Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

Mike Hill Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab) - Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:30 p.m.

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.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab) Hansard

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
13 May 2019, 4:34 p.m.

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 (North Norfolk) (LD) Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:35 p.m.

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
13 May 2019, 4:36 p.m.

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.”

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con) - Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:37 p.m.

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
13 May 2019, 4:38 p.m.

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.”

Jenny Chapman Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:38 p.m.

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
13 May 2019, 4:39 p.m.

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.”

Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con) Hansard

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.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con) - Hansard
13 May 2019, 4:44 p.m.

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

Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Con) Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:10 p.m.

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.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:14 p.m.

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 Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:15 p.m.

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

Mrs Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:43 p.m.

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”.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
13 May 2019, 5:47 p.m.

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.

Resolved,

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

Sitting adjourned.