Loss of hedgerow protections could see 400 miles a year ‘grubbed up’ costing nature, carbon and soil loss

England could lose nearly 400 miles of hedgerows per year as a result of potential changes to hedgerow protections at the end of this year.

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By George Smeeton


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A review of Government statistics [1] by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has revealed that England could lose nearly 400 miles of hedgerows per year as a result of potential changes to hedgerow protections at the end of this year. This would more than offset greenhouse gas savings associated with new hedgerow planting targets [2].

Changes to England’s system of farm payments means that rules under legacy schemes that currently protect rural hedgerows will lapse at the end of 2023 [3]. Defra is consulting now on whether to replace them [4].

If these protections are lost, it would be likely to lead to an increased risk of hedgerow loss. The last Countryside Survey [5], completed in 2007, shows that between 1998 and 2007, 1.4 per cent of England’s hedgerows were lost [6], covering the decade before these protections were introduced in 2005.

If this rate of loss was replicated again, it would equate to 390 miles of hedgerows being lost in England each year, or 0.16% of the total length. Although only small compared to the 2000 miles of hedgerow that would need to be planted or restored each year to 2037 [7] to meet Defra’s new planting targets, the amount of carbon stored in mature hedgerows vastly exceeds [8] that which a newly planted hedge can absorb.

Tom Lancaster, land analysist at ECIU said, “For those out enjoying the countryside, a traditional British hedgerow that may have stood for hundreds of years is one of the most attractive features, but their value is so much more than that.

“Mature hedgerows provide significant benefits for farming, from reducing soil erosion due to wind or run-off from rain to providing shelter for livestock. These are increasingly important for our food resilience as we see increased extreme wet and dry weather with climate change. Hedgerows also provide a vital source of early season pollen and nectar for the bees and other insects that are so important to pollinating farmers crops.

“Without retaining and strengthening existing protections, losing even a small fraction of existing habitats can wipe out the carbon, nature and soil health benefits associated with creating new habitats such as hedgerows.”

Figures from Natural England [9] suggest that a mature hedgerow will store between 112 and 158 tonnes of carbon per hectare (t c ha-1), compared to an annual rate of around 1 tonne of carbon per hectare that a newly planted hedge will absorb. This suggests that any loosening of protections that led to even a small fraction of hedgerows being lost could more than offset the carbon absorbed by the 45,000 miles of new hedges targeted by Defra by 2050.

ECIU analysis suggests that 2000 miles of new hedgerows would absorb 1287 tonnes of carbon each year, assuming an average width of 4m per hedge once established. Although the 390 miles that could be lost annually only absorbs 251 tonnes of carbon each year, the carbon stored in the hedgerow and soil below would be around 28,178 tonnes of carbon, which would be lost if the hedgerow was removed.

Cumulatively to 2050, this could lead to the loss of 848,887 tonnes of carbon, set against the 473,144 tonnes of carbon that 45,000 miles of new hedgerow would absorb in the same timeframe. The annual carbon savings by 2050 of 28.968 tonnes of carbon would still be lagging behind annual losses of 34,701 tonnes of lost carbon, and foregone sequestration from the lost hedgerows.

The vast majority of farmers say that hedgerows are important to them and their business. A poll [10] of 1,100 farmers by CPRE, the countryside charity in December last year found widespread support for increasing the extent of hedgerows if the target is properly funded through Environmental Land Management schemes or other government policies.

Paul Miner, Acting Director of Campaigns and Policy at CPRE said: “It’s clear from our survey that farmers value hedgerows, with a vast majority saying hedges are important for nature and wildlife and half that they improve the beauty of their farm. But many farmers experienced barriers to planting hedgerows due to lack of resources and the nature of government support.

“Currently, farmers are required to meet conditions for hedgerow management and to ensure the hedgerow and habitat it provides are protected. It’s vital that these standards are transferred into UK law at the end of the year so that hedgerows remain at the heart of our countryside in the future.

“CPRE would also like to see improvements to the Hedgerows Regulations, including adding a local landscape criterion so that hedges important to landscape character can be protected.”

As well as storing and absorbing carbon, hedgerows provide vital habitats for wildlife and can reduce soil erosion, provide shade and shelter for livestock and help to improve biosecurity on farms by reducing disease transmission [12].

The Defra consultation on whether to retain these hedgerow protections runs until 20th September.


Notes for editors

[1] The analysis, The carbon implications of the potential loss of hedgerow protections in England, is available here.

[2] The Environmental Improvement Plan published in January 2023 committed to planting 30,000 miles of new hedgerows by 2037 (the end of the sixth carbon budget), and 45,000 miles of new hedgerow by 2050 (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/environmental-improvement-plan)

[3] Receipt of direct payments under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was dependent on adhering to rules known as Cross Compliance. Although the majority of these rules related to extant EU and domestic, certain protections for hedgerows and other boundaries only exist in Cross Compliance. These include maintaining green cover on land 2 metres from the centre of a hedgerow, not cutting them in the bird breeding season, and not spreading fertiliser or spraying pesticides within 2 metres of the base of a hedge.

[4] https://consult.defra.gov.uk/legal-standards/consultation-on-protecting-hedgerows/#

[5] https://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/5191/1/N005191CR%20UK%20Results.pdf

[6] The 2007 Countryside Survey found that 6.1% of England’s hedgerows were lost between 1998 and 2007. However, the majority of these were lost as a result of under management, leading to them becoming lines of trees. Although this would impact their wildlife and landscape value, it is less likely to affect their carbon storage benefits. This analysis therefore uses the figures for ‘total woody linear features’, which lost 1.4% of their length between 1998 and 2007.

[7] Defra’s target of 30,000 miles of new hedgerow to 2037 suggests a target between 2023 and 2037 of 2001 miles per year. Beyond this, the annual target declines to 1154 miles per year between 2038 and 2050 in order to meet the target of 45,000 miles by 2050.

[8] Axe, M. S., Grange, I. D. & Conway, J. S. Carbon storage in hedge biomass—A case study of actively managed hedges in England. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 250, 81–88 (2017)

[9] https://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5419124441481216

[10] https://www.cpre.org.uk/news/farmers-want-funding-for-more-nature-boosting-hedgerows-our-survey-shows/

[11] The Hedgerows Regulations protect important hedgerows from removal: https://www.cpre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/hedgerows_regulations_faq_1.pdf

[12] Benefits of hedgerows https://hedgerowsurvey.ptes.org/the-benefits-of-healthy-hedgerows