June 2022 - Charlbury Hedges

Published in Charlbury Chronicle June 2022

Hedges are so important in our landscape as wildlife corridors and refuges for plants, insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals. In Charlbury all our hedges are very old and the boundaries can be seen on our earliest map drawn up in 1761 by Thomas Pride for the new 4th Duke of Marlborough. This map shows the 90 owners of land in the parish, a large number with small “pieces” of land scattered all over the parish, some inclosed by private agreement and some within common fields. This large number of small land owners to negotiate with is no doubt the reason why Charlbury didn’t experience the radical reshaping of its land into large rectangular fields seen elsewhere and why we can still see these early field boundaries today.

Long Hedge Furlongs copyright Christine ElliottThe 1761 map shows some boundaries with large dots but unfortunately they are not explained in the key. Large dots are shown along the northern boundary of Long Hedge Furlongs and maybe the name suggests the dots are along an actual hedge (which is still there today), but large dots are also shown on some “unenclosed” boundaries and this maybe indicates the fields were enclosed even though the land was still classified as common ground. Other boundaries might be stone walls or just marked by stones or trees to identify junction points. The old trees along the Holly Bush Furlongs track south of the Ditchley Road are at regular intervals and look like they could delineate the ends of the old strip boundaries.

Another reason we’re lucky in Charlbury is that our hedges have been thoroughly surveyed by Alan Spicer and Don Porter over many years since the late 1970s – they provided a pilot model for CPRE Oxfordshire’s Hedgerow Survey initiative. They were looking specifically at the number of species and also at the ground flora to get an appreciation of the potential age of the hedge. Now in the 2020s, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species is doing a national survey of the hedges looking particularly at how they are managed and how healthy they are. Charlbury is now taking part in this survey to build on the earlier survey work done by Alan and Don.

Hedgerows are dynamic, they keep growing and depending on how they are managed they might stay vibrant and healthy with a long future or they might disappear either through overcutting or neglect. Overcutting annually at the same point produces a visible knuckle producing new growth with nothing growing afresh from the base and providing little shelter for wildlife. Leaving a hedge totally uncut will naturally end up with the plants developing into a line of trees which will be relatively short-lived. Cutting a hedge is like coppicing or pollarding, it rejuvenates the growth from the cutting point and enables the plants to thrive for centuries. A good cutting regime, however, is not to cut in the same place each year, but to allow the hedge to grow by a few more inches each year – this allows some old wood to develop to provide flowers and then fruit. Legally, hedge cutting can only take place between September and February but it is good to cut as late as possible to provide a food supply for birds, insects and mammals overwinter. Another good practice is to let a hedge grow uncut for several years and then to either lay it or cut it back to the base for new growth to emerge – looks rather drastic but all our hedge species will respond well and regrow vigorously.

In Charlbury we’ll be re-surveying our hedges so if you would like to help then please get in touch (811057) - some training will be provided in July by Wild Oxfordshire and paid for by Charlbury Town Council. If you would like to learn more about hedges in advance then please have a look at these excellent video links. Wild Oxfordshire provided a “Talking Hedges” series of four webinars. In the first one Megan Gimber explains about the surveys taking place, the fourth one by Nigel Adams wasn’t recorded but Nigel spoke again at the 2022 Oxford Real Farming Conference as part of the session “Hedgerows – The green veins of our landscape” which can be seen 53 mins from the start.

As part of the Charlbury Festival on Sunday 19 June I will be doing a heritage field walk along the old Woodstock Way to the Saltway. Please come and join me to find out more about our local landscape over the past 300 years, we meet at 11.15 am on The Playing Close.

Charlbury Green Hub