The future of hedgerow protections – have your say

18 August 2023

A hedgerow alongside a farm

Defra is consulting on how to ensure hedgerows in England continue to get the right level of protection as we move away from cross compliance which is due to end by 2024. 

Defra is seeking views on:

  • how the protection of hedgerows should be approached after the end of cross compliance
  • the sanction regime that could be applied to enforce compliance

Defra has put forward two proposals for hedgerow protection rules:

You can read our deeper dive into what these proposals could mean, further down the page.

To find out more about current hedgerow cutting derogation rules, visit: Applying for a hedge cutting derogation


Defra states that it wants to support farmers to maintain standards as we move away from cross compliance.

In most cases, the cross compliance rules are already in domestic legislation (for example cattle ID or NVZ) and will continue to provide important protections to the environment and animals. Farmers must continue to comply with these requirements, and regulatory authorities have powers to enforce.

However, some of the cross compliance rules do not have the same requirements in domestic law – this includes hedgerows and other field boundaries, soils, and watercourse buffer strips. In all of these situations Defra has been actively considering the most appropriate approach to prevent environmental harm and encourage good practice, whether that is through regulation, incentives or other means.

Under cross compliance, management measures to protect hedgerows are covered by GAEC 7a: GOV.UK | Cross Compliance 2023

david exwood portrait 04

“Farmers are well-placed to decide how best to manage hedges and where to plant them to ensure food production is not significantly compromised.”

NFU Vice President David Exwood

Legal protection for hedgerows is provided by the Hedgerows Regulations 1997. This prohibits the removal or partial removal of hedgerows of 20 metres or more growing on common land, protected land or agricultural land without prior notice given to local planning authorities. The local planning authority is then responsible for deciding whether a hedgerow is ‘important’ (according to criteria relating to its wildlife, landscape, historical or archaeological value set out in the Regulations) and therefore should not be removed.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 also contains various offences relating to removing the nests and eggs of wild birds, disturbing nest-building wild birds or their young, and damaging or destroying the sheltering places of wild animals. However, there is no direct domestic equivalent of the hedgerow management measures in GAEC 7a.

This Defra consultation seeks views on the best way forward for protecting hedgerows in England.

NFU position

NFU Vice President David Exwood outlined the outcomes the NFU is looking for following the consultation: “Maintaining and managing existing hedges, growing and developing bigger hedgerows, and planting more will continue to play an important role on farm, helping to deliver for the environment and increase the carbon stored.

“The NFU would like to see the future management of hedges take into account practical management aspects that work with farmed land and those that use it, such as a range of exemptions, including those currently a feature of the cross-compliance guidance as they are based on challenges faced by the farming sector on an annual basis.

“These include keeping field access points and rights of way routes clear and unobstructed from a health and safety view point.”

The NFU is currently developing a response to the consultation following member feedback.

We have now closed our form for responses. However you can still contribute directly to Defra via the government's consultation page before 20 September at: GOV.UK | Consultation on protecting hedgerows

28 June 2023

Defra launches consultation

As part of the transition to a new domestic agriculture policy in England following the UK exiting the EU, Defra is looking at the environmental safeguards that need to be in place following the ending of cross compliance in 2023 and where those safeguards do not exist in existing domestic legislation.

One area that Defra is looking to ensure measures remain in place is around the management of hedges which currently only exist in cross compliance.

Defra's consultation explained

Defra have two options that they pose in the consultation on how to regulate hedgerows post cross compliance, these being:

Option 1: rollover existing cross compliance rules

Initially rollover existing cross compliance rules, looking at the definition of important hedges, followed by a second stage of broader protections.

Defra state that it could simply replicate the existing cross compliance requirements in domestic law, by making changes to the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 to include hedgerow management measures that would sit alongside existing provisions relating to removal of hedgerows in England.

Timescale: This could be introduced in Summer 2024 as a minimum level of protection. It is said to be the quickest way to ensure that basic hedgerow management actions become legal requirements and would provide a set of measures that would be familiar to the majority of farmers and land managers.

The measures Defra could replicate are set out below:

1. Maintaining the current GAEC 7a requirement to ensure green cover on land 2 metres from the centre of a hedgerow (on all fields over 2 hectares). Cross compliance requires that green cover be maintained on land around a hedgerow. This means that cultivation on this strip of land is prohibited.

2. Maintaining the current GAEC 7a requirement not to spray pesticide or fertiliser on land within 2 metres of the base of a hedgerow (on all fields over 2 hectares).

3. Ensuring that hedge cutting and management takes account of wildlife within hedgerows and supports biodiversity. Under cross compliance, cutting hedgerows is prohibited between 1 March and 31 August to protect nesting birds and their food source.

4. Introducing a new definition of an ‘important’ hedgerow in addition to the existing definition in the Hedgerows Regulations 1997. Hedgerows are currently defined as ‘important’ if they have existed for 30 years or more and they meet one or more of the criteria set out in Schedule 1 of the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 (for example, if they contain species of wildlife). If a hedgerow meets this criterion, there are provisions in place to prohibit its removal. This definition with regards to the removal of hedgerows will remain the same. 

