Farmers in England who are seeking permission to cut hedges in August have been urged to submit requests as soon as possible.
Defra said it would consider a derogation to allow farmers to trim hedges in August only in “prescribed circumstances” following changes to EU environmental rules.
A Defra spokesman said: “A derogation can be applied that would allow hedgecutting in August for a small minority of farmers intending to sow oilseed rape or temporary grass during that month.
See also: Defra considers easing hedgecutting ban
“This will allow farmers to continue farming practices while ensuring farmland birds are still protected. Applicants should write to the RPA in good time if they wish to apply for a derogation.”
If approval is given for a derogation, it will only apply for one year, the spokesman added. Its impact would then be assessed to see if it could be extended.
Farmers who wish to apply for derogations are being urged to consult cross-compliance requirements (GAEC 7a) for guidance on hedges.
“If people want to be planting [OSR and temporary grass] in August then they need to contact the RPA quickly to ensure their application is dealt with in plenty of time,” added the Defra spokesman.
According to research by Defra and the RPA, only a “small percentage” of farmers would be seeking to plant OSR or temporary grass this August, the spokesman said.
But hedging contractor Robert Rutt, who trims about 2,630ha of hedges in the Northamptonshire/Leicestershire/Rutland area, questioned the assertion.
Mr Rutt said: “There are going to be thousands of hedge contractors up and down the country who are going to be affected by this ruling.
“I feel Defra has jumped in with two feet and not thought about the implications of the policy. We haven’t been consulted.”
Defra’s decision last June to extend the hedgecutting ban, which runs from 1 March to 31 July, by one month to include August, has infuriated farmers. The ruling also applies to trees but not orchards.
But the government has blamed the ban on Brussels after the EU tightened rules governing hedgecutting to protect nesting farmland birds. Farmers who break the rules on hedges risk losing part of their single farm payment.
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “Weather factors determine how quickly farmers get the crop off in August and get the drill out to get seed planted.
“However, good agronomy suggests that the optimum time for sowing oilseed rape is the second half of August.”
He added: “We are pleased that Defra has understood the practicalities of establishing oilseed rape. Our plea to Defra is to make it as simple and straightforward as possible for farmers to apply for a derogation.”
NFU countryside adviser Claire Robinson added: “The existence of a hedgecutting derogation from Defra is a win for the NFU, although we’re acutely aware that a broader derogation would have worked better for more arable farmers.
“Working with what we have, we are now focused on Defra to make the process of obtaining these derogations as simple and quick as possible for farmers – from the application to the decision.
“Advice for this year’s new rules for hedgecutting under cross-compliance can be found on NFUonline.com.”
Meanwhile, NFU Scotland has written to the Scottish government to apply for a derogation to allow Scottish growers to trim hedges in August.
NFUS president Nigel Miller said more than 30,000ha of OSR was drilled in Scotland each year, and most of this is planted before 31 August.