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The Hedgerows of Britain: native flora and fauna of traditional British hedgerows

Updated on April 14, 2012
Imogen French profile image

Imogen is from West Dorset, in the UK. She works in publishing and writes mainly about the environment, gardening, and vegetarian food.

Blackthorn blossom in a hedgerow
Blackthorn blossom in a hedgerow | Source

The hedgerows of Britain form a distinctive part of its agricultural landscape. Some hedgerows were planted a very long time ago - probably centuries ago - by farmers, in order to enclose their fields and form boundaries between plots of land.

Older hedgerows are very biodiverse, being made up of a great variety of native and ancient plants and providing a unique ecosystem for wildlife, as well as being "green corridors" that spread across the countryside in a large network, so that animals can shelter and move from one area to another in relative safety.

A gap in an old hawthorn hedge creates a vista, showing patchwork fields and a network of hedgerows in the Dorset countryside
A gap in an old hawthorn hedge creates a vista, showing patchwork fields and a network of hedgerows in the Dorset countryside | Source
Some typical wild flowers growing in a bank below a hedgerow: dandelion (top left), primroses (centre), and lesser stitchwort (white flower, right).
Some typical wild flowers growing in a bank below a hedgerow: dandelion (top left), primroses (centre), and lesser stitchwort (white flower, right). | Source

Flora

Hedgerows are made up predominantly of trees and shrubs along with climbing plants and an understorey of low growing plants. They were probably planted originally with a single species of native shrub, but over the years other plants have colonised and become a natural wild addition. The age of a hedgerow can be roughly determined by counting the number of shrub species - for each different species that is found in a 30 yard stretch you can assume the hedgerow to be another 100 years old.

Many hedgerows contain prickly bushes, such as hawthorn, blackthorn and holly. These plants provide good defensive boundaries, suitable for containing livestock - and for keeping out unwanted visitors or predators. Blackthorn has very pretty white blossom in the spring {see top picture), and hawthorn is covered with pale pink or white "May" blossom in the month of May. Elder, field maple and hazel trees, as well as some larger trees like ash and elm are also commonly seen in hedgerows.

Climbing plants are often found growing up through the branches, and include the sweet scented honeysuckle, ivy, dog roses and wild clematis, all adding a splash of colour with their flowers and berries.

The plants of the understorey depend largely on local conditions and type of habitat. Grasses and cow parsley are common, and woodland plants such as primroses, wild garlic, nettles and ferns all seem to thrive at the foot of the hedge.


The hedge brown butterfly (also known as the Gatekeeper)  is a common sight in Britain's hedgerows
The hedge brown butterfly (also known as the Gatekeeper) is a common sight in Britain's hedgerows | Source
A European hedgehog
A European hedgehog | Source

Fauna

Hedgerows provide both food and shelter for a number of animals, most notably birds, insects and small mammals. They are a valuable habitat for these creatures, which is in danger of being lost, especially on farmland when land is cleared and field sizes increased for large-scale crop production. The RSPB claim that "Hedges may support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies."

Some species found here are given away by their names - the hedge sparrow, the hedge brown butterfly and of course the hedgehog!

Hedgerows are a haven for many birds that nest in the safety of the thick shrubs as well as being provided with a great food source of insects and berries. All sorts of woodland and garden species make use of this great habitat, such as sparrows, tits, finches, blackbirds, robins and wrens.

Small mammals such as mice often build their nests in hedgerows. The dormouse, which is a rare and protected species in Britain, has a very specialised habit. They particularly like to make their nests in hazel tree hedgerows, where they have a good food source from the hazelnuts, and often use honeysuckle vines to build their nests, where they hibernate for up to six months each year. A properly laid hazel hedge (see below) provides the perfect habitat for the dormouse.

Hedge Laying

Many British hedges are still traditionally "laid", a method of controlling growth and shaping the hedge by cutting part way through branches and bending them down to form a kind of natural living fence. If done properly this can look very beautiful, it is also the best way to maintain the hedging, filling the gaps to make it stock-proof, and is much better for wildlife than the modern method of flailing with machinery. Hedge-laying is considered a traditional countryside skill, it needs to be done by hand and is quite labour intensive. It is an art that was once in danger of dying out due to cheaper modern methods, but there are now hedge-laying societies, courses and competitions in many parts of the country that aim to keep this craft alive.

A recently laid hazel hedgerow in Dorset, England.
A recently laid hazel hedgerow in Dorset, England. | Source

Comments

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    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Fascinating!

      Yes, hedges are a part of our history ~ and a very valuable and beautiful one, at that.

    • Imogen French profile imageAUTHOR

      Imogen French 

      6 years ago from Southwest England

      Alloporus, glad you enjoyed it. The beetle study sounds interesting!

    • profile image

      alloporus 

      6 years ago

      Great Hub Imogen. Brought back very fond memories of project I completed many years ago on the beetle fauna of hedgerows in Norfolk.

    • Imogen French profile imageAUTHOR

      Imogen French 

      6 years ago from Southwest England

      Thanks rmcleve, glad you enjoyed it. The hedgerows are beautiful at this time of year, and so full of life!

    • profile image

      rmcleve 

      6 years ago

      Goodness! This hub brought me back to my high school days in the fens of East Anglia. Wonderful post with beautiful photos! I loved it and enjoyed the walk down memory lane! :)

    • Gloshei profile image

      Gloria 

      6 years ago from France

      Great hub Imogen it would be sad to see the hedgerows vanish, not just for the beauty of them but for the wildlife where would they go.

      Like nettlemere I too have just put in some hawthorn but now the weather has turned cold I hope they survive.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      Very nice hub - hedge laying sounds like a bit of an art!

    • Imogen French profile imageAUTHOR

      Imogen French 

      6 years ago from Southwest England

      Thanks nettlemere, I hope your hawthorn hedge does well. Sherry, a link would be welcome - our hedges are well used by bees, especially the flowering shrubs.

      ... and thankyou both for your comments.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      6 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I love this. As an American I am not that familiar with hedgerows. If you don't mind, I think this would make an excellent link for my hub on bees, I think a hedgerow would make excellent habitat for wild bees.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 

      6 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      I'm with you on the importance and beauty of native hedging Imogen. I've planted a hawthorn hedge in my garden and it's well used by birds and insects. I love to see a well laid hedge.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I enjoyed this article very much, Imogen and the photos are beautiful. It's a shame so many have been removed, they are so iconic to the English countryside. Voted up, beautiful and interesting.

    • Imogen French profile imageAUTHOR

      Imogen French 

      6 years ago from Southwest England

      thanks jkenny - yes, hedgerows are very important indeed for our wildlife here in Britain, the main reason I wrote the hub was to try to help raise awareness of their value. Thanks for commenting and voting.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      6 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Great Hub Imogen. There is a very real danger of hedgerows disappearing, due to the demand for more land for crop growing. Sometimes I think people don't appreciate just how important they really are. Voted up etc.

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