Bird Nesting Sites: Protection DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Mike HillMain Page: Mike Hill (Labour) - Hartlepool)
(1 year, 4 months ago)Westminster Hall
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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 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 is 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 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 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.
Break in Debate
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 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.
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.
Break in Debate
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”.