In praise of a good hedge.

Hawthorn Hedge

Cycle touring BelgiumWhen I am beating my head against a headwind on the open fields of Wallonia what I really want is a good hedge. A nice embankment and a proper bank of thick bushes to break up the monotony. A couple of weeks ago I rode nearly 50km into head winds and it was a pretty painful experience, I would have been happy to hide behind a single tree towards the end.

Belgian farmers seem to have adopted the trend that British farmers got into from the 1970s onwards when every hedge had to be removed to allow the plough to get as close to the edge of the field as possible, regardless on the impact on landscape or wildlife, partly encouraged by EU subsidies that used to pay subsidies to farmers by the productive metre.Belgium cycle touring

Later we learned just what that was doing to biodiversity and erosion and some farmers started restoring them but here the message doesn’t seem to have got through.

And of course when they need the hedge to keep in animals the cheap response is to put up a wire fence with an electric charge round it which isn’t a lot of fun for any human or animal that happens to bump into them. Poor Murphy found that out in the last two weeks since livestock got introduced to the field next door. He spent two days in the house refusing to come out after the fence bit him.

Royal Academy Press Release. The Big Hawthorne, 2008. Courtesy of the Artist. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

And the loss of those hedges is just such a shame right now when the blossom is out and there are wildflowers everywhere. Last year the highlight of my visit to the David Hockney exhibition “A bigger picture” was his series of paintings of hawthorn hedges in East Yorkshire throughout the spring. There is a man who really understands the power of the hedge in the English landscape.

One of the best talks I went to when I was a member of the Chilterns Conservation Board was a great presentation by our farming officer who explained “what makes a first class hedge.” Sounds like something for gardening geeks but it turned into a fascinating presentation about the role of hedges as “wildlife freeways” allowing certain plant species, wild birds and small mammals to survive and to move about between communities in shelter and protected from predators.

They make a wonderful feature of some areas of traditional English countryside and help create that patchwork quilt effect so beloved of artists and painters but photography of the landscape during the 20th Century shows just how much they have disappeared.

A good hedge for a cyclist also has many other uses:


Tour of Flanders

The perfect hedge is just right.

Thick enough to provide a windbreak and a shelter.

John Morley, Dumfries 2006

And exactly shoulder height for a cyclist, which means it is far too high for a motorist to see over, but low enough that we can enjoy secret views everywhere we go.

When we come back from a ride we can wax lyrical about something they have never seen and will never see. That’s a perfect hedge and Belgium needs a lot more of them.