HEDGELANDS

A wild wander around Britain’s greatest habitat

Christopher Hart

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2024, 208 pages

Hardback: £20 | ISBN 10 1915294193

Review by Jo Cartmell

Thriving hedgerows are a habitat that I deeply care about. This new book from Christopher Hart has been one of constant revelations, not least that humans were laying hedges in the Iron Age, so hedgerows can be ancient wildlife habitat!

For anyone who has doubts about the importance of hedgerows, Christopher stresses that: “Hedges are far more than relics of the old-fashioned countryside that should either be left quietly to die out to make things more ‘efficient’ or else be flailed to within an inch of their lives. They form an unbroken line back through history, quite literally in some cases, to the native scrub of our ancient landscape”. To understand how people have interacted with the hedges over time, he finds many terms which “remind us of the centrality of these living boundaries over time”. He wisely stresses that “ironically,… many of the natural benefits of the hedge were known about in the past, through tradition and custom rather than cutting-edge environmental science”. This includes various species of tree being used for different purposes.

Although the author is rewilding seven acres, which includes a hedge where he lives in Wiltshire, he writes about the hedge in Jonathan Thomson’s 25 acres called Underhill Wood Nature Reserve, also in Wiltshire — which he wisely manages with the “bright-eyed young ecologist” Harry James.

An important observation is made regarding a conservation-laid hedge in that could reduce corvid predation by an impressive 84%, whilst also offering wildlife fruit such as rosehips, hawthorn berries, sloes and blackberries and shelter from winter’s winds, biting cold and rainfall. It is also a busy, vital wildlife corridor for species such as shrews, wood mice and bank voles, because it is six feet wide.

The impressive results achieved following conservation hedge-laying in just four years, and how it was achieved, makes this book a must read for any farmer, landowner, or wildlife body, looking to rapidly increase the wildlife value of their land. Although the focus is on a hedge in Wiltshire, this highly biologically diverse ecosystem should straddle the UK, creating a connective tapestry of essential wildlife corridors, habitat, cover, food sources and an important carbon sink.

He argues persuasively that we are ignoring a valuable resource that “long before terms like ‘forest gardening’ and as ‘permaculture’ came into use, the old British hedgerow was already offering such things. But we continue to destroy a vast crop of hedgerow fruits, nuts and greens annually, at considerable expense, and then airfreight in fruit from around the globe. Aldi currently airfreights in strawberries from Egypt and blackberries from Peru. And some people say it’s environmentalists who are delusional.”

In the Green and Brimming chapter, the importance of rotting wood within hedges becomes apparent, as similarly there is a lot of dead wood in ancient woodland. So dead wood is a crucial hedgerow habitat: about 650 species of beetle in the UK require it at some point in their life cycle. For this reason alone, dead wood should be left where it falls, or nearby, for its life-enabling functions.

Hedgerows are an ‘outside salad bar’ that country people have been using for centuries because they ‘keep on giving’. The Kalahari bushmen regularly eat over 100 different kinds of foraged plant food. Clearly we need to acquaint ourselves with the many hedgerow plants that could be freely available in our own gardens, if we follow his advice.

Chris talks about Hedges as Carbon Banks. An absolute gem of a chapter for anyone who is concerned as I am about food security in the UK, as this magnificent ecosystem is also a carbon sink that has the “huge potential to mitigate the worst of climate chaos” He also cites Jonathon Thomson’s insightful reason as to why conservation-laid hedgerows are far better than the Government’s 30,000 hectares of trees target: “England has 40,000 kilometres of hedges. If managed well (conservation-style or similar), our hedge network could achieve way more than this misguided planting programme. Our national hedge network is a resource being ignored. Yet with intelligent management there would be no need to take existing land out of use, no need to import trees (with attendant risk of pathogens, e.g. ash dieback), no need to use glyphosates, a hugely damaging herbicide, and no need to water saplings for two or three summers after they have been planted. A 2021 study found that hedgerows can increase the carbon capacity of neighbouring cropland by 30% or more, and that “the positive effect of hedgerows can only be fully achieved if they are adequately managed and present in their traditional form. This includes dense woody structure with shrubs”.

Lastly, he talks about hedge cutting techniques, both ancient and modern.

Christopher Hart’s Hedgelands will undoubtedly go down as the definitive guide in hedgerow management. After reading it, you will never just glance at a hedgerow again, but will look with a great deal of understanding. This is an essential hedgerow Bible that everyone who has one, or is planning to have one on their land, should read. The ‘Hedge of Life’ ecosystem must be revived urgently across the UK.

Cite:

Cartmell, Jo “HEDGELANDS” ECOS vol. 2024 , British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/hedgelands/.

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