Campaigners call for more power to protect hedgerows

Image caption There are already rules in place to protect hedgerows

The government has been urged to do more to preserve England's hedgerows.

Landowners are legally bound to look after hedges categorised as "important" wildlife habitats.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England said its survey of 133 local councils showed more hedgerows had been given protection over the past decade.

But spokeswoman Emma Marrington said the government had to ensure that schemes which help maintain the hedges were not affected by spending cuts.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, she said the hedges - some of which grow on earth banks built more than 4,000 years ago - provided a "motorway" for wildlife on the move.

She said: "It's almost like the motorway of the countryside and various species are dependent on hedgerows."

Ms Marrington, who is the lead author of a CPRE report on hedgerows and hedgerow regulations published on Monday, said many farmers received grants to help them manage the land in an environmentally sensitive way.

"Of course we know that budgets all have to be cut but we do think it would be a terrible shame if the government funding for these wonderful environmental stewardship schemes.

"With local councils, you really do need the specialists within a council to know about ecology, about trees and about the countryside, to ensure they are protecting the hedgerows," she said.

She said the current Hedgerow Regulations were complicated and she called for the government to simplify the process to protect hedgerows.

Generally hedgerows are considered to be important if they are at least 20m long, are at least 30-years-old and meet criteria based around the number of plant or animal species it supports, and possess historical significance and associated hedge features, such as a hedge bank, ditch or tree.

It is a criminal offence to remove such hedgerow, with fines of up to £5,000.

Simple rules

She added: "If a landowner wants to remove a hedgerow they have to apply to the local authority for permission and in 42% of those cases the local authority has retained the hedgerow because it is an 'important' hedge.

"We carried out a similar survey in 1998 and we found that 24% of hedgerows were protected. It's increased by 18% which is obviously a good thing."

The CPRE contacted 336 local planning authorities in February 2010 and asked them to take part in its survey. It received 133 responses - the same number as when it carried out its initial survey on the issue 12 years ago.

The survey asked authorities about how much they felt landowners and the general public knew about the regulations.

Of the 133 who responded, 61% said they thought landowners were aware of the regulations but the same proportion said they thought the public were unaware of the rules.

The CPRE said it wanted the criteria to be widened so that hedgerows that were recognised as bringing value to a local area would be protected.

Around 42% of the councils surveyed said they wanted the rules to be made simpler.

The charity also referred to independent research by the Countryside Survey suggesting that more than 26km (16,000 miles) of English hedgerows disappeared between 1988 and 20007.

The amount of hedgerows fell from 428,000km to 402,000km during that period.

A spokesman said that this data - published in 2009 - showed that despite the legislation that was in place, hedgerows needed more protection and maintenance.

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