Ireland is currently failing to value hedgerows, protect them or reward farmers for looking after them, according to Dr Alan Moore of Hedgerows Ireland.
As a consequence, Dr Moore warned that Ireland’s hedgerows are being “continuously removed at a rate of thousands of kilometres a year.”
Making his comments in a presentation to the Joint Committee on Agriculture on Wednesday, he said: “Two to six thousand kilometres of hedgerows are still being removed annually in Ireland. The lower figure is from the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], which seems very high, but the extraordinary higher figure of 6,000km is from the recently published Monaghan Hedgerow Survey.”
Outlining these concerns, Dr Moore urged politicians to take “immediate steps” to protect remaining hedgerows from further removal, including introducing improved management and payment systems for farmers in future.
The Tipperary man described Ireland’s hedgerow network as a “fantastic asset” but said that it is currently not providing all of its multiple benefits due to poor management.
Dr Moore told TDs that "good quality” hedgerows have a “vital” role in carbon sequestration, flood control, water quality, soil improvement, shelter, shade, disease control, biodiversity protection and landscape definition.
“Recommending better protection and payment for hedgerows is fully in line with the latest thinking and research on how Ireland can meet our very demanding carbon and climate goals.”
He highlighted that carbon sequestration is now seen as “crucial to farming” and said that bigger, wider, taller, denser and more mature hedges store far more carbon.
“Early results show that approximately 600,000t of carbon are stored by our hedgerows, but that the potential could be a million tonnes and upwards. The higher figures are directly related to good management methods and the avoidance, for example, of severe or excessive cutting, and of course stopping further removal.”
Dr Moore also said that good-quality hedgerows are a vital habitat for animals, bird and insect species, particularly pollinators.
“Two-thirds of our native birds either feed, nest or both in hedgerows and they are home to over 600 of our 800 flowering plants.”
He explained that because Ireland has a very low forest cover of 11% compared to the European average of 40%, hedgerows play a “far greater role” in preserving biodiversity here.
He highlighted that Irish hedgerows have “no direct protection” under the current law.
“Indirect protection only is provided during the nesting season under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act. In practice, this legislation is very unwieldy, has many exemptions and provides no protection out of the so called ‘closed season’ and in fact is considered to be in breach of the EU Birds Directive.”
Dr Moore said the current CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027 is “good on new planting” but is missing out on an “easy win” with respect to our existing hedgerow payments.
He said that in the CAP consultation process, Hedgerows Ireland and other stakeholders suggested that the quality and management of existing hedgerows should be rewarded in both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 schemes. He said this would give a financial incentive for farmers to create and manage taller, wider and more productive hedges.
Dr Moore called for hedge management courses and certifications to be reintroduced. He said it should be a requirement that hedge-cutting contractors complete these courses, similar to the requirements for pesticide spraying.
Reflecting on Dr Moore’s remarks, Jackie Cahill TD said: “We’d all accept that hedgerows have to be protected”.
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, he called for a “balanced view" adding that the points made in the presentation from Hedgerows Ireland must be “recognised”.
However, on comments regarding the impact of farming on hedgerows, the Tipperary TD said: “This thing where production is being used as a bad word is unacceptable.
“There’s 800m people starving in the world and 2bn with an inadequate diet. We’ve forgotten completely about that.”
Where is this reported or claimed large scale removal of hedgerows happening? #anyoneanyone I don’t see it, I have been farming 20 plus years and I haven’t see it….— Brian Rushe (@brianrushe81) February 9, 2022
Responding to the Hedgerow Ireland statement on Twitter, Irish Farmers Association (IFA) deputy president Brian Rushe asked: “Where is this reported or claimed large scale removal of hedgerows happening?”
He said that he has been farming for over 20 years and hasn’t seen the level of hedgerow removal the group referred to.