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2020 is Year of the Tree – but let’s make sure hedgerows don’t get left behind

The Tree Council

January 28, 2020

The national steering group for hedgerows, Hedgelink, had their first 2020 meeting last week. The Tree Council’s Trees Science and Research Project Manager, Harriet Rix, shares the topline messages and why it’s essential to consider hedgerows in the year to come.

2019 may seem a long time ago already but we tree people are still celebrating the amazing way in which people, communities, businesses, government, well, EVERYONE came together to affirm the importance of trees and hedgerows in our lives and our landscapes into the future. And not a second too soon, as our changing climate and growing threats to biodiversity will require us taking strong action to plant, protect and care for trees everywhere we find them in the coming years. 
 
At The Tree Council, we are keen to see the UK’s urban and rural hedgerows, and the opportunities they offer to the wider project of tackling UK carbon emissions, high on the agenda, and this was very much the flavour of 2020’s first Hedgelink group meeting last week. Hedgelink is the national steering group for hedgerows, and The Tree Council are proud to chair the group. One of the advantages of having a regular meeting is that it pulls together those who work with hedges on the ground with those who make national policy.  We had more organisations in the room yesterday than have been involved for many years, from longstanding members such as PTES and Natural England to newer members such as Friends of the Earth. 

Carbon storage potential

But how do hedgerows play their part in the bigger picture? Firstly, hedgerows have a rich capacity to capture and store carbon – this why the Committee on Climate Change report recommended that UK hedgerows be extended by 40% (200,000 km) as part of reaching net zero carbon targets. And it’s not only planting of new hedgerows which can make a difference – simply allowing hedgerows to grow out a little, becoming a little more ‘untidy’, can capture a surprising amount of carbon, while improving their value as wildlife habitats to boot. We heard from Matthew Axe, who shared his research from the Royal Agricultural University. The research shows that hedgerows store carbon above and below ground, as well as protecting soil in order for the soil itself to do its own important carbon sequestration work. His research showed for the first time that allowing one kilometre of hedge to grow out by 80cm on both sides and fill in with blackthorn or a similar woody plant can store an additional 9.7 tonnes of carbon. 

Land managers must help us improve UK hedgerows

To see hedgerows expand the support of farmers and land managers will be essential, so it was great to welcome Jonathan Scurlock from the National Farmers Union who updated the group on their plans and commitments to make farming carbon neutral, and to hear that they see expanding hedgerows as the best quick action to absorb carbon dioxide produced by other parts of food production. On the topic of farming and rural livelihoods, we also heard from the Defra team preparing the new Environmental Land Management scheme that will replace the Basic Payment and Countryside Stewardship schemes, and shared some of the ways in which hedgerows can provide public goods which should be featured in the ELMS system. We look forward to hearing the results of the latest ELMS tests and trials in the coming months.

Hedgerows connect habitats for wildlife

Another very important public good which hedgerows provide is connectivity, keeping otherwise isolated sections of woodland and other habitats linked into a wider ecosystem. Healthy, thriving hedgerows with wildflower margins and the occasional full-size hedge tree can be a vital wildlife corridor for hedgehogs, birds and bees. We heard from Kevin Watts (Forest Research) and Paul Woodcock (JNCC) who are researching the maths behind how species move along hedges, and how this can help resilience of ecosystems. This resilience has knock-on affects; in a previous meeting we heard how hedges shelter pollinators such as bees and flies and beneficial predators such as spiders, saving farmers millions of pounds.  

A carbon capture tool – but not only a carbon capture tool

 It’s worth highlighting that hedgerows, like all natural assets, can be treated best when they are treated as a whole, for all the benefits they offer (on the ‘natural capital’ of hedgerows, read this guidance from Hedgelink member and hedgerow expert Rob Wolton of the Devon Hedge Group.) Hedgerows don’t only offer ecological or farming benefits. They also have an important role to play in our heritage and a visceral enjoyment of our countryside as variation in hedgerow type gives each landscape in the UK its distinctive character – from the beech hedges of Exmoor to the white-laced blackthorn of Worcestershire. As Defra is now looking at how they can incentivise public money for public goods, the public enjoyment of hedgerows is a further argument in favour of maintaining, protecting and planting hedgerows across the country.
 
The group also acknowledges that while there is some fantastic research that already exists or is emerging on the value and benefits of hedgerows, there is much less on the importance of urban hedgerows. In 2019, communities were enraged to see their hedges and trees netted to stop birds nesting in them, enabling developers to chop them down at any time. This has proven that communities care about their urban hedges. But at the moment urban hedges have no legal protection and there is little science to help prove their value. Their role in absorbing air pollution has been highlighted, but much less has been said on their contribution to tackling climate change, reducing noise, improving mental health, or acting as a wildlife corridor in areas of low greenery. We’d like to see more on this in 2020.
 
The gathering concluded that Hedgelink will advocate vocally in 2020 for the inclusion of hedgerows in the wider UK tree debate. We will do this through the preparation of the National Tree Strategy, the ELM scheme and the net zero discussions. We agreed that Hedgelink will prepare some guidance specifically on the carbon and other climate-related benefits of hedges, so watch this space for that resource. 
 
To join Hedgelink, contact Harriet on harriet.rix@treecouncil.org.uk. 

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