Monday, 14 October 2013

Norfolk in 100 Species, Number 8: Hawthorn

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Hawthorn, photo by David North
Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn Tree,
Who, finely clothed in a robe of white,
Fills the wanton eye with May’s delight.


More a shrub than a tree, too spiky and twisted to make decent timber for building with, yet this species, more than any other, is the thread that stitches our countryside together. Viewed from the air much of our Norfolk landscape is laid out as a patchwork tapestry of fields. Fields, that apart from in the flat, wet lands of the Broads and Fens, are most often edged with hedges. Hawthorn is the keystone species of Norfolk hedgerows beyond count. Tens of thousands of miles of hedgerows edging quiet country lanes and busy duel carriage-ways. Spiky lines of closely trimmed, or these days savagely flailed, hawthorns drawing the boundary lines between crops of rape and beet, barley and wheat, horse paddock and cattle pasture.

Lines across our landscape painted in the green of newly- opened hawthorn leaves in April, in the creamy whites of a million sweet-scented flowers in May and splattered with the pointillist reds of billions of ripening haws from September into winter. So commonplace is the hawthorn in Norfolk that perhaps we rarely notice or celebrate its significance. In fact where hawthorns escape from our hedgerows, forming patches of dense thorny growth on commons, or studding a neglected meadow with ‘wannabee’ trees, we give this species, along with its dark relative the blackthorn, the epithet scrub. Scrub, rather than being seen as baby woodland to be nurtured, is most often used as a derogatory term for land seen as unmanaged, neglected, or in need of tidying up. Nature has huge capacity and power to rewild our tamed ploughed lands and meadows in an alchemy that turns grass and furrow back to woodland. Scrub is just an early step in this natural succession.

Norfolk’s most famous hawthorn is the Hethel Old Thorn. Its reputed to be over 700 years old. One of the oldest hawthorns in England, now protected by Norfolk Wildlife Trust on one the world’s smallest nature reserves just 0.025 hectares in extent. To find this venerable thorn you need to first find Hethel Church. It lies on the edge of a peaceful Norfolk South Norfolk village some 7 miles south-west of Norwich and just a few miles from Wymondham. Five minutes walk along the public footpath from the church, past a small sedgey pond, takes you into the cattle-grazed field within which the thorn is protected by a circular fence.

NWT Hethel Old Thorn, photo by Richard Osbourne
Veteran hawthorns do not retain their size as they age. The Hethel Thorn today has shrunk in size and stature with its trunk now split and twisted. Descriptions made by in the eighteenth century measured the trunk at 13 feet around. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century many props supported its larger branches but these are long gone.

Lone hawthorns were once seen as faerie trees. There are tales of meeting the Faerie Queen by a lone hawthorn bush and being led to the Faerie underworld only to emerge after just a few hours to find that many years have passed in our world. So, if you visit the Hethel Thorn, be on your guard. I found plenty of rabbit holes under the Thorn but fortunately didn’t fall down any.

Perhaps surprisingly for what is usually a small shrub the hawthorn is steeped in magical traditions. Some say that of all our native trees the hawthorn is the species most enshrined in myth and legend. Sacred to the White Goddess across Europe its primary association has been with birth and fertility. There is a beautiful legend that the Welsh goddess of the hawthorn, once walked the empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way. At Hethel local villagers no may longer erect a maypole each May Day and sadly no Hethel maidens now celebrate the return of nature’s fertile season and the time of growth by dancing around the Thorn. But this tradition is still remembered.

Enough of magic. Here are some hard facts of ecology and landscape history that should more than justify the hawthorn’s place in our list of species that have made, and continue to make, Norfolk. In England during the Parliamentary land enclosures between 1750 and 1850 more than 200,000 miles (320,000 kms) of hedges were planted and almost all were of hawthorn. In Norfolk Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson record in their recent book Hedgerow History that 97% of hedges in Norfolk contain hawthorn making it by far the most widespread hedgerow shrub. Norfolk Parliamentary enclosure acts most often stipulate the planting of ‘quicks’ or ‘ quicksets’, the quickthorn being the quickest thorn with which to make a good hedge. As elsewhere in England Norfolk enclosure hedges were of ‘quickthorn’, the hawthorn. Don’t however assume that all hawthorn hedges are of recent origins there are probably Norfolk field boundaries, sometimes marking the line of Parish boundaries, that go back millennia and some hawthorn hedged field boundaries in the Broads and West Norfolk may be similar or in parts identical to field boundaries in use during Roman times.

Without our Norfolk thorn hedgerows our wildlife would undoubtedly be poorer. The majority of county’s small songbirds, our chaffinches, dunnocks ( or in old money hedge sparrows), blackbirds and song thrushes, are hedge nesters. And what better hedge than a thorn hedge to protect your nest and eggs? Our hedges are corridors for wildlife to move along, and not just our birds, for without our thousands of miles of road and field-side hedgerows our small mammals from hedgehogs to bank voles and from shrews to stoats would be much rarer. In May hawthorn in flower nectars not just bees but an almost unimaginable diversity of small flying insects from hoverflies, to flower beetles. In autumn the hawthorn’s red berries provide food during autumn and winter months for resident blackbirds and song thrushes but also for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of winter migrants that arrive on tired wings having crossed the North Sea. From fieldfares and redwings, chaffinches and brambling to rarer migrants such as waxwings the haws are vital food for survival. It was a tragedy on unimaginable scale that stripped so much of Norfolk’s and England’s landscape of its hedges in the year between the 1960s and the 1980s. Taking with them not just so much wildlife but also so much meaning and so much history written in lines of hawthorn from our countryside.

We have much to thank the hawthorn for. A species that links the cultural and farmed landscape to the truly wild. A species steeped in history and tradition. A species too often denigrated as mere scrub that is key to the future on declining birds such as nightingale and turtle dove. A species that in its primary role in Norfolk’s hedges defines ownership and maps the landscape history of so much of our County. A species that has played, and continues to play, a key role in so many of the stories that have shaped our land.

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