Theresa Villiers Excerpts
Monday 5th July 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank all the people who signed the petition.

From the emails that I received from constituents about the debate, I was deeply worried to learn of the disastrous decline in hedgehog numbers. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) have referred to the numbers: we have lost half of all hedgehogs in rural areas, and a third in urban ones. As we have heard, this much-loved animal has recently been added to the IUCN red list and designated as vulnerable, with an appreciable risk of extinction within 10 years. There is a need for urgent action, and I want to press the Minister to enhance protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition.

Planning rules need to be changed to require the presence of hedgehogs to be taken into consideration when deciding whether to grant permission for development. Will the Minister also provide reassurance that the quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act will not lead to any weakening of protections? Most important of all, I urge the Government to include hedgehog habitats in their extensive programme of nature recovery. There can be no doubt that decline in habitats is a key driver in the loss of hedgehogs. We need the biodiversity net gain provisions of the Environment Bill to be implemented so that a new income stream is created for protecting wildlife habitats, and I want to see councils also encouraged to include hedgehog recovery strategies in their local nature recovery strategies, which the Bill will require them to establish.

Of course, I note the efforts by Natural England and DEFRA to create a national nature recovery network, which is a further, crucial opportunity to alleviate the pressure on the vulnerable creatures that we are debating today. Connected wildlife corridors can make a huge difference to the recovery of the species. I hope the voice of today’s petitioners will be heard by Ministers, particularly as they design and implement this country’s new system of farm support. There can be little doubt that some modern farming practices have made survival more difficult for this country’s favourite prickly mammal. The environmental land management schemes, which will replace the European Union’s common agricultural policy, should aim to secure and restore hedgerows and habitats to give our hedgehogs a bit of a Brexit dividend.

As we have heard, in 1566 this Parliament put a bounty on hedgehogs, which apparently led to the death of as many as 2 million in the period up to 1800. I really hope that today’s debate has a much more positive outcome. The Government have a stronger commitment to nature recovery than any of their predecessors ever before. When they set what I hope will be a really ambitious 2030 target for species conservation, I urge them to ensure that a thriving hedgehog population is included in that as a very important goal.

--- Later in debate ---
Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Twigg—I do not think that I have had the pleasure before, so it is very nice to see you in the Chair. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see all hon. Members and Friends here for this debate.

First of all, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the debate and for making a very clear case, as he always does in these petition debates. He referred to the debate in 2015, and I think a number of hon. Friends and Members were probably at that debate. I do not know if you were there, Mr Twigg, but I must say that it was one of the best debates I have ever attended in Parliament—and it was about hedgehogs. It was responded to by my then right hon. Friend for Penrith and The Border, and it has stayed in my mind.

Today’s debate has demonstrated, with the number of speakers we have had and the number of people who have signed the petition, just how heartfelt this whole issue of hedgehogs is—they are wonderful creatures. We have had wonderful references to all sorts of hedgehog charities and organisations, and I thank them all. We had Hessle Hog House, Hedgehog Street, the Wildlife Aid Foundation and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, which arranged the petition and does so much good work. It is based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who could not be here today but wanted to ensure that we thanked it for all the work it does in his constituency. We have also had Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, and we must not forget Horace the film buff hedgehog—I am sorry that he is outdoing my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) when it comes to his other debates, but that just goes to show the strength of feeling.

This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that our native species thrive, as we take action to address the declines that we are all so sad about. We—and I as the Minister—are deeply concerned about the findings of the red list for British mammals, published in 2020 by the Mammal Society, which has classed hedgehogs as vulnerable.

I am a great fan of hedgehogs, not least from reading all my children Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the amazing Beatrix Potter book. As a Back Bencher, I worked with others, and we secured a reference in the national planning policy framework for hedgehog highways—that reference is in there now. Only today, I made a speech on green infrastructure to the Town and Country Planning Association, and I referenced hedgehog highways again.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers
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I warmly congratulate the Minister on that success. Now she has a real opportunity in her current role, because she will be signing off on environmental land management schemes. A good, simple scheme to promote hedgerows is great for farmers and even better for hedgehogs. I hope that we will see that in the ELM scheme.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank my right hon. Friend very much for that intervention; she is obviously passionate about this issue and indeed worked in the Department. I am sure she knows that we have just announced the details of our sustainable farming initiative and the ELM scheme is very much about habitats, bringing nature back and being able to produce food sustainably, and there will be an emphasis on wildlife corridors and particularly river corridors. All these things will benefit our native wildlife and particularly hedgehogs. So my right hon. Friend is right, and I shall be taking advantage of the opportunity; indeed, I have been speaking up for hedgehogs.

I must mention West Hatch Animal Centre, which is just over the hill from where I live. It does absolutely brilliant work when hedgehogs are orphaned. I have been up there, and the centre has all these baby hedgehogs that are underweight and cannot get through the winter. The centre takes them on and literally drip-feeds them with pipettes to keep them alive. I was then very honoured that my garden was vetted and was deemed acceptable—I garden for wildlife—to receive some of these, now fattened-up, hedgehogs. I had some released in my garden. I was in Parliament one day, and the centre said, “You have to have a hedgehog house.” I thought, “What is that?” So I googled, “What is a hedgehog house?” I then had to build one in order to receive a hedgehog, which we duly did.