Camilla Swift

The joy of hedgerow foraging

The joy of hedgerow foraging
Image: iStock
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Hedgerows are one of those things that most of us simply take for granted. Drive, walk, cycle or ride through the English countryside and you’re likely to see fields bounded by hedges, which change with the seasons. Blossoming in the spring, full of colour and berries in the autumn, and sprouting wildly thorugh the summer months.

They are certainly having their moment in the sun. In the 1980s, farmers were encouraged under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to grub them up (dig them up, in laymen’s speak) in a bid to create larger fields, and grow more food. 23 per cent of the nation’s hedgerows were lost in that decade. But now Defra have recognised the benefits of hedgerows, and ecologists, rewilding fanatics and many of the more ecologically-minded farmers and landowners are restoring and replanting hedgerows. Under their new ‘sustainable farming incentive’, Defra will be encouraging hedgerow management as they view hedges as playing an important role in carbon sequestration.

Prince Charles has long been a fan of the traditional British hedgerow – he is even patron of the National Hedgelaying Society. On the recent documentary Inside the Duchy, Charles was seen laying hedges on his Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. ‘I am always proud of maintaining a traditional skill that is of timeless importance’, he told Country Life magazine – and hedge laying is very much a British-dominated skill. If there were a hedge-laying Olympics, we’d definitely be top of the medals tables. Involving the arching, bending and partial cutting of stems to encourage them to intertwine and grow horizontally, the laying of a hedgerow stops it from becoming too ‘gappy’ and encourages regeneration of the plants within it. It is far from a simple skill, however. Pretty much each county of the UK has its own distinctive style of hedgelaying, developed based on what the farmers were traditionally trying to keep in (hence the ‘bullock style’ of the Midlands), the climate, and the types of trees and plants that grow there.

Prince Charles is patron of the National Hedgelaying Society. Image: Getty

Hedgerows are a British phenomenon, originating 5,000 years ago as farmers created field boundaries to separate their crops from their livestock. The very word ‘hedgerow’ is believed to have derived from the Ancient English word ‘hege’, meaning a living boundary. Perhaps that’s the most important thing to think about when you look at a proper, old-fashioned hedgerow: the ‘living’ aspect of it. As well as the plant life found in a hedge, a will be home to hundreds of insects, birds and mammals; in fact it’s estimated that a 90-metre stretch of hedgerow can provide a home for more than 3,000 species of plants, animals, lichens and fungi. As well as making their homes in hedgerows; birds nesting in them, mice curling up at the bottom and rabbits burrowing underneath, animals also use them as important corridors, travelling through them along the edges of fields, or between coverts and woodlands. And, of course they’re a vital food source.

What can hedgerows offer us humans? The answer is a wild abundance of nature’s bounty. Early Autumn is prime time for foraging from hedgerows, with the fruits, berries and nuts providing all manner of ideas for baking, preserving and alcohol-creating. The traditional hedgerow fruits are the ones that people most commonly look for; sloes, damsons and bullaces and blackberries are commonly sought out either for turning into fruit liqueurs, or baking in a crumble or a cake. And even though many hedgerows were neglected a few decades ago, Britain still has plenty of them – an estimated 600,000 kilometres – so wherever you are, a hedgerow shouldn’t be too far away.

Damsons ready for jam making (iStock)

Blackthorn and hawthorn are two of the most common species found in a hedge, and sloe gin – made from the fruit of the blackthorn tree – is one of the easiest things to make with your plunderings; the basic recipe simply involves soaking sloes in gin. There are various ways of doing it; some people cover the sloes in sugar before adding the gin. Others prefer to allow the sloes to stew in the gin for a good 3 months before adding sugar or sugar syrup. Most people suggest ‘pricking’ each sloe with a pin to rupture them and allow the flavour to seep out – but the same thing can be achieved by freezing the ripe fruits for a few days, as the freezing process will also rupture the berries. But the essentials: around half the bottle full of sloes, then add gin, sugar (at some point!) and allow it all to brew for at least 3 months. You can add other things if you like; orange peel, lemon juice; cloves and cinnamon for a more festive brew. The world is your oyster, but the basic premise remains the same.

Haws, the fruit of the hawthorn, are rich in vitamin C, and although they can be eaten raw, they’re not much to write home about. Their health benefits are renowned though, and as such while they can be used to make both jellies and wine, they’re also used medicinally in herbal medicine, and are believed to have cardiovascular and cholesterol lowering benefits.

Rosehips are another hedgerow special: they make delicious jelly, cordials, or River Cottage have a recipe for a rosehip syrup, which they suggest using as a topping for porridge, yoghurts, ice cream or even pancakes. Rosehip wine, and tea, are both options, as well, if you have a glut of rosehips.

Beech nuts are edible either raw (though not too many, as they can be toxic in excess) or roasted – and can even be ground up and drunk as a coffee substitute. Someone recommended substituting them for pecan nuts in a pecan pie, which is something I’ll need to try out.

Hazel nuts can also be found in hedgerows – but more often than not, the birds will eat them before they have a chance to ripen. What you can do is pick them while they’re green and leave them to ripen somewhere warm and dry. Saying that, do bear in mind that you’re not the only one looking for natural goodies. Birds and small mammals are dependent on hedgerows, either for food through the winter or to fatten themselves up for hibernation. So remember that you’re not the only one making the most of nature’s larder, and leave some behind for the next customer!

Written byCamilla Swift

Camilla Swift is the supplements editor of The Spectator.

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