Defra to restore rules to protect hedgerows on farmland

Defra has vowed to maintain the six-month hedgecutting ban and related rules around buffer strips on farms in England to protect wildlife.

Conservationists had raised concerns over a lapsed ban after cross-compliance rules governing hedgerow protection ended on 31 December 2023.

Following a consultation, the UK government has confirmed it will bring forward new regulations to protect hedgerows and maintain cutting bans and the requirement for 2m buffer strips left either side from the centre of hedgerows with no cultivation or application of pesticides or fertilisers.

See also: Farmers consulted on hedgerow cutting dates and buffer strips

The annual six-month ban on cutting or trimming hedges on farmland to protect nesting birds started on 1 March and will run until 31 August – unless exemptions apply or a derogation has been approved. The effect of months of wet weather on land does not count as a valid reason to cut or trim hedges.

Farmers were largely supportive in their responses to the consultation, with 82% agreeing to keep the buffer strip rules and 85% to a cutting ban period.  

The government will launch a further consultation and work with farmers and environmental groups to inform the statutory guidance that will be used to enforce the regulations.

The new requirements will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows and will be regulated by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).

Civil and criminal sanctions will also be introduced to enable the RPA to take action against anyone flouting the rules.

Cutting ban still active

In the meantime, the 1997 Hedgerow Act regulations cover the protection of hedgerows, while the Wildlife and Countryside Act focuses on offences that relate to nesting birds and other wildlife.

The government will also introduce a streamlined notification process for farmers needing an exemption to cut or trim hedges in August if they are sowing oilseed rape or temporary grass.

Defra farming minister Mark Spencer said: “Farmers have been protecting, planting and maintaining our hedgerows for centuries and I want to thank them for their continued efforts to help wildlife thrive on their farms alongside food production.”

Nature groups approval

The National Trust said it was pleased to hear that hedgerows will once again be protected by legislation. “Hedgerows are a vital part of the fabric of the UK countryside and a lifeline for dwindling wildlife, including birds and pollinators,” it said.

The Wildlife Trusts also welcomed the commitment from Defra that the rules protecting hedgerows will be reinstated.

But the organisation expressed disappointment that the government did not go further and extend the buffer zone to 4m either side of the hedge “to better support the development of hedgerow trees”.

Farmers who have hedges in Countryside Stewardship, or Environmental Stewardship/Higher Level Stewardship options who need to cut them after February are advised to contact the RPA.