The typical Cornish hedge is a stone-faced earth hedgebank with bushes or trees growing along the top. It is called a "hedge", never a "hedgerow" or "wall". Our hedges may be of bare stone encrusted with lichens and mosses, or disappear under luxuriant greenery. Between these extremes are many variations, depending on the type of stone used, the local climate and the style of farming. Hedges are our largest semi-natural wildlife resource and our most prominent landscape feature. Their history is preserved in their structure.
In Cornwall there are still about 30,000 miles of hedges, and over three-quarters of these are anciently established. The earliest Cornish hedges enclosed land for cereal crops during the Neolithic Age (4000-6000 years ago). Prehistoric farms were about 5-10 hectares, with fields about 0.1 ha for hand cultivation. Many hedges date from the Bronze and Iron Ages, 2000-4000 years ago, when Cornwall's traditional pattern of landscape became widely established. Other hedges were built during Mediæval field rationalisations; more originated in the tin-and-copper industrial boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, when many of the heaths and uplands were re-enclosed. Hedges from all these times are still very visible in the landscape and in normal use.
The Cornish hedge is unique as a man-made wildlife refuge, with everything needed for the full cycle of the life it supports - earth, stone, crevices damp and dry, shelter, decaying matter and a huge variety of plant life from microscopic fungi to forest trees. Aiding this amazing variation of species and habitat is the mild Cornish climate, which favours activity all the year round.
The hedges provide habitats which may have shrunk elsewhere, including the characteristics of flower-meadows, woodlands, scrub, field margins, heathland, wetland, rocky outcrops and sea cliffs. Their long continuous history means they are often species-linked to the original pre-farming landscape. Examples of self-sustaining Cornish hedge plants include elements of original woodland eg dog's mercury, wood sorrel, and bluebell, and of original heathland eg gorse, heather and tormentil. The hedge stones host a scree population of lichens, mosses and other life suited to the dryness of the hedge, while in the damper hedges most of our ferns luxuriate.
The Cornish hedge produces a seasonal succession of different species rooted between the same stones. Primroses, violets and other spring flowers can only grow on the hedgebank because the tall summer flowers shade and protect them from drought. Campion, bluebells, foxgloves, scabious, betony, yarrow and many others follow in their turn all summer, with berrying plants such as bryony in autumn, many flowering throughout winter. When seed is allowed to ripen and fall, this rich succession is renewed naturally every year. In 1971, nearly two hundred flowering species were counted in just one mile of an ordinary roadside hedge. An estimated ten thousand species of insects can be supported by the floral and habitat diversity in Cornwall's hedges. This brings mammals, birds and reptiles to forage and to hide their homes and nests in the greenery and stony crevices.
This natural system of the Cornish hedge relies on maintaining the moisture of the earth core. The hedge needs to be properly built, resting on the subsoil and using subsoil or similar clay-shale "rab" for its core, as clay and stone are cooling and induce condensation. The correct laying of the stone and proper "batter" shed rainfall, allowing just the right amount to seep into the hedge. The dampness inside the hedge is conserved by the green growth, which should never be removed by trimming in summer. The low fertility of the subsoil core and the tightness of the well-built stones resist invasion by rank weeds which would otherwise destroy the hedge's balanced ecology.
Building and maintaining a Cornish hedge so it will keep itself in this healthy condition is a skilled craft, on which the wildlife depends. These versatile and beautiful hedges were created to suit the prevailing conditions where the soil may be thin and poor and the weather stormy. Cornwall's hedges need to be traditionally cared for so that they continue to be a haven of life. Much damage has been done to their structure and biodiversity by over-zealous trimming with flails, on average two-thirds of the species being eliminated. Trimming in January and February, preferably with a fingerbar trimmer, alternate sides of the hedge in different years, best safeguards the plant and animal life.
The charm of Cornwall's landscape is in its pattern of hedges around the small fields and along the narrow winding lanes. Nearly all are within sight of a public highway, and most people see some of them every day. Without these traditionally unkempt-looking hedges the land would be bare and bleak, with little to interest the eye. The hedges with their weathered stones and wind-slanted bushes and trees give character to the Cornish landscape. On the hilltops stone and boulder hedges merge with rocky tors and cliffs. In the valleys lush greenery and tall trees grow on the hedgebanks which, where stone is scarce, may be made of earthy clay clad with turf and wild plants. Between these extremes the classic Cornish hedge reigns supreme, built of earth and stone, topped with scrub and covered with wildflowers, amazingly varied by the local geology, aspect and exposure.
