Cycling or walking around the countryside, one soon realises the benefit of hedgerows to us as windbreaks and to wildlife as habitat. Move away from a thick, healthy hedgerow and it is noticeable how birdsong and insect life diminishes and how exposed the terrain becomes to the elements – wind, rain and snow drifts. Hedgerows provide shelter from predators for an array of wildlife, nest sites and a valuable food source, not just to insects, birds and animals but to us too – harvesting elderflowers for cordials and blackberries for warming pies.
The government is seeking opinions about the future of hedgerows – their maintenance, the current rules of management, the penalties and what the long term strategy should be. Their online consultation closes on 20 September.
Defra states that “Amending the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 to include management measures would impact on all farmers and land managers in England who have hedgerows on their agricultural land, aside from those covered by various exemptions.”
Are current protections at risk?
In England and Wales, hedgerows are protected by The Hedgerows Regulations 1997 but only important hedges are protected by law if they meet certain criteria. Trees within a hedgerow are not protected from removal or inappropriate cutting. Nor are hedgerows in urban environments.
Hedgerows must not be cut or trimmed during the bird breeding season from the 1 March to 31 August, and, in most cases, a 2m natural vegetation ‘buffer strip’ from the centre of a hedgerow must be maintained in order to protect its integrity from cultivation root damage and the potentially harmful application of fertilisers or pesticides.
One of the current exemptions to the buffer zone is where a hedgerow is less than five years old. This may come as a surprise, and a worry, to all the recent volunteers, schools and farm workers who have planted many miles of hedgerow saplings under recent council and Woodland Trust free trees schemes.
On agricultural land, the cross-compliance standard (GAEC 7a) to qualify for certain payments has protected hedgerows since 2003 but will end from 1 January 2024. The RSPB are adamant that hedgerows are in danger of losing key protections and become vulnerable to removal and damage, with potentially dire consequences for species that depend upon them.
As East Anglia Bylines has previously reported in Murder or Maintenance – Cherish your hedgerow and you’ll save money management of hedgerows is a skill.
A farmer’s view
Graham Denney, a Suffolk farmer with a passion for birds especially rearing turtle doves, acknowledges that hedgerows are an important habitat but is clear that a “one size fits all policy” should not be adopted.
“Stewardship grants, exemptions and penalties should take into account the size of the hedgerows owners’ land / estate and be cognisant of the challenges they face and their endeavours to safeguard the environment,” says Denney. “Not all soils are the same, not all wildlife needs hedgerows – some need open spaces, and not all environments are designed to have hedgerows.”
He believes Defra should be funding Natural England to work with farmers and landowners on a tailored Ecology Report which sets out how, across hedgerow and other stewardship policies, their land should be best managed given its unique conditions.
His concern is that Defra ignores the advice from Natural England. And that whilst individual policies may seem to make sense, collectively they can be destructive. He would like to see more Natural England presence on ground giving advice and less “in the office”.
“With an Ecological report tailored to each farm or landowner, this would ensure there is a joined up approach ensuring that one policy does not counteract another,” Denney believes. “Similarly with regard to penalties, there may be valuable reasons why what would be regarded as a ‘harmful activity’ in one context is not in another.”
“I am delighted to read in their proposed consultation answers that the RSPB argue for extending the no-cut period to 15 September to protect red-listed species such as yellow hammer,” says Norfolk farmer and nature lover Chris Skinner. “The Grey Partridge nests in tussocks at the base of hedgerows and is equally endangered. Yet not only do the RSPB make no mention of this, but they do nothing to prevent the Grey Partridge, which is the UK’s only native partridge, from being shot and for a month longer than the pheasant.”
Hedgerow management is intrinsic to the health of wildlife and our environment and it is complicated. How would you like to see hedgerows managed? There are just a few days left for your voice to be heard.
Chris Skinner has a podcast on farming and nature at High Ash Farm: Chris Skinner’s Countryside Podcast.