Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.
I follow a fellow parliamentary species champion, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), but I am perhaps the most topical species champion today, because I am the species champion for the hedgehog. Indeed, as the Minister knows, because she is committed to these issues, I have been, probably not biting her ankles, but prickling them over this issue for some time now, and I intend to carry on doing so. Six years have passed since this House last debated the hedgehog. I very much hope that we will not need to debate it again soon, but I also hope that, if a debate is necessary, it will not take another six years.
It is a national tragedy that we have lost so much of our wildlife. If we look across the range of species that have suffered catastrophic declines in recent years, the picture is profoundly disturbing and worrying. The hedgehog’s decline goes back further than the last 20 years, though. In the 1950s, there were nearly as many hedgehogs as people in the United Kingdom; today the hedgehog population is only a tiny fraction of our population, with perhaps only 1.5 million hedgehogs surviving. We have to turn the situation around, not just for hedgehogs but for all the species that have suffered such declines, and we must start doing it now, because we cannot allow numbers to continue to go down.
There is a variety of reasons why these declines have happened. It is true that there has been habitat loss. Sadly, over the years too many hedgehogs have died on our roads, although I have to say that it is relatively rare to see a dead hedgehog on our roads nowadays. Of course, we see rather a lot of dead badgers on our roads, but that remains a subject of debate. I am not here today to point a finger at the badger, although are issues around the competition between species for ever-diminishing habitats. I am here to argue for tangible Government measures to address the issue.
There has been a lot of debate about the specific review taking place this year. There is genuine cause for concern there, which I hope the Minister will address in her remarks, because none of us wants a formal reduction of protection for species. She knows my concerns about the way the quinquennial review approaches creatures such as the hedgehog, and I hope she will be able to set everybody’s mind at rest.
I hope the Minister recognises from the scale of this petition the genuine public concern. I echo the words of congratulation to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, to Hedgehog Street, which has done a fantastic job in promoting the need for action, and to all those groups around the country doing so much to protect hedgehogs, to rescue hedgehogs that are in danger, to rescue baby hedgehogs that may not survive the winter, and to look after those that have been injured. I pay tribute to the team at the Wildlife Aid Foundation, just outside my constituency in Leatherhead, who do a fantastic job. I have been down there on many occasions to see the work they are doing with hedgehogs that have run into difficulties in life..
That work and all those different projects all around the country are valuable, but there is a bigger-picture issue to solve here. It was brought home to me this week by a message I received from one of the hedgehog groups distraught that, just down the road from where it is based, a developer starting to clear a site ahead of development had killed a significant number of hedgehogs just by clearing the undergrowth alongside a roadway to make way for that development. In accordance with the law, we in this country do a lot of work before we develop sites, such as checking for bats and newts, but I want the Government think differently, because searching for an individual species on a development site is not the right way forward. We need an holistic approach to nature on a development site. Of course, we still need to develop for the future—we need to provide housing for the future—but we should do that with care. One thing I hope for from the Government in the next few months is a plan to turn the current system into one of holistic analysis of what wildlife is on a site and what needs to be protected, so that we do not simply bulldoze a roadside or cut down a hedgerow with no regard at all for any animals inside it. All too often, hedgehogs are inside it. That change is urgently needed.
The Minister will be aware that I tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill to move the hedgehog into schedule 5 protection. I did not push that amendment to a Division because I understand that the legislative framework is not right for today’s world. It is focused particularly on human intent against animals, and nobody is seriously suggesting that everybody wants to kill hedgehogs. However, I expect quid pro quo from the Minister, which is a proper, urgent review of the legislative framework to address things such as the circumstance I just described, where a developer does not have to look holistically for the full range of species on a site but can just make sure that there are no bats or newts and everything else just gets bulldozed out of the way. That cannot be right, and I very much hope that she will change that.
I ask two other things of Ministers. The first involves habitats for hedgehogs and other species. One reason why we have seen the decline in numbers has been the disappearance of hedgerows. I very much hope that the implementation of the Agriculture Act 2020 and the new agriculture support framework will genuinely encourage farmers to put back some of those lost habitats. CPRE is in the process of launching a timely campaign to get more hedgerows planted in this country, and I hope the Government take that on board and ensure that the support they provide to farmers encourages them not only to have wider margins at the sides of existing fields, which is to be welcomed, but to start replanting hedgerows for the future, because they are vital habitats.
My final request to the Minister is this. It is important for species that travel long distances to be able to do so. Colleagues have mentioned hedgehog highways and developers being encouraged to put holes in fences. That is very good and should continue to be encouraged, but we also need, in areas of open country where there are development threats, to make sure that corridors exist for wildlife—not only hedgehogs but other species—so that we do not lock away one bit of habitat from another, losing the movement between the two and so ultimately the species decline and die. That also has to change.
Those are my three requests to the Minister. We need to ensure that we have proper planning for highways between different habitats, and that we look at supporting the recovery of hedgerows. We particularly need protections for species such as the hedgehog in law, to prevent developers from simply ripping up a site with no regard for what is there. If the Minister delivers all that, she will be able to take pride in the fact that she has played a big part in turning the tide on the tragic decline of hedgehog numbers.