Thousands of miles of England’s wildlife-rich hedgerows could be under threat without urgent action to plug new gaps in farming policy, the RSPB has warned.
Healthy, well-managed hedgerows provide habitat and food resources for birds, bugs and mammals and create a network of wildlife corridors through the countryside, as well as absorbing carbon to help tackle climate change.
Threatened yellowhammers, bats and hedgehogs are among the wildlife that relies on hedgerows, a report from the RSPB said.
The 547,000 km (340,000 miles) of hedgerows criss-crossing the English countryside also deliver benefits for farmers, from providing shelter for livestock to habitat for beneficial insects that help with crop pollination and natural pest control.
But as England shifts from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to a post-Brexit system which rewards farmers and landowners for public goods such as nature-friendly land management, gaps in the level of protection will occur, the report warned.
Under the EU agricultural subsidy scheme, “cross compliance” measures to ensure farmers getting payments were meeting minimum environmental standards covered an estimated 240,000 miles of hedgerows.
Agri-environmental schemes have led to the restoration and creation of nearly 37,000 miles of hedgerows across England.
But the link between payments and cross compliance measures will be severed in 2024 as part of the transition away from the EU regime that was mostly based on the amount of land farmed.
And while hedgerow management is included in the future “Sustainable Farming Incentive” (SFI) which aims to replace the old system, it will not achieve 100% uptake, the report warned.
That could leave tens of thousands of miles of hedgerows at risk, the RSPB said.
They would be reliant on Hedgerow Regulations brought in in 1997 to stop the large scale loss of hedges between the 1950s and 1990s, but those do not protect all existing hedgerows and can be difficult to enforce.
The charity’s report also said the plans by the Environment Department (Defra) to pay for hedgerow protection – effectively funding simple, business-as-usual activities, or to prevent damage – represents poor value for taxpayers’ money.
Funding under the new scheme should reward action that goes above what is expected as part of good practice, such as restoring, enhancing hedgerows, the report argues.
And it says that every £1 invested in hedgerow planting – in the right place – would deliver £3.92 back in benefits to the wider economy, while a 40% increase in hedgerow coverage across the UK would help create 25,000 jobs over a 30-year period through planting and maintenance.
The Government is expected to set out its plans for nature’s recovery in England in a green paper in early December, the RSPB said, and urged ministers to use it to reinforce and build on existing hedgerow protections.
The RSPB’s senior policy officer, Philip Carson, said: “Hedgerows have an important role to play in addressing the nature and climate emergency, supporting a vast array of wildlife and storing significant quantities of carbon.
“We must ensure these vital habitats are protected both now and in the future. If current protections are lost, it could have a devastating impact on hedgerows and for our countryside’s already beleaguered wildlife.”
Urgent action is needed to ensure proper protection for farmland habitats, alongside incentives which make a genuine contribution towards restoring nature and the environment.
He added: “However, paying for activities that were previously a universal requirement represents poor value for money, costing tens of millions of taxpayer pounds without delivering any additional benefits.
“Funding would be far better spent on more ambitious actions such as hedgerow restoration, enhancement, and creation,” he said.
An Environment Department spokesperson said: “Our landmark plans for a renewed agricultural sector will enable us to reward farmers for the work they do managing every metre of hedgerows on their holdings sustainably and in a way that is right for their area.
“We are committed to maintaining our high environmental standards during this transition.”