Biodiversity Loss

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Wednesday 15th May 2024

(1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this important debate. While I think opinion is shifting, it is often forgotten that we face a twin climate and nature emergency. This debate is an important reminder that we cannot tackle one without tackling the other.

I pay tribute to the Rivelin Valley Conservation Group, which I had the privilege of visiting last Friday to see its work to establish a baseline in that river. The Rivelin valley is a beautiful part of Sheffield, and those volunteers are playing a vital role in monitoring the health and biodiversity of the river, which is unfortunately blighted by a number of storm sewage overflows, although it is the healthiest river in Sheffield, which shows how far we have to go to protect our incredibly important rivers.

Citizen science like that is a testament to the value that my community and communities across the country place on the preservation and conservation of the environment and the restoration of nature, but these efforts are not being matched by the Government. As other Members have said, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with one in six species at risk of extinction. When they are gone, they are truly gone—yet the Office for Environmental Protection tells us that the Government are not on track to deliver the nature recovery that we so desperately need.

One of the key issues on which the Government are failing is land management. My constituency opens out into the Peak district and several peatland habitats. Peatlands have been called Britain’s rainforests, with landscapes covering 15% of the UK. Healthy peatlands are rare, fragile ecosystems that are home to an abundance of wildlife. As a species champion for the hen harrier, I could talk about raptor persecution for my whole speech, but I want to focus on the importance of landscapes. They are also carbon sinks, storing more carbon than all the forests in the UK, France and Germany put together. Damaged peatlands release carbon into the atmosphere and water, emitting the same amount annually as the UK’s entire aviation industry and deepening the climate emergencies.

Colleagues may know that I have been campaigning to prevent heather burning on peatlands, as the fires damage the peat and burn the moss that grows on top. The moss is really important not only for nature, but in preventing floods and helping with natural flood mitigation. Rather than burning, we need to re-wet and restore our peatland ecologies so that they can thrive.

It is important to recognise that more needs to be done to produce Britain’s national biodiversity strategy and action plan. I hope that that will happen and put on track the Government’s commitment to 30 by 30, but we need more than pledges; we need concrete plans and action. That is why I am a firm supporter of the Climate and Nature Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), which builds on the Climate and Ecology Bill that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and I tabled. I hope the Government will take it seriously. If I had more time I would continue, but I will stop there.

Draft Veterinary Medicines (Amendment etc.) Regulations 2024

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd April 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

General Committees
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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I admire the ambition in the Minister’s statement, but does he share my view that antifungal resistance is not taken seriously enough in this country and that more could be done on prevention, especially in relation to agents that help to get rid of fungal infections, which are dangerous to animal and human health? It is just as serious an issue as antibiotic resistance.

Mark Spencer Portrait Sir Mark Spencer
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The hon. Lady is right to highlight that point. We pay a lot of attention to antimicrobial resistance, but she is right to say that we do not always take antifungal resistance as seriously. We need to be aware that nature has the ability to mutate and change, and we need to meet the challenges head on. That is why the regulatory regime is so important: to prevent the overuse of some of these treatments, which could lead to resistance forming.

Making changes to farm infrastructure and practices takes time. The changes that we are making will allow for that, while putting trust in our farmers, who have voluntarily reduced their antibiotic use by 59% since 2014.

Finally, the draft regulations will update the fees for the regulatory services provided under the 2013 regulations, in line with the cost recovery principles in the “Managing Public Money” guidelines. They will allow us to continue the effective regulation of the veterinary medicines sector, protecting animal health, human health and the environment. I commend them to the Committee.

Heather Burning on Peatlands

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regulation of heather burning on peatlands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts.

On 9 October last year, smoke, ash and air pollution engulfed the Sheffield, Hallam constituency and beyond. A great many people contacted me on that day and afterwards to complain about the air quality, which was four times over the legal limit for air pollution. It was a relatively still day, so the smoke took a while to dissipate, and the unique topography of my constituency meant that constituents were very much affected. Constituents contacted me to say that they had trouble breathing and that it caused coughing and eye irritation. It was particularly distressing for members of my community with respiratory conditions.

The reason for the smoke was heather burning on the moorlands to the west of Sheffield. Natural England, which is investigating the burns, tells me that

“the moorland estates located within SSSIs close to Sheffield usually have Agri-Environment Higher Level Stewardship agreements that contain burning plans.”

I will not comment on the specifics of last year’s burn, because we do not know whether it was legal, but it is entirely possible that it was legal, despite the rocketing pollution levels and the damaging effects on my community.

I started with that anecdote because the fact is that this could be perfectly lawful behaviour, which highlights some of the problems with the current regulations. Burns such as these are a regular occurrence in my constituency, often with similar, if not quite so dramatic, effects. The immediate impact on air quality is obvious, but the burning also undermines our ability to address the twin climate and nature crises facing us by damaging the precious blanket peat bog habitats that would otherwise exist.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this issue forward. She and I agree on the importance of this subject, although we might have slightly different opinions about what is happening. Does the hon. Lady agree—I think she does, but I want to have it on the record—that those who own or manage the moors try to manage them in an environmentally sensitive way? As such, the burning of the moors is part of what happens for the purpose of shooting on the moors, as the hon. Lady will know. Burning helps to regenerate the moors for the next season and increases bird yields. Does the hon. Lady agree that we must recognise all the different factors that are important for moors? Has there been any engagement with those who manage or own the moors to find a way to do this that does not, by its very nature, cause any inconvenience to others?

