Information on why hedgerows are important, how you can conserve them, and where you can learn more.
Hedgerows: Past, Present & Future
- 95% of hedgerows are on farms, with 4% of farmland dedicated to hedgerows
- Unfortunately, most of our hedgerows are in poor condition
- Hedgerows – and the soil under them – contain significant amounts of carbon
- Allowing our hedgerows to grow a little taller, and a little wider will significantly increase the amount of carbon that may be stored in them – as well as protecting biodiversity and our pollinators!
Our hedgerows are one of the components that define the very landscape of this island. It is inconceivable to imagine Ireland without hedgerows.
Originally they defined borders; difficult to penetrate barriers protecting and delineating homesteads, towns, and villages. Then they were adapted to define land boundaries and provide live-stock-proof fencing.
Hedgerows are the product an ancient skill – the heritage skill of hedge laying.
Hedge Laying involves the skilled rejuvenation of a hedgerow, by periodically removing some of the outgrowth and the careful cutting – but not severing – of the stems of the plants and trees contained in the hedgerow. This allows the stems to be laid over on top of each other, and the intertwinement of the branches into a barrier. The laid over hedge is supported with stakes – pending regrowth from the cut stems which occurs along the hedge. This cyclical process means that many of our hedgerows are hundreds of years old, and some well over a thousand. Evidence of hedge laying can be seen in the mature horizontal boughs in hedgerows, that demonstrate previous laying, 20-40, and more years ago!
Hedge laying is the most appropriate mechanism for managing hedgerows.
Our hedgerows are in trouble! We have drifted away from cyclical rejuvenation. We rely on modern machinery, and we have forgotten the basic rules! Hedges – and the species that inhabit them – need time to grow, and a hedge is not just a hedge. A hedge is an ecosystem, and as in all such systems – balance is important.
Our hedgerows – despite successive narrowly focused schemes – are in poor shape. They are not thriving. They are being destroyed, year on year. We can all see growing evidence of the mismanagement and destruction of hedges. The gaps, and the taller, older, dying trees deprive lower plants of growth opportunities.
Of course, such trees are very important too – and well-managed hedges will run from tree to tree. But a hedge that becomes just a few tall trees is not stock-proof nor provides the necessary thriving habitat.
If we do not get to grips with an appropriate approach to the management of hedgerows we are likely to find it impossible to retain the current heritage and biodiversity associated with hedgerows.
With such destruction, we are losing out on an invaluable resource. One that enables biodiversity, and provides a range of benefits to farmers and livestock. And one which has the potential to contribute significantly to one of the key challenges in the climate crisis. Carbon!
Carbon & Climate Change
As we engage with the climate agenda, our hedgerows have a key role to play – in the sequestration of carbon, and as crucial habitat for many forms of wildlife – and therefore as a key component in the protection of our biodiversity.
Teagasc indicates that there are approximately 689,000 km of hedgerows in Ireland and that the average hedgerow is 2.7 metres wide. That equates to 186,030 hectares of hedgerow – or 4% of the land which is dedicated to farming!
These hedgerows are – and can be a valuable carbon sink. They already hold significant amounts of carbon, and with proper preservation and management can be an effective mechanism for increased sequestration.
In particular, while we await the completion of various domestic research, recent findings from the UK and Germany point to the significant volume of carbon contained within – and below – Hedgerows, and to the significant potential for further sequestration if we allow our hedges to grow. A marginal increase in height and width will yield a significant benefit in sequestration terms.
As our elected representatives and various stakeholders debate our future approach to agriculture and sustainability, we must recognise the importance of hedgerows.
And the vital role that farmers have, and the challenges they face. After all, 95% of our hedgerows are on farmland.
Given the size of the average Irish farm is circa 35 hectares, and the fact that many farmers are required to earn additional income in employment or elsewhere, it is our view that an appropriate appreciation of the economic value of hedgerows is timely. Well-maintained hedgerows should provide a useful bounty in terms of consumable fruits and materials – as well as a valuable source of income related to carbon sequestration.
In addition, we must recognise and work to address the challenges that our farmers face. Farmers should receive recognition for the value of carbon that their hedgerows contain – and there must be economic value to be gained from preserving and increasing carbon sequestration through proper management and restoration of their hedgerows.
We hope that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture Food and the Marine will recognise this challenge – and opportunity.