Virtually the whole
of the British countryside is, or has been, managed in one way or another
which means that there are no truly natural habitats left. Some areas
have been under the influence of man for many thousands of years.
However the management of the land for farming has left a mosaic of
'semi-natural' habitats, where plant and animal species, both natives and
introductions, can find a home. Semi-natural habitats are those where
the management alters the natural succession to woodland, but does not alter
the nature of the habitat.
Unfortunately modern arable farming tends to be less sympathetic to
wildlife. However before 1950s agriculture was not so intensive as no
artificial fertilisers, pesticides (which kills insects and fungus) or
herbicides (which kills 'weeds') were used. This allowed plants,
insects and birds etc. to thrive.
Very few areas in Britain have retained this style of extensive farming
and many of these are fragmented pockets which often attain a conservation
designation, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Such
farming is most widespread in upland landscapes where the environment is
harsh and there is little arable farming.
Each habitat has a characteristic form of management. Arable
farming is one where there is a high level of disturbance to the ground as
fields are ploughed, prepared and sown with cereals then harvested.
Modern farming does not even leave the ground fallow or alternate crops.
The plants that can be found in such conditions are those which can grow
from seed, flower and set seed again in one season. These are called
annuals. Often plants of interest are confined to the edges of
fields where the the crop has not been sown and where chemical application
When the land was originally cleared of the extensive wild wood farming
plots were relatively small and separated by woodland. Clearing
increased and all that was left of many wood was a thin strip used as a
boundary from the neighbours. The Anglo-Saxon ancient field system
that developed was complex and intricate with fields of upto an acre.
Hedgerows delineated land parcels, but also play and important role in
corralling livestock. Some areas with such systems can be found e.g.
The Lizard peninsula.
ex-arable: medieval plough ridges (ridge and furrow),
now under permanent grass
A sizable proportion of the arable\crop farming of Medieval times was
however carried out in a much more open landscape than we are now accustomed
to. This was because there was a different way of allocating use of
cultivatable land for crop production.
Only with the advent of the enclosure Acts between 1720 and 1840 was
there a land grab by the rich land owners. They could claim land by
establishing partitions using walls or hedges, thus dispossessing many.
About 200,000 miles of hedges were planted with hawthorn being a common
Mixed landscape of hedgerows and woodlands
Hedges provide a fantastic habitat for insects, small mammals, birds and
plants. Larger animals use them for shelter or to provide a source of
food. The older the hedge the more tree and shrub species can be found
growing in it. Those which are really old will support woodland ground
flora and are likely to be on banks with ditches and not straight.
Hedges commonly are made up of hawthorn with any number of other species,
such as blackthorn, field maple, spindle, willow
(where it is wet), hazel, dogwood and bramble.
English elms no longer grow as large trees but can be found, along with
other trees such as oak, sycamore, elder, ash
and beech for instance.