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
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That is a good point. Yes, I have been out to various moorland owners in my constituency and beyond to see regenerative projects—for example, planting sphagnum moss plugs and other things that people are doing to try to improve the quality of the moors—but I still think that further Government intervention is needed. The immediate impact of burning is obvious, but the long-term impact should concern us all. As I was about to say, we have to make sure that we take into consideration the climate and nature crises as well as the health implications of burning, which is damaging our precious blanket bogs.

The peatlands are so important. We have 13% of the Earth’s blanket peat bogs in the UK, which is the largest proportion in the world. They are essentially our rainforests, and I am proud to represent a constituency that includes some of that landscape. Unfortunately, as I have seen at first hand, the vast proportion of our peatland is degraded. It is hard to see the difference between a degraded peatland and one in good health, because there is damage to so much of our peatland, and part of that is due to the burning.

Burning not only damages the ecosystem that supports an abundance of wildlife, but is bad for the climate. In the natural and rewetted state, peatlands have the potential to store carbon dioxide on a large scale and can be a vital asset for helping us decarbonise our country, but when they are degraded, they do the exact opposite. Nationally, the damage means that our peatlands emit the equivalent CO2 of 140,000 cars per year; the burns themselves release 260,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. The burning also makes the effects of the climate crisis worse, because when the heather is burnt, the fire kills off the spongy sphagnum moss underneath that acts as a natural barrier to rain run-off. One expert described the moss to me as a Persian carpet—it is very absorbent; you can squeeze it, and if you jump up and down on a healthy bog, someone 20 metres away will be able to feel the vibration because of the water held in the moss. It is very rare to find that in the UK now.

Losing the moss means that we often see down-valley flooding, which will become more and more likely if that environment is not protected and restored. If we want to slow the flow, a good place to start would be by maintaining the sphagnum moss and making sure that it is in good condition to do the job that it has evolved to do. Global heating means that our winters are getting wetter, and we are already beginning to see the effects in floods up and down the country. Rather than destroying natural flood defences, we need to protect them to ensure that we mitigate the worst effects of the climate emergency.

Some say that we need burning to control fuel loads on the moors, and that without it overgrown heather would cause wildfires, but the more heather is burned, the more it grows and the more we are locked into a cycle of burning. Is it not better to break that cycle by restoring the moorland monoculture back to its former health, rewetting the peat and reintroducing the more vibrant biodiversity that was there before the burns, and, in fact, before the draining of many of our peatlands?

That is why I was pleased, in 2020, when the Government announced that they would introduce stronger regulations to control the burns. In fact, the current licensing regime was introduced shortly after a similar debate to this that I was lucky enough to secure, in which the Minister told me that the old system was clearly

“not protecting every blanket bog site.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 216WH.]

However, the details of the 2021 regulations left a lot to be desired. Licensing is required only on peatland of a depth of 40 cm or more, and we do not have an agreed national map of that. The Wildlife and Countryside Link estimates that the current law therefore leaves about 60% of UK peatlands without any protection.

Three years on, it is useful to take stock of whether the new regulatory regime is working for the peatlands that it does include. Unfortunately, data from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggests that it is not. We are halfway through this burning season, so we do not have the full figures for this year, but during 2022-23, 260 records of burning in the English uplands were reported to the RSPB via its dedicated app, of which 87% took place in special areas of conservation and special protected areas. The RSPB believes that 72, or 28%, of the 260 burns reported to itmay have breached the regulations by taking place on protected areas of peat over 40 cm in depth. The year before, the RSPB received 272 reports: one in three burns took place on peat likely to be deeper than 25 cm, and four out of five took place in SSSIs, special protected areas and special areas of conservation. Although the Government issued no licences for burns in 2021, 70 reported burns took place on peat likely to be deeper than 40 cm in protected sites, violating the regulations. In the last two years, without considering the current season, it is therefore likely that at least 142 burns were illegal.

In 2023, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs successfully prosecuted two estate owners and issued a warning to a third, but that is only three cases. The level of enforcement action is not anywhere near the level of potential law breaking. The figures show that the new system is clearly not working and that the law needs to go much further to stop this damaging practice, rather than continue the partial prohibition we have seen. It is high time that there is an outright ban.

I raised this issue in the Chamber with the previous Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I am sorry to say that she told me not only that she was not considering a ban, but that my constituents should be happy with the air quality they have. I hope that new leadership in the Department will produce a less disappointing and dismissive response, because it is important to get this issue right. Unfortunately, the Government are not getting it right or rising to the level of ambition required.

The latest Climate Change Committee progress report on reducing UK emissions says that restoration of peatlands is already significantly off track compared with the CCC’s balanced pathway. In 2022-23, the overall amount of UK peatlands restored was a measly 12,700 hectares. Although that is an increase on the previous year, to meet next year’s target of 29,000 hectares will require more than a doubling of the current rate. Even if the Government match that target, the CCC recommends a UK-wide rate of 67,000 hectares per year by 2025.

