3,000 kilometres cut in three years: Ireland's hedgerow heritage at risk

Noteworthy discovers rich hedgerow resource cut back by local authorities during bird nesting season.

By Niall Sargent

IRELAND IS LOSING an abundance of its hedgerow heritage every year – with at least 3,000km cut back by local authorities since 2018 during the prohibited season between March and August.

Estimates show that somewhere between five and seven per cent of the land area of the country is covered by hedgerows (sources include Teagasc’s use of aerial photography and EPA analysis using remote sensors).

Noteworthy has discovered that many hedgerow and biodiversity specialists and environmental NGOs have raised concern about the level of hedge cutting across Ireland by private landowners or authorities, and the techniques used to do so.

Our investigation uncovers stark data about the scale of roadside cutting between 1 March and 31 August – the period where roadside cutting is prohibited except for road safety issues due to the potential impact on wildlife dependent on our hedgerow network for food, shelter and safe passage.

 We can reveal that:

  • Data and records released to Noteworthy by local authorities under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) requests reveal that between 2018 and 2020, at least 3,000km of hedgerow and verges have been cut by local authorities during the prohibited season at a cost of over €1.4 million. 
  • The true figure is likely to be higher as records released show that many local authorities do not keep accurate records of cut hedgerows, often due to resource constraints.
  • Nearly all cases were carried out on road safety grounds, however, authorities were unable to provide documents on road safety assessments carried out.
  • Hedgerow and biodiversity experts are concerned that the road safety aspect is overplayed, pointing to a recently published 2016 road survey in counties Tipperary and Donegal that found less than 1% of roadside hedges posed a road safety risk.
  • Tender documents reveal that the vast majority of councils are choosing contractors based almost exclusively on price, with marking criteria on average weighted 90% toward cost.
  • The National Parks and Wildlife Service brought 88 successful prosecutions between 2007 and 2020 for illegal hedge cutting or removal, according to data released via AIE requests.

*** 

_MG_0129 Roadside hedgerow after recent cutting in late August 2020 in rural Kildare
Source: Niall Sargent

Hedgerows teeming with life

The hedgerows that buffer our rural road network and act as natural barriers between farm fields are not just a cultural mainstay of the idyllic Irish countryside, but also play a key role in maintaining a rich biodiversity tapestry. 

Data relating to the range, structure and botanical make-up of hedgerows has been collected over the years through county hedgerow surveys carried out in over 21 counties or sub-county regions. 

A Noteworthy analysis of the surveys show that roadside hedges offer various ecosystem services, most importantly as nesting sites and food sources for a variety of bird species.

They also help to improve soil quality, halt soil erosion and water runoff, provide food for pollinators, create safe passage for various species and also act as carbon sinks. 

Even urban hedges play a unique role. A 2006 survey of hedgerows in Dublin’s inner city, for example, found 144 species of plants, including hawthorn, ash, blackthorn, elder, and holly.

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It is our rural roadside hedgerows, however, that hold most importance, with the county surveys analysed indicating that they are some of the oldest and most species-rich hedges in the county. 

Our hedgerow coverage is the most abundant in Europe and “sticks out a mile”, according to Joe Gowran, the Chief Executive of Woodlands of Ireland, who has researched the origins of our heritage hedgerows.

This, he said, is largely down to their widespread use as field boundaries in the 17th and 18th century, as well as roadside hedgerows’ more ancient heritage role, defining parish boundaries dating back to the seventh or eight century, and potentially as far back as the bronze age.

Today, however, Gowran fears that there are too many hedge cutting devices loose on the countryside during the summer months, alongside a general increase in “disregard for the value of hedge habitats” that are now often cut back on an annual basis. 

The care provided by local authorities to our hedgerows and the species that rely on them has come under criticism from hedgerow management experts and conservation groups whose expert staff are keen to stress the importance of their protection. 

This concern from experts such as Gowran has filtered down to a growing number of citizens across the country who have also started to raise their concern with the management of hedgerows during the summer months. 

Some citizens have taken it upon themselves to stop works from taking place. Last May, for example, neighbours in a small townland outside of Tuam, Co Galway took to their road to stop contractors from cutting hedgerows for Galway County Council. The locals said that they were frustrated as they believed the works were not required for road safety reasons. 

