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Restoring Nature and Climate Change — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:26 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Independent, Romsey and Southampton North 5:26 pm, 28th October 2019

It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon and to follow Kerry McCarthy, who serves on the Environmental Audit Committee. When I first came to this place, I served on that Committee alongside the Minister, and we spent many a jolly afternoon debating a wide range of subjects and conducting various inquiries.

I fear this speech may become a march around my constituency. In the words of the chief executive of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Debbie Tan, we must look to local solutions. The national picture is crucial, but in each of our constituencies we can ensure that there are good and important projects.

I want to focus on trees. A fortnight ago, Extinction Rebellion came to Westminster and provided each of us with a tree. Perhaps it was not wholly sustainable, being in a single-use plastic pot. None the less, I was struck by the image in Portcullis House of Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane, as these walking trees were paraded through the building. The humble oak tree, a fantastic symbol of our countryside, is one of the best carbon reservoirs we could have. I was disappointed that afternoon to get a beech tree rather than an oak, but I proudly took it home and ensured it was planted in my constituency. The oak tree lives and grows for 200 years, which is why it is important that we plant all the time, ensuring there is a replenished stock.

My hon. Friend David Tredinnick mentioned the Department of Health and Social Care being an important partner with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when it comes to the environment, but we must also look to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, because it has a crucial role in ensuring that our natural environment works hand in hand with the built environment, so we can address the challenge of climate change. I am blessed to represent a heavily treed constituency, but there are many instances of historic oak trees being chopped down, despite having tree preservation orders. There is relentless pressure to build more houses in areas where there is a conflict between nature and the built environment. Valley Park Woodlands are hard up against the 3,000 or so houses built in Valley Park.

Given the pressure that exists, there has to be a balance; that is what much of this debate is about. Of course, we have to provide houses, but we have to ensure that they are in the right place and that there is access to the natural environment so that people can enjoy the special areas that need to be preserved, or simply have somewhere to walk the dog. Those things do not always fit together very easily—walking the dog in an SSSI is never a good idea. There are many examples in my constituency of pressures on Ramsar protected sites such as those in the New Forest, as well as places such as Emer Bog in North Baddesley. It is about providing the right facilities.

I spent 10 years as my local authority’s cabinet member for leisure. At the end of that time, we were heavily in negotiations with the local landowner to take possession of an area called Fishlake Meadows. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust now describes the area as a

“glimpse of how the Test Valley would have looked over 2000 years ago…a dynamic, shifting swathe of ponds, lakes, reedbed, willow scrub and fen grassland”,

but 20 years ago it was farmed agricultural land—it was drained, planted and ploughed for food that we clearly did not require. It is a much healthier environment now that it has been given back to nature and is functioning exactly as it should: as a flood prevention area for the town of Romsey and as a place where ospreys, otters and kingfishers can thrive. It is all about ensuring that we have the right resources in place to support the land. Hon. Members have spoken about nature being “tidied up”, but when we took possession of Fishlake Meadows, it was at a tipping point. If it had been left any longer, the balance would have tipped towards those invasive species that are not wholly desirable, and bringing it back to the point it is at today would have been a much harder job.

I wish to pick up on comments made about farming. It is important to reflect that agriculture can have an important role for good. Last Friday, I had a visit on my schedule to Broughton Water Buffalo in my constituency. Who would have thought that Indian water buffalo provided so much good to the Hampshire countryside? They are farmed completely sustainably, fed only on grass and moved on to different pasture every day. The hay that they eat in winter is grown on the farm, where more than 15,000 trees have been planted in the past few years. That is an example of how local farmers can play a fantastic role in ensuring that the environment is at the forefront and climate change is uppermost in their thinking when they decide how to get a return from their land and protect it at the same time. Unfortunately, the weather in Hampshire was too miserable for me to be able to go, but it is certainly high on my list of priorities. Who knows? We may all have an opportunity in the next few weeks to disappear back to our constituencies and stomp around in our wellies to our heart’s content.

My final point is about volunteering. It has been suggested that volunteers might be inclined to “tidy up”, but actually in both Valley Park Woodlands and Fishlake Meadows a fantastic relationship has built up with the local communities and the local university—Southampton University, which I am blessed to have on the very edge of my constituency. In many instances, it is students who have been on the forefront of ensuring that nature is not tidied up, but enhanced and given the opportunity to thrive as we all want it to.

The Minister will know that part of my constituency is on the edge of the New Forest. We have heard a great deal about the reservoir of CO2 that peat bogs can provide; peat has not been burned in the New Forest for many a long year, but there are still instances where it is dug, quite illegally, so the national park authority has a massive role to play in ensuring that laws are adhered to and peat bogs are restored and maintained. Again, that can provide some conflict. I had better declare an interest as a member of—I am going to get the name wrong—not the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society, but one of the other horsey societies in the New Forest. There is a real conflict between draining the peat bogs, which riders would love because it would give us wider access to the forest, and the crucial need to ensure for nature’s sake that that does not happen and that peat bogs and mires are managed correctly.

Many hon. Members who have spoken in our debate were recognised a fortnight ago with species champion awards. I will make a quick pitch for the species that I champion: the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which I gather is the pollinator that has recovered most over the past 12 months. I would like to pretend that that is the result of some great breeding programme of mine, but sadly it is not; it is the result of our warm summers and the efforts of landowners to ensure that the habitats for that extremely endangered butterfly are kept as they should be. In yet another example of how farming can work hand in hand with nature, it is coppiced hazel that provides the best environment for that butterfly. It is important that forestry management continues, but it needs to continue in a way that enables species and, crucially, pollinators to thrive.

I have probably said enough. I very much welcome our recognition of the crucial role that nature can play in sucking up CO2. In the words of the hon. Member for Bristol East, we do not need any great technology to do that; trees can do it for us.