Monday 5th July 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on speaking so eloquently on behalf of the petitioners. A remarkable number of people signed the petition, started by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. That shows how much people in the UK really care about hedgehogs and protecting the nature around us. As I went to the Library to print out my speech, I was accosted by one of the staff who found out it was about hedgehogs; she insisted on showing me a photograph of the hedgehogs in her garden.

The issue is everywhere. In fact, the hedgehog has been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys over the years. As we heard, since 2000 hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and by a third in urban ones. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the main reasons for the decline are the destruction of their shelters and habitats, increased levels of traffic, poorly planned roads and the use of pesticides. Those are all things that we can and should work to prevent. The hedgehog has been listed as vulnerable to extinction in the UK, conceivably within the next decade if nothing is done to reverse the decline.

I recently visited Sandra Lowe, who lives in Woodside in my constituency. Sandra operates a hedgehog rescue called Hope for Hedgehogs. When people bring hedgehogs to her, she works tirelessly to ensure that they are properly treated. She works with local vets to ensure they get the right medication and does everything that she can to keep them. For the little ones, that involves getting up three times during the night to feed them the appropriate food. It certainly is a labour of love, and thankfully there are people who will help her with that. Sandra funds the endeavour entirely by herself, and she says it costs around £50 for each hedgehog to be treated and released. The organisation is entirely self-funded, which is why I am supporting her efforts to obtain funding to create a hog hospital, so that she can treat hedgehogs properly.

A lot of people, such as Sandra, are doing amazing work to help protect hedgehogs, but it is not enough to rely on the work of volunteers. The Government must commit to protecting our wildlife. Most of all, we know that Sandra and all the other volunteers want to see the prevention of injury, damage and deaths of hedgehogs as the priority. That is the important thing. Real consideration for nature and wildlife must be at the core of our planning decisions and many other decisions.

I and many others, including the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, are concerned by the proposed changes to the status of many of our widespread species in the United Kingdom, including hedgehogs. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee review will provide recommendations to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As far as I understand it from Sandra and others, the upcoming review seeks to change the eligibility criteria of the hedgehog, currently listed on schedule 6, if that is the recommendation. Sandra tells me the review proposes that statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. That is clearly too low a bar to set, and I hope the Government will be much more ambitious. The effect of the proposed changes could be that rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition, their current lower level of protection could be removed. Sandra tells me that she has concerns about the impact of the quinquennial review, so I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me and Sandra that there will be increased protection and no diminution of it.

The Government’s national planning policy framework has a chapter on conserving and enhancing the natural environment. It opens by setting out how planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment. Priority species are defined in the NPPF as those included in England’s biodiversity list, which is published by the Secretary of State under section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. As I have set out, the list currently includes hedgehogs.

With some narrow exemptions, the Environment Bill of 2021-22 contains provisions intended to make it mandatory for housing and development to achieve at least a 10% net gain in value for biodiversity, and a requirement that habitats for wildlife must be left in a measurably better state than before the development. Many of us know that although we can see the words on the page when it comes to planning policy guidance, we need to see the impact on the ground. We are seeing too many hedgerows lost as well as other biodiversity losses, even now. In today’s debate, we are calling on the Government to increase the protection offered to the hedgehog under the Wildlife and Countryside Act by moving it to schedule 5 as a first step in helping to protect our precious wildlife.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Just to let Members know, I intend for the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister to start winding up at no later than 5.40 pm. Given the great deal of interest and the number of speakers, please keep your contributions to around four and a half minutes, which will ensure that everybody gets in. I ask for your indulgence in that.

--- Later in debate ---
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I hear what my right hon. Friend says. We have discussed this at length, and I thank him for that. As I have said previously, it is a priority for us to provide the legislative protections and policy interventions needed for our wildlife, including of course declines in hedgehogs. I am determined that we will get this right, and my right hon. Friend will know that we have recently announced a Green Paper towards that ambition. My Department will begin a review of species legislation, with a view to enhancing and modernising it, and we intend to publish the Green Paper and seek views later in the year. I absolutely agree that we need a better approach to addressing threats to a range of species, and that is what the Green Paper will focus on.

Furthermore, the Environment Bill will strengthen our commitment to such species as hedgehogs. We have amended it to require a new, holistic, legally binding target to be set for species abundance by 2030. The aim of that is to halt the decline in nature. That is a really strong commitment, the like of which we have never seen before. It demonstrates that the Government are determined that we will get this right. Indeed, we have to get it right, and I agree with various Members who have spoken, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who was very forceful. The matter is urgent and we need to get on with it.

We are taking action through a range of measures that I honestly believe will help. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet referred to the net gain provisions in the Bill, which will mean that every single new development will have to put back 10% more nature than was there at the start. I know that many developers will put back more than that, and that will help hedgehog habitats. Through the Bill, we are also introducing local nature recovery strategies, which have been referred to. Those will help to identify local biodiversity priorities in order to improve the co-ordination of the whole conservation effort, but at scale, and they will be beneficial to species such as hedgehogs.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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On paper, all these things are great, but it is essential that we have the resources to enforce the requirements, which need to be very specific. Too many times we have seen hedgerows ripped out, even where there is supposed to be protection. How will the Minister ensure that the requirements are effective?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank the hon. Lady for that, but one cannot rip hedgerows out now. We have a portfolio—a toolbox—of measures that will combine to improve our nature and put back our declining species. The local nature recovery strategies are key to that and will be used on the ground by local authorities. That will give them the opportunity to determine—it is like a mapping system—what they want where, where there is good nature, where it could be better or where they would rather just focus on industry. All of those things will build together, and local authorities will be able to make hedgehogs a priority if they so wish. I am confident that we have a very good framework in the Environment Bill.

We also have our new Agriculture Act 2020, and we have left the common agricultural policy. We now have schemes to ensure that our land use will deliver environmental benefits—through the sustainable farming incentive, the local nature recovery scheme and our much bigger landscape recovery scheme, which will link whole areas and potentially have the corridors that our wildlife needs to move about. Those schemes—sustainable farming, in particular—will be able to create and preserve woodlands, heathlands, species-rich grassland and a range of habitats that will benefit hedgehogs, in particular.

Serious points were made about planning. DEFRA is in close consultation with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, particularly on the issue of sustainable development. Hedgehog highways, swift boxes, ponds and all of the things that we are flagging really need to go into our future developments, together with sustainable urban drainage and all of the things that affect our water quality and flooding. It should all knit together.

There is obviously huge interest in hedgehog protection. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate and made such very strong cases.