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First, I should like to thank Jerome Mayhew for his contribution. I have had time since the election to make it my business to introduce myself to many of the new Members, and he and I have had a cup of tea together. The giveaway to his political history is in his name, and we had a good discussion about Northern Ireland, in which he has a deep interest. I know that for a fact, because he told me so. He also told me that he had been involved in political life from an early age. He said that he might not have known exactly what was going on, but he used to go out on the canvass trail with his father and other members of his family. It was really nice to hear his contribution, and I look forward to hearing many more from him. I wish him well in the House. I should also like to thank the hon. Members for Bosworth (Dr Evans), for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) and for Guildford (Angela Richardson) for their contributions. We have a wealth of talent in this House among the new intake, and we very much look forward to the contributions that they will make from both sides of the Chamber. We wish them well.
I want to talk about a subject that I asked the Leader of the House about last week—namely, invasive species. I am not talking about the EU when I talk about invasive species; this is not about anyone coming in to take away our fishing in our waters around the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I want to talk about invasive species in relation to mammals, flora and fauna. The topic I have chosen is of great concern to me as a landowner and also as a country sports enthusiast. I live on a farm in Greyabbey in Northern Ireland, and I am very pleased and privileged to do so. The conservation projects that we have on our farm are all designed to ensure that the natural balance is in place and that the flora and fauna—the animals and the mammals that we have—are native. We have planted 3,500 trees and dug two ponds. We keep the hedgerows and we have control of the pests—the magpies and the grey-backed crows. By doing this, we have ensured that the songbirds, particularly the yellowhammers, have come back in some numbers in the past year. This is about the retention of the flora, the bird life and the mammals.
The non-native species are those that have been introduced, either intentionally or unintentionally, outside their natural range. Many of these non-native species live in harmony with our native species, causing no adverse impacts. However, a few non-native species have become known as invasive, as they thrive in our habitats and out-compete our own flora and fauna. It is time to get the balance back in nature and to retain what we already have, rather than changing it in a detrimental way. I am sure that there are few Members who have not been contacted by local landowners—and, increasingly, homeowners—about Japanese knotweed, which has the strength and the ability to shift the very foundations of a home. In the brighter bygone days, local authorities would have taken care of the eradication of this blight. It is now up to landowners to take the necessary steps, although some local authorities will give advice on it. Over the past four or five years, I have had to deal with Japanese knotweed not only in my town of Newtownards, but in the countryside. This destructive plant cost Britain a shocking estimated £200 million in 2018, but it is not the only invasive species of note affecting country life and conservation.
Invasive species such as mink have a negative effect on game management through excessive predation on game birds, which has a knock-on effect on shooting and conservation, and I should declare that I am a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and of the Countryside Alliance. I recently read an interesting article on the BBC regarding the danger that invasive species pose to our beautiful countryside and delicately balanced ecosystems. How important it is that we get the balance right.
The mink is native to North America, but it can now be found close to rivers and water sources throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Mink, which are often mistaken for otters, are popular for their thick fur. In the early 1950s, they were introduced into Ireland for fur farming. Over time, some escaped, and others were deliberately released. Inside this beautiful-looking creature lurks an indiscriminate killer of birds, fish and small mammals. They decimate ground-nesting birds and tackle fish as large as themselves. The mink has no natural predator, so the species is thriving to the detriment of our own species.
I know that this is not the responsibility of Stuart Andrew, who will respond to the debate, but I know that he will pass these matters on to DEFRA and, because this is a devolved matter, to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and to the Assembly. I call on all those Departments to work hand in hand to embrace the knowledge and resources offered by the local responsible shooting community to assist with the control of not just the mink, but many other species.
In Strangford, we have undertaken a massive project to address the grey squirrel issue and to attempt to ensure that our indigenous red squirrel has a chance at life again in our farmlands and woodlands. At Mount Stewart outside Greyabbey on the Ards peninsula, the National Trust is running a conservation project for red squirrels that is showing remarkable success. Alongside that, there are red squirrel projects at Rosemount in Greyabbey and on the Ballywalter estate—two shooting estates both well known for their contribution to conservation, which again highlights the importance of balance.
I also highlight Ulster Wildlife’s sterling work on the Red Squirrels United project, through which it has set up and co-ordinated a local red squirrel conservation group in North Down. Some 30 active volunteers are controlling grey squirrels in Cairn Wood, Clandeboye, Cultra, Redburn and Killynether to support the few red squirrels that remain, working closely with the Ards Red Squirrel Group to support one another’s efforts. I thank the volunteers for all that they have done and will continue to do. The eradication or removal of the grey squirrel is important to save the other species—not just across Northern Ireland, but the whole United Kingdom—because the pox that it carries simply leaves no option for the two to cohabit.
In addition, there are a number of species associated with our rivers that are of particular conservation importance. For example, there are concentrations of remaining populations of the rare freshwater pearl mussel and the white-clawed crayfish. The freshwater crayfish is commonly found in alkaline streams, rivers and small lakes where levels of calcium carbonate are high, because the crayfish relies on the chemical to build up its exoskeleton. Such conditions are often provided in lakes, which may support large populations of the species. Some snails, such as the marsh snail, can persist during periods of drought under stones and in damp vegetation and are common in turloughs—a unique type of disappearing lake found mostly in limestone areas.
We all know about ash dieback, because no constituency will have been unaffected. The benefits of planting trees as a climate change abatement measure are widely reported, but rarely is there mention of invasive alien tree diseases across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the impact that they have on planting programmes. Over the past seven years, ash dieback disease has swept across the country and may kill between 95% to 99% of our European ash population. As our ash trees die, not only will Ireland’s traditional source of hurling sticks be lost, but the health of our ecosystems will decline, as will our biodiversity and our economy.
We can take steps to stop the disease. Recent research in the UK indicates that H. fraxineus is becoming more virulent and spreading more rapidly, so we need a Government strategy for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Is there anything we can do to limit the rate of spread? Yes, there is, and the Government’s website indicates steps that can be taken around hygiene. Twelve other serious alien tree diseases have arrived in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland but, unlike ash dieback, the consequences are not yet evident. We urgently need a national strategy to build resilience in the environment and to stop diseases at source, but until that is implemented, we must take action at individual, community, and organisational levels to raise awareness and introduce biosecurity and hygiene into all our activities.
As usual with such matters, we are on a timescale, and we should be doing everything in our power to enhance our environment and battle the problems of the modern world. However, it must be acknowledged that biodiversity needs to be monitored, structured and managed, and that requires a UK-wide strategy. The respected RSPB says:
“The introduction of invasive non-native species is the second biggest threat to global biodiversity after habitat loss. Islands and freshwater habitats are particularly vulnerable, and bird species across the world have experienced severe impacts—invasive non-native species have been involved in the extinction of 68 out of the 135 bird species lost in the wild globally over the last 500 years.”
We are blessed with a beautiful nation and some of the loveliest countryside. Every Member who has made their maiden speech today has said how nice their constituency is, which is true, but my constituency is equally as nice. We must take decisions to ensure that we work to keep our nation beautifully balanced for future generations.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you and everyone in the House a peaceful and restful recess next week. You certainly deserve it.