Northern Ireland's vanishing countryside: 907 hedgerows and walls ruined in just two years
The Department of Agriculture (Dard) has been criticised after it gave the go-ahead to more than 95% of applications made by farmers to remove field boundaries - even though farmers are being paid to keep them.
Field boundaries - including hedgerows, drystone walls and ditches or sheughs - are an iconic feature of Northern Ireland's rural landscape and a vital lifeline for wild species such as birds, badgers, bats and stoats.
But figures obtained from Dard by the Belfast Telegraph show that of 950 applications to remove field boundaries between January 2013 and March 31, 2015, 907 were approved.
Of these, 465 were approved without any conditions and 442 were approved subject to conditions.
Just 36 were turned down and seven are still outstanding.
It comes after the Belfast Telegraph revealed that the DoE was in the process of drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ulster Farmers' Union that could see farmers become immune to prosecution for low-level pollution of waterways.
Friends of the Earth said Dard appears to have "lost the plot" and urged it to rethink this policy, saying many hedges are more than 100 years old and provide significant habitat for under-threat wildlife.
NI director Dr James Orr said: "We have lost our native woodland and many of our rivers and lakes are polluted. It seems that Dard policy is now to allow the loss of our native hedgerows and stone walls.
"What is crazy about this policy is that we are paying landowners under various agricultural support schemes to keep these habitat and landscape features.
"We could understand if 5% were approved for removal in exceptional circumstances but to allow 95% removal is subsidised destruction on a massive scale."
Dard said it endeavours to strike a balance between the demands of modern farming and environmental obligations.
A spokesman for the department said that farmers were required to maintain land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition, which aims to retain landscape features.
"Under this requirement farmers must not remove landscape features, except by prior written permission from Dard," he said.
He added: "Dard will assess, and may grant derogations for, landscape feature removal after using Dard landscape feature assessment criteria, which include consideration of the area of the field and the quality of the feature.
"Dard requires farmers to carry out mitigating actions where they have received a derogation to remove a landscape feature, such as a hedgerow."