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History of Irish Hedges

History of Irish Hedges

The current generation of Irish farmers have planted circa 10,000 kms of new hedges - the most significant planting in almost 200 years. Catherine Keena Teagasc Countryside Management Specialist and John Feehan, retired lecturer Faculty of Agriculture, UCD share with us the History of Irish Hedges

Before the 17th century..

..it was a very different kind of farming over most of Ireland and there was a very different kind of landscape to go along with that. It was much more open, unenclosed, and animals had much greater freedom to roam, particularly in winter because there was no provision for winter feeding, so cattle would roam very freely. The animals were much hardier at the time as they needed to be able to get whatever forage they could wherever they could find it, particularly in the winter. During the growing season, wherever possible, they would be taken up onto higher ground away from the arable land. You didn’t have our present pattern of permanent hedges enclosing small fields in most of the farmed landscape. There were some permanent fences in the landscape before the 17th century. These were substantial bank and ditch features. They tended to be property boundaries or territorial boundaries. The most common surviving fences of that time are the townland boundaries.

The Agricultural Revolution

This was the case until the arrival of the agricultural revolution when farms were divided up or parcelled out into small enclosed fields to get more control over breeding and the development of varieties, etc. So crops needed to be enclosed with animals excluded. Hedges were a functional tool to enclose animals or to exclude them. In some of the treatises written in the 18th century about how to manage hedges, how to lay them, it was pointed out that it is a distinct disadvantage if they are habitats for wildlife.

Most of the internal hedges on farms would, very generally speaking, date between the beginning of the early 1700 to the 1820 - 1830, broadly speaking to the Famine. In the early years particularly, it was achieved largely in responses to Acts of Parliament which compelled landowners to plant so many yards of hawthorn (whitethorn) every year, or other suitable species if hawthorn wasn’t available or wasn’t easily taking to the soil.

What has changed..

..over the last fifty to seventy years with the mechanisation and intensification of agriculture, is that small fields are largely redundant in many cases for agricultural productivity. And the many hands necessary to maintain them in the traditional method are no longer available, or no longer indeed have the skills to be able to do it. So in many cases they have become redundant and have been allowed to look after themselves and escape from management. What has also happened over the same period is that we have come to appreciate the many other values that hedgerows serve in the rural landscape and of those other values, by far the most important has come to be hedgerows for the maintenance of rural biodiversity.

Further readingFarming in Ireland: History, Heritage and Environment (2003) by John Feehan, Faculty of Agriculture, University College Dublin.

To see all of the activity of Hedgerow Week follow this link https://www.teagasc.ie/environment/biodiversity--countryside/farmland-habitats/hedgerows/