Monday 5th July 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is, as always, a pleasure to speak in the debate. As is often said in this Chamber, conservation is not a hobby for me; it is a duty that I take a very seriously.

I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and I wholeheartedly endorse his request to retain hedgerows and enhance field edges. That is something that I do on the land where I have the opportunity to have some input. I am blessed to live on the family farm, with my son living on the farm up a very long laneway. It gives me a chance to see where the hedgerows are and to ensure that the edges of the lanes are well kept. During lockdown, the ability to wander through the beautiful countryside surrounding my home as I read my briefings and did my daily Bible readings, was one of things that kept me sane. It made me appreciate what I have outside my window that little bit more. I have a real passion to ensure that my grandchildren will have the same ability to enjoy nature when they reach my age, so retaining hedgerows and field edges is something that I wholeheartedly endorse.

Hedgehogs are under extreme pressure. The right hon. Gentleman referred to badgers, and the information that I have is hedgehogs are a bit of a delicacy for badgers, which are renowned for feasting on hedgehogs more than they probably should. One part of this fight for our countryside is the declining number of hedgehogs. Ulster Wildlife has an entire section on its website about how to help hedgehogs due to their decline, and it states:

“Hedgehogs are in trouble—they have declined by 30% in the last 10 years alone and there are now thought to be fewer than one million left in the UK. Whether you live in town or country, you can help to look after these much-loved creatures by providing food, water and shelter.”

Ulster Wildlife’s useful site outlines ways to help and provides links where people can donate and adopt a hedgehog. When my boys were at school, they did a project on hedgehogs, and I sincerely hope that there are still school projects to raise awareness of just how vital these little creatures are to our ecosystem.

My constituents in Strangford who signed the petition outlined the dire straits in which our population of hedgehogs find themselves. Since 2000, hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and by a third in urban ones. I very rarely see any of them about now, even with our taking a direct interest in trying to retain the habitat for them. For that reason, BHPS is asking for hedgehogs to be moved from schedule 6 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to schedule 5, to allow them greater protection. I would support that.

My constituents are concerned that the 2021 review seeks to change the eligibility criteria affecting hedgehogs. It is proposed that the country-based statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. I would suggest that the hedgehog is very clearly in such danger. The shift in focus will give preferential consideration to GB red-listed species as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but the IUCN guidance specifically identifies the automatic use of red-list categories in policy as an “inappropriate use” of the red list, so that is the wrong bar to set. We need to get it right, so I look to the Minister with respect, as I often do, and ask her to respond, which I know she will.

The effect of the proposed change would be that rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition, their current, minor level of protection will be removed altogether. The change will make it legal to sell hedgehogs; worse still, they will lose protection from killing and injury. I just cannot believe that that is possible.

The petition makes it clear that hedgehogs have widespread support and are in need of enhanced protection. The hedgehog has been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys. In the BBC’s wildlife survey in 2013, it won 42% of the vote. In 2016, the hedgehog won more than twice the votes of the second-placed animal in the Royal Society of Biology’s survey. Clearly, hedgehogs are a favourite of the general public, so removing hedgehogs’ legal protection would be widely viewed as inappropriate and an extremely perverse response to a parliamentary petition backed by more than 100,000 voters.

Will the Minister reflect on this well thought-out flag that has been raised? We need to do something, and we are all saying that we must do the right thing. We need to enhance protection and to fund a breeding programme to release hedgehogs into safe places throughout the countryside. I look to the Minister to outline that very plan of action.

--- Later in debate ---
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank the hon. Lady for that, but one cannot rip hedgerows out now. We have a portfolio—a toolbox—of measures that will combine to improve our nature and put back our declining species. The local nature recovery strategies are key to that and will be used on the ground by local authorities. That will give them the opportunity to determine—it is like a mapping system—what they want where, where there is good nature, where it could be better or where they would rather just focus on industry. All of those things will build together, and local authorities will be able to make hedgehogs a priority if they so wish. I am confident that we have a very good framework in the Environment Bill.

We also have our new Agriculture Act 2020, and we have left the common agricultural policy. We now have schemes to ensure that our land use will deliver environmental benefits—through the sustainable farming incentive, the local nature recovery scheme and our much bigger landscape recovery scheme, which will link whole areas and potentially have the corridors that our wildlife needs to move about. Those schemes—sustainable farming, in particular—will be able to create and preserve woodlands, heathlands, species-rich grassland and a range of habitats that will benefit hedgehogs, in particular.

Serious points were made about planning. DEFRA is in close consultation with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, particularly on the issue of sustainable development. Hedgehog highways, swift boxes, ponds and all of the things that we are flagging really need to go into our future developments, together with sustainable urban drainage and all of the things that affect our water quality and flooding. It should all knit together.

There is obviously huge interest in hedgehog protection. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate and made such very strong cases.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I think I have time to give way to the hon. Member for Strangford, because he is always so polite.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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A number of people, including myself, have put forward the planning issue, to which the Minister referred. Is it possible, before anyone does any work on any site or development, to ask them to remove any hedgehogs and to relocate them? The Minister said that many farms would wish to accept hedgehogs. Is that possible?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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That is an interesting suggestion. In the Environment Bill, we are bringing in new measures for strategies for certain wider groups of species and wildlife to look after habitats and deal with wildlife issues on a more comprehensive scale, rather than in the itsy-bitsy way that we do now, which often frustrates developments as well, because they are held up. Under biodiversity net gain and the nature that has to be put back by developers, they will be conscious that they have to look at things such as the hedgehog population, just as we do now with dormice and so on.

On that note, I will wind up. I hope that I have outlined that the Government have a real desire, and I believe the framework, to protect nature and biodiversity on a national scale, and that we are committed to reviewing species legislation so that we get it right. We give the assurance that we will be looking after our absolutely much-loved and indeed revered hedgehogs.