5. Exemptions to the regulations. Currently, under cross compliance, you can apply to cut or trim hedgerows for the purposes of sowing oilseed rape or temporary grassland during the month of August. At present, you must apply to the RPA explaining why you wish to cut or trim a hedgerow and the land parcel it will affect. Hedges can also be cut without a derogation via exemptions to manage a hedge which overhangs a highway, road or footpath over which there is a public or private right of way. There are also exemptions around out hedge-laying or coppicing during the period 1 March to 30 April (inclusive) and trimming a newly laid hedge by hand, within 6 months of it being laid.

Farmers are also exempt from keeping green cover on land within 2 metres of the centre of a hedgerow if the land parcel is 2 hectares or less, or if a hedgerow is less than 5 years old. Defra are seeking views on whether they should also replicate these exemptions.

Who could be affected by these proposals in this option and how could they be avoided?

For farmers who were not receiving payments under BPS, have a Rural Development (RD), Countryside Stewardship (CS) or Environmental Stewardship (ES) agreement where it is a requirement to adhere to cross compliance rules (including the rules applicable to managing hedgerows), these would be new requirements. To minimise any additional burden from these requirements, Defra is considering an additional exemption for farms under 5 hectares, to mirror the BPS eligible land. 

Option 2: alternative approach

Rather than simply replicate the existing requirements as soon as possible, Defra states it could look to develop new legal protections for hedgerows.

This could give Defra more flexibility to shape its hedgerow policy to help achieve environmental and net zero outcomes. It could also allow scope for considering applying protections to a broader range of hedgerows, beyond just those on agricultural land.

Defra is interested in views on what requirements would be the most effective at preventing environmental harm without unnecessary burdens on farmers or others with hedgerows on their land.

Timescale: If Defra needs primary legislation, this could begin no sooner than Autumn 2024. This would mean measures coming into force late 2025 at the earliest.

Who will be affected by these proposals?

Defra states that amending the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 to include management measures would impact on all farmers and land managers in England who have hedgerows on their agricultural land, aside from those covered by various exemptions.

Those who are already governed by cross compliance requirements would not be subject to any additional burden because of these proposals.

Civil sanctions

Defra is also looking at how hedges are currently regulated, the sanction regime which could be applied and what would be the best approach going forward.

Defra states that it is not proposing any changes regarding the removal of hedgerows at this time.

Depending on the outcome of the consultation, it envisages the RPA being the regulator looking after the management of hedges.

Defra is proposing to introduce civil sanctions; this would ensure there are a range of measures to suit individual circumstances. 

An example of a harmful activity would be spraying herbicides too close to a hedge destroying it as both a landscape feature and wildlife habitat. In this example, the harm could have been an accidental oversight or a deliberate action. The areas damaged could vary in size and would therefore need to be addressed in very different ways.

The sanctions Defra propose to make available to the regulator will be:

Stop notices: these would prohibit a person or company from performing a harmful activity, until mitigation measures have been put in place. The regulator must justifiably believe that the activity will cause or present a significant risk of causing serious harm to the environment, and that without the stop notice the person committing harm will continue.

Compliance notices: these would require a person to take specific or measured steps in a fixed time frame to prevent harm from continuing or reoccurring. This can be seen as a sanction for the increased severity of harm, with guidance given to try and rectify harms to the environment. 

Restoration notices: A restoration notice carries the requirement to rectify damage resulting from non-compliance. 

Fixed monetary penalties: Fixed Monetary Penalty (FMP) is a financial tool to penalise non-compliance. The regulator must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the person or company has committed the offence. Unlike a VMP where there is discretion for the regulator to set the amount of penalty, the value of an FMP is determined using specific criteria or is specified in a Ministerial Order. 

Variable monetary penalties: A Variable Monetary Penalty (VMP) requires a financial penalty to be paid to the regulator, with the value at the determination of the regulatory body. Although the regulator can determine the value of the penalty, guidance will be published directly from the regulator setting out the matters likely to be considered when determining the amount. VMPs may be used in conjunction with other sanctions. 

Defra states that a process of appeal will be introduced for anyone who believes any applied sanctions were unfair, unreasonable or based on an error (either of law or facts).

Ask us a question about this page

Once you have submitted your query someone from NFU CallFirst will contact you. If needed, your query will then be passed to the appropriate NFU policy team.

You have 0 characters remaining.

By completing the form with your details on this page, you are agreeing to have this information sent to the NFU for the purposes of contacting you regarding your enquiry. Please take time to read the NFU’s Privacy Policy if you require further information.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


  • 28 June: Defra launches its consultation, seeking views on the best way to maintain and improve existing protections of hedgerows as cross compliance comes to an end.
  • 5 July: NFU responds to the call for evidence, seeking member input as part of its response.