UK

New rules set to maintain protections for hedgerows, Defra says

The regulations will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows, the Environment Department announced.

Officials said the new regulations would sit alongside existing rules that prevent the removal of countryside hedgerows without planning approval
A gap in a hedgerow with fields beyond and wildflowers in the foreground Officials said the new regulations would sit alongside existing rules that prevent the removal of countryside hedgerows without planning approval (Alamy Stock Photo)

New regulations to maintain protections for hedgerows will be brought in “as soon as parliamentary time allows”, the Government has said.

The rules for England will reinstate measures such as “buffer strip” between hedgerows and cultivated land, and a spring and summer hedge-cutting ban to protect nesting birds.

The protections had formed part of the “cross-compliance” regime of standards that farmers had to adhere to in order to receive subsidies under the EU’s common agricultural policy.

The Government, however, has removed cross-compliance requirements as part of a shift to a new system of payments for farmers in England that is based on delivering environmental benefits such as healthy soil, clean water and habitat creation.

Conservationists have raised concerns that the end of cross compliance, followed by almost all farmers as part of receiving subsidies based largely on the amount of land farmed, would leave gaps in protection for important habitats such as hedgerows and the wildlife that relies on them.

Officials said the new regulations would sit alongside existing rules that prevent the removal of countryside hedgerows without planning approval and laws that prohibit the killing or injuring of wild birds, or harm to their nests and eggs.

They said more than 90,000km (56,000 miles) of hedgerows were being managed through environmental agreements and more than 13,000km (8,000 miles) of hedgerows had been created or restored using grants.

The Environment Department (Defra) also said there would be a new approach to enforcement that would focus on providing farmers with advice to help them comply with the requirements.

This will be backed by enforcement notices, civil fines and even criminal penalties for those who cause serious or repeated damage to hedgerows.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer said:  “Farmers have been protecting, planting and maintaining our hedgerows for centuries, and I want to thank them for their continued efforts to help wildlife thrive on their farms alongside food production.

“I am delighted that thousands of farmers are taking up the support and guidance on offer in our countryside stewardship and sustainable farming incentive schemes.”

Defra said almost 9,000 consultation responses had been received and highlighted clear support from farmers and environmental groups for hedgerows to be protected in law.

The Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) coalition of nature and countryside groups welcomed the announcement but warned time was running out in this Parliament to reinstate the protections.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of WCL, said: “With the numbers of farmland birds showing a 61% fall since 1970, the Government shouldn’t just copy and paste old rules.

“The Environment Department should introduce stronger protections, like delaying hedge cutting to September, to help support wonderful wildlife like the Yellowhammer.”

He added: “Alongside generous payments for nature-friendly farming, strong, well-enforced standards for domestic production and imports are the foundation for fairness in farming, and fundamental to a nature-rich future.”

Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB, said: “With bird nesting season now under way, bringing back vital hedgerow protections, alongside supporting farmers and landowners in doing their bit for nature, has never been more important.

“As we speak, hedgerows are bustling with wildlife, and while Government has moved one step closer to securing these protections, with every day that passes before this law is implemented more wildlife is put at risk.

“The swell of support for hedgerow protection amongst farmers and the public alike is heartening, and together we look forward to seeing this urgently implemented.”