I know the Minister will point me to the Government’s England peat action plan, but the truth is we are not meeting the targets that we need to. We see a failure of delivery of Government policy on peatlands and, even worse, a failure of ambition. That needs to change, and change urgently. It is has been a pleasure to go out on the moors in my constituency and elsewhere in the country to see projects dedicated to rewetting and restoring peatlands. Instead of burning, we need more projects such as those, and for other degraded habitats, supported by concerted Government-led strategy to reverse the decline in nature.

The Minister lives very close to where I grew up. I recently went for a walk with the family and I tried to show them some healthy sphagnum moss on the moorlands in his constituency. It was very difficult to find some in good condition, to show what I was talking about. That shows a wider issue than in my own constituency, where we do have a lot of burning. We know that the degradation of peatlands is of great importance to communities up and down the country.

Heather burning is bad for the environment, bad for the climate crisis and, as the recent burns in my constituency have graphically illustrated, bad for the health of people in Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam in particular. I hope the Minister will consider a complete ban on burns and offer a comprehensive, joined-up plan to restore these habitats. I am proud to say that I have the support of our Mayor, Oliver Coppard, and the leader of Sheffield City Council, Tom Hunt, who have both been outspoken on their wish to see a further ban.

We have been trying to contact certain landowners about this practice, to ensure we have a way to deal with the needs of peatland owners while balancing them against those of local communities. Where air pollution levels are breached, it is important that local authorities have the powers to stop that happening, to protect people’s health and the environment in the uplands, which is so important for those who live downstream.

Robbie Moore Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Robbie Moore)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing this important debate, and giving me the opportunity to respond to some of the points that have been made.

The United Kingdom boasts some of the world’s most extensive peatlands, with nearly 3 million hectares of peatland area. That precious habitat is of huge national importance, which the hon. Member rightly identifies. Those precious habitats are vital as we protect those sites for future generations. The Government’s commitment to the protection and restoration of those habitats achieves several environmental benefits, including cutting carbon emissions, optimising biodiversity, minimising wildlife hazards and improving water and air quality.

I will dive straight into the regulations to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam referred. On 16 February 2021, the Government published the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 to protect blanket bog habitats in England. The regulations came into force in May of that year and were introduced to prevent burning on areas of peat of over 40 cm deep on sites of special scientific interest—SSSIs—or on special protection and conservation areas, except under licence.

The regulations were seen as a game changer in protecting peat bog areas. They limited the practice of burning on protected blanket bog, except when a licence has been granted for reasons such as wildfire mitigation or supporting peatland restoration. The regulations are a crucial step forward in meeting the Government’s nature and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, including the legally binding commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions. Data from the moorland change map suggests a decline in burning and cutting on moorland areas since the introduction of these regulations in 2021. DEFRA, supported by Natural England, has been swift to act on breaches of these regulations, and it secured two successful prosecutions last year. The low numbers of alleged offences and successful prosecutions show that compliance with the regulations is high and that stakeholders have been receptive.

However, burning can be the right tool in the mitigation and management of heather in certain circumstances. These regulations were designed to strike the right balance between protecting our habitats from harm and ensuring that our landowners and land managers have the right tools available to better protect, restore and manage heather moorland. We also need to be mindful of wildfire mitigation, human safety, conservation, and the management of our natural environment. Burning can be necessary if the specified vegetation cannot be managed through mechanical means of preventing heather growth, given the topography of the moorland. A range of measures, including burning, must be available, and the regulations give land managers the option to seek an exemption.

I want to go deeper into the regulations. They are a means to better enhance blanket bogs and to protect these valuable landscapes that we all care so deeply about. For an applicant to be granted a licence under the 2021 regulations, they must demonstrate that they have at least tried or considered alternative methods of land management and explain why measures other than burning are not possible. They must also set out how they intend to manage the land without burning in the future, and ideally facilitate peatland restoration.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
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May I ask the Minister how many licences have been granted? If it is truly an act of last resort, it would be interesting to know those figures, given that the number of burns on sites of special scientific interest and protected landscapes continues to be high, to determine whether the regulations are protecting and meeting the needs of those areas.

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The regulations relate specifically to SSSIs, with the additional protection measures that have been put in place. The majority of licence applications under the 2021 regulations are for the purpose of reducing the risk of wildfires. With regard to the specific detail, I am more than happy to write to the hon. Lady about the number of applications received, although not all are progressed to the grant of a licence. I am sure that she will agree that having the tools available to mitigate the risks is crucial to the protection of our landscape, habitat and communities. As she rightly pointed out, I live in a constituency with moorland, where there was a fire several years ago right up to the boundaries of Ilkley, so I know that it is important that all means of managing habitat are available.

DEFRA funds a training programme designed to consolidate knowledge, skills and understanding of vegetation fires, including wildfire incidence and prescribed fire operations. The aim is to support landowners and land managers to manage their land in a way that reduces the risk from wildfire, with the expectation that that will reduce the need to burn for such a purpose. Since the development of the 2021 regulations, more than 1,000 Lantra-accredited training modules have been completed by public and private land managers.

