Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

Cheryl Gillan Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(5 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
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Yes. I became aware of the Norfolk case through the Petitions Committee’s interactive work, and I was shocked that the practice extended to such schemes. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point.

As we have seen in reaction to netting across the country, many of my constituents wrote to the council to protest against the installation of nets on the hedgerow in Hartlepool and its effect on wildlife and on birds’ nests. However, netting is used not just on housing developments but in all kinds of scenarios, including on major infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2.

Last month, HS2 contractors began netting hedgerows on the route near Quainton in Buckinghamshire, causing outrage among environmentalists. HS2 contends that all the work is legal, and it has employed an ecologist to monitor the site. In a statement, it said:

“The installation of this netting was carried out by HS2 contractors, as part of the pre-works for National Grid’s gas pipeline diversion scheme. This temporary netting is to discourage birds from nesting during construction and was installed before the nesting season started. The netting was installed under the direction of a suitably experienced ecologist and is monitored daily.”

Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on opening the debate and I thank everyone who signed the petition. I think he must have read my speech, but the point bears repetition. Does he agree that the Government are the offender here, since HS2 is a Government project, so it is important that the Minister and her Front-Bench colleagues listen carefully to what environmentalists require so that schemes such as HS2 do not continue to murder our wildlife indiscriminately?

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
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I thank the right hon. Lady for her contribution. It shocked me that this was happening on a Government-led scheme, and that the contractors were working to Government directives on this matter. I hope that is a wake-up call for the management of any future projects of such scale.

In response to the HS2 netting, the RSPB acknowledged that the practice was not illegal, but it said that

“careful consideration will be needed to develop rules around netting that really help birds, and allow legitimate activity to continue. But we cannot stand by and let the current practices spread unchallenged.”

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Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on opening the debate so well and referring to my main bugbear: HS2.

When I looked at the petition, of the 355,631 signatures, 1,162 came from my constituency, and 5,454 people from an area covering Aylesbury, Buckingham, Wycombe and Beaconsfield signed the petition to express their concern about netting and protecting birds. That is a sizeable number of people and reflects the great concern that is shown for our environment in Buckinghamshire.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time on my uncle’s farm in south Wales. One of the great joys was to go around the farm and pick up the egg shells after the birds had hatched—I used to save them. There were always a multitude of different birds nesting around the farm site. Over the years, living in the countryside, I have noticed a reduction in bird life, not least among small hedgerow birds and birds that were very common in my youth. There used to be an abundance of sparrows, but in my back garden I do not see as many sparrows as I used to see 40 or 50 years ago. The RSPB says that, over the last 50 years we have lost over 40 million birds in the UK; that is a great loss that cannot be replaced.

As the hon. Member for Hartlepool said, it is an offence to destroy an active nest but there are no laws to prevent the installation of nets. The Government need to look at that and regulate for it, because it is not necessary to leave this to the market. We need to have a positive intervention that will make some difference. The RSPB spokesperson said:

“We cannot keep trying to squeeze nature into smaller and smaller spaces or demanding it fits in with our plans. This is an issue we are talking to the Government about as they look at what needs to happen over the next 25 years to stop our wildlife from continuing to vanish at an alarming rate.”

As I said in my intervention, the trouble is that the Government are just as big an offender as any housing developer; they need to take that on board. The route chosen for HS2 passes through irreplaceable natural habitats and unspoiled ecosystems. Constructing a railway line with a land-take equivalent to a four-lane motorway will have a devastating effect on the natural environment in these areas. Over 130 wildlife sites on the first stage alone will be directly affected, including 10 sites of special scientific interest, an area of outstanding natural beauty and 50 ancient woodlands. That is in my backyard.

HS2 will cause an unacceptable level of damage to European, national and county-important species. A number of European protected species are present within the proposed HS2 route corridor, including the otter, the great crested newt and several species of bats. In addition, nationally protected species such as freshwater crayfish, stag beetle, smooth newt, great crested newt, common frog, slowworm, common lizard, European water vole, Eurasian badger, rare butterflies and breeding birds are known to be present in the impact zone.

The HS2 Action Alliance believes that insufficient regard has been paid to the impact of HS2 on biodiversity. Specific concerns about the risks facing wildlife include where the HS2 route is likely to cause direct loss or damage to the wildlife site through the land-take. This leads to the severance of habitats, causing fragmentation; reduction in the size of habitat areas; direct impacts on vegetation and on sedentary animal populations, for example in woodland and ponds; and/or the creation of barriers that affect the behaviour of species on a site, such as foraging.

The further environmental impact on ancient woodlands—areas that have been covered by woods for over 400 years—is alarming. Their biodiversity value cannot be recreated by replacement planting; nor can the habitats for birds be replaced, because birds return to the same site, and their behaviour will not always coincide with the marvellous plantation that has been created by the developer in another area, in another place. HS2 is systematically destroying a large corridor of the countryside through the centre of Buckinghamshire, and elsewhere, to make way for a railway that is literally costing the earth.

