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'Whole ditches disappearing overnight': hedgerows falling foul to larger farms

Noteworthy finds biodiversity in a battle with some farming practices – and a low level of accountability demanded by the Department of Agriculture.

“THERE’S PLENTY OF benefit for man and beast,” says Sinead Moran of the hedgerows on the organic dairy farm in Co Mayo that she runs with her husband MJ. 

Moran says that one of the hedgerows planted by MJ’s mother in the mid-1960s is “absolutely stunning”, with thick tight thorn bushes flanked every few metres with elders that “come out in this beautiful canopy where you’ll find the cows” seeking shade on a hot day and taking shelter in a downpour.

Her cows also “love to browse the hedgerows” close to which has the most nutrient dense grass. And nature benefits too. An ecologist who visited the farm in 2019 found that there was more diversity under the canopy of the hedges than around the pasture itself. 

Beyond the biodiversity benefits and protection for their stock, Moran says that the hedge canopy is plain and simply nice to look at and offers a brief reprieve from the labours of the farm. 

She is puzzled, therefore – just like many hedgerow management experts and nature conservation groups Noteworthy has spoken to – as to why other farmers want to remove hedges from their land, an activity that appears to be increasing at an alarming pace over the past decade.

(In the first part of our investigation into hedgerow management, we examined the proliferation of hedge cutting by local authorities during the prohibited season between March and August each year and revealed concerns with techniques used to cut hedges.) 

GleannbuiGleannBui-7995 Michael McGrath (MJ) and Sinead Moran on their farm in Co Mayo Source: Michael Mc Laughlin

Sinead’s experience of the on-farm benefits of hedgerows is not a solitary one. As well as creating shelter from rain and sun for all types of livestock, they also prevent run-off from farmland to help alleviate flooding and slow soil erosion. Soaking up excess water also helps reduce a variety of animal diseases such as liver fluke.

Hedgerows can also help farmers to play their role in combating climate change, acting as carbon sinks, a role that until recently was largely under-appreciated. The Climate Action Plan states that hedgerows could represent a “significant carbon sink and could potentially be used as a [climate] mitigation option”. 

A 2014 EPA report estimates that hedgerow, together with non-forest woodland and scrub, can remove up to 1.4 Mt CO2 per year – even after accounting for emissions used from equipment or machinery in the process of maintenance works.

A recent survey from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre also found that planting hedgerows is one of the best ways to combat ecosystem fragmentation in intensively farmed landscapes. This is important to ensure the continued pollination of crops. 

Yet, today, biodiversity experts are concerned about the future of hedgerows on farms as their traditional purpose in marking boundaries and separating livestock has become less important.

GleannbuiGleannBui-8077 Sinead Moran and livestock in front of hedgerow on her farm in Co Mayo Source: Michael Mc Laughlin

The invention of barbed wire and electric fencing in particular has altered the regime of hedge management and its function as protection for livestock.

The arrival of a modern, more industrialised farming model has also influenced the use of larger machinery and, in tandem, the need for larger fields. 

A recent survey in Northern Ireland found a net loss of almost 5,500km or 4.6% of hedge habitat between 1998 and 2007, in large part due to increasing field sizes.

The situation appears to be similar on the remainder of the island too. A recent EPA study using aerial photography estimated a net removal of hedgerows of between 0.16% and 0.3% per annum between 1995 and 2015. This, the environmental watchdog said, is “significant” and suggests that hundreds of kilometres of hedgerow may have been removed per year. 

Afraid to speak out

During the course of this investigation, Noteworthy was contacted by several individuals who reported cases of removal of hedgerow from farms close to where they live. Many are too afraid to speak up, however, as they don’t want to report their neighbours. 

One person in Co Kerry, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said that their neighbours are a farming family and last summer knocked down part of a ditch to make an entrance wider.

They got the digger out and just went for it.

The family also removed hedges in fields behind the house of the person who spoke to Noteworthy

This, they said, makes it difficult to speak out, despite their concerns. “The only person that would report them could be me…. They’ve been friends of the family for decades going back generations.”  

Some cases do get reported to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Following an Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) request, the agency released records of complaints received from citizens between 2018 and 2020. 

In one example from April 2019, it was reported that a farmer in Cork removed “whole ditches” over an eight-week period, turning several smaller fields into one large one. The individual said they walked the hills daily but that the wildlife had all but disappeared since.

Wildlife corridors disappearing

This is not surprising, according to An Taisce ecologist Elaine McGoff, as Ireland has one of the lowest levels of habitat connectivity in the whole of Europe.

