Hedge cutting rules: interim guidance

27 February 2024

Environment and climate
The edge of a field and a hedge, taken from ground level

As we continue to await the government’s consultation response on the future protection of hedgerows, the NFU has summarised the key hedgerow rules to be aware of as we move into March.

In 2023, Defra ran a consultation on what the future of hedgerow management could look like. That consultation closed on 20 September 2023.

There were two main directions, the first being a continuation of the cross compliance rules (specifically the no-cutting period and the 2m buffer strips) while the other was to spend a longer period of time crafting new domestic policies to be followed.

Since then, BPS finished on 31 December 2023, and as a result so did the limited cross compliance enforcement and sanction mechanism. This means the requirements for hedgerow management (no-cutting period and the 2m buffer strips) which only existed in cross compliance were no longer enforced through cross compliance mechanisms.

Where we are now

Defra has however stated through both the consultation and other communications during this time that it will seek to continue to strongly protect the environment, that includes the management of hedgerows and recently, in a parliamentary exchange, Minister Pow has been quoted as stating that the government is seeking a legislative solution to protect the management of hedgerows going forward.

We wait to find out more on this and the outcome of the consultation.

Read the NFU’s response to the consultation.

Given the direction of travel, the NFU would recommend members to consider very carefully what to do and follow the available guidance in line with domestic legislation and the terms of their own agreements if they are in Sustainable Farming Incentive, Environmental or Countryside Stewardship and in light of what may be imposed via new legislation in the coming weeks and months.

It is important to be aware that hedgerows are not unregulated and this does not allow you to cut hedges at any time.

There are still a number of legislative requirements which will continue to impact what can, and cannot, be done to hedges legally. Agri-environment schemes also impose hedgerow management requirements.

We cover these points in the remainder of this article.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

The cross compliance hedge cutting dates were an interpretation of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. While the 1997 Hedgerow Act regulations covered the protection of important hedgerows, the Wildlife and Countryside Act focuses on offences which relate to nesting birds and other wildlife.

Some species nest within hedgerows, meaning it will be critically important to check all hedges before work is undertaken to ensure no nesting wildlife is present in the hedge. The Act specifically outlines protections for both birds and other forms of wildlife, including small mammals and insects.

This means that a comprehensive assessment of the hedge will be necessary before engaging in any trimming or other work when it is known there is wildlife activity within hedges which could disturb either nesting birds or harm any other protected wildlife within the hedge.

Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship

For Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship (ES - HLS) agreement holders, with hedgerow and tree options there are restrictions to hedge cutting dates.

For example, in CS (Countryside Stewardship) option BE3 hedgerow management sets out the cutting windows that should be followed to deliver the aim.

In older agreements these dates must be complied with.

Cut hedgerows in one of the following ways:

  • no more than 1 year in 3 between 1 September and 28 February – leave at least two-thirds of hedges untrimmed each year.
  • no more than 1 year in 2 between 1 January and 28 February – leave at least one-half of hedges untrimmed each year.

If you have hedges in CS, or ES/HLS hedgerow options, and need to cut them after the end of February, it is recommended to contact the RPA for guidance in the first instance.

The RPA may recommend that you submit an MTA (Minor and Temporary Adjustment) if you cannot get to your hedges to cut them, this is in order to avoid any possible consequences if you cannot meet your scheme requirements

For more information read the Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship guidance which can be found at: GOV.UK | Countryside Stewardship.

Sustainable Farming Incentive

Similarly, SFI also contains provisions which can impact on the scope of options available when considering hedgerow management.

For example, for option HRW2: Managing Hedgerows, the following guidance is outlined online:

‘If you’re cutting fully established hedgerows incrementally, you must do this each year of your 3-year SFI agreement during the autumn and winter months.

‘If you’re cutting fully established hedgerows on a rotation, you must cut each hedgerow no more than either:

  • once every 3 years during the autumn and winter months, cutting no more than one third of hedges each year.
  • once every 2 years in late winter, cutting no more than half of the hedges each year.’

The guidance here is more flexible, but the crucial element is that cutting must take place during the winter months and no more than once every 2/3 years depending on your individual management plan.

For more information on the SFI guidance, visit: GOV.UK | Sustainable Farming Incentive.

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