Good practice for hedgerow management

Good practice for hedgerow management

Part 1 – The importance of the hedgerow network in North Somerset

The quality of the hedgerow network in North Somerset is a key factor in the survival of many species that have their last European stronghold in this region, notably Greater and Lesser Horseshoe Bats. North Somerset is important for bats generally, with 11 of the 17 UK species present in the area. The quality and continuity of North Somerset hedgerows is also vital for other species, such as dormice, and many woodland and farmland birds that have suffered severe declines nationally, but which are still to be found in this area.

North Somerset contains many high quality hedgerow networks compared with other parts of the country where the prevalence of arable farming has resulted in the removal of hedgerows to create larger fields. Tall hedgerows, tree lines, copses, grazed pastures and wetlands provide valuable habitats for insects, and these features in the landscapes of the south west, and in North Somerset in particular, contribute to a high quality natural environment that supports many rare species of bats. However, the quality of the habitat provided by the hedgerow network varies considerably – often high quality lengths of the wildlife corridor network comprising tall, thick hedgerows and tree lines are fragmented with sections that have been flailed short every year. Declines in many bird and bat species nationally are associated with the intensification of farming practices (including the widespread practice of the excessive flailing of hedgerows) and the consequent loss of wildlife habitats and food, such as insects, berries and seeds. However, there is much scope to reverse these trends and improve the network by the creation of new species-rich hedgerows to link with existing hedgerows, as well as less rigorous flailing regimes. It is also important to follow good practice, as there are legal issues that relate to the protection of hedgerows, nesting birds and other species that need to be considered.

– Action plans for hedgerows and associated priority species

Hedgerows with many native species are priority habitats within the UK’s National Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), which is being incorporated into regional and local BAPs for the various local authorities within the UK. These action plans relate to habitats and species that have suffered severe declines over the recent past and provide for rare bats, including Greater and Lesser Horseshoes Bats, which are protected under European legislation. In North Somerset, our local BAP is Action for Nature – the North Somerset Biodiversity Action Plan (which is available in local libraries and on the North Somerset Council website www.n-somerset.gov.uk).

Parish plans provide a further mechanism to raise awareness and support favourable hedgerow management at a local level.

Management that maximises berry production and insect life is therefore a key element in helping to reverse declines in farmland species and is now included within agri-environment schemes such as Environmental Stewardship. Much effort is being devoted by government agencies such as the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and English Nature (both soon to be incorporated into Natural England) to raise awareness of the importance of hedges. In addition, it is proposed to include a target to reduce the percentage of hedgerows that receive an annual flail within the national BAP for species-rich hedgerows.

Part 2 – The importance of the tall hedgerow network around Nailsea for Horseshoe Bats

Due to its rarity, the Greater Horseshoe Bat is a European protected species and it is also a national priority species with national and local biodiversity action plans (BAPs). In 2001, English Nature commissioned research that involved radio-tracking of these bats from their maternity roost at Brockley Hall Stables, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The bats were found to commute regularly to foraging areas 7km from Brockley and were recorded travelling up to 10 km away from the roost. The area covered by the population covered was at least 210 square km.

The report states that ‘the bats foraged primarily over grassland adjacent to tall, overgrown hedgerows and tree lines, and along tree-lined watercourses and wetland areas. (Hence the importance of the parish boundary hedgerow adjacent to the River Kenn). They also fed in and around areas of scrub and wet woodland and along woodland edges’.

A total of 20 foraging areas were identified in the study, including the field systems between Nailsea and the railway, with bats foraging mainly around the high hedgerows. Significant foraging areas were also found in the neighbouring areas of Backwell, Chelvey, Claverham and Brockley.

– Importance of tall hedgerows

Tall, thick hedgerows support a wealth of wildlife, providing abundant berries and seeds for birds and small mammals, and nectar for insects, on which birds and bats feed, and which pollinate our food crops. Tall hedgerows also create a favourable microclimate for flying insects (butterflies, moths, dragonflies etc). For this reason, Swallows and bats are often seen flying along tall hedgerows, foraging for flies and moths respectively. The standard trees in the hedge provide safe nest sites for birds and places for bats to roost.

Tree lines and tall hedgerows are important for Greater Horseshoe Bats as they provide a navigation route for the bats to other insect-rich feeding areas on wetlands and cattle-grazed pastures (cattle dung beetles are an important food for the young bats). Greater Horseshoe Bats favour hedgerows with a minimum height of 3-4m, and a reduction in height of the hedgerow over a length exceeding 10m can disrupt the continuity of the bat’s navigation route.

High quality green corridor networks (such as those provided by tall thick hedgerows with a well-developed base flora) will become increasingly significant in the context of the scale of development that is planned for the south-west region, and that will take place in North Somerset over the next 20 years.

The quality of the hedgerow network, in terms of the capacity to provide resources for wildlife, will be key to the survival of many species in the area. As well as providing food and shelter, linear wildlife habitats facilitate the movement of species and interbreeding between different populations, which is vital, as populations that become isolated are vulnerable to extinction. Therefore, it is necessary to maximise the wildlife value of our hedgerows to help to offset the losses to biodiversity that will arise with increasing urban development.

