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Hedgerows: old treasures for a richer future

Column by Erik Mies

The history of the hedgerows in the Netherlands spans centuries, with these features of the landscape telling a long story of human interventions and ecological cooperation. Created to keep cattle inside a pasture or cattle and game out of the fields, as a defense against strong winds or as a property separation. From there, hedgerows evolved into versatile ecosystems with a wide range of functions.

Hedgerows are not just practical structures; They also provide an insight into cultural traditions and historical customs. Over the centuries, they have witnessed changes in agricultural techniques, political upheavals and social developments, adapting to new challenges and circumstances.

As symbols of sustainability and multifunctionality, hedgerows have left a lasting impression on the Dutch landscape. Hedgerows serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary efforts in the field of nature conservation and climate adaptation.

Although the world around us is changing, and hedgerows have become a rarity, they are still a reminder of the long history between man and nature. Their story is preserved, a source of inspiration and admiration, and the hedgerow is rediscovered.

Section of hedgerows (Roois landschap)

The old hedgerow

Originally, hedgerows were mainly used as protection from the elements. The erratic coastal winds and unpredictable weather conditions posed a constant threat to crops. At a time when technological solutions were scarce, the early farmers took a simple but effective approach: creating earthen embankments planted with densely packed trees and shrubs.

This construction also turned out to work very well as fencing around meadows and fields. This usefulness of hedgerows was mainly seen and used in the east of the Netherlands. 

This practice not only provided shelter from the weather and not only kept the cattle in, but also brought other benefits. The biodiversity that arose in the shelter of the hedgerow provided food and shelter for a variety of animals, from birds to small mammals.

In addition, the fallen leaves and organic matter helped enrich the soil, increasing the fertility of the land.

In the many years that hedgerows were used as a tool in the agricultural sector, they not only acquired a functional value but also a cultural-historical value that is still very important today.

Hedgerow as a meadow boundary (Joostdevree)

Ecological value

The area around a hedgerow is teeming with life, both above and below ground. At the top, among the densely packed trees and shrubs, butterflies flutter around, while bees and bumblebees feast on the nectar of flowering plants such as wild marjoram and celandine. Under the shelter of this green roof, we find numerous bird species, including the robin and wren hiding among the bushes. Small mammals, such as mice and hedgehogs, find a safe haven here along with numerous insect species.

The lesser-known part of life in a hedgerow is hidden under the leaves and humus-rich soil. From earthworms aerating the soil to centipedes and woodlice feeding on organic matter, life goes on underground. Fungi and bacteria break down fallen leaves into nutritious compost, increasing soil fertility and making nutrients available to the plants. This allows a hedgerow to exist in a sustainable way.

De Bumblebee (natuurmonumenten), Marjoram & Hedgehog (World Land Trust)

Contemporary hedgerows

In today's Netherlands, hedgerows are cherished as valuable elements of the landscape. However, the main purposes of hedgerows have changed.

One of the most important modern functions of hedgerows is to promote biodiversity and nature conservation. As natural habitats, hedgerows are home to a huge number of species of plants, animals and insects, making them essential corridors for migration and dispersal of species. In addition, they contribute to the maintenance of genetic diversity and ecosystem resilience, which is crucial with the current questions surrounding climate change and habitat loss.

Agriculturally, hedgerows are certainly still useful. Hedgerows are often used as part of sustainable agricultural practices, serving as natural wind and erosion protection for crops, and as habitats for natural enemies of pest insects, which can reduce the use of chemical pesticides.

Although hedgerows were once common in the Netherlands, many of the original hedgerows have disappeared due to changes in land use, urbanization and intensification of agriculture. The rare surviving hedgerows can often be found in remote and rural areas, such as parts of Friesland, Drenthe and Groningen. Preserving these places is vital for the knowledge about our past land use and perhaps for our future land use.

Unfortunately no hedgerow (Megalitica)

Valuable in the future

At a time when calls for conservation and climate action are growing louder, hedgerows are once again being recognised as valuable elements of the landscape, and their reintroduction is gaining support as part of ecological restoration and sustainable land use.

In practice, a number of organisations are already constructing new and maintaining older hedgerows, Landschap Overijssel, Brabants Landschap, Natuurmonumenten and Houtwallenproject Groningen are some organisations that are actively working in this area. 

In the future, hedgerows can continue to play an important role in promoting resilient ecosystems, reducing the impact of climate change and strengthening the bond between people and nature. By investing in restoration projects, raising awareness and integrating hedgerows into spatial planning policies, we can create a more sustainable and resilient future for people and the environment.

Timeline of hedgerow restoration



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