When people think of the Irish countryside, we tend to think of rolling green fields dotted with fluffy white sheep and crisscrossed with stone walls. That’s the image on so many Irish gifts. But arguably one of the most important features of the Irish countryside is not these lovely fields, but our hedgerows.
Over the centuries, Ireland went from being largely woodlands to being less than 10 percent forested. We lost many of our native wildlife, such as the Irish elk, which was featured on old Irish coins. The wildlife we still have, those adorable hedgehogs, foxes and badgers and many species of birds, have survived thanks to our hedgerows. Arguably, our native language also owes its survival in part down thanks to the shelter of Irish hedgerows.
We owe a lot to those half-wild assemblies of trees and shrubs that line country roads and divide fields. They are home to the flora and fauna you see on Irish gifts, and they are a unique feature of our landscape. But what exactly is an Irish hedgerow? How is it different to an ordinary hedge?
What Is a Hedgerow?
A hedgerow has little in common with a garden hedge, which is usually comprised of one type of shrub and kept quite orderly. In contrast, a hedgerow can include about a hundred different plants including some trees. Trees such as oak, willow, hazel, alder and birch act as the skeleton of the hedgerow. Shrubs such as hawthorn and blackthorn fill and overflow the spaces between the trees. Ivy and wild blackberry brambles weave it all together, while herbs and wildflowers crowd around the base.
A complex ecosystem thrives here. It offers foods such as berries and nuts, as well as shelter from the elements. The plants draw insects, which feed the birds and smaller mammals, who in turn feed the larger mammals. The networks of hedgerows stretching across fields and alongside roads act as a wildlife corridor. (Always drive extra carefully at dawn and dusk in the Irish countryside. You might be rewarded by the sight of a fox, hedgehog or badger.)
In bleaker periods of Irish history, our hedgerows sheltered more than our wildlife. They sheltered our children and their teachers when the Penal Laws were in force and it was illegal to teach Catholic children in schools. Rural Irish children would spend their days helping their parents with chores around the farms, then in the evening, their parents would send them out to the hedgerow school. There, teachers defied the law and taught them English, Irish and even Latin along with math, geography, history and catechism. Our ancestors really earned the right to be called the land of saints and scholars.
Wild Irish Hedgerow Collection
Today, our hedgerows are still here as living, vibrant protectors of wildlife and indeed our air quality. Anyone who spends any time in the Irish countryside sees a lot of hedgerows. Its easy to take them for granted, but if you slow down and walk quietly along them, you can glimpse a whole world teeming with life there.