Life of the Hedgerow
The game of "hide-and-seek" is part of the life of all wild creatures. It is not a game they play for fun, however, but a matter of life and death, the strong ones being the "seekers," the weaker ones the "hiders." You can imagine what welcome shelter is offered to the "hiders" by those thick hedgerows which are so plentiful in our land. When the enemy is at hand, it is the hedge-tangle which saves their lives. Some scarcely ever venture more than a few feet from its friendly shadow. But let us scan the hedge-plants before we glance at the creatures which hunt and hide among them.
We will pass by the low and level hedgerow which the farmer has so neatly trimmed, and find one which has "gone wild"—a high tangled wall of green, with its feet in a thick mass of grass and flowers. Such a hedge is a perfect home for bird and beast, but the farmer has little use for it. It not only shades his precious crops, but provides a home for the pests which steal them. Also, it is a nursery for the weeds which shed their seed over his fields. Hedges occupy wide strips of land which, perhaps, the farmer can ill spare. But a country with no hedges loses much of its beauty; and all lovers of Nature would grieve to see our delightful English hedgerows destroyed.
In its gay summer dress our hedge looks the very home of peace, does it not? Yet there is a never-ending battle in the plant-world no less than in the world of animals. Plants fight for food and air and light, and every hedgerow shows how fierce is the struggle. The plants we see in the hedge are the lucky ones which have been able to win their way successfully to the light. But in doing so they have smothered and killed many a weaker one. From the humble flowering plants of the hedge-bank, up to the topmost spray of the tall shrubs, there is a battle for light and life.
Even in winter, beneath the brown tangle of dead leaves and stems, you will find an army of seedlings shooting upward. They make an early start, you see, so that they may spread leaves and flowers in the sunshine before rival plants can grow up to smother them. The first spring flowers of the hedge-bank, the Violets, Primroses, and Celandines, are short in stalk. They are soon over-topped by the early summer flowers, until, in full summer, the handsome Foxglove looks down on a crowded throng of lesser plants at the foot of the hedge. If you follow the clock of Nature, and notice these plants as they appear, you soon discover that each stands on tiptoe, as it were, to obtain a place in the light.
If our hedge has run wild for several years, it will contain many a tall young tree. We see the evergreen Holly elbowing its neighbours aside with stiff, pointed leaves. Mrs. Thrush finds it useful as an early nesting-place, for she often builds when the other trees are merely tipped with the fresh green of bursting buds. The Blackthorn or Sloe, with firm, spiny branches, has won a place in the hedge; its pale blossoms, on leafless twigs, are a welcome sign that spring is near. Here and there a tall young Oak has reared its head above the rest—perhaps the Squirrel sowed it when he hid some acorns one autumn day, and then forgot to dig them up. The Ash, Hazel, Hawthorn, Maple, Crab Apple, Beech, Hornbeam, Guelder Rose, and Elm are all to be found in our hedgerow, with many another tree and shrub.
Scrambling and twining, looping and twisting over these sturdy plants, we see the Bramble, Wild Rose, Bryony, Travellers' Joy, Bindweed, and Honeysuckle. These have their own way of winning a place in the sunshine. Roses and Brambles—as we all know to our cost—cling and climb by Means of curved prickles and thorns. The others climb with the help of their twining stems, which cling so tightly that they sometimes choke the life from the young tree which supports them. Honeysuckle does much mischief in this way; it is a strong climber, and may open its flowers forty feet or more up in the branches of a tall tree. It is the first plant to show tufts of green in our hedgerow, and its sweet blossom lingers until the autumn.
Let us glance at some of the creatures which find lodging in the hedgerow. It offers the birds a perfect shelter for their nurseries. Down at the hedge-foot, under a thick bush, is the nest of the Nightingale, whose youngsters croak like frogs; and the Whitethroat has earned the name of Nettle-creeper from its fondness for the nettle-beds. In the tangle of the hedge you may find the nest of Blackbird, Thrush, Robin, Chaffinch, Hedge-sparrow, and many another bird; and, when the fierce Sparrow-hawk makes its deadly swoop, all the little birds are safe once they gain the friendly shade of the hedgerow. The hawk is well aware of this, and by shooting swiftly through a gateway or gap in the hedge it tries to surprise its victims.
Fieldmice, Voles, and Shrews all have their homes at the foot of the hedge; the pretty Dormouse climbs among the twigs for food, and in autumn builds a cosy nest under the roots or in the thick of a bramble bush. Here and there along the bank we see the entrance to the burrow of Rat or Rabbit. Both these know well that there are two sides to every hedgerow, and if on one side there is danger, safety lies on the other side.
The Stoat and Weasel often find good hunting in the hedge, climbing the bushes to empty a nest of eggs or young birds, or searching the bank for Mice, Voles, or Rabbits. In a later lesson we shall meet these fierce hunters again, as well as another who also finds a meal along the hedge-bank—the Hedgehog or Hedgepig. He, too, devours young birds, and is not above feeding on the Hedge-snails which are so plentiful. Their shells are prettily banded with colour, and, strange to say, we can collect a score of them and find that not two are coloured alike.
Jack Frost brings a sad change to our hedgerow and its little folk. He strips off the last of the autumn leaves with his icy fingers, and his chilly breath sweeps through the gaps, searching every nook and corner. Then the birds are warned that they must busy themselves or perish of hunger. Some seek gardens and farmyards; but there are many that still haunt the hedge and manage to pick up a living.
Food is scarce; however, there still remains some of the feast which was spread along the hedgerow in the rich autumn days. The larder is not yet empty. There are thistle-seeds for Goldfinch and his cousins, and sleeping insects to be sought by the sharp beaks of the Tits and Wrens. Every rose-bush is gay with hips, which shine in the leafless hedge like little red bottle-shaped lamps. Thrush and Blackbird eat their pulp, flinging away the hard, hairy, choking seeds—so, in robbing the plant of its fruit, they are really helping it to sow its seeds!