Think of hedges as wild highways, busy with traffic, stretching out across our landscape.
On the heavy clays of South Norfolk and Suffolk, hedges are often ancient, older even than the Roman road that in places cuts across hedges thought to be strips of woodland left when the first small fields were cleared in the Iron or Bronze Age. Older hedges like this are rich in plant life, from tall trees of oak, ash, field maple or hornbeam to shrubs of hazel, blackthorn or hawthorn. Elm suckers die young, but their deadwood is haven for beetles, in turn attracting in woodpeckers seeking a meal. Climbers like black or white bryony tangle through, with ivy a good source of late nectar, its dark berries providing food for birds deep into winter.
Woodland flowers like primroses and dogs mercury can be found at the base of a hedge and it is here that most hedgerow mammals live too, including wood mice, weasels and stoats. In the shade and shelter of a dense hedge, hedgehogs will breed and hibernate in their woven balls of grass and leaves. Frogs, toads and even great crested newts will use the cool of a hedge in summer, often using this safe route between ponds; they will also hibernate deep in the roots of a hedge or under fallen wood in the winter.
Hedges thrum with insect life, from butterflies, moths and bees, to myriad flies, spiders, beetles and bugs. From dusk until dawn, bats hunt along hedges, with species like the rare barbastelle, found in South Norfolk, using hedges to commute between woodland and meadows for foraging.
In daylight, sparrowhawks might be briefly glimpsed diving and gliding along hedges, hunting the small birds that shelter and feed there. As autumn comes, look out for migrant fieldfares and redwings, feeding on berries. In spring and summer, visiting whitethroats and turtle doves, with the bass notes of their beautiful purr, find sanctuary in our hedges, alongside year-round residents from blackbirds and shy hedge sparrows, to the less common yellowhammers and bullfinches.
Garden hedges can help wildlife by mimicking traditional farmland ones: plant a variety of native shrubs for shelter, nectar and berries, leave them undisturbed when birds are nesting and allow a quiet, dense base if you are lucky enough to have hedgehogs visit your garden.
In farmland and village alike, hedges are important for wildlife in their own right, but also as highways connecting other habitats, allowing wildlife to move quietly and safely and proving a vital link in our landscape.
Discover more of Norfolk’s wildlife and habitats: www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife