Mind the Gap: The hidden threats facing hedgerows, nature and climate

In today’s blog, Phil Carson, RSPB Senior Policy Officer talks about a new report highlighting a hidden threat facing England’s hedgerows.

England’s hedgerows have been synonymous with the countryside for centuries; they are an important part of our history, heritage and culture, providing an insight into our past. These long lines of hawthorn, blackthorn, dog-rose and hazel span over 400,000km and do so much more than acting as field boundaries. They provide a home for wildlife, help us mitigate against and adapt to climate change, help benefit farm businesses and contribute to our health and well-being.

But our relationship with these vital habitats has not always been a positive one. Since the 1950s we’ve lost nearly 50% of our hedgerow network as a result of policies that have failed to recognise or reward their value. Only recently have protections been put in place to halt these declines alongside action to restore existing hedgerows and create new ones.

But a new risk lies on the horizon, which could yet again put our hedgerows and the wildlife that depends on them under threat. Our  highlights the risks, and outlines the action needed to address them.

The UK Agriculture Act signalled the beginning of a new era for farming and land management, where public funding will be based on the delivery of public goods, such as improved biodiversity, soil health and climate mitigation. But in moving towards this better vision of the future, managing the transition will be key. This means building on what we have by protecting what we value the most. 

A range of wildlife is dependent on healthy, well managed hedgerows for their survival. These linear habitats support over 130 England’s priority species, including birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and a host of invertebrates. They provide food, shelter and safe highways for wildlife to travel – and are often a focal point for nature within a landscape. To maintain their crucial role in addressing the nature and climate emergency, we must do more to restore and enhance existing hedgerows, while harnessing opportunities to increase their presence in the countryside. But impending changes pose some risks, which must be avoided at all costs. 

 The Mind the Gap report investigates what changes will occur to several hedgerow protections as part of England’s agricultural transition. It found that several existing rules that serve to protect these vital habitats will cease to apply from 2024. These include requirements aimed at avoiding practises that can damage hedgerows such as management at the wrong time of year, the application of pesticides, fertilisers and ploughing within 2 metres of the base; each of which can impact a hedges value for wildlife and can lead to eventual loss. Regulation such as these are essential in providing a level playing field for all farmers, ensuring that the majority trying to do the right thing are not undermined by those seeking to maximise short term economic gains. Although some protections will still apply through domestic regulations, these are nowhere near robust enough to ensure that all hedgerows are safeak

Should we pay for hedgerow protection?

One of the ways to protect hedgerows could be to incentivise their positive management under Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs). So far, this appears to be the Government’s proposed solution, with several of the existing rules aimed at protecting hedgerows being transferred into these schemes, which are currently being piloted by Defra. But this approach poses problems. It will not result in protection for all hedgerows, and yet could incur significant costs.  

Risks to nature and climate

 Our analysis has found that even if these schemes achieve the desired level of uptake, that over 120,000km of hedgerow could be at risk from damaging practises. At the farm end of the scale, in a scenario with minimal uptake of these schemes, nearly 300,000km of hedgerows would be at risk. The new Westminster Environment Act 2021 commits UK Government to halting species decline in England by 2030. Yet if these hedgerows were lost, it would have devastating consequences for the wildlife that depends on them, such as yellowhammers, hedgehogs, bees, bats and butterflies. These costs would extend to climate too, with carbon losses of between 0.5 – 3.7 million tonnes of carbon being released back into the atmosphere.

What can be done?

Mind the Gap demonstrates the need for swift purposeful action, to avoid a situation that puts wildlife under threat, releases millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, undoes previous work in restoring and creating hedgerows and creates an uneven playing field for farmers.  To do this, it makes the following recommendations

  • Act with pace to the fill the regulatory gaps
  • Set out a transformational plan for the future of farm regulation and enforcement
  • Secure greater ambition for environmental land management

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.

The transition towards a new era for farming and land management provides immense opportunities to help restore nature, mitigate and adapt to climate change and deliver a range of benefits to society. We mustn’t take our eyes off this prize. This means working from a stable base of environmental protection from which our greater ambitions can be achieved. There is still time to put this in place, but we must act now.  

Read the full Mind the Gap Report final.pdf for full analysis and recommendations and check out our Food and Farming page, to read more about our work in this area.