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The History of Hedgerow Trees: A Literature Review

Over the last 25 years there has been a revival of concern about the condition of hedges and of hedgerow trees (Good, 1977). Opinions stated in the literature on the subject differ greatly, but to gain a better understanding of the issues involved the history of the hedgerow tree will be recounted.

Hedges and hedgerow trees have their origins very early in English history. Records show that they were certainly present in the Anglo-Saxon times and. possibly earlier (Rackham, 1977). In the Medieval period, before the enclosures, hedges had a variety of functions. They provided a stock-proof barrier and a shelter for stock, a boundary marker for fields and farms, as well as a source of fodder, timber and fruit (Countryside Commission, 1974; Rackham, 1977). At this time there were two ways in which a hedge could be created, by planting (known as ‘smallholders hedges’) or by leaving strips of primeval woodland (Cameron et al, 1980). Hedgerows planted. by smallholders usually contained tree species that were available locally, chosen with a variety of purposes in mind. (see above), other than simply as a stock-proof barrier. Holly (Ilex aquifolium), :or example, was often planted as a standby winter fodder; privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) as decoration; damson (Prunus domestica) as a cash crop. Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), crab apple (Malus sy1vestris) and possibly hazel (Corylus avellana) were grown for food (Rackham, 1977). By contrast woodland relic hedges contained a selection of woodland species, of which oaks made up a considerable percentage (Cameron et al, 1980).

By the year 1250, possibly earlier, the management of hedgerows was fully organised. Each hedgerow was made up of several different strata, which could be easily distinguished. A typical hedge might contain an underwood of shrubs (hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) or other species), a mixture of timber trees, and coppiced and pollarded trees at intervals (Rackham, 1977). Although the numbers of hedgerows increased, their management changed very little until about 1750 (Cameron et al, 1980). Larger timber trees were allowed to grow to greater dimensions than those in woodland, and were sold for correspondingly higher prices. They were highly sought after by shipbuilders, who preferred their wide-spreading crown and variety of shapes. In Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, despite the quantity of Crown woodland, over half the shipbuilding timber was in the form of non-woodland trees (Rackham, 1977). At this time the timber trees were the property of the landlord, but tenants had the right to cut coppice and to pollard trees. The material cut was used for fencing and firewood. No part of the tree was wasted, even the foliage being sold and the acorns used to fatten pigs (Rackham, 1977).

With the beginning of the main period of enclosures in a] 1750 two further kinds of hedgerow appeared, those enclosing open fields and those around commons (Cameron et al, 1980). These new hedges contained a smaller proportion of timber trees. Agricultural reforms brought about a reorganised of field systems and many old hedges were grubbed-up (Rackham, 1977). Despite the decline of shipbuilding and the increasing use of coal as fuel, oak timber remained a valuable part of farm economy. Most of the oak trees that survive today were planted some 150-200 years ago (Bunyan, 1981).

Over the last 70 years hedgerow tree numbers have decreased markedly. Rackharn (1977) indicates that there are several possible reasons for this. Old hedges were grubbed-up to enhance mechanisation, deep ploughing damaged tree roots and foliage was damaged by herbicides. Some trees have also been lost through stubble burning. As was mentioned earlier millions of hedgerow trees have been lost through Dutch elm disease. A more fundamental influence has been the timber trade’s preference to using imported timber, so that traditional arrangements for using and selling hedgerow trees have disappeared (Rackham, 1977).

Table 1 summarises the reasons given by the The Countryside Commission (1974) for and against the planting of hedgerow trees.

Table 1: Summarised Results of the 1974 Countryside Commission Discussion Paper, and Ward (1954).



Shelter for stock




Interfere with farm operations

Reduction of crop yields

Interfere with ditch maintenance

Damage to drains

Shade often causes gaps in hedge Harbouring pests

Hedgerow trees are also felled to gain land, to generate capital or because they have lost their agricultural function (Countryside Commission, 1974).

© 1987 Robert I. Bradshaw

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