Castle Doctrine – Eating off Hedgerows by R. Ann Parris
In the quest for self-reliance, some of us turn to history for ideas on how to survive in a world without modern shipping and infrastructure. The heydays of castles can be particular gems, since so many small villages in so many climates were largely self-sufficient.
The hedgerows that were common sights around castles were an important part of survival for the people within and outside those walls. The resources they provided impacted life all the way through colonial expansions to the New World and even benefitted locals throughout both World Wars.
Hedgerows originated simply because of the tools available and early land management styles.
Without today’s heavy-duty mechanized tools, farmers and herdsmen didn’t clear as close to fences and woods. All around fences, crop plots, and pastures, and along walkways, roadside verges, and castle earthworks and walls, hedgerows formed.
It was common for land divisions to be defined by ribbons of untouched land or slightly raised berms, with much smaller crop-plot and pasture crofts than we commonly see today. Hedgerows developed along each of the balks, providing more resources for the populace to draw from without intentional planning on their parts.
It wasn’t until after the tractor started impacting the size of fields and increased verge maintenance that the number of hedgerows declined – along with all the benefits they offered.
Castle officials and individual farmers did start tailoring the local hedges in favor of species they could forage for fruits, berries, seeds and nuts early in history, more so in Europe than in the colonies. As farming evolved, peasants and rulers also specifically cultivated the preferred species from among the natives, and started including imported shrubs and small trees.
However, hedgerows remained largely mixed for most of their history.
The plants existed in stacked layers with different types of species from low ground covers, seasonal grasses and groundcovers, the low and short shrubs, young and small trees, vines, and larger trees all in a very narrow footprint.
The diversity of species contributed to not only more productive plants, through myriad mechanisms from simple soil health to natural pest-dissuading companions, it also created rich ecosystems capable of supporting extra life than surrounding woods or pastures.
Castle peasants, colonial farmers, post-Antebellum sharecroppers, and World War farmers all collected not only plant foods from those hedges, but also wildlife.
The hedges of old – just like today’s margin or edge habitats – created booms of readily trapped and hunted game.
Dove, quail, pheasant, and other small birds all fed from and lived in the hedge species. Rabbits and chipmunks also relied on hedges for dens and protection, and some of their foods.
The dual benefits of fruit, nuts-seeds, and herbs combined with the higher numbers and readily accessible game made hedgerow eating common and an enormous boon to peasants, who foraged as much as they grew, and increased meat sources especially during times when hunting was strictly limited.
Mixed-species hedgerows offered other benefits besides directly feeding people – and they still do.
They can grow densely enough to serve as pasture barriers for livestock, without the labor of coppicing or bent-hedge laying or building pens and fences. They buffer winds and can help mitigate runoff and floods. They also commonly host beneficial insects that pollinate and prey on crop pests, as well as birds and rodents that hunt bugs, mice, and shrews.
We can take advantage of the same benefits – low-labor foods, game and animal-assistance habitat, windbreaks, and fencing – and add to them further.
Beyond hunting and fruit, berry, and seed-nut production, hedgerows can also be tailored for rocket-stove fuel woods, fencepost and rail lumber, and green-leaf fodder or mast (http://www.sfrc.ufl.edu/extension/florida_forestry_information/forest_management/wildlife_management.html, http://www.forestrywebinars.net/webinars/enhancing-mast-food-production-for-woodland-wildlife/) for livestock.
We can also tailor them to form noisy and painful walls around our personal castles, funneling outsiders to observable and defendable chokepoints.
For ideas about plants to include in edible hedges, check out these sites:
We can also include espalier, coppiced and pollarded trees and shrubs that wouldn’t have been in typical hedgerows. Super-dwarf and columnar fruit trees, container-friendly fruit bushes and shrubs, and foreign crops further increase the spaces and climates where hedgerows of old can be applied.
Mixed-species hedgerows commonly meant the difference between bare survival and thriving for residents of castles and the peasant crofts around them. Preppers today can reap equal and even greater rewards by encouraging them throughout and around our properties as well.