Hedgerows and Hares

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I grew up in the county of Lincolnshire, which even today, in the 21st century, is still mainly agricultural. Its flat fields lend themselves well to the mass production of crops with little natural land remaining as 90% of it is used for farmland. Compared now to my current city life the county seems very reminiscent of times gone by…

As a little girl, I remember witnessing what was almost a second agricultural revolution as the flat open fields made for easy industrialisation methods, large machinery such as harvesters, being gradually introduced. The patchwork system of fields gave way to rolling fields of uniform yellow, oil seed rape, and green, sprouts and cabbages.

As I am sure you’ll know, Britain joined the European Union in 1973. For farmers, this was supposed to guarantee the stability of food production and reduce price fluctuations in farming production, ensuring that farmers received a minimum return for their labour and produce.

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This didn’t really happen. I remember seeing gallons of milk being flushed away, some years ago, and everybody must remember the more recent “cows in the supermarket” news item.

With the farming revolution we lost what came to be an important part of the British countryside, the hedgerow.

Hedgerows… similar to the garden hedge but a country variety and integral part of our British countryside, providing both habitat and border…

The Acts of Enclosure, roughly between 1720 and 1840 (must learn to Google rather than relying on memory…) meant that open land, that had previously been available for all to use, for grazing livestock or foraging for food, since mediaeval times and before, was gradually removed from use. Landowners wanted to build bigger and better, more harmonious to the eye and pleasing to the soul and the last thing any designer wanted were flocks of scruffy sheep or inconvenient villages…

To this end, round about 200,000 miles of hedge, mainly blackthorn and hawthorn were planted and mediaeval methods of farming, the strip and patchwork appearance of the country gone. These little smallholdings and former fields are only really visible from the air, ghost traces of footsteps left upon our land.

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These hedgerows became home to a whole host of creatures that are now in decline as the cycle of Life turns again. We may think the sparrow population is plentiful enough when we look at our bird tables, but in actual fact, the tree sparrow, distinguishable by its chestnut coloured head, has steadily dropped in number since the 1970’s.

This is due to the habit of now ploughing in Autumn rather than Spring. There is no over-Winter stubble to provide food and shelter, also putting one of our most magical native animals at risk: the hare.

The EU recognised the devastating effect these changes were having on our wildlife and introduced a system of subsidies that meant the farmer could afford to leave some of his hedges in place rather than ripping them up to utilise every square inch of space just to make ends meet.

As the countryside became commercialised, ‘social knowledge’ became lost. I must thank Gary of Fiction is Food for this wonderfully descriptive phrase. It was no longer necessary to wait for the first frost before ploughing as the mechanised drills would tear up the Earth with ease. The simple rule of crop-rotation, one field fallow, one with peas or beans and one with potatoes was no longer heeded as the Earth was battered with chemical fertilisers.

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During the 1940’s, the excessive use of herbicides eradicated some of our native wildflowers that had been with us since the Stone Age and which would have been recognised and used by Neolithic farmers. A gentler system of social knowledge, how people could work hand-in-hand with Mother Earth with the seasons, rather than against them, was swept away during the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

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Hedge laying and coppicing, basic blacksmithing and make-do and mend. The use of Nature’s bounty to heal and care – time was when every housewife could whip up a cough remedy from elderberries and thyme… Again, nowadays, chemicals rule and these little bits of knowledge past are preserved only by the few, like the lovely Gillyflower of Wood So Wild. Please go and have a look at her blog… wonderful things…

However, as we move further into the 21st Century, people are becoming more aware of what is going on with the Earth. Lost social knowledge is being retrieved in the 21st Century guise of ‘re-cycling’ and set forth again.

We must look to the animals though, as our native British wildlife no longer thrives. Hedgehogs are in difficulties – although the one at the bottom of our garden is fine! Bird populations are altering – witness the parakeet colonies in London.

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Perhaps the most potent symbol of change for me is the hare, a creature of myth and magic, fable and witchcraft… I have been lucky enough to see a hare, both in the wild and in my father’s surgery.