Cornwall's volcanic origins, followed by the erosion of around 200 million years, have resulted in the granite-topped hills, steep-sided valleys, and many different kinds of stone. Whether granite boulder hedges of West Penwith or Bodmin Moor, or mixed metamorphic rock hedges built of mining spoil, or "Jack and Jill" herringbone-patterned slate hedges of North Cornwall, the way the individual hedge is built depends on the local stone and tradition, and should blend naturally with the landscape. Today cheapness and ease of supply too often cause the wrong stone to be used, with less than tasteful results.
Cornwall is a land of distant views, clear sea air and brilliant light, where hedges are visible for many miles, perhaps dramatically side-lit by the rising or setting sun. They enhance the beauty of the landscape, as they follow the undulating shapes of the hills and contain most of the trees in the countryside. Although today the subtle colours of the old-time pastures and hay-meadows have been reduced to the unreal green of silage fields, the hedges still supply the attractive colouring of natural growth, changing with the seasons of the year. With the varied colours and shapes of stone and their floral growth and trees, these hedges have been voted by visitors to be the best attraction in Cornwall, and they are deeply loved and cherished by residents.
Unfortunately there is a general ignorance of how our landscape has been created. Trees are lost through lack of care, and the sides and tops of many hedges are ruthlessly scalped.
We need to keep our hedges and their natural top-growth to mask modern eyesores and to retain the spirit of Cornwall - a land of rugged cliffs and moors, rocky outcrops, leafy valleys and small villages, all linked by the lovely patchwork of fields and hedges across the rolling hills. Cornish hedges are the vital survivors of a traditional past, and a priceless resource for a more attractive future.
Cornwall, mapped separately from England until the first Elizabethan era, has had a distinctive culture and history which is written in the hedges we see today. Cornwall's history differs from the parts of Britain where early hedges were destroyed during the Saxon/Norman period to make way for the manorial field system. Many were replaced after the Enclosure Acts, then removed again in the modern quest for cheap food. Nowadays the emphasis is on conservation of the countryside and some hedges are again being replaced for wildlife. These changes occurred much less in Cornwall.
The family farm principle established in the Bronze Age still survives, though beset by modern economics. For more than three centuries tin and other metal mining went on side by side with farming. Mine spoil was used in building hedges as more land was enclosed to feed the industrial population boom. Throughout Cornwall every moor shows some evidence of these activities, now sadly reduced by the effects of recent "tidying up" of the buildings, burrows and hedges. Even so, Cornwall is still rich in ancient and historic hedges.
Our oldest hedges date back around 6000 years, with new hedges still being built in the same styles. The hedges' position and appearance in the landscape show their antiquity. The older hedges are the crooked ones that snake across the landscape in bends and kinks where other hedges have been removed, relic evidence of small rounded early fields.
The straighter the hedge and more square the field corners generally speaking the more recent they are likely to be. Even by looking at the pattern of fields on a modern map, hedges can be identified with Bronze Age smallholdings, mediæval burgage plots, deer parks, mining, transport and other purposes.
Hedges give evidence of their status as historical monuments in their siting, shape and size, and pattern of stone cladding. Their structure sits on previous land use, sealing it in the ground and preventing casual interference over the millennia. Hedges contain material which may have archaeological importance, and they support vegetation that reveals the earlier nature of the land, or the site of long-vanished human habitation or activity. Some have stone artefacts such as querns, cupstones, granite troughs or early Christian crosses built into their structure.
Cornish hedges are sometimes called Celtic hedges because similar hedges appear along the Atlantic seaboard as far north as the Orkneys and to the south in the Channel Islands and Brittany. Some of these may be seen as degenerate Cornish hedges, being lower and less structured, and mixed with the ordinary English type of hedgerow. Cornwall, at the centre of the Atlantic arc, with its fine examples has the greatest concentration of locally diverse types of these hedges still surviving in Britain. They are a rare instance of major prehistoric remains still in everyday use for their original purpose.
Many farming families care for their hedges as heirlooms handed down the generations, and still of direct use to the farmer. They provide essential shelter from the Atlantic weather for livestock and field crops, and enable the farmer's herd to graze safely. The hedge growth supplies a source of trace elements and herbs necessary to the health of grazing animals. The hedgebanks prevent erosion of valuable topsoil and leaching of plant nutrients from field crops. They are the source of hedgerow timber, and they harbour a host of beneficial insects which prey on crop pests and attract birds and mammals to control aphids and rodents.
