Hedgerow management rules: new legislation update

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

New legislation, (the Management of Hedgerows (England) Regulations 2024), has come into force, meaning that continued baseline hedgerow management practices will remain in place.

This follows draft legislation which was published on 16 April 2024 and which passed through both relevant Houses of Parliament committees in May. The new rules will provide a consistent approach across all people operating on agricultural land.

This includes:

  • A 2-metre buffer strip, measured from the centre of a hedgerow, where a green cover must be established and maintained. Also, no cultivation or the application of pesticides or fertilisers should take place within this buffer strip.
  • A hedgerow cutting ban from 1 March – 31 August (inclusive).

These practices will be subject to exemptions and derogations which are set out in the legislation and rules for farmers. The new legislation broadly mirrors the previous approach under cross compliance, but it is critical to carefully consider the guidance in place.

This new legislation will impact those that have land within scope of this legislation and have not been subject to cross compliance rules in the past.

The RPA will be the regulator and will take an advice-led approach to enforcing this new legislation. The new legislation does introduce a set of civil sanctions (stop / compliance / restoration notices and variable monetary penalty) that can be used by the RPA if the rules are not being followed, however these are said to be used as point of last resort.

This is new legislation is in addition to the protection of important hedges covered by the Hedgerow Regulations 1997, which did not cover the management of hedgerows as set out above.

How we got here

In 2023, Defra ran a consultation on what the future of hedgerow management could look like. That consultation closed on 20 September 2023. On 4 March 2024, Defra published its future proposed plans for hedgerow regulation in England, taking on board comments made by the NFU and other organisations, as well as from individual members of the public and farmers.

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.

At the time, Defra said it would pursue the first option, incorporating the cross compliance rules into domestic legislation.

Since the consultation ended, BPS finished on 31 December 2023, and as a result so did the previous cross compliance enforcement and sanction mechanism. This means the requirements for hedgerow management no longer had a legal authority, as they were enforced through the cross compliance mechanisms, specifically GAEC 7A. This changed on 23 May 2024 when new legislation came into force.

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When will the new legislation apply from?

The intention was to bring this new legislation into force swiftly due to the gap in legislation since 1 January 2024.

Cutting and trimming rules came into force on 23 May 2024; that means we are now in the non-cutting or trimming period unless the exemptions apply.

Buffer strip rules also came into force on 23 May 2024 and they apply from the following dates:

  • on land used for crop production from the end of the first harvest after 1 July 2024,
  • on all other land that these rules apply to (including permanent pasture and temporary pasture), from 1 July 2024.

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Finding the rules

The RPA has published guidance which is split up between cutting and trimming rules and the buffer strip rules. This guidance can be found using the links below. Please read them carefully and in full:

In addition to publishing this information, the RPA has emailed or written to farmers informing them of their obligations under the regulations.

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Key rules to be aware of

Cutting and trimming rules

You must not cut or trim a hedgerow that is covered by the rules from 1 March – 31 August. You must not cause, or permit, another person to cut or trim such a hedgerow.

A hedgerow is a line of bushes which can include trees. Any trees growing in a hedgerow will be treated as part of the hedgerow. It also includes hedgerows on top of a traditional hedgerow bank.

The cutting and trimming rules apply to a hedgerow if it meets the criteria for both length and location:

Length

The rules apply if a hedgerow is:

  • more than 20m long with gaps of 20m or less in its length,
  • less than 20m long, but meets another hedgerow at each end.

Any gap of 20 metres or less will be treated as part of the hedgerow.

Location

The rules apply if a hedgerow is growing on, or next to, land used for agriculture, including:

  • horticulture
  • fruit growing
  • seed growing
  • dairy farming
  • the breeding and keeping of livestock – this includes horses, ponies and any animal kept for its use in farming, or for the production of food, wool or skins.

It includes grazing land, meadow land, osier land, market gardens, nursery grounds and allotments. And woodlands where agricultural activities take place.

Exemptions from the rules

There are a number of exemptions set out in the rules where cutting or trimming is permitted from 1 March – 31 August, these cover:

  • public and private rights of way
  • hedge-laying and coppicing
  • boundaries of a private garden
  • risks to plant, human or animal health
  • weed or pest infestations
  • work required by a statutory body
  • exemptions when sowing oilseed rape or temporary grass in August – a notification to the RPA is required – read the rules very carefully.

The rules set out if you need to notify the RPA. In all situations, it is important to keep a record of all works that you carry out under an exemption. If you are visited by the RPA you must be able to prove how and why you relied on the exemption.

It is important to note that the exemptions only apply to the hedgerow management rules on cutting and trimming. When carrying out any actions related to the above exemptions, you must follow any other rules or legislation in place, for example, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Reporting of breaches / RPA visits and enforcement

The guidance also covers how someone can report a suspected breach of the rules, what to expect on a visit by the RPA and offences and enforcement.

Buffer strip rules

These rules came into force on 23 May 2024, but please note when they will apply from as set out above.

You must take all reasonable steps to establish and maintain a green cover on land within 2 metres of the centre of a hedgerow covered by the hedgerow management buffer strip rules.

You must not cultivate or apply fertilisers or pesticides to land within 2 metres of the centre of a hedgerow covered by the hedgerow management buffer strip rules.

The rules apply to any person responsible for the hedgerow. This includes owners and tenants and anyone employed, engaged or otherwise acting on behalf of those responsible.

The rules set out what is a fertiliser and a pesticide.

These rules apply to a hedgerow as set out above in the trimming and cutting section.

Exemptions from the rules

There are a number of exemptions from the rules not to cultivate or apply fertilisers or pesticides set out in the guidance. These include:

  • To control the spread of injurious or invasive weeds.
  • Establishing new green cover to comply with the rules.
  • Risks to plant, human or animal health.
  • Weed or pest infestations.

Additionally, the rules set out where the buffer strip rules do not apply.

There is also guidance setting out when you can apply to the RPA for written permission (a derogation) to be exempt from the buffer strip rules not to cultivate or apply fertilisers or pesticides and how you can go about this.

Exemptions are limited to the hedgerow management rules - these exemptions only apply to the hedgerow management rules on buffer strips. When carrying out any actions related to the above exemptions, you must follow any other rules or legislation in place, for example, the Farming Rules for Water and the Nitrate Vulnerable Zones rules.

Reporting of breaches / RPA visits and enforcement

The guidance also covers how someone can report a suspected breach of the rules, what to expect on a visit by the RPA, and offences and enforcement.

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Further considerations

It is important to note the following points when it comes to hedgerow management.

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

For example, in CS (Countryside Stewardship) option BE3 hedgerow management, it sets out the cutting windows that should be followed to deliver the aim. The windows reflect the regulation. It is important to check what dates are in your agreement; these must be complied with. 

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, option HRW2/CHRW2: Managing Hedgerows, supports different approaches to hedge management through cutting on rotation, cutting incrementally higher each year, or leaving uncut for three years in preparation for laying or coppicing. Hedge cutting will need to be compliant with the new hedgerow regulations.

If you have been unable to manage hedgerows in HRW2 due to the wet weather conditions, the wet weather temporary adjustments confirm that the offer allows for hedges to be left uncut.

For more information on the wet weather adjustments, visit: GOV.UK | Wet weather: temporary support for farmers in 2024.

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

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This page was first published on 27 February 2024. It was updated on 24 May 2024.


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