Should farmers think twice before cutting their hedgerows?
PUBLISHED: 08:02 22 January 2020 | UPDATED: 09:50 22 January 2020
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Farmers should consider whether cutting their hedgerows annually is always the best way to manage this valuable environmental asset which harbours a huge range of wildlife, said farm advisers.
While the need for large-scale tree-planting has dominated recent discussions about climate change and carbon reduction, nature-friendly farming groups said the value of new hedgerows must not be overlooked - as well as the need improve the management of existing hedge networks.
Mike Edwards, business manager Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) said hedgerows have huge biodiversity value, with an estimated 2,000 insect species, 64 birds and 20 mammals using them for food or shelter during their life-cycle.
They can also soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and play an important role in sheltering crops and livestock, while linking up nature-rich areas of grassland, woodland and heathland.
While there are clearly instances where leaving hedges to grow un-cut is not practical or sensible - such as those adjacent to roads, power or telephone lines - Mr Edwards said farmers and landowners should think carefully before routinely cutting the other hedgerows within their fields.
"The management of hedgerows has changed over time from the days when there was lots of winter labour available on farms, when hedges would have been harvested for firewood, to today where the vast majority are mechanically trimmed," he said.
"Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is becoming a priority for everyone and we must consider whether this regular cutting is always the best management technique we can use. There are emissions released in the tractor-mounted flailing operation and therefore emissions that could be reduced by simply trimming less. The uncut hedge growth will also be soaking up more CO2 and converting it to carbon in its branches and roots. The management of hedgerows is one of a series of measures identified to help the agricultural industry to reach 'net zero' greenhouse gas emissions as set out by the National Farmers' Union (NFU).
"There are also many additional benefits of a reduced hedgerow cutting regime. A hedge that is cut every three years is also more abundant in early-season flowers and pollen for our pollinators and has a greater abundance of berries for our farmland birds and small mammals."
Last week, the government introduced its Agriculture Bill which will govern farming in England after Brexit, including a shift away from the current EU subsidy system to one which will reward farmers for providing "public goods" such as carbon storage.
Martin Lines, who farms near St Neots in Cambridgeshire and is chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), said this change of focus could herald support for a "woodier" landscape of trees and hedges which would be better for both wildlife and the climate.
He hopes a flexible system with financial support and advice for farmers to create bigger, wilder hedgerows, could provide more shelter and food such as berries for wildlife, and store more carbon in plant growth.
He said: "We need a woodier landscape; the focus has been about trees, but it's a woodier landscape, which includes bigger, bushier hedges with trees, and in some places, copses of trees.
"The system has been about 'clean and tidy', all of society, everyone's gardens are clean and tidy.
"I'm really excited at this idea of a bushier, woodier, wilder landscape, connecting things, with watercourses, with hedgerows, some real wild areas and not-so-wild areas. Hedges have a key role to play in that.
"I think it's really exciting for biodiversity benefit and carbon benefit and a better, healthier- looking landscape."
Support for farmers to manage their hedges could reward landowners with smaller-scale fields, and could encourage large-scale arable farmers to put hedges back through the middle of fields which could be farmed round, he suggested.
The National Farmers' Union estimates that enhancing and increasing hedgerows could save up to 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year - but farmers would need to be paid under the new system to deliver bigger hedges.
NFU president Minette Batters said: "British farmers are not only excellent providers of high-quality, affordable food, but the very land they look after also acts as a carbon store.
"Conserving and building this store is one of the three pillars of activity for farmers as the industry strives towards net-zero agriculture by 2040, and effective incentives are going to be key to help farmers use their land as efficiently as possible to try and capture more carbon."
- Norfolk FWAG is organising a farm walk to discuss sustainable hedgerow management with farmers, hosted by MacGregor Farming Partnership at Mill Farm, Great Witchingham, at 10am on January 29. To book a place, go to Norfolk FWAG's event registration page.