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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 550379, relating to the protection of hedgehogs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the petition creator and all those who signed it for giving us this important opportunity to address this issue. My right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, who is sorry not to be able to be with us today, has talked about the incredible contribution made by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, which is based in his constituency.
The last time we had the pleasure of a debate on hedgehogs in Parliament was almost six years ago, in November 2015. During that debate, the former Member for Penrith and The Border, the right hon. Rory Stewart, gave a fantastic, impassioned speech on hedgehogs from the Dispatch Box, and the former MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport called for the hedgehog to be made the UK’s national animal. Although I have a great appreciation for hedgehogs, and despite this country’s love for them, I agree with Mr Stewart that choosing an animal that rolls into a ball at any sign of danger and sleeps for half the year would not necessarily portray the image that we want as a nation. Before that debate in 2015, the last time Parliament debated the issue was in 1566, when, in true Tudor fashion, it discussed a bounty on hedgehogs, so this is only the second debate on the subject since 1566, and I am honoured to introduce it.
We have come a long way in how we treat hedgehogs in this country. Thankfully, we have moved past the idea that hedgehogs are a pest that prey on resting cows and need to be exterminated. We now have a greater understanding of the great British hedgehog. Their image is now used in election campaigns or to teach children the green cross code to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive”. They are now a much-loved part of the British countryside, and although they are not particularly cuddly, these prickly creatures have come to occupy a very special place in the hearts of people not just in my constituency but right across the UK.
Despite their relatively new-found popularity, however, the British hedgehog is facing a number of varied and complex threats. Before the debate, I had the pleasure of meeting representatives from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, who told me that since 2000 we have lost half of our rural hedgehogs and a third of our urban ones. Sadly, they were recently added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list for Britain as vulnerable, which means that they have an appreciable risk of extinction in the next 10 years.
As I have said, the problems that hedgehogs face are numerous. It is difficult to point to one factor as the sole reason for the population’s decline. That is partly a reflection on how varied their habitats can be. Modern farming practices have been blamed, including the use of pesticides that kill hedgehogs’ prey or potentially poison the hedgehogs themselves. A loss of habitat has similarly been pointed at—modern agricultural practices use larger fields and fewer hedgerows—and of course there are questions about the impact of climate change on hedgehogs’ hibernating habits.
Hedgehogs are protected from some methods of killing and collection under schedule 6 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The petition asks for that protection to be increased to schedule 5, which would offer protection from all intentional killing, injuring or taking, and prohibits them from being sold. The Government’s response to the petition states that they have not previously moved hedgehogs into schedule 5 because they have no evidence that hedgehogs are being intentionally killed. I am sure we are all grateful for that and I hope that people would not do something as cruel.
However, there is a problem of hedgehogs being sold. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of people owning hedgehogs as pets, although that is the African pygmy hedgehog, not the variety native in the UK. The sale of those cute little creatures—although they are not as cute as the great British hedgehog—is not necessarily the problem. The problem arises when people start to snatch the hedgehogs they find at the bottom of their garden and sell them on for £300 a pop. That threatens population numbers and creates biosecurity risks. Moving hedgehogs to schedule 5 would prevent it.
I would welcome other measures to help hedgehog numbers bounce back. I know from speaking to Anne Purchase-Walker, who runs HoggyStockton Rescue, that a large number of hedgehogs fall victim to weed strimmers. Greater awareness by people using them and a quick check of the grass before starting to cut would go a long way. Similarly, developers creating less robust fencing and walling, and hedgehog highways that link up green spaces so that hedgehogs can better forage for food, would also be welcome.
The Government are not deaf to the issue. I was pleased to see in their response to the petition that they are committed to taking action to recover threatened native species, and they are exploring the use of powers in the Environment Bill to strengthen commitments to improve the status of this threatened species. The petition’s request to move hedgehogs to schedule 5 would go some way to help the numbers bounce back. However, we welcome any policy that would help protect this much-loved animal and I would happily look at what the Government can propose.
