According to agricultural science worker and Unite member Charlie Clutterbuck the absence of hedgerows and soil in the government’s post-Brexit vision is a sign that any hopes of a rural revitalisation are likely to fall on stony ground.
Relatively unsung by nature lovers and Romantic poets, hedgerows are a fundamental aspect of the British countryside.
Hedgerows come in many shapes and sizes, the best ones for wildlife being broadest at the bottom with woody species such as hawthorn, hazel and field maple. Hedges provide shelter and nesting opportunities for woodland and farmland birds. Nectar, berries, nuts and leaves are food for mammals, birds and invertebrates. They can also help reduce soil erosion and water run-off on arable land. According to Natural England, hedgerows also preserve carbon stocks and wildlife that may have taken centuries to develop.
“A romantic view”
Historically, hedgerows were planted to show ownership boundaries. Many were laid on common land during the enclosures beginning in the 18th century to exclude people who previously used the land. In the 1980s, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy encouraged farmers to pull them down by offering subsidies to make fields bigger. It proved disastrous, with the loss of 23 per cent of hedgerows during the decade.
But Charlie Clutterbuck, who first began writing for the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers in the 1970s, believes Boris Johnson’s statement that “we will use the new freedoms we have after leaving the EU Common Agricultural Policy to support farmers to beautify the landscape” excludes hedgerow restoration and is instead a call for big vistas, reservoirs and rivers.
“It is a romantic view of the countryside, which, sadly appears to have the backing of many environmental organisations.” said Clutterbuck. “You would imagine hedgerows should be in there somewhere – most people would back this – but I have yet to see any words confirming this. Johnson is playing to the City, to big finance who are being invited to make bids under the new Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund (NEIRF).”
Government regulations in 1997 sought to reverse the loss of hedgerows, preventing their removal without local planning permission. The EU also sought to repair some of the damage by later introducing ecological focus areas that included hedgerows.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the total amount of hedgerows, estimated at 402,000 km across England in 2007, has stabilised, but there is no official data.
Clutterbuck is himself part of a Ribble Valley consortium NEIRF bid led by the Larder Project in Preston, which includes key organisations such as the National Farmers Union. NEIRF will provide natural capital grants of between £10,000 and £100,000 to “people interested in tackling climate change, creating and restoring habitats or improving water quality”.
But he says government guidelines on these improvements do not include aspects such as hedgerows and soil health. Instead, he said much of the money on the bid he worked on is set aside for consultants at £500- £600 a day.
“Money that once went direct to farmers through Countryside Stewardship Schemes is being replaced by the Sustainable Farming Initiative but half of this funding, around £2 billion, will be cut and replaced by schemes that the government has yet to announce, which will be based on NEIRF ideas.
“These consultants will be focused on attracting large scale funding, whereas in the past farmers big or small got direct payments. Jobs will be lost.
“I fear that attracting large-scale private sector investment will mean largescale landscape picture box projects rather than a working countryside.
“As such a good number are likely to be rewilding and tree plantation projects, neither of which will, after an initial boost, provide long-term employment for local people. “
Clutterbuck is not totally opposed to tree plantations but would much prefer to see priority given to locations such as river banks where trees can hold the soil, thus helping to control water flow and possibly prevent flooding.
Over 200 NEIRF bids have been submitted this year and the 100 or so who have been successful will be notified in July.
” A Defra spokesperson said: “Our new schemes will enable us to reward the work farmers do to manage every metre of hedgerows on their holdings’ sustainability.” But she did not provide any guarantees that any NEIRF projects would include hedgerows.
She did not respond when asked whether funds will be used to pay consultants rather than farmers and farm labourers.
Perhaps the most important aspect of hedgerows is not what we can see above ground, but what is going underground. So often forgotten, soils, are vital to ‘regenerating’ our farming. Regenerative means improving soils, so building from the ground up. Improved soils do more for reducing global warming than any other measure. This is not just because they can hold a lot more carbon than they are now, but they can hold water, enabling more plants to grow. This keeps the temperatures of the earth lower, and should be built into any climate change scheme.
Hedgerows provide deeper rooting systems, so that water runs down the roots instead of running off the land. They will play a vital part in natural flood management, where – by holding water – they can control erosion of land and faster flowing rivers causing erosion and silting up.
The loss of hedgerows in the eastern part of England and where there are now vast plains of monocrops with no hedgerows has led to the erosion of 2 million tons from our best groundwater-dependent ecosystems/land into the North Sea. That – our most valuable asset of any – cannot come back. It is a man-made disaster that will hurt future generations.
“Hedgerows not only create that classic British scene, they also protect our most important asset, our soil, “ said Clutterbuck. “ Marx said that the source of all our wealth is labour and soil. Let’s value both more. We need to regenerate our soils to protect our environment better and so that they can provide better living for those working the land and those of us eating off it.
“That old EU subsidy money should be going to paying workers a decent living wage to regenerate the land, as I proposed in Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land & Labour.”
In Charlie’s book he outlines how the £3bn annual subsidy that was paid out under the EU’s CAP, most of which subsidised large landowners, should, by providing an annual subsidy of £10,000 per job, be switched towards creating 300,000 new rural, decently paid land-based jobs.