What human-made feature of the Cornish landscape lasts for centuries, offering food and shelter to a vast range of wildlife, helping creatures with navigation, and connecting valuable habitats? The Cornish hedge!
‘Our’ hedge marks a border between the gardens of the terrace where we live and pasture fields across from Kit Hill Country Park.
The hedge is topped by oak, hazel, hawthorn and elder and in spring, a lovely fringe of small daffodils followed by bluebells on the bank. Last night, my wildlife camera recorded two hedgehogs shuffling along the bottom. Bumblebees and mining bees make their homes in the bank, blue tits and great tits nest in the trees, and bats hunt above at night.
That hedge was there long before I was, and long before our houses and gardens were built. It will remain long after we have gone … I hope.
Unique, stone-based hedges form an important part of the character of Cornwall. From the far fringes of the West to the Tamar Valley, they have been built by human hands to designs that reflect the usage and lie of the land, the stone available, and the local weather conditions.
In early spring, our local hedges froth with blackthorn blossom. In May, the pinkish-white of hawthorn takes over. Panicles of elderflowers add an enchanting scent to a heady mix of perfumes. June sees foxgloves tower above the other flowers along many of our roadside hedge banks.
You may have a wall around your garden. Cornish hedges are actually filled walls, often topped with woody hedging plants. Here in East Cornwall, I’ve noticed stones laid in vertical, horizontal and diagonal (herringbone) patterns, often amongst moss along the shady hedges of high-sided lanes. Mature trees now stand on top and touch heads, forming a leafy tunnel above a lane or road.
In exposed parts of west Cornwall, granite-faced Cornish hedges form weatherbeaten stony spines across the landscape, showing their lichen-encrusted faces to the elements, kissed by droplets of salt spray in the air as generations farm the land between them.
Like barnacles and beetles, Cornish hedges have a tough exoskeleton (outer skeleton). The outer walls are made of carefully picked and placed rocks (granite, shales and/or slate), the space between them rammed tight with ‘rab’ (clay/sand/soft shale) subsoil that doesn’t shrink, crumble or decompose. Woody shrubs and trees grow well on top, their roots helping to hold the whole structure together. By building in this way, our ancestors were protecting soils from wind and rain, keeping stock in, and if planting along the top, creating a sustainable source of wood, for a great many uses.
You don’t need to build a hide, nor lie on the ground, nor use binoculars to find wildlife along a hedge. Just stop for a while and open up your senses. Listen for rustles and hums, watch entrance holes and open flowers for comings and goings, and see who or what is chasing or being chased in and around your nearest Cornish hedge.*
(*Some of our loveliest hedges are along roads, so watch out for traffic.)