rich patchwork of fields indicates an evolving countryside as each generation
maintains and creates features to help them farm and demarcate boundaries.
There are clear links to the past with the hedged landscape made up of
numerous layers of previous activity.
In general terms, wide and species-rich hedges around irregular shaped fields are likely to be old boundaries planted possibly up to 1000 years ago or cut out of woodland. A network of regular perpendicular hedges, common in the Blackdown and Mendip Hills, indicate late Enclosure undertaken at the time of the Parliamentary Enclosures (see below). Hedgerow trees may also a key indicator of former boundaries with isolated mid-field trees all that remains of a former hedgeline.
Early Invaders & Feudalism
Roman, Saxon and Norman invaders arrived, they found defined field systems
already in place from the agricultural practices of the early Britons.
Over time, each successive invading population adapted the field boundaries
to suit new cropping and grazing systems. As the population increased,
forest and woodland was cleared often retaining linear strips of woodland
to form the new hedges of the open landscape.
18th century saw a dramatic change in the appearance of the countryside
as Enclosure increased in line with demand for food and agricultural advances.
New hedges were planted to exclude livestock from cropped fields. Each
common land enclosure required an Enclosure Act to be passed through Parliament.
These were at their peak between 1750 and 1850 to satisfy a growing and
increasingly industrialised population.
An Evolving Countryside
the next 150 years, the pattern of hedges was influenced by canals, railways
and roads as new transport systems cut through the countryside. This changed
field shapes and new hedges were planted to exclude wandering livestock.
The period 1870 - 1951 was on the whole a period of agricultural diversity
in which there was less money to spend on either maintaining or destroying
hedges. Neglect gave innumerable saplings an opportunity to grow
into trees. The latter half of the 20th Century has witnessed hedgerow
decline once again with agricultural intensification and mechanisation
requiring more regular and larger field shapes.
Hedgerows are locally distinctive with different species planted according to location, soil type and adjacent land use. The beech hedgebanks of Exmoor, Blackdown and Quantock reflect later Enclosure planting of a more hardy species. Generally later Enclosure hedges contain fewer species as commercial nurseries began to appear and provide uniform hedging plants. Hedges in other areas can be characterised by a large number of hedgerow trees while others have few. This could be explained by numerous reasons: the foresight of someone to plant or select new trees; an indication that the landscape was cleared from woodland; or simply that they have not been removed as in other areas.