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My favourite childhood book

I enjoyed reading the recent posts by An Urban Veg Patch about a book she had picked up from her library called  A Roses’s Garden and Anna at Green Tapestry with her Winter Aconite Flower Fairy post. They both made me think about my favourite childhood books from the Brambly Hedge series.

The books by Jill Barklem were about a colony of mice who lived in the trunks of hollowed out trees. Jill trained at St. Martin’s School of Art and it was on her long train journeys to college that she came up with her imaginary world. Using inspiration from walks in her local Epping Forest she filled sketch books with drawings of mice, trees and plants from the hedgerows and created the world of Brambly Hedge.

It was her illustrations that I loved the most. I was and still am mesmerised by her drawings of hollowed out trees with names like Crab Apple Cottage that had staircases winding up inside them leading to a myriad of rooms, with roaring fires, four poster beds and kitchens laden with food gathered from the hedgerows. I was fascinated by the idea of twinkling lights appearing from windows in the tree trunks, as night fell and mice with names such as Poppy Eyebright and Wilfred Toadflax scurrying back to their cosy homes. Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books imbued me with a love of the countryside which has never left me.

Ironically, as Jill was writing her books the quintessential British hedgerow was continuing it’s decline. Between 1986 and 1996 the Independent estimated that Britain lost more than 110,000 miles of hedgerows, grubbed up to make fields easier to farm with large machinery. Hedgerows, it is believed, had been a feature of our landscape even before the Romans conquered and up until the Second World War they were a vital tool for farmers to manage their land, defining boundaries, dividing up land and providing shelter for livestock. The oldest known surviving hedge in England is ‘Judith’s Hedge’ in Cambridgeshire which is over 900 years old. After the Second World War there was pressure on farmers to produce more food and cheaply. Changes in agriculture meant smaller fields divided by hedges were not the most efficient way of farming and so vast tracts of hedges were destroyed, some may well have been there for hundreds of years. Norfolk, for instance has lost half of it’s hedgerows since the Second World War.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the Hedgerow Regulation Act required landowners to submit a hedgerow removal notice to their local planning department which gave councils the chance to protect ‘important’ hedges by issuing a retention notice. It seems crazy that it was only 15 years ago that hedgerows were given some protection when they are recognised as incredibly important for biodiversity. According to CPRE more than 80% of farmland birds rely on hedges for protection and food and many threatened mammals feed on their fruit and seeds. Geoffrey Lean writing in the Independent  says they are home to over 250 species of plants and nearly half of lowland butterflies breed on them. Hedgerows even lock up carbon, a 2km stretch of hedge can absorb between 1200 and 1600 kg of CO2. An average car travelling 6000 miles would emit this amount of CO2. (Norfolk Wildlife Trust)

Hedgerows criss-crossing the countryside

All is not lost though. Some counties such as Devon, Cornwall, Herefordshire and my own Monmouthshire have held onto their hedgerows. The topography suiting small fields and a predominance of livestock farming rather than arable meant there was no need to grub out hedges. Devon, in fact has more hedgerows than any other county with 33,000 miles and one quarter of these are over 800 years old. (Devon County Council website) I love holidays in Devon and Cornwall at any time of the year but in Spring a real treat is the sight of the deep and tall earthbank hedgerows alive with wildflowers. Driving down tiny lanes with tall hedgerows and trees creating a tunnels of dappled light with drifts of bluebells, wild garlic, red campion, cowparsley and foxgloves lining the lanes. A beautiful and integral part of our landscape that should be more appreciated and protected.

For more information there are some great websites out there. CPRE produces a small guide to hedgerows with a handy pull-out identification chart. Devon County Council’s website has an excellent section on hedgerows. I’ve included links for both in the post above. If you would like to survey local hedgerows contact your local Wildlife Trust.