Hedgerow History and Landscape

Hedge treeField patterns & landscape

The 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

When 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.
Many hedges and fences fell into disrepair in the mid-14th century as the Black Death claimed nearly half of the population and so the area of farmed land fell sharply. Over the next 2-3 centuries, many open fields and much common land was enclosed, dispossessing poorer farmers and labourers of their land.
The Elizabethan age was a time of rising demand for fuel, some of which came from hedges.  The 1590's and 1600's were terrible years of cold and poverty.  Courts took an increasingly severe attitude to hedge-stealing.  For instance:
"Any persons breaking any hedge or stealing wood be put next Sunday or holiday in the stocks (i.e. open-air imprisonment) for 2 hours at the least, and the wood be placed before them, signifying the cause of the punishment.  Feltsted (Essex) 1567": (Oliver Rackham, Social Forestry Network, 1989)

Enclosure Acts

The 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.
Rates of enclosure hedge planting by 18th century monarchies

Queen Anne
1704 - 14
2 Acts enclosing 1,439 acres
George I
1714 - 27
16 Acts enclosing 17,960 acres
George II
1727 - 60
220 Acts enclosing 318,778 acres
George III
1760 - 97
1,532 Acts enclosing 2,804,197 acres

An Evolving Countryside

During 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.
In 1968 a number of serious disease outbreaks caused
devastation of the elm population, and by the mid 1980's an estimated 2 million trees in Somerset and 18 million trees throughout the United Kingdom had been killed and felled, leaving mature elms absent from most parts of the country.

Local style

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.