• Ian McClellan

Week 32: An ode to Hedgerows.

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Please can I introduce everyone to this week’s cover star, Big Hedgerton.

Big Hedgerton lives in around our garden, or maybe more accurately we live in Big Hedgerton’s garden.

Big Hedgerton is always on the move, and always snuffling around. I like to think we are happy garden buddies, me and Hedgers. That’s the nickname I use, it’s unlikely Hedgers has one for me. We meet each other infrequently, and although Hedgers tends to freeze in my torchlight, once I have passed by you can bear witness to how fast a hedgehog can move. I can turn back around, and Hedgers has gone. Off in a flash to visit someone else, off to go about the routines of a hedgehog. I love crossing paths, and I always go to bed with a story to tell our little boy about the visit and whether Hedgers was snuffling a slug, or just generally mooching around.

I hope no-one can hear Big Hedgerton and I chatting in the garden, because I tend to use that voice that we all use when addressing a grown adult creature as if it was a human child.

We didn’t encourage Big Hedgerton into the garden, although it does give us an excuse to keep some of it quite wild, so that it can be safe and interesting. Hedgehogs are great for the garden and are part of that delicate and invisible balance. It is probably a happy accident that we have such a wonderful visitor, and we always make sure to leave a bit of food and water out near the path that Hedgers takes. We put in a few hedgehog houses around the garden hedges last year, but I’m not sure if they are used. I once saw Big Hedgerton with a few other hedgehogs of various sizes, but I’ve not been lucky enough to meet the family since.

Big Hedgerton also gave me the inspiration for this week’s planetwise change. I like it when this happens, because even if I have a vague idea each week of what change or challenge feels right, I leave my thoughts percolating for a few days to see if anything presents itself.

This week, Big Hedgerton literally presented, and gave me an idea.

This week, I am noticing hedgerows. The lines of trees and shrubs that have become synonymous with countryside in the UK and as I have learned, in many other countries around the world as well. I want to notice them, learn about them, and love them a little more.

Please bear with me, especially if you are reading this in a country and that does not use a lot of hedges. Hedgerows in the country where I live, have been a way of creating a barrier between land for many centuries. They are not unique here, but somehow have become quintessentially British. I know this because the global existence of hedges can be found on Wikipedia, who reference a significant hedge called ‘The Great Hedge of India’, a fact that frankly blew my mind.

For those not familiar with the brief history of hedges, as I wasn’t either until about four minutes ago, it is fascinating and continues to be mind-bending. You can go crazy on the origins of hedges, and once you start reading, you realise that they can trigger those weird affections, that makes us all as beautifully weird as each other.

Hedges have been used for thousands of years in the UK. They began to be used perhaps 4,000 years ago, when people decided to stop hunting and gathering, and to stay in one place and farm instead. To do this, these earliest farmers needed to clear forests so they could use the land to settle, to grow crops and vegetables, and keep animals. They would leave a strip of trees and shrubs around the edge of what was cleared, to mark boundaries, and where these still exist they are our oldest hedgerows.

Romans continued this tradition, and new hedgerows have been planted since then, although it was the Enclosures Act in the 17th Century that created a big increase in the planting of these natural barriers in this country at least. At this point in history, a lot of open land that was worked or grazed commonly, needed by law to be enclosed, and landowners found that growing hedges, or rows of trees and shrubs, was a good way to do this. They would mark the boundary in land ownership, but also would provide shelter and would keep cattle and livestock from roaming too far.

That is a massively simplified summary, that takes us up to the middle of the 18th Century. I found a good summary, as further reading should you wish, on the RSPB website here.

The dark side of this story, is that we have been gradually losing hedgerows. We have been losing them for a long time to urbanisation, and to industrial agriculture. Hedges have become poorly maintained, have been removed so that large farm machinery can turn around, that land can be used more productively, or to make way for roads and new developments. Although there is a growing reversal of this trend, there is still about half the amount of hedgerows in this country than there were a hundred years ago.

You might wonder why this is important, given that hedgerows have such a practical purpose. That there is no difference between a hedge, or a wall, or a ditch, or nothing at all. That hedges are those annoying, thorny, old things that scratch us on our weekend walks, or seem to change from a well-manicured rectangle to a gnarly scarecrow’s wig in the blink of an eye. That perhaps the removal of hedgerows is just a sign of progress, and change.

However, if we reframe the purpose of hedgerows to our environment from practical to ecological, the story changes. Hedgerows in this case are not walls, they are tunnels.

Not just tunnels for our friend Big Hedgerton, but let’s start there. Hedgehogs have become the flagship for hedgerows, not simply because of being conveniently named, but because they have suffered greatly from the reduction of hedgerows amongst other urbanisation trends. Whereas once, in the middle of the 20th Century, there were more hedgehogs than gardens in the UK, now there is just one hedgehog for roughly every 22 gardens. That is a population decline from around 30 million hedgehogs, to about a million and a half.

Therefore we should absolutely try and support hedgehogs in our gardens, and celebrate those wonderful moments when we have a hedgehog visitor, because the odds of this are about four or five times worse than winning a prize on a National Lottery scratch card.

How to do this, is well documented, there is lots of really great information online about how to help hedgehogs, or what to do if you find an injured hedgehog. There is the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and also I found a nice and informative site called Hedgehog Street. Both of these sites are really worth reading, to learn more about how we can all help, and some of the great work that is making a difference and helping to stabilise populations of this beautiful little creature.

