Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

Mike Hill Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(5 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 244233 relating to protecting nesting sites for birds.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. The petition is titled:

“Make ‘netting’ hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting a criminal offence.”

I will aim to reflect that. However, as we found through outreach work by Petitions Committee staff, including the live Facebook chat I held last week, the issue goes well beyond the detrimental effect of netting on nesting birds; netting affects the wellbeing of other wildlife, as well as having environmental consequences.

I am grateful to Margaret Moran for starting the petition, which has attracted in excess of 350,000 signatures. She acknowledges the broader repercussions of netting, stating in the text of the petition:

“Developers, and other interested parties are circumventing laws protecting birds by ‘netting’ hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting. This facilitates the uprooting of hedgerows which aid biodiversity and provide the only remaining nesting sites for birds, whose numbers are in sharp decline. ‘Netting’ hedgerows threatens declining species of birds, presents a danger by entrapment to wildlife, and produces large amounts of plastic waste.”

No doubt we will hear from colleagues, as I have learned from the public, that the practice of netting also applies to trees, buildings and even sand dunes.

A second live e-petition on bird nesting, which calls for legal protection for swallow, swift and martin nest sites, has more than 70,000 signatures. It was started in reaction to reports of the removal of swift, swallow and martin nests by supermarkets to prevent those migrating birds from returning to their nests the following year. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that swift breeding numbers in the UK decreased by 53% between 1995 and 2016, which it attributes partly to the loss of nesting sites. I thank Simon Leadbeater, who started that petition, for raising the profile of that issue.

The practice of netting, especially the netting of hedgerows and trees by developers, appears to be on the increase. Experts say it is driven partly by the irrefutable demand for new housing, particularly affordable homes and bungalows. Indeed, The Guardian reported:

“The apparent rise in the use of netting this year has been partly fuelled…by a 78% increase in housebuilding over the last five years as developers respond to government pressure to build homes as quickly as possible.”

In the feedback that the Petitions Committee received, there are plenty of examples of the netting of hedgerows and trees up and down the country. In my constituency, a hedgerow was recently covered in green netting on behalf of developers seeking planning permission for up to eight new homes on adjoining land. Workers started to remove the netting and cut down the hedge, which does not require planning permission.

Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend mentions an important aspect of this issue. Netting is being used more and more, almost as a safeguard—just in case—but it ought not to be. It should really be installed by an ecologist and checked several times a day to ensure that nothing is trapped inside. Developers are far too relaxed in their use of the procedure. It seems to me that there is very little regulation, inspection or checking.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come on to those issues, but I acknowledge that, sadly, a bird died in her constituency as a result of being trapped in netting.

Norman Lamb Portrait Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman may be aware of a recent controversy affecting my constituency, where netting was placed over cliffs before a major project called sandscaping to build up the beaches and improve coastal protection. Does he agree that it is really important that there is close collaboration on such schemes between councils and bodies such as the RSPB to ensure that everything is done absolutely properly to protect birds?

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
- Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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.”

Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Jenny Chapman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. I should probably declare that I am a member of the RSPB. Part of the issue is that the use of netting is voluntary, and we use it because we wish to develop. It should be used only when absolutely necessary—when there is no other option and it is in the best interests of wildlife—but almost every time it is used, that is not the case.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
- Hansard - -

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to the way forward, as the industry describes it, but she is absolutely correct.

Although it is an offence to destroy an active nest, there are currently no laws to prevent the installation of netting. The RSPB and other charities, such as the Woodland Trust, propose changes to current practice and the introduction of laws that commit the Government to ensuring the recovery and protection of nature and wildlife, which would cause practices such as netting to come under much closer scrutiny.

The RSPB went on to say:

“We all need nature in our lives–which means giving birds and other wildlife, more, not less room to breed, feed and sing.”

Lord Swire Portrait Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There may be some good, practical reasons why the banning of netting in all circumstances would not be either desirable or enforceable, but should we not, at the very least, ban netting during the breeding season?

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
- Hansard - -

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. At the heart of this debate is the fact that the netting typically goes on before the nesting season. That is the whole point of the netting, as far as I can derive, so that proposition is timely and important.

I have spoken to people in the construction industry, who state that the practice of netting is done before the nesting season, always on an ecologically sound footing and in accordance with the law. They claim that netting is applied in a manner that is sensitive to the environment and to wildlife, and under the supervision of specialists. They have raised concerns with me that where wildlife has come under threat or been trapped behind the netting, it is often as a result of the netting being tampered with or shredded after its application.

Current restrictions lead to developers using nets to cover hedgerows and trees in and around their sites before any nesting activity begins, as that could stop or restrict building during the summer months. Legislation protecting nesting birds is pretty much exclusive to section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to destroy, damage or harm wild birds and nests that are in use or being built; to kill, injure or take any wild bird; to take, damage or destroy the nest of a wild bird; and to destroy an egg of any wild bird. To back that up, Natural England guidance states:

“You must not do any work which might harm nesting birds or destroy their nests. You’ll usually find nesting birds during the main nesting and breeding season from 1 March to 31 August.”

There is also legislation protecting hedgerows, which are described by the Woodland Trust as

“the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK”

that support

“a large diversity of flora and fauna.”

