Like most Essex farms, our fields are bounded by hedgerows that combine with woods and ponds to form the traditional patchwork of countryside. In the last century, this country lost miles of hedgerows as farmers, fuelled by grants and government backing, enlarged their fields to accommodate modern agricultural machinery and increase production. Now, in this world of plentiful and cheap global food production together with an environmental awareness of bio-diversity, British farmers are replanting hedgerows and planting millions of trees each year. Despite this, lazy journalists still report that hedges are being ripped out and trees felled. In fact, we can’t remove hedges and trees without permission and hedge cutting can only be carried out at certain times of the year.
Surprisingly, our farm looks very much the same as a map we have from 1895 apart from Grove Field (which was two fields on the map) and Dovehouse and Barn fields are smaller now (due to the by-pass). As well as the hedges around individual fields, we have one hedge that runs a kilometre and a half across the farm, from the back of the barns through Little Forest field, Great Forest field, Grove Field and The Ley. There are gaps for gateways into fields, but otherwise it runs unbroken beside the ditch that collects water from the fields and channels it down to the lower stream that eventually links to the River Ter.
Predominantly hawthorn and blackthorn, the hedge also contains hazel, field maple and holly. Dog rose and brambles send out long arching branches and old man’s beard threads its way along the hedge with ivy and elder pushing through in places. Majestic oak trees stand high in the hedge along with ash trees; crab apple trees and whispering alder trees poke above the hedgeline and in one stretch, elm regenerates only to die off after a few years.
Not only does this hedge provide cover for small mammals, birds and insects but it’s a very handy hedge for foraging. Although it probably wasn’t planted as an edible hedge all those centuries ago, it’s certainly evolved into one. From the first violets that flower on the banks of the ditch, through the froth of May flowers and elderflowers to the nuts and berries that are ripening now, it’s the best place on the farm to forage for free food.
This week I’ve been picking blackberries from the edible hedge and have combined some with windfall Bramley apples from the garden. Lightly spiced apples topped with blackberry puree. Just add a spoonful of yoghurt for a virtuous weekday pudding.