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Hedgerows: Legal Protection

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered legal protections for hedgerows.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Elliott. I welcome the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its consultation last June, which sought to ensure that protections for hedgerows will continue, following the end of cross-compliance protections this January. I thank the Minister for her engagement on the issue and, as an advisory board member of the Conservative Environment Network, I thank the network for its help in relation to this debate.

Our green and pleasant land has been a source of national pride for centuries. Looking at the gently rolling hills of my North Devon constituency, it is easy to see why. The land is a green patchwork, stitched together by hedgerows. I am proud to be one of the 85 MPs and peers who are hedgerow heroes for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, continuously calling on the Government to commit to significant hedgerow planting and restoration.

The Government have made many welcome steps towards protecting hedgerows. The Environment Act 2021 introduced a mandatory biodiversity net gain requirement for new development, along with local nature recovery strategies to target the best places for nature recovery and wider environmental benefits. In January 2023, under the refreshed 25-year environment plan, the Government announced a target to create or restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037 and 45,000 miles of hedgerows by 2050. That target will result in 360,000 miles of English hedgerows, which is 10% above the 1984 peak.

Other positives include clear regulations prohibiting the removal of countryside hedgerows without approval, and our countryside stewardship schemes, which help to maintain and restore over 10,000 km of existing hedgerows and plant an additional 4,000 km across the country. Countryside stewardship provides financial incentives for farmers, foresters and land managers to look after and improve the environment. Under grant type BE3—management of hedgerows—farmers will be paid £13 per 100 metres for one side of a hedge. That is available for the countryside stewardship mid-tier and higher-tier options, and will go towards improving the structure and longevity of hedgerows and maintaining them as distinctive and historic landscape features.

Healthy hedgerows are visually appealing, but they are also unsung heroes. Their roots absorb excess water and help to reduce the risk of flooding. Their leaves provide a source of shade for livestock in the summer and shelter in the winter. Their thick, tangled branches are home to countless iconic British species, from the humble hedgehog to bats, turtle doves and yellowhammers. Hedges are also home to precious pollinators, without which we would all go hungry. Over 1,500 invertebrates, including bees, beetles, spiders and hoverflies, have been identified in hedgerows in the UK. Spring-flowering trees and shrubs, such as blackthorn and hawthorn, which are often found in hedgerows, can be important sources of spring foraging for wild bee species in intensively managed landscapes.

The National Trust is very keen that I highlight its annual BlossomWatch campaign. Blackthorn and hawthorn blossom hedgerow is some of the most spectacular to be found anywhere in our countryside. The National Trust highlights that since 1945, the UK’s hedgerow network has shrunk by about 50%. That is concerning because hedgerows are not just an iconic feature of our landscapes, but critical habitats for our wildlife that clean our air and help with carbon capture and reducing flooding. The National Trust welcomes the Government’s target to create or restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037 and 45,000 by 2050.

According to the Government’s independent adviser on climate change, the Climate Change Committee, hedgerows are key to meeting our legally binding commitment to reach net zero by 2050. The committee has recommended increasing the length of hedgerows by 40% by 2050. Studies suggest that England’s hedges could already hold as much as 9 million tonnes of carbon. Unmanaged hedgerows are estimated to sequester over 140 tonnes of carbon per hectare, compared with 169 tonnes for a 30-year native woodland. If hedgerows are properly managed, they could sequester even more, both in their woody stems and in the roots below.

I am a genuine believer in our farmers as the best custodians of our countryside. However, we have lost nearly 118,000 miles of hedgerows in the UK since the 1950s, when farmers were encouraged to increase the intensity of their production.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She mentions the importance of the farming community and what they do to secure, promote and enhance hedgerows in our nation. Does she agree that we need to do as much as we can to support them in their much-needed task, which people often forget about and take for granted?

I agree entirely, and I will speak further about what more we can do to support farmers. My North Devon constituency is home to a large number of farmers.

There are few legal protections to prevent poor hedgerow management practices. When I was a councillor, I was contacted every year without fail about the cutting of local hedgerows. The problem is that the lack of a landscape criterion means that locally distinctive hedgerows are not protected and local authorities are often powerless to retain them. According to CPRE, more than half of local authorities feel that existing exceptions for built development lead to unacceptable or avoidable hedgerow loss.

Prior to the UK’s departure from the EU, cross-compliance rules governed eligibility for the EU’s common agricultural policy and provided basic environmental protections. The UK has now replaced CAP, and the rules ceased to apply as of 31 January 2023. It is worth noting that the majority of rules under cross-compliance are now covered by domestic legislation, but although the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 protect some hedgerows from being removed, there are now no regulations to protect hedgerows from harmful management practices such as ploughing too close to the base, spraying them with chemicals and cutting them at the wrong time of year.

Perhaps this is an apt time to mention the no-cutting period. The Big Garden Birdwatch—the world’s largest garden wildlife survey, organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—is happening this weekend. Every year, hundreds of thousands of nature lovers take part and help to build a picture of how garden birds are faring in the UK. If hon. Members have not signed up already, that is something for this weekend. A no-cutting period would ensure that hedgerows are not cut back during the important bird nesting season from early spring to late summer. Any reduction or loss of the no-cutting period would place severe additional pressures on farmland bird species that are already facing spiralling declines. A no-cutting period would benefit not just birds, but bees.

Colleagues have told me that there is a problem with highway authorities cutting grass verges and roadside hedges at the wrong time of year. Cutting roadside hedges destroys all the wild flowers, which have great benefits in helping bees to pollinate. It is also important to recognise that hedgerows need management, and that should be incorporated into any scheme, as many birds nest inside the hedgerows to protect them from predators, not on the bits that need trimming.

One of the UK’s very rare bumblebees, the brown-banded carder bee, was spotted in Braunton last summer. Maintaining road verges with pollinators in mind can create a network of habitat that can connect populations of bumblebees, allowing them to find suitable flowers to pollinate. I want to give a big thank you to Braunton parish council and the local volunteers at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for their work.

Recent research by CPRE has found that planting hedgerows on arable land can boost the production of pollinating insects, increase crop yields by 10% and reduce pesticide use by 30%. The study examines what it would mean for farmers if the UK’s hedgerow network were expanded by 40% by 2050. It calculates that for every £1 invested in hedgerows, farmers would see a £1.73 return from higher crop yields.