Restoring peatlands to a favourable condition will go a long way towards reducing the need to burn heather on land, as healthy blanket bogs pose a much lower risk of wildfire because they are wetter and have a lower fuel load. We must not forget, however—this is important—that all options are available for a land manager to explore. When heather continues to grow for many years, it comprises a heavy, woody stock, which poses its own fire risk. Therefore, with a specified burning management plan associated with many agri-environmental stewardship agreements granted via Natural England, it is important not only that those plans are adhered to, but that the relationship between Natural England and the land manager has been established, so that we can manage our peatlands as successfully as we can to reduce the risks of wildfire.

We are ramping up levels of peatland restoration through the nature for climate fund, which provides funding for the restoration of at least 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025. A restoration grant scheme delivered by Natural England has committed financially to restoring approximately 27,000 hectares of peatland. In addition, restoration is being delivered through countryside stewardship and other Government schemes. DEFRA has also committed, through the third national adaptation programme published in July 2023, to keep the case for extending protections against burning on peat under review.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, referred to flooding and peat restoration partnerships. Such partnerships have proved highly effective, and they are an example of stakeholders working together to restore peatland. In the north of England alone, almost 45,000 acres of moorland have been repaired and re-vegetated. I am aware that in the North Pennines area of outstanding national beauty, work to block agricultural grains through an agri-environmental stewardship scheme and a land manager working closely with Natural England has resulted in the North Pennines AONB peatland programme being awarded a climate change award at the County Durham environmental awards in 2015.

A Natural England evidence review of the effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water concluded that no evidence had been identified relating specifically to the risk of burning for watercourse flow or downstream flood events. I therefore highlight that while Natural England has carried out that review, continued monitoring will take place.

I must also pick up on the visit of the hon. Lady to my constituency. I am not sure which moor she walked across, but if it was Ilkley moor—

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
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indicated assent.

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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The hon. Lady is nodding, but she might or might not be aware that Ilkley moor is owned by the local authority, Bradford Council, and that no burning has taken place for a significant number of years. The fact that she could not find any sphagnum moss on a moor that has had no burning for a significant period of time does not help the case that she is making. In my constituency, I have visited Keighley moor—it is not owned by Bradford Council but it has a management programme in place—and seen an abundance of sphagnum moss there, which is managed by various means.

On the points that the hon. Lady made specifically regarding her constituency, she will be aware of Sheffield City Council’s work to promote sustainable land management in the Peak district to reduce burning, with the aim of improving air quality in those areas. Poor air quality is the greatest environmental threat to human health, as we all agree, and the Government recognise the need to drive down air pollution and its impacts on human health and the environment. That is why we have set up two stretching new targets for fine particulate matter—the pollutant most harmful to human health—under the Environment Act 2021. Our dual target approach will ensure reductions where concentrations are highest, as well as reducing average exposure across the country by over a third by 2040 compared with 2018, making a significant contribution to improving public health.

We need to drive down emissions across all sectors to achieve our targets, and we have set out the comprehensive and wide-ranging action that we are taking to clean up our air in the environmental improvement plan, which came into effect last year. That includes improving our regulatory framework for industry to drive innovation and tackle our air quality and net zero goals hand in hand. The continued support to local authorities, including through our £883-million nitrogen dioxide programme, will certainly help with that. That has included funding for the hon. Lady’s constituency to support the delivery of the Sheffield clean air zone and other measures to tackle NO2 exceedances.

I recognise that the impacts of moorland burning on air quality are a concern to the hon. Lady, and for that reason she has brought this debate to the House, but I want to reiterate that moorland management has to consider all options, and the regulations that we brought in in 2021 have been well received by many stakeholders who engaged with that process. I think that we have reached a balance that can be well received by all. I want to allow the hon. Lady a chance to respond—

Oral Answers to Questions

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Thursday 19th October 2023

(8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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I decided not to proceed with glass in the DRS because of the complications that would bring to its introduction; I would have thought his local company would benefit from that. However, I know that the chief executive recently had a constructive and useful meeting with the recycling Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who will take away the comments from that for further consideration as we finalise our policy.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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T2. I have received a host of emails from constituents, many with respiratory problems, who are rightly complaining about poor air quality. The smoke in the air was caused by heather burning on the moors, which resulted in a spike in poor air quality to levels that were four times the legal limit. Will the Government finally do the right thing and bring in an outright ban on these practices, which are affecting not only my constituents’ health, but the natural environment and the climate?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady will be aware of the action that has been taken—that Ministers required Sheffield City Council to take—to accelerate measures to improve air quality. On the wider measures that she talks about, we are not seeking to ban important practices, but of course things continue to evolve. Air quality is improving and she should be grateful not only to her local councils but to the Government for making that happen in her constituency.

Open Season for Woodcock

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Monday 27th February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I thank the Petitions Committee for this debate and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for outlining the arguments around this issue so eloquently. Those who regularly attend debates on nature and the climate emergency will know that, like many in my constituency, I am a great supporter of our environment and protecting species in decline. Although I am a biomedical scientist, I am intrigued and fascinated by all life, and recognise the value that our natural world offers in so many ways.