Part 3 – Good practice for hedgerow management

One of the aims of the local Biodiversity Action Plan for hedgerows and Greater Horseshoe Bats is to improve the quality of the existing network for bats and other wildlife. One of the easiest ways of improving the hedgerow is to reduce the frequency of cuts. Between the wars, hedgerows were cut on average only once every 6 years, and, at this time, supported a wealth of wildlife. For many shrubs, berries form on second year growth and therefore cutting every year drastically reduces the supply of berries and nuts that are needed for over-wintering wildlife.

Guidance issed by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) recommends that hedges are cut during late January to early February, and not every year, to allow wildlife to feed on the autumn berries and to avoid the bird-nesting season.

It is recommended that hedges are cut, at most once every 3 years, or preferably on a longer rotation. Where feasible, hedgerows can be left to grow tall to create bat navigation flight lines, and to benefit birds and insects. These cutting regimes will also save on costs. It is also beneficial to retain a minimum width of 2-3 metres of the herbaceous layer at the foot of the hedge to increase biodiversity.

A good practice guide summary sheet has been provided to all parish councils. If you would like a copy, please contact Susan Stangroom at North Somerset Council at susan.stangroom@n-somerset.gov.uk (Tel. 01275 888520).

Part 4 – Legal protection to hedgerows, bats and nesting birds

– Legal protection to hedgerows bordering agricultural land

The National and Local Biodiversity Action Plans for hedgerows aim to protect and enhance, and increase the extent of species-rich hedgerows, and since 1997 many field boundary hedgerows have received protection from removal under the Hedgerow Regulations (1997). Therefore, if a hedgerow bordering a field boundary needs to be removed, permission must be sought from the local authority (contact Vince Russett 01275 888523)

If work includes cuts to standard trees, checks may also need to be made for tree preservation orders (contact the local authority tree officers Jane Brewer or Wendy Thomas tel. 01275 888522). Wherever possible, existing trees and saplings should be retained at intervals in the hedgerow.

– Legal protection to nesting birds

Nesting birds are protected by law.1 The Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA)1981 (as amended), gives protection to all wild birds and makes it an offence to intentionally:

kill, injure or take any wild bird;
take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird, whilst it is in use or being built;
or take or destroy the egg of any wild bird
(subject to certain exceptions).

References
1. Wildife and CountrysideAct 1981 (with amendments) and Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. For further details on legal requirements (to include Schedule 1 species, consult English Nature’s Birds Network Information Note.)

– Bird nesting season

It is impossible to give exact dates, but the main breeding season for North Somerset is regarded as running from mid February to the end of August (for instance blackbirds have been reported nesting locally in February and bullfinches can nest to the end of August).

Wherever possible, routine maintenance work should be timed outside of the bird-nesting season. However, where works are essential and cannot reasonably be carried out within the winter months, trees and shrubs must be checked thoroughly by an experienced person. If nests are found, that area of hedge scrub should not be touched to allow birds to rear their young and disperse. If there is an urgent issue of public safety, English Nature’s Species Protection Officer should be contacted for further advice (tel. 01823 250865).

– Legal protection to bats

All British bats and their roosts, resting and sheltering places are legally protected under the WCA 1981; the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) and the Habitat Regulations 1994. All bats are listed as ‘European protected species of animals’2.

It is an offence for any person to:

  • intentionally kill, injure or handle a bat;
  • intentionally or recklessly damage or obstruct access to any place that a bat uses for shelter or protection;
  • intentionally or recklessly disturb a bat while it is occupying a place that it uses for shelter or protection.

Where work is needed when bats are present, English Nature3 must be notified about the proposed action and allowed reasonable time to advise as to whether it should be carried out, and if so, how.

Bats rest, breed and hibernate in holes, crevices, and under loose bark in trees. Such spaces often occur in old trees, notably Oak, Ash, Beech and Scots Pine.

The Bat Conservation Trust recommends that, ideally, work on older trees should be carried out in spring (March to May) or autumn (September to November). This avoids periods when bats are particularly vulnerable: when non-flying young are present or during hibernation. Where practical, the autumn is preferable as this avoids the bird-nesting season.

References

  • For further information on the law, refer to the Bat Conservation Trust website, www.bats.org.uk
  • English Nature and DEFRA will be incorporated into Natural England from 2006.

Part 5 – Habitat Creation

If you are interested in creating bat habitat by planting a new species-rich hedgerow or a field copse, please contact the biodiversity officers at North Somerset Council for further advice about biodiversity grants (01275 888551/520).

Susan Stangroom
Biodiversity Officer, North Somerset Council

Suggested reading:

  • Action for Nature – The North Somerset Biodiversity Action Plan; www.n-somerset.gov.uk
  • Bats and trees – A guide to the management of trees. The Bat Conservation Trust, 1997.
  • Hedgerow management, biodiversity and Dormice, English Nature Report 454, www.english-nature.org.uk
  • Radio tracking study of Greater Horseshoe Bats at Brockley Hall Stables Site of Special Scientific Interest, May-August 2001. English Nature Research Report 442.

Useful contacts:

  • For protected species: English Nature Species Protection Officer : tel. 01823 250865
  • RSPB Wildlife Enquiries: tel. 01392 432691.
  • For Environmental Stewardship: Rural Development Service, Westbury-on-Trym tel. 0117 959 1000
  • For biodiversity action grants to create new species-rich hedgerows: Susan Stangroom, Biodiversity Officer, tel. 01275 888520 or Samantha Jarvis, Biodiversity Officer, tel. 01275 888551.
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