_MG_0125 Roadside hedge cutting in rural Kildare, late August 2020
Source: Niall Sargent

In the interest of road safety

In general, roadside hedge cutting should not occur during the bird nesting season and it is an offence under the Wildlife Act to cut hedge vegetation between the start of March and the end of August each year. 

There are exemptions during this period in the interest of road safety, however, and local authorities have power under the Roads Act to issue notices to the owner or occupier of land to cut a hedge to ensure that it is no longer a road safety concern at any time during the year. 

Authorities will try to get landowners to cut their hedges outside of the prohibited season, placing advertisements in local media and making verbal requests where hedges have not been cut and a potential road safety issue is identified. 

Where landowners do not comply, many authorities then issue letters requesting action within a given timeframe. If compliance is still not achieved, an official notice can be issued instructing landowners to take action or risk prosecution. 

Some councils report great success. Louth County Council said that “most landowners will respond positively to a verbal request to deal with hedgerow overgrowth where it affects road safety or sightlines”. Wexford County Council issued 196 verbal requests between 2016 and 2020 that it said had a “60% plus success rate”.

Many, however, struggle to get landowners to take action even after issuing notices under the Roads Act and will act themselves to undertake works, on local or regional roads in particular. 

Works undertaken by councils

Noteworthy sent AIE requests to all local authorities to examine the decision making process undertaken by councils to undertake hedge cutting during the bird nesting season, as well as to gain an understanding of resources available and techniques used. 

Data released under AIE from all local authorities reveal that hedges or verges on almost 3,000km of road have been cut by, or on behalf of, local authorities between March and August from 2018 to 2020, most of which is undertaken due to road safety concerns.

At least €1.4 million was spent on works during this period, according to the data received by Noteworthy. This figures does not include costs where councils were unable to extract costs for hedge cutting from grass trimming or other activities.

The true figure on both counts is likely to be a multiple of this, however, as various councils were unable to provide exact figures as they do not record this data methodically, while others only recorded partial data during that time period.

While some counties or municipal districts, such as Strokestown in Co Roscommon, were able to provide detailed replies with coordinates of the cutting locations, many counties did not have records of the exact location of cutting.

Kildare County Council, for example, stated that its roads department “does not maintain records in the format requested”. 

Both Donegal and Cork County Council – the county with the largest hedgerow network – did not provide data on the length of hedges cut in 2020, deeming the request as “manifestly unreasonable” in regard to the volume or range of information sought. 

Cork County Council stated that the information requested was “not readily available in each office and for staff in each office to gather the data would place a significant burden on them”.

Limerick County Council said that a detailed log of the locations, dates and length of hedges cut is not maintained but that it generally does not conduct hedge cutting outside of the prohibited period.

_MG_0149 Damage to hedgerow during cutting
Source: Niall Sargent

Lack of a uniform approach

Overall, the replies indicate there is no uniform approach in record keeping or how authorities deal with roadside vegetation and road safety issues. In some cases, municipal districts within a local authority will operate differently in their approach to hedge cutting. 

Similar findings were also recorded in a report released last September by Tipperary County Council with findings from a review of existing hedge cutting practice and management across local authorities that took place in 2016. 

As part of the review, a detailed questionnaire was sent to all local authorities to better understand specific policies in place and enforcement levels between 2013 and 2015, as well as gathering details about when and where inspection and monitoring of hedges was taking place. 

According to the report, almost two-thirds said that they had some form of inspection regime in place, but only six counties reported operating a landowner register. 

In addition, only six councils reported having formal hedge cutting policies in place – counties Clare, Donegal, Kerry, Longford, Mayo and Monaghan – with Kerry retaining a database of over 5,800 landowners whose lands abuts public roads. 

Lack of resources 

An issue raised by several councils is a lack of resources available. The hedge cutting review report also identifies “restrictions on resources” as one of the main challenges faced by councils.

This, the report states, makes it “difficult for local authorities to comprehensively manage inspection/monitoring programmes, to investigate complaints and to administer and manage the enforcement process”.

The report stresses the need to develop “policies to assist with promoting a uniform approach” across all local authorities. 

This includes, the report states, a need for a systematic procedure of inspections and investigations with a suitable system that records actions and their outcomes. 

“It is anticipated that the adoption and enforcement of uniform policies and procedures by each local authority would serve to raise compliance levels,” according to the report. 