One thing, however, is clear: we need to act now. Losing half the rural population in two decades shows that the decline is rapid and the situation is critical. There is no point letting the situation get worse before we step in and try to halt the decline. Intervention now will make this task easier and cheaper, and ensure that our prickly little friends still take pride of place in Britain’s countryside.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate 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.
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.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank all the people who signed the petition.
From the emails that I received from constituents about the debate, I was deeply worried to learn of the disastrous decline in hedgehog numbers. Both my hon. Friend Matt Vickers and Liz Twist have referred to the numbers: we have lost half of all hedgehogs in rural areas, and a third in urban ones. As we have heard, this much-loved animal has recently been added to the IUCN red list and designated as vulnerable, with an appreciable risk of extinction within 10 years. There is a need for urgent action, and I want to press the Minister to enhance protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition.
Planning rules need to be changed to require the presence of hedgehogs to be taken into consideration when deciding whether to grant permission for development. Will the Minister also provide reassurance that the quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act will not lead to any weakening of protections? Most important of all, I urge the Government to include hedgehog habitats in their extensive programme of nature recovery. There can be no doubt that decline in habitats is a key driver in the loss of hedgehogs. We need the biodiversity net gain provisions of the Environment Bill to be implemented so that a new income stream is created for protecting wildlife habitats, and I want to see councils also encouraged to include hedgehog recovery strategies in their local nature recovery strategies, which the Bill will require them to establish.
Of course, I note the efforts by Natural England and DEFRA to create a national nature recovery network, which is a further, crucial opportunity to alleviate the pressure on the vulnerable creatures that we are debating today. Connected wildlife corridors can make a huge difference to the recovery of the species. I hope the voice of today’s petitioners will be heard by Ministers, particularly as they design and implement this country’s new system of farm support. There can be little doubt that some modern farming practices have made survival more difficult for this country’s favourite prickly mammal. The environmental land management schemes, which will replace the European Union’s common agricultural policy, should aim to secure and restore hedgerows and habitats to give our hedgehogs a bit of a Brexit dividend.
As we have heard, in 1566 this Parliament put a bounty on hedgehogs, which apparently led to the death of as many as 2 million in the period up to 1800. I really hope that today’s debate has a much more positive outcome. The Government have a stronger commitment to nature recovery than any of their predecessors ever before. When they set what I hope will be a really ambitious 2030 target for species conservation, I urge them to ensure that a thriving hedgehog population is included in that as a very important goal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and a pleasure to speak up for the hedgehog.
Although I represent a largely urban constituency, the hedgehog is equally at home among our parks, gardens and untidy corners of the countryside, and many residents of Hull West and Hessle welcome its presence. I want to pay tribute to the fantastic work of Carolyn Harman of Hessle Hedgehog Rescue in providing care for sick and injured animals and advice on making the area hedgehog-friendly. Sadly, as mentioned by hon. Members already, hedgehog numbers continue to decline. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species surveys, conducted by citizen scientists, demonstrate that hedgehog numbers have fallen by around 50% in the past 20 years, so there is no doubt that urgent action needs to be taken, and the petition reflects that urgency.
The Government’s response to the petition stated that they have,
“not previously moved to protect this species under Schedule 5”— to the Wildlife and Countryside Act—
“as it is not clear that such protection would be of benefit to the species, in so far that: we have no evidence that intentionally killing, taking or injuring hedgehogs is currently an issue;
and it would not address the main threat of habitat loss.”
That appears to refer to the protections found in section 9(1). Although the petition mentioned only schedule 5, I assume it also refers to the protections under section 9(4), which include protections for habitat from intentional disturbance and damage.
The Minister may not be aware of this, but I am proud to be the butterfly conservation species champion for the brimstone butterfly, which is the flagship species of Hull’s Butterfly City project. She may also be interested to know that the marsh fritillary, the heath fritillary, the large blue and the swallowtail, which is the UK’s largest butterfly, are also included in schedule 5 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I assure the Minister that the main threat to all those butterfly species is habitat loss, and they are also included in section 9(4) of the Act. Every other mammal that is considered vulnerable to extinction in the UK is listed in schedule 7: the hazel dormouse, two species of bat, and the Orkney vole.