We are here to talk about woodcock. I am here to lend my support to the petition, which 370 of my constituents signed. I thank the campaigners, including Wild Justice and others, for raising awareness of the issue and helping to bring this matter forward for debate. While the migratory population of woodcock is not declining, the native population has reduced by a horrifying 19% in the last 10 years, and by 29% since the 1970s. We should see those figures in the context of the large-scale species decline that is characterising the twin nature and climate emergencies. Last year, Living Planet reported that global animal populations experienced an average decline of nearly 70% in the last 50 years. The woodcock in the UK is clearly at the sharp end of that global trend and, as the “State of Nature Report 2019” highlights, 41% of species in the UK have reduced in number since the 1970s. Since the year 1500, 133 species have vanished altogether. We should be doing all we can to ensure the woodcock does not join them.

That means taking measures such as moving the open season for woodcock to December to reduce the number of native birds that are shot, as outlined in the petition. It also means proactive approaches and measures to protect and extend the habitats that support the species. As the name suggests, the woodcock inhabits woodland, so it is vital that we do all we can to revitalise these habits. By the end of this Parliament, the Government have set themselves a target of planting 30,000 hectares of woodland per year. In 2021, they managed to plant 13,400 trees. Last year, that number grew by only 400 trees to 13,800. If the current trend continues, we will obviously not reach the target. I ask the Minister: what are the Government doing to increase that figure so that they meet their target?

To meet the target, we will need to increase capacity in our domestic nurseries, but capacity and tree-planting expertise has reduced in the UK. What are the Government doing not only to support and grow domestic tree nurseries, but to ensure that we have the skills and expertise to staff them? Although we are debating nature, the reduction in woodcock numbers and species across the UK and the globe are not natural. To reverse the decline, we need changes in regulation and the law, but we also need investment in green infrastructure in the UK. In the case of the woodcock, that is needed, especially in our woodlands. Part of the measure of our success in revitalising these habitats will be in the return of the species. In 10 years’ time, I hope that we will look back and see a huge growth in our domestic woodcock population but, for that to happen, we will need measures such as those outlined in the petition and serious investment in the necessary skills and infrastructure to protect and grow our woodland. That is what we need from Government.

Snares

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Monday 9th January 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Vickers. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for opening the debate in a measured way. Some 267 of my constituents signed the petition, which shows the huge love of nature and animals there is in my constituency.

Snares are indiscriminate, yet universally cruel. What is clear is that the non-statutory code is simply not enough to protect animals from painful injuries, suffering and death. As we have heard, that includes protected animals, such as badgers, and even cats and dogs. DEFRA’s own research shows that 68% of animals caught are not the intended target species. Under the code, snares should be checked twice, but the law only requires them to be checked once every 24 hours. It is hard to comprehend the volume of snares, given that 1.7 million are set every year. We have heard from other Members about the huge and lasting impact that snares can have on the wellbeing on animals, such as capture myopathy, panic immobility, thirst, starvation, dehydration and many more.

We know that snare users have admitted that non-target species have been caught in their snares. For example, DEFRA research from 2008 to 2010 showed that 60% of people using fox snares admitted that they had captured non-target species in them. Landowners who do not use snares do not want to go back to their use. There are many landowners, of many hundreds of thousands of hectares up and down the country, who no longer use snares, and will not use snares, because they view them as incredibly cruel.

We know that cats and dogs organisations are unified in their opposition to the use of snares because, within three years, 97 cats and 31 dogs were caught in snares. I am a dog owner—I have a dog necklace on today—and I would be horrified if, out in the countryside, my dog was unfortunate enough to step in a snare and be injured. I do not think that anyone should have to go through that.

Break-away snares, as we have heard in the debate, have been seen as almost an answer to this situation. However, 69% of badgers do not escape from those snares, so they are not a solution; they are not even 50% good at what they are saying they are good at. The National Anti Snaring Campaign commissioned TTI Testing to do tests on those snares; it found that a force of over 70 kg of weight would be needed on a 2 mm wide area of the snare to cause a break. That is a huge amount of force that would need to be exerted on a snare. If you have ever seen an animal in a bad situation, Mr Vickers, you will know that they are not directionally pulling; the forces are very dynamic when they are struggling and they will not be able to get out of those snares. That is why 69% of badgers were unable to escape from them.

We have also heard a lot about the different impacts of predators, but we have had a 64% decline in rabbits and a 44% decline in foxes. Declines in nature species are incredibly complicated. We cannot just say, “This is down to predators.” We have seen paper after paper looking at habitat loss, agricultural practices and their impacts on insects and other things that bird species might eat, and the lack of different crops and changes in sowing, and the impact on nesting spaces within that. The impacts of all of those different elements cannot just be laid at the feet of foxes or rabbits. It is absolutely a falsehood. It is a false flag.

Predation, yes, is an issue, but there absolutely are alternatives to snaring to help protect species from predation, whether through trap and release, electric fencing, wire netting, motion sprinklers, ultrasonic devices or the use of radios and reflective surfaces. There are many different ways of putting predators off, and ensuring that we have a habitat and landscape available to lapwings and curlews is the most important thing in their protection.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Lady genuinely think that those deterrence methods would be suitable, and work, on the vast thousands of acres on the North Yorkshire Moors, where lapwings and curlews need to be protected?

