Monday 5th July 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and a pleasure to speak up for the hedgehog.

Although I represent a largely urban constituency, the hedgehog is equally at home among our parks, gardens and untidy corners of the countryside, and many residents of Hull West and Hessle welcome its presence. I want to pay tribute to the fantastic work of Carolyn Harman of Hessle Hedgehog Rescue in providing care for sick and injured animals and advice on making the area hedgehog-friendly. Sadly, as mentioned by hon. Members already, hedgehog numbers continue to decline. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species surveys, conducted by citizen scientists, demonstrate that hedgehog numbers have fallen by around 50% in the past 20 years, so there is no doubt that urgent action needs to be taken, and the petition reflects that urgency.

The Government’s response to the petition stated that they have,

“not previously moved to protect this species under Schedule 5”—

to the Wildlife and Countryside Act—

“as it is not clear that such protection would be of benefit to the species, in so far that: we have no evidence that intentionally killing, taking or injuring hedgehogs is currently an issue; and it would not address the main threat of habitat loss.”

That appears to refer to the protections found in section 9(1). Although the petition mentioned only schedule 5, I assume it also refers to the protections under section 9(4), which include protections for habitat from intentional disturbance and damage.

The Minister may not be aware of this, but I am proud to be the butterfly conservation species champion for the brimstone butterfly, which is the flagship species of Hull’s Butterfly City project. She may also be interested to know that the marsh fritillary, the heath fritillary, the large blue and the swallowtail, which is the UK’s largest butterfly, are also included in schedule 5 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I assure the Minister that the main threat to all those butterfly species is habitat loss, and they are also included in section 9(4) of the Act. Every other mammal that is considered vulnerable to extinction in the UK is listed in schedule 7: the hazel dormouse, two species of bat, and the Orkney vole.

Even a layperson who is familiar with the behaviour of hedgehogs can imagine how the provisions in section 9(5) would protect them; detailed knowledge of hedgehogs’ habitat requirements is not necessary. Many people know that hedgehogs like the shelter of a nice compost heap, or being tucked up beneath the garden shed. In fact, hedgehogs can journey up to 2 km per night and can build several nests across their home range, so it is clear how protection of hedgehogs’ nesting sites from disturbance or harm, as well as protection of hedgehogs themselves from disturbance or harm, would be of benefit.

The hedgehog and other wildlife can also be helped through changes to the planning law. Biodiversity can be built into housing and commercial developments in many ways, such as hedgehog highways, wildlife corridors, and swift boxes and other bird boxes built into buildings. There are already fantastic examples, backed up by research, of the benefits of these innovations. It just requires the will from Government to make them mandatory.

The petition is timely because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) mentioned, the Wildlife and Countryside Act is undergoing its five-yearly review of the species included. However, I am extremely concerned to hear that the terms of this year’s review have been changed and that, contrary to what a reasonable person might expect given the well documented decline in biodiversity across the board, this is likely to result in fewer species under protection, not more. Under the new standards, an animal or plant species would be protected if only it were in imminent danger of extinction, so dozens of species face losing vital safeguards, and action to protect a species would come only when it was in crisis, which might be too late. That cannot be right.

I understand that over 30 conservation groups have written to Ministers voicing their concerns. I would welcome the Minister taking the opportunity today to explain why it was felt that the standards needed changing and how the Government expect the changes to halt the decline in species numbers. Although I welcome the assurances given in response to the petition relating to forthcoming legislation, given the changes to the way that the 1981 Act is being reviewed, it is difficult to have confidence that the final detail will measure up to the promises. The hedgehog needs increased and meaningful protections now, not fuzzy—or even prickly—assurances about its future.