Professor Chris Baines takes an in-depth look at our autumn hedgerows.
In days gone by the brightly coloured fruits and berries that decorate our hedgerows in autumn were a vital resource for humans. Even as late as the Second World War, rose hips were harvested to provide the nation with vitamin C. The centuries-old tradition of turning autumn’s bounty into jams and jellies may have waned, but hedgerow fruits are still of critical importance to the wild creatures that depend on them. As winter approaches, great flocks of fieldfares and redwings will be arriving from the far north to join our resident blackbirds and thrushes feeding amongst the hips and haws. If you’re lucky you might also see crowds of waxwings working their way through the rowan berries. Dormice will be secretively gorging on hazel nuts. As the softer fruits fall and decay, wasps and butterflies will be dipping into the sticky-sweet juice. Hedgerows bordering lanes and dividing fields are the most obvious places to look for autumn fruit. Stone walls may be the characteristic boundary markers across the Yorkshire Dales, but there are still plenty of hedges too. Many were planted in response to the parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries, when common land belonging to towns and villages was carved up to encourage new farming practices.
Hawthorn was generally the boundary plant of choice for these new hedges. It was easy to propagate and it suckered from the base to create a dense, stock-proof barrier – hence its common name of ‘quickthorn’. For the landless victims of the enclosures it was also a valuable food source. The leaves and young shoots were often described as tasting of bread and cheese – a testament to hunger and imagination – and the haws were so plentiful in the autumn that they were considered worth harvesting. Although thousands of miles of field hedges were grubbed out in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the more ancient boundaries survived. Some date back a thousand years, and were originally carved out of a heavily wooded landscape. These are some of the best places to find a variety of autumn fruits. Old parish maps give an indication of which hedges are oldest, but the shrubs themselves are also a good guide. Back in the 1970s, scientists calculated that a new species would find its way into a 30m stretch of hedgerow on average once in a hundred years. Autumn, before the leaves fall, is a good time to test out this theory. Pace out 30 metres, then count the number of different berrying and fruiting shrubs. Disregard brambles, which tend to colonise very readily. There will almost always be hawthorn, and Enclosure Act hedges will often have blackthorn too. In older hedgerows you may find dog rose with its pillar-box-red rose hips, the wayfaring tree with its bunches of red and green berries that look like miniature apples, field maple with its winged fruits, and dogwood with its purple stems. Identify five different species and you could well have found a five-hundred-year-old hedge!
COMING A CROPPER
Year on year, holly berries seem to be amongst the most variable of wild fruit in terms of yield. Holly was once an important forage crop, and the soft young shoots were harvested and fed to cattle, so holly is often a feature of old farm hedges. One relative rarity to look out for is the bullace. This is our wild plum – smaller than cultivated plums but larger than sloes or damsons – and its flavour is intense and sweet. I visit one particular stretch of hedgerow every autumn to pick bullaces for bottling, or simply to eat fresh from the bush. I also have my favourite crab apple trees. Crab apples generally grow as individual specimens and can often be a sign of antiquity. They are woodland trees, and suggest that the hedgerow they belong to might once have been part of a wood. To make best use of the crab apples I like to mix them with rowan berries to make a jelly that goes perfectly with game and cheese. Most hedgerow fruits are safe to eat, but don’t be tempted by the strings of bryony berries; they may look irresistible but they are poisonous. Fortunately you’ll find enough genuinely edible goodies in an ancient hedgerow to leave you spoilt for choice. So this autumn why not combine some historical detective work with a spot of seasonal foraging? Just remember to leave plenty of fruit behind for the local wildlife!
FOR GOODNESS SAKE GIVE HEDGES A CHANCE!
Up until the 1950s, hedges were painstakingly trimmed and maintained by hand. Unlike many of today’s scrappy hedgerows they were safe havens for wildlife, blanketed with flowers in spring and heavy with fruit in autumn. Nowadays it’s easy to trim hedgerows in a trice using a tractor and a flail cutter. Unfortunately some landowners don’t appear to understand hedgerow shrubs and their needs. Many hedges are trimmed at the same miserly height, year after year. Some are even cut before the birds have finished nesting. It’s illegal, but it happens.
Shrubs in a hedge hacked down to a stubby remnant every year soon develop ugly gnarls and twists, and the constant stress weakens and thins them. They don’t produce the rich crop of fruit that local wildlife depends on to survive winter, and they don’t allow the birds to nest high enough to be safe from predators. British wildlife is at a crisis point. If we don’t do everything we can to help – right now – the countryside will soon be an emptier, duller, sadder place. So if you’re a landowner or estate manager, it’s time to do your bit for British hedgerows. All the resources you need can be found at hedgelink.org.uk. Future generations will thank you for it.
PLANT YOUR OWN FRUITING HEDGE
Why not plant your own stretch of species-rich hedgerow to add colour and interest to your garden and delight the local wildlife? Here are some tips.
- Try to include hawthorn, dog rose, crab apple, guelder rose and wild privet. Avoid blackthorn; it suckers aggressively and its thorns are vicious.
- Plant year-old seedlings about 30cm apart, then cut them down to 15cm high to stimulate dense growth from the base.
- Trim your established hedge every other year to allow for flowers and fruiting.