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
- Hansard - -

We know the nesting areas of certain birds, and we already put signs up to say, “Keep your dogs on a lead” or “Do not go in this area,” and I think that, actually, yes, where snares are no longer used—on many hundreds of thousands of hectares—those alternatives have been used well. We are not seeing any of the organisations that have moved away from snares saying, “Actually, it hasn’t worked; we want to go back to using snares,” because those alternatives have proved effective. I think that that needs to be on the record in this debate. It is just a false flag to say that predation is the problem here. Loss of habitat, and the impacts that we have had on our environment, cannot be understated in this, as I have said.

I just think that we need to ban snares because they are cruel and indiscriminate, as I have said, and there is nothing about them that we could not think outside the box and find an alternative for. I think we all have enough ingenuity that cruelty does not have to be the first and only option in the way that we manage our landscape and protect the species that are special to us.

Support for Local Food Infrastructure

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Thursday 8th September 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate. As many people in this room are, I am passionate about food, particularly locally grown food. Our relationship with food, and how and when it can go wrong, is also important to me. I am very pleased to take part in this debate on food infrastructure because I think it is a critical point that is affecting many communities up and down the country.

I would like to commend the work of groups such as Regather, Our Cow Molly, which is a great dairy—the last dairy—in Sheffield, and the Sheffield Foodhall. They play a vital role in the local food infrastructure of my city.

Food prices, as we know, are spiralling. It is tempting to blame all of that on the war in Ukraine—Russia and Ukraine are obviously the largest producers of grain in the world—but the instability created by the war has only contributed to an existing problem. The Office for National Statistics figures for the retail prices index on food and catering were increasing way before the war—back in March last year.

One of the key drivers of rising food prices, and the volatility in prices, has been speculation on the international commodity markets. The UK imports just over half of its food, making it even more vulnerable to that volatility. The news that the pound has slumped to a 37-year low against the dollar will only increase the price of imported food, hitting people even harder in their pockets. Yesterday’s Financial Services and Markets Bill, which repeals the MiFID II regulations on commodity trading, will make that situation even worse.

The effects of that international context are writ large in statistics published by the Trussell Trust. Last year, it issued 2.2 million three-day emergency food parcels—an increase of 14% since the start of the pandemic, while, according to the Food Foundation, a shameful 13% of households are currently skipping meals. It is therefore vital that we are having this debate on local food infrastructure.

Building resilience to the chaos of international markets will need a concerted international effort to stop speculation—an effort that is currently missing from Government policy. It also means that building up capacity and food security at home has never been so important. A critical part of that must be supporting and expanding our local food infrastructure. We need investment to plug the gaps in local supply chains, to strengthen them, and to expand their capacity. We also need to fund advice and mentoring for farmers on business planning and sustainable farming methods, and, as the NFU has said, much more effort needs to go into encouraging public and private sector businesses to procure local food.

Our planning system also needs to change. It needs to encourage the diversification of food outlets and the growth of infrastructure supporting shorter supply chains, and it needs to safeguard the best land for agricultural use—it is pointless to waste nutrients if we can avoid it. We need to use shorter supply chains to build wealth in our communities. According to Sustain, every £10 spent on a local box scheme results in total spending of £25 in the local area, compared with just £14 when the same amount is spent in a supermarket. Changing food procurement guidelines and processes—making them more flexible to support local food suppliers—will be crucial for keeping money locally.

Most of all, however, we need a national strategy that joins up the action on the ground and that guarantees a right to food. During the pandemic I called for more support for people who were not getting access to food, and mutual aid and community organisations sprang up across the country, including Acorn, Voluntary Aid Sheffield and Sheffield Foodhall in my city. They delivered food to vulnerable people across the country, and the Government also stepped in to deliver food directly through local authorities. Just as Bevan saw in the Tredegar Medical Aid Society a blueprint for delivering universal healthcare, we should see in this network the beginnings of an infrastructure to deal with food insecurity. These community hubs should be formalised and given the backing and logistical support that they need to provide affordable food for people who need it. In this collective network, we can see the shape of a national service that would provide food for all and ensure that nobody went hungry. It needs only to have material and logistical support, and co-ordination from the state, and it must be integrated into existing local food infrastructure, which is waiting to be exploited.

A food system that leaves us vulnerable to chaos in world markets, or that results in more than one in 10 households skipping meals in one of the richest countries in the world, is not fit for purpose. The scale of the problems in the system must be matched by ambitions to build a new one. The seeds of the new way of doing things have been sown in the decentralised network of organisations, businesses and community groups that make up our local food infrastructure. We must nurture them and ensure that they grow into the local, democratic and sustainable food systems that we need and that many are crying out for.

Sewage Pollution

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Tuesday 6th September 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Department is also working on a new horticulture strategy, and I invite him to write with details of the particular watercress grower he refers to, to ensure that the challenges they face are properly reflected in the new strategy we are developing.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I did not realise that the Government’s plan for biodiversity net gain was simply to boost the level of E. coli and Campylobacter in our rivers and waterways. That is a serious point, because earlier this summer the chief medical officer, Ofwat and the Environment Agency set out that they have real concerns about the spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in our waterways, not just because of sewage from storm overflows, but because of normal sewage treatment works. What is the wait? Why have we been waiting 28 years to ban that outright?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady is wrong. The environment targets that we are currently consulting on will set ambitious targets to improve bathing water quality, addressing issues such as E. coli counts. She is also wrong to say that the issue of breaches of permits from water treatment works is not being addressed; it is being investigated right now at 2,200 facilities and, where appropriate, prosecutions will be brought.

