Kent Archaeological Review extract

A Note on Hedge Dating.
by G P Hewlett.

Two factors have stimulated recent interest in hedge dating. The first is the work of Dr. Hooper and others at the Nature Conservancy, which has shown a relationship between the number of hedge species and the age of a hedge; the second is the rapid rate of hedgerow removal in many parts of England.

Apart from lines of scrub which are not proper hedges, there are three major hedge categories, differentiated according to their original composition:

  1. Hedges which originated as a single species hedges. Over the years this type of hedge becomes colonised by other shrubby species, and so an ancient hedge is more varied than a recent one. Hooper has demonstrated that in many parts of Britain the age of a hedge is equivalent to approximately one species per hundred years, these species being counted along a thirty-yard sample length. There is obviously much variation around this figure, and it is vital in any study that a local chronology be established from documentary evidence against which to check the number of species.
  2. Hedges which were planted with a mixture of species. These will have more variety than the first group, they may sometimes be distinguished from documentary evidence, and were common in parts of the country. They do not appear to have been normal in Kent.
  3. Woodland relic hedges. These have recently been described by Dr Pollard of the Nature Conservancy, and have been used to locate Domesday woodlands in parts of the East Midlands. These hedges are boundaries of old woods or of assarts, and were formed of shrubs taken from the woodland. Their flora, therefore, reflects the species of plants in the wood, and does not help with dating. They may often be distinguished in the Spring by the presence of a woodland ground flora of bluebells or wood anemones. Many Wealden hedges are of this type.

In any hedge count, a thirty-yard sample or samples should be taken, the starting point being chosen objectively. Only shrubby species should be counted.

In addition to plants, the banks on which many hedges grow are also instructive to study. A constructed bank and ditch, as often found around old deer parks, may be fairly easily dated from documents and so help with chronology. It can also be easily plotted on a map. Possibly more interesting, however, is the lynchet type of bank which has evolved over a period of time where hedges cross a slope, due to the deposition of soil on the upslope side and soil removal downslope. If on similar slopes, the higher these banks are the older they will be, and they correlate well with hedge species counts. They are useful when grouping hedges for classification and for indicating boundary lines in areas where hedges have been removed. In many cases around Otford, where I have made a detailed study, the banks were vital in past landscape reconstruction.

To make a study of hedges and banks valid, some documentary evidence is essential. The more dateable hedges the better, though a few firm dates may be fairly safely extrapolated to cover similar hedges on similar soils nearby. I have found some of the most useful documents to be Saxon Charters, Estate Surveys, Rentals and Custumals, Account Rolls and, of course, old maps.

The final result, as I found at Otford, can be quite a complete reconstruction of the appearance of the landscape at different times and showing different stages of its evolution. Such a study is considerably more complex than indicated in the notes above and as with any such investigation, needs constant questioning and checking as well as an intensive local knowledge.

References which may be of interest to readers of this article are:

  • Pollard, E, Hooper, M D , and Moore, N W, Hedges. New Naturalist. London, Collins, 1974.
  • Hewlett, G P, Reconstructing a Historical Landscape from Field and Documentary Evidence: Otford in Kent. Agricultural History Review, 21, 94-110. 1973.
  • Pollard, E., Hedges VIII, Woodland relic hedges in Huntingdonshire, Journal of Ecology, 61. 343-352. 1973.
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