A petition supported by North Devon residents states:

“All hedgerow cutting or trimming and non-essential tree felling should be banned between March and August to give declining bird species a chance to breed undisturbed by human activity.”

The Hedgerows Regulations 1997 offer limited legal protection, as they apply only to narrowly defined important hedges. Broadly, a hedgerow is considered important if it is at least 30 years old and meets criteria based on the number of plant and animal species it supports, its historical significance, and associated hedge features such as a hedge bank, ditch or tree.

The 2023 DEFRA consultation on protecting hedgerows included questions about ensuring continued protection for hedgerows after the end of cross-compliance. That meant that to receive the basic payment scheme, farmers and land managers were required to maintain overall standards and put in place hedgerow management measures. However, although the Department held a consultation last June on the shape of future regulations, no amendments have been made since their introduction in 1997. The Government have yet to respond, and they missed their deadline last year to replicate the previous rules in UK law. The Department has stated:

“We are determined to protect and restore vital wildlife habitats and have recently consulted on continuing hedgerow protections after the end of cross compliance and will publish a summary of responses as well as outline our next steps shortly.”

I hope that the Minister can clarify when “shortly” is, as the delayed Government response to the consultation risks a regulatory gap in the protection of hedgerows under basic hedgerow management standards.

Farmers make countless sacrifices to produce the food we eat, and they care deeply for their land. They are as much a part of the landscape as they are custodians of it. Farmers are integral to rural communities such as mine in North Devon: they help to stitch them together, create jobs and produce high-quality food, all while caring for our much-loved countryside. I will always champion our great British farmers and ensure that their voices are heard.

I welcome the good news from the Secretary of State this month regarding the latest upgrades to the UK’s farming schemes since Brexit to help support our farmers, including a 10% increase in the average value of agreements in the sustainable farming incentive and countryside stewardship schemes. A streamlined single application process for farmers to apply for the schemes is also to be warmly welcomed. I am pleased that the process has been made simpler for British farmers to access. Those upgrades underpin the Government’s commitment to support farmers and take actions to boost sustainable food production while delivering positive outcomes for the environment.

Now that we are outside the EU, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a bespoke system of farm support that better rewards farmers, protects our natural environment and is unique to our national circumstances. The new environmental land management schemes are a step in the right direction. ELMS deliver much greater value for taxpayers’ money and create a new revenue stream for farmers to complement the money they receive for food production. ELMS also help in tackling long-term threats to our food security by encouraging more sustainable farming practices and improving key assets for food production, such as soil health, water quality and healthy hedgerows.

It was great to visit the farm of my constituent David Chugg in Kingsheanton with the National Farmers Union and see the work being done to plant small trees into hedgerows as part of an ELM scheme. I am glad that the new ELM scheme means that farms such as David’s will have their management of hedgerows funded, in recognition of their historic, cultural and environmental value to our countryside.

The Government’s target is for 70% of farms to sign up to the sustainable farming incentive by 2028, and I welcome the good progress being made towards that goal. However, even if the target is met and all those farms sign up to the existing hedgerow options, it is estimated that 120,000 km of hedgerows will be left with little meaningful legal protection. The Government’s primary focus on incentivising good environmental stewardship over punitive enforcement is the right one.

Farmers have three relevant options as part of the sustainable farming incentive under ELM, with payments on offer for the measurement, management and planting of new hedgerows, but some level of legislative protection for our most precious natural assets is necessary. I therefore urge the Government to update the Hedgerows Regulations to include protections against harmful management practices. That is essential to replace the protections lost with the end of cross-compliance. We should also broaden our ambitions and think more carefully about the type of regulatory environment we want to create.

In 2018, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) commissioned the Stacey review. The review set out to rationalise the basis on which future farming regulations should be made to safeguard animal and plant welfare, ensure good land management and prevent hazards. Proportionate, smart regulation enables farmers to fulfil those goals, and the review contained a series of wide-ranging recommendations to strengthen and simplify regulation. Unfortunately, the Government have still not issued a formal response. I call on the Minister to do so.

Farming is an unpredictable business, and the hundreds of farmers whose land still lies under water after Storm Henk are a testament to that. It is our duty as policymakers to provide them with certainty and the tools they need to strengthen their resilience. North Devon residents have also signed a petition to make the protection of hedgerows a condition of ELMS and BPS subsidies. We need to ensure that farmers have the confidence to engage with that process. To ensure that farmers have that confidence in ELMS, to restore our natural world and to boost our food security, the Government should at the very least increase the ELMS budget in line with inflation and index future budgets to inflation. Consumer price inflation ran at an average of 4.18% from December 2019 to October 2023. The £2.4 billion annual budget should therefore increase by at least £400 million to restore it to its original value.

Whitehall could also be less prescriptive in the payments that it makes available to farmers. I would like to see more market-based payment rates for ELMS, reflective of our environmental needs and the demands from farmers. Options with the greatest environmental benefits or those with the lowest sign-up rates should have their payment rates boosted to increase uptake. To meet the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations to increase the length of hedgerows, SFI options for the planting and careful management of hedgerows should be included.

Farmers also need greater advice on how to access the opportunities available. After speaking to farmers in my constituency, I know how important that is. I hope the Minister will look to appoint regional and local farm champions to provide peer-to-peer advice and training on sustainable and profitable farm practices.

To sum up, I have a few suggestions for the Minister. We should introduce a landscape criterion in the regulations to give local authorities more discretion to protect hedgerows that are important to the local landscape character, but might not meet the current criteria for importance. We should improve the Hedgerows Regulations so that they are easier for local authorities to implement: any simplification should strengthen hedgerow protection, not weaken it. We should consider a closed season over winter for when hedgerow removal notices can be submitted to local authorities. That would allow comprehensive surveys of the hedgerow to take place, as required, before removal is permitted.

The key point that I want to stress is the need for those regulations that have been lost under cross-compliance, which relate to the management of hedgerows. Although I know that hedgerow planting is not a silver bullet for agricultural carbon emissions, it can play a significant role alongside good soil management, agroforestry and uptake of low carbon fertilisers.

