Debates between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Lord Hope of Craighead during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 12th Jul 2021

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Lord Hope of Craighead
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) [V]
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I support Amendments 258 to 260 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Amendment 258 would place ancient woodlands, which are clearly defined in the amendment, on an equal footing with sites of special scientific interest. The reason why it is so important to preserve ancient woodlands from the point of view of biodiversity, climate change, heritage and health of both nature and human beings has already been well spelt out, and I shall not repeat it. I shall add only that their significance is perhaps even greater than that of sites of special scientific interest; and the reasons put forward for why such sites need to be protected are perhaps even stronger in the case of ancient woodlands.

Amendment 259 requires the Government to implement a tree-planting standard that makes biosecurity an essential consideration—in particular, protecting our native trees from diseases coming from outside the UK. This welcome amendment relates to Amendment 31, on tree health, standing in my name and debated earlier in Committee. Amendment 31 stated:

“The Secretary of State must by regulations set targets in respect of trees, including targets on the overall health of tree populations, particularly in respect of native species, research into disease-resistant varieties, and progress in planting disease-resistant varieties.”

Sadly, as has been said many times this evening, the trees in this country are in a terrible state. A few years ago, as we know, the magnificent English elm, such a feature of our landscape when some of us were young, was completely wiped out by Dutch elm disease. Most recently, ash dieback has swept the whole country, from the east coast to the west coast, in just a few years, leaving a trail of thin, leafless branches. Our oaks are suffering from a blight, and so are our chestnuts.

The health of our trees must be a fundamental consideration in assessing the overall health of our environment. Ash dieback originated in Asia, where it has little impact on the local species, and has moved steadily west where, sadly, it has a deadly impact on native ash. Coming, I believe, from trees imported from Holland to East Anglia as recently as 2012, it has left a terrible trail, which breaks one’s heart to see, as I see it in west Wales.

In a highly globalised world, our native trees, like the human population, are increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to diseases, which may do little harm elsewhere but which are killers here. The need for tight biosecurity regulations and a clear standard of what is required is obvious. This requires an overall strategy, involving not just government but other public authorities, and the amendment sets that out clearly. I very strongly support it.

I also strongly support Amendment 260, which requires the Government to have a tree-planting strategy that contains targets for the protection, restoration and expansion of trees and woodland in England. This chimes in well, but in much more valuable detail, with an earlier amendment in my name, Amendment 12, on the planting of new trees. There I set out the reasons why we need to plant new trees—reasons mainly to do with climate change, which I shall not repeat here. The amendment before us requires the Government to have targets. Where I believe my earlier amendment has something to add to the present one is that that Amendment 12 said

“The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament, and publish, a statement containing information about progress towards meeting any targets set under subsection (3)(e) on an annual basis after any initial target is set (in addition to the requirements under section 5).”

Climate change is a threat of such urgency now that it is not adequate just to have targets. We need an annual report to Parliament on the progress being made to meet those targets, and this my earlier amendments sought to ensure. However, this present amendment is very welcome indeed because it sets out in detail what such a target should include, and I strongly support it.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB) [V]
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It is a pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord. I support the general message conveyed by most of the amendments in this group, but I single out for special mention Amendments 258 and 260 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and Amendment 260A in the name of my noble friend Lord Kinnoull.

Amendment 258 seeks to place ancient woodlands on an equal footing with sites of special scientific interest. I have to confess that it was not until I was introduced to them when I was sitting on the HS2 committee that I became truly aware of what ancient woodlands are and how much they contribute to the biodiversity of our countryside. However, that introduction made a very real impression on me, as the evidence drew my attention to what was being lost as ancient woodlands—fortunately in very small sections in my case—were being given up to make way for the railway: a matter that I know is of great concern to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I have taken a close interest in them ever since, whenever I can get out into the countryside.

As I have said on several previous occasions, ancient woodlands are not just about trees; they are, in short, havens of biodiversity of a kind that has been built up over centuries. It is all too easy to overlook what is going on at ground level. As the years go by, leaves fall, the ground lies undisturbed and a carpet is built up which gathers together a huge variety of wildlife within the soil and on its surface. There is much else above ground level, too, in the trees themselves, in that they provide food and shelter for other creatures. The older they are, the richer the habitat becomes. You cannot create, or indeed recreate, such an environment overnight, or even in a few decades. That is why we must redouble our efforts to preserve what remains of this part of our heritage as much as we can.

Of course, many sites of special scientific interest contain ancient woodlands. Indeed, in their case it is the woodlands themselves and the biodiversity that goes with them that justifies their listing in such sites. However, size matters when it comes to the listing of SSSIs and, indeed, the other elements of diversity. Many areas of ancient woodland are too small to justify that kind of listing. However, I wonder whether that is a reason for discarding the idea that they are entitled to special protection. It may be that to protect every single one of them in the kind of scheme that is referred to in this amendment goes a little too far, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested. However, I would be very reluctant to rely simply on SSSIs as a means of protecting ancient woodlands. More needs to be done, which is why I support the thinking behind this amendment.