And so it begins

The NFU is lobbying hard to be able to cut hedgerows a month earlier than is currently allowed.  This is being billed as an unfair restriction on farmers imposed because of EU legislation.  I’m not quite sure about that – do any readers of this blog know whether that is actually true?

Is this the beginning of an assault on so-called red tape, and if it is, is it a well-chosen target?

You can’t cut your hedges until September, which rules out sending round the hedge trimmers straight after harvest (which is a convenient time) and you have to wait until September when the weather, and therefore the soil conditions, may be far less favourable.

Farmers have a point – although the lovely Guy Smith, vice-president of the NFU, is quoted as saying ‘The government must give farmers and contractors the opportunity to trim hedges at a time when it is convenient for them.‘ which is typically selfish and pushy of the NFU as the public is pouring so much money into farming that we can tell farmers to do whatever we want them to do – they work for us.

However, most birds, although not all birds, will have finished nesting by mid-August and I just wonder whether there might just be a sensible compromise available here.  I, like Guy Smith, would be interested to see the science behind the 1 September date, except I guess I really would be interested in the data whereas Guy has a self-interest in the result.

And this seems to be rather a local issue from the piece in Farmers Weekly – it is a Northants contractor who is quoted and my Corby MP, Tom Pursglove (129 signatures) who is writing to Defra on this matter and a South Northants MP, Andrea Leadsom (117 signatures) who leads the relevant department of Defra.

I have written to Mr Pursglove as follows:

I’m interested to see (in the Farmers Weekly) that you plan to write to Defra on the matter of hedgerow trimming. I hope you are asking them to take into account all science relating to birds’ nesting seasons when looking at this matter. As someone with some expertise in birds, I fully appreciate that there will be relatively few birds nesting at the very end of August, but rather more at the beginning of the month.  What does the science tell us about the risk to birds from any change to the permitted cutting dates? Please may I see a copy of your letter to Defra?

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28 Replies to “And so it begins”

  1. From this it seems that not only does the growing of OSR using neonicotinoids cause harm to bees but if you are growing it you can have a derogation to harm nesting birds. It really is the crop that hates everything!

        1. ... and cabbage stem flea beetles and pollen beetles and peach potato aphids and roe deer and hares and rabbits and wood pigones and gooney birds and partridges and slugs and light leaf spot and Phoma and downy mildew and alternaria and verticillium and sclerotinia in fact so many things like it I'm always amazed it ever gets to flower briefly and produce some pollen and nectar and a few seeds full of edible oil and protein and what with the effect of its deep tap roots on soil condition and the recycling of leached nutrients from depth it really is the crop that goes on giving and it's really surprising that there isn't a lot more of it grown but there again that pleases the hand-wringing Yellowists who find it unnatural and would rather see beautiful blue linseed

  2. I'm no expert in legislation, but it looks like if you are a farmer claiming money from the rural payments schemes (e.g. Basic Payments Scheme), then you need to follow "Cross Compliance" rules:

    If they are being paid to comply with this, it would seem sensible to reduce or remove their payments if they no longer wish to comply. It sounds like they are claiming payments (which probably come from the EU) and therefore have to obey the EU rules - can't have it both ways!

    Obviously the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 prohibits disturbing nesting birds, but as you point out, most will have finished nesting by mid-August

  3. My impression was that the 1 September date came from BTO nest record scheme data submitted to DEFRA:

    Dr Leech said the data showed a number of species breed “well into August”. He added: “The results show that for some species by the end of July there are very few active nests. Chaffinches are a great example.

    “But for a lot of farmland bird species, such as buntings, bullfinch, linnet and yellowhammer, there are likely to be active nests with content through until the end of August.

    “These are species of concern. They are farmland birds which have been declining over the last 50 years.”

    Dr Leech also noted a couple of long distance migrant birds – turtle dove and spotted flycatcher – which the BTO surveys showed still nest in August. "

  4. Even if they leave it until September to benefit breeding birds, what about all the potential autumn/winter food in the form of hedgerow berries that get removed? And, there are overwintering butterfly eggs such as White Letter Hairstreak on Elm twigs. Better to cut a proportion of hedges on any one farm every year, rather than all of them every year in my opinion.

  5. Hedge trimming ... I will take a very deep breath and try to be constructive and not get angry...

    In my purely anecdotal and unscientific experience the restriction on trimming hedges is already ignored - I saw my first battered and flailed hedge of the season in the countryside round 'ere more than two weeks ago. Although it was clearly in the countryside it might not have been a farmer wot trimmed it - do the same restrictions also apply to highways authorities and others?