We have just found out that our Lib Dem-run district council will miss its 2030 net zero target after having reduced its greenhouse gases by only 16% in the last four years. I hope that the Government can facilitate our farmers in filling some of the gaps that the Lib Dems have left, and secure, enhance and extend our stunning network of hedgerows across North Devon and the country.

I trust the farmers in North Devon to look after their hedgerows. They understand the link between good hedgerows, better biodiversity and improved productivity, but we must look at the next steps on protection. It is important that we boost our biodiversity to strengthen our rural economies and maximise the benefits of our beautiful countryside. We need to ensure that our hedgerows are legally protected.

I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate and for her technical recommendations, which should certainly help to improve things for hedgerows.

Hedgerows are essential to our agricultural heritage and the protection of our natural environment and landscape, as well as being essential carbon sinks to help us meet our COP and convention on biological diversity commitments. I welcome CPRE’s research, which found that expanding the hedgerow network by 40% would create more than 25,000 new jobs over the next three decades, and that for every £1 spent on hedgerows a return of as much as £3.92 can be expected from the associated ecosystem services and economic opportunities.

I went to see Richard Bramley’s farm near Tadcaster—he is the chair of the National Farmers Union environment forum. He had planted hundreds of metres of hedgerows and it was great to see the biodiversity increase, with the associated carbon benefits. He said that he wanted more hedgerows on his farm, but the barrier was the lack of a skilled workforce. That and other areas of green skills need to be tackled if we are to see an expansion of our hedgerow network.

I would like a national nature service to be brought in for young people from teenage years, to give opportunities for activities such as hedgerow planting and to work with agricultural colleges to widen and broaden the curricula, which would bring forward new skilled workers to undertake activities such as hedgerow planting and management. We need to invest in those skills and skills-based activities if we are to see the necessary hedgerow planting and maintenance to meet our existing targets.

Hedges produce crops and provide food for people and animals. The protection and management of the natural environment is crucial for the agricultural sector and the environment, especially under the growing challenges imposed by the rise in temperature and the climate crisis, with continuing chaotic weather patterns. As a CPRE hedgerow champion—I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned us—I signed up to call on the Government to commit to significant hedgerow planting and restoration and to increase the extent of the UK’s hedgerows by 40% by 2050, as recommended by the UK Climate Change Committee. Under the nature recovery Green Paper, the Government have said that they are committed to protecting hedgerows, including through the ELMS scheme, but I would like to see them specify how they will encourage the creation of more.

When I attended the convention on biological diversity —the UN biodiversity conference—at COP15, Governments agreed a new set of goals for nature over this decade. Unfortunately, the UK is one of the most severely nature-depleted countries worldwide, and we have heard successive Government Ministers admit that that is the case. The Natural History Museum’s biodiversity intactness index, probably the best indicator of global biodiversity, has revealed that the world has crashed through the “safe limit for humanity” for biodiversity loss and placed the UK’s 53% score in the bottom 10% of all countries, well below China and last in the G7—not a record that we should be proud of. The Conservatives’ Environment Act 2021 target on species abundance, which they were forced to concede by Opposition amendments, promised only to “halt the decline” in species by 2030. Just halting the decline—or getting a “net zero for nature”—is not good enough. Our ambition should be to be nature-positive, both at home and when working internationally. Going forwards, we need to focus on improving our rewilding, reforesting and biodiversity targets in which hedgerows are preserved, utilised and renewed.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) will tell us that Labour will take a different approach, which I will agree with. We need to be the change that we want to see. Action at home has showcased to the world how nature-positive policy can be practically delivered across Government. I am sure that my hon. Friend will tell us that Labour will have a robust, net zero and nature-positive test for every policy—we must do that now—and a green prosperity plan, with an investment of £28 billion in the latter half of the next Parliament, including funding for nature restoration. I hope that that green prosperity plan includes significant funding for the green skills needed for us to restore hedgerows and our nature-depleted environment.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), because I know from prior experience as the DEFRA Minister responsible for nature that she really is a hedgerow hero. She was persistent and effective in implementing increased recognition across DEFRA of the importance of hedgerows. That was certainly recognised by Ministers, including my good friend the Minister for Nature, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), and the Farming Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), and by all the officials working for DEFRA, and by Natural England and the Forestry Commission.

I am delighted that we published the environmental improvement plan on 31 January 2023 because it really recognised, across 277 pages, what we are doing to halt the decline of nature by 2030 and increase its abundance thereafter. Hedgerows most certainly featured in that, and the revised standards earlier this year featured not just their planting and protection, but their management and assessment and the earthy banks on which they grow. I commend DEFRA for recognising the benefits of stone walls, because in areas such as mine in Copeland, across the Lake District and throughout Cumbria, stone walls are incredibly important for biodiversity and provide the windbreaks and shelters also provided by hedgerows. I am really pleased that DEFRA has recognised that they are more than just something for our much-appreciated tourists to enjoy. They are more than the cultural landscape: they actually provide a real benefit for nature and will help to contribute to the halting of nature’s decline, which is so important.

Think about the hedgerows that have featured across our landscape for thousands of years, initially formed for windbreaks, as divisions and as shelters. To divide the land in such a cost-effective, long-living, bountiful and beautiful way was a wonderful thing that our ancestors did. Grubbing up may have been Government policy many decades ago when the priority was to feed our nation in post-war Britain, but we have come a long way in appreciating that it was a bad idea to sacrifice hedgerows. I would argue that it was one of the worst environmental harms that our country has done to the countryside.

It is right to have an emphasis on farms and farmers, because on our relatively small island, which is densely populated, about 70% of our land is agricultural—is farmed land, so if we are truly to see the benefits that we need for biodiversity, it is right that ELMS and that £2.4 billion investment from Government prioritises farmed land. We are catching up, because the environmental improvement plan introduced that commitment to the planting of more hedgerows, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon set out, and the increased protections. I look forward to confirmation of that.

The new and improved standards will take us a long way, and there are now fantastic examples of farmers coming together. I give a particular shout-out to my farmers in the West Lakeland Community Interest Company, consisting of 50 or so farmers who have come together because they recognise that they can play a key part, predominantly in the Wasdale and Ennerdale area of west Cumbria, which is a truly outstanding landscape—Britain’s best view and Britain’s best farmers.