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Road safety is paramount

A Noteworthy analysis of complaints received by councils shows that the vast majority of over 1,150 documented complaints over the last three summers were from people asking for overgrown hedges to be cut. 

Complaints ranged from lack of visibility at access points and junctions and hedges blocking footpaths to damage to vehicles and obstruction of road signs.

In some cases, when they deem that there is a significant public safety issue that requires urgent attention, local authorities will act, as seen in the replies to Noteworthy

Wexford County Council said, for example, that it tends not to send notices to landowners and instead usually takes “immediate action ourselves to reduce or remove the hazard”.

In one case in Co Longford in 2018, the council received a request from a woman with a disability about overgrown hedges closing on the lane where she lived.

She was not in a position to pay for her hedges to be cut. Couriers had refused to come up the laneway, she said, and on one occasion, the ambulance service found it difficult to get to her home. 

Oonagh Duggan Oonagh Duggan, Birdwatch Ireland
Source: Birdwatch Ireland

Lack of assessments from authorities

While roadside hedge cutting for road safety is “absolutely essential”, Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland, together with many biodiversity experts who spoke to Noteworthy, is not convinced there is always a road safety need when hedges are cut in the closed period. 

Duggan, who is the assistant head of policy at the conservation group, said that BirdWatch’s “hunch is that this is being abused” and that “there’s no real assessment of what the road safety risk is” or the potential impact on bird species before cutting takes place. 

The AIE requests sent to all local authorities by Noteworthy requested details of any pre- or post-cutting assessments carried out by councils. In nearly all cases, councils were unable to provide details of assessments of the specific road safety concerns identified. 

In several cases, councils note that visual assessments were carried out but there are no records of reports being written. Carlow County Council, for example, said that both pre- and post-cutting visual inspections were carried out but did not have assessment reports. 

In Waterford, the council said that a visual assessment is undertaken in all cases to determine the need for hedge cutting to be carried out as well as a visual assessment following completion. In Louth, staff visit each individual and check sight lines for overgrowth.

Without local authorities being required to document a detailed road safety assessment for cutting every hedge, there is no way of gathering a clear overall picture and the Noteworthy analysis of replies received also shows a very disjointed approach between local authorities.

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Road safety concerns ‘overstated’

Seasoned hedgelayer and hedgerow management expert Neil Foulkes also pointed to a road survey in Tipperary and Donegal in 2016 as part of the review discussed above that “didn’t find enough hedgerows that were a problem to warrant a [full] project”. 

This, Foulkes said, “suggests that safety problems caused by roadside hedges are nowhere near as substantial as some voices might indicate”.

In Tipperary, 382.5km of roads were surveyed and only 2.1km were tagged as presenting road safety concerns. In Donegal, 1km of 366km of roads surveyed was tagged, indicating that hedges present a hazard on less than 1% of the total surveyed road length.

“The study group presented by such a low percentage would be too small to allow an accurate and meaningful assessment of targeted local interventions to be undertaken,” the report said. 

The project team met with the Road Safety Authority (RSA) in February 2017 to explore the option of a national awareness campaign on road safety issues. The review report said that costs were estimated at €270,000.

The report states, however, that “a strong business case for such a campaign is not supported by the metrics arising” from the road survey findings. The RSA did not have any comment on this matter. 

Speaking to Noteworthy, the Chief Executive of the Association of Farm Contractors in Ireland (FCI), Michael Moroney, said that it is important to note that the road survey was carried out in March “when there is very little growth in hedgerows”.

“The nature of growth in Ireland is different to continental Europe. We have very high growth rates in late spring and early summer. It does impact on visibility and safety on roads,” he said. 

Moroney said that this is clearly an issue from the number of complaints received by local authorities every year about potential safety issues linked to overgrown hedgerows. 

The review report also states that “the closed period coincides with the seasons of maximum annual growth”. 

Elaine McGoff 2 Poor hedge cutting in Naas, Co Kildare
Source: Elaine McGoff

Hedges being ‘beaten up’

Notwithstanding the period when hedges are cut or why works are undertaken, Foulkes, as well as other hedgerow and biodiversity experts who spoke to us, is concerned with the techniques and equipment used in hedge cutting works for local authorities. 

The Hedgerow Appraisal System, written in 2013 outlining best practise for hedgerow surveying, states that hedgerow management in Ireland has generally been poor due to a lack of skills-based knowledge and resources. 

