The fields at Slamseys are surrounded by hedgerows, which consist of shrubby hedge plants like hawthorn, field maple and blackthorn interspersed with taller trees like oak and ash. At the base of the hedge is a mix of bare earth and vegetation, a ditch that might contain water all or part of the year and a buffer strip of uncultivated vegetation that separates the hedge and ditch from the arable crop. There’s a mixture of trees and shrubs in different fields: Lakes is surrounded by crab apple trees, the leaves of the aspen whisper in Great Forest and hazel nuts appear every year in Little Forest.
The familiar patchwork of British fields bordered with hedgerows didn’t happen by accident. Hedges have been deliberately planted over the centuries to mark boundaries and act as barriers. They provide a physical, historical record of farming practices through the centuries that would disappear without management acting as green corridors for animals, birds and insects to move about, providing food and shelter en route. They help prevent soil erosion and flooding and have an important role in carbon capture.
Hedgerows are part of our cultural heritage, shaping our vision and use of the landscape. In years gone by, they were an important source of timber and fuel, food and medicinal herbs. Many of us have nostalgic memories of childhood blackberry picking expeditions but few people now cut beanpoles from the hedge or make rosehip syrup for its vitamin C content and thankfully, we don’t rely on hedgerow berries to fill empty bellies.
Sadly, many people don’t even seem to notice or value hedgerows: notes for a recent art exhibition in Suffolk erroneously stated that hedgerows are a rare sight in our countryside and disgusting dog walkers hang their bags of dog poo on the branches of the hedgerows.
But maybe things are changing. Possibly, the increased popularity of walking and the need to keep children occupied during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 have made us appreciate and become more engaged with green spaces. Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2021 noted an increase in UK social media interest in foraging and you could fill your bookshelf with new books about foraging and using wild plants whether for eating, dyeing or general well being.
Next time you’re walking alongside a hedgerow, stop and take a look. There might be more there than you first thought.
Discover how to use some of the fruits, berries, flowers and leaves that you can find in The Edible Hedgerow at Slamseys