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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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The Anatomy of A Hedgerow

The anatomy of a hedgerow - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

Ireland's lowlands are covered by an extensive network of hedgerows. They can be found crisscrossing the land, following a meandering stream, along motorways and boreens. They have either been planted at some time or they've been modified by humans to enclose land holdings. Many are very old, dating from medieval times. Properly tended, they become a living fence that restricts the movement of farm animals and provides a barrier to outside traffic.

There are at least sixty different trees, shrubs, and woody climbers that may be found in the hedgerows of Ireland, however as one moves about the different regions of the country, the shrub flora changes. Elm, ash, and hawthorn are the chief trees, but only the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is common to all regions, probably because it thrives in a variety of soil types. This small, insignificant tree with its deeply toothed leaves and white flowers in May, becomes a blaze of red in autumn when its branches become laden with the red-berried hips, or haws which are sought out by migrating redwings and fieldfares during autumn, and by thrushes and blackbirds when winter frosts harden the ground. The hawthorn is interesting for the customs and symbolism associated with it. Symbolism is particularly strong in Ireland where hawthorn trees, except those growing in hedges, have always been considered sacred. In many places the tree symbolizes spring, May Day, magic, celebrations, and good and bad luck. It's interesting that On May Day the tree has not yet begun to flower, but according to the old calendar, May Day appeared nearly fourteen days later.

Other thorn-bearing plants are common to hedgerows, notably gorse and blackthorn (Frangula alnus). It is these, along with brambles (blackberry bushes), guelder rose, and spindle that give them their distinctly Irish aspect. Honeysuckle, or woodbine, (Lonicera periclymenum) and ivy also play an important part in the composition of many Irish hedges.

Hazel, holly, and ash often appear in the roadside and older hedges, not necessarily because of age, but because many of the roadsides are situated alongside a running stream and this provides conditions suitable for these species to survive. Often the richer hedgerows of townlands and parish boundaries follow some ancient watercourse.

As one moves around the country, different shrub flora appear. In the southeast, the field rose is popular while spindle prefers the lime-rich ground of the central plain. Higher elevations find the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), spring and autumn gorse, birch, broom, and holly, while lowlands see ash (Fraxinus excelsior), privet, and hazel (Corylus avellana). If the lowland hedges join bogland, guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), alder, and willows are common. Irish whitebeam (Sorbus hibernica) is prevalent in the midlands but is rare elsewhere. In Kerry, the fuchsia (Fuchsia magellacina) was introduced a little over a hundred years ago from South America and now is common in hedges where it thrives in that county's frost-free environment and lime-acid soil.

In West Cork in springtime, particularly around the Rosscarbery area, hedgerows of hawthorn and elm are alive with blackbirds, robins, and thrushes which are after the newly hatched insects feeding on valuable nectar from the blossoms. Shady conditions allow for a host of other plants such as hart's tongue, hard fern, polypody, and buckler fern. In March, wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) appears, and in September, red campion (Lychnis dioica) is still flowering. April and May bring the small yellow primrose (Primula vulgara), purple dog-violets, and white stitchwort. In July and August bees hum around the stately, deep pink spikes of foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Finally, in autumn one sees the brambles bearing their crop of juicy black fruits.

The hedgerow supports a vast ecosystem. Herbaceous plants which have become suppressed by grazing find refuge in hedgerows as well, particularly shade-loving plants like lesser celandine, wood anemone, and wild arum. Nettles (Urtica dioica) and thistles reside in the hedge as well and provide food for countless weevils and plant bugs that eat their leaves and suck the juices. Aphids cover many of the leaves and in turn are eaten by ladybugs. Cow parsley (Anthericus sylvestris) and hogweed bear flowers that attract small beetles and flies; butterflies, whose larvae feed on violets, prefer the late summer flowers of brambles, and crab spiders lie await in the flowers of various plants, waiting to dine on hapless pollen-seeking insects. In addition to the endless variety of bird and insect life, numerous rodents and varmints call the hedgerows home. Hares and foxes, and field mice may be seen if you've a watchful eye.

Despite the balance of nature shown here, all is not well in paradise. Throughout Britain and Ireland the hedgerow is threatened. The demand by county councils that hedges be cut back from the roadways has resulted in many species no longer being able to set seed and flower. Tractor-based saws and flails "do a thorough job", ensuring the hedges will stay within their confines for periods of several years. The long-term impact to saplings is a serious danger, and many young trees and woody shrubs cannot recover from this type of brutalization. Also, hedges in many areas of the country have been removed to pave the way for modernization. Some naturalists see this as the final note in a vanishing idealized way of life. One might hope that this full-scale destruction in the name of progress can be halted so the nation's hedgerows may remain as a reminder of a more peaceful and gentler time.

Until next time.

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county cork

Rural scene in County Cork - photo by author

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