For convenience and cost-effectiveness, the report states, “management often entails flailing which, if done without skill and due care, has a tendency to weaken the shrubs in the hedgerow”.

According to Foulkes, one of the authors of the appraisal system, some of the machinery used by contractors can cause extensive damage, especially when poor technique is applied. 

When you hit a heavy branch, Foulkes said, you can get a “shattered cut” that makes it “very hard for the trees to seal off the prospect of bacterial and fungal infection”.

Poorly cut hedges, according to BirdWatch’s Oonagh Duggan, has a detrimental effect on the species that use them, nesting birds in particular. “Depending on the scale of the damage done, it could lead to exposure of nests and disturbance to breeding birds.”

Duggan used the example of a photo the conservation charity recently received from a member of the public that showed a nest left exposed after the hedgerow was cut back. “Now those chicks are more susceptible to predation,” she said.

According to Duggan, the State is falling down significantly on its requirement to ensure that there is not a deterioration of bird habitats as required under EU law, pointing to the finding against Ireland in what became known as the Birds Case in 2007.

Moroney of the Association of Farm Contractors in Ireland said that, from his experience, most of the work carried out during the closed season is verge cutting.

He said that he accepted that there can be cases of poorly cut hedges where inexperienced contractors “can shatter the growing point of the hedge”.

In general, however, he said that most contractors who have hedge cutting as a strong part of their business are “quite professional in terms of the quality of workmanship”.

“A person who is experienced in operating a flail or cutter, and has been doing the management [of hedges] year in and year out, their work is really good quality and the hedge is not butchered or destroyed,” he said.

“They manage them [and] remove one to three years of growth – and that’s it.” 

_MG_0113 Hedge cutting in Co Kildare
Source: Niall Sargent

National Parks and Wildlife Service prosecutions

During the prohibited season, the National Parks and Wildlife Service takes on the main role in investigating concerns over the impact of cutting on wildlife. 

In contrast to the complaints received by councils, complaints received by the NPWS, a snapshot of which were released to Noteworthy, outline concerns over cutting taking place. 

While the NPWS was unable to provide an estimate of the number of complaints received annually as “no records are kept centrally”, the agency provided us with a sample of complaints received from the public across the country over the past three years.

The majority of complaints, several of which included photographic or geolocation data, concerned cutting of hedgerows in rural areas. There were also several urban cases reported. 

In May 2018, for example, an individual sent evidence of a hedgerow being cut in an urban industrial estate. “This hedge cutting has caused serious carnage amongst breeding wildlife and I was able to count 11 nests that have been destroyed… Please do something about this,” the email stated. 

In June 2018, an individual said that they were “horrified” to see hedges being cut in a Kildare town where the individual estimated that many nests were destroyed. “I feed the wild birds everyday and was devastated to see this happening.”

In one case, in July 2018, someone reported “numerous cases of hedge cutting” where they saw “absolutely no need for the cutting from a health and safety reason”. In all the cases, they said that the cutting occurred along “nice wide roads” and provided location data. 

In many of the complaints, there is a clear sense of frustration and concern that their concerns will not be acted upon. “It’s so frustrating to see valuable habitats being destroyed and sadly there seems to be practically no consequences for breaking the law,” one person told the NPWS.

According to BirdWatch’s Duggan, there are some “fantastic rangers” working to tackle the issue, but that a historic lack of resources available is hindering their work.

In a statement, the Department of Housing, under which the NPWS sits, said that there are presently 72 conservation rangers stationed around the country who deal with a range of enforcement activities on a day-to-day basis.

The Department said that it is working towards increasing the overall number of rangers and a recent recruitment competition attracted more than 500 applications. “Any further appointments arising from this competition will be made across the country, taking account [of] both the business needs and financial resources to meet pay costs,” it said. 

The agency does act where it can, according to records released to Noteworthy that show the agency brought 88 successful prosecutions between 2007 and 2020 in relation to hedge cutting or removal. Fines, costs and donations to charities totalling just under €58,000 were paid by the guilty parties.

In some cases, they were ordered to pay up to €1,000 to conservation groups, including BirdWatch Ireland and the Irish Wildlife Trust. In one case in Westmeath in 2020, two guilty individuals were ordered to make a contribution of €5,000 to a bird conservation project.

