Hedgerows and the law
2 February 2004
Hedgerows are an important feature of the countryside, both for their wildlife value and for their landscape and historical importance. A number of laws and regulations protect hedgerow birds or the hedgerows themselves. These pages explain the regulations and how they work.
Hedgerows have been an important feature of British countryside since the mid-18th century and the Enclosures Act, although there have been hedgerows as early as the Bronze Age.
Hedgerows were first used as stock enclosures and boundary markers, but also provided berries, nuts, firewood and other resources to the farmer. Their importance as nesting sites and a source of food to wild birds is well documented.
Since World War II there has been large-scale removal of hedgerows in a drive to increase food production, and in some parts of the country well over half of hedgerows have gone. Despite planting of new hedgerows, removal and neglect resulted in the loss of around 18,000km per year as recently as the early 1990s. Today, fewer hedgerows are lost, and neglect is the main reason for hedgerow loss.
Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Whilst the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended by Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000) does not give protection to a hedgerow as such, it does give legal protection to all wild birds in Britain (in Northern Ireland this is by N I Wildlife Order 1985).
Under Section 1 of the Act it is an offence to take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird intentionally while it is in use or being built. It would be an intentional act, for example, if contractors continue to cut or remove a hedge after they have been told that birds are nesting there.
There is no offence, however, if it can be shown that the act was the incidental result of a lawful operation and could not be reasonably avoided, or if the person was genuinely unaware of the presence of the nest.
If a Schedule 1 species, such as a cirl bunting or hobby, is nesting in the hedge, even disturbance close to the nest is an offence. Disturbance would be considered a reckless act if the contractors had knowledge that a particular Schedule 1 species had nested in the location in the past and they had not made sufficient licensed checks to ascertain residence of the species before starting work.
If you are aware of hedge cutting or removal work going on during the breeding season, and you know birds are nesting in the hedge, you should inform the contractors of the presence of nesting birds. If work continues, immediately contact your nearest Police Wildlife Liaison Officer, who would have the powers to stop the work.
Since the legal protection is on the bird only, the indirect protection of the hedge (or a section of it) is only in operation whilst the nest is in use. Once the young fledge and the nest is no longer in use, there is no further protection for the hedgerow from the Wildlife and Countryside Act.