Beauty of autumn hedgerows across Norfolk's countryside

Fieldfares Turdus pilaris newly arrived migrants from continent along hedgerow North Norfolk October

Fieldfares newly arrived migrants from continent along a hedgerow in north Norfolk in October - Credit: David Tipling

Our beautiful and bountiful hedgerows are an immediate draw for a nature lover’s eye says Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves officer Robert Morgan

Among my many wife-annoying habits, stopping to peer along a thick thorny hedgerow while out on a brisk power walk is definitely one of them. In my defence, there is nothing quite like a mature hedge line to draw a nature lover’s eye and completion of 10,000 steps will always be of secondary concern.

Blackberry and rose hips

Blackberry and rose hips - Credit: David North

Hedgerows are important wildlife habitats and are effectively ancient woodlands strung out in lines across the countryside. The patchwork of fields created by them is quintessentially British and from the air our nation’s landscape is unmistakeable.

Hedgerows have probably been part of the British landscape for thousands of years, and there is evidence that some have been in continuous existence since medieval times.

Blackthorn sloes

Blackthorn sloes - Credit: David North

The controversial enclosure acts of the seventeenth century led to the parcelling up of commonland and saw the creation of hundreds of thousands of miles of hedgerow.


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Acting as both a demarcation line and an obstacle to livestock, they would have initially been formed from planting thorn bearing trees such as hawthorn and blackthorn.

Over time, either through design or accident, other woodland trees and plants contributed to the diversity of our ancient hedgerows. Up until the mid-twentieth century, teams of workers would have trimmed the hedges and planted-up any gaps.

Beautiful hawthorn berries

Beautiful hawthorn berries - Credit: David North

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With the addition of hazel they would also have develop methods of bending and threading the branches to form a living weave, each region eventually evolving its own distinctive ‘laying’ style.

These tight ‘laid’ thorny hedgerows are ideal for nesting birds and if a tall sward is allowed to run along either side, harvest mice too. The strips of ground beneath a hedge-line offer habitat for a wide range of plants, providing a home and food for a huge array of invertebrates.

A red admiral butterfly on blackberries

A red admiral butterfly on blackberries - Credit: Bob Carpenter

In spring hedgerows come alive, and our lanes and byways become a procession of bright colours, dominated by the hawthorn’s creamy white blossom. Tucked under the budding branches, a spring hedge bank would be incomplete without clusters of primrose and violets.

But for me the true beauty of a hedgerow is to be found in the narrowing days of autumn. The fire red leaves of dogwood are tempered by the soft yellow of hawthorn and the auburn speckled foliage of crab and buckthorn.

A redwing taking berries from a tree

A redwing taking berries from a tree - Credit: Elizabeth Dack

The branches of scrubbier hedges, bedecked with fruit, bend beneath the weight of red haws, rose hips, crab apples and the small dark berries of elder. Tentacles of briar poke out of the hedge, offering passers-by succulent blackberries.

The bramble, laden with these delightful fruits will continue to show flower until October, providing an important source of nectar for autumn insects.

One may be lucky to find a mature spindle in a hedgerow, this ancient woodland indicator has high wildlife value, but also provides an easy to carve hardwood that has been used for numerous erstwhile objects. Best of all is the spindles rather exotic bulb like berries that never fail to bring a shock of flamingo pink to an overcast autumn day.

Bright and colourful spindle

Bright and colourful spindle - Credit: Phillip Ashton

Many of our hedgerows have evenly spaced mature oaks, and this adds greater biodiversity. Sadly their accompanying ash trees are succumbing to a rapidly spreading ‘die-back’ disease.

The dreadful spread of this fungal disease is a reminder of the loss of the iconic towering elms that run along so many of our hedgerows prior to the 1960s. In the following decades stood many ivy-clad skeletons, their peeling bark exposing the map work of elm beetle.

The suckers from these old trees will still rise up and successfully compete within the hedge, unfortunately they are too often struck down in adolescents by either flail or disease.

Take a walk along your nearest hedgerow

Take a walk along your nearest hedgerow - Credit: David North

During the Second World War, and for some decades after, a concern over food self-sufficiency led to the Government providing financial incentives for farmers to remove hedgerows. This was to increase field space, particularly as modern farm machinery had trouble manoeuvring in small fields. It was during this time that Norfolk lost over 60 per cent of its hedgerow. Fortunately policy has changed, and landowners are provided with grants to encourage planting and protection of hedges now.

Take Action Yourself

We are a long way short of the hedgerows we once had, but we can all help by becoming involved in local community projects that restore and maintain this wonderful part of our rural history, and of course, provide great wildlife habitat too.

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

To the hawthorn you may wish to add other native trees, such as hazel, hornbeam, field maple or bird cherry.

Natural hedges are easy to look after and only really require clipping once a year.

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