Book Review – A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright

Dear Readers, I fell in love with hedgerows when I was visiting Mum and Dad in Dorset – when I was able to get out for an hour I would spend much of it wondering at the sheer variety of bird life that rustled and fluttered in the depths of the hawthorn, or that flew away at speed as soon as I got within camera range. So I approached this book with a great deal of interest. The fact that the author lives in Dorset was an added bonus. Plus, he sounds very much like me, which is always a bonus (from my perspective anyway):

‘.….a walk from one end of 100 metre hedgerow to the other can take me half an hour and any companions soon get bored and walk on ahead. ‘But aren’t you interested?’ I might ask rather pompously. ‘Look at this elder tree that’s had its bark rubbed away by a deer’, or ‘Here’s an oak apple, let’s see if the wasp has flown,’ or ‘This plant will have you dead in half an hour if you eat it’, and so on.

What Wright has is a stupendous, compendious knowledge of all things hedgerow, ditch, dry wall and dyke -related. He starts with the story of hedgerows, from the arrivals of the first Mesolithic peoples (and here he joins in the discussion about whether the UK was one unbroken forest or ‘oak pasture’, something that ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree discusses at length. Then we get into Neolithic land clearance. What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, we owe such things as

‘ ……oats, cabbage, cherries, wine grapes, apples (a much better species than the native crab apple, which is barely edible), plums (better than sloes, except in gin), several familiar herbs and, perhaps less welcome, the cucumber’.

What has Wright got against the cucumber, we may ask? But then we’re on to the Anglo-Saxons, inclosures and enclosures, parliamentary enclosures and hedgerow loss. In short, the first part of the book is an interesting resumé of not just hedges, but the agricultural history of the UK, and fascinating it is too.

Then we move on to the natural history of the hedgerow, and this is obviously the part that attracted most of my attention. Wright points out that there is no such thing as a typical hedgerow flora, fauna or mycota – the only plant that grows only in hedgerows is the Plymouth Pear (Pyrus cordata). It is vanishingly rare, but if you find one in flower you’ll know all about it – according to the Woodland Trust website, the blossom is said to smell like decaying scampi or wet carpet, and to attract mainly flies.

Photo Two by Ross Joliffe/Alamy Stock Photo from https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/plymouth-pear/ Photo by

The flower of the Plymouth Pear (Photo Two)

What the hedgerow most resembles, Wright says, is woodland edge habitat, although it is more exposed and hence often drier. However, the type of plants and animals that inhabit it will vary according a wide range of variables, including soil type, amount of moisture and sunlight, and location. Furthermore, the habitat in the middle of a hedge will be very different at the top and at the bottom.

Nonetheless, what follows is a most entertaining gallop through the major trees, shrubs and plants that can be found in a hedgerow. It’s clear that Wright is interested in fungi, and in plant galls, and he manages to address the imbalance in between flora and fungi that is so often present in guides of this kind. I learned a lot about mushrooms, and hawthorn, and dog rose. There are frequent ‘aha’ moments, when I recognise the links between the different inhabitants of a hedgerow, and it certainly gave me lots of ideas about what to look for next time I’m walking down a country lane. Plus he is able to bring even the commonest of hedgerow plants into fresh focus.

We have something of a love-hate relationship with the bramble – the berries are by far the most abundant and among the tastiest of all wild fruits, and nearly every child will have happy memories of picking them. On the other hand they are intractable weeds bearing thorns that can rip through clothing and skin. The leaves of bramble look as though they had intended to fall off during the autumn but had changed their minds and soldiered on until spring. It is certainly an untidy and disreputable looking plant and even in late summer, when the berries are full, it seems to have been half eaten by pestilential insects.’

Anyone hoping for details on hedgerow mammals and birds, however, may be a little disappointed, but then I wonder if this would be fair. We are rather deprived of mammals in the UK, and those that we do have are rarely hedgerow specialists, though Wright does discuss the stoat and the weasel. He is even clearer on his lack of interest in birds, though I suspect he is being tongue-in-cheek when he says that

I have little interest in birds, considering them to be nasty, feathery things that fly away before you can even identify them.

But really, what’s wrong with being passionate about plants and fungi? Very few of us can be passionate about all the inhabitants of the natural world, and even those of us who are will admit, if pushed, to having favourites.

The last part of the book is about the different styles and methods of boundary making – there is much on the hurdle, the dry-stone wall and the varying styles of hedge-laying. This was less interesting to me than the earlier parts, but those of you with a more practical bent (and the opportunity to knock up a boundary on your estate) will I’m sure find much of interest here.

Wright finishes with a summing-up of the different regimes and methods that are currently used for maintaining and trimming hedges. All have their advantages and disadvantages, but what seems to work best is for us to take an interest in our own local hedgerows and to hold the council accountable. He mentions Sarah Carter, a Cornishwoman who was so horrified by the loss of species in her local hedgerows due to the flailing technique and timing of council ‘maintenance’ that she kept a list of the species that disappeared and, as Wright says, used the ‘time-honoured practice of making a thorough nuisance of herself to those responsible for the trimming of Cornish hedges‘. As Wright says:

We should, perhaps, all follow Sarah’s example in treasuring what we have in our wonderful hedges and hedgerows and make an almighty fuss about what we perceive to be lost through bad hedge management along the roadside or indeed anywhere else. Then, maybe, we can have our hedges back’.

You can buy A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright from many places, but let me suggest the Natural History Society Bookshop, an absolute treasure trove of titles.

 

6 thoughts on “Book Review – A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I’m guessing there aren’t many hedgerows in your neck of the woods Anne (though maybe they’d be just the trick for the urban herd…)

      Reply
  1. FEARN

    Compendious indeed. To start with you can’t believe a book about hedges could be that thick and by the end you are saying what about mammals and birds. Food for thought – but not the most easily digested IMHO.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      No it’s a solid read to be sure. Good for bedtime though. Just lately I’ve started doing what my Mum did, which is to fall asleep while reading and drop the book on the cat who is peacefully slumbering on my stomach.

      Reply
  2. Liz Norbury

    This book sounds fascinating. The word “hedgerow” is hardly ever used here in Cornwall, probably because the traditional Cornish hedge is more akin to a drystone wall filled with what has memorably been described as “volunteer wildflowers”. It’s good to see that Sarah Carter is mentioned in the book: she’s been studying Cornish hedges for nearly 40 years. She lives in the far west beyond St Ives, where some of the hedges are thought to be 4,000 years old.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Yes, Sarah Carter sounds like a real hero. When she started the monitoring, the hedges were regularly flailed to within an inch of their lives, destroying everything in them. I’m glad that things have improved at least a bit.

      Reply

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