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Book Review - 'A natural history of the hedgerow'

Book written by: John Wright

Review written by: Emily Seccombe

Wright’s comprehensive narrative of hedgerows covers their history, ecology and management in great detail. It’s a very informative read and would sit well on the shelf of any nature conservation organisation’s office. It is a little less stylised than some other nature books, so may be more suited to those with a pre-existing interest, than as a well-meaning present for a relative.

The book starts with an extensive history of hedgerows, including the open-field system of the middle ages and the subsequent parliamentary enclosures. The hedgerow biography is interspersed with etymology, quotes and local references. I’m certainly more of a naturalist than a historian and so personally I enjoyed the later part of the book much more. In fact, if you’re with me on that, I suggest reading the ecology sections, and returning to the history afterwards if you feel compelled. Having said that, if you work in countryside management, then understanding the reasons for creation of hedges in different styles in different locations across time is useful knowledge. This book can help you to recognise subtle signs in a present hedgerow that can give clues into its past.

The book, which reads like something between a diary and a textbook, then moves on to Natural History. I enjoyed reading about the classification of hedges, which is done by looking at the primary trees and shrubs present, a system developed by French and Cummins, 2007. The breakdown of species in the chapter ‘The Trees of the Hedgerow’ is particularly useful not just for those working in land management, but also for those who want to feel a little more informed when on a country walk. This covers the uses, appearance, habitat, foods and symbioses in different hedge types.

Due to Wright’s personal interest, there is a preoccupation on fungi throughout all of the natural history section of the book. It’s great to pay attention to this taxon which doesn’t get nearly enough notice. However, the text is more formal than emotional or persuasive, and so it may be unlikely to win many more converts to mycology. There were plenty of interesting nuggets of info in here, such as the prevalence of stress fruiting of fungi along edge habitats. This is due to the harsher environmental conditions than non-edge habitats which triggers the fungi to grow a fruiting body to try to spread spores elsewhere – hence a predominance of fruiting fungi found along hedgerows.

Wright also does a good job of describing the management of hedges, especially how to lay a hedge. If the world of hedge management is an alien one to you, laying a hedge means partially cutting through the stems of the trees and bending them down. Doing this every 8 or so years will result in a dense, living barrier, as opposed to a gappy line of trees. If you’ve not had a go before, volunteering with conservation organisations’ practical volunteer groups for a while will give you the chance to try your hand. Wright admits to his lack of practical experience in the area, but does a good job explaining the process nonetheless.

Sometimes it feels like the book describes the author’s journey as opposed to taking the reader on their own journey of discovery, but he does acknowledge early on that it is a personal account. However, this may be an issue when it comes to trying to persuade the reader of the need to save hedgerows. I was disappointed by the lack of pages given to discussing the conservation of hedgerows, a habitat that has seen significant decline in quantity and, increasingly, quality. The author states that “we must face the fact that most hedges are doomed in the long term” – however realistic, this is certainly rather defeatist. I would have loved to read more about suggestions for progress, other than the suggestion of making a nuisance of ourselves to those responsible for the decline. The last chapter, entitled “A Final Plea”, doesn’t do enough justice to the importance of conservation action to recover our network of hedges.

‘A Natural History of the Hedgerow’ achieves several things: it acts as a guide to understanding species in a hedge, including how they interact; an account of the history of hedgerows; a reference tool to inform land management; and a descriptive, personal account. Whilst not necessarily the best book for curling up with in armchair on a rainy day, it’s definitely a useful book to read, and will leave you feeling well-versed when next walking along a hedge-lined country lane.


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