The development of hedges over the centuries is preserved in their structure. The first hedges enclosed land for cereal crops during the Neolithic Age (4000–6000 years ago). The farms were of about 5 to 10 hectares (12 to 25 acres), with fields about 0.1 hectares (0.25 acres) for hand cultivation. Some hedges date from the Bronze and Iron Ages, 2000–4000 years ago, when traditional patterns of landscape became established. Others were built during the Medieval field rationalisations; more originated in the industrial boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, when heaths and uplands were enclosed.
Many hedgerows separating fields from lanes in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Low Countries are estimated to have been in existence for more than seven hundred years, originating in the medieval period. The root word of 'hedge' is much older: it appears in the Old English language, in German (Hecke), and Dutch (haag) to mean 'enclosure', as in the name of the Dutch city The Hague, or more formally 's Gravenhage, meaning The Count's hedge. Charles the Bald is recorded as complaining in 864, at a time when most official fortifications were constructed of wooden palisades, that some unauthorized men were constructing haies et fertés – tightly interwoven hedges of hawthorns.
In parts of Britain, early hedges were destroyed to make way for the manorial open-field system. Many were replaced after the Enclosure Acts, then removed again during modern agricultural intensification, and now some are being replanted for wildlife.
A hedge may consist of a single species or several, typically mixed at random. In many newly planted British hedges, at least 60 per cent of the shrubs are hawthorn, blackthorn, and (in the southwest) hazel, alone or in combination. The first two are particularly effective barriers to livestock. Other shrubs and trees used include holly, beech, oak, ash, and willow; the last three can become very tall. Of the hedgerows in the Normandy region of France, Martin Blumenson said,
The hedgerow is a fence, half earth, half hedge. The wall at the base is a dirt parapet that varies in thickness from one to four or more feet and in height from three to twelve feet. Growing out of the wall is a hedge of hawthorn, brambles, vines, and trees, in thickness from one to three feet. Originally property demarcations, hedgerows protect crops and cattle from the ocean winds that sweep across the land.