‘It’s happening all over the country’ - Protest highlights annual destruction of 3,000km of hedgerows

Group calls for Department of Agriculture to tighten regulations

Upwards of 3,000 kilometres of hedgerows are being removed annually by a small number of landowners, according an alliance of environmental organisations and landowners.

Current Department of Agriculture rules allow landowners and farmers to destroy up to half a kilometre of hedgerows without any assessment or permission, it outlined at a protest rally outside Dáil Éireann on Wednesday attended by farmers and other landowners; fishers, hunting interests, environmentalists and beekeepers.

“We are united by concern and frustration. Because of inaction and mismanagement by policymakers, our beautiful landscape is being steadily destroyed by the ongoing unjustified removal of thousands of kilometres of hedgerows annually,” said spokesman Alan Moore of Hedgerows Ireland.

In addition to their value for agriculture, hedgerows provided “large sequestration of carbon, our single most important reservoir for biodiversity and wildlife including pollinators, flood control, pollution filtration and nutrient buffering, landscape definition and beauty”, he added.

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Organic farmer Michael Hickey from New Inn near Cashel, Co Tipperary, said he had witnessed widespread destruction of hedgerows in his immediate area.

“There are large groups of people who own a lot of horses, and they’re buying up huge tracts of land. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon ... wiping out the ditches, planting beech, putting in wooden fences; biodiversity disaster,” he said.

“I always say, ‘if it’s happening down my boreen, it’s happening all over the country’,” Mr Hickey added.

The group called on Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue to amend rules around hedgerow removal and to simultaneously reward landowners for maintaining good quality hedgerows through farm payment schemes.

Their call for such measures had been ignored over the past three years, Mr Moore said. “Reviews of the rules have been promised but with no dates or terms of reference. The new Cap [common agriculture policy] scheme payments have missed key opportunities to incentivise good hedgerow management.”

“Unfortunately, and against all current research advice, upwards of 3,000 kilometres of hedgerows are still being removed annually ... Research also shows that less than one third of remaining hedgerows are in good condition,” he said – the figure was an EPA estimate.

The group called for an immediate reduction of the current 500-metre hedgerow removal limit pending the outcome of a promised review by the department. Farm payments should reward landowners for maintaining and improving the quality of existing hedgerows as well as planting new hedges, Hedgerows Ireland said.

The group highlighted concerns about management of hedgerows by local authority contractors and other State agencies including Irish Rail. “Unnecessary removal and excessive cutting regimes are responsible for large loss, often driven by unjustified safety claims. We are demanding that all hedgerow management and removal, including that by State agencies, is subject to environmental assessment and best practice guidelines and work carried out by certified contractors,” Mr Moore added.

Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan, who met the protesters, expressed concern about evidence of extensive hedgerow destruction due to expansion of fields and maintenance issues.

“We are developing training programmes for contractors [working on hedgerows],” he said.

The new Cap supports the growing of hedgerows, while “the farming community wants to do the right thing”, Mr Noonan underlined.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times