Navigating using Hedges, Walls & Fences

According to the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology there are 642,000km of hedges in England *. Whilst that figure represents a big decline since World War II. it is still a great resource for wildlife and carbon capture… and hedges look great.

Another key benefit of hedges to the natural world is that they allow wildlife to move more safely between areas than would be the case across open land. But this feature is not limited to wildlife – they are also an invaluable navigational aid to us when we are out in the countryside.

Cotswolds, dry stone walls

If you look at a 1:25 000 scale Ordnance Survey map you’ll see lots of narrow black lines criss-crossing the countryside, as in the image here. But you will look in vain in the key at the bottom of the map to identify them. These lines can best be described as field boundaries, and include the 642,000km of hedges mentioned above. Other field boundaries include dry stone walls, of which there are over 8000km in the Yorkshire Dales alone, and fences – they are all represented in the same way on the maps.


So how does this help us navigate? When starting out building your map-reading skills, you will be following linear features. Hedges, walls and fences all fall into this category. So if the map is showing that the public footpath you want to be on has a field boundary running along to the left, and that’s exactly what you can see when you look up, you can count that as an important indicator of where you are.

One of the key skills of navigation is not so much knowing where you are, but knowing what lies ahead, even if you cannot see it – I like to see it as predicting the future. It’s not uncommon to find that as you are walking along,  hedges, walls or fences cut across your path as you go through a gate, as well as running perpendicular to your path. The map might show you that your path forks left after you have passed two field boundaries on the right and one on the left, so count the fences and on passing the last one, look out for the fork. This is particularly useful when crossing open access land where there may well not be any signposts.

A word of warning, however, is that over time all forms of field boundary will come and go – they are clearly less permanent features of the landscape than hills and valleys. But you’ll find that the vast majority of field boundaries indicated on maps also exist in the real world. And when you find one that doesn’t, that just means that you recognise other correspondences between the map and the countryside.


* This figure includes not only ‘normal height’ hedges between one and six metres tall, but also lower hedges and overgrown ones.