Different somehow and wilder than cuddly bunnies, magical and fierce, hares were thought to have been first introduced in England by the Romans… truly magical creatures, long eared and long legged, graceful symbols traditionally associated with the moon, femininity and by extension, witches. I remember my first sight of a hare was when I was younger, about ten or so, when we were out with the horses. It was lolloping, loose limbed and effortless across the field and although I’d never seen one before it was instantly recognisably different from a rabbit.

Then, not long after this, my father had one brought into the surgery (he was a veterinary surgeon). It had been hit by a car, and was, surprisingly, unhurt, just stunned.

It hunched, fiercely, in the kennel, rolling its great round eyes imperiously and scuffling its long, powerful hind legs. My father soon pronounced it free from concussion or any other injury and delegated its release to one of the nurses.

Hares are not so common now, another victim of the changing face of our countryside; but they live on in myth and folklore, their essence captured in jewellery and ornaments and sketches of memory.

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73 thoughts on “Hedgerows and Hares

  1. An interesting blog thank you – what an interesting childhood growing up in rural Lincolnshire the daughter of s vetinary surgeon – you’re a dark horse Samantha Murdoch – I enjoy your posts, and thank you for the links to other bloggers ✨

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  2. I love this post, as someone who grew up in real Lincolnshire and still lives here! The wildlife is amazing and I’m still surprised by some of the things I see. Summer evenings driving down the back roads to town for the food shopping yield some wonderful views which could even be described as magical. Happy times. 😊

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    1. My father used to spend a lot of time driving between the various farms on call and when I could I used to go with him-some wonderful scenery…and then I moved to North Yorkshire, different again. However, back in the city now, but it never ceases to surprise me, the amount and variety of wildlife we get just in the garden..:)

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  3. As always, Samantha, an educational and entertaining read! Thank you for the link to Gillyflower’s blog. I’m hooked on it already. Lincolnshire is a place I mean to visit at some point. My great grandfather was from Horncastle, and I have always wanted to visit the namesake of my capital city, Boston. Perhaps it’s genetic, but I feel a certain affinity for the Midlands. As much as I love visiting London, I always find myself itching to visit “the country” as soon as possible!
    Nature here has started to revolt. I live and work in a city setting, now, and am always surprised by gangs of turkeys blocking the road. What was once an suburban and rural site, is now a commute-time hazard. Coyotes have also decided that they will no longer be inched out of their homes and have taken to inhabiting whatever woodlands they can find, backyards and gardens are nightly byways. We don’t have hares, but our wild rabbits breed like….. we’ve a wonderfully robust population (perhaps what keeps the coyote close). They gather in the back garden come evening to silflay and cavort. I love seeing evidence of Mother Nature’s resilience amidst the concrete and clutter.
    My, this comment has run long! Suffice to say, excellent blog, my dear. I look forward to the next.

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    1. I am pleased you enjoyed the post and glad you like Gillyflower too-lovely blog:)
      Interested to hear you have roots in Horncastle-literally just a few miles up the road from the little village where we lived. I must admit, although I do appreciate the amenities of living in the city where everything..theatre, cinema, shops..is a twenty minute bus journey away I miss the “countryside”. Luckily we have some decent parks quite near us.
      LOL..turkey gangs…I saw some frozen ones in Asda and they were..large. Not sure I would like meeting a lot..alive!
      Am I correct in assuming you have read “Watership Down”..?
      Wonderful comment, much appreciated, thank you very much :)x

