Hedgerow History

The term Hedge appears to stem from the Old English word HEGG which is believed to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ;

HAEG – hurdle 
HECG – territorial boundary dead or planted
HEGA – living border boundary

The term Hedgerow used to refer to 2 hedges running side by side separated by a track or pathway. These hedgerows served 2 traditional purposes , that of being a barrier to livestock and as a means of marking out territory or property boundaries. The term however tends to be used these days to describe a hedge of wild shrubs and occasional trees that create a border between fields or gardens.

From Saxon times (circa 500 AD) to Norman times (11th century), as much as 70% of Britain was woodland with a small population of people living and working in isolated clear areas.

By the 12th century it was becoming customary for land owners to clear areas of woodland for farming (assart) and lease them to their tenants as a source of income. The boundaries of these assarts will be composed of trees and shrubs the composition of which would be the same as the species already found at the woodland edge or in the woodland itself.

During this time some of the hedges were managed in relation to hunting activities as born out by an edict of King Richard I to his tenants informing them of a maximum hedge height of 4’ 6” so as not to impede the movement of his deer.

Effects of the enclosures

During the 13th century, the clearing of assarts and the establishment of purprestures (wrongful seizing of, or encroachment on, others or common land) and encroachments amongst others.

The first step of the enclosure movement –

Each village was allotted 6 areas of land by the local land owner;
domestic area, e.g. Housing
meadow area, including hay
grazing area
agricultural areas, one of winter corn, one of spring corn and one fallow

This system persisted for the following 200 years and hedges must have played a significant part in the demarcation of the said areas as well as livestock proofing to protect the agricultural areas.

By the 16th century the 2nd phase of the enclosures movement was under way. This was the expansion of the wool industry and the higher demands for meat to feed and increasing population. To achieve this, sheep began to replace the 3 field system and emphasis was placed on hedges that were stock proof.

The 3rd phase of the enclosures movement circa 1750 to the mid 19th century. This was the closing off of the old open field system and there associated arable and fallow crops (often referred to as “common ground“). By the end of the 19th century , the newly planted hedges (mainly hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) ) had reached a mature stage.

In the 20th century, particularly the latter half, the emphasis changed again, this time in favour of cereal crops and with larger machinery to harvest them with, hedges were pulled out and field sizes were increased.

Age and diversity of hedges

There is only one way to tell the age of a hedge or verge for certain, and that is from documentary evidence. All to often, however, that evidence does not exists forcing the adoption of les definitive methods of guessing.

E.g. A hedge planted in the early 19th century consisting of a double row of hawthorn planted 2’ apart.

At first there will have been plenty of room for colonisation by other plants

Herbaceous annuals e.g. chickweed (Stellaria media), groundsel (senecio vulgaris), shepherds purse (Capsella burse-pastoris) and several grasses

Herbaceous perennials (capable of storing food over winter providing an early start in spring e.g., bluebell (Endimion non-scriptus) , primrose (Primula vulgaris), dogs mercuryMercurialis perennis, nettles, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale spp.) and thistles.

Woody perennials – shrubs and small trees e.g. elder (Sambucus nigra), holly (Ilex aquifolium), ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus).

Large forest trees e.g. oak (Quercus robur). Some of these like some hedges them selves will have been survivors of original woodland. While others will grown from seedlings. The majority, however, will have been planted at the same time as the hedge (predominantly in the 19th century) as demonstrated by there systematic and regular spacing.

Many of the early colonists will have succumbed in competition with later arrivals of quicker growing plants as light, water and nutrition become much in demand. Super imposed on this is the effect of mans management which will favour some species at the expense of others.

Thus in theory the older the hedge, the greater the diversity of species. It should therefore be possible to use diversity as an index of age. This method, however, is open to a considerable margin of error, i.e.;

No two hedges are the same and vary from one part of the country to another,

The presence of a wide variety of plants attracts a wide variety of insects and animals acting as herbivores and defoliators of parasites. Their density can exact a powerful effect on the rate of change,

The range of plant species that made up the original hedge planted which were often mixed or incorporated close at hand species,

Physical conditions e.g. Soil, climate, exposure, pollution and altitude,

Types of maintenance, the effects of such, the frequency of such, or the lack of maintenance.


Species composition of hedgerows and verges have an infinite variety where not only are no 2 the same, but they are different every 100 yards or sometimes every few yards.