Birds will suffer if hedge-cutting dates are changed

It’s illegal to cut hedges between March 1 and August 31; birds must be allowed to nest in peace. Heather Humphreys, Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is said to be reviewing these dates.

Birds will suffer if hedge-cutting dates are changed

The Irish Farmers Association and the ICMSA want her to permit cutting up to March 17 and after July 31.

‘The nesting season now occurs earlier… the Act should also have ended the closed season on July 31, in line with nesting patterns’ an IFA submission declares.

‘Based on road users’ safety, it would be a practical decision to allow farmers to cut their hedges during August’, the organisation argues. Would such a change adversely affect nesting birds? Does breeding commence before mid March and will all chicks have left the nests by the end of July?

Some traditional hedgerow nesters would not be affected if cutting took place during the first half of March. Greenfinches, for instance, don’t begin laying until mid-April. However, according to the authoritative Birds of the Western Palearctic, blackbirds and song thrushes can nest in late February while some dunnocks do so in early March. By March 17, wrens may be laying.

These dates come from research carried out several decades ago. With the onset of global warming, birds are nesting earlier nowadays. There is little evidence, however, that the breeding season is ending sooner than it did in the past.

The chicks of some hedgerow species will still be in nests after July 31. Most songbirds raise two broods in a season. Blackbirds can produce three. Their chicks, and those of song thrushes and dunnocks, may not fledge until mid September. Wrens can have young in nests up to late August.

Linnets tend to breed in scrubby bushy places but they also use hedges. The chicks from some second or third clutches won’t be on the wing until the end of August. The linnet seems to be holding its own in Ireland at present but, according to the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, its population has declined by 62% over 25 countries since 1980.

Another hedgerow nester, the yellowhammer, might not suffer if hedge cutting commenced in March; it doesn’t begin laying until mid April. The chicks would be vulnerable, however, if the autumn date were changed; young from some yellowhammer broods don’t fledge until late August.

The glamorous small bird, whose song gave Beethoven the opening motif of his 5th symphony, is a species in trouble; it’s red-listed as a ‘bird of conservation concern’ here.

According to the recently published Bird Atlas, the yellowhammer’s breeding range in Ireland has shrunk by 61% since the Atlas survey of 1968 to 1972. Declines are most notable in the north and west of the country. The species, once found in every Irish county and on islands, is now almost absent west of a line from Cork to Belfast.

Our yellowhammers don’t migrate, so their difficulties can’t be ascribed to foreign influences. A member of the bunting family, this seed eater prospered when tillage was widespread here. Cereal farming has virtually disappeared from western counties and this might explain the decline of yellowhammers in these areas.

Research in Britain suggests that managed grasslands have fewer creepy-crawlies for yellowhammer chicks to eat and vegetation can be so dense that parents are unable to access the few invertebrates there are.

According to the BirdWatch Ireland web-site ‘farmyard bird populations have been declining in Ireland and across Europe and are now at their lowest levels since records began’. Twenty out of 36 countryside species are in trouble here and one, the corn bunting, has become extinct. Hearing a cuckoo in Ireland nowadays is a rare event.

Countryside birds need all the help they can get; tinkering with cutting dates seems particularly ill advised at this time. The argument that cutting hedges in August would increase road safety is ridiculous; the current regulations allow removal of vegetation which presents a safety hazard.

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