The Autumn Hedgerow
At this time of year, the hedgerows are laden with wild fruits, among the most common being brambles (blackberries), hips and haws, providing animals and humans alike with a colourful feast to savour. These berries are borne on three of the most common species of hedgerow plant, the bramble, dog rose and hawthorn. The plants provide a thorny, well protected environment for many creatures as well as an abundant source of food.
Hedgerows can date back many hundreds of years, some in Cornwall surviving from the Bronze Age, and their function was to contain animals, to provide wind breaks for crops and shelter for farm animals and to mark the boundary between one person’s land and another. With changes in agricultural methods, hedgerows have been disappearing from the landscape as farmers removed them to make way for larger fields and more efficient wire fencing.
Left in place, these natural barriers provide nesting sites, shelter and food for many birds and, in the dense growth at the foot of hedges, small animals such as mice, voles, shrews and hedgehogs can live. Hedgerows also act as safe corridors for wildlife to make their way from one place to another, linking fields and rough grazing with woodland areas and hillsides.
The hawthorn is common throughout most of Britain and, in autumn, its haws are food for blackbirds and wood mice as well as the redwing and fieldfare as they pass through on their migration south. Blackbirds also eat brambles but not until they are ripe and the juice runs. Brambles keep most of their leaves in winter and give shelter to many small over-wintering birds such as the robin. They also provide us with a free source of berries for jam and pie making, their freshness making up for the scratches unavoidably gained in their gathering.
The fruit of the dog rose, the hip, is high in vitamin C and provides food for many wild birds like the thrush and the waxwing, as well as shelter in its thorny clumps. The hips can also be made into rose hip syrup, jelly or even wine.
Since the Second World War, England has lost more than half its hedgerows through removal and poor management. However, recent legislation now exists in England and Wales to protect hedgerows of key importance. In Scotland and Northern Ireland hedgerows are only protected during the nesting season; for the rest of the year a hedge has no legal protection against removal or harsh cutting back.
However, recently we have seen a small upsurge in the planting of hedges as their importance to wildlife has been recognised and there is more awareness of the need to conserve and properly manage those already in existence.
Autumn with its mellow fruitfulness cannot be allowed to disappear.