Hedgerows are an important component of the countryside. In the North of England, the predominant plant in these hedges is the Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Here we see a well-fruited Common Hawthorn in a hedge in the Derbyshire village of Hope, in the Peak District National Park. A member of the Rose family (Rosaceae), there are many species of Hawthorn worldwide, but in England and Wales they tend to be limited to the rarer Midland Hawthorn and the Common Hawthorn. This is sometimes called May in the countryside, due to its habit of flowering in that month, hence the old saying ‘Cast not a clout ’til May is out’ – an admonishment to retain your winter clothes until the May has flowered! The Common Hawthorn, when grown in hedgerows can be said to be semi-cultivated; it forms a dense web of thorny, interwoven branches particularly if ‘laid’ by a skilled hedge layer – a ‘laid’ hedge can last up to 50 years before it needs attention again. Indeed, this ancient craft can be traced as far back as 55BC, when Julius Caesar noted the ‘laying’ of thorn bushes by the Celtic Nervii tribe, in what is now Flanders, to contain their stock.
Hedgerows become rapidly colonized by many species of insects, birds and mammals, offering shelter not just to the livestock they were created to contain, but a truly diverse multitude of creatures. Everything from Bank Voles (Myodes glareolus) to Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europarus), from Hedge Sparrows (Prunella modularis) to Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) feed on the natural larder and utilize the shelter that a Hawthorn hedge offers. In wintertime the Hawthorn provides a vital resource, in that the fruit, known as a Haw – or Hawberries, in some areas – is eaten avidly by many species of bird – the Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and flocks of Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) for example, as well as small mammals such as Wood Mice (Apodemus sylvaticus). Although the bright red fruit looks like a berry, it is actually a pome like an apple or pear. The Haws are edible by humans; they have a delicate taste, and are used in jellies and jams. The flowers themselves are also edible, as is the young foliage, and I used to enjoy selecting a short length of one of the new, tender, shoots and chewing it as I walked along. Hawthorn has long been used as a folk remedy to treat coughs and chest pains, now it turns out that there is scientific evidence to support the use of C.monogyna as a adjunctive therapy for cardiac insufficiency (Pittler, MH “Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure: meta-analysis of randomized trials”, American Journal of Medicine 2003; 114: 665 – 674)
During the post-WW2 British agricultural ‘revolution’, which was based on intensive use of fertilizers and larger farming ‘units’, Britain lost thousands of miles of hedgerows, as bigger fields were created to suit new farm machinery. It was soon realized that this style of farming did not really suit the British landscape, and that great ecological damage had been done. Consequently, in 1997, a Government Act was passed to protect the surviving hedgerows. The Hedgerow Regulation Act, Statutory Instrument Number 1160, designated as an ‘important hedgerow’ any with a length of more than 20 metres, or older than 30 years; to obliterate such a hedgerow now requires a ‘Removal Notice’ to be issued by the local Planning Authority.
Despite all these benefits, the Common Hawthorn is regarded as an Invasive Species in parts of Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.A. In British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon, the Common Hawthorn – imported as an ornamental shrub - is doing damage to the Garry Oak ecosystem with its characteristic open flower meadows. It is also hybridizing with local Hawthorn species, and has been reported, as well, from New York State and Massachusetts.
On balance, the Hawthorn and its fruit make a positive ecological and economic impact on the British countryside. This beautiful and bountiful tree is a joy to behold.