Who will win the Hedge Cutting debate? Birds v Contractors

In this week’s Farmers Weekly it is difficult to ignore their campaign to repeal the August hedge cutting ban. It seems that the furrows in the brows of contractors are getting deeper and two years after the ban was put in place they continue to call for its reversal. It is an issue that seems to be placing birds and people in two different camps (as well as ‘farmers’ and ‘conservationists’).

For some context…

In 2015 Defra brought in a ban meaning that farmers and contractors could not trim hedges between 1st March and 31st August. It was passed as a greater precaution against harming nesting birds such as yellowhammers and linnets and based on the advice of the British Trust for Ornithology, who every year gather huge amounts of data on nesting birds thanks to volunteer surveys. They claimed, as a result of their research, that several buntings and finches nest throughout August and are at risk of being killed in the process of August hedge cutting.

The issue has resulted in a spat between the RSPB and the NFU, both of whom refuse to back down. The NFU claims that the only bird to nest in large numbers in August is the woodpigeon which it treats as ‘vermin’, whereas the RSPB points to the BTO research and argues that, due to the threatened status of yellowhammers and other farmland birds, the ban should remain.

What we are really talking about is pitting the lives of some birds (and it is true that whilst some yellowhammers etc may still be nesting in August, not all of them will be) against the livelihoods of some contractors. The people who have been hardest hit are the contractors who rely on hedge cutting work to bring in a significant amount of their annual income, which can run into the thousands. It is no wonder they detest the ban.

We need to take both the birds and the contractors into consideration when thinking about this ban. Unfortunately I struggle to see a perfect middle way that works for all.

Why cut in August?

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One of the reasons farmers and contractors state for cutting in August has to do with the state of soils, and on this I can see their logic. It is true that soils are far more difficult to work when wet, especially heavy, clay soils that tend to be good for arable cropping, and there are severe risks of soil degradation if for example hedgetrimmers are put to work in a wet September. This is why farmers like to get hedges cut in August, before autumn crop cultivations take place. The hedgecutter can follow the combine in the tick list of summer tasks on a large, busy arable farm.

There are options for farmers to get around the ban.

Derogations can be applied for, through Defra, especially if oil seed rape is being drilled in August, or temporary grass.

In addition, you may be able to cut your hedge in August if any of the following apply:

  • The hedgerow overhangs a highway, road or footpath over which there is a public or private right of way and the overhanging hedgerow obstructs the passage of, or is a danger to, vehicles, pedestrians or horse riders
  • The hedgerow is dead, diseased, damaged or insecurely rooted and because of its condition, it or part of it, is likely to cause danger by falling on to a highway, road or footpath; or obstructs the view of drivers or the light from a public lamp
  • It is to carry out hedge-laying or coppicing during the period 1 March to 30 April (inclusive)
  • It is to trim a newly laid hedgerow by hand, within six months of it being laid

If you don’t have a derogation, you can’t cut your hedges. Simple. Anybody who is caught breaking the rules, and cutting within the 1st March – 31st August period could face penalties under cross compliance rules or reductions in their basic payment (formerly single farm payment).

Why cut hedges at all?

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Hedges are generally cut to prevent them growing out into fields and reducing the available cropping or grazing space. Cutting them keeps them nice and bushy. It is sometimes easy to forget that hedges were planted originally (and still are for many people) to act as natural fences, to keep livestock in or out. Oliver Rackham, the great landscape/ecological historian estimated that between 1750 and 1850 over 200,000 miles of hedge were planted. The wildlife benefits came as a consequence.

Are we losing hedgerows from the British landscape?

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A newly planted hedgerow near Iken Suffolk.

Some arable farmers would love to see the back of far more hedges. Throughout the twentieth century we lost around half of our hedgerows. There were 352,000 miles of hedgerow in 1984. By 1990 this was 270,000 and 1993 236,000. However, due to a resurgence in interest and the advent of environmental stewardship this figure has since been increasing.

Why shouldn’t you cut every year?

Most tree and shrub flowers are produced on twigs that are a year old. If you don’t have any twigs you therefore don’t have any flowers or berries. This has a negative impact on pollinators, birds and mammals such as dormice. Brambles and roses will be fine with cutting every year. Anyone who has ever cut a bramble bush back and then seen it come back with vengeance the year after will know this!

It’s also a good general rule that the bigger a hedge, the more wildlife it will support. Some insects, such as the brown hairstreak butterfly, will only lay eggs on new growth. This is one reason why it is now so rare!

Of course there are always exceptions, and we need to take account of these. It depends on what wildlife we are focusing on in terms of conservation aims. For example, yellowhammers, whitethoats and partridges like to nest in hedges that are quite short and lapwing and skylark like open landscapes. In these circumstances it might be better to keep hedges much shorter.

Hasn’t it always been ‘traditional’ to cut every year?

When the flail was introduced in the mid twentieth century the sole aim of agriculture was to grow as much food as possible. Hedges therefore needed to be kept back and short, being cut every year. The environment and nesting birds were not really thought about. Before mechanical cutting came in hedge cutting was incredibly labour intensive and so fewer were trimmed every year. Today, perhaps it is more appropriate to leave more hedges for longer, providing more of a balance.

Why cut every two or three years instead?

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Apart from the reasons stated above (improved wildlife prospects) there are financial benefits for farmers (if not contractors reliant on hedge cutting for paying their bills). There are obvious saving son labour and machinery costs, especially with slow growing species like hawthorn. True, there might be some yield loss in the field through shading if hedges are encouraged to grow larger, but I seriously believe the trajectory in which we are heading is for environmental service provision and therefore the loss will be offset by available schemes, such as margin creation.

Cutting every few years may result in rather ragged cut ends, and the hedge looking like it has been damaged, if cut by a flail mower. However, most hedge species are pretty hardy and will come back, often very well. It might look untidy, but tidiness should not be our aim in the long run! Of course, cutting can only go so far and any hedge will have to be relayed after a while (usually 10 – 20 years depending on species).

Siding with the birds

I can fully appreciate the plight of the contractors involved, but on this one I have to side with the birds. Farmland birds face so many pressures at the moment (and yes, I know farmers do as well) that we need to cut them some slack somewhere. Even if it is a minority of yellowhammers, linnets etc that are nesting in August, we need to avoid any risk of nest destruction. In the long run we need to be moving towards a system that works with farmland wildlife. It is something that the country at large overwhelmingly supports, or so the trajectory seems, and if farmers want to stay in business, they will have to follow this line. Whether it is for receiving subsidy payments, or pleasing potential customers who might be paying more for food in future (we can but hope), farmers need to do the utmost to support wildlife on farms, and this includes good hedgerow management. Critically however, they need to be financially supported to do this by both policy makers and consumers.

 

 

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