was a noticeable shift away from field boundaries of the previous agricultural systems that had existed. They decided to use an infield/outfield system that meant while one larger ‘infield’ was being routinely cropped, everything outside of that system was being cultivated in a far less intensive manner, mainly for the purposes of grazing. This of course meant that because they had only one primary enclosed ‘field,’ having a number of hedgerows no longer became as necessary.
The Norman era would see a continuation of this open field system, in which Lords could be granted tenure on land while Serfs would work the open fields. Yet again, this system would quite evidently not require the implementation of hedgerows.
Early forms of enclosure
By the 12th century, it became law to maintain a perimeter boundary that would include hedgerows (created through the use of woodland) to prevent forestry game from straying onto assarted (converted to arable) land. However, by the 13th century the Lords of the country were ultimately given the power to enclose common grazing land, so long as commoners had enough for their own individual needs; unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way for the commoners themselves. What was to follow was a period of enclosure through the use of hedgerows, which was a welcome addition to the growing network of hedgerows across the country, but not so great for any of the commoners!
During the Tudor time period of history, much of the land then became enclosed through the use of royal force. This would lead to a period of revolt among the peasants whom this would deeply affect, with the 1607 Midland Revolt eventually leading to thousands of disenfranchised commoners pulling down an incredible number of hedgerows.
Parliamentary forms of enclosure
As the country then moved into the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, a considerable explosion of mass hedge planting led to another rapid increase in the length and number of hedgerows, peaking mainly from 1750 to 1820. The hedges that would eventually be planted during this period were largely single species hedgerows, including hawthorn, many of which are still around to this day!
During the 18th century, hedges still remained planted utilising what was known as the bank and ditch system. This changed in the 19th century, when it would then become more popular to plant on flatter surfaces since it was both cheaper and quicker; 200,000 new miles of hedgerow were planted during this time. By the end of this era, there were thought to be at least 1 million kilometres of hedgerow in total!
A mass hedgerow removal took place in the years that followed the Second World War. The 1947 Agriculture Act financially rewarded many British farmers for removing vast quantities of hedgerows in an effort to achieve greater food independence for the country. The statistics here are remarkable; an assessment conducted in 1950 by the Forestry Commission came to include that we had at least 1 million km of hedgerow, but by 2007 this was drastically reduced to 477,000km, a loss of 52%!
The loss of hedgerows stabilised towards the end of the 20th century, but the 1997 Hedgerows Regulations Act that was passed thankfully offered hedges far greater protection, and made it a punishable offence to remove the hedgerows without permission. Total hedgerow length then began to increase in some areas because farmers began to re-plant hedging that was previously lost.
During the 20th century there were some massive changes in hedgerow management. The introduction of certain kinds of mechanised trimming made it possible to cut all the hedges on any given farm in every single year. This, by consequence, reduces the total number of hedges that are laid or managed on a typically regular hedging life cycle. There has been a negative impact on the health of these remaining hedgerows, because they are unable to tolerate the consistent trimming regime without a continuous, slow deterioration in both quality and health.
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