Hedges

A characteristic of Cornwall’s landscape is its patterns of hedges. Across a wide range of topography hedges are a consistent theme that enclose a mixture of field patterns. These hedges are culturally and environmentally important to Cornwall and if they are to thrive into the future they need protection and good management.

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In Cornwall, a hedge is considered to be a built structure or bank that may or may not be faced with stone. Frequently, these are topped with trees, shrubs and other plants which sometimes, but not always, form hedgerows.

A hedgerow is generally understood to be a boundary line of trees or shrubs which tend to be over 20m long and less than 5m wide at the base, provided that at one time the trees or shrubs were more or less continuous.

Cornish Hedges have a very informative website dedicated to producing advice on the value, construction and management of Cornish hedges.

Cornish hedges have defined our landscape for centuries and today provide a distinct local identity quite different from other areas of the country where hedgerows are more common.

In Cornwall there are still about 30,000 miles of hedges which constitute our largest semi-natural wildlife resource and our most prominent landscape feature.

In urban areas and around our gardens more formal planted hedges or hedgerows may be found.  These provide shelter, protection, seclusion, privacy and a backdrop, for other plants and features.  They can require management and sometimes cause problems for neighbours. For advice on high hedges, their problems and potential solutions, please view the high hedges page.

The typical hedge is a stone-faced earth filled structure with or without bushes or trees growing along the top. However there are many variations, depending on the available stone, the local climate and farming practices; they can range from being bare stone walls to earth banks supporting a rich variety of plants including hedgerows. A typical hedge structure is described on the hedge structure page. A gallery of hedge styles is available on the Cornish Hedge website

Stone hedges occur mainly on the high ground.

Turf hedges are most numerous in East Cornwall.

Within each area there is a wide variation in the hedges, for example, between hilltops and valleys. On high ground, colour is added by bell heather, ling, whortleberry, cat's-ear, sheep's bit and tormentil. Moorland birds include the yellowhammer, linnet and stonechat, whilst the hedgesparrow and robin are more typical of sheltered hedges where tall trees provide shade for foxglove, hogweed, and jack-by-the-hedge.

Hedges with ditches in marshy land often have valerian, marsh bedstraw and purple-loosestrife. Mosses and liverworts will grow luxuriantly and it is ideal territory for frogs, toads, newts and perhaps the occasional otter. Hedges near the coasts support the maritime plants sea pink, sea campion, wild carrot and scurvy-grass.

The first Cornish hedges enclosed land for cereal crops during the Neolithic Age (4000-6000 years ago). Prehistoric farms were then about 5-10 hectares (12-25 acres), with the typical field about 0.1 ha (¼ acre), designed for hand cultivation.

Some existing hedges date from the Bronze and Iron Ages, 2000-4000 years ago, when Cornwall's traditional pattern of landscape became established. Many hedges resulted from medieval field rationalisations, more originated in the tin-and-copper industrial boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, when heaths and uplands were enclosed. There are about 30,000 miles of hedges today, and their development over the centuries is preserved within their structures.

In other parts of Britain, most of the early hedges were destroyed during the Saxon/Norman period for the manorial open-field system. These were enclosed again by the Inclosure Acts, then removed with food shortage and mechanisation after the Second World War. Now there are moves afoot to replace hedges.

These changes tended not to happen in Cornwall, and we still have many of our ancient hedges. These often show, by the surviving species, the kind of habitat that used to be in their vicinity long ago, for instance bell heather in hedges where the surrounding moorland was reclaimed, or dog's mercury and bluebells where woodland has vanished.

The group was formed out of the Cornwall Biodiversity Initiative to bring together all those bodies and individuals with an interest in Cornish Hedges. The Group was co-ordinated by Cornwall Council and the Cornwall Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG).  It has published or contributed to a number of papers, publications and technical advice.

The Group no longer meets but the information provided on these pages has been drawn from their work.

In these pages we have tried to provide a range of information and pointers to enable people and organisations to appreciate and manage hedges and hedgerows in all their variations.