New threat to England’s wildlife-rich hedgerows from ‘gap’ in agricultural policy

Thursday 25 November 2021

  • Thousands of kilometres of hedgerows in England will be under threat unless urgent action is taken to plug emerging gaps in farming policy.
  • Hedgerows are crucial for wildlife such as hedgehogs and farmland birds.
  • Hedgerows are not only good for wildlife but can also provide significant benefits to farm businesses.

England’s iconic hedgerows face a substantial new threat due to upcoming changes in agricultural policy putting key wildlife such as hedgehogs and farmland birds at risk, unless swift action is taken by the government.

By 2027, farming in England will have moved away from outdated policies, towards a new system focused on environmental land management. However, a new report, Mind the Gap, by the RSPB has found that during the transition between the two systems, several gaps in environmental protection will occur. One of these, is the level of protection afforded to hedgerows which will be weakened unless action is taken by Defra to plug this gap.

The RSPB’s senior policy officer, Philip Carson said “Hedgerows have an important role to play in addressing the nature and climate emergency, supporting a vast array of wildlife and storing significant quantities of carbon. We must ensure these vital habitats are protected both now and in the future. If current protections are lost it could have a devastating impact on hedgerows and for our countryside’s already beleaguered wildlife. The last State of Nature report showed that farmland nature is in freefall, we need urgent action to turn this around. This must include proper protection for farmland habitats alongside incentives which make a genuine contribution towards restoring nature and the environment.

“So far, Defra’s proposed solution is to pay for hedgerow protection. However, paying for activities that were previously a universal requirement represents poor value for money, costing tens of millions of taxpayer pounds without delivering any additional benefits. Funding would be far better spent on more ambitious actions such as hedgerow restoration, enhancement, and creation.”

Based on the Government’s own targets for scheme uptake, paying for hedgerow protection would also place nearly 120,000km of hedgerows at direct risk of mismanagement – a clear step backwards.

Hedgerows have been an emblematic feature of the English countryside for thousands of years, providing a range of different functions throughout the landscape and an insight into our past. They cover over 500,000 kilometres of the country, roughly thirteen times the length of the circumference of the earth, with over 70% of these found on farmland.

In 2019, the State of Nature report highlighted the increasing threats that native wildlife faces across England, with changes to the way land is managed (particularly farmland which makes up 75% of the UK’s land area), climate change, urbanisation and pollution all contributing to bird, insect, mammal and other species declines.

But hedgerows aren’t just important for wildlife they can also provide significant benefits to farm businesses. They provide shelter for livestock, beneficial insects which help pollination and pest control and can also help to reduce flooding.

These benefits extend beyond the farm gate, contributing to positive economic outcomes for all of society. Recent research has highlighted that for every £1 invested in hedgerow planting £3.92 would be delivered back in benefits to the wider economy when planted in the right place. It also found that a 40% increase in hedgerow coverage across the UK would help create over 25,000 jobs over a 30-year period through planting and associated maintenance.

The new Westminster Environment Act 2021 commits UK Government to halting species decline in England by 2030. Hedgerows have a vital role to play in achieving this target, but this requires urgent action to fill the regulatory gaps. A Green Paper is expected in early December which will outline UK Government’s plans for nature’s recovery in England. This is an opportunity to reinforce and build on existing hedgerow protections, ensuring that this vital habitat is not only protected from loss, but is expanded and able to play a vital role in tackling the nature and climate emergency.

Species spotlight

Yellowhammer

With their bright yellow plumage and delightful ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song, yellowhammers are hard to miss. During the breeding season they nest close to the ground in thick vegetation at the base of short, thick hedgerows and scrub. Growing chicks depend largely on insects for food, with wide grass margins around fields providing an important food source, as well as valuable nesting habitat. Unfortunately, they have declined by 60% across the UK since 1970 and are now red-listed as one of the birds of most conservation concern. A bright future for these beautiful birds is reliant on the future protection of England’s hedgerows.

Bats

Bats use hedgerows for a range of reasons; to feed, for navigation, and in some cases to roost in. Hedgerows are hosts to all sorts of insects, providing a valuable food source. Having a network of well-connected hedges throughout the countryside is crucial, especially for species such as pipistrelles, which actively use them to commute from their roosts to feeding areas.

Hedgehogs

As the name suggests, these spiny mammals are synonymous with hedgerows, where they’re often seen foraging along hedge margins searching for insects, worms, snails, mice and frogs. Hedgehogs have faced steep declines across the UK and are now listed as Vulnerable on the UK’s red list of mammals, having declined by 50% in rural areas since the millennium. There are several reasons for this, but loss of food and available habitat are contributing factors.

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