The beginning of winter in the Peak District, and ranger Chris Millner is lugging a bag of spindly twigs through the mist while considering how Jodie Whittaker is linked to the continuing history of one of the country’s most important wildlife habitats.
“It’s the Dr Who effect,” he explained. “When you lay a hedge, the previous hedge dies and a new hedge comes back to be there for another 20-30 years when it’ll then be relaid again, ad infinitum.”
Just like an ageing Pete Capaldi turning into a bouncy Yorkshirewoman, goes the analogy.
But since the Second World War, said Chris, the UK has lost thousands of miles of hedgerows, amounting to an area of land the size of all the UK’s nature reserves.
“Hedgerows are important linear corridors connecting habitats together which birds, animals and insects can move along.
“And they’re the only semi-wild habitat we have left in some places.”
Hedges have been laid and managed in Britain since Roman times, and the enclosure acts led to a swathe of new hedge planting to mark out fields on lower ground. (Stone was the main enclosure material on higher land due to shallower soils, Chris explained.)
From the Napoleonic Wars onwards, however, politicians urged farmers to make land more productive, and mechanisation like combine harvesters meant hedges were ripped up to make room for ever cheaper food crops.
“In days gone by,” said Chris, “a hedge would have been a stock-proof barrier, a DIY store to grow hurdles for fencing, a chemist for things like rose hip syrup for coughs, and a health food store for hazelnuts and wild garlic.”
But hedges need managing to survive, and as people left the land for industrial towns, it was seen as cheaper and easier to use posts and wire fencing instead.
Around the Peak District the signs of derelict hedges are almost everywhere, in the shape of short grassy ridges topped by a few old hawthorn trees standing in a line.
Nowadays, the practical value of hedgerows to both farmers and wildlife has been recognised, with country hedgerows protected by law since 1997.
“People now realise why removing hedges in the past wasn’t really a good idea,” said Chris.
A good hedge will protect livestock from wind and rain, generate a permanent supply of pollinating insects for arable crops, and help prevent soil erosion.
As well a being a haven for mice, voles, butterflies, songbirds, hedgehogs and thousands of other species of native wildlife.
Last week National Trust ranger Chris and volunteer Rob Nutt were planting a new hedge near Hathersage using holly, hazel and hawthorn ‘quicks.’
Hawthorn is the most popular local hedge tree as it’s very hardy and quick to grow, hence the colloquial name for the saplings.
The National Trust plants new hedges every year in the Peak District thanks to a Natural England grant scheme funded by the government.
“Times have changed,” said Chris. “People now understand how hedges benefit nature conservation.”
Nearby, a line of hawthorn and holly planted five years ago is already bushy and providing sites for nests and insects, and in a few years time will be a hedgerow ready to be traditionally ‘laid.’
“You cut the tall stems near the roots and lay them over and weave them together,” said Chris.
“Then new shoots grow from the roots and you come back and do the same thing in about 25 years.”
Meanwhile, a host of wild flowers and wildlife move in to stay for the duration.
Chris has been laying and managing Peak District hedgerows for thirty years, helped by regular teams of volunteers.
“It’s quite exciting to go back to where you’ve worked and see an owl flying along a hedge line looking for insects, or to go past a hedge covered in berries with fieldfares or redwings erupting out of it, where in the past there were just one or two trees,” he said.
“To see a creature like a barn owl thriving because of what we’re doing really gives you a warm feeling.”
To take in some good views – and perhaps a few hedges – see our selection of top countryside walks to take in the new year, page 41.