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Recommended Reads - A Natural History of the Hedgerow

Reading ‘A Natural History of the Hedgerow’ is like going for a ramble through the countryside with a learned friend. John Wright writes with clarity and humour, making accessible even the most obscure scientific names and complex mycorrhizal relationships. Wright is a mycologist, so the book is particularly insightful in relation to the wonders of fungi.

He charts the most likely origins of hedgerows (from Neolithic assarts, though little evidence survives) through to the infield/outfield and manorial systems of the Middle Ages, to the enclosures which began in the 13th century and persisted until the close of the 19th, transforming the landscape (or should that be hedgescape?) we see today.

Giving fair treatment to the drivers for hedge loss in recent times, the book then takes a deep dive into the minutiae of life in hedgerows, looking at the thousands of species which can be found in a single stretch of hedge (2,070 to be precise, according to one study of a 90m long section of Devon hedge). Wright speculates that, although this study was of a particularly species-rich example of a hedge, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that hedgerows may support this number of species and more, particularly when you account for greater lengths of hedge, the fungi, galls, mosses and lichens they contain, and the numerous parasites affecting hedge-dwelling birds, insects and mammals.

At one point, Wright proclaims that ‘if a dictator decided to plant six hundred square miles of wood, the most visually compelling and environmentally positive way for him or her to do so would be to plant it in the form of extensive hedges’. In the current climate change-inspired rush to plant trees - and with the implications this has for both existing habitats and productive farmland - these words are truer now than ever before.

John has also had an admirable go at various styles of hedge laying, though is typically modest about his efforts. Sadly the book gives little mention of coppicing as a management approach (or regeneration technique). This approach is familiar to those of us in predominantly arable landscapes and is becoming more popular with the advent of mechanical tree shears. It makes the prospect of regenerating very under (or over) managed hedgerows more appealing/ viable to landowners, particularly on extensively hedged holdings.

The author was keen not to leave out fences and dry stone walls. The latter offer vital refugia, basking and hunting habitat for reptiles, detail which was was sadly missing from the book.

All in all however, this book comes highly recommended. It is the kind of book you want to lend to everyone you know, but can’t actually bring yourself to part with. Read it and you will feel deeply connected with these very ancient, very British, habitats - and fully satiated with food for thought on how best to manage them.

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