The farmers in the CIC recognise that working together, featuring more hedgerows and looking after the water quality in the area will not just be of benefit to nature and our environment, but make good business sense for them. The reason they see the business opportunities is that, across DEFRA, we have recognised the benefits of nature-based policies. One that I will reference now is biodiversity net gain. In early February, I hope, biodiversity net gain will be coming out for large developers, and for other developers thereafter. That will drive further appreciation of hedgerows—of not taking them out in the first place; of ensuring that they are protected during development, in that two-year window; and of putting hedgerows back in, because the credits for hedgerow planting are considerable.

I also draw the House’s attention to the benefits of gardeners and the role that gardening can play to increase hedgerows. To replace a fence with a hedgerow will go far in carbon sequestering, in cooling and in air quality. Hedgerows also offer a fantastic benefit for pollution capture, in particular in urban areas where about 10% of hedgerows are found. Hedgerows are of course bountiful —we can all forage from and enjoy them, and wildlife can forage and enjoy the shelter that hedgerows bring—and let us not forget their benefits in preventing soil erosion, as hedgerows will prevent flooding because their roots dig deep into the ground. The reason that hedgerows are so fantastic, however, is that they are often mixed, and that is where the benefits of gardening are as well.

A garden is a diverse landscape, which encourages multiple different plants and different layers to grow at different rates—but it is managed. The act of gardening, similar to farming, means that a garden is managed. Studies, especially those from the Royal Horticultural Society centre, RHS Wisley, now show that the benefits of our 30 million gardeners getting behind nature are absolutely phenomenal. We all know about the benefits of carbon sequestering, and if we are to fulfil our commitment of achieving net zero by 2050, gardeners will play a key role.

To conclude, I will talk about the benefits to physical and mental health from hedgerows. As the third most obese country in Europe, we have a way to go to improve our nation’s health. About 25 limbs are amputated every day as a result of diabetes, and at the height of the pandemic, on one of the worst days for hospital admissions, 4,500 people were admitted to hospital on one day; but every day, on average, 3,000 people are admitted to our hospitals due to obesity-related issues. To go for a walk along a hedgerow—I cannot imagine a nicer way to spend the day.

As we dare to dream that spring is on the way, and as the hedgerows start to get colour and liven up, we can look forward to the bird nesting season. We absolutely need to protect our hedgerows. Most importantly, we can look forward to the sights and sounds that we find in our hedgerows, and find an excuse to go for a walk and enjoy the great outdoors, which is the most wonderful thing about this country. It is absolutely essential if we are going to tackle the obesity crisis and all of the many preventable diseases that are caused by having a less active Britain.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing the debate, and the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) for her beautiful words about hedgerows and the joys of walking around the countryside. She really brought the scene to life.

My constituents know that I am proudly from a farming family. I am able to trace my ancestors back to North Cadbury, in my constituency, as far back as 1763. My family are rooted in the soil we live on. Like other small family farmers up and down the country, they are guardians of our beautiful countryside.

Hedgerows provide wildlife corridors and stimulate predators, which can reduce the need for pesticide use, improve soil health and sequester carbon. They may be artificially created, but they house and shelter some of the most enigmatic and endearing animals, from natterjack toads and horseshoe bats to tawny owls and hoverflies. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species recently counted 2,070 different species of plants and animals in one hedgerow in Devon. It recorded an average of 3.6 woody plant species in 885 km of hedgerows nationwide. Some 84% of birds found in UK farmlands need hedgerows. Over half of them live there primarily, along with 500 native plant species and over 1,500 insect species.

I have spoken before about the importance of cider in my part of Somerset, and one of the best pollinators for cider apples are red mason solitary bees, which need hedgerow shelter to thrive. I recently spoke to a farmer who told me that he had seen the first nightingale on his farm in living memory in the last few weeks, and that he regularly enjoys seeing barn owls patrolling his hedgerows. We must dismiss the myth that farmers want to tear up our hedgerows and destroy key habitats. Encouraging farmers to actively manage and preserve hedgerows is vital for future conservation and the associated benefits but, as of 31 December, there is no cross-compliance in place.

Another farmer told me:

“It’s all voluntary, it’s all optional—I personally can’t spend the required time submitting the silly forms.”

The RSPB figures show that the arrangements could risk the management of 120,000 km of hedgerows. It is rarely a lack of community spirit or ecological sympathy that prevents farmers from conserving hedgerows; instead, it is because of the lengthy and laborious digital system, which is beset with flaws, and a poor return on investing time in maintaining hedgerows.

I commend the Department for the generous payments for planting new hedgerows, but £3 per 100 metres to assess hedgerows, or just £10 per 100 metres to manage them, is ludicrous. My brother recently shared some of his calculations with me. He estimates that assessing 100 metres of hedgerow would take him 10 minutes of his time, not including the travel to the site across the farm or recording the data. Admittedly, recording the data has been made a bit easier because we are lucky enough to have fibre broadband on our farm, but that is not the case for many. Managing 100 metres of hedgerow would take approximately 20 minutes. Going back to his calculations, if he valued his time at £50 an hour, he reckons that he would receive just half of what he should be paid. He said:

“The costs far outweigh the payments…SFI rates just do not compensate for the time that is required to do a proper job.”

It is a shame that the Government did not include hedgerows in their welcome improved payment rates, which were announced recently at the Oxford farming conference. We all know that farmers are the most qualified and experienced people in this country to manage our hedgerows. However, we cannot take for granted farmers or, indeed, the volunteers in citizen science projects such as the Somerset Hedge Group. We need to increase sustainable farming incentive rates for surveying and maintaining hedgerows and have all digital and data issues ironed out with a dedicated support team.

Our hard-working farmers are going through some of the toughest times of their lives. Yes, we need legal protections for our network of hedgerows, but we also need appropriate, accessible and worthwhile accompanying incentives to actively support our farmers to preserve hedgerows, thus contributing to landscape conservation, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance this morning, Ms Elliott. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who made a fantastic speech, and others who have spoken commendably in the debate so far, especially the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby).

There is feverish political speculation at the moment, with all sorts of discussions about demographics, electoral movements, and blocs in the countryside or around the country. There is talk of how people will vote—red wall, blue wall—but we are very much focused on the dry stone wall where we come from. That is a particular Lib Dem demographic.

