Last week was national hedgerow week. Our blackthorn and hawthorn have been in resplendent flower to mark the occasion. This celebration of hedges is part of Close the Gap – a year-long government project focusing on achieving bigger, healthier, better connected hedgerows.
Like many other farmers, we will be doing our bit next winter – gapping up some hedges with new whips and employing the skills of a professional hedgelayer to revitalise and thicken some that have got too leggy.
However, it irks me that the British media still love to peddle a message that farmers and hedgerows are warring neighbours. Such lazy opinion is as outdated as assuming all journalists spend their working days in the Nags Head on Fleet Street, boozing and smoking. The truth about hacks and hedges is reassuringly different.
Over the past 30 years, farmers and landowners have become better informed about hedgerow management. Environmental stewardship schemes should be credited. We have learned to appreciate that a tightly flailed hedge neither serves as a healthy habitat nor an efficient absorber of carbon and air pollution.
So, if farmers are lovers of hedges, why is planting trees met with such caution? I appreciate that with so many new woodland planting initiatives it is hard to see the wood for the trees (sorry).
The Climate Change Committee’s target of 30,000ha of newly planted trees every year for the duration of this parliament feels ambitious to the point of being a “coup d’agricole”.
There are barriers. Some tenant farmers feel intimidated by the prospect of their land being grabbed by institutional offsetters. Others are unsettled by the uncertainty over the transitional period to Environmental Land Management.
There are more historic reasons to consider too. Some tenancies do not allow the planting of trees without the landlord’s approval. Others require land planted as trees to be “handed back” as a capital asset. It isn’t straightforward. However, it is the permanence of trees which causes the greatest barrier to planting for many farmers.
How do we change this? The saying goes that foresters look up and farmers look down – the message being that we aren’t very good at recognising the others’ skills and how they may complement our own.
Surveys reveal three fundamental hurdles; a lack of knowledge, a lack of capital and a lack of advice. Yet it is available and we should be embracing it.
Next year the Queen celebrates her platinum jubilee. The Queen’s Green Canopy, (www.queensgreencanopy.org) is a UK-wide tree-planting initiative launched to thank the Queen for her exceptional service, to celebrate her 70 years on the throne, and to promote trees and the environment. I cannot think of a better way for farmers to familiarise themselves with tree planting and to contribute to this occasion.
It doesn’t need to be an area the size of Sherwood Forest. It could be a copse, a shelter belt, a new or enhanced hedge, or a single tree. We could invite local schools and community groups to come and help, to mark the occasion and share in the celebration.
The Patron of the Queen’s Green Canopy, HRH the Prince of Wales, is encouraging all to join when the planting season begins in October 2021. Following a simple rule of thumb – right tree, right time, right place – we will be planting trees among our hedges this winter.