Cornish hedges are a defining part of the landscape on Britain’s most south-westerly peninsula. From a wildlife point of view they are like Noah’s ark, supporting hundreds of species that might otherwise not have survived modern farming practices. But for motorists they can be a challenge, literally hedging-in the narrow lanes that spread like fine lace across the Cornish countryside. By early summer, a good reversing technique and frequent use of a horn are essential when navigating the county.
A Cornish hedge is a vernacular boundary constructed from local stone and soil. Apart from clearly dividing parcels of land and preventing livestock from escaping, their purpose is to provide shelter in a windswept landscape. It’s believed that over 30,000 miles of Cornish hedge remain, three-quarters of which have endured from ancient times. During their long lifetime each hedge is likely to have been broken down and rebuilt many times: typically a hedge will need to be repaired every 150 years or so, having suffered the ravages of tree roots, animals, humans and harsh weather. Building them is a skilled craft, taking a professional hedger about a day to complete a length of one metre. No mortar is used.
Although they are referred to as ‘hedges’, Cornish hedges are essentially double-skinned walls filled with compacted earth and topped with turf or thorny shrubs for added impenetrability. They are crossed using stiles, which are constructed in ingenious ways so as to allow farmers and walkers through, but keep livestock in. It’s only when nature takes its course, taking up residence in every nook and cranny, that they transform into hedges. At maturity the population of wild flowers often becomes so dense that nary a stone can be seen.
Common early colonisers of a Cornish hedge are navel wort (Umbilicus rupestris), fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) and ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), which are later replaced by foxgloves, cow parsley, red campion and lady ferns. In shady areas one might find hart’s tongue fern and wild garlic; and by the sea thrift (Armeria maritima) and sea campion (Silene uniflora).
All these wildflowers attract a wide spectrum of attendant birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, making Cornish hedges one of Cornwall’s most important wildlife habitats. That will be little consolation to the drivers who routinely bump and scrape their cars as they squeeze down the county’s winding lanes, but without them Cornwall’s ancient fabric would not be the same.