This means that hedgerows are “highly significant habitats and ecological corridors in our lowland farmed landscape and are one of the last bastions of biodiversity in Ireland”, she said. 

The risk of predation to lots of small mammals and birds such as wren, robins, dunnock and thrushes increases the moment they hit open ground. So they’re going to use those hedgerows as highways to get from one place to another, said McGoff. 

According to reports from BirdWatch Ireland, hedgerows are also vital corridors for larger species that navigate landscapes using hedgerows, such as the protected Barn Owl.

Data received back from an owl tagged by the conservation group shows that it avoided main fields and followed lines of the hedgerows for hunting in an intensive agricultural landscape. 

Source: BirdWatchIreland/YouTube

Rules in place to protect hedges

According to UCD’s Andrew Jackson, hedgerows are protected under the Habitats Directive that make it clear that EU member states should encourage sound management of features of the landscape such as field boundaries that are of major importance for wild fauna and flora.

There are also EU farm subsidy-linked standards that give hedgerows protection as landscape features that, in general, cannot be interfered with or removed. Where removal is necessary, an equivalent length of new hedgerow must be planted in advance.  

In addition, Jackson, who specialises in environmental law, said that there are national regulations in place since 2011 to ensure that farmers apply to the Department of Agriculture for screening to determine if permission and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is needed to remove hedges.

According to the Department’s guidance, if the proposed newly created field will be over five hectares after hedge removal, or if a farmer wants to remove more than 500 metres of hedgerow, they must apply for screening.  

The Regulations were introduced following a 2008 European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling against Ireland for using uniform, unqualified size thresholds to assess the effects of projects on the environment. 

The European Commission had argued that projects on uncultivated land or semi-natural areas for intensive agricultural purposes may, regardless of their size, result in the loss of hedgerows.

This loss, it argued, “is likely, in parts of the Irish countryside, to have significant effects on biodiversity”. The ECJ found that the Commission’s complaint was “well founded”. 

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Environmental assessments for hedge removal

An EPA analysis of EIA screening applications for “field boundary removal” from 2011 to 2017 shows that 93.5% of applications were “approved”. This means that removal could proceed without the need for a full EIA. 

A Noteworthy analysis of cases since 2017 builds on this and found that – combined with the EPA findings – 638 or 93% of applications for hedgerow removal have been approved at the screening stage since the introduction of the regulations in September 2011. 

This indicates that at least 190km of hedgerows were removed between 2011 to 2019 without the need for any environmental impact assessment. 

UCD’s Jackson told Noteworthy that it is “really quite surprising that there are not more applications for permission and environmental impact assessments,” especially considering the seriousness of the European Commission’s pursuit of Ireland over the matter, twice bringing us to court. 

“You would expect in the circumstances for there to be a higher number of applications and environmental impact assessments, not just decisions ‘screening out’ the need for permission and assessment,” he said.  “You wouldn’t expect the European Commission to go to all that effort in circumstances where the outcome is very little change on the ground.”

“That is a recurring pattern in terms of other land uses regulated by the Department of Agriculture,” he said, pointing to the recent findings by Noteworthy that only three EIAs were required for over 17,000 afforestation licence applications received by the Department between 2010 and 2020.

Concerns raised over screening process

One person who is well aware of issues with both forestry and hedgerows is Neil Foulkes. 

Foulkes, who has made hundreds of appeals on forestry licenses over concerns with the EIA process, is also a seasoned hedgelayer and conservation expert, who has written manuals for hedgerow appraisal techniques and carried out county hedgerow surveys. 

Foulkes carried out his own detailed assessment of all hedgerow removal screening applications from 2011 to 2017 and came to very similar findings as the EPA study.

His research went further, sending Access to Information on the Environment requests to the Department for records related to different applications. 

He found that the main reasons farmers wanted to remove hedges related to agricultural modernisation and efficiency, including making extra space for modern machinery. In particular, he said, there was an emphasis on a change to dairy systems.

“It has to be questioned as to how these farms can meet the requirement to plant an equivalent length of hedgerow without compromising the justification for removal of boundaries,” Foulkes said.

He added that he found no evidence the Department is checking to ensure that the requirement to plant replacement hedges in advance of hedgerow removal is happening.

The Department did not provide a specific answer when asked by Noteworthy for data on post-work assessments from 2011 to 2020 to confirm replanting had occurred. 