I also wanted to go deeper into the tunnel, deeper into the hedge. Because although hedgehogs are a really important resident of our hedges, the fate of hedges should not be put on their spiny little shoulders. Big Hedgerton looks like he can handle it, but at the same time Hedgers would be the first to say with first hand experience, that hedges are full of life. Just in our tiny garden hedges, we have blackbirds nesting, we have bees and hoverflies buzzing in and out, birds feasting, butterflies fluttering, and every now and again our elderly cat proves there are also mice and shrews available.

This kind of biodiversity, is not just because of the safety of a hedgerow to shelter in or to use as a kind of a secret passage between fields or between patches of territory. It is also because hedgerows provide many different sources of food. The whole food chain from flowers, to insects, to animals, is represented in a hedge. The sheer variety of what can grow in a hedgerow, is not just what you plant initially. A hedgerow will evolve over years, and will become a product of it’s environment.

On top of this, hedges also help to prevent soil erosion by binding the soil, and by providing a natural barrier to rain and water run-off from fields. They also help to capture pollutants from the air, and have a role in capturing carbon in a similar way to the hedge’s more fashionable cousin, the tree.

But hedges are not only supportive and prevenetative, they can be full of joy too. Knowing hedges, means that you begin to understand how they can give us little joys, and through this joy increase our connection to them. I think this is something we can all do, because if you do really look at hedgerows, then as well as them being useful to Big Hedgerton and all of Big Hedgerton’s friends, they can also bring little pockets of happiness to us as well, and especially over the coming months.

The reason for that, is because our hedgerows are about to come alive with berries and flowers that can be foraged. They are often not noticeable, because many of the things that we can forage blend in if you are not noticing. Blackberries blend into the gaps, nettles are green. But if you stand in front of a hedgerow, and by noticing start to distinguish the different types of vegetation in front of you, then suddenly you spot a blackberry, then two. Then, and as if by magic, a whole blackberry patch pops out in front of you. Beautiful, plump, and each one containing juicy joy.

Foraging is something that we have done from time to time, and although brings with it a sense a freedom, needs to also be done carefully. And by that, I mean taking a small container on a walk, or grabbing a few handfuls as a break during a run in the big skies. Not taking an empty 2-litre ice cream tub and stripping brambles bare of anything you can lay your hands on. Foraging can be a more leisurely and enjoyable way of connecting with nature and with hedgerows and about working in harmony with nature, without becoming a volume driven activity. We should also never forage on private land, and always make sure we learn about what and where we are taking. Foraging too close to roads means that berries and plants may be spoiled, and there are loads of videos and guides online about what to pick and what not to pick.

I've then been testing out what to do, because foraging also means that you are not going to suddenly have a commercial jam venture, or whip up a mushroom risotto without fearing for your health. There is benefit to just grabbing a few handfuls of fruit and enjoying it with drizzle in your hair or the sun on your face, but also with a little bit of preparation, foraging fruit and plants can benefit your overall day in other ways. We throw a few handfuls of anything we find in a smoothie, and it is amazing how really fresh and wild fruit can make it taste even more delicious. Even if this is just the moment rather than a fact, I'll take it.

I have also been practising with compotes - as these are a bit more complicated, but not too much. We practised with gooseberries from our garden, which is not exactly a hedge, but is a good trial of how to make a soft fruit into a compote. Plus, if you can make a those hariy little gooseberries into a sweet and delicious compote, then you can pretty much make it work with any fruit given how tart a gooseberry can be.

There are a lot of recipes online, but if you want to do it simply, then all you have to do, is weigh out your fruit in a pan or baking tray, and add a big spoon of sugar to it for every 100g of fruit. Then cook the fruit either in the oven or on the stove until it gets squishy, give it a mash with a potato masher, and presto you have a compote. If you save up the fruit and make a batch, then it can be frozen, or you can just eat it fresh on top of some yoghurt and a drizzle of honey. If this can be a breakfast from time to time, to replace manufactured cereal once a week, then this feels like a good planetwise change.

I have also gone one step further, and experimented with nettle pesto, using the recipe here. Stinging nettles, are something that grow in the wild parts of our garden, and every spring and summer I have a fight with them, to clear space and light for the fruit trees and bushes. It seems also like in Yorkshire they grow super-nettles, that are 6-feet tall and can leave a mark with a sting that lingers for days. Finding out from my hedge research that you can do something productive with them, is a revelation. Finding also that it only has six ingredients, and mainly stuff that we have in the cupboard, has made me feel as if I am harvesting a valuable crop from the sun drenched slopes of Italy rather than furiously wrestling a weed into the compost. The first few mouthfuls, also feel perhaps like the first few mouthfuls of a pufferfish as you have to get over the psychological fear of the nettle patch, that comes from rope swing accidents and bike crashes of our youth. Butin the end it is worth it, and who knew that nettles were a superfood.

If your mind is not yet blown by hedgerows facts, and you still think that a hedge or a wall is the same, then go and stick your head right in one, and have a listen. You might sting your ear on a nettle, or snag it on a bramble, but this part of the point. They are rustling, buzzing, tweeting marvels of biodiversity. They perhaps lack the chiselled beauty of a tree on the horizon as they are made up usually of so many types of tree or shrub, but they stand proud and connected on the landscape nevertheless.

They are connected, and we are connected too. By noticing hedges, and by making little changes to how we see the world in this way, we can individually make a difference, and by sharing our ideas we can create a direct positive impact.

Hedges are ever present on our walks, and if you are like me, then you don’t really notice something unless you can somehow engage with it. Just reading about hedges is a good change, because now they will not just be hedges. Now I hope they will be hawthorn and hornbeam, crab apple and goat willow, holly and elder. This will help me notice them a bit more, and not just because they are in the way. I can appreciate them more, but up close rather than as a texture on the landscape.

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