Even a layperson who is familiar with the behaviour of hedgehogs can imagine how the provisions in section 9(5) would protect them; detailed knowledge of hedgehogs’ habitat requirements is not necessary. Many people know that hedgehogs like the shelter of a nice compost heap, or being tucked up beneath the garden shed. In fact, hedgehogs can journey up to 2 km per night and can build several nests across their home range, so it is clear how protection of hedgehogs’ nesting sites from disturbance or harm, as well as protection of hedgehogs themselves from disturbance or harm, would be of benefit.
The hedgehog and other wildlife can also be helped through changes to the planning law. Biodiversity can be built into housing and commercial developments in many ways, such as hedgehog highways, wildlife corridors, and swift boxes and other bird boxes built into buildings. There are already fantastic examples, backed up by research, of the benefits of these innovations. It just requires the will from Government to make them mandatory.
The petition is timely because, as my hon. Friend Liz Twist mentioned, the Wildlife and Countryside Act is undergoing its five-yearly review of the species included. However, I am extremely concerned to hear that the terms of this year’s review have been changed and that, contrary to what a reasonable person might expect given the well documented decline in biodiversity across the board, this is likely to result in fewer species under protection, not more. Under the new standards, an animal or plant species would be protected if only it were in imminent danger of extinction, so dozens of species face losing vital safeguards, and action to protect a species would come only when it was in crisis, which might be too late. That cannot be right.
I understand that over 30 conservation groups have written to Ministers voicing their concerns. I would welcome the Minister taking the opportunity today to explain why it was felt that the standards needed changing and how the Government expect the changes to halt the decline in species numbers. Although I welcome the assurances given in response to the petition relating to forthcoming legislation, given the changes to the way that the 1981 Act is being reviewed, it is difficult to have confidence that the final detail will measure up to the promises. The hedgehog needs increased and meaningful protections now, not fuzzy—or even prickly—assurances about its future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.
I follow a fellow parliamentary species champion, Emma Hardy, but I am perhaps the most topical species champion today, because I am the species champion for the hedgehog. Indeed, as the Minister knows, because she is committed to these issues, I have been, probably not biting her ankles, but prickling them over this issue for some time now, and I intend to carry on doing so. Six years have passed since this House last debated the hedgehog. I very much hope that we will not need to debate it again soon, but I also hope that, if a debate is necessary, it will not take another six years.
It is a national tragedy that we have lost so much of our wildlife. If we look across the range of species that have suffered catastrophic declines in recent years, the picture is profoundly disturbing and worrying. The hedgehog’s decline goes back further than the last 20 years, though. In the 1950s, there were nearly as many hedgehogs as people in the United Kingdom; today the hedgehog population is only a tiny fraction of our population, with perhaps only 1.5 million hedgehogs surviving. We have to turn the situation around, not just for hedgehogs but for all the species that have suffered such declines, and we must start doing it now, because we cannot allow numbers to continue to go down.
There is a variety of reasons why these declines have happened. It is true that there has been habitat loss. Sadly, over the years too many hedgehogs have died on our roads, although I have to say that it is relatively rare to see a dead hedgehog on our roads nowadays. Of course, we see rather a lot of dead badgers on our roads, but that remains a subject of debate. I am not here today to point a finger at the badger, although are issues around the competition between species for ever-diminishing habitats. I am here to argue for tangible Government measures to address the issue.
There has been a lot of debate about the specific review taking place this year. There is genuine cause for concern there, which I hope the Minister will address in her remarks, because none of us wants a formal reduction of protection for species. She knows my concerns about the way the quinquennial review approaches creatures such as the hedgehog, and I hope she will be able to set everybody’s mind at rest.
I hope the Minister recognises from the scale of this petition the genuine public concern. I echo the words of congratulation to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, to Hedgehog Street, which has done a fantastic job in promoting the need for action, and to all those groups around the country doing so much to protect hedgehogs, to rescue hedgehogs that are in danger, to rescue baby hedgehogs that may not survive the winter, and to look after those that have been injured. I pay tribute to the team at the Wildlife Aid Foundation, just outside my constituency in Leatherhead, who do a fantastic job. I have been down there on many occasions to see the work they are doing with hedgehogs that have run into difficulties in life..
