Nature ‘Doesn’t Do Hedge-Cutting’

In Ireland, the relatively low cover of native woodland makes hedgerows “exceptionally important” for biodiversity.

The annual window for hedge-cutting in Ireland has been open since September 1.

However, people are being reminded that nature “doesn’t do hedge-cutting” — and that farmers should try and “stay as close to nature as we can”.

Donal Sheehan, a dairy farmer in Castlelyons in East Cork and project manager of the BRIDE Project, said that his focus always is on looking after biodiversity “first and foremost”.

“We have to look after our carbon footprint, biodiversity, water quality, and hedgerows have something to add to all of that,” Mr Sheehan told the Irish Examiner.

“We stay as close to nature as we can, but you have to take the farmers’ point of view into account.

“They have a field, and if you don’t side-trim it, the hedge will get bigger and bigger and next thing you’ll have no field left in 30 years’ time.”

Mr Sheehan said there is a “message that you should cut them every three years”.

‘We’re so used to associating neat and tidy hedges with good farming.’

“Cutting them every three years will mean that in year three, they’ll just be coming into having a flower and blossom and to cut back again, and that will never give them a chance to reach their full potential.

“The very simple message is: Side-trim them, but let them grow.”

Along with side-trimming annually, Mr Sheehan encourages people not to top, and to try and postpone any hedgerow management until later in the autumn season, when it has naturally lost its fruit and foliage.

The use of them as stock-proof barriers “is kind of going”, Mr Sheehan added, because of electric fencing; and “hedgerows now have become an environmental feature” on farms, along with aiding in flood prevention.

“They are multifunctional.”

Change in Mindset

According to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, in Ireland, the relatively low cover of native woodland makes hedgerows “exceptionally important” for biodiversity.

“Hedgerows provide botanical diversity as well as food and shelter for animals, most notably birds. They also act as corridors connecting habitats.

“Untrimmed, thorny hedges are favoured by birds, but birds may nest in any hedge.”

Mr Sheehan said farmers have to fairly balance “producing food but also giving back to biodiversity and lowering carbon footprint”.

Under the Wildlife Act, the cutting, grubbing, burning, or other destruction of “vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch” between March 1 and August 31 is prohibited.

In addition, the Roads Act provides that “the owner or occupier of land shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation on the land is not a hazard or potential hazard to persons using a public road and that it does not obstruct or interfere with the safe use of a public road or the maintenance of a public road”.

The NPWS recommends that such “reasonable steps” are taken between September 1 and February 28, where possible.

Mr Sheehan said that there is a “huge lack of education” around hedge-cutting, and there needs to be a change in mindset.

“A lot of us are this way; that everything must be neat and tidy,” he continued.

“We started with our garden, most people love to have a tidy garden, and farmers then were inclined to take that a step further and manage their fields then as well.

“Even the public need to be educated too.

“Lovely, neat and tidy hedges before always meant ‘oh that farmer, he’s a good farmer, progressive, see the way he keeps his farm lovely and tidy’ but actually that’s kind of historic, in my opinion.

“The progressive farmer now is a farmer that’s making money from selling food but is also looking after biodiversity, looking after the pollinators, watching his carbon footprint, watching water quality.

“We’re so used to associating neat and tidy hedges with good farming, whereas now, for me and for the BRIDE Project, they have a different purpose now.”

Mr Sheehan said the connection between farmers and consumers “has gone very long” compared to food chains in the past, which is contributing to the farming industry “having difficulty getting out a story”.

He said for consumers to “look out at our farms next spring, and see scraggly hedgerows – what we are doing for nature – is a very visual signal to the consumer”.

“If you look down from the window of a plane, we’re known for that patchwork quilt type landscape,” Mr Sheehan said.

“If you add then the colours of the blossoms that are on it, that adds further to it.

“It’s enhancing our reputation as a food island, and we’re known as a food island, but we’ve got to tell a better story.

“And every single farmer, in my opinion, they are ambassadors and it’s not good enough to be just giving our milk in to the processor and hoping for the best, you’ve got to see your farm as being open to people passing the road and knowing what signal it is giving out.”

The BRIDE Project is an agri-environment project based in the River Bride catchment of North-East Co. Cork and West Co. Waterford.

(Source – Irish Examiner – Farming – Kathleen O Sullivan – 07/09/2022)

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