In a statement, the Department said that, while farm subsidy payment terms and conditions require replacement of removed landscape features such as hedgerows, “there is no requirement in the EIA regulations to carry out post-work assessments”.

According to a recent EPA report, a 2018 impact assessment of agri-environmental schemes showed compliance rate with the laying of new hedges in over 90% of cases.

Neil Foulkes Hedgerow management expert Neil Foulkes Source: Isabel Duggan Rofé

Legal complaints from An Taisce

There are also concerns, according to An Taisce’s McGoff, that the Department is not acting on cases of large-scale hedgerow removal that it believes is taking place on farms without permission.

Last year, An Taisce made official complaints to the Department in relation to the removal of several kilometres of hedgerows on farms in Cavan, Monaghan and Tipperary. 

In correspondence with the Department seen by Noteworthy, the organisation argued that no permission had been sought for the removals, some of which occurred during the bird nesting season.

Writing to the Department last April, the group called on it to recoup subsidy payments, as well as arguing in the Cavan and Monaghan cases that there was no evidence of any replacement hedgerows being planted as required under the EIA regulations.

The Department replied that the issue was a matter for the NPWS and directed An Taisce to “please arrange for any further similar complaints to be raised directly with NPWS”. 

An Taisce replied, however, that “the legal responsibility for the enforcement of the EIA regulations for hedgerow and field boundary removal lies with DAFM”. According to McGoff, the Department “washed their hands of it”.

“When it comes to the Department of Agriculture on hedgerow removal, anytime we have raised issues with them, we’ve never had a response. They never seem to do anything when we raise potentially illegal hedgerow removal,” she added. 

When asked by Noteworthy if the Department has since followed up on any of these cases, it said that it does not comment on individual cases. It did provide data on penalties imposed for offences committed in relation to hedgerow removal.

According to the data, 971 offences were identified, with penalties imposed in 963 cases between 2011 and 2019. It did not specify the types of offences or penalties received.

In a statement, the NPWS said it has not been possible to follow up on the specific issues identified in the cases in Monaghan and Cavan “for operational reasons” but that “the matter will be investigated when possible”.

Teagasc Biodiversity Farm Walk 11 Catherine Keena discussing hedgerow planting and management on a Teagasc Biodiversity Farm Walk Source: Teagasc/O'Gorman Photography

Valuing farmland hedgerows

Catherine Keena, a Teagasc countryside management specialist and the agri-research body’s resident hedgerow expert, told Noteworthy that more and more farmers are starting to change their tune on hedgerows.

According to Keena, during Teagasc Hedgerow Week, the organisation has been proactively working with farmers to value their hedgerows and develop strategies to support biodiversity, as well reminding them of their legal responsibilities. 

Keena, who comes from Cavan – the county with the highest length of hedgerow per hectare – said that her burgeoning interest in hedges was cemented during a training course in the early 1990s. 

“We had to do a project and everybody did it on nutrient management, slurry, etc. I’m the only one that did it on hedges. I realised that we knew nothing about hedges back then,” she said. 

While she is fine with smaller removals where justified for farm expansion, Keena said that she is concerned when she hears about large-scale removal of hedgerow such as the cases mentioned above. “We hear that all the time and that’s not doing any of us any good,” she said. 

She said that tighter guidelines and monitoring is needed to ensure that the rules are followed. A potential game-changer, she said, is a new agri-environmental results-based scheme that the State looks set to bring in over the coming months. This pilot will reward farmers for protecting hedgerows and ensuring that they have a positive role for nature. 

This sort of activity is a step in the right direction, according to Dr Craig Bullock, an environmental economist at UCD who co-authored a recent review of national biodiversity expenditure that found there is a significant funding gap for tackling biodiversity decline.

“We don’t spend anywhere near enough on biodiversity and the levels that we are spending haven’t recovered since they were slashed during the recession,” he said, with over 75% of biodiversity expenditure coming from agri-environmental payments.

“If we’re paying farmers to do positive things in relation to the environment, then hedgerow maintenance should be a part of that,” he said. “That means that we have leverage to actually do things properly.”

Protet-12Feb2020 Save Our Hedgerows protest in February 2020 Source: Alan Moore

Hedgerow removal along rail lines

It is not only the farming community that has come under fire for hedgerow removal in recent years, with local Tipperary campaigners recently protesting over Irish Rail’s removal of hedgerow from farmland along its lines. 