That work and all those different projects all around the country are valuable, but there is a bigger-picture issue to solve here. It was brought home to me this week by a message I received from one of the hedgehog groups distraught that, just down the road from where it is based, a developer starting to clear a site ahead of development had killed a significant number of hedgehogs just by clearing the undergrowth alongside a roadway to make way for that development. In accordance with the law, we in this country do a lot of work before we develop sites, such as checking for bats and newts, but I want the Government think differently, because searching for an individual species on a development site is not the right way forward. We need an holistic approach to nature on a development site. Of course, we still need to develop for the future—we need to provide housing for the future—but we should do that with care. One thing I hope for from the Government in the next few months is a plan to turn the current system into one of holistic analysis of what wildlife is on a site and what needs to be protected, so that we do not simply bulldoze a roadside or cut down a hedgerow with no regard at all for any animals inside it. All too often, hedgehogs are inside it. That change is urgently needed.
The Minister will be aware that I tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill to move the hedgehog into schedule 5 protection. I did not push that amendment to a Division because I understand that the legislative framework is not right for today’s world. It is focused particularly on human intent against animals, and nobody is seriously suggesting that everybody wants to kill hedgehogs. However, I expect quid pro quo from the Minister, which is a proper, urgent review of the legislative framework to address things such as the circumstance I just described, where a developer does not have to look holistically for the full range of species on a site but can just make sure that there are no bats or newts and everything else just gets bulldozed out of the way. That cannot be right, and I very much hope that she will change that.
I ask two other things of Ministers. The first involves habitats for hedgehogs and other species. One reason why we have seen the decline in numbers has been the disappearance of hedgerows. I very much hope that the implementation of the Agriculture Act 2020 and the new agriculture support framework will genuinely encourage farmers to put back some of those lost habitats. CPRE is in the process of launching a timely campaign to get more hedgerows planted in this country, and I hope the Government take that on board and ensure that the support they provide to farmers encourages them not only to have wider margins at the sides of existing fields, which is to be welcomed, but to start replanting hedgerows for the future, because they are vital habitats.
My final request to the Minister is this. It is important for species that travel long distances to be able to do so. Colleagues have mentioned hedgehog highways and developers being encouraged to put holes in fences. That is very good and should continue to be encouraged, but we also need, in areas of open country where there are development threats, to make sure that corridors exist for wildlife—not only hedgehogs but other species—so that we do not lock away one bit of habitat from another, losing the movement between the two and so ultimately the species decline and die. That also has to change.
Those are my three requests to the Minister. We need to ensure that we have proper planning for highways between different habitats, and that we look at supporting the recovery of hedgerows. We particularly need protections for species such as the hedgehog in law, to prevent developers from simply ripping up a site with no regard for what is there. If the Minister delivers all that, she will be able to take pride in the fact that she has played a big part in turning the tide on the tragic decline of hedgehog numbers.
It is, as always, a pleasure to speak in the debate. As is often said in this Chamber, conservation is not a hobby for me; it is a duty that I take a very seriously.
I am pleased to follow Chris Grayling, and I wholeheartedly endorse his request to retain hedgerows and enhance field edges. That is something that I do on the land where I have the opportunity to have some input. I am blessed to live on the family farm, with my son living on the farm up a very long laneway. It gives me a chance to see where the hedgerows are and to ensure that the edges of the lanes are well kept. During lockdown, the ability to wander through the beautiful countryside surrounding my home as I read my briefings and did my daily Bible readings, was one of things that kept me sane. It made me appreciate what I have outside my window that little bit more. I have a real passion to ensure that my grandchildren will have the same ability to enjoy nature when they reach my age, so retaining hedgerows and field edges is something that I wholeheartedly endorse.