I am grateful to my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who raised an important point. People think about the lakes, the dales and Cumbria and they think of dry stone walls. Those walls are not all in open landscape. Many are historical, many are ancient and many are in the midst of what was once pasture but is now quite mature woodland. There is an awful lot of that around the Kent estuary near where I live, for example. Huge biodiversity benefits come from dry stone walls and they are also incredibly important to our cultural heritage, as has already been said. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that we still have miles and miles of hedgerows in Cumbria, which are of enormous significance.

I have been involved in judging hedge laying competitions at Arnside and Stainton, where I assure you, Ms Elliott, that I was guided by people who actually knew what they were talking about, as well as considering just what seemed nice to me. Also, the Westmorland County Showground regularly has national and international hedge laying competitions, so it is a major part of our culture, as well as being part of the agricultural skillset that it is so important we protect, export and maintain.

There can be no doubt that hedgerows are of enormous significance to our country and our nature. They are teeming with life and are vital. I will focus most of my words on hedgerows in agricultural areas. As the hon. Member for Copeland said, 70% of England is agricultural, so the land on which we farm will be a huge part of protecting, maintaining and expanding our hedgerow network. It is also worth bearing in mind, however, the importance of residential hedgerows in built estates, in people’s gardens, and in public spaces, parkland and so on. We need to make sure that we have planning laws and regulations that support and promote those, and I might come on to that subject if I have time towards the end of my relatively few words.

If we think about the scale and size of Britain’s hedgerows—there are more than half a million miles—they would stretch to the moon and back. They are of great significance, bearing enormous biodiversity. They are an important wildlife habitat in their own right and the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK. They support a large diversity of flora and fauna and make a great shelter for animals and flowers. Their berries and nuts are a vital source for what are believed to be 1,500 different species of invertebrates in the UK that have their homes in our hedgerows. I think of the Government’s biodiversity action plan and the 130 species that are closely associated with hedges, including lichens, fungi and reptiles. Many more use those structures for food and shelter, at least during some point of their life cycle. Bank voles, harvest mice and hedgehogs all nest and feed in hedgerows, alongside birds that include blue tits, yellowhammers and whitethroats, while bats use them as what we might call “commuter routes”. We talk about nature corridors—they are so important.

There are many things we can say, and I will say, about the transition to the new ELM schemes. For those who have been able to get into them, there is the prospect of local nature recovery. Many farmers and landowners are involved in the project from Kendal to Penrith, which will potentially provide a continuous corridor, much of which is based upon the extension and maintenance of hedgerows. It will bring huge benefit to our biodiversity, by tackling climate change, and by providing an improved home for nature. Let us be honest, they are important boundary structures and really effective for efficient land use.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome set out so well, the loss of cross-compliance is really key. Like a lot of the current transition, a foreseeable mistake has been made. Alongside all sorts of other legal obligations, until last year every single one of the 85,000 farmers who receive basic payment also had an obligation through cross-compliance to maintain their hedgerows and do other environmental goods. I am not defending the direct payment schemes, but I will push back a little against those who said they were universally awful. They were not without environmental gain, and that was achieved through cross-compliance. I support the transition, but I think it is being done badly.

Under cross-compliance, 85,000 people were obliged to maintain their hedgerows, and 5% of them would have received an inspection from the Rural Payments Agency every year—so farmers knew it was coming. Now, barely 10% of people are in SFI. Of the 1,100 farmers in my constituency, fewer than 100 are in SFI schemes, and a minority of those will be in hedgerow options. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome set out very well, they are laudable and good, but they are also impractical, bureaucratic, and do not replace the money that has been lost. It is good that the options provided through countryside stewardship are there, but they will only be available to a very small minority of farmers, and a very small minority of Britain’s current and potential hedgerows. We are losing a lot to gain a little.

I do praise the Minister when it comes to the development and granting through Natural England of the Kendal to Penrith countryside corridor—that is a really great thing. For every one of those, however, I can name several that got turned down. The Lynster Farmers’ Group in Meathop and Ulpha bid for a scheme to protect their hedgerows from the totally avoidable flooding caused by the failure in managing the River Winster to follow its proper channel out into Morecambe bay. I would really love the Minister to look again at that, to ensure those farmers can protect their wildlife, both flora and fauna, including hedgerows.

The hedgerow options and the approach to hedgerows through the ELM scheme transition is emblematic of lots of other aspects of this transition. While they are laudable and good, they are not remotely capable of replacing a fraction of the income that farmers are losing. I was with farmers in Appleby recently. The least badly affected of them reckoned that through the various ELM schemes he could replace 60% of what he had lost. The average figure for which farmers thought they could replace what they had lost through the transition was less than 10%.

What do those farmers end up doing? Well, they go bust or their mental health ends up in a terrible, terrible state. I am truly frightened for the state of the mental health of many of the farmers in my communities—really frightened. This is not helping at all. The pressure will also lead them to make poorer decisions. If someone sees their income receding, what do they do? What do they have to intensify? They may feel against all their better instincts that they have to rip out hedges in order to maximise short-term value from the land, which I fear is happening. While these are laudable schemes, they are not even remotely attractive enough to draw people into them. They are bureaucratic and do not replace the genuine income that has been foregone, and so people are voting with their feet—like I say, 10% are in SFI. Meanwhile, my upland livestock farmers have lost 41% of their income under the Government in this Parliament.

What are farmers? Principally, they are food producers and stewards of the countryside, and they are proud to do both those things. They do not need beating over the head or to be given huge wads of cash to do things that are instinctive to them. It is really important in all of this that we do not allow people to demonise our farmers, who are doing their best with what they are given—but they are being given far too little.

I have a few words to say against those who may well be “more” culprits—our developers, who will always ask for more lax planning rules to allow them to do whatever they want. I am the opposite of a nimby, but the evidence in the lakes and the dales is that if we are really prescriptive in planning law and say what developers can and cannot do when it comes to affordable homes, zero-carbon homes and protecting and extending nature, they will grumble for a bit, but then realise that that is the only game in town, and they either build or do not build. If the Government were to give to local councils, and not just national parks, the power to be far more prescriptive about protecting and extending hedgerows, local authorities would have the power to do that.

What are the options? We can give planners and local authorities those powers, and we can extend legal protections, as the hon. Member for North Devon rightly said, but let us also think carefully about whether in the short term we need to roll over cross-compliance, so we do not lose all the good that people have done over the past few decades for the sake of a mismatched and botched transition. Ultimately, we are seeing something that is an unintended but totally foreseeable consequence of the transition. The Government can do things now to protect our hedgerows, and I pray that they will.

