Hedgerows: how we can help protect a countryside treasure
Is there anything more symbolic of the Essex countryside than a healthy hedgerow? (pic Julie Davies)
They are one of the most familiar features of the Essex countryside. We find them lining roads, railways and footpaths. We see them bordering fields and gardens. But hedgerows are under threat from poor management practices and development pressures and many have been removed. Hedgerows originally defined ownership boundaries and provided shelter and stock-proof barriers between fields. They also helped reduce soil erosion and surface-water run-off on arable land. The hedgerows from this later period tend to be straight and dominated by hawthorn, while those from medieval times include field maple, hazel, dogwood and spindle, which provide richer habitats for mammals, birds and insects. But aren’t hedgerows protected? Strong controls exist for the protection of hedgerows in the open countryside. The Hedgerow Regulations 1997 prohibit the removal of ‘important’ hedgerows unless at least 42 days’ notice is served on the local planning authority and it has either granted such permission or failed to serve notice preventing removal. For a hedgerow to be regarded as important, it must satisfy criteria relating to its size and age: • It must be at least 20 metres long, or, if it is less than 20 metres, meet at each end another hedgerow (any gap of less than 20 metres is treated as part of the hedgerow) • It must be at least 30 years old and part of a historic parish boundary or a medieval estate or manor boundary, or part of a field system that existed before 1845, or • It must contain, or be next to, archaeological features and sites such as scheduled monuments, or • The hedgerow contains protected wildlife or plants and associated features However, the situation regarding hedgerows and hedges in built-up areas, or where the countryside meets the built-up area, is much less helpful in their protection. Generally speaking, a hedgerow is not protected if it is in or marks the boundary of a private garden. There are exceptions to this: • If a hedgerow is in a Conservation Area, removal may require permission if it includes trees • A hedgerow may be protected if it includes trees covered by a Tree Preservation Order (although the protection only relates to the trees, not intervening shrubs) Hedges can also be protected, to a limited extent, through conditions attached to a planning permission or through legal covenants attached to a property, though this would be dependent on enforcement in both instances. What else can we do to protect our hedgerows? Firstly, we could lobby for Local Plan policies that give a measure of control over the removal of hedgerows. An example of where this has been done relates to the criteria attached to Ashford Local Plan Site Policies S51 and S52 in Aldington, Kent. These require retention of a hedgerow that originally formed a field boundary as part of any edge-of-village residential development… “The site is proposed for residential development with an indicative capacity of 12 dwellings. Development proposals for this site shall: (a) Be designed and laid out in such a way as to conserve the mature hedgerow along the road frontage where possible…” Secondly, in addition to lobbying for hedgerow protection on specific development sites in Local Plans, we could press for hedgerows to be covered in Supplementary Planning Guidance and in Neighbourhood Plans. An illustration of this is the Vale of Glamorgan’s Supplementary Planning Guidance for Trees, Woodlands and Hedgerows produced in 2017. This requires that where developments are likely to affect a hedgerow, a survey must be undertaken to ascertain whether the hedgerow should be classified as important under the Hedgerow Regulations 1987. The survey is required to cover the condition, height, spread and species content of the hedgerow. Even when the hedgerow is deemed not to meet the criteria for classification as important, consideration is to be given to its importance for biodiversity and wildlife, for example as nesting sites, migration corridors or foraging routes for bats and birds, or as habitat for dormice. The Guidance requires building layout and site infrastructure to be designed so that as many hedgerows as possible are retained. Thirdly, we could address hedgerow protection at planning-application level. We could encourage landowners and prospective developers to incorporate established hedgerows into their landscaping schemes when sites come forward for development. Fourthly, we could do more to get the public on our side and to value the hedgerows in their areas. Ironically, the only specific legislation applying to urban hedgerows concerns their potential nuisance and neighbour disputes about hedgerows between property boundaries. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 addresses how neighbour disputes over hedges should be dealt with. We should be doing more to publicise the value of hedgerows and good management practices so that a better-informed and sympathetic public would be more prepared to accommodate them. Hedges are good for our health. They hold particulates from traffic fumes and tyres that would otherwise end up deep in our lungs. Studies have shown that a one-metre-long hedge traps emissions from 30 diesel cars a year. Being at street level, they are more efficient at trapping exhaust pollution than trees. The best hedges in this regard have many small leaves and are evergreen. An ill-informed public could be doing harm to wildlife without knowing it. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, for example, it is an offence to disturb a bird’s nest if it contains eggs or chicks or is being otherwise used; such a nest could of course be in a hedge. Hedgerows are beautiful, they are beneficial in so many ways and they can be packed with wildlife – let us share and publicise their value for the benefit of future generations.