There are few things more iconic in the countryside than the hedgerow, and nobody loves a hedge more than a hunter. That love is not a passive one either, for the hunting world does not just gaze adoringly, it plants, lays and maintains much of the half million miles of hedgerow in the countryside. Research has shown that farmers who hunt and who allow hunts on their land plant significantly more new hedges and woodland than those who do not and, of course, hunts have always encouraged hedge-laying which has many benefits for wildlife.
A wonderful example of hunting’s commitment to conservation came from the Cotley Harriers’ closing meet in March which was held alongside its annual hedge laying competition. No less than 47 cutters travelled from far and wide to attend and by 9am some of the best hedge-layers in the West Country went to work, transforming a mixed mature Devon bank hedge. The competition also included a novice pairs class to encourage the future of Devon hedge laying.
At 11am, hounds arrived and the hedge layers took a break to join horses and hounds to enjoy the hospitality on offer. After the meet, the huntsman took his hounds and the field off trail hunting whilst the cutters returned to their work and by 3.30pm, as the day’s hunting came to a close, the cutters had finished some beautifully laid hedges in all classes.
The relationship between fox hunting and hedges has not always been so straightforward. During the 18th century, as fox hunting developed as a formal activity rather than just a method of pest control, famous huntsmen such as Hugo Meynell actively avoided jumping hedges, preferring to hunt open, unenclosed country. As more and more countryside was enclosed with hedges, however, huntsmen had to learn to jump them and as time went on jumping hedges became a central part of the hunting experience for many.
There is, therefore, an element of self-interest for the hunting community in ensuring that there are plenty of hedges to jump, but the commitment goes far, far beyond that. A thriving, bio-diverse countryside is a countryside of hedges and coverts, a countryside of gorse and rough corners and that is the countryside that everyone who hunts (and most other people in the countryside) want.
Hunting has had an extraordinary impact on our culture from the ‘whips’ in the House of Commons, to the language we use, to the names of our pubs, and it has had an enormous impact on our landscape too. Much of lowland England would be completely devoid of woodland if it was not for the transformational work of hunting people providing habitat for what was then the quarry species, as well as any amount of other wildlife, in an otherwise wholly agricultural landscape.
The commitment to conservation remains, even if the quarry has changed, and the ongoing maintenance of woodland as well as hedgerows carried out by hunts goes directly to the challenge of reversing the worrying decline of biodiversity in many parts of the country. Through the planting and management of coverts and the conservation of hedges, hunting has shaped the countryside and continues so to do.
Image: Hattie Austin Photography