10.16 am

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott, and to listen to all the contributions this morning. It has occasionally felt like a DEFRA Front-Bench speakers’ reunion, but I have enjoyed all the speeches, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who helpfully contributed to Labour’s internal discussions. I can assure him that we will always be nature-positive in our approaches.

I also listened with great interest to other hon. Members’ speeches, particularly the last one. I can assure the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that whether it is the blue wall, the red wall or a dry stone wall, Labour’s ambitions are boundless now. I listened very carefully to what he was saying about the issues around the environmental land management scheme, and I found myself very much in agreement with a lot of what he said. I also enjoyed the speeches from the hon. Members for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) and for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke).

Most of all, I enjoyed the introduction from the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). Before the debate started, I was slightly intrigued because I always wonder what it is that motivates hon. Members to bring a debate to Westminster Hall. I was wondering which of the proverbial five tribes of the Conservative party the hon. Lady sits in. I always thought of her as belonging to the more beleaguered, sensible part of the Conservative party—I am sure that that is where she sits. I was hoping that probably means the Minister has something exciting to tell us at the end of this debate—that she will produce a proverbial rabbit out of the hedgerow, and explain how she is going to deal with what is not at all a good news story for the Government, for the reasons that have been explained.

I thought that, in her normal powerful manner, but gently, the hon. Member for North Devon introduced a considerable range of quite pertinent criticisms of the Government’s record. I will go back and read her speech closely, and hon. Members may find me echoing some of those criticisms in addition to my own.

I welcome the chance for us to discuss a way forward on the agricultural transition that enshrines the necessary protection required for hedgerows, ensuring that they continue to play their vital role in our natural environment. As we have heard, hedgerows are much more than just markers that neatly divide up our countryside and farmlands. They are highways along which wildlife of all shapes and sizes flow, and home to insects that thrive on the pests that are sometimes fond of farmers’ crops. Crucially, they also store carbon and work as a natural means of reducing the risk of flooding.

Experts from the Woodland Trust tell us that two activities are particularly bad for the health and resilience of hedgerows: first, the spreading of agricultural chemicals up to the foot of the hedges; and secondly, poorly timed and over-zealous cutting—already mentioned in the debate—that physically damages the hedges and their ability to play their role as a habitat at crucial times of the year.

We have heard about the cross-compliance rules. I remember the discussions that took place during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020, when some of us talked at length about good agricultural and environmental conditions, the standards of GAECs, and the fact that there were good standards under the old basic payment scheme mechanism. We all have our criticisms of those schemes, but as has already been explained, they did at least produce a structure and a system for 85,000 producers. That scheme ensured that land managers kept a buffer strip within two metres of their hedges and banned the use of pesticides in those spaces. To protect the crucial nesting period, land managers were also prohibited from cutting hedges for six months of the year, between March and August.

None of what we have heard comes as a surprise. We were talking about this during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 some four or five years ago; the Government knew the cross-compliance rules would come to an end on 1 January this year. I have regularly reminded both the current Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), and his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), of these points and of the benefits of cross-compliance. Despite knowing the potential consequences, the Government have dithered, delayed and failed to act. Perhaps the first thing that the Minister can do today is explain why we find ourselves in this situation.

The consultation was carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last year, but the Department has still not responded. We were told the response is to come early in 2024. Well, here we are—early in 2024. Will the Minister tell us when we are going to get that response? Frankly, it is only a response to a consultation. With no cross-compliance rules, protection for hedgerows is now substantially weakened. Does the Minister accept that point? Can she make an assessment of how much damage is likely to be done between now and when new rules are put in place? Because, although I entirely agree with the previous comments and do not expect farmers to be abusing the situation, some can, and I fear some will. What assessment has been made of the damage that will be caused by the Government’s negligence?

We are left with the Hedgerow Regulations 1997, which do offer some protection but only to “important” hedges. Sadly, the definition of “important” is so narrow that it rules out many hedgerows. The soonest we can hope to have greater protection—unless the Minister tells us something in this debate—is summer this year; that is not good enough. If the Government choose to introduce primary legislation to protect hedgerows, as some have suggested, we may have to wait until 2025 before protection is restored.

Of course, it is not just hedgerows. Cross-compliance rules on minimum soil cover, prevention of soil erosion and pesticide-free green cover near watercourses have all fallen by the wayside. History tells us that, without those protections, it is harder for us to meet legally binding targets on carbon and nature. Last week’s report from the environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, shows that the Government are already failing to meet almost all their environmental and nature goals. They should hang their head in shame at that report. We can scarcely afford to make the situation worse. It is interesting that the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned the Stacey review of some years ago; that was another example of things being promised and not delivered. I found myself thinking during her speech that there have been lots of targets—targets are all very worthy, but it is about delivery and action and measuring what is actually going on.

If the decline in species abundance is to be halted, the contribution made by hedgerows will be necessary. They also play a role in meeting the carbon goals that the environmental watchdog warns are in danger of being missed. Not only are they crucial stores of carbon in themselves but, as evidenced in research from the University of Leeds, the soil beneath hedgerows works as a sponge for carbon, capturing an average of 30% more carbon than intensively managed grassland parcels.

Two-metre buffer strips around hedges, which were protected by those cross-compliance rules, are also important to nature restoration. The strips host many threatened species and ensure the resilience of hedgerows. They act as corridors in what can often be inhospitable terrain for invertebrates and mammals. Significantly, buffer zones can also help stop the movement of pesticide and fertiliser away from their intended place of use and reduce run-off into our water system. Given that the Government have once again reneged on promises on neonicotinoids this year, that remains an important issue.

This is a sorry saga. The Government must act swiftly to provide clarity to the sector in the interests of land managers and nature. The first step should be finally to publish the consultation response on the future of hedgerow regulation. It is not good enough that we have yet to see it, over six months after it began. Legislation should also be brought forward at the earliest opportunity to, at a minimum, restore the protection that hedgerows enjoyed under cross-compliance rules. With support from wide across the sector for these measures, including voices such as the NFU and the Wildlife Trust, I urge the Government to move quickly on this issue. Every day without regulation risks more damage being done to these natural marvels.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair for this fascinating debate, Ms Elliott.

