WILDLIFE is under more pressure than ever, as basic rules which protect hedgerows and stop farmers from causing excessive river pollution ended on 31 December 2023. The National Trust, RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts are calling for immediate action to fill the gaps left by these vital protections.

Basic regulations known as ‘cross compliance’ had to be followed by farmers in order to receive rural payments between 2005 and 2023. The rules included not farming the land right up to the edge of rivers to ensure farm pollution and soil was not washed into the water – as well as protecting hedgerows and maintaining green cover on soils.

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, the UK Government announced these rules would cease to exist after 31 December 2023 and be replaced by new UK ones. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has not confirmed if protections for nature will be maintained – and the absence of rules means that farmers are free to cut hedges in the spring and summer which risks harming nesting birds. It could also mean that more farm pollution and soil is washed into rivers which are already under huge pressure from excessive nutrients caused by manure, soil and other pollutants.

Barnaby Coupe, Land Use Policy Manager of The Wildlife Trusts, says: “The situation is desperate. The UK Government has ripped up important rules that help protect hedgerows and require buffer strips to prevent river pollution. This danger is compounded by low levels of uptake into new farming schemes which incentivise only the most basic green practices on farm, leaving nature at a net loss.

“The Environment Improvement Plan published just this year stated “This government is committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it” – but this promise rings hollow now that safeguards against damaging farming practices have vanished. We need to see a firm commitment from Government that protections for nature will be at the very least maintained this year at the same level as the old regulations.”

Rosie Hails, Nature and Science Director at the National Trust says: “Ending Cross Compliance rules without sufficient replacement provisions places nature, water courses and historic hedgerows at increased risk. This is because some farmers may choose to withdraw from important practices such as providing buffers around watercourses, maintaining soil organic matter or taking action to minimise soil erosion. Farmers might also decide to trim hedges later in the spring and earlier in the autumn with impacts for birds and other wildlife.

“For the benefit of nature and to give farmers clarity, it’s vital that that Defra addresses this regulatory gap with urgency as well as ensuring farmers are better able to access to the right advice, helping them adopt practices that best protect the environment while maximising opportunities through nature-friendly farming.”

Alice Groom, Head of Sustainable Land Use Policy at RSPB England, says: “In just the last five years, farmland bird species have declined by eight per cent, but loss of protections for hedgerows now means cutting can take place during this year’s nesting season. This could have a catastrophic impact upon iconic farmland species such as Yellowhammer, Cirl Bunting and Turtle Dove. Species already pushed to the brink urgently need these gaps in protections to be filled, and monitoring and enforcement to be stepped up.

“For nearly twenty years, farmers and land managers have applied the basic good practices of cross compliance. Whilst it is right that the Westminster Government is switching from direct payments to a public money for public goods approach, this transition must be underpinned by effective regulations to protect the environment. The end of this long-standing regulatory baseline has created new gaps in protections for our watercourses, hedgerows and soils. Government’s failure to set out a plan for a new regulatory baseline sows confusion for farmers about their obligations, and creates an uneven playing field for those who continue to do the right thing for the environment.’’

In a response about a regulatory gap in August 2023, Defra stated that ‘‘the majority of rules under cross compliance are already in domestic law’’. However, the removal of cross compliance from 1st January 2024 leaves regulatory gaps across hedgerows, soil cover and watercourse buffer strips that are not covered by existing regulation.

Defra issued a consultation on hedgerows in 2023, but delays in the Government’s response mean that regulatory gaps between 1 January and the bringing in of new protections are now inevitable. There are over 400,000 kilometres of hedgerows in England alone, which is still around 50 per cent less than there were 70 years ago. A report by the RSPB, Mind the Gap, found that even with high uptake of new farming schemes, over 120,000km of hedgerows could be at risk from damaging practices due to the removal of cross compliance.

The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB urge the UK Government to uphold protections for nature while providing much better support for farmers to take a ‘whole farm’ approach to nature-friendly farming through new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes, rather than simply receiving payments for one-off actions with isolated benefits for wildlife. Increasing support for farmers to access independent advice for the best actions to take on their farm is critical to this.

* Source: The Wildlife Trusts