Mind the gap: farming policy and the phasing out of cross compliance
What does it mean for trees and hedgerows...
Since the UK voted to leave the European Union, the government has been planning a transition from European agricultural policy to a new domestic approach. The recurring message from government has been that public funding should deliver public goods, with new farming schemes (such as the Sustainable Farming Incentive) in development to replace previous funding mechanisms. Approximately 70% of England’s land area is farmed, and farmers are hugely important custodians of trees and hedgerows, and the wildlife that depends on them.
As we enter 2024, it is timely to reflect on the latest policy proposals, and what they might mean for trees and hedgerows. Agricultural policy is devolved, so different approaches may be taken in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – here we’re focussing on the latest announcements relating to England.
A new agroforestry offer
On 4 January 2024, the Environment Secretary, Steve Barclay, spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference. Amongst other announcements, he revealed new payment offers to be introduced in 2024, including for agroforestry (the integration of trees into farming systems). If this is taken up by farmers, it could contribute to increased numbers of trees in fields – increasing canopy cover and benefiting landowners and wildlife thanks to the many ecosystem services they provide. Questions remain around how popular agroforestry will be, but research is underway into the barriers and possible solutions, for example, by the University of Reading.
Future agroforestry scheme funding will draw on experience gained from exciting local authority pilots which have so far planted more than 50,000 trees on farms using a variety of agroforestry systems and planting densities. These projects are being coordinated by Defra, Natural England and The Tree Council under Defra’s Shared Outcomes Fund - Trees Outside Woodland. Weaving research findings into policy and practice could boost the impact of public spending.
It has also been confirmed that the England Woodland Creation Offer and Woodland Creation Planning Grant will both be transitioned into the new farming schemes. While the detail is not yet available, it is positive that such offers will remain available to landowners wishing to establish new woodlands on their land.
A regulatory gap for hedgerows
Another recent development is that ‘cross compliance’ rules were officially phased out at the end of 2023. Put simply, cross compliance provided a link between farm payments and good environmental and animal welfare practice. Farmers receiving payments had to comply with these rules, or risk financial penalties. Pertinently, this included criteria to encourage healthy hedgerows that support birds and other wildlife, including not cutting or trimming hedgerows during the bird nesting season, and maintaining a 2m buffer strip either side of a hedgerow.
While some cross compliance rules are already incorporated into separate legislation, those relating to hedgerows are not. Defra ran a public consultation on ‘Protecting Hedgerows’ in 2023 and is in the process of considering how to maintain and improve existing protections, but in the meantime this does leave a regulatory gap. Concerns around the ‘hidden threats to hedgerows’ have been raised by environmental charities, including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, and the National Trust, calling for urgent action to reinstate protection.
As chair of Hedgelink, The Tree Council coordinated direct engagement between policy-makers and key organisations, and submitted our own response to Defra’s consultation. As a collective, we recognise and have highlighted the risks of a temporary legislative gap, but hope that farmers and landowners will continue to uphold good practice despite this.
There is plenty of evidence of the benefits of well-managed hedgerows, from flood mitigation to pollinators to shelter for livestock. While effective regulation is vital, it should not be the only driver of good practice – we also need widespread recognition from farmers and other landowners that hedgerows are valuable assets worth taking care of.
Importantly, the UK’s hedgerows are not completely without legal protection. Other regulations to protect hedgerows and wildlife, such as the Hedgerow Regulations 1997 and Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, remain in force. This means that ‘important’ hedgerows cannot be removed without permission from the local planning authority, and it is an offence to intentionally disturb certain species of birds while nesting. If anyone is concerned that hedgerows in their local area are being removed unlawfully, they should contact the relevant local authority, and if any wildlife crime is suspected then contact the local police.
Change brings risk and opportunity
As new policies take shape, and funding schemes continue to develop, it is clear that there are both risks and opportunities for trees and hedgerows. On one hand there are exciting new funding offers designed to encourage new tree planting across England, on the other, a gap in regulatory protection. Continued focus and collaboration between government, sector organisations, and farmers and landowners is vital, as what happens in the fields, hills and valleys across the country will ultimately affect us all.
Jess Allan is The Tree Council’s Science & Research Action Manager
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