We have our differences, but here we are obviously all true hedgerow lovers, having all got up to get here for the 9.30 am debate on hedgerows. All of us present can be proud of the hedgerows in our area, as well as our stone walls and the other beautiful and iconic features of our landscapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate. She is passionate about hedges and has done a great deal of work with the CPRE, whose information I have read; I know that a number of other Members present are also hedgerow champions with the CPRE. Of course, I also thank the former nature Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), for all she has done on hedgerows. She has shared a great deal of knowledge with us this morning.

I grew up on a Somerset farm, and hedgerows are something that was ingrained in me, which is why I have been working very hard in the Department to ensure that we have the full understanding of hedgerows. We have great officials working on this as well; the Department does recognise the importance of this issue.

The farm I grew up on was mixed livestock: we had dairy and arable rotations and so forth. My father, Michael Pow, who very sadly died just over a year ago, was a great planter of hedgerows. Wherever he went out in the Land Rover—I was very often with him, because we were constantly moving cattle from field to field—he would carry bits of baler string, which he would put round trees and hedges to mark them so that the hedge cutter left them and they would not get cut. We now have wonderful standard trees growing out of the hedges on the farm. My father was way ahead of his time in that he cut the hedges only every other year, to leave one side to grow, which is what we are advising farmers to do now, decades on! When I go home to the farm, it is just a burgeoning froth of blossom of hawthorn, as someone mentioned, blackthorn and all the other wonderful blossoms. The National Trust runs a wonderful occasion— I do not know whether it is a day or a week—to recognise blossoms in the hedgerows. They are so valuable to wildlife.

Members really do not have to tell me how important hedgerows are, because I absolutely recognise that. The Government recognise that too. Many colleagues have mentioned the benefits we get from hedges: they provide habitats and wildlife corridors; they are great for holding the soil and stopping water run-off; they are wonderful habitats for our pollinators to shelter and hibernate in; and of course they sequester carbon. Interestingly, hedgerows were not planted for those reasons; started off as boundaries to keep our livestock in, but they have morphed into this wonderful feature that brings so many more benefits. They are so important to our landscape. They have also become important as we adapt to climate change, because they are part of our net zero commitment. They store carbon, and they are really valuable for that.

It is for all those compelling reasons that our environment improvement plan is supporting farmers to create and restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037, and 45,000 miles by 2050. That will enable all of those multiple benefits to be multiplied even more. We have calculated how much carbon can be sequestered by all those hedges, and we have the figure for 2037. It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned that her own Liberal Democrat council has failed its net zero target on hedges. It should probably look to its hedges and to see what it could do to get there. My hon. Friend is right: hedges can make a real difference on that agenda.

I will run through the strong legal protections for hedges that we have in law already. The Hedgerows Regulations 1997 prohibit the removal of most countryside hedgerows, or parts of them, without first seeking approval from the local planning authority. Important hedgerows with wildlife, landscape, historical or archaeological value cannot and must not be removed, and local authorities have powers to act should anybody break the law. Also, all wild birds, their eggs and their nests are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits killing, injuring or taking wild birds or taking or damaging their eggs and nests. Taken together, those legal protections safeguard most countryside hedgerows and farmland birds.

However, as we leave the EU’s common agricultural policy and move to our new and, I would say, better system for paying for environmental benefits, we have considered whether we need additional protections to manage hedgerows in law. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned, we ran a consultation last summer asking stakeholders how best to protect hedgerows through effective, proportionate regulation as we leave behind the EU’s cross-compliance system, with which the Labour party is still very much aligned. The response to that consultation should not be a surprise to anybody here, because it showed how much members of the public and farmers share our love for English hedgerows. We received almost 9,000 responses—a huge amount. It will be published imminently—the shadow Minister asked about that—but the information in it has already been looked at and used to inform the recent rise in SFI payments.

We are analysing all the data. There was overwhelming support from farmers and non-farmers alike for maintaining our legal protections. The support and enthusiasm for good hedgerow management shown in the responses from the farming community—from both individual farmers and the industry—show how much hedgerows are valued.

We have to trust farmers to do the right thing. There have been one or two damning comments today about farmers wanting to rip out hedgerows, spray all over them or plough right up to them, should there be a tiny window in which the protections are slightly different from what they were under the EU system. I live among farmers; that is how I grew up, and my husband was an agricultural auctioneer. We have to trust them. As has been said, they are the custodians of the countryside. It is disingenuous to suggest that the farming community will go out and spray, or plough right up to, hedgerows after they have created these wonderful buffers with burgeoning wildlife.

The Minister is talking to a straw man. I do not think anybody here has said what she suggests. A number of us have said that if farmers are pushed into a situation where they have no other source of income, they will make decisions that they do not want to, but nobody has said any of the things that she mentioned.

We have to be careful. There is a suggestion that what I said might happen if there is a gap. I certainly got that impression from one or two comments, but that may not be how the hon. Gentleman understood them, and his point is on the record.

We recognise the importance of the legal protections in place to prevent any of the concerns that I outlined. We do not want any of those things to happen. Those concerns come from both stakeholders and farmers. I want to make it very clear that, as a result, we will seek to regulate to maintain hedgerow protections as a matter of priority, when parliamentary time allows. That is the rabbit that I am pulling out of the hat today. I hope that will be welcome news, because I think we all agree that this is a priority. We want to make sure that regulation is fair and proportionate to farmers. That has been very clear in all our consultations. We want to get the support of farmers, and we want them to comply with the law where they have to; but we want to work with them, not against them.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) mentioned that advice is important. Advice is critical, so that farmers know what they have to do. There must be guidance that ensures that they can protect hedgerows, and we should reserve sanctions for the most serious offences. On many occasions when I have been out and about, particularly in farming areas and protected landscapes where designated advisers were working with farmers, I have seen how useful it is for farmers to have someone to talk to. I met an adviser recently in the Kent downs area of outstanding natural beauty—now called a national landscape—who was an ecologist. She said that meeting and chatting with farmers was the best way to encourage them to sign up to the levels and different options in the SFI. It can seem a bit scary, or feel like there is too much paperwork, but we have simplified the whole scheme; we have listened to our farmers on that point.

