Blanche Parry

Finding history hidden in hedges can be fun

September is an ideal time for dating hedges according to our local historian Ruth E. Richardson

The elderly gentleman leaning on his gate, watched intently. Across the lane people paced along the hedge, making notes. He politely asked what they were doing. 'This hedge has a lot of species in it so we think it is old' came the reply. 'Ah', he said, 'I planted that in the Monmouthshire, not Herefordshire, way' .... Red-faced, they thanked him and left, not stopping to find out the difference between the two ways he mentioned! Dating a hedge needs caution.

On average, a 30 metre stretch of hedge acquires a new species every 100 years, but this varies across the country. The method is to: (1) Find a field hedge. (2) Place a marker, stone or branch, on the ground. (3) Walk 30 paces from the marker along the hedge. (4) Mark your end–point. (5) Walk back to your first marker noting every different species growing as a part of the hedge – species to the side of the hedge are not relevant. (One way is to collect leaves, checking their identification later.)

If your hedge has many species in one section, while an adjoining part has only one or two species, you have found two hedges. The hedge with most species was from a field where the rest of the original hedge has gone, and another hedge was joined to it at a later date. Most hedges are 19th century enclosure hedges, with one or two species, often including hawthorn.

If you have more species then (i) perhaps your hedge was deliberately grown as a as a multi– species hedge with the different plants harvested for different purposes. Check on a map (tithe and estate maps, etc.) showing the hedge as a boundary and find an earlier map without this boundary. Then you know your hedge was grown between these two dates.

Alternatively, (ii) your hedge could once have been a wood. The easiest way to create a field from a wood is to clear interior growth, leaving perimeter species as the hedge. Check the hedge species for (a) woodland hazel, spindle, field maple, or oak and check (b) flowers immediately under the hedge for woodland plants like dog's mercury, common primrose, bluebell, and wood anemone. Then check (c) for woodland snails in the soil under the hedge. Old snail shells can be dated. Marvellously, snails tend to stay in the same place so show the area under such a hedge has never been ploughed.

It is possible, too, that (iii) a hedge with a lot of species has gained more species over centuries. If it is a parish boundary then it may have been there when the parish was delineated in Saxon times. Some hedges even surrounded Roman estates! Useful hedges survive and often each side has always had a different owner. Those shaped as a reversed S, or stretched C, edged Mediaeval farming strips, the curves caused through turning the plough team as it approached the headland (unploughed area at end). Many Medieval hedges survive in Herefordshire. We are lucky to have so many hedges and trying to date them is fun.

©Ruth E. Richardson 2013

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