Hedgerows Ireland were invited to a Hearing of the Joint Committee on Agriculture Food and the Marine on 9 February entitled 'Hedgerows, Carbon and Biodiversity'.
A delegation of four attended: Hedgerows Ireland Committee members Alan Moore and Michael Hickey were accompanied by carbon expert Lilian O'Sullivan from Teagasc and the Co. Monaghan Heritage Officer Shirley Clerkin. Cork dairy farmer and founder of The Bride Project Donal Sheehan gave evidence via a video link. Alan read an Opening Statement and this was followed by questions from Deputies and Senators. The delegation was well received by the Oireachtas Committee who asked relevant questions and appeared to be supportive of Hedgerows Ireland's aims and recommendations. However no decisive action was promised and it is clear that more lobbying and negotiating will be required in the days and weeks ahead.
Topic: Hedgerows, Carbon and Biodiversity, Ireland’s draft CAP Strategic Plan.
Presentation to Joint Committee on Agriculture Food and the Marine
Hedgerows, Carbon and Biodiversity.
Chairman, Deputies and Senators, thank you for inviting us to the Joint Committee.
- The central message of our presentation is that Ireland’s hedgerows are a fantastic asset in a range of different but complementary ways, but we are currently failing to value them, protect them and to reward farmers for looking after them. As a consequence, they are being continuously removed at a rate of thousands of kilometres a year, and because of the way they are managed, remaining hedgerows are often in poor condition and so are not providing all of the multiple benefits that they could be.
- For this reason we are making a key recommendation that immediate steps are taken to protect our remaining hedgerows from further removal, and that a number of other measures are adopted to improve both the management and payment systems for the future.
- Contrary to previous teaching and advice, it is now accepted that the net economic, climate, biodiversity and social benefits of hedgerows on farms fully justify the land that they occupy on all farms including tillage and intensive dairy farms where the losses are often the greatest. Recommending better protection and payment for hedgerows is fully in line with the latest thinking and research on how Ireland can meet our very demanding carbon and climate goals.
Good quality hedgerows do really vital things: Carbon sequestration: an increasingly important role in flood control: water quality and soil improvement: shelter, shade, disease control, biodiversity sanctuary and landscape definition-- literally how our countryside looks.
Despite these benefits 2-6 thousand kilometres of hedgerows are still being removed annually in Ireland. The lower figure is from the EPA which seems very high, but the extraordinary higher figure of 6000 km is from the recently published Monaghan Hedgerow Survey which Shirley Clerkin was involved in. This means that on our watch, a resource that is vital for so many reasons is being lost at a huge rate. We are literally grubbing up and destroying a vital asset, and this is happening on your watch.
Why does this matter? To answer, I want to focus briefly on two particular benefits, carbon sequestration and biodiversity
- Carbon sequestration is now seen as crucial to farming and the new Carbon Farming business . The figures here for hedgerows are very significant indeed. The Teagasc ‘Farm-Carbon’ hedgerow project is working on this at the moment using drone technology to measure carbon stock. By early next year they will have a carbon scorecard at an individual farm scale. This has massive implications for carbon accounting in agriculture as we reach towards our reduction goals. Lilian O’Sullivan will be happy to answer questions about this. What is already known is that bigger, wider, taller, denser and more mature hedges store far more carbon. Early results show that approximately 600,000 tonnes of carbon are stored by our hedgerows but that the potential could be a million tonnes and upwards. The higher figures are directly related to good management methods and the avoidance for example of severe or excessive cutting, and of course stopping further removal.
- Looking at biodiversity, good quality hedgerows are a vital habitat for animals, bird and insect species particularly pollinators which as we know are under severe threat. Two thirds of our native birds either feed or nest or both in hedgerows and they are home to over 600 of our 800 flowering plants. Because of our very low forest cover (11% compared to the European average of 40%) hedges play a correspondingly far greater role in our biodiversity. So we have a lot more to lose if we carry on on our current path. Our hedgerows have been described as Ireland’s equivalent of the Amazon Rainforest. Again, management techniques are critically important to biodiversity in hedgerows.
So if we are removing thousands of kilometres of hedgerows annually, the question arises, are there no protective checks and balances against inappropriate or excessive removal?
- Firstly, hedgerows have no direct protection under current law. Indirect protection only is provided during the nesting season under Section 40 of the Wildife Act. In practice this legislation is very unwieldy, has many exemptions and provides no protection out of the so called ‘closed season’ and in fact is considered to be in breach of the EU Birds Directive.
- Secondly,where landowners plan to remove more than 500m of hedgerow they are supposed to apply to the Department of Agriculture under the Environmental Impact Assessment regulations. In practice 95% of these applications are given the go ahead, and in a recent study no environmental assessments were carried out in the five year study period. Under Cross Compliance if you take out a hedgerow you are supposed to plant an equivalent length before removal to continue your Basic Payments, but we know that a new hedge will take 20-50 years to reach the same carbon and biodiversity values as the old one, and we would have concerns about the level of oversight of this replanting and also the quality and species diversity of what is being replanted compared with what is being removed.
- Hedgerow quality is another huge concern. Shirley Clerkin’s recent Monaghan study and another study in the South East by Julie Larkin last year found that only about 10% are in good condition. Excessive cutting, herbicide and fertiliser use were the main issues as well as neglect and a lack of rejuvenation. Her report is devastating in its findings.
- Education and Training: There are currently no hedge management certification courses running. They used to take place but there has been nothing for several years. There is an excellent annual Hedgerow Week run by Catherine Keena in Teagasc however as well as online Teagasc information.
- CAP payments: We don’t know what the final schemes will be but it looks like the recommendations from our group, and several other similar submissions have not been included where it was suggested that the quality and management of existing hedgerows should be rewarded in both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 schemes giving a financial incentive for taller wider more productive hedges. CAP is good on new planting, and that's great, but it’s missing out on an easy win with respect to our existing hedges.
- Forestry: Hedgerows are effectively being lost to forestry with exotic species because the recommendations of the EPA funded ‘Bioforest’ project are not being followed with regard to minimum setback distances which are needed to ensure that hedgerows are not shaded to destruction.
- Legal protection for hedgerows, by either a new amendment to the 1976 Wildlife Act (as amended) , or new legislation.
- In the immediate term the interpretation and implementation of the EIA regulations by the Nitrates Division of the DAFM should be urgently reviewed.
- The new CAP schemes should recognize and reward good hedgerow management.
- Hedge management courses and certification should be reintroduced and it should be a requirement that hedge cutting contractors complete these as in the requirements for pesticide spraying for example. Hedgerow management deserves to be a specialty area.
- Implementation of the EPA recommendations around setback from hedgerows in forestry.
Media Coverage of our recent appearance in front of the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.