As the hon. Gentleman said, HS2 says that while the work is being carried out, it is using an ecologist to monitor events; that includes the netting being used to prevent birds from using their regular nesting sites, which is monitored daily. I decided to test the water by putting in a written question asking who the ecologists monitoring the sites are, how often they visit—how many times a day—and how many birds or how much other wildlife they have found dead or dying, or have released. Without digging into the detail, it is easy to state that the work is being done under the guidance of ecologists, when what is happening on the ground could be completely different. I look to the Minister to encourage the Department for Transport to give me not one of its brush-off answers to the question, but a detailed one, so that we can be reassured that where the Government are in charge, they are keeping up with their responsibilities.

Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Jenny Chapman
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I cannot remember whether it is the RSPB or Natural England that says the nets need to be checked three times a day by people who know what they are doing. I do not believe that that is happening. Was the right hon. Lady able to glean any more information about that when she did her research?

Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan
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The hon. Lady will know that I often have a great deal of difficulty getting any information about HS2 out of the powers that be, but I continue to press because I do not believe we should give up. I have only been at it 10 years, trying to scrutinise the project. I hope I have another 10 years to go.

HS2 was clear in its statement about the bird netting:

“The netting was installed under the direction of a suitably experienced ecologist and is monitored daily”,

but I want further and better particulars, as they say. I am not entirely convinced that those nets will be monitored on a daily basis. Perhaps I will be called cynical, but I want to check. It is important, particularly in the light of the number of people showing great concern about what is a relatively new development, in terms of trying to get rid of some of our wildlife and bird species.

Ruth George Portrait Ruth George (High Peak) (Lab)
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The right hon. Lady is making an excellent point. In my constituency I have seen where the habitat of ground-nesting birds—lapwings in particular—has been destroyed by herbicides being put down on sites that developers hope to develop. Does she agree that we need not just stronger legislation but stronger penalties for such actions that deliberately harm our wildlife, including actions leading to the destruction of raptors? I see such actions happening across my constituency, and there is little repercussion.

Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan
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The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and I shall let it stand, but I should certainly be interested to see where the route lies and where the path takes us. There is no doubt about it: 20 years ago, after I became the MP for Chesham and Amersham, one of the great joys in the Chiltern hills was the reintroduction of the red kite. One of the great pleasures—if the hon. Lady would like to come out and visit the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty—is to see the red kites flying. They really are a source of great joy. It is a pity that we cannot do the same with some of our smaller nesting birds, which, sadly, we are losing.

I think I have made my point about HS2 and the Minister has heard it, but I must say that it begs the question why, if parts of the countryside have to be removed to make way for so-called progress, tree and hedge removals cannot be completed outside the nesting season. After all, it has taken 10 years and we do not even have the go-ahead for HS2, but we are already damaging the environment—irreparably, in my view—with the enabling works, even though we do not know whether the project will go ahead.

We are engaged in a major battle for the environment against global warming. Today we are discussing another battle—the battle for our birds in the United Kingdom. If we do not pay attention to the smallest creatures of our wildlife, we shall end up with a sorry, barren world, in which the next generations will be forced to live.

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Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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I agree entirely. A few weeks ago, I visited a farm just outside Plymouth run by a fantastic farmer called Johnny Haimes, who demonstrated how agriculture could be more sustainable and still be profitable. That is the type of best practice that we need to encourage right across our agricultural sectors if we are to address the high levels of carbon that they use, but also to make our soils and our waterways in and around those agricultural lands more sustainable.

A number of hon. Members have made the point that it is not just developers that we need to look at. As the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) said, we need to look at how the public sector should lead by example on this matter. The majority of that can be done by local councils, but the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), in the good and passionate rebuke to austerity that I am glad he made, spoke about the loss of planning inspectors at local level. That has hollowed out some of the expertise, particularly in relation to wildlife; I am thinking of the loss of wildlife officers from our local councils.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the superb work that the Labour council in Exeter has done in choosing swift bricks. More councils should be looking at that. Indeed, about a month ago, there was a national day for putting up a bird box, and my mum—who should always get a good mention in these debates—bought me not one, not two, but three bird boxes for my birthday, so my garden in Plymouth has plenty more nesting sites.

