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Making positive environmental change need not cost the earth

June 15, 2021

This year it is clear to see the many positive impacts farm management practices can have on the environment around us. Northern Ireland farmers manage thousands of kilometres of hedgerow and this year there has been a spectacular abundance of hawthorn and blackthorn blossom adding vibrant white and pink colour to the countryside around us for everyone to appreciate.

This thorn blossom provides an important source of pollen and nectar for our native bee population. Pollen and nectar will provide the bees with enough protein and carbohydrate to survive and reproduce. These bees will in turn repay good hedgerow management many times over when pollinating many of our food crops, apple trees, soft fruits and also our wildflowers and trees. However it doesn’t stop there, as this blossom will develop into berries and in turn sustain our farmland birds over the winter months.

Phelim Connolly is a CAFRE Agri – Environment Adviser and has noted the good work many farmers have been doing in recent years, successfully creating new habitats with the support of agri-environment schemes. However Phelim pointed out that ‘there is much more within the farm gate that farmers can do to improve the environment around us’. Making small simple changes to hedgerow management can have very positive environmental benefits at no cost to the farmer. By allowing our field hedges to develop and grow we can provide more sources of food for pollinators and farmland birds. Hedgerows that are cut annually will not develop a hawthorn blossom, however if we cut 1 in 3 years these hedgerows will develop more fruit and support more biodiversity. These hedgerows will also support more nesting birds, sequester more carbon in the fight against climate change and save on fuel and contractor costs in the process. When deciding on the timing of hedge trimming, if farmers wait until later in the winter to cut then farmland birds will have an opportunity to feed off the berries sustaining them through the hardest part of the winter.  When it’s not possible for health and safety reasons to cut 1 in 3 years, for example along roadsides, farmers can still consider allowing single hawthorn trees to establish every 20 metres within the hedgerow.

Farmers can also choose to cut hedges in rotation, for example only cutting one third of the hedges on farm at any time, meaning that when hedges are cut there is still a food source available for bees and farmland birds in the remaining uncut hedges.

Phelim continued ‘many farmers will not think about cutting hedges until September when the bird nesting season is finished, however now is a good time to take stock of when cutting should take place, which hedges are likely to produce an abundance of fruit, or think about which hedges may be allowed to grow further to provide important sources of pollen and nectar, berries and nesting sites in future years’.