    Perhaps there might be one advantage in a trim a little earlier if it allowed some regrowth at the end of the summer, meaning a little more cover for birds etc. over the winter.

    As well as the effect on birds nesting what of the effect on food availability for all those young birds around at the end of summer with vegetation cover gone? Lack of cover from generalist predators for young and inexperienced birds? Lack of food for insects? Environmental soundness or otherwise of disposal of all those hedge trimmings - if they could be left somewhere quiet and out of the way rather than put through the chipper could they act as a food source? And all the time, money and carbon for getting the tractor out, putting diesel in it and giving the hedges their trim - maybe if trimming isn't convenient we could manage with a bit less of it?

    Then there is the small matter of the effect on the hedges themselves - which are wildlife too - and the trees growing in them (or the potential trees that might grow in them if they weren't trimmed). Not so much when they're trimmed but how they're trimmed - do they all really need to be flailed to within an inch of their lives every year? Would civilization collapse if farmers (or anyone else for that matter) did half of their hedges one year and half the following year, or only gave a light trim most years and a bigger trim say one year in five? Is it really acceptable to slash at hedges with a clumsy mechanical flail and then bugger off without any attempt to make good any damage? After all the hedgerows that have been grubbed out in the last half century do we really have any spare hedges to mess about with? What of the mature trees that get caught in the crossfire and get lumps ripped off their bark and large branches smashed as collateral damage, does anyone bother to go back and see if they're alright? If after a drunken night out I subjected the trees in my local park to the treatment many hedges receive how would the magistrate look upon my actions when I'd sobered up the following morning?

    What do actual farmers think rather than the NFU - e.g. your friend Duncan Ballantyne? Does he mind the 'red tape' restrictions on when he can do what, or does he welcome the guidance so he knows he's not harming the wildlife in the landscape he cares about when he trims his hedges? Answers on a postcard to Mrs Leadsom please...

    1. I agree - restrictions are widely ignored. A whole hedge along a field edge was uprouted here in May/June! It's a bit like the illegal persecution of raptors - who's to see it in the depths of the countryside, so let's just go ahead and risk it - no-one will know or care.

  6. Mark

    The law is clear and unambiguous. Wild bird's nests, when active, are protected. Regardless of the season. There are a few exceptions to this, where the nest is protected year round, as they are used year on year. Osprey is an example. These permanent protected nests are not really relevant to the blog but I add the commentary for completeness.

    There is no law, UK, or EU that I am aware of, that gives a 1st September cut off (pun not intended); or indeed a corresponding date when cutting should cease. It is a convention, origins lost in the mists of time, which may have been possibly based on that scientific graph, the bell-shaped curve. On the other hand, it may merely be based on a passing comment by someone in authority which has stuck and remained.

    In the planning sector, developers are reminded that the bird breeding season is typically taken as commencing from approximately April to August and I recall when Natural England had a useful website with useful information that they may have mentioned this or words to this effect.

    There is of course no legal impediment for anyone to trim a hedge providing of course they abide by the law. For farmers, this includes the Hedgerow Regulations 1997. The 1997 Regulations are made under the Environment Act 1995 (s. 97 to be precise).

    Hope this helps


    1. Quite, but sadly I can't think of any incidences where breach of regs or cross compliance has been challenged let alone anyone prosecuted, at least in this part of Yorkshire.

      High time there was independent assessment of farms/businesses in receipt of public funding to ensure compliance and public benefit. Not as an easy income stream which might see potential conflict of interest for some organisations.

  7. The concern in my part of Lincolnshire is how late the hedges are cut (slaughtered) in the spring.
    Not all, but many farmers now seem to cut into April when nesting has started. Also, not all, but many farmers now seem to cut both sides at once rather than one side this year and the other next.
    Too often we are left with a hedge so thin that it is useless for nesting birds anyway.

    Today's 'Silent Spring' is about more than poisons.

  8. Mark - just for your info - I don't seem to be able to "like" comments any more. The icon changes from eg Likes (1) to Likes (..) not (2). Logging in and out doesn't update.

    I'd guess same is true of dislikes... but I like all these comments 🙂

    Anyone else having this trouble?

    1. Jbc - might be a cache problem in your web browser. Try going to settings or settings and clearing all temporary files/cookies - it may be called delete browsing history or similar depending on your browser. Hope that helps, good luck...

  9. "typically selfish and pushy of the NFU"

    I don't recall any trade union acting except in the interests of its members, or shedding other than crocodile tears over the impacts of its actions on the public. Indeed - it would be regarded as a failure on the part of its officers if they did not seek to further its members' interests against those of their employers. Whoever they are.

