hedge beside field© Tim Scrivener

Confused about Protection Zones and the rules you need to know about? Charles Mayson, managing director of Cross Compliance Solution, answers some common questions about the situation facing farmers in England.

What is a Protection Zone?

Protection Zones (PZs) apply to hedgerows and ditches. If your farm has no ditches or watercourses and there’s not a blackthorn in sight you can sleep easy. But many fields have either ditches or hedges or both.

Tiny fields – fields below 2ha in size – are exempt but everything else comes under the regulations. Protection Zones are nothing to do with Nitrate Vulnerable Zone rules, they are all about protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat.

What are the rules when it comes to hedges?

The Protection Zone starts at the centre of the hedge and extends outwards for two metres – either side of the hedge. You can’t plough it, or crop it, or spray it. In many ways it’s not really yours to farm any more; it belongs to nature.

Traditionally, ploughing close to the hedge has been seen as a virtue, using as much land as possible to produce food. Therefore all respectable and dedicated ploughmen will instinctively plough the PZ – which can be a problem.

Cultivating the two-metre PZ is not just a ploughing restriction – the regulations say “do not destroy”. If you do, it will leave a mark that’s visible for weeks, if not months. An RPA inspection will usually involve inspecting every field boundary, it’s useless to argue, and while it may be OK to wobble a bit with the plough, wholesale destruction of part or all of the two metre strip will attract penalties. So don’t plough it, don’t spray it, don’t go there. Storage of bales or FYM or kit is not permitted either. And travelling on it is referred to in the regulations as “trafficking”, which is also not allowed.

We have a client who keeps an extra half metre buffer strip between his crop and the PZ. He sprays it so that nothing grows there. At least that way you have a chance of keeping “weed-creep” out of your wheat or barley.

See also: How to meet livestock cross-compliance rules

What do I need to know when it comes to ditches?

Ditches have a one metre PZ measured from the top of the ditch where it meets the field proper. One of the frequent mistakes many farmers make is to deposit ditch cleanings on the top of the ditch – in other words, on to the Protection Zone. Dredging must place the spoil beyond this point, unfortunately in the field where you are trying to grow your crop.

What are the penalties for getting it wrong?

Minor breaches of any PZ can lead to 15-20% deductions in your Single Farm Payment.

How are Protection Zones monitored?

They are monitored at RPA inspections which can happen at any time, with only 48 hours’ notice. Many farms have been surveyed from the satellite – it’s called “Remote Sensing” – this can lead to letters enquiring about things like woodland, heaps of manure, heaps of stone  or phantom field boundaries. The RPA are usually pretty helpful about explanations here.

Who takes responsibility for the PZ if I am letting out my field?

If you are the claimant you are responsible but if your tenant tips manure in the ditch then guess what? Both are liable.