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Tendering process weighted toward costs

Neil Foulkes said that a possible solution to ensure consistently high quality work is to change the tendering process used by local authorities to hire contractors for hedge cutting works. 

Local authorities procure hedge cutting services using the State’s SupplyGov procurement platform that sets down criteria and a framework that councils can draw off as required.

A Noteworthy analysis of requests for tenders issued by councils in 2020 released under AIE shows that price appears to be the key or only determining factor in awarding contracts to cut hedges.

Replies from 20 local authorities indicate that, in the majority of cases, marking criteria is weighted 90% toward cost and just 10% toward project methodology. 

In some cases, the marking criteria is 100% weighted toward cost. In many cases, the project methodology relates to health and safety management, traffic management control and past experience of hedge cutting.

In just a few cases, contractors are expected to outline proposed methodologies for limiting or eliminating any impact on the hedge itself.

_MG_0160 Hedge after recent cutting, Kildare
Source: Niall Sargent

There are generally no requirements that contractors have expertise or knowledge in hedgerow care or biodiversity issues in the tender records seen by Noteworthy

Tipperary County Council appears to be the only county that stipulates that contractors engaged by the authority have completed a hedgerow maintenance course.

Clare County Council – the first local authority to offer grants to communities to cut hedges outside of the closed season – also has a roadside hedgerow management manual for staff and contractors that outlines best practice to protect biodiversity.  

Neil Foulkes said he has called for years for criteria to be placed in the tendering process to ensure contractors have completed a training course on hedgerow management.

He pointed to a previous course run by the agri-research body Teagasc that included sessions on hedge husbandry and environmental care. 

“It needs a concerted effort from local authorities as a whole to say that this is something we all agree needs to be done,” Foulkes said. 

Michael Moroney of the Association of Farm Contractors in Ireland, some of whose members undertook the Teagasc training, said that he is “100% supportive” of this approach as currently “there’s no incentive for people to train”.

I could do a course, spend thousands of euro, and you could decide to buy a hedge cutter tomorrow morning and you could undercut my price and there’s nothing stopping you from doing bad work.

“We don’t have a formal accreditation process and I would like to see this changed,” he said. Moroney added that the association has previously asked the Department of Agriculture to see up a register of accredited contractors. 

“That’s not happening at the moment and, instead, what’s happening is it’s a race to the bottom in terms of pricing,” he said. “We are in favour of a situation where if you’re going to hire a contractor, that they will have those [training] requirements.”

Looking to the future

There are signs that things may be moving in the right direction. Many councils are trying new ways to get landowners to cut their hedges during the normal season. 

Grant schemes have been set up in more counties in recent years, including Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo and West Cork. Uptake has been strong, and growing from year to year. 

Several additional councils have also developed specific policies since the 2016 review was carried out, including Cavan and Roscommon. 

Others councils are now preparing specific policies, including Cork and Carlow, while Mayo’s multi-stakeholder hedge cutting forum is currently considering a new policy.

The Government has also made it clear that there is a future for hedgerows, with the Programme for Government outlining plans to review legal protections in place and complete a national hedgerow survey.

The latter move is a positive and vital step, according to Foulkes. “I constantly made the point that before you produce a solution to a problem, we need to define the extent of the problem and it was never done with the hedgerows and the road issues,” he said.

More data would have been useful, he said, prior to the passage of the much-debated Heritage Act in 2018 that gave the Minister for Heritage the power to make regulations for roadside hedge cutting in August for a pilot phase of two years. 

In the end, the Minister did not alter either period in 2019 or 2020. Yet, according to BirdWatch’s Duggan, the decision to push for the change of the cutting season indicated there is still a long way to go in changing the way we treat our hedgerows. 

She said, however, that the debate around the Act did have a silver lining and sparked interest, with over 35,000 people signing a petition against the proposed changes. 

“To me, that was the first indication that there was a significant part of the population that was really hungry to see nature protection around them,” Duggan said, calling on policymakers to follow suit. 

“People want to see nature in their locality. They don’t want to live in an area where hedgerows are shorn. People want to see more, not less. So it’s up to all of us now, especially the decision makers, to bring about policies and legislation to help with this.”

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In part two of this investigation, we speak with legal experts, conservation campaigners, and the farming community about large-scale hedgerow removal on farms and if authorities are enforcing strict rules in places to ensure compliance with EU environmental laws.

This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

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