Friday, 3 February 2012

Hedges - specifically here in Devon

The other day I read that Devon had some of the oldest hedges in the country, some having been around for over a thousand years. This caught my imagination and so today’s blog will be about the hedges that line our lane.
You can judge the width of 'Main Road' from the tyre tracks in the snow,
The lane is officially called by the Royal Mail ‛Main Road’. No one ever uses this title although, since it is the only road that connects the small village to our west with the tiny hamlet to our east, the name is apt. Historically what is now a very rarely used footpath was the ‛main road’ as it offered a more direct route between the village church and the hamlet. What changed that? I have been unable to find out but in the late nineteenth century there was a revival of Methodism in this area and a new chapel was built on the fringes of the hamlet and facing what is now ‛main road’.

My guess is that our lane was just one of a maze of footpaths used to move stock between fields as they ate up the grass. The lane still fulfils that purpose: sheep mainly but sometimes bullocks and store cattle. When we first moved here there was no barrier between the garden and the road save the five bar gate which is often left open to get cars in and out. It was a couple of days after we moved in that we returned to find the lawns torn up thanks to a herd of bullocks that had visited us. Now we have an inner fence to avoid that happening.

Anyway, I thought I would look into how you can tell the age of a hedge. There seems to be a generally accepted formula based on the fact that the hedges would have been planted with something that stock found difficult to break through (usually hawthorn) and that other species would invade as the years passed. So the method is simple. Count the number of shrubs or hard wood plants in a stretch thirty yards long. The age of the hedge in years is 100 for every hard wood species it contains plus 30 (I don’t know why 30). The figure you end up with will be accurate to within a couple of hundred years unless something odd has happened (such as the hedge being planted with more than one species on day one).

There are problems. What species count? We have six species that certainly do count: oak, ash, hawthorn, blackthorn, holly and hazel. Well, that gives us an age of 630 years for starters. However, there are two roses – the pink dog rose and the white field rose – as well as ivy and honeysuckle which are all woody shrubs but I am not sure that they count.
Oak, cut right back in the autumn, regenerates each spring.
Ash - with ivy - taken today.
The hawthorn berries appear in autumn.
Blackthorn comes into flower before the leaves arrive.
Holly, also taken today, with some ash in the background.
Catkins are already forming on the hazel.
The pink flowers of the dog rose as opposed to . . .
the white of the field rose, seen here climbing hazel.
If they do it makes these hedges over a thousand years old which is actually quite possible. Two of the farms near us are mentioned in the Domesday Book and, since they needed to drive animals along lanes that were stock proof, I think it is reasonable to assume that our lane was used back then, much as it is today.

There is one rogue element – a single beech tree. Actually it grows in a part of the hedge where there is no holly for thirty yards either side so it would be unfair to add it to the list.

Up on Exmoor there are miles and miles of beech hedges. They are almost all about two hundred years old. Exmoor was a Royal Forest which was sold off in 1818, John Knight bought quite bit of it and he and his family turned all the better, more sheltered land into farms. In the process they also built miles of metalled road to provide good access and used beech to hedge those roads.

Hedges, of course, provide wonderful cover for birds, insects and small mammals. Perhaps the fact that we have such old hedges surrounding us explains how we manage to attract such a huge variety of birds into the garden with very little effort on our part.