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History of the Hedge

They are the cause of mammoth disputes between neighbours, and the scene of a good garden gossip, but the humble hedge has also helped create the look of the English countryside. It is an interesting story, shaped by human interference.

Children picking fruit from hedgerow
Boys picking blackberries from a hedgerow, 1930s
© TopFoto.co.uk
Before farming, when people were hunter-gatherers, the only hedgerows were dead hedges, made of thorns and sharpened branches for protection against attack.

But the hedgerow's use as a boundary marker goes back as far as 1000 BC. The first Bronze Age farmers had to clear woodland to make fields and sometimes hedges may be surviving traces of the wild woods the fields were cut out of. These are our oldest hedgerows, and they are often on today's parish boundaries.

Hedgerows dividing fields (2)
A patchwork of fields near Stockleigh Pomeroy, Devon
© NTPL/Joe Cornish
Excavations at Farmoor in Oxfordshire revealed Roman hedges made of thorn. The Anglo-Saxons also used hedgerows. A basic pattern of hedges and fields was established at this time and in some areas of Britain this has changed very little.

The Enclosure Acts

Hedgerows dividing fields
Hedgerows at Step Farm, Oxfordshire
© NTPL/Andrew Butler
Although these early hedges were used as field enclosures or to mark the boundaries of one person's property, there was no organised planting of hedges in England until the first stage of the enclosure movement in the 13th century. This was where landowners started taking over common land, dividing it up with hedges.

The splitting up of open medieval fields reached its peak with the Enclosure Acts passed by Parliament, mainly between 1720-1840. This resulted in a huge spurt of planting hedges (about 200,000 miles of hedgerows) and led to the landscape being dividing into smaller fields. Hedgerows planted before this period are defined as ancient.

20th century to today

2nd World War Women's Land Army poster
Second world war poster
© Public Record Office /HIP/TopFoto.co.uk
Hedgerow-planting on a grand scale stopped before the first world war. After the second world war, agricultural policy focused on intensification of food production to make sure Britain was self-sufficient. This brought far-reaching consequences for the countryside – approximately 118,000 miles of hedgerows have disappeared since 1950.

Financial incentives were available to remove hedgerows, and machinery was being developed that was too big to manoeuvre in small fields. It is now widely acknowledged that this policy encouraged farmers to go too far, but hedge removal is nothing new - many were lost during the Napoleonic Wars when a surrounded Britain was threatened with starvation.

There are now grants and campaigns to encourage the planting and protection of hedges. They are recognised as playing an important environmental role and are part of a long-standing farming tradition. 


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