The government has justified rules preventing farmers from trimming hedges for an extra month – by blaming the ban on Brussels.

It came as Defra sought to deflect mounting criticism of the ongoing lack of clarity about the implementation of CAP reform in England – and the likely impact on farmers, who say uncertainty about the new rules is making it impossible to plan their businesses.

Due to come into effect next year, the hedgecutting ban – which currently runs from 1 March to 31 July – will be extended to include August. Failure to extend the ban could see UK taxpayers and farmers being fined by Brussels, said Defra.

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A Defra spokesperson said: “EU rules state that hedges should not be cut during the bird breeding and rearing season if we are to avoid farmers losing out on CAP payments and UK taxpayers paying fines for non-compliance.”

But the NFU has called on Defra to revoke the ban. Refusal to do so would “significantly inconvenience” farm management, they warned. NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “This is one of those pieces of overregulation that annoys the hell out of farmers.”

The woodpigeon was the only bird species nesting into August, said Mr Smith. “It is true that a few species, such as the yellowhammer, might be fledging second or third broods in August, but we question the viability of those chicks.”

But Defra said a 2004 report by the British Trust for Ornithology listed 10 bird species known to breed in August.

“This is one of those pieces of overregulation that annoys the hell out of farmers.”
Guy Smith, NFU vice-president

A separate 2005 RSPB report detailing birds that nested and reared chicks during August listed the grey partridge, woodpigeon, turtle dove, dunnock, song thrush, whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, goldfinch, linnet, bullfinch, yellowhammer and cirl bunting.

Nonetheless, frustration about Defra policies regarding hedges extends to how they will be measured under CAP reform (see p18). Industry bodies have all reported a high number of enquiries from members struggling to get to grips with the new rules.

Tenant Farmers’ Association chairman Stephen Wyrill said: “With the new schemes due to start officially in four months’ time, it is frustrating that there are many details yet to be decided which are crucial to farm planning decisions.”

Defra provided some answers in two updates sent to farmers during the summer. But Mr Wyrill said the updates had also resulted in a raft of new questions – especially relating to the measurement of ecological focus areas. A further Defra update is expected next month.

Mr Wyrill said: “We appreciate Defra’s hands are tied as it awaits answers to questions it has raised with the EU Commission on points of definition and clarification, but this is no help to hard-pressed farmers making decisions without access to the full facts.”