How hedges can increase biodiversity and help you meet net zero targets

Tenant farmer Sarah Bolton talks about her experience planting, managing and improving hedges on her farm in the Forest of Bowland AONB.

She writes:

Here on our farm in the Forest of Bowland, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we have over 5km of hedgerows. All our land is permanent grassland, and our average field size is five acres. Tree planting is currently getting a lot of attention in the press and large tree planting targets are being discussed to help address climate change.

What we did

Being tenant farmers, it isn’t really an option for us to go out and plant vast areas with trees. One thing we can do though is make the most of what we have got and think about the right tree in the right place. Field boundaries can be managed to maximise carbon benefits with minimal impact on agricultural production. So for us, managing our hedgerows better and planting new ones is allowing us to maintain and enhance carbon storage as well as create a valuable wildlife habitat for birds, small mammals and pollinators, improving the biodiversity on the farm. They act as wildlife corridors connecting different habitats and provide invaluable shelter for our livestock – especially here as we lamb our sheep outside. They can also reduce flooding by increasing the speed at which water is absorbed into the soil.

We succeeded the farm tenancy in 2018 and one of the first things we did was to look at improving the 'green' infrastructure. Our hedgerows were in various conditions – some had become a line of remnant hawthorn trees, others had become gappy and no longer served a stockproof function. In other places we wanted to plant more hedgerows to improve shelter for our livestock.

How we did it

Our solution was to enter into a Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme which included planting new hedgerows, laying existing hedgerows and coppicing some of the old remnant hedgerows and gapping them up. Some hedgerows have been allowed to grow up taller and are managed on a longer cutting rotation. Utilising these options through a five-year Mid-Tier scheme has also allowed us to get grant aid on new fencing. On livestock farms it is so important to protect newly managed and planted hedgerows from grazing livestock to aid establishment. The new field boundaries are now allowing us to better utilise our grassland, improving our farm efficiency and will hopefully allow lambs to finish faster off grass.

Since 2019 we have planted 1,000m of hedgerow. That’s 6,000 hedgerow plants comprising a mixture of hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, hazel and holly, along with boundary trees. We have laid 120m of hedge, and coppiced and gapped up a further 500m of hedgerow. We have done all the work ourselves including fencing, tree planting and hedge laying. So it really has been a full-on family affair. It is certainly very satisfying seeing lambs tucked up with their mums appreciating the shelter from the hedgerows on a wet and windy night during lambing time.

Planning for the future

This year we have entered into another Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship agreement and plan to spend the next few years planting and gapping up another 750m of hedgerow.

I only hope that there will be sufficient grant aid in the next 20 years when all these new hedgerows we have planted will need laying. Our children should be old enough by then to hopefully continue with the family tradition of hedge laying.

It is easy to forget sometimes that hedgerows need management if we want to continue to see them as an iconic feature in our landscape. They are certainly part of the solution for farmers like us to help us to achieve net zero as well as the other multiple benefits that they offer.

Funding is available through Countryside Stewardship or alternatives such as the Woodland Trust MOREhedges scheme. The Countryside Stewardship scheme application window is open until 30 July this year and further application rounds will be available each year until 2024. Capital Grants will also be open for application next year. So, if you are interested in getting grant aid to restore and plant hedgerows on your farm, log onto Rural Payments and generate an application pack. Or head over to the Woodland Trust MOREhedges page to see how they could help on your farm. Happy hedging!

♦ Hear from NFU Environment Forum member Jake Fiennes of Holkham Hall Estate in Norfolk: Hedgerows - quintessentially British and something we should be enormously proud of

NFU Hedges Competition

If you are thinking of creating a new hedge during the next planting season you could win 100 metres worth of hedgerow plants by entering the NFU's national hedgerow competition. Find out how you can take part by taking our net zero #Pledge2040 and submitting a video or a photo with captions describing why hedgerows are important for net zero. The hedge plants will be provided by the Woodland Trust as part of its MOREhedges scheme.

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