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Hedgerow protection: Importance and impact for businesses

The Topline

On 20 September 2023, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs closed its consultation on the protection of hedgerows in England. With DEFRA seeking views on how to best protect hedgerows, including potentially expanding beyond existing protections, we wanted to explain why hedgerow protection is so important, and how we can help landowners and developers.”

Grace Stirrat, Associate, Regulatory & Compliance

Headshot of Grace Stirrat in colour used for quotations

Hedgerow protection: Importance and impact for businesses

Why are hedgerows and hedgerow protection important?

A hedgerow is a boundary line of bushes which may include a variety of tree species.  Hedgerows support biodiversity and provide habitats for a diverse range of species including birds, mammals and butterflies (while also providing a food source for these species). Hedgerows are also essential for climate adaptation, storing carbon and providing important boundary features in England’s countryside.

According to the Woodland Trust, it’s estimated that around 118,000 miles of hedgerows have been lost since 1950. It’s therefore not surprising that, as part of its Environmental Improvement Plan, the UK government committed to supporting farmers in creating or restoring 30,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2037 and 45,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2050.

What protections are currently in place?

Hedgerows which meet certain criteria for length, location or importance are protected under the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 (the Regulations). This means that, subject to specific exclusions, they can’t be removed or cut back without permission, and even then only at certain times of year [1].

If you need to undertake any work on hedgerows, you should always check if it could be protected.

A hedgerow will be protected if it’s not domestic and meets the following length and location criteria:

  • More than 20 metres long (gaps of 20 metres or less are treated as part of the hedgerow), or less than 20 meters long but meets another hedgerow at each end.
  • Located on or next to: common land; protected land (such as a local nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest, special area of conservation or special protection area); land used for agriculture or forestry; land used for breeding or keeping horses or ponies or donkeys; a village green; or land belonging to the state.

You must also check if the hedgerow is ‘important’.

A hedgerow will be important if it has existed for 30 years or more and meets at least one of the importance criteria set out in the Regulations. These include archaeology and history, and wildlife and landscape.  For example, if a hedgerow marks all or part of a parish boundary that existed before 1850; if it’s completely or partly in or next to an archaeological site; or if it contains protected species [2].

If a hedgerow is protected, permission must be sought from the Local Planning Authority to cut or remove it, and permission isn’t always granted.  If the hedgerow meets the importance criteria, the LPA has the power to issue a hedgerow retention notice, meaning it must be kept and prohibiting any work that would damage the hedgerow.

The government has stated that it wants to ensure the Regulations work for wildlife, the environment and for farmers. Its current consultation is on the best ways to maintain and improve existing protections and enforcement powers.  It therefore seems that hedgerow protections will either remain as they already exist or (perhaps more likely) they’ll become even more extensive.

Consequences of removing or working on protected hedgerows without consent

It’s a criminal offence to intentionally or recklessly remove, or cause/permit another person to remove, a hedgerow without approval.  The penalty is an unlimited fine.

Unlawfully interfering with hedgerows can also amount to a breach of planning permission.  Where that results in stop notices or other planning enforcement measures, development projects can be impacted with additional costs and delay.

Quite apart from prosecutions/fines and planning breaches, unlawful hedgerow pruning or removal can result in significant negative publicity and reputational damage for landowners and developers.  Commercial and residential developments in rural areas are often already controversial.  Interfering with hedgerows can make developers an easy target for local campaigners and objectors on already-sensitive developments.

Hedgerow protection: Practical advice

Environmental accountability, including a particular focus on habitats and biodiversity, is highly prevalent within today’s political, commercial and consumer conscience. A business’ green credentials therefore now influence both their investment prospects and consumer choices like never before.  Adopting a responsible approach to hedgerow management on any development project is therefore not only legally essential – it’s also commercially sensible.

Such a responsible approach should include (as a minimum):

  • undertaking site visits and desktop searches to take account of hedgerow siting, sizing and archaeological/historical/natural importance
  • taking specialist legal and ecological advice
  • applying for all relevant permissions
  • project scheduling to take account of likely application, decision and implementation timescales.

In particularly sensitive cases, landowners and developers may be well-advised to also undertake public relations management and to obtain expert support in relation to regulators’ oversight or enforcement action.

Hedgerow protection: How we can support landowners and developers

Walker Morris’ Environment Team is a multi-disciplinary group of specialist lawyers experienced in all aspects of the environmental agenda. As well as keeping clients up to date with legal and regulatory developments, we can work with businesses at every step of their journey to create, implement and deliver an effective sustainability strategy.  In particular, we can help landowners and developers to adopt a strategic and commercial approach when building environmental considerations – including hedgerow protection – into their development projects.

Please contact Rachel, Grace or any member of the Environment Team for tailored advice, assistance or training.


[1] i.e. not during nesting and breeding season, which falls from 1 March to 31 August

[2] protected species could include those listed in applicable UK wildlife legislation, or species that are endangered

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