Ann Fitzgerald: Where is the leadership on the issue of hedge removal?

Currently it is illegal to cut, remove/destroy hedgerows and burn vegetation in our uplands between March 1 and August 31 in order to protect breeding birds. Stock Image
Currently it is illegal to cut, remove/destroy hedgerows and burn vegetation in our uplands between March 1 and August 31 in order to protect breeding birds. Stock Image
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Last week, the Department of Agriculture circulated a press release stating that Minister Michael Creed, "has issued a strong reminder to farmers and advisors" on the illegal removal of hedgerows.

However, pardon me if this sounds pedantic, but the release only asserts the general guidelines on the protection of hedgerows and cites possible penalties for their illegal removal. There is not one direct quote from the minister.

Successive farm ministers and the farm organisations have (rightly) been forceful in calling on dog owners to act responsibly during the lambing season … but the silence is deafening on a practice that is blighting the countryside.

Nor does our farm advisory body Teagasc come up smelling of roses, as it were. While its various publications highlight the value of hedging, there are few hedges to be seen at either Moorepark or Grange.

The Government keeps talking about the importance of forests, saying they will go some way to meet our 2030 emissions reduction target; still, every year, we hear that our targets for afforestation are being missed.

Yet hedges are effectively narrow strips of woodland, important habitats and corridors for wildlife.

Our hedgerows are home to some 37 species of shrubs and trees and 105 species of wild flora. The older the hedge, the greater the diversity.

As well as accommodating wildlife, hedges have other proven roles, in controlling flooding, maintaining water quality (for spawning fish), preventing disease spread, etc.

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I don't know if the amount of habitat being lost through hedge removal, legal and illegal, has been quantified but, from my unscientific approach - driving around the country - I would expect that it is significant.

So why are hedges being cleared?

Hedge removal is not confined to dairy farming - I recently heard of major works by a large beef operator - but it is unquestionably concentrated in the sector and the pace of removal seems to have accelerated in the past four years.

Yet dairying is more profitable than any other enterprise so any associated cost with facilitating hedgerows could be best accommodated in this sector.

So if it's not need, is it some relation of greed? That hedges are regarded as being unnecessary, so their removal is an expression of domination, or has the never-ending drive to efficiency become an end in itself?

Put another way, is there a new subsection of farmers, that could be equated to boy racers? They are young (or wish they still were), hungry and energetic. But they are also arrogant, with a sense of invincibility and shortage of empathy for other road users.

Or is it just simply ego, the drive to win the never-ending race to be the biggest?

In primitive cultures, the man with the most cows is top of the heap, the one that everyone aspires to be, but who, at the same time, they want to dethrone.

I feel demoralised at the state of affairs. We now know the value of hedges - yet they are still being lost. Will this time go down as a dark chapter in the history of the Irish landscape?

I moreover fear that, down the line, all farmers will face a tightening of rules for the country's failure to meet various environmental targets.

Back to Teagasc, its advice in brief is:

• Hedges should be trimmed, in season, in a triangular shape with a wide base, leaving some trees to grow on.

• Cut stems above the last cut, leaving up to 12mm of new growth. Cutting back to the same level each time depletes the energy in the hedge.

• While light annual cutting is good for the hedge, it's not best for wildlife. A good compromise is to cut every three years, in rotation.

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