Hedgerows are the overlooked climate heroes of new government action plans

18th May 2021

The government has today announced its new action plans for peat and trees. We spot a hedgerow-shaped hole that leaves opportunities untapped.

The environment secretary has laid out the government’s new vision for restoring and enhancing the country’s trees and peat. We’ve read the plans and welcome some promising steps – but point to some gaps.

At CPRE, we’ve long recognised the value of our hedgerows, peatlands and woodlands. We’re not only passionate about their role as part of our much-loved landscapes – views of dark peat bogs, clusters of ancient trees and hedgerows threading across the tapestry of our countryside together are all iconic sights – but are alive to their value in locking up carbon.

'Views of dark peat bogs, clusters of ancient trees and hedgerows threading across the tapestry of our countryside together are all iconic sights.'

We need these crucial parts of our landscape to give us any hope of tackling climate change. Many of us think of trees as the best around for capturing the carbon dioxide that causes the climate emergency, but that overlooks UK peatlands, for example, which are estimated to be storing 3 billion tonnes of carbon. That’s more than all the forests in the UK, France and Germany combined.

'UK peatlands are estimated to be storing 3 billion tonnes of carbon.'

So it’s no surprise that we’re looking enthusiastically to the new government action plans for commitments to look after these crucial elements of our countryside. Our assessment of the plans? Plenty to welcome – but with a hedgerow hiccup.

A welcome for tree planting and peat protection

As our chief executive, Crispin Truman, reflects, we’re pleased to see some announcements about commitments to tree planting and peatland protection, including plans to stop the burning of peatlands, featuring in these plans. We’ve been calling for peat especially to be better protected for a long time, so we’re keen to see this develop.

Crispin adds: ‘The countryside’s toolbox of hedgerows, peatlands, woodlands and other habitats are crucial allies in soaking in carbon emissions to tackle the climate emergency. It’s absolutely right that the environment secretary has staked out the government’s intention on trees and raised the profile of peatlands.’

'It’s absolutely right that the environment secretary has staked out the government’s intention on trees and raised the profile of peatlands.'
Crispin Truman, CPRE chief executive

But while we’re happy that peatlands get a mention, we’re itching for harder, clearer targets to push these protections into being – and the money that’s needed to make these changes made available. As Crispin puts it:

‘Healthy wet peatlands – which have come to be known as the UK’s own threatened and degraded rainforests – have locked up billions of tonnes of carbon for thousands of years, and the England Peat Action Plan recognises their value. It’s hugely welcome to see the proposed ban on peat-based composts and an ultimate phase-out of burning being considered.

‘While plans to restore upland and rewet lowland peatlands sound promising, we need to see them fleshed out in binding targets, with the funding to match the scale of the challenge we face on peatlands.’

The hunt for hedgerows

There are clearly things to feel positive about in these action plans, but we spy a hedgerow-shaped gap. Crispin reminds us that ‘Hedgerows also have a vital role to play and we’d like to see the government going further to include them in their target.’

We’re concerned that the value of hedgerows in capturing carbon and indeed, providing other benefits such as habitats and corridors for wildlife, is neglected here.

'Hedgerows also have a vital role to play.'
Crispin Truman

A 2019 report from our colleagues at the Committee on Climate Change urged for greater investment in creating new hedgerows to help address the climate emergency, and we welcomed their recommendation for a 40% extension of the current hedge network.

This is why we’re disappointed not to see more being said about these climate-saving superheroes in these action plans. As Crispin says:

‘Today is a big day for nature and the role of the countryside in tackling climate change, but hedgerows seem to have been left out. They should be right up there, alongside trees, as nature and climate heroes.

‘That’s why we’re calling on the government to stop beating around the bush and increase hedgerow cover by at least 40% by 2050.’

Join us in our commitment to the countryside

We’ll keep calling for more attention for the humble hedgerow and indeed, more decisive action on climate change.

Passionate about the possibilities of the countryside to help limit the climate emergency and want to add your voice as we campaign for action? Read more about our work on hedgerows, peat and climate change and become a member from just £3 a month.

Enjoying the spring blossom of the Peddar's Way at Fring in Norfolk Stuart Aylmer/Alamy