JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Monday, September 24, 2007

How to date a hedge

To get to our house, you go up a single-track lane lined on both sides with a hedge - not, on the face of it, a very remarkable hedge - it's often untidy to look at, the rabbits have damaged its roots, there are no eye-catching exotics. It's a very English hedgerow. And yet, as we discovered a few years ago, it is an important part of our heritage: living history, home to hundreds of species - mainly insects, which in turn support birds and other wildlife. On the lane we regularly see little owls, barn owls, many finches, woodpeckers, partridges.

This post is for Amanda at Little Foodies, and anyone else who is out foraging for blackberries or sloes .... a little bit about dating hedges, which may turn your afternoon into a history project, as well as a kitchen adventure.

Years ago, Eleanor - then aged about 10 or 11 - and I set about trying to find out the age of the Huntswood hedge. It is obviously ancient: the lane itself is sunken, a sure indicator of age, there are fully mature self-sown oak trees, there is a multiplicity of native species (and no exotics). But exactly how ancient?

Hooper's Rule (first published in 1974 in Hedges by Dr Max Hooper) is:

Age = (no of species in a 30 yard stretch) x 110 + 30 years

Or, to put it another way, pace out a thirty-yard stretch, count the individual woody shrubs and trees, multiply by 110 and add 30 .... and you'll get an idea, a best guess. You have to count all the different types of hawthorn as one species, you mustn't count seedlings, you don't get such a good result if there's elm about (I wish - the elms round here all succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the late 70s early 80s). According to Wikipedia, it doesn't work so well in the north of England. Oh, and it doesn't work at all on a planted hedge, however old.

Hooper's Rule is somewhat controversial - we wanted to date the hedge for a public inquiry about whether the lane was a public right of way (new neighbours said not, and spent a great deal of energy trying - fruitlessly, as it turned out - to prevent nice people from walking their dogs there). It's not the kind of evidence that can be accepted on its own, documentary back-up is required (!). It's also better if you do several 30 yard stretches.

But it's fun to do - you may, like us, have to do a bit of work to identify all the different species. The hedge itself, however old it turns out to be, is a piece of living history, the best possible habitat for the widest number of species (better than anything you plant yourself). Once you've completed your survey, the hedge will never be an invisible part of the background for you again. And, of course, you'll know exactly where to go foraging in autumn.

PS, I forgot to say ... we found that this hedge was about 1,000 years old.


MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Joanna, that is really amazing! What a lovely road and hedge!

Joanna said...

Hi Tanna ... not sure if it works in the US - maybe a slightly different formula? and, yes, we're very lucky to be here

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Oh Joanna, thank you! That was really fascinating. It will be fun to do that with the boys, and will make the hedgrows mean something instead of them just being there.

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

What an incredible post. Hedges just don't seem to exist here in the US, and they're something I truly miss. I love the idea of dating the hedge - nothing is 1000 years old in this country. People will tell you a house is 100 years old with their eyes wide, and I never have gotten used to it. I am off to read Brambly Hedge now, and I'm not kidding.

Katie Zeller said...

I had no idea hedges would be that old! We live in the bocage area of the Vendee which is known for its I'm curious!

Karen Baking Soda said...

I never dated a hedge, was he any good? At least paid for the dinner?
Kidding aside, very interesting and fun to do with kids.

Joanna said...

Karen ... I KNEW someone was going to make that joke - and I laughed out loud when I saw it was you. Happy days!


Cottage Smallholder said...

What a wonderful post, Joanna. Truly inspirational. Thanks.