There was a bit of negativity from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the increased payment levels that we have just given for hedgerows. I thought she might have welcomed that. Although they have all gone up, we need to remember that farmers can apply for lots of different levels. It is not just one sum; they can get a sum for recording the hedgerow, a sum for managing it and so on—there are various amounts that will add up, given all the other things they can apply for in the SFI. The idea is that cumulatively the scheme will be attractive; we really want farmers to understand that and apply.

I loved the Minister’s reference to “burgeoning froth”. I think it could be her epitaph, frankly, because this is burgeoning froth. Will she tell us how many people, of the 80,000-plus who were protected through cross-compliance, have picked up on SFI and are receiving it as we speak?

That is a good point. First, let us look at what is happening in our other schemes; this is not just about SFI. We have seen a huge appetite for our country- side stewardship schemes. There are now 49,000 miles of hedgerow that have one or both sides managed under the countryside stewardship or environmental stewardship options; and famers have already signed up for 2,300 agreements, including 5,474 hedgerow actions.

Lots of farmers have opted to do a number of actions through the SFI. Remember that this is a new scheme; farmers are rolling off their countryside stewardship schemes on to the new scheme, which is expanding every day. The best thing to do is to be positive and encouraging, rather than negative and damning. I think the former nature Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland, would agree that we need to be positive about what is going on. This is a new, positive scheme. Please encourage farmers to apply for it, because the money and the options are there. We want our farmers and land managers to make the most of their hedgerows, and we support them in taking actions such as assessing and recording hedgerow condition, rotational cutting, and even leaving some hedgerows uncut altogether, which is obviously great for our nature and wildlife, and for those frothing, burgeoning hedgerows full of blackthorn and hawthorn. As I have said, farmers and land managers created or restored 8,450 miles of hedgerow through countryside stewardship capital grants, which is a great addition to our reaching our targets.

I have a few minutes left to cover some other points. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) made a good point about skills. We obviously need skills; we are aware of that and have a green jobs taskforce, with which I am involved. Through a lot of our tree strategy and action plan to plant trees, we have a big focus on skills, training and apprenticeships, including Forestry Commission apprenticeships; new funding of £4.5 million from the nature for climate fund was put towards this issue. Last year, 1,000 people undertook training in skills connected with trees, which inevitably includes skills connected with hedgerows. That is really ramping up. Those people will be out there, working together, and able to help and advise on schemes.

There has been an awful lot of good discussion about the importance of farming, but could I draw the Minister’s attention to the importance of encouraging gardeners? There are 30 million or so gardens and gardeners in the country already bringing benefits, but they could do even more to plant and protect hedgerows in those gardens. She recently visited RHS Wisley, which I have also visited. I was blown away by the knowledge of Professor Alistair Griffiths there, who talked about the physical and mental benefits of horticulture. I would also like to draw attention to the work of the Horticultural Trades Association and the all-party parliamentary group on gardening and horticulture in this area.

That gives me a great opportunity to talk about gardening; I used to be a gardening presenter and journalist. In my garden, I garden for wildlife. My hon. Friend makes such a good point. Our gardens in this country equate to a million hectares of land. Think how important that is as a wildlife habitat. I urge everyone to look after nature in their gardens and plant those trees. They should also take part in the big garden birdwatch, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

The shadow Minister was somewhat damning about nature, but we have a plan for nature. I cannot work out what Labour’s plan for nature would be. It is all very well to keep saying that Labour will integrate its approach, but we do not know where its £28 billion, which keeps being bandied about, is coming from. We have a plan, which started with the Environment Act 2021 and the targets set in it, and includes the environmental improvement plan, which has been so well referenced by colleagues. That is a plan with a framework and targets. Without targets, there is nothing to aim at. The targets inform the policies.

Intense work continues at DEFRA on the biodiversity targets. We have to gather all the evidence on insects, birds and plants. That is an ongoing enormous task that is ever-changing, but we are doing that, day in, day out, to inform our policies. Where we need to tweak polices—for example, if we need to up the SFI payments for a certain sector that is not delivering enough for nature while also producing food—we will be able to do so. That is the beauty of this system. Nobody else has a system like this; it is globally leading. It is very complicated, because it involves nature and is ever-changing. It is not as easy as, for example, dealing with emissions from industry. A bit of credit for that would be welcomed. People out there need to understand that we are on the side of nature, and we genuinely think we could hit the target of halting the decline of species, if we got everything lined up in the right place, and had the positivity of parliamentarians behind us.

There was a quick reference to Dame Glenys Stacey’s report. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon that since that review, our work on regulation has responded to many challenges. There has been a huge amount of work on how we make farming regulation clearer, fairer and more effective—issues to which she referred. The Government have not published a formal response to Dame Glenys’s report. However, in both the agricultural transition plan published in 2020 and the recent update published this month, we outline our vision for a regulatory system that helps the vast majority of farmers who want to and try to do the right thing, and supports them when things go wrong.

We have already made a lot of improvements to the regulatory system—improvements that farmers genuinely wanted. We have had a lot of engagement with farmers, stakeholders and the National Farmers Union in particular. The improvements include: reducing unfair penalties for farmers’ minor errors, which is something that annoyed them about the CAP system—I am sure that the shadow Minister would agree; removing duplication of standards to make the system clearer for farmers; reducing administrative burdens and paperwork; and implementing a more preventive approach to monitoring and enforcement.

There is a huge amount of synergy in the room on the issue of hedgerows, which I think we all agree are very important. The Government are committed to introducing protections for hedgerows when parliamentary time permits. For me, they are a priority. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, who is a great champion for hedgerows and will remain so.

It has been a privilege to have you in the Chair today, Ms Elliott. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for his concern about the family disputes on our side of the House, and I reassure him that the Conservative Environment Network acts as an umbrella organisation and occasional mediator. It is the largest caucus in this place, and supports the party of rural Britain and the first Government ever to legislate to protect our environment.

I look forward to supporting new legal protections for hedgerows, and thank the Minister for pulling that rabbit out of the hedgerow this morning. I hope that the consultation response is imminent, which should be sooner than “shortly”. I also hope, for all the hedgerow heroes who care so much, that both those events will come to pass before the hawthorn and blackthorn blossom emerges.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered legal protections for hedgerows.

Sitting suspended.