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There are rules on when to cut a hedge. Hedge cutting is legally banned in the UK from 1st March to 31st August, in order to protect nesting birds on farms. In 2016, Defra made the decision to extend the hedge cutting ban to include the month of August.

This was based on analysis of bird nesting records provided by volunteers to the British Ornithology Trust. They identified buntings, Bullfinches and Linnets as likely to be active in nests until the end of August. In a call to repeal the August ban, a campaign supported by Farmers Weekly, the NFU and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), is questioning the “evidence” used to justify the non-cutting period.

Hedgerows are without a doubt a quintessential symbol of the British countryside. However, most of us are unaware of just how profoundly we have been affected by their introduction, as part of the Enclosures Act and then by their notorious destruction in post war Britain. These changes have influenced how we farm and produce food today.

Each hedge is different, with an abundance of flora, fauna and mycota, owing to the changes in soil, pH, moisture levels, climate, age and whether there’s a field margin, ditch and bank. Birds use hedges to nest in, as corridors to move across and as song posts from which they proclaim their territories. Hedgerows also provide food and shelter for many species of mammal and invertebrate, such as seeds and berries for Bank Voles and insects, spiders and woodlice for the Common Shrew.In addition to habitat benefits, the cut debris is a useful but often neglected biofuel for humans; hedges also keep stock in, protect against soil erosion and act as a windbreak to name just a few uses.

At one time, it was thought that hedgerows were just unproductive places that shaded crops, harboured pests, weeds and diseases and needed costly maintenance. Hedges were often removed because small fields were considered unsuitable for increasingly more specialised production, as farming moved away from the traditional mixed livestock and arable enterprises. Put simply, big machinery needs big fields in which to operate and many arable fields no longer need to be stock proofed. For many farmers, the positive impact of hedges for wildlife is now well established. However, outside a grant system, the volatility of farm profits and narrowed window for cutting and operating on land may prove problematic for those that rely on a subsidy and on external contractors to complete the work.

For the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), it’s not just when a hedge is cut that’s important but how often, when and how much it is cut – so less about hedge cutting and more about ‘hedge management’. The popular practice in farming has been to cut hedges straight after harvest.  This risks removing the berry crop before it is ripe and can be used by wildlife. Over-flailed hedges that are annually cut also remove the growth that would produce flowers in spring (and reduce the potential berry crop). Yet few hedges need to be cut every year – except to help with the thickening up process or when needed for roadside safety. According to Hedgelink UK, a two, three or four-year cycle can prove beneficial to wildlife, as well as being economically more efficient to a farm.

Berries often disappear between January and the beginning of March, and so February for many farmers remains the best time to cut a hedge. Frost or dry weather is possible at this time allowing hedge cutting even on arable lands. Research conducted in 1997, as part of a series of field trials on a CRT farm in Cambridgeshire, looking at field margins and hedge management showed that running over a crop deliberately in March led to increased yield due to tillering. This was shared in a pocket guide created for farmers called “Hedgerow and Field Margin Management” produced by The Countryside Restoration Trust and The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

In essence there are many ways to manage a hedge successfully, including laying a hedge in a traditional way (further information can be found here) or coppicing on a longer cycle to produce firewood logs.

According to Dr. Vince Lea, Head of Wildlife Monitoring at the CRT, “having a variety of shapes and sizes of hedge will benefit the greatest range of species on a farm, from tightly clipped to overgrown but it’s important to understand the farm’s objectives. If shade is a worry, allow hedges running roughly north-south to grow large, while keeping east-west hedgerows shorter. Fundamentally hedgerows are ‘managed habitats’ and should be integrated into a farm’s plan, not seen as a nuisance to be managed separately. The network of habitat connections provided by hedgerows allow wildlife to move across the landscape; more important than ever as species’ distributions move northwards in response to climate change. That’s why it’s so important to protect the farmed countryside, its wildlife and to value the people with the knowledge and skills to look after it”.

The CRT alongside CRT tenant farmer Tim Scott will be hosting the National Hedge Laying Championships in 2018 at Lark Rise farm in Barton near Cambridge. We are hoping to re-print the “Farmer’s Pocket Guide to Hedgerow and Field Margin Management” as a special edition and make it available in a digital format next year to celebrate our Silver Jubilee Year and hosting the championships.

Please register your interest here if you would like to receive a free copy.