Supporting farmers to grow bigger, bushier hedgerows could help tackle climate change and boost wildlife, it has been claimed.
Martin Lines, chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), said a move from EU farming subsidies to paying farmers for “public goods” could herald support for a woodier landscape which is good for both wildlife and the climate.
At the same time as providing habitat and storing carbon, large hedgerows, alongside trees and copses on farmland, could deliver benefits for farmers by sheltering and feeding livestock and curbing rural crime, he said.
The Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change will publish in-depth advice this week on how land should be used to help meet targets to slash emissions to zero by 2050.
In a previous study, the committee said hedges and trees on farms would play a role in cutting emissions.
The Government has just introduced its Agriculture Bill which will govern farming in England after Brexit, shifting away from the current EU subsidy system to one which rewards farmers for providing public goods such as carbon storage.
Mr Lines said a flexible system with financial support and advice for farmers to create bigger, wilder hedgerows, could provide more shelter and food such as berries for wildlife, and store more carbon in plant growth.
Bigger hedges can deliver benefits for landowners themselves, such as shelter and food for livestock, winter fodder from harvested greenery, habitat for beneficial insects that prey on pests and wood, and biomass from coppiced trees.
Hedges can also help reduce common rural problems, he said, pointing to his own farm in Cambridgeshire where restoring hedgerows has helped keep illegal hare coursing and flytipping off his land.
He said: “We need a woodier landscape; the focus has been about trees, but it’s a woodier landscape, which includes bigger, bushier hedges with trees, and in some places, copses of trees.
“The system has been about clean and tidy, all of society, everyone’s gardens are clean and tidy.
“I’m really excited at this idea of a bushier, woodier, wilder landscape, connecting things, with watercourses, with hedgerows, some real wild areas and not-so-wild areas. Hedges have a key role to play in that.
“I think it’s really exciting for biodiversity benefit and carbon benefit and a better, healthier- looking landscape.”
Support for farmers to manage their hedges would reward landowners with smaller-scale fields, and could encourage large-scale arable farmers to put hedges back through the middle of fields which could be farmed round, he suggested.
The National Farmers’ Union has set out ambitions for the agricultural sector to hit net-zero emissions by 2040.
As part of those efforts, the NFU estimates that enhancing and increasing hedgerows could save up to 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – but farmers would need to be paid under the new system to deliver bigger hedges.
National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters said: “British farmers are not only excellent providers of high-quality, affordable food, but the very land they look after also acts as a carbon store.
“Conserving and building this store is one of the three pillars of activity for farmers as the industry strives towards net-zero agriculture by 2040, and effective incentives are going to be key to help farmers use their land as efficiently as possible to try and capture more carbon.”
However, she also warned that the industry would not become carbon-neutral through hedgerow management and other farmland carbon storage options alone.
“Investment to increase farming’s productive efficiency and boost its renewable energy production is also going to be critical if we are to deliver on our net-zero aspiration,” she urged.