Protecting and Restoring Nature: COP15 and Beyond

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Thursday 14th July 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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I am so glad to be called in this important debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for the debate, and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for opening it and getting the attention of the House.

As has been said, these are twin emergencies. We have a crisis in nature and a crisis in our climate. It is often forgotten that the two are intrinsically linked. We will not be able to play our part in keeping temperature rises below 1.5° C without a plan to restore the natural environment. This is also something that many constituents are concerned about, and there are some great projects up and down the country. In Sheffield, we have had our swift summit this year, which was sponsored by Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust. We have also had amazing opportunities for friends groups, one of which has been doing work—it is called climate work, but really it is nature work—in Whirlow Brook park. The friends group is doing a fantastic job to tackle the issue locally.

But the COP discussions are obviously global, and they are not a peripheral part of the climate diplomacy that we need to see. They are integral to co-ordinating global action to halt rising temperatures. That is why the Government’s failure to deliver the renewal and restoration of nature in the UK is so alarming. The fact that we are such a nature-depleted island is very concerning. I will not say that there has been a lack of action, because the Government have had plenty to announce. Doubtless the Minister will reel off a list of initiatives, strategy documents and pots of money in his response to the debate, but the stream of press releases seems to be driven more by the need to say something than the need to face up to the reality of the challenges ahead and do something.

It is not just me who thinks that. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee has said:

“Although there are countless Government policies and targets to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’, too often they are grandiose statements lacking teeth and devoid of effective delivery mechanisms.”

The Environmental Audit Committee has previously commented:

“There is no strategy indicating how new biodiversity policies will work together. Implementation of these policies could be piecemeal, conflicting, and of smaller scale as a result.”

The 2021 Climate Change Committee progress report agreed and said that the Government should

“Publish an overarching strategy that clearly outlines the relationships and interactions between the multiple action plans in development for the natural environment”.

The CCC’s verdict in 2021 was damning: the Government planted less than half of the trees and committed to restore less than half of the peatlands recommended. It is alarming that, after a whole year, the 2022 progress report reads so similarly. Peatland, woodland and hedgerow restoration are not the start and finish of nature restoration, but they are a significant part of lowering our national emissions. Since 2021, the Government have made little to no advance in meeting the targets they have set. In the case of peatland, they have actually enshrined into law regulations that leave huge swathes outside protections. Again, it is not me saying this; it is the CCC.

Despite pledging hundreds of millions for new trees, the Government have done nothing to address the skills shortages and the availability of training for new arborists, to ensure that we have the mix of trees we need and to increase the capacity of domestic tree nurseries so that we do not risk new diseases coming into the UK. Ministers even sat on their hands while the Wykeham nursery was closed.

It is shocking that, in its assessment of the Government’s policies and plans for agriculture and land use, the CCC can identify not one credible plan to abate emissions. It is a wasted opportunity that emissions have been flat in this area since 2008. We should be using the power of our natural environment to lock away carbon. A lot has been said about our rainforests, but in the UK the peatlands are our rainforests. Other countries would be thrilled to have that natural environment, and we are not valuing it. That means we need a proper plan to restore and protect all our peatlands. It means we need real action to increase tree canopy cover and renew our hedgerows, and it means protecting important water and marine habitats such as salt marshes and seagrass meadows. All these measures will reverse the decline in nature at the same time as developing natural carbon sinks to help us meet the challenge of the climate emergency.

I have one message for Ministers today. They cannot spin their way out of the nature and climate emergencies. A press release for a badly thought through pot of money or a strategy that is light on detail might give them something to say in a debate such as this, but sooner or later the rhetoric will meet reality. It is well past time Minsters started to deliver.

--- Later in debate ---
Steve Double Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Double)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling this debate to take place and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for the way she opened it. It is truly an honour to respond to this my first major debate in the Chamber since I took up this post. It has been great to see such widespread agreement across the House on the importance of COP15 ahead of the conference. This is a vital moment for nature around the world and a real call to action.

We are reaching the culmination of a three-year-long nature campaign, and we are not taking our foot off the pedal now. In fact, just last week my hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith was in Gabon discussing the actions needed to halt forest loss and seeing the remarkable work being doing in the Congo basin.

All the evidence shows us how rapidly nature is in decline. Between 1990 and 2015, we lost 290 million hectares of native forest cover globally. That is more than 10 times the size of the UK. Live coral cover of reefs has nearly halved in the past 150 years, with dramatically accelerated decline in the past 20 to 30 years, and a million species face extinction. We know that so many things are reliant on nature, from food to security, clean air to water, and our health and wellbeing to our very economies, so reversing these trends is vital.

