Over thousands of years, Britain's landscape has become one of the most cultivated in Europe, as ever-expanding settlements cleared the once vast forests to grow crops and raise livestock. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people lived off the land on small parcels bounded by lines of humble green hedges, designed also to keep livestock from wandering into a neighbouring field.
Until the age of motorised transport, distances travelled were far shorter, rural communities more localised and landholdings much smaller. Hedgerows divided up the countryside into a patchwork of irregular shapes and varying shades of green, and local roads were little more than narrow lanes winding between farms, in some places resembling tunnels as the hedges on either side stretched above to meet and tangle, blocking out the sky.
This image of hedge-bound rural Britain changed dramatically during the second half of the 20th century. The coming of the motorway and intensive agriculture resulted in hedgerows being uprooted as farms expanded in size and the nation's road network stretched to find the most direct and quickest route between two points. The Natural History Museum estimates that on average, 8,000 kilometres of hedgerow were dug up annually during the first 20 years after the end of the Second World War. Fortunately, the last decade has seen a change of heart as hedgerows have been recognised for their importance to wildlife conservation and maintaining ecological biodiversity.
WILDLIFE RICH HABITAT
Under the Environment Act (1995), protection is given to hedgerows that are designated to be 'exceptionally species rich', or of landscape, archaeological, or historical importance. As more rural land is developed, the hedgerow plays a more significant role in wildlife preservation. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, hedges support up to 80 per cent of Britain's woodland birds, 50 per cent of its mammals and 30 per cent of its butterflies.
Some of the 30 or more species of birds that are known to nest in hedgerows include wrens, song thrushes, bullfinches, chaffinches, grey partridges and dunnock. Birds nest at varying heights--grey partridges use grass cover at the bottom of the hedge, while bullfinches prefer hedges more than four metres high--and some favour certain species of tree. Older trees are more likely to provide nesting holes favoured by owls, kestrels, blue tits and even bats.
For the nature photographer, the hedgerow provides an easily identifiable, wildlife-rich habitat, full of subject potential. In many ways, it's a microcosm for woodland, with the same bountiful selection of trees and plants, neatly arranged in a line.
Although a haven for wildlife, a hedgerow provides dense cover that makes it difficult to actually see what animals are residing within its leafy confines. For the bird photographer, the ideal hedge is taller, with plenty of mature trees such as oak breaking the ordered line and height of the hedge with their wide-reaching branches. These limbs make ideal perches for smaller birds of prey to survey their surroundings, waiting for a small mammal, such as a wood mouse or shrew, to scurry from the protection of the hedge.
This type of photography requires patience and a position that allows you to observe the habitat without being close enough to distress its occupants. Birdsong is a great clue to what subjects are about, and the hours before sunrise and sunset are the most active. You will need a long telephoto or zoom lens, preferably with image stabilisation (either in the lens or camera), and some further means of support--either a tripod, or a beanbag should you be shooting in a prostrate position.
Most birds return to the same perch, so you can alter your composition when the bird has flown and wait with camera and lens ready, exposure locked, for the bird's return. …