14 September 2001

How British farmers put hours in on hedgerows

By Isabel Davies

NEW research suggests that UK farmers spend at least £16m and the equivalent of 41,000 weeks a year looking after the hedgerows on their farms.

A poll of 1000 farmers, commissioned by the NFU, has revealed that 80% of producers manage their hedges to assist wildlife and conserve the landscape.

This ties in with government figures showing that the decline in hedgerows has been brought to a halt. Stewardship schemes and greater appreciation of conservation has resulted in almost 8000 miles of "derelict" hedges being brought back into regular management between 1990 and 1998.

The survey, released as the union launched a campaign to encourage wildlife friendly farming, is an attempt to quantify the contribution made to conservation by farmers.

NFU president Ben Gill said the fact that farmers were still carrying out this type of work, when farm incomes were so low, was testament to how much they cared for the countryside.

"The cost of maintaining Britains hedgerows is huge yet, despite the current economic crisis, farmers have continued to invest their time and money in countryside protection," he said.

"Farmers recognise their responsibility to the environment. The issue is whether they can afford to do as much as they would like."

The issue of cost is one that was firmly highlighted by the survey. A third of the farmers questioned said they would like to do more but time and money were a constraint. Over 60% said they were put off agri-environment schemes because the rules were complex and the financial incentives too small.

But convincing farmers they can afford to farm in a way that is sympathetic to the environment is one of the aims of a joint campaign between the NFU and the governments wildlife advisers English Nature.

The organisations have joined together to produce a five-point action plan which sets out low-cost management steps farmers can take to improve conservation.

It reminds producers that they have a unique role as producers of food and wildlife. It says many actions for wildlife friendly farming may save money and encourages farmers to consider joining an agri-environment scheme.

David Arnold-Foster, chief executive of English Nature, said farm habitats made a vital contribution to Englands biodiversity.

"This guide will encourage farmers and landowners to take extra steps to manage land for wildlife or to accelerate work they are already doing." &#42

"Every farmer can work for wildlife using these simple low-cost actions which we are delighted to be promoting in partnership with the NFU."