Many hedgerows are protected under the Hedgerows Regulations 1997, based on their age, length, location or importance. The regulations make it illegal to remove protected hedgerows without permission from the local planning authority. However, not all hedgerows are protected, and legal obligations on planning authorities are either complex or insufficient.

There is clearly strong opinion on this matter, and a mark of that is the fact that the petition calls for netting to become a criminal offence. There is no doubt that pressure has been put on developers, with some of them reviewing their practices; Bovis Homes and Bellway, for example, intend to change their policies to stop the use of netting at any of their sites. The industry’s union, the Home Builders Federation, says:

“As we build the homes the country needs, the industry is committed to supporting and enhancing biodiversity, proactively protecting wildlife and providing an overall increase in the number of trees.”

Is that enough to strike a balance between the need of people to have homes to live in and the need to protect our wildlife and green spaces?

There is no doubt that this petition has raised plenty of interest in the national press and media, as well as strong feelings. Perhaps it is time to make the law stronger, in an effort to protect our indigenous species and the environment.

--- Later in debate ---
Bill Grant Portrait Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), along with the Petitions Committee, for securing this important debate.

Many of us will have sung the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Some will have sung it rather well, and some, like me, less well, but we will all remember the line

“each little bird that sings”.

The dawn chorus provided by our feathered friends is one of life’s most uplifting and natural sounds. Let us not lose it; it is diminished as it is. We need to cherish it.

Birds have played an important part in our lives for centuries, from the canary that protected the miners to the pigeon that carried messages in war and the budgerigar that perhaps provided companionship to a person on their own. The wild birds in our hedgerows are equally important for our wellbeing, the pollination of our plants and tourism, bringing twitchers, if I may call them that, to areas such as the Isle of Islay, where there is a host of wildlife—it is well worth visiting—and Loch Doon, in my constituency, where ospreys nest.

It is important that humans and wildlife co-exist in harmony for a balanced ecosystem. It is therefore disappointing to learn of the practice of netting trees, bushes and hedgerows prior to construction work commencing on various sites, with the clear aim of preventing birds from nesting, alleviating the risk of delay to those developments. However, there is some good news, as has been mentioned: I understand that Bovis Homes and Bellway will not use netting at any of their sites. That is a welcome step, although I fully appreciate that there has to be a balance among supporting businesses, providing homes and protecting wildlife. Let us hope that other house builders, major and smaller—I am sure many smaller house builders have very good practices—follow the good practice of Bellway and Bovis.

The Woodland Trust believes that netting, while not necessarily unlawful—the relevant offence would be to take or destroy an active nest—shows a complete and selfish disregard for birds and other wildlife. The RSPB is campaigning to introduce a law to protect nest sites, to enable migrating birds to return and rear their young in a safe environment. I understand that the intention is to do so in a manner that does not prevent the development of land but encourages considerate and careful development. Potential options include the relocating or replacing of hedgerows at an early stage in development, prior to nesting season commencing, or putting up nesting boxes as a compensatory measure.

Birds and wildlife are part of our ecosystem and our planet, and we should embrace them, not evict them. Protection is available for bats nesting in buildings, with strict rules about disturbing their chosen habitat. Why should birds not be given the same or similar consideration, with a balanced approach between the needs of nature and of the developer? I ask the Minister to consider enhancing the protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which already protects nesting wild birds, to make netting an offence as well, although in a sensitive and balanced manner, to allow all interests to co-exist.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
- Hansard - -

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the points raised in the second petition, about returning birds, and that equal measures are needed for netting places where birds normally have their nests? They migrate and return to find netting there to prevent them from nesting. I opened up a small housing new build in Hartlepool only last Friday, and incorporated into those houses and bungalows were bat boxes and bird boxes. Such cheap and good practice should always be the way ahead.

Bill Grant Portrait Bill Grant
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I totally agree. We cannot meet our housing need, which I think we all agree we have to secure for our fellow citizens, at the expense of evicting wildlife or birds. We have to embrace them. Innovative ways have been suggested for how we can host them and make them part of our lives and part of our communities, because they are part of the planet and we need to share it. On that kindly note, I shall end my speech.

--- Later in debate ---
Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
- Hansard - -

Equally, in the words of Joni Mitchell:

“They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.”

I hope we do not get to that.

Next to Hartlepool is RSPB Saltholme, which is a lovely nature reserve in an industrial landscape. Recently, a site of special scientific interest was extended around Hartlepool’s beautiful coast. Because netting had been used in my town for development, I was grateful that the Petitions Committee allowed me to introduce the debate.

I must thank the petitioner, Maggie Moran, who is present, and the second petitioner, Mr Leadbeater. I also thank the right hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and all hon. Members who intervened so wonderfully. I thank Petitions Committee staff for, as ever, getting involved in researching the subject and for all the interactive work they did on Facebook.

It has been a helpful and useful debate. I hope we make some progress to tighten up on a practice that has clearly been escalating lately, given the demands of the housing sector and the requirements to protect our wildlife. On the second petition, the netting of existing buildings to prevent migrant birds returning to their nests needs to be looked at as well. As has been pointed out in relation to HS2, the Government have a responsibility for the work that the contractors who work for them do on such big projects.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 244233 relating to protecting nesting sites for birds.