Hedgerows are one of Britain’s most valuable habitats. They form important wildlife havens and highways, they form barriers and wind-breaks, they provide a refuge for songbirds and a home for voles, mice and shrews. Hedgerows are also a great source of wild food for us and this autumn is perhaps the most productive that hedgerows have been in a dozen years. The quality and quantity of hips and haws, nuts, berries and other fruit is just too good to miss.
A Brief History of Hedgerows
Hedges were probably first planted during the Bronze or Iron Ages in Britain as both a means of corralling livestock and protecting them from wild predators. Many of these ancient hedgerows now demarcate our modern Parish boundaries.
During the Roman occupation and throughout the Middle Ages, hedges were primarily planted and maintained to define manorial and village boundaries. The prevalent ‘open field’ system of agriculture meant that land was divided into long thin strips of land or furlongs that were neither hedged nor fenced.
The Enclosure Acts transformed the feudal landscape from large open fields into small fenced or hedged fields. The first Enclosure Act was passed in 1604 and concerned the enclosure of land at Radipole, near Weymouth in Dorset. In total, between 1604 and 1914, over 5,200 Enclosure Bills were enacted by Parliament which related to a little over one fifth of the total area of England, amounting to some 6.8 million acres.
After the Second World War, the Government encouraged landowners and provided substantial financial incentives for them to remove hedgerows in a bid to increase agricultural production so that Britain might become self-sufficient in food.
By the 1980s Government policy changed direction. Financial incentives to remove hedges were withdrawn and financial incentives to plant new and maintain existing hedges were introduced. In 1997 The Hedgerow Regulations were introduced making it against the law to remove most hedgerows.
Hips and Haws, Nuts, Berries and other Fruit
The hips from roses have multiple culinary uses but are perhaps best known for making Rose Hip Syrup. The Ministry of Food during WWII recommended boiling 2lbs of hips with 3 pints of water and adding 1lb 4oz of sugar before bottling.
The haws from the hawthorn, otherwise known as the May tree because of the month in which it flowers, make excellent jelly which compliments lamb beautifully and makes a change from redcurrant jelly.
A bottle or two of sloe gin is a must this year!
But be very careful when harvesting the fruit from the blackthorn because the spines, from which the tree gets part of its botanical name, Prunus spinosa, will induce sepsis if they pierce your skin and touch the bone – think knuckles. Sloes are at their best after the first hard frost.
Hazelnuts, also known as cobnuts or filberts depending on which part of the country you live in, should be harvested during the autumn and may be stored in a cool dry place until Christmas.
Elderberries, blackberries and bilberries are an excellent hedgerow additional to the seasonal favourite that is summer pudding. For the more adventurous, you might try Cranachan. This is a fantastic Scottish dessert that is somewhere between a trifle and a fool. Add porridge oats, whisky, sugar, cream, honey and of course blackberries.