Country diary: My favourite hedge bar none | Trees and forests

This magnificent sprawling old hedge, unmolested by axes or flails, weighed down with berries, seeds, hips and haws, is unequivocally my favourite, and deserves to be celebrated with a name. It borders a footpath leading to the site of the former Brancepeth colliery, and is marked on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps, trodden by countless feet over passing centuries.

Someone, probably long dead, must have taken a particular interest in one section. Between two mature oaks, there are three apple trees, branches bending under the weight of ripening fruit, and hazels laden with a fine crop of unusually large nuts. Whoever planted them might have had future apple pie with hazelnut pastry in mind; we certainly have.

But what made this place really special today was meeting an alder moth caterpillar. Hitherto, our only encounter with the larva of Acronicta alni, unmistakably clad in lurid black and yellow-hooped skin and strange, paddle-shaped hairs, was 50 years ago when we lived in the Midlands. We moved north, beyond its natural range, never expecting to see one in Durham. Now here it is, curled on a leaf, bold as brass, ready to drop to the ground and pupate – another species extending its range northwards in response to a heating climate.

In our personal mental map of notable local wildlife encounters, this nameless spot on the landscape has become the alder moth hedge. Along the footpath ahead stands the purple hairstreak oak where we first found that butterfly three years ago, and beyond, barn owls bank where we’ve watched one quarter the grassland, almost within touching distance. A personal gazetteer of place names on a favourite walk, etched in memory, never destined to appear on a map.

Lurid black and yellow colours make alder moth caterpillars unmistakeable
Lurid black and yellow colours make alder moth caterpillars unmistakable. Photograph: Phil Gates

Even when cartographers capture local place names, they represent a snapshot in time: connotations can be lost. Nearby lies Lingy Close farm, a name that might hark back to days when this arable land was lowland heath, clad in ling, the old name for heather. When we first walked here, 40 years ago, one bank of the old railway cutting was still blanketed in its purple flowers in August; all gone now, lost under a dense canopy of naturally regenerating trees, in a landscape perpetually evolving.

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