13th October 2023
“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.”
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.
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 .
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:
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 .
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
 i.e. not during nesting and breeding season, which falls from 1 March to 31 August
 protected species could include those listed in applicable UK wildlife legislation, or species that are endangered