Hedges – fact and folklore

Why are hedges important?

Hedges are one of the most diverse habitats found in Britain. More than 125 of our most threatened species are associated with hedges. More than 80% of our farmland birds rely on hedges for protection and food, and many threatened mammals feed on their fruits and seeds.

For many woodland species, hedges are the closest habitat to their native woodland left in some areas. This is especially true in urban environments, where a hedge is an excellent place to find wildlife, particularly invertebrates.

As well as being pleasing to the eye, hedges help mark field boundaries and prevent soil erosion. They also help to prevent flooding and irrigate crops in dry weather. Many of the animals associated with hedges are predators on crop and garden pests.

Enclosure Acts – protecting our hedges

Rural fields surrounded by hedges

These were Acts of Parliament mostly passed around 150-250 years ago that set out where the boundaries of private land should run.

Most importantly they say what the boundary should be marked with – usually a planted hedge or dry stone wall – and that this should be protected forever.

In recent years these Acts have been applied in the law courts to prevent hedges being removed and even ensure that those that have been removed are replaced.;


Hawthorn – a popular hedge plant used for medicine, firewood and confetti

Hawthorn blossom

By far the commonest hedge shrub is the hawthorn, but no one really knows why. It could be from the Celtic tradition of planting a circle of hawthorns around their sacred places.

Practically, hawthorn is a good hedge choice because it produces a hard-wearing wood, ideal for making tool handles, bowls and wooden spoons as well as for firewood. The thorns are a good deterrent to straying cows and sheep.

Hawthorn blossom was a key part of the May Day celebrations and was the original confetti, as it was traditional to get married in spring. The plant also had many medicinal uses, especially for heart conditions. Its name comes from the Old English 'haeg’, meaning hedge.


Beating the bounds – an ancient and peculiar ritual

A boy is bounced on a stone

The ancient tradition of beating the bounds dates back to the Romans and is still practised in some English and Welsh parishes. It is meant to reinforce the boundaries of the district in people's minds.

All the residents of the area would gather on Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) and march around the boundary. Boys would hit the boundary markers, usually stones or hedges, with willow sticks.

In some areas the boys’ heads were banged against the marker so they would never forget – hence the phrase ‘sorely remembered’.

(Photo courtesy of llantrisant.net)


Penny Hedge – building a hedge as punishment

Penny hedge on Whitby beach

In the 12th century, three knights killed a holy man while they were hunting boar. As a punishment the young men had to build a hedge on Whitby beach, in North Yorkshire.

The hedge had to be strong enough to survive three tides and be made of interwoven hawthorn cut with a knife costing one penny. If they failed, their lands would be forfeited to Whitby Abbey.

The owners of the land in question still build the Penny Hedge on Ascension Eve.



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Top tips for a healthy hedge

A hedgeFollow these simple tips from Hedgelink and make your hedge more attractive to wildlife.

Top 10 hedge tips (PDF, 123KB)