On a recent visit back home, I was absent-mindedly staring out the window when I saw an astonishing sight: hedges. The leafy suburbs of west London are home to an artefact that has vanished from many of urban Britain’s front gardens. The story of this nation’s hedges is a story of shifting national attitudes, but there are encouraging signs that point towards the restoration of this fascinatingly ordinary part of British life.
A hedge, for the unfamiliar, is a row of shrubs planted together to create a boundary or act as a fence; a hedgerow is simply a longer hedge incorporating other features. The history of hedges in Britain goes back a long way, with hedgerows having been planted by the farmers of the prehistoric Bronze Age. However, the “enclosure” of England’s land, turning once common land used freely by peasant farmers into privately owned fields, led to vast mazes of hedges appearing across the country. While my socialist friends may receive this fact with indignation, the resulting hedges were a godsend for wildlife and Britain’s environment. They offer a habitat for many species such as hedgehogs, sparrows, wrens and robins, to name a few. Hedges have also been shown to boost air quality and lessen the impact of flooding, both increasingly useful benefits in our age of extreme weather patterns.
Urban hedges began to appear en masse in the Victorian period and the early 20th century. However, the surge in popularity in paved-over gardens has not been kind to the hedge. Many front gardens have been turned into driveways, while back gardens are being uprooted in favour of “sterile patio space”. These trends bode poorly for both the hedge and the vitally important green spaces that prevent Britain’s cities from becoming ecological wastelands. Indeed, the growing prevalence of paved surfaces in areas such as floodplains have worsened the extent of flooding, and causes warmer local temperatures because of heat-absorbing concrete. There has also been a steep but predictable decline in many hedge dwelling animals, such as sparrows, which are losing their nesting sites. While the observed decline in rural hedgerows that followed the Second World War has largely stopped, the destruction of the urban hedge is a likely culprit for the loss of these animals.
The hedge’s fall represents a growing detachment from our roots (pun intended). According to the social historian Dr Joe Moran, front gardens were linked to community spirit, as each family would make sure that it looked nice for the neighbours. As Britain’s sense of community has eroded, so has the front garden’s importance. Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy also led to the loss of front gardens, as once council-mandated upkeep gave way to formless expanses of concrete. The atomised society of neoliberalism strikes again.
Gardens are a tiny slice of the wonder of nature in our dense and grey cities. They are a living link with the insects that pollinate our crops, the trees that give us air. They are a connection to the vibrant past when our ancestors across the world lived off of the land, a communal space for neighbours to talk, and simply somewhere to see the intense beauty of the world not fashioned with human hands. Nature is humanity’s common heritage, and the fall of the urban hedge is somewhat of a metaphor for what our thoroughly individualistic world has lost.
However, an unlikely coalition of gardeners, conservationists and ecological activists may be coming to the hedge’s aid. There is a growing reaction to the loss of urban green space, for example climate group Extinction Rebellion’s call to end the “crazy paving” being installed in Britain’s cities. This has been mirrored by the Royal Horticultural Society, who have praised the hedge’s role in tackling the climate crisis. More widely, the British government has laid out plans to re-introduce nature to Britain’s urban areas, as the detrimental effects of a lack of green spaces on the environment as well as on people’s physical and mental health have become known.
The humble hedge has faced heavy trimming, but there is still life for this wonderfully quaint and essential part of the nation’s cities. As we become increasingly aware of the dire reality of climate change, we must regain our respect for nature. The only way for humanity to survive the intersecting ecological crises of our age is to become a steward of this Earth rather than its imperious master. In our own very small but vital way, this begins at home.
We need urgent planning reform to incentivise hedges as part of a return to the green gardens of old. Of course, for this to be successful, it must be accompanied by a culture shift away from cars in cities. But bringing back this fading feature of Britain’s front gardens is both a concrete move in fighting the environmental crisis and a symbolic one, recognising our commitment to the natural world which sustains humanity and embracing this quietly ancient British tradition.
Image Credit: r. a. paterson/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Via Flickr