Hedges of Biodiversity

Hedges of Biodiversity

Historic English hedgerows foster biodiversity and peace of mind.


9 - 12


Biology, Ecology, Geography, Human Geography

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Hedgerows are an integral part of the English countryside,” says Emma Marrington, the senior policy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). “They are the patchwork quilts of our countryside.”

Hedgerows—rows of shrubs or trees planted as boundary lines—share many qualities with a comfortable quilt. They offer warmth, protection and a place to nest for a wide range of species: butterflies, bats, birds, hedgehogs, and dormice.

The CPRE, a London, England-based organization dedicated to keeping the English countryside a thriving place, has noted the many ways hedgerows have become essential to plant and animal species in England.

“They have . . . a huge, huge benefit to the landscape and biodiversity,” Marrington says.

“Bumblebees, for example, they will shelter within the grass and bottom of hedgerows over winter,” Marrington says. “They are almost housing for nature I suppose.”

Bats, on the other hand, often use hedgerows for navigation.

“They [hedgerows] are almost like the bat’s motorways,” Marrington says. “Instead of going across fields, they will follow the hedgerow line.” The protected hazel dormouse utilizes hedgerows in a few ways. “They will hibernate [in hedgerows] over winter and emerge in spring, and spend a lot of time above ground in the trees and scrub,” Marrington says. “Then they start feeding on the [two prominent hedgerow plant species] blackthorn and hawthorn in April. They also use it as a dispersal corridor so it’s a link between small woodlands for foraging as well and for breeding populations too.”

Historic Hedges

Emily Ledder, Natural England’s lead adviser on biodiversity delivery, explains in an email why this distinct feature has been a part of England’s rural landscape for hundreds of years.

“Hedgerows are lines of shrubs which were originally planted to mark ownership and provide a barrier to prevent the movement of stock such as sheep and cattle,” she says. “In the UK, many were planted as part of the Enclosures Acts in the early 19th century, however, many are much older than this. In Devon, for example, we believe that a quarter of our hedges are more than 800 years old. That’s older than many parish churches. And some are underlain by banks built in the Bronze Age times four thousand years ago. Others are older still, being remnants of the original wildwood that covered Britain and Ireland before man started to carve out his fields.”

Marrington says some hedgerows began to be ripped out of the English countryside in the mid-1900s. 

“During the Second World War, a lot of hedgerows were taken up so that you had large fields where you could actually grow food and resources to help feed the people and feed the nation,” she says.

Since the 1970s, CPRE had lobbied to pass legislation that would protect hedgerows if they were historic or provided habitat for a large amount of plants and animals. Regulation for a majority of countryside hedgerows became law in 1997.

“If a landowner was going to remove that hedge, they would have to apply to a local council for permission to remove that hedgerow,” Marrington says.

The law doesn’t protect all hedgerows, however. 

“If it’s a younger hedgerow, say under 30 years old, and it is shorter than 20 meters [66 feet] long as well, then it doesn’t come under hedgerow regulation,” Marrington says.

Ledder notes how hedgerows are important to more than plant and animal species. “Today, predominately due to the invention of barbed wire, they are no longer able to fulfill their original function as a stock-proof barrier,” she says. “However, hedgerows and their associated trees, banks, ditches and margins provide a wide range of valuable services that benefit people. They include not only biodiversity services, but also regulating services such as landscape aesthetics and historical heritage, and provisioning services such as firewood and food.”

Carbon Capture

Hedgerows can also assist in the fight against climate change. Each kilometer of a new hedgerow has the capacity to store 600 to 800 kilograms [1,323 to 1,764 pounds] of carbon dioxide per year for up to 20 years.

“They store carbon and provide firewood as well, which is a renewable fuel,” Marrington says.

The lines of hedgerows drawn all over the English countryside have given people like Marrington something else for hundreds of years: peace of mind. 

“I certainly find when you see a really good hedgerow—really sort of bushy with loads of flowers—it is really peaceful,” she says.

Marrington suggests downloading the CPRE’s “A Little Rough Guide around the Hedges” and then utilizing it for a greater appreciation of hedgerows when visiting the English countryside. 

“Try to identify different plant species within it,” she says. “Just get engaged and look at the bottom of a hedgerow and start pulling back a bit of grass to see what insects and creatures are within a hedgerow.”

Fast Fact

Hills of HedgesDevon, a hilly county in southwest England, is known for its rich hedgerows. Devon’s hedges allegedly stretch close to 53,100 kilometers (33,000 miles).

Fast Fact

Historic HedgeJudith’s Hedge in Cambridgeshire is estimated to be more than 900 years old.

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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