Updated: Aug 10, 2020
An overlooked biodiversity scandal by Daisy Cave
When thinking of environmentally-focused legislation, the big names that come to mind tend to be the ‘Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981’, maybe the ‘Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000’ and perhaps, at a push, the ‘Protection of Badgers Act 1992’. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand why the ‘Hedgerow Regulations 1997’ are so easily swept under the carpet and ignored. The lack of linguistic cohesion makes one question whether they were extracted from the Magna Carta, rather than being the work of John Major’s Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Howard (who would go on to lead the Conservative Party himself, in 2003). Across England, hedgerows are the most widespread semi-natural habitats. Therefore, when it comes to protecting our natural spaces, hedgerows should be a top concern; they deserve far better than the poorly-thought-out regulations that are currently in place. Put simply, the document is just too difficult to understand to be of use. Essentially, the regulations exist to safeguard important hedgerows against removal. Special permission to remove hedgerows must be sought from local government authorities and this can be denied if the hedgerow meets the regulation’s criteria. The issue is that the act is notoriously difficult to understand and, as such, is frequently complained about, not least by employees at DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). Another reason why the regulations urgently need to be revised is that they simply fail when it comes to protecting hedgerows from destruction. It is, frankly, near impossible for a hedgerow to meet the excessive requirements for ‘important’ status. As a result, local authorities and campaign groups lack the grounds to push for hedgerow retention notices regarding at-risk hedges. For example, to be deemed important, the hedge needs to be older than 30 years and meet at least one of the points laid out in Part II of Schedule 1. Here is one of the ways an important hedgerow is defined in Schedule 1: “at least 6 woody species, and has associated with it at least 3 of the features specified in sub-paragraph (4)”; this small sample from the regulations reveals the (in my opinion) unnecessary requirements to define important hedgerows, in addition to the poor writing contained within the article. It should be noted that the document also provides no flexibility for councils to set out appropriate definitions for their area. For instance, one qualifying factor for a hedgerow being protected is if it marks a pre-1850 town boundary. In many parts of the country, towns have been established in the nearly 170 years subsequent to this cut-off date and, as such, any hedges along more modern borders are not necessarily protected. To highlight the importance of hedgerows in the UK, 21 priority bird species directly rely on them and they also provide food, shelter and migration routes that are essential to the likes of dormice and bats. As well as being a utopia for native wildlife, our hedges are also vital for arable areas, providing a physical barrier against water run-off as well as wind-born soil erosion. Therefore, if we want to retain many cherished, yet declining, species and preserve our ability to grow crops to feed the nation, we need to prioritise the conditions of our hedgerows. DEFRA can only work with the legislation presented to them and, after over 22 years, they deserve better than the ‘Hedgerow Regulation 1997’. It could be argued that politicians in Westminster are far removed from many of the threats facing local wildlife, and the only way to achieve a fully working set of regulations would be if these were directly informed by those who face the current document’s problems every day, such as the regional Wildlife Trusts, DEFRA and wildlife consultancies.
From Issue 19