According to Alan Moore of the Save Our Hedgerows group, the group formed in 2018 when people became aware of the removal of several kilometres of mature hedgerows as part of fencing work on farmland along the Waterford to Limerick Junction line. 

Irish Rail is a prominent signatory of the All Ireland Pollinator Plan which has a Transport Corridor section that includes actions to limit habitat loss during project or maintenance works and to manage hedgerows as nesting habitats.

The group held several protests against the hedgerow removals that gained media attention. A meeting was then held with Irish Rail where the group asked for policy that hedgerow removal be “used as the last resort” when erecting fences, according to Moore. 

“We don’t feel that we’ve made any strides forward in terms of their practice and their policies despite our proposals which seemed reasonable,” Moore said, leaving him to write a letter to the Chief Executive Jim Meade in May 2020, outlining his concerns. 

In the letter, seen by Noteworthy, Moore argues that one of the Irish Rail staff at the meeting stated that that removal of hedgerow is “Irish Rail’s ‘preferred option’…. for reasons of cost and expediency”.

Irish Rail After hedgerow removal_SOH Photo of fence installation in place of hedgerows along Irish Rail line Source: Save Our Hedgerows

In a statement, Irish Rail said it has already responded to Save our Hedgerows and that the claim that hedgerow removal is carried out based on cost and expediency is “inaccurate”.

“In many circumstances, it isn’t possible to retain the hedgerow and place the fencing inside, as it presents issues with boundary maintenance, not to mention a lack of safe areas for staff and machinery if the fence is moved closer to the track over time,” a spokesperson for Irish Rail told Noteworthy

Boundary maintenance, it said, is critical to railway safety, preventing trespass, stopping livestock from breaching boundaries, and ensuring the stability of embankments. 

“We will retain hedgerows where adjoining landowners facilitate new fencing on their side of the hedgerows, and we present this option to landowners where works are taking place, and where topography facilitates this,” they said.  

The NPWS confirmed that it investigated this case and “was satisfied that no offence was involved”.

Despite the group’s dissatisfaction in this case, Moore said that Save Our Hedgerows has now grown into a national brigade of citizens keen to protect Ireland’s hedgerow network. The group, he said, is “gratified by the level of public interest in this matter”.

Equally, however, he said that they have been “distressed to find out that, what we were experiencing locally, is reproduced countrywide in terms of the widespread poor treatment of hedgerows”.

“What’s happening in Tipperary is just part of a widespread reaction to a phenomenon that is a really serious one,” said Moore. 

This was not the first time that cutting carried out by Irish Rail has come to the attention of the media, with then-Green Party agricultural spokesperson Pippa Hackett raising concern in April 2019 over cutting of hedgerows along the Dublin to Galway rail line.

Hackett is now the Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity in the Department of Agriculture and Moore said that there has been more positive reaction with the Green Party holding two important biodiversity-related seats at the cabinet table. 

Malcolm Noonan is the Minister for State for Heritage with responsibility for the NPWS, and Moore told Noteworthy that the group has recently held discussions with both Noonan and Hackett. 

In theory, he said, “this would be the perfect time for change”, although he believes that there is still some way to go. “Our view is that legislation, bureaucracy and political thinking is lagging behind both public opinion and the degree of urgency in this.”

Alan Moore Credit Lucy Moore Alan Moore of Save Our Hedgerows Source: Lucy Moore

Looking to the future

The Programme for Government outlines plans for a national hedgerow survey and to review protections for hedgerows, including the enforcement of current legislation.

There was a national hedgerow database built in 2013, however, it is currently not available as a formatting error was recently found and reported to the National Biodiversity Data Centre that runs the database. 

The centre’s director Liam Lysaght told us that they expect to have it back up and running in the coming months, especially given its importance as “one of the few sources of quantitative and structured qualitative data on Ireland’s hedgerows”.

“There is a strong argument for a national hedgerow survey to be undertaken. Much of this can be framed and delivered through remote sensing and aerial surveys,” he said.

He added, however, that there also needs to be “a very large ground-truthing element to ensure management and habitat quality features are captured” in the database. 

Neil Foulkes is in agreement and said that this move is needed urgently as there has never been any coherent structure to assess the quality and quantity of our hedges. 

“We need a baseline against which future studies can address trends to see if we are going in the right direction or the wrong direction – and how we are going right or how we are going wrong.”

***

You can read the first part of our investigation now where we reveal that thousands of kilometres of rich hedgerow have been cut back in the last three years during bird nesting season.

This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other biodiversity-related investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >> 

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