The Beech Hedges of Exmoor

Any species of flora or fauna is considered native (indigenous) if its presence in a particular region can be attributed solely to Mother Nature without any human intervention, deliberate or accidental.
Beech, therefore, is considered native to southern England as it came over from Continental Europe during the last ice age. Theories that this was courtesy of Neolithic Man carrying a few saplings or seeds in his pocket are unproven and even if they could be, it is unlikely that Beech would be reclassified as an anthropogenic introduction.
However, Beech’s progress across the rest of Britain’s countryside was down to our ancestors. Many of the places where beech can be seen in all its glory are outside its native range. These include The Cwm Clydach National Nature Reserve; the magnificent beech hedge in Meikleour, Scotland (the world’s tallest and longest hedge as featured in a previous blog) and Exmoor –the place to go for a totally immersive Beech experience.
Exmoor attracts lovers of the countryside and the Beech because within its boundaries the entire history of our relationship with the landscape unfolds…
Going back thousands of years, the remnants of boundaries dug and planted by Neolithic Man can still be seen, covered with more recent undergrowth. Early medieval hedges, following the natural contours of the first enclosures, are still standing, many following lines originally marked out in the Neolithic. Ancient trees – Oak, Ash and Beech – still stand magnificently on their own or in rows as originally placed by hedge planters long gone. And then there are the famous and distinctive Beech hedges…
Properly called hedgebanks, they consist of a 1-2m earth bank with beech planted on top. Why Beech? Well, we have the Acland family to thank – in the early 19th century, they owned a massive estate on Exmoor and had extensive boundaries and fields to delineate and protect against the elements and to keep their livestock in and other fauna out. They had the foresight to experiment with various hedging plants and found that Beech grew best. It had the added advantage of being pretty well useless as a fuel and so the locals left it alone!
Later in the century, the Knight family, who also owned large tracts of the Moor, continued the Ackland’s work on their own land.
In both cases, the Beech plants used in the hedges weren’t just left to grow as they would in a modern garden (with a little judicious pruning, of course) but were layed – an ancient, traditional and still-practised rural craft we will look at in a subsequent blog.
In the meantime, perhaps Exmoor can serve as inspiration and encourage more people to introduce the beauty (and practicality) of a Beech hedge into their garden.