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Harvesting the hedgerow*.

Over the years I've received a number of e-mails relating to 'harvesting the hedgerow' and this page attempts to address some of the issues raised.

Firstly and foremostly, it is vital to research this subject exhaustively before engaging in experimentation since, apart from legal implications, there are very important safety considerations to be taken into account. For example, in terms of safety, it must be remembered that there can be very little, in terms of dosage, between a pleasant and even enlightening experience and a deadly one.

Robert Graves, in his foreword to his 'Greek Myths' makes mention of amanita muscaria, panaeolus papilionaceus and psilocybe and I would agree with his view that such 'tools' might well have been instrumental in early religious experience. Useful is his reference to the Maenads who thinking that they had been to India and back in one night had, in fact, been roaming the countryside ripping apart anything living, animal or child, that got in their way. Since it is thought by some that this is how the 'berserkers' got their name and reputation for reckless power in battle, it can be thus seen that extreme care must be exercised at all costs.

Oracles could chew cyanide laced laurel leaves or inhale volcanic fumes to induce trance-like states, their incoherent mutterings then being interpreted as 'divine'. It has been suggested that the beaker people's beakers contained a cannabis beverage, probably alcoholic, whose recipe swept Europe, thus resulting in a fashion for this particular implement. Doubtless, other combinations were freely tried, and as a consequence, the long term art of moving very large stones around the countryside began.

Caution is advised with respect to doses since a profound perception can so easily become an exercise in profound vomiting, or worse. The traditional european brew that made witches 'fly' contained three of the most toxic wild plants; the doses being heavily diluted before thresholds were established.

In Britain, considerable legal weight can be brought upon 'experimenters', for example, sections of wildlife protection Acts may well be applicable. 'Extraction' of active ingredients, even by drying, can be distinctly illegal also. Similarly, the sale of treated items can constitute an offence as well.

It is not my intention to dwell on these particular aspects, the reader can research these for themselves. However, let us consider safety. The well-known amanita muscaria (pictured above) contains a number of molecules that bear consideration. Although isoxazole derivatives and ibotenic acid are present, the related decarboxylation product muscimol (Tyler, 1971) is the primary psychoactive component involved. It is a potent GABA-A agonist and has been shown to be active in several parts of the brain including the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum. Muscarin, however, is sweat inducing that leads to nausea, vomiting and the possibility of coma. Serious damage to the body may not be apparent for 8-10 hours or even longer after consumption, by which time it may be far too late for medical intervention; death follows in 2 or 3 days.

Combined with wine or ivy-ale, 'Zeus-juice' or 'ambrosia' can then induce risks other than hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy and remarkable muscular strength. Some hours of this ecstasy are followed by complete inertia and, later, by possibly much more serious consequences.

Panaeolus papilionaceus and psilocybe do not appear, however, to carry such a risk, although, as with most things, moderation is advised since the effects differ markedly from that obtained with alcohol or, say, cannabinol and may last for a much longer period of time.

It can be seen, therefore, that care is required and it is not simply a case of devouring large quantities of unknown plant-life, unless of course you want to spend a long time 'talking to God on the great white telephone'. Or far worse.

With care, however, and research it is possible to explore newer regions safely. I will certainly never forget my, considered useful, teenage encounters with lysurgic acid diethylamide, the summer I spent in Oxford with a close friend and datura or later excursions into other realms. Perhaps I've been lucky, but always remember that one person's dream might well be another's nightmare and that more does not necessarily mean better. It is well known, for example, how easily alcohol can destroy a liver. Miniscule amounts of other substances can just as easily destroy a mind, and, as with alcohol, much else besides.

* At one time about 70% of the British Isles was covered by forest. This does not mean that it was one vast uninterrupted stretch of forest but rather it contained natural variation provided by rivers, lakes and bogs, natural forest clearings and thinner growth dictated by soil quality and other features like steep slopes and exposed coastal situations.

The clearance of this woodland provided open areas that were used for agriculture and the grazing of livestock. Sometimes strips of woodland were left to divide parcels of land and contain livestock or alternatively, plants found in the locality would be planted in a row to mark a boundary. Earthworks such as ditches and banks might also be incorporated into this line of trees and shrubs.

An ancient hedgerow is defined as being in existence prior to the Enclosures Acts from 1720 to 1840. Most of the hedges we have today were planted during the enclosures of the l8th and 19th centuries when some 200,000 miles of hedging was established.

Most common among hedging plants is the hawthorn but many other native species occur and variety in a hedgerow is acquired over a long period of time. In some places it is possible to determine the age of a hedgerow by identifying the different native species of trees and bushes within it. As a general rule, the presence of two species indicates an age of about 200 years, three species, 300 years and so on.

The nature of a hedge can vary in different regions. In Cornwall a ‘hedge’ is a low stone wall, sometimes of great age marking a small irregularly shaped field. In Devon it is a high, turfed bank topped by a line of living shrubs. In southwest Ireland hedges of fuchsia line the roadsides, while holly is common in Staffordshire. The open and exposed land of East Anglia has tall shelter belts of pine. Boundaries in the winter flooded Somerset levels are best defined by hedges of osiers (pollarded willow). Sometimes the nature of the crop dictates the style of hedge as in the hop gardens of Kent and Worcestershire or the bulb fields of the Isles of Scilly where tall dense hedges provide shelter.

In addition to the deliberately planted species, the hedgerow will also contain a variety of naturally occurring smaller plants, which provide habitat for many birds, mammals and insects. Hedgerows that are allowed to develop gradually become narrow strips of woodland acting as green corridors, which enable creatures that require cover to migrate across the countryside. They can also fulfil the practical function of helping to prevent soil erosion and water run-off in addition to enhancing the appearance of our rural landscape.

Unfortunately a significant quantity of hedgerow has been lost or damaged, particularly in the 20th century. Increased mechanisation of arable agriculture has led to large-scale removal of many hedgerows over the last 50 years. Ploughing and spraying too close to the base of the hedgerow and by overstocking with animals, which can lead to browsing damage, have also inflicted damage. General neglect and erosion also plays a part but it is the deliberate grubbing out that is most destructive.

In recent years various wildlife protection organisations have called attention to these detrimental practices and government schemes encourage farmers to maintain and renovate existing hedgerows. Legislation now protects much of our hedgerow and individual trees either for it’s own sake or as habitat for breeding birds or hibernating mammals, and has helped to raise public awareness of the importance and value of our hedgerows.