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Bee Population - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 7:25 pm, 19th June 2018

My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap and shall be very short, perforce, not least because I have been threatened with pain of death by my Front Bench. I apologise for speaking in the gap; it is only because I am so hopelessly inefficient. I lost my password for the Whips website, which I needed to put my name down for this debate, took part in the debate yesterday and voted, and then arrived 30 seconds after 6 pm, when they had closed the speakers list for today. I declare an interest in that I have a diverse, small mixed farm in south Leicestershire, and I will talk about my experience. I do not want to be self-congratulatory, but it paints a relatively good picture of what can be done if one cares about the environment.

When I was at school, some 50 years ago, I had a hive of bees. I was scared of them and I was a hopeless beekeeper, and the result was that they all died, so I did not think that I would try that one again. But I now have six hives, I think—the number varies a bit—on my farm, which are kept by a local retired GP. He says that it is the best place he has hives, and he has them scattered around south Leicestershire. I also have bumble bees—humble bees—masonry bees and solitary bees in abundance. Do not ask me about species, because I am not an expert, but there are stacks of them: all sorts of different types buzz around. As a result, we also have a lot of insects, which means that we have fantastic birdlife. We have a lot of swallows at the moment and—something which particularly pleases me—a pair of curlews, which I think may have chicks in a hayfield, because they were bombing me and calling at me last weekend.

The question I wish to put is: why is this? The reason is that we have a very diverse habitat—it is a mixed farm. We have some maize and winter wheat at the moment, and we also have largely grass. I planted stacks of trees and hedges—courtesy, I might say, of the British taxpayer via the CAP, and agri-environment schemes. I congratulate this and other Governments and, indeed, the European Union, on their encouragement of agri-environment schemes, because that has enabled me to plant trees and hedges. I also go round on fallow—which used to be called set-aside—scattering wildflower seeds like they are going out of fashion. I am delighted to say that, after about a decade, I have established good cowslip populations all the way down the drive. My children laugh at me, but I am thrilled about it. The reason I am able to do it is because of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the HLS, in which I now find myself. My reason for saying this is that we need to realise that it is not all gloom and doom. There are lots of bees, and we can make productive farmland environmentally friendly and good for conservation. That is my message today.

Before I sit down, after my four minutes, with regard to neonics, of course we should reduce pesticides and herbicides—that is sensible. Farmers want to do that, because it is rather expensive to use herbicides and pesticides. I am not sure that neonics are not better than the alternative. My neighbour has a huge field of rape on the other side of our stream, which has certainly been treated in the past with neonics, and yet the bees flourish. We should rely on empirical evidence rather than emotion in this case. Finally, nitrate fertilisers have to a large extent reduced the diversity in our grassland and our fields. We should look at reducing their use, because I can see that where people have used nitrate fertilisers there are no longer the wildflowers that I spend my life trying to encourage.