Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 9:30 am on 4th February 2016.
What assessment the Government have made of the contribution of nature improvement areas to habitat creation and wildlife conservation.
The nature improvement area report has been overwhelmingly positive, which is quite a rare feature of monitoring reports of this kind. I pay particular tribute to the Wild Purbeck nature improvement area, where there has been an extraordinary combination of activities: saving the ladybird spider, which has included 3,000 volunteer hours, and involving schools through the forest school learning initiative. These are great, great projects.
I thank my hon. Friend for our hedgehog summit on Monday. What measures does he propose, along with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to increase the number of hedgehogs, which, as he knows, has declined by between 30% and 50% over the last 15 years?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has become a doughty champion of the hedgehog. The most important thing for hedgehogs, which are a much-loved species, is their habitat, and we are dealing with that by means of our hedgerow schemes, as well as the woodland planting schemes that the Secretary of State is promoting, which include the planting of 11 million more trees over the next five years. The real challenge for all of us, however, is to see hedgehogs in a suburban context, and, in particular, to consider the possibility of providing them with access and corridors through garden fences.
The 12 nature improvement areas were the right response to the Lawton report, but they were supposed to create 1,000 hectares of new woodland, 1,000 hectares of new chalk grassland, and more than 1,500 hectares of new wetland. How many hectares of each of those have actually been created?
I cannot give every one of those figures, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, the target for chalk grassland was 1,000 hectares, and a single project achieved 1,773 hectares.
That was a wonderfully precise answer, worthy of a boffin, although the hon. Gentleman is not a boffin; he is a distinguished Minister of the Crown.
I am proud to say that Northern Ireland has eight areas of outstanding natural beauty, 47 national nature reserves, 43 special areas of conservation, and 10 special protection areas. The charities—especially the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—are working very hard in campaigning for support for wildlife in urban areas. What discussions has the Minister had with his Northern Ireland counterpart about preserving the countryside and ensuring that housing does not expand further from urban areas into rural locations, often encroaching on the wealth of wildlife in those locations?
We work closely with our Northern Ireland counterparts. Some of these issues are of course devolved, but we would love to work more closely on issues such as these, and if there are opportunities to do that, I personally would be delighted to engage more closely.