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  4. Ahh, you did write that nostalgic post of bygone times. It’s the sort of remembrance that drives me to put on Heavy Horses by Jehtro Tull. Similar happenings occurred where I grew up in Staffordshire. Funding to remove hedge and grow field sizes to all dairy herds to be gathered faster than ambling in and out of tiny fields. Make way for the big machines. Even as a child I watched historical streams run dry as new ditches were dug and subsurface drains installed. Places where minnows and sticklebacks abounded, along with sedges and reed beds…like the hedgerow wildlife began disappearing. A farmer once discussed with me the absence of eels that, as a boy, he’d seen in abundance. I replied how many open ditches and streams are now on your land. He said, none….a correlation maybe….repeat this over large expanses of land and it is not hard to conclude there is another factor contributing to population decline…secondary scrub and butterflies, insecticides and bird population dips…add the latter to neatly trimmed hedgerows and habitat loss and it’s nit just this or that causing issues, but the subtle contribution of many things. The bits of a jigsaw that complete the picture. As in bygone days, the social knowledge I lost in favour of technology.

    An intersting quirk recently though has been subsidies to replant or set aside land for wildlife. Bit oxymoronic to find grants to remove and the more funding to replace..sort of proves my point….it wasn’t broken in the first place…social knowledge kept balance….new wave thinking disrupted it and now we are seeing it reverted. As if some new new wave thinking is hyper intelligent and has a state of the art idea…what? Thinks I…you mean your million pound consultation has decided restoring the landscape is clever?? Rather like looking at a flooded new town and asking why are all the original older house up on the hillside?

    I could ramble nostalgia and impacts of depreciating social knowledge for hours….instead I will go listen to Tull, and shake my head sadly….

    Great post Samantha…really enjoyed it, in a sad reflective way !

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    1. I am pleased you liked the post…it was one of those ones where what left my pen wasn’t in my head…
      Brilliant comment from you, thank you very much! I think you actually need to save this and keep it to add to your memoir as you make some wonderful points that will stand repetition again and again especially in today’s atmosphere…and don’t be sad…perhaps a nice bit of Robbie Williams to cheer you up?

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      1. I think the best posts are written that way, like novels too. If it flows then it has a fighting chance of working. Same with my reply, I can barely remember what I put because it flowed out…well, apart from Jethro Tull lol. But, Robbie Williams…cheer me up….umm….Planet Rock listener and former goth….well, current goth in spirit and melancholic nostalgia…Tull is good for that too…Skating Away on the thin ice of a new day….

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      2. Hmm, former Goth-really? I thought I detected a certain kinship with Rowena…Joy Division?
        I was very student-y..lol..Stone Roses, Beautiful South et al…
        Yes..it always amuses me when you have a certain idea in your head, it’s going wonderfully, you finish then read back and it’s actually completely different from what was originally in your head..or is that just me..?

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      3. Rowena is cool lol Fields of the Nephilim and the like, was at Leeds uni in the hey day!!
        I think the best writing I do is when it’s different to how I thought it was going to be. It’s why I don’t plan anything! Not just you obviously lol

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      4. Umm, I spent many a long period of life in the Union…and Headingky pubs, Leeds city pubs, the pub round the corner from the Biochemistry Dept, the Poly bar, the bar near the….. 😳

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  5. We love Lincolnshire and you’re right.. in many ways it is like stepping back in time. We’ve had some lovely holidays staying near Mablethorpe with our granddaughters – a real old fashioned seaside resort. Let’s hope that nature has a way of making us humans return to more natural methods.. For the last few years, we’ve commented on how few sparrows there were in our ‘Town garden’ compared to when we were young. However, last year a family of sparrows took up nest in our weeping pear tree (I think that’s what it is.. I can’t remember as it’s 20+ years since we planted it) and this year they’ve remained and the tree is literally ‘alive’ with those little birds singing away.. It makes me feel like I’m in the countryside even if I’m not! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ‘wild hare’ in it’s natural habitat though!

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    1. Yes I remember Mablethorpe well although it’s quite a few years since I was last there. Mostly we go North to Whitby or Scarborough.
      Lovely to hear about the sparrows 🙂 unfortunately I don’t like to encourage birds in my garden because of the cats…I feel terrible if I am indirectly responsible for any avian murders..

