Photographs: Charles Francis
May 2012: Over the centuries, many of Cornwall’s ancient woodlands have vanished — yet bluebells and wood sorrel which thrived beneath the trees long ago still survive in Cornish hedges, along with blackthorn, gorse, foxgloves and red campion.
The hedges, unique to Cornwall, are not just a haven for a wide variety of wildflowers — and insects — but also a much-loved and breathtakingly beautiful feature of the landscape. And this month, they are at their most enchanting. Every May, they burst into multi-coloured bloom to herald the arrival of spring.
“Cornish hedges are not hedgerows, but stone-faced banks, usually with an earth-filled core,” explains Cornwall Wildlife Trust ecologist Jan Dinsdale. “Some of our oldest hedges in West Cornwall follow boundaries that were first laid out in the Iron Age, more than 2,000 years ago. Although most of these hedges will have been rebuilt many times by farmers over the centuries, the field patterns they define have remained the same. These are a rare instance of major prehistoric remains still in everyday use for their original purpose.”
There are around 30,000 miles of hedges in Cornwall. The majority, says Jan, have bushy shrubs or trees on top of the bank, but others, such as those on high ground in West Penwith, are dry-stone, encrusted with different lichens and mosses, with not a tree in sight.
These hedges in the far west of Cornwall were the focus of an important survey conducted by the trust last summer, as part of its Wild Penwith project. Led by Jan, 22 volunteers with a shared passion for Cornish hedges gathered information on their wildlife, history and landscape value. During their visits to local farms, they studied mammal holes, recorded the number of invertebrate species groups, investigated bank structure, and assessed the age of the hedge using historic maps.
The volunteers were assisted by local experts, including Sarah Carter, who has been surveying the wildflowers in Cornish hedges within a mile of her West Penwith home for more than three decades.
One of the aims of the project was to inspire local people to become actively involved in the care of their local environment, and Jan was greatly encouraged by the feedback from those who took part in the survey. One described the joy of “standing in the sun, spotting more and more different insects the longer I looked, a wonderful journey of discovery”. Another said: “I loved meeting like-minded people who all care about Penwith hedges and want to work to protect them.”
With the field work complete by last autumn, Jan and colleagues from the trust spent the winter analysing the data it generated, assisted by the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and Isles of Scilly (ERCCIS) and the University of Exeter. The results will be available later this year.
“We collected a huge range of information during the survey,” says Jan. “So the work of the volunteers will contribute to increasing recognition of the value of Cornish hedges at both local and national levels.
“Records kept at ERCCIS list around 600 native plant species associated with hedges in Cornwall, of which 25 are scarce and nine rare. Of the 50 or so bird species which breed commonly on farmland in Cornwall, at least 30 nest in hedges. Increasingly, hedges are valued too for the major role they play in preventing soil loss, regulating water supply and reducing flooding.”
Cornwall Wildlife Trust offers guidance to Cornwall Council on planning matters affecting the environment, which includes emphasising the need to protect Cornish hedges, and wherever possible, to bring about a net gain in their number. The aim is to ensure that the hedges continue to provide a home for wildlife, and to be a spring delight for the county’s human residents, for years to come.
However, Jan warns that the individuality of Cornish hedges — which make the landscape so distinctive — also leaves them vulnerable and undervalued at a national level. “The majority do not fit the descriptions and legislation designed to protect hedgerows nationally,” she says. “These look at numbers of trees and woodland species, which is not a sensible way to assess the value of Cornish hedges. We already know that they are special, and that structurally they are very different from English hedgerows.”
Jan urges everyone who values the hedges to be vigilant, as their future cannot be guaranteed. “The intricate network of Cornish hedges is such an important part of our county’s landscape,” she says. “Despite seeing them every day, we must never take them for granted.”