The hedges are a visual amenity attractive to paying guests, and make a screen and shelter for buildings, camp sites and car parks involved in farm diversification. In future the hedges themselves may be a source of cash income as valuable items in environmental schemes.
Indirectly these uses also benefit the general public. Meat produced from stock which has enjoyed comfort and health enhanced by the presence of traditional hedges is of superb quality. The hedges that provide good browsing for the farm livestock also attract wildlife to delight nature-loving walkers, and are a serious study resource for specialists in subjects from archaeology to zoology. The shelter that warms the animals is equally essential for the people's comfort. A good Cornish hedge cuts wind-chill to the extent that outdoor workers, sunbathers, picnickers, riders, dog-walkers and blackberry-pickers all bless the presence of the hedges.
One of the practical ways in which Cornish hedges most benefit the public is their vital role in run-off prevention. In Cornwall's climate the tilled fields are at times subjected to forces of wind and rain similar in effect to a high-pressure hose. The steep, well-drained land with an often thin covering of stony soil makes excellent grazing for traditional livestock, but once ploughed is extremely susceptible to erosion. Cornish hedges protect the soil from disappearing downhill when it rains. Sadly, if a farmer does remove crucial hedges, it is the public at large who has to cope with mud or floods on the roads or in through their back door. In Cornwall villages are usually in sheltered valleys built astride the many streams that drain the hills. Cornish hedges form solid bulwarks to check the muddy flow, and the removal of even a few can spell disaster for the people in the valley below.
Altogether Cornwall's hedges provide the natural beauty that is so necessary for an increasingly urban population, seeking more recreation in the countryside. At the same time they protect the wildlife from trampling by the public's feet. Within the villages and towns old Cornish hedges survive from before the houses arrived, others surround gardens and are still being newly built today. They screen and soften the buildings, and bring a refreshing breath of the countryside into the urban scene. Most importantly they delight and educate the generations of children whose eyes are on a level with the interesting wildlife of the hedgebank.
Farmers until recently made a reasonable living from 15 hectares and 20 cows, providing employment for one or two farm workers. Today a farmer needs at least 150 hectares to make the same living, and cannot afford any workers.
One of the casualties of this so-called increased efficiency is that the farmer does not have time to look after his hedges properly. His income is based on the assumption that his fields are like those in East Anglia, maybe ten times bigger, and that his field boundaries are wire fences or thorn hedgerows without any hedgebank. Many of the commercial farmers in Cornwall are incomers and have no idea of how Cornish hedges should be looked after.
Barn-conversions often have a field or two attached to them, used for horses or as a smallholding. These amateur landowners lack knowledge of how to repair and maintain Cornish hedges. Both the commercial and the amateur farmers will employ a hedge trimmer to cut the hedge growth, as this is a relatively small cost. Repairing gaps is a different matter. Lacking the skill themselves and having to get in a contractor, it comes as an unwelcome surprise that even repairing small gaps may cost £30 a time, and they have not allowed for this expenditure.
Central and local government pay some money towards Cornish hedge maintenance. Unfortunately these schemes give scant regard to the small size of our fields with the higher proportion of hedge throughout the county. This problem is partly recognised in the Entry Level Environment Scheme used by Defra which "aims to secure widespread environmental benefits" and includes "stone-faced earth banks" as an item. This will secure some grant-aid for those lengths of hedge which the farmer enters into the scheme, but provides no protection for those not entered. The hedges most in need may not be the ones that benefit.
The Hedgerows Regulations only apply to the growth on top of the hedge, defined in terms of a thorn hedgerow. In any case the Regulations only apply to hedgerow removal, and not to repairing hedgebanks.The potential cost of putting right all the gaps in every mile of hedgeside in Cornwall is probably in the region of £3 million every year. Poor workmanship in repairing and building hedges makes this problem worse. Even many of the older farmers, who used to repair their hedges in the traditional manner, are using the tractor bucket to scoop up the fallen hedge material and dump it on top of the hedge in the gap. They freely admit that it goes against their nature to do this, but there is not enough labour available to do the job properly, and there is not enough income from farming today to employ a hedging contractor.
So who should be responsible for looking after Cornish hedges? It is clear that the main beneficiaries are the public in general and tourists in particular. To secure the future of the Cornish hedge for its admiring public, it would seem only fair that sufficient public money should be made available for their upkeep.