The countryside’s secret weapon, missing from COP26: the case for hedgerows
How we feel a crucial climate superhero was overlooked at COP26 – and why we’ll keep pushing for hedgerows.
With the global climate conference, COP26, now growing smaller in the rear-view mirror, and thoughts already turning to COP27 in Egypt in 2022, the implications of what was decided are becoming clearer.
There were certainly positives, not least a sorely-needed (but very much belated) explicit call for the world to move on from fossil fuels, even if the wording was watered down at the last moment. There were also steps forward elsewhere, including in critical areas like limiting methane emissions and tackling deforestation.
But despite this progress, it’s abundantly clear we’re a long way off course. Post mortems already suggest the world is on track for a temperature rise far more than the 1.5C target agreed in Paris back in 2015. It’s a rise that would make our beloved countryside unrecognisable.
Don’t forget the humble hedgerow
Further frustratingly, the power of nature-based solutions in tackling this crisis was also largely absent from discussions. At CPRE, we’ve long been an advocate of the possibilities they have to offer, not least in one solution that lies just outside our front doors – the humble hedgerow.
These familiar stewards, some of which have been standing tall for over a thousand years, are the backbone of our countryside. Together, their beautiful shapes and styles form a patchwork of interconnected warrens, superhighways and homes for the wildlife that brings our countryside to life.
But what often goes underappreciated is their climate fighting potential. Like a superhero’s utility belt, our hedgerow helpers have a number of tools at their disposal to grapple with the climate crisis, from directly offsetting our emissions to helping us adapt to the threats unpredictable weather brings.
It’s why a report from the Committee on Climate Change, the independent advisory body to the government, urged investment to be spent on expanding our current hedge network by 40%, and our Hedge Fund report showed what that could bring to our countryside. So what makes hedgerows so great?
Like trees, our hedgerows are giant carbon vaults, criss-crossing the nation and locking up huge amounts of carbon dioxide. This is not just limited to the hedgerow itself, but the soil around them, with one report showing hedges planted on slopes improving the carbon-capturing potential of soil up to 60m away.
In total, this accounts for an enormous 13 million tonnes – enough to offset a quarter of all annual emissions from UK farming, one of the largest greenhouse gas contributing sectors in the country.
But unlike trees, hedgerows also possess some nifty tricks that set them apart – not least in slotting into parts of our landscape not suited to a whole wood (especially into farmland, which makes up 60% of all UK land). In urban environments, they can also help to tackle air pollution by forming a barrier between pedestrians and roads, helping to filter out nasty and harmful chemicals.
As the nation’s largest nature reserve, hedgerows are critical to the flourishing of nature and the species that make it special. They act as corridors for wildlife to travel along, connecting habitats up and helping species to thrive, with over 1,500 insects, 600 plants, 65 birds and 20 mammals which depend on our hedgerows.
But the climate crisis is also a nature crisis, and our wildlife is on the frontlines, with more than a quarter of Britain’s wildlife threatened by rising temperatures. 130 of the UK’s most vulnerable species, including the beloved dormouse and hedgehog, are closely associated with our hedgerows which in many cases form their last safe refugee.
It’s simple really; by expanding our hedgerows, we can revitalise our natural world.
One of the most visible impacts of our changing climate is the increasing unpredictability, and severity, of the British weather. Since the 1960s, rainfall has increased by over 17%, and flooding is now threatening more communities than ever before.
Hedgerows are excellent natural flood defenders, acting as filters to dampen the impact of floods. Not only that, but hedgerows dramatically improve the ability of soil around it to soak up excess water, helping to further reduce the potential of severe flooding.
One study in Wales saw tactically placed hedges reduce flooding peaks by as much as 40%, while another study in France saw drops of between 20-50% in flood peaks.
With the government committing to billions in expenditure on flood defences, hedgerows must be considered as part of the nation’s repertoire of measures to protect our homes and habitats from flooding.
Our farms are already feeling the effects of our changing climate, as unpredictable weather and more severe storms wreak havoc with their crops. As mentioned, hedgerows can help to mitigate farms from the threat of flooding, but they can also help farmers by increasing crop yields and bringing down costs.
Hedgerows are home to some of the countryside’s most important keyworkers: our pollinators and our pest controllers. By placing these homes nearby to crops, these two critical actors can play an even bigger role in the lives of our crops. Studies in Holland and California have shown increases in yields stemming from their proximity to hedgerows and the many pollinators they harbour.
While this isn’t the case for every crop, there are numerous staples of the British diet hedgerows can provide – not least Cox and Gala apples. Hedgerows also help farms to reduce the need for pesticides by providing microclimates for sheltering insects which can then do the job naturally that pesticides do artificially.
And this is alongside providing tons of benefits to livestock, like giving shelter and wind protection from storms and shade from the sun.
It’s not only farmers back pockets who can benefit from hedgerows, but also the wider economy too.
While there’s an overwhelming economic case for tackling climate change, there can be no doubt that it’ll be costly. Expanding our hedgerows however can pay for itself, with CPRE research showing that for every £1 spent, as much as £3.92 can be returned to the wider economy, from the creation of thousands of new jobs planting and manging the new hedges, to taking advantage of the numerous biodiversity improvements and increased carbon sequestration.
Hedging for the future
But for all the tangible benefits that hedgerows can provide, we can’t overlook what makes our hedgerows especially wonderful: they’re the vital stitching of our countryside, historically and culturally rich, with many having stood since the Bronze Age.
They shape our relationship with the land and help make the British countryside the place we all love.
Shockingly, despite all of this, they’re under threat. Since the Second World War, our hedgerows have declined by 50%, and in some areas, are still falling further. Just as climate change threatens the survival of our countryside, we continue to hack back its most reliable defender.
So it’s time for a comeback. Our hedgerows need our help. As they have with trees, our government needs to bring in a binding target to restore and revitalise the humble hedgerow. The outcome of COP26 showed we still have a long way to go, but by investing in our hedgerows, we can secure a better future both country and countryside.