Northern Irish farmers who wish to cut hedges during the closed period have been warned to ensure they have "clear evidence" for doing so, the latest advice from the Department of Agriculture has warned.

Robert Beggs from the Sustainable Land Management Branch at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) said: "If you need to cut hedges during the closed period in order to comply with the legislation you should ensure you have clear evidence for doing so and that you comply for an exemption. If the hedges are not causing an obstruction to movement or view then they should not be cut in the closed period."

Beggs advised farmers who own or occupy land next to a public road or footway that they are responsible for maintaining hedges and trees to ensure that they do not obstruct the movement of vehicles and pedestrians or block the view of drivers.

He explained traffic signs must not be obstructed nor the safety or convenience of road users affected.

"If this occurs you can be notified by the PSNI or DfI Roads to trim the hedges in question," he said.

Hedgerows are a characteristic feature of our landscape, and in Northern Ireland, we have the highest density of field boundaries in the UK.

"They are an incredible asset to farms; attractive in the landscape and are an important part of our heritage.

"At this time of year, hedges are busy places with birds in nests incubating eggs or raising their recently-hatched young."

Under DAERA’s Cross-Compliance rules, hedges, trees or scrub-cutting (including trimming and laying) is not permitted during the bird nesting season between March 1 and August 31.

This means that all scrub-cutting, hedge-cutting, laying and coppicing operations must have ceased on February 28. This is to avoid harming birds, their nests and eggs.

Beggs added: “In most cases, roadside hedges should be cut in February. Cutting any hedge from March 1 to August 31 can be considered a cross-compliance breach and can lead to penalties unless the operation is required for the health and safety of road users.

If the hedges are not causing an obstruction to movement or view, then they should not be cut in the closed period.

Beggs gave some recommendations for those who have to cut hedges for road safety reasons.

“You must also make a careful check for nesting birds and chicks, mark and avoid any possible nest sites and then proceed with caution," he said.

“Do not cut the ‘field’ side of the hedge – only cut the side which faces the road and only the minimum length required to allow unrestricted movement of vehicles and pedestrians.

"Hedge tops should only be cut where a view is obstructed at a junction or corner. Remember to clear hedge trimmings from footpaths and roads as they can cause a hazard to pedestrians and road users."