That is why this Government have committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it in, and the good news is that we know we can turn things around. There is someone, somewhere in Government, who is leading the way on all the changes that we need to see. It is this innovation that we need to champion, and global platforms such as CBD give us the opportunity to share these ideas and build momentum behind them. This is a colossal challenge. Even as we confront the impacts of conflict and the ongoing effects of the pandemic, we know that we need to deliver an ambitious global biodiversity framework at CBD COP15 that will help us to bend the curve of biodiversity loss globally by 2030.

COP15 should, and indeed needs to be, the Paris moment for nature. If we can agree, and we must agree, an ambitious post-2020 global diversity framework in Montreal in December—with a clear mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss globally by 2030, including targets to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and at least 30% of global oceans by 2030, and to see ecosystems restored, species’ population sizes recovering and extinctions halted by 2050, with mechanisms to enable us to hold countries to account—then we will be in a strong position to make this the decade we put nature on the road to recovery. This is why the global biodiversity framework is so important, and we are leading from the front to ensure that we have the policies and finance in place so that this ambition is realised.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
- Hansard - -

Given the significance of COP15, will the Prime Minister—whoever that may be—be attending it on behalf of the UK?

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was going to come to that later, but I will respond to it now. I am sure the hon. Member would not expect me to be able to speak for whoever may win the election to be leader of our party and the next Prime Minister. However, I can assure her that I know that our party is committed to this issue, and that is not going to change suddenly. The Conservative party is very aware of its importance, and I am sure that, whoever takes over as Prime Minister in a few weeks’ time, we will continue to champion nature recovery globally and that there will be a senior level presence at COP15. I would not dare to say whether that will be the future Prime Minister, but I join her in saying that I would certainly like that to be the case.

Bees: Neonicotinoids

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Wednesday 2nd February 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on bringing forward this important debate and raising awareness about decisions that are being made in secret—that is the feeling of many of my constituents who have written to me about bees. We may be an urban constituency, but we have beehives on the Granville Road allotments and on Albert Road. We have delicious honey from Southfields, which I have every year.

There is interest in this debate across the country for many reasons. I am concerned about this decision—not only because of the immediate impact it will have on the environment, but because of the way it is being made and what that shows about the attitude towards the Environment Act 2021. I was on the Bill Committee, and the ink is only just dry on the Act, but it is already being set aside. I am also concerned by the attitude towards expert advice. We should be following the science, but this decision has not done that.

In terms of the use of neonicotinoids, I am concerned about the damage to bees and aquatic life and about the damage from the run-off. I am concerned that support for farmers has not been sufficiently taken into account, because it does exist. I am concerned about abandoning the precautionary principle, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members. It is absolutely fundamental to our environmental decision making, but if it is not even being put in place now, after we have passed the Environment Act, what will happen to it in the future? We need to reassert the precautionary approach.

The Government’s case rests on two justifications. First, it rests on the financial impact on sugar beet farmers, and I absolutely sympathise with and understand their situation at the moment. However, the latest contracts between growers and British Sugar include an insurance scheme to offset possible losses due to the occurrence of the virus yellows. That needs to be considered in the context of the case for need, because the impact of the financial loss to sugar beet farmers has been taken into consideration.

Secondly, I am sure the Minister and the Government will say that there is a very limited use for this insecticide, that it will not be used on flowering plants and that there will be restrictions on what can be grown in contaminated soil for 32 months. Although I welcome those restrictions, I think the Government should go further. The UK expert committee on pesticides considered exactly this question and concluded that the environmental risk—especially of run-off into water and back into animals and other flowering plants in surrounding areas—is too great. When it met on 21 September 2021, the committee concluded that the requirements for emergency authorisation had not been met and that it cannot support the recommendation.

The committee was specifically asked to look into the risk to honeybees and any other additional measures that could be implemented to mitigate that risk. Instead of saying that there was a very low impact on honeybees—which there was, directly—and that additional measures could be implemented to mitigate that risk, the committee said no, it could not recommend that the ban be lifted. It said:

“There is new evidence regarding the risk from neonicotinoids globally which adds to the weight of evidence of adverse impact on honeybee behaviour and demonstrated negative impacts on bee colonies…Further evidence has been published on the occurrence of thiamethoxam in honey and of adverse effects on other bee species, and these effects should be considered in addition to chronic effects on honeybees…None of the suggested mitigation measures”,

which I am sure the Minister will be laying out, and which I have been given in response to questions,

“protected off-crop areas and, if the authorisation is granted, further consideration needs to be given to how this could impact on growers involved in agri-environmental schemes which involved planting flowering margins.”

The committee’s conclusion was that it is

“unable to support an emergency authorisation under Article 53 of Regulation 1107/2009”

because of the reasons laid out by the Health and Safety Executive,

“the expected off-crop environmental effects and the impact of grower contract changes on the trigger threshold for use.”

It is absolutely unacceptable that the Government say they will take into account expert panels, set up an expert panel, have the panel met in good time—at the same time as we are hosting COP26 and passing the Environment Act, which has the precautionary impact built in—and then disregard it straightaway.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is making some excellent points and an impassioned speech. It is important that we clearly state that the science has been set out and the panel has been spoken to, but that the Government are being not only not cautious but reckless in their dismissal of the panel’s views.