A NATIONAL network of hedges must be established across Scotland to meet crucial biodiversity and climate change targets, environmentalists have warned.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust is urging the Scottish Government to create a “hedge fund”, and invest as much cash in “green” infrastructure like hedgerows to restore and reconnect key habitats as it spends on traditional “grey” links for people, like roads and railways.
More than 14,000 miles of hedgerows vanished across Scotland between the 1940s and the 1980s, thanks largely to changing government policy and farming practices.
Despite recent incentives such as grants to reverse the decline, latest available figures from Scottish Natural Heritage show more than a thousand additional miles of hedgerow disappeared nationwide between 1998 and 2007, mostly in the Lowlands, equating to a 7 per cent loss overall.
During the same time period, the biodiversity of Scottish hedgerows dropped by 22 per cent with birds like the song thrush – which rely on hedges for food – now in such decline that they are on the conservation “Red List” for endangered species. The loss of habitat threatens the survival of a host of other wildlife and reduces the role which nature can play in mitigating against flooding and pollution.
The proposal for a national ecological network comes days after ministers were accused of not taking enough action on climate change.
It will be debated at an SNP-backed conference hosted by the trust in Edinburgh next week where experts will call for habitat restoration to be treated in the same way as major transport projects such as the Forth Replacement Crossing.
Jonny Hughes, SWT director of conservation and an International Union for Conservation of Nature councillor, said: “We have a road network, a rail network, an electricity network and even a national cycle network.
“In the same way that these allow goods, services and people to move around the country more easily, a national ecological network will allow nature to move around more easily, and create landscapes more able to respond to climate shifts and pressures from development.”
He added: “It’s time we started to seriously invest in our green infrastructure, as well as our grey infrastructure. This is a new era for nature conservation, where nature is seen as the solution to many of the problems we face, be they flooding, water pollution, erosion, pollinator declines or air pollution in our cities.
“Scotland is beginning to see the impacts that climate change will bring to the country in the coming decades. The ‘new normal’ will be more weather extremes, which will place increasing stresses on the natural environment we rely on for our food, water and recreation.”
It has been estimated that restoring habitat such as hedgerows would bring benefits worth more than £21 billion per year in Scotland, which include reducing flooding and pollution and providing natural carbon storage.
The RSPB has made a joint submission with the The Scottish Wildlife Trust for a national ecological network to be included in Scotland’s national planning framework.
Lloyd Austin RSPB, head of conservation policy said: “I think the network is an essential part of the strategy to meet biodiversity targets to protect Scotland’s wildlife and wildland.”
Kate Holl, woodland advisor at Scottish Natural Heritage, also welcomed the idea. She said: “Hedgerows have the potential to provide a huge range of ecosystem services and can help with reducing soil erosion and flood mitigation... as well as creating shelter for livestock and providing habitat for a wide range of wildlife species – many of which themselves perform important functions in the agricultural landscape, for example pollinating insects.”
The Scottish Government said it was already promoting the “connectivity” of nature and had spent more than £40m through the Scotland Rural Development Programme on new hedgerows and other ecological features. Hedgerows receive a “high level of protection” through the rules surrounding agricultural support payments, and are often protected under planning decisions relating to non-agricultural land.
Asked whether a national ecological network could become part of national planning policy, a spokeswoman said: “We have been in discussion with a wide range of stakeholders and are currently considering the shape of the third National Planning Framework, including proposals for new national developments.”
However she added that while hedges are protected by law south of the Border under the Hedgerows Regulations of England and Wales, there were no plans for similar legislation in Scotland.
Five species at risk because of loss of hedgerows (figures from Scottish Wildlife Trust)
SONG THRUSH Red-listed. Uses hedges for foraging, breeding, nesting and shelter from predators and the weather.
HEDGEHOG Numbers are plummeting. Seeks protection and food in hedgerows.
TREE SPARROW Red-listed. Breeds, nests and shelters from predators and the weather in hedges.
YELLOWHAMMER Red-listed. Also relies on hedges for breeding, nesting and refuge.
BAT European-protected species, which uses hedges as a wildlife corridor as an aid for echo-location navigation.