Blog: Brexit can help us protect our countryside’s iconic character – Telegraph.co.uk

Hedgerows are probably the single most important ecological building blocks in our farmed landscape. They maintain the distinctive character of our countryside and provide crucial habitats and food for wildlife. I welcome CPRE’s report today, highlighting the benefits of hedgerows and their ability to become champions of climate action and nature recovery. Hedgerows can store carbon, improve local air quality and benefit the rural economy by boosting job creation for hedgerow planting and management in local communities.

The characteristic ‘patchwork quilt’ that is so iconic of the landscapes across our islands is not only a feature of enormous ecological benefit, but is also of great cultural and historic significance, setting out patterns of field boundaries that in some cases can be traced back to the Domesday Book. Although subject to human use for many centuries, some of our farmed land still holds important populations of wildlife, including birds such as Yellowhammers and Bullfinches, and animals such as Dormice and bats. Of vital importance to these and many other species are hedgerows.

In spring they are draped with flowers, in Summer buzz with the sound of insects and jingle with the sound visiting migrant birds, such as Whitethroats and Blackcaps. In autumn hedgerows are smothered with fruits that feed not only many of our native birds, but also those that join us for the winter, such as Fieldfares and Redwings.

As we plan for Nature’s recovery as set out in our ground-breaking 25 Year Environment Plan, it is clear that not only will we need to create new areas of habitat, but also to look after the important features we have left, and hedgerows offer particular opportunities, not least as a means to unite food production with the restoration of wildlife populations, while also discharging other important roles, such as catching carbon from air.

Our exit from the European Union has brought with it huge possibilities in this regard, to unite our environmental improvement and sustainable farming. One major step toward this goal is to replace arbitrary area based subsidies with a new system of paying farmers for the way they manage environmental assets on their farms like soils, water features, trees or hedges. Environmental assets that, under the EU scheme, were dubbed “ineligible features” and disqualified from receiving subsidy payments will, in future, be recognised for their value to nature with the right rewards to maximise their potential.

Until now, our primary tools to deliver environmentally beneficial hedgerow management and hedgerow creation have been the Environmental Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship schemes. Hedgerow management is one of the most popular options within Countryside Stewardship, and through our new agricultural schemes we will be able to reach even more farmers and landowners. Our aim is for at least 70% of farms to participate in our new schemes, more than doubling current figures.

We want to reward the work that farmers do to manage every metre of hedgerow on their holdings sustainably so that we can maintain the distinctive character of our countryside and provide the ecological benefits for which they are famed – whether it’s providing shelter, nests, flowers and berries for wildlife, or nature based solutions to climate adaptation. The latter is a key theme for our presidency of international climate conference COP26 taking place later this year, and I want us to show the rest of the world what we are doing in this space. 

The first of our three new agricultural schemes, the Sustainable Farming Incentive, will pay for a variety of actions that all farmers can do to manage their land in an environmentally sustainable way. Part of this scheme is the hedgerow standard, under which we will pay farmers to plant more hedgerows, leave them uncut or raise the cutting height. To provide habitat for wildlife, we will incentivise farmers and land managers to maintain and plant more hedgerow trees. Simple actions like planting trees within the footprint of existing hedges can make a big difference. There is also evidence that letting go of the reins and allowing nature to flow out from existing hedges offers one of the fastest ways to improve biodiversity in the farmed landscape.

Hedgerows offer numerous benefits and create corridors for nature across the country. They have a vital role to play, and the actions that we are taking now will ensure that we are able to maximise their full potential.

 

George Eustice is the Environment Secretary

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