Seetha Tan reflects on St Ethelburga’s Lifelines project and the ecological, spiritual and agricultural significance of hedgerows.
When I first moved to the United Kingdom, my partner’s mum took me walking in the Sussex South Downs. Growing up in Australia when winter changes abruptly into summer and the seasons are virtually non-existent, I found springtime in England to be an endless source of wonder. Watching the hedgerows bud and the hawthorne bloom, foraging for elderflower and sloes, listening for larks in foliage, memorising the names of British flora and fauna and learning that the snowdrops give way to beds of crocuses and then to carpets of bluebells. This knowledge of land and landscape has deepened my roots and sense of belonging here. Before I started supporting St Ethelburga’s Lifeline’s project, hedgerows were simply features I thought were beautiful in a landscape I was growing to love. I have discovered that they are so much more. As semi-natural habitats, they provide food and shelter for endangered, native flora and fauna. As carbon-sinks, they can offset emissions from agricultural use. They provide natural draining mechanisms for run-off and can mitigate the impact of floods. They have a complex social and political history which has shaped the cultural and physical landscape of Britain. And of course, although I was already discovering this myself, they provide ways to restore our spiritual and emotional connection with nature.
From a bird-eye view, I imagine the UK looks like neatly partitioned parcels, a conglomeration of brown squares and rectangles bordered by green. Hedgerows have historically demarcated land boundaries and separated livestock. While modern agricultural technologies make this purpose less relevant, hedgerows continue to play an important environmental role. In arable, flat areas of the UK, hedgerows can mitigate soil erosion from wind blow. They can also play a critical role in pest control, providing habitat and shelter for predatory insects during the colder months while blocking windbourne pests from crops. Hedgerows also act as an important filtration mechanism, reducing the amount of agricultural pollutants that can reach our water sources by acting as a physical barrier and increasing the soil’s infiltration capacity. Moreover, hedgerows play a vital role in flood mitigation by storing water during periods of heavy rainfall. Root systems help to absorb water and runoff from surrounding fields, helping to slow water flow and reduce flood risk. Hedgerows also play an important role in the carbon cycle, storing carbon emissions both below and above the soil.
As we face the impending consequences of climate catastrophe and biodiversity collapse, the UK must continue to creatively adapt its conservation practices. While tree planting groups have gained prominence globally, in the UK the prospect of planting hectares of new woodland on arable land is not always a practical option. In 2020, 17.3 million hectares (71% of land in the UK) were dedicated to agriculture and managed by farmers and land managers. Considering that the agricultural industry employs more than half a million people, rewilding arable land may not always be a feasible solution. Conversely, hedgerows can play both an important role in agricultural land management and address climate change. Hedgerows provide an unharnessed tool to address the climate emergency, sequestering carbon, improving biodiversity and enhancing the landscape. Building hedgerows extends a lifeline to nature – creating wildlife networks that stretch across the UK while addressing the pressing concerns of rising carbon emissions.
The National History Museum’s Biodiversity Intactness Index estimates the percentage of native species in a given area. According to this metric, a healthy ecosystem should have a Biodiversity Intactness Index of 90%. Alarmingly, the UK’s index is 53%. Native flora and fauna like the turtle dove, the hedgehog and the natterjack toad face precarious futures unless habitats can be protected. Since the 1950s, the UK has lost an estimated 118,000 miles of hedgerow. Hedgerows provide important shelter and food source for numerous endangered native species. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that, “hedges may support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies. The ditches and banks associated with hedgerows provide habitat for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles.” St Ethelburga’s project ‘Lifelines’ seeks to work with farmers and local faith groups to restore and replant these wildlife corridors.
For some historians, the history of hedges is also a history of division. According to historian Nicholas Blomley (2007: 1), hedges acted as “an organic barbed wire” during the 16th and 17th century enclosure acts, demarcating private land ownership and restricting access to previously commonly farmed land. Etymologically, the word hedge can be traced to the Anglo-Saxon word ‘haeg’ meaning enclosure. To enclose, to draw boundaries, to demarcate and arguably for some, to divide, these iconic landmarks of the British Isles have a deeply social and political history. While the UK boasts kilometres of ancient hedgerow, some planted by the Romans that predate the enclosure acts, this association with Britain’s history of land management is deeply rooted in the cultural, political and social significance of hedgerows.
Today, in the face of ecological collapse and climate catastrophe, these iconic features of the British landscape are being reframed and reimagined. As semi-natural habitats, hedgerows offer a vital lifeline to local ecosystems, offsetting agricultural carbon emissions and supporting the restoration of the UK’s biodiversity. For St Ethelburga’s project Lifelines, hedgerows have instead become a powerful tool of inclusion and reconciliation. Restoring these important ecosystems presents an opportunity to restore our relationship with the land and re-integrate the natural world into our social and spiritual agenda. This project will work with communities across faiths to rebuild and restore these important networks.
By bringing together farmers and multi-faith volunteer groups, Lifelines hopes to forge lasting bonds between communities that may normally be separated by religious, class, political divisions or the rural/urban divide. Through a train-the-trainers weekend workshop, we will work with community and local faith leaders to foster the practical skills required to plant hedgerows so that they can organise and train their own volunteer groups. We will then match these groups with one of our participating farmers! Through collaboration and shared purpose, Lifelines aims to foster deeper and long-lasting connections and partnerships within and across communities.
In order to address the ecological and social crises precipitated by climate breakdown, Lifelines seeks to also contribute to a spiritual and cultural shift towards adaptation and resilience. Recognising the sacred in nature and nurturing spiritual, emotional and physical connections with the local environment is one way to cultivate resilience. Beyond being a lifeline for nature, hedgerows can also be a spiritual lifeline for people. As semi-natural habitats, made by ‘man’ and nurtured by nature, they are a living reminder of our entanglement, they serve both agricultural and environmental purposes, and in doing so, they help to sustain both human-life and wildlife.
If you are interested in supporting this project, please #pledgeahedge: https://www.gofundme.com/f/pledge-a-hedge. One metre of new hedgerow costs us £15 to plant. Simply choose the number of metres you’d like to have planted on your behalf. Or make it a gift to a loved one!
Blomley, N. (2007) ‘Making private property: enclosure common right and the work of hedges’, Rural History, 18(1), pp. 1-21.