The farm where I live is irregularly divided into about a dozen small fields separated by hedges; these were probably planted 2-300 years ago when the rough land was first cultivated. Each was planted on a bank built from tens of thousands of boulders and stones picked out by hand from the newly ploughed land. That’s a lot of sweat and aching backs, no doubt over many years. The hedge banks were then earthed up and saplings planted on top which, once grown and then laid, would form a stock proof barrier. These hedges have probably been cut and laid many times since which rejuvenated them, allowing the original shrubs to live on for centuries. For some reason, perhaps it was just what the nursery had to hand at the time, blackthorn is dominant in long sections here at Cefn Prys.
But times have changed. In the last 50 years there has been no need for hedges to keep sheep and cattle where you want them – post and wire netting fences do that job now. More recently my neighbour is using an open-plan grazing system so he needs fewer divisions between fields. About 15 years ago some of the hedges were laid and fenced out as part of an agri-environment scheme, and they are once again rejuvenated. The rest, mostly blackthorn, are gradually falling down. They have grown old and straggly with twisted stems polished with lanolin where the sheep rub, halos of wool snagging on the lower branches. Some are split and fractured with tops snapped out and others have collapsed to their knees or even bellied out on the turf. Of those still standing the thorny tops have a grey stubble of lichen and shanks green with moss. There are gaps now like missing teeth where the sheep come and go as they please, wearing the stone banks to nothing.
Yet come April these arthritic ancients will turn their faces to the sun once more and open out into billows of delicate white blossom like lines of elderly brides. For a brief time you can see them from miles way. If it is warm and dry hover-flies, bees and butterflies will pollinate them and there will be a good crop of sloes; perhaps enough to attract a hawfinch or two and certainly sufficient for us to make sloe gin.
So I celebrate and mourn these ancient hedges clinging stubbornly to life, telling stories of land-use, age and weather. They are full of presence and character because they are in the last stages of life – their rejuvenated neighbours look like nothing much. I wonder should I urge somebody to do something about them, offer them a rejuvenating treatment, or should I just accept that their life has run its course and celebrate them just as they are? Then again maybe I am not just thinking about hedges.