Beauty of autumn hedges through the Norfolk countryside


Our beautiful and abundant hedges immediately catch the eye of a nature lover, says Robert Morgan, head of reserves at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Among my many boring habits for my wife, stopping to look along a thick thorny hedge on a brisk walk is certainly one of them. In my defense, there is nothing quite like a mature hedge line to catch the attention of a nature lover and completing 10,000 steps will always be a secondary concern.


Blackberry and Rosehip
– Credit: David Nord

Hedges are important wildlife habitats and are actually ancient forests that stretch in lines across the countryside. The patchwork of fields created by them is quintessentially British and from the sky our nation’s landscape is unmistakable.

Hedges have probably been part of the British landscape for thousands of years, and there is evidence that some have existed since medieval times.


blackthorn blackthorn

blackthorn blackthorn
– Credit: David Nord

The controversial closing acts of the 17th century led to the fragmentation of communal lands and saw the creation of hundreds of thousands of kilometers of hedges.


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Both a line of demarcation and an obstacle for livestock, they were initially formed from the planting of thorny trees such as hawthorn and blackthorn.

Over time, whether by design or by accident, other trees and woodland plants have contributed to the diversity of our ancient hedges. Until the middle of the 20th century, teams of workers would have cut the hedges and planted the gaps.


Beautiful hawthorn berries

Beautiful hawthorn berries
– Credit: David Nord

With the addition of hazel, they also reportedly developed methods of bending and threading the branches to form a living weave, with each region ultimately developing its own distinctive ‘pose’ style.

These tight “extended” thorny hedges are ideal for nesting birds and if a large grass is allowed to run on either side, harvest mice as well. Strips of soil under a hedge provide habitat for a wide variety of plants, providing homes and food for a wide range of invertebrates.


A red admiral butterfly on blackberries

A red admiral butterfly on blackberries
– Credit: Bob Carpenter

In spring, the hedges come alive and our alleys and alleys become a procession of bright colors, dominated by the creamy white flower of the hawthorn. Nestled under the budding branches, a spring hedge would be incomplete without clusters of primrose and violet.

But for me, the real beauty of a hedge is in the shrinking days of fall. The fiery red leaves of dogwood are tempered by the soft yellow of hawthorn and the spotted auburn foliage of crab and buckthorn.


A red wing taking berries from a tree

A red wing taking berries from a tree
– Credit: Elizabeth Dack

The branches of the bushy hedges, adorned with fruit, bend under the weight of red vanes, rose hips, crabapples and small black elderberries. Heather tentacles shoot out from the hedge, offering passersby ripe succulents.

The bramble, loaded with these delicious fruits, will continue to bloom until October, providing an important source of nectar for fall insects.

One may be lucky enough to find a mature spindle in a hedge, this ancient forest indicator has great wildlife value, but also provides an easy-to-carve hardwood that was used for many ancient artifacts. Best of all is the rather exotic bulb like berry that never fails to bring flamingo shock to a cloudy fall day.


Bright and colorful brooch

Bright and colorful brooch
– Credit: Phillip Ashton

Many of our hedges have mature oak trees evenly spaced, which adds greater biodiversity. Unfortunately, the ash trees that accompany them succumb to a rapidly spreading “dieback” disease.

The terrible spread of this fungal disease is a reminder of the loss of the iconic towering elms that line so many of our pre-1960s hedges. Over the following decades, many ivy-clad skeletons stood, their bark peeling exposing the elm beetle mapping work.

The suckers of these old trees will always stand up and compete successfully in the hedge, unfortunately they are too often struck in adolescents by plague or disease.


Walk along your nearest hedge

Walk along your nearest hedge
– Credit: David Nord

During World War II, and for decades after, a concern for food self-sufficiency led the government to provide financial incentives to farmers to remove hedges. This was to increase the space on the ground, especially since modern agricultural machinery found it difficult to maneuver in small fields. It was around this time that Norfolk lost over 60 percent of its hedge. Fortunately, the policy has changed and landowners are now receiving grants to encourage the planting and protection of hedges.

Take action yourself

We are a far cry from the hedges we once had, but we can all help by getting involved in local community projects that restore and maintain this wonderful part of our rural history, and of course, also provide great habitat for wildlife.

You may want to consider planting a hedge along your own fence, as it provides a beautiful, versatile, and wildlife-friendly living screen to the edges of your garden.

To hawthorn, you may want to add other native trees, such as hazel, hornbeam, country maple, or bird cherry.

Natural hedges are easy to maintain and actually only require mowing once a year.

About Norma Wade

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