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The history in the hedges at Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Kingcombe reserve

PUBLISHED: 15:18 17 October 2016

Looking across Kingcombe Meadwos in autumn - with its hedgerows

Looking across Kingcombe Meadwos in autumn - with its hedgerows

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The hedges at Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Kingcombe reserve are living boundaries, wildlife corridors, feeding stations and a fascinating document of the past, says Hester Lacey

In 1050, when Edward the Confessor ruled England, someone, on what is now the Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) reserve at Kingcombe, planted some field boundaries; the ancient hedges that they put in place nearly a thousand years ago are still with us today.

“A lot of field boundaries at Kingcombe date back to medieval times,” says Steve Masters, West Dorset reserves warden for Dorset Wildlife Trust. “Our surveys suggest that some of the hedges’ original dates range from 1050 to 1200.”

How do we know this? Well in 1974, naturalist Dr Max Hooper devised a formula for estimating the age of a hedge that has been shown to correlate significantly to information from ancient maps (this theory may not work in exactly the same way for each geographical area). According to Hooper’s Law, each woody species found in a 30-yard stretch of hedge is assumed to represent 100 years that the hedge has been present. “The species that indicate an old hedge can include hazel, blackthorn, field maple, spindle, elder, ash, oak and willow,” Steve reveals. “Some ancient trees have been coppiced and pollarded for firewood in the hedges and that has helped them become as old as they are. Whether it’s coppiced (cut down at the base) or pollarded (cut five or six feet up the trunk), may have depended on the height of the person doing the chopping!”

Hedge laying - where you sever the stem halfway through then bend it over - also keeps these living boundaries in good shape. “The style in Dorset hedge laying is to lay the stems pretty much flat to the hedge banks and use stakes or binders to hold them down,” says Steve. “You then get a woody, dense, stock-proof hedge bottom when it all sprouts up again.” These management techniques also keep hedges in a good state for wildlife, providing cover for animals moving from one place to another. “Bats use hedges to navigate,” says Steve. “They find their way about using echo location so they need a feature for the sound to bounce back from. Badgers make setts under hedges and at Kingcombe hedges are home to dormice and other small mammals such as wood mice. So in turn sparrowhawks hunt along them and butterflies use bramble and dog rose flowers as a source of nectar.”

Just as important are the ancient trees, which Steve describes as a whole eco-system. “An old oak tree, for example, when it starts to die back and drop some of its limbs, provides a whole bunch of different niches: dead wood, cracks for birds, nesting sites for mice, a home for epiphytes, lichens, ferns and mosses – and hundreds of species of insects, such as purple hairstreak butterflies in the canopy.”

As well as benefiting from good management over the centuries, now continued under DWT stewardship, the Kingcombe hedges have been protected because the land has never been farmed intensively. So the ancient hedgerows have been left in place rather than being grubbed out. “Kingcombe is a real glimpse into the past,” says Steve. “A lot of the hedgerows here are associated with old route ways and green lanes. We can even see which hedges were in place before the Enclosure Acts.”

The Enclosure (Inclosure) Acts, passed from the 17th century onwards, put previously open fields and common land into private hands. “Enclosure hedges were often a single fast growing species; hawthorn, which was also called quickthorn, was considered the best way to stock-proof a field. If a hedgerow is mainly hawthorn, it probably dates from an Enclosure Act,” says Steve.

In autumn the hedges at Kingcombe are at their most dazzling. “There’s a lot of field maple in our hedges which turns a lovely yellowy-red,” says Steve. “The hedges are also full of bright red berries and, as the leaves start to die back, it’s not unusual to see large flocks of goldfinches, fieldfares and redwings feeding on the berries together.”

So make sure you get out into the Dorset countryside this month and admire these living and productive ancient monuments at their autumnal best. 


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