That brings me to a good point about whether the habitats that are lost should be replaced one for one. That is a discussion that has just been had. I mentioned to the Minister before the debate that there was a fantastic piece on “Countryfile” last night about the net gain consultation—perfect wordplay for the debate that we are having today

That consultation was run by DEFRA, and it asked whether we should have a net gain of biodiversity if there is to be economic development. The Government consultation received 670 responses and closed in February. In theory, the results are to be published alongside the environment Bill later this year. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether that is still the plan, because we know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs publishes plenty of consultations, but takes very little concrete action. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what she intends to do in respect of that.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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We are seeing species decline in all parts of our wildlife in every part of the United Kingdom. The breeding farmland bird index is falling. It has declined by more than half since 1970. The breeding woodland bird index for the UK declined by 25% between 1970 and 2017. We cannot keep squeezing nature into smaller spaces and we must put the environment at the heart of Government policy. The best way to do that is for the Government to lead by example in the projects that they run and the leadership that they can provide for the environment sector.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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Singles like that would make a proud addition to my collection of Britney and Kylie songs on iTunes, so we need to promote it. We also need to ensure that every type of economic activity that we have as a country becomes greener. If we are to meet our Paris climate change obligations, we need to remove 80% of the carbon from our economy. We will not be able to do that simply by recycling some more plastic bottles. We need fundamental economic change. The UN report on species loss outlined the transformative change that is required, and made it clear that when it comes to the loss of habitat in respect of the trees and hedgerows that are being lost through bird netting we need to take quicker action.

Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan
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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he ignored me when I tried to ask him to give way earlier, when he was talking about net gain. Regarding the aim of net gain, I hope that we all will observe that in some instances it is impossible. If we destroy ancient woodland, we cannot replace it: it is irreplaceable. I look at net gain with a great deal of scepticism, as I hope others do.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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The right hon. Lady is right to be cautious, because with net gain the devil is in the detail. It cannot simply be used as a stamp, to pretend that it makes the activity greener when it does not. A number of us share that suspicion about the consultation, so I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that.

Finally, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I thank Maggie Moran, Nell and John for their work in setting up the petition, as well as Simon Leadbeater, who initiated the second petition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned. We all need to do our bit to put pressure on developers, to ensure that the cruel and inhumane practice of netting precious bird-nesting sites comes to an end. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how the Government will be doing that with a cross-Government approach in the weeks and months ahead.

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Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler
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There’s a scoop for you.

Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan
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The Minister is doing well in picking up on all the points. If it will be made mandatory for all developers, why do the Government not make it mandatory right now for HS2 to stop its netting?

Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler
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Regretfully, we need legislation to do that. When the Bill comes in, that will be the legislative vehicle for it, because whether it is birds or hedgehogs, we are determined that our wildlife does not just survive, but thrives.

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Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler
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Indeed, and as I like to remind hon. Members, that will be debated as part of the Environment Bill when it is introduced. I am sure that all hon. Members present would like to take part in that debate when it happens.

Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan
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Can the Minister tell hon. Members present when we can expect the environment Bill?

Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler
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In due course.

There is no question of making a choice between homes and nature. We can and must have both, because for us, as well as for animals, the benefits are clear. Our natural environment can have a profound impact on our physical and mental health. We need access to our natural environment; it is part of what makes life on earth worth while.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with all of us. Our planning system and our planning authorities play an essential role in the mix; mechanisms allow them to say what can and cannot take place on a construction site, as well as when. Planning conditions, including surveys and other pre-construction stages, can be enforced by local authorities. If developers do not comply, a development may become unlawful.

The Government are working tirelessly to set up further protections. Through our revised national planning policy framework, and with help from stakeholders such as the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust, we are supporting planning tools that protect our natural environment. We have increased the protections for irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees; any loss or harm from development must be “wholly exceptional”. We have also clarified the importance of local wildlife sites in plan making by introducing the need for plan makers to take a proactive approach to rising temperatures and, wherever possible, to help to improve environmental conditions, including water and air quality.

As announced in the housing White Paper in 2017, we have provided £6.9 million over three years to Natural England, which will allow it to roll out a proportionate risk-based approach to protected species licensing nationally—principally, for great crested newts. That will provide greater protection at the same time as speeding up the process and reducing costs. We have also provided £210,000 to the Woodland Trust to support the first update of the ancient woodland inventory maps since the 1980s, to make protection more effective.

Developers must play their part in the wider wildlife agenda. They must provide access to new green space and develop green infrastructure, such as swift bricks, bat bricks and hedgehog highways, because our wildlife and its habitats are interconnected. We would like developers to design in as many nature-friendly stipulations as are reasonable. The Housing Minister saw that done impressively on a visit to Kidbrooke Village last week, where natural corridors and landscapes are a core part of the masterplan behind the regeneration. Let me be clear that gains in biodiversity must be genuine, not just a token gesture by a developer ticking a box by drilling holes for a theoretical hedgehog highway.

We must all play our part. Existing householders, neighbourhood planning bodies and parish and town councils can help to ensure that wildlife-friendly features are built into every garden in every neighbourhood. People can also make their voices heard—for example, the recent public outcry about the netting spread over a hedgerow in Berkshire led to it being removed by the council. Today’s petition is another example of democracy in action and people making their voices heard. Although we reject today’s call for yet more detailed regulation on bird netting—I have described the protections that already exist—I have the deepest respect for the aims of the petitioners, in particular Mrs Moran and her family.

Even as we pursue our campaign to build the homes this country so badly needs, we must do all we can to champion our natural environment. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”.