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      1. You’re absolutely right and after a night in gale force 7 winds under canvas this summer in Anglesey, I’ll be checking the weather forecast first!! It wasn’t pleasant but pretty hilarious the following morning when we dared emerge from the tent to see some smaller tents had collapsed and the ‘bodies’ were still in there!! Not sure they saw the funny side though.. xx

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      2. Yes Samantha that’s exactly what it was like…Sooo funny! (so long as you weren’t ‘the sausage’!! Camping is a re-adventure for us.. we used to go years ago when our kids were young and now we’re on it again with our granddaughters.. good fun and great conversations sat round the campfire… but hotel is definitely the way forward in a force 7 gale! xx

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  6. Oh drat…I hit enter. It was interesting to compare the almost industrialization that has occurred in both our contra and the ramifications of it on the ecosystem. Rather sad in a way.

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      1. If things can even be made right again. Does that make sense? Trying a new keyboard cover on laptop which sees to have a mind of it’s own. Much like my eyeballs.

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      1. You know what I often wish for (which I’m sure they’ll develop in the future)? The ability to capture a photograph with your eyes. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Many times when they were younger I would catch one of my children doing something hilarious but by the time I’d retrieved my camera the moment had passed. Now it’s with the dogs although I try and carry my iPhone in my pants pocket but sometimes they don’t have a pocket so by the time I rush to the other room to grab it the moment is gone.

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  7. Well, hare it is: my sincerest thanks for writing such a lovely, bittersweet paean to the great British countryside and times past, for reminding us that, while some things may, sadly, be irretrievable, others are not completely lost, and for delighting us with beautiful photos and that charming sketch! (He looks quite ready for a spot of moon-gazing.) And I am humbled and so grateful for your extremely kind and generous words about me. You made my day, Samantha, and I thank you from the bottom of my hedgerow!

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    1. You’re very welcome 🙂 I love your blog!
      Somehow the memories of the countryside are tied up with my childhood..when I was a teenager I lived in North Yorkshire, which I would have to say is truly home in my heart, although I like the convenience of city living.
      LOL…I was in two minds about my hare..he looks cuddly rather than mysterious I thought! Not something I’ve ever had the chance to photograph and I wanted something a little more personal than a stock photo…thank you for your lovely comment 🙂

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  8. Good points, and very well made too. I have seen the parakeets in a nearby park, and, whilst colourful and astonishing, it just isn’t right!! Give me a sparrow or robin, finch or wren any day.

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  9. I’m an American living in Cornwall, and I can’t help seeing the traces of history in the hedgerows–both the positive and the negative sides of that history. Near where I live is a single field that still shows the traces of the medieval system of farming in strips. Everywhere else, it’s been obliterated.

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      1. Ha ha that would be 😅 a tad much for a kid. Hmm did you ever consider being a vet too? I think you would be a kindly vet with crystals and all. I know of a dentist that I used to go to there and she started using crystals in her clinic. It got to a point where she went fully into crystals as a cure that she lost all her patients.

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      2. No…can’t stand the sight of blood! Crystals can be used to help animal treatment -Charlie has some clear quartz and tigers eye in her favourite bed, but anyone who uses crystals knows that they are only ever meant to help, not replace other methods. I am not surprised that dentist lost all her patients, I have to have the special numbing cream before my dentist comes within a foot of my mouth!

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  10. It’s a lovely post and lovely pictures 🙂 I remember Melvyn Bragg in ‘In Our Time’ discussing Enclosure, I loved it as it made me think about so many aspects of it. I wish I could observe changes with stoicism before passing a judgement, but I’m always very quick to comment…Well, the changes now happen quickly, and-as ever-people forget they need to take their environment into consideration when planning the changes. Though there are exceptions-and I hope there will be more 🙂 Well, hedgehogs need hedges (for safe travel) so I hope we can keep at least some of them.

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    1. Thank you, I am pleased you enjoyed reading it.
      Yes, it makes me sad, that in the 21st century people just let these aspects of our country change so drastically without attempting to find another way round, but that’s the price of progress…

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