  10. Farming is faced with the challenge of a lifetime. NFU and the agricultural industry's' response to almost everything has been 'intensify' but at current grain prices even the most intensive farming won't make money - and the cut red tape arbument plays straight into the hands of the cur subsidies argument- which could well leave both farming and the countryside a tattered wreck within a generation.

    NFU, and equally the conservation sector, need to stop and think how they are going to make a convincing case for continued support to the countryside from the urban majority n the face of open cometition for resources. Clearly, being paid forbtangible benefits - whether flood mitigation of wildlife - looks a rather better prospect than 'we have a ightno money without strings' .

  11. This is an issue the NFU have been banging on about for since the closed period for hedge cutting was extended to include August in 2015. It's not often I agree with the NFU but in this instance I think they have a fair point. I can see it why it can cause some farmers a few problems, especially on heavy land, and those that grow WOSR or sow grass leys in August.

    A derogation is available from the RPA, and I know of a few farmers that have taken advantage of it. Whilst many have found it straight forward, others haven't - much seems to depend on whose desk/inbox the derogation request lands on, and the derogation is only available for hedges bordering fields in WOSR or grass reseeds. Easy enough for for bigger farms with farm secretaries but a pain the backside for the smaller one-man-band units.

    I think the biggest issue here is that most hedge trimming is undertaken by contractors and they can't get around everybody at once, and the extension of the closed period to August has on heavy land farms reduced the window available for cutting from 2-3 months to 1-2 months in a typical year. In a hard winter this is not so much of a problem because a hard ground frost allows winter trimming without damaging soils, however last winter we barely seemed to get a more a couple of frosty days.

    I think we should also bear in mind that a lot of the hedges that were being cut in August were on a two or three year rotation. Typically, three years worth of regrowth is just about as much as most flail trimmers can cope with and four years worth of regrowth in some hedges necessitates cutting with a circular saw type cutter and not many contractors or farmers have got them. As such the new rules are likely to dissuade those farming on heavier soils and/or in high rainfall areas, from implementing biennial or triennial trimming regimes - and its important to note that hedges with two or three years worth of growth take much longer to trim.

    Personally I think we should go back to closer period of March - July. It's not as if between the years of 2005 - 2015 there was a notable issue across England regarding August hedge trimming.

  12. A sense of deja vue if one keeps an eye on the neighbours:

  13. I agree with the other comments. It's more than just about nests but habitat and the entire food chain right to the bottom. Hedge, verge and tree cutting has recently become too frequent and too intensive and that is across the board - farms, roadsides, parks, gardens. Something needs to be done to stop this.

  14. I'll never understand why hedges are not allowed to be cut to protect birds but yet the same birds are given a death sentence in the winter as all the fruit has been stripped from the hedgerows in Autumn by cutting. Hawthorn, rose hips, elder, blackberries, sloes, crab apples, guelder rose, holly, mistletoe, rowan, honeysuckle, ivy, spindle etc etc. This are vital food sources for birds in winter and when snow covers the ground and insects are unavailable it is all they have to eat. But every year farmers destroy it just when it looks so colourful and vibrant. All we are left with are smashed stems like some nuclear holocaust. If I had my way cutting would only be done in February every other year and on one side the first year and the other the following year. This is because hawthorn fruits on the previous year's growth. So cutting it every year removes next year's flowers resulting in no berries. I've never seen a hedge kill anyone yet because no one cut it. Why is it so important? Is it OCD? Farmers say they are so busy, and money is tight. Yet hedge cutting costs them both time AND money. Makes no sense to me.

    1. I think most farmers would prefer to cut their hedges in February but for many it's just not a practical option If you have ever tried driving a tractor on an unstructured clay soil when it's at full capacity then you'll know the results aren't pretty. Nor is it a good idea to traffic on cultivated land at that time of year unless the idea is to encourage soil compaction.

      The idea that hedge cutting costs are meaningfully reduced by biennial or triennial trimming is a myth, just ask any farmer or hedge-cutting contractor. Cutting one side the first year and the other the following year often doesn't make much practical sense as you still have to do something with the top - far better to just cut both sides at the same time on a rotation. The best way to achieve is to colour code each hedge on a map, with a key to inform the contractor which colour to cut in any given year - simple.

      Ideally we should be encouraging farmers to provide an aggregation of hedge types and cutting regimes across the farm, based around the type of species that are found on the farm. Some hedges allowed to get tall and bushy and cut on a 3-4 year rotation, some cut every other year, some cut annually and some not cut at all.

  15. I came across a local farmer obliterating a lovely old thick hedge the other day. When I politely remonstrated with him, I received a torrent of abuse.

    On the plus side, leaving the EU will now cut subsidies and more land will lie fallow.


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