Hedgehogs are under extreme pressure. The right hon. Gentleman referred to badgers, and the information that I have is hedgehogs are a bit of a delicacy for badgers, which are renowned for feasting on hedgehogs more than they probably should. One part of this fight for our countryside is the declining number of hedgehogs. Ulster Wildlife has an entire section on its website about how to help hedgehogs due to their decline, and it states:
“Hedgehogs are in trouble—they have declined by 30% in the last 10 years alone and there are now thought to be fewer than one million left in the UK. Whether you live in town or country, you can help to look after these much-loved creatures by providing food, water and shelter.”
Ulster Wildlife’s useful site outlines ways to help and provides links where people can donate and adopt a hedgehog. When my boys were at school, they did a project on hedgehogs, and I sincerely hope that there are still school projects to raise awareness of just how vital these little creatures are to our ecosystem.
My constituents in Strangford who signed the petition outlined the dire straits in which our population of hedgehogs find themselves. Since 2000, hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and by a third in urban ones. I very rarely see any of them about now, even with our taking a direct interest in trying to retain the habitat for them. For that reason, BHPS is asking for hedgehogs to be moved from schedule 6 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to schedule 5, to allow them greater protection. I would support that.
My constituents are concerned that the 2021 review seeks to change the eligibility criteria affecting hedgehogs. It is proposed that the country-based statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. I would suggest that the hedgehog is very clearly in such danger. The shift in focus will give preferential consideration to GB red-listed species as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but the IUCN guidance specifically identifies the automatic use of red-list categories in policy as an “inappropriate use” of the red list, so that is the wrong bar to set. We need to get it right, so I look to the Minister with respect, as I often do, and ask her to respond, which I know she will.
The effect of the proposed change would be that rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition, their current, minor level of protection will be removed altogether. The change will make it legal to sell hedgehogs; worse still, they will lose protection from killing and injury. I just cannot believe that that is possible.
The petition makes it clear that hedgehogs have widespread support and are in need of enhanced protection. The hedgehog has been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys. In the BBC’s wildlife survey in 2013, it won 42% of the vote. In 2016, the hedgehog won more than twice the votes of the second-placed animal in the Royal Society of Biology’s survey. Clearly, hedgehogs are a favourite of the general public, so removing hedgehogs’ legal protection would be widely viewed as inappropriate and an extremely perverse response to a parliamentary petition backed by more than 100,000 voters.
Will the Minister reflect on this well thought-out flag that has been raised? We need to do something, and we are all saying that we must do the right thing. We need to enhance protection and to fund a breeding programme to release hedgehogs into safe places throughout the countryside. I look to the Minister to outline that very plan of action.
My right hon. Friend Chris Grayling remarked on the fact that we see far fewer hedgehogs dead on the roads now. Perversely, that is not a good sign; it is a bad sign, because the reason is that there are so many fewer hedgehogs than there used to be. It is hard to find one now, and yet when I was a lad, we could go out every night into the garden and there would be one, two or three hedgehogs snuffling around. The change has been absolutely dramatic.
I understand that the Government want to wait for the findings of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee review before taking any action, but we cannot wait much longer. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species has indicated clearly that the hedgehog is vulnerable to extinction. Hedgehogs are on the red list for British mammals. This is an animal that, as my right hon. Friend said, we used to have almost as many of as there were people in the United Kingdom. Now their number has dwindled to insignificance.
The Government say in their policy papers that they want
“to recover our threatened native species”.
One of the reasons for not accepting today’s recommendation is that—to quote from the Government comment—
“it would not address the main threat of habitat loss”.
No, it would not, and that is the main threat. It is because of current Government planning policy that habitat loss is worsening. The national planning policy framework states that policies
“should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment”.
That is hogwash—possibly hedgehogwash. We are not enhancing our natural and local environments or our agricultural environment. Every time that farm fields are built over, hedgerows go, headlands go and the fields themselves with crops in go. Those are the habitats not just for hedgehogs, but for literally thousands of birds, mammals, butterflies and insects—the insects upon which hedgehogs feed. It is because of that loss of habitat that we have lost so many hedgehogs. The hedgerows, the meadowlands and the rough pasture that we are told hedgehogs in the wild live on are going. That is why the numbers are decreasing so dramatically in rural areas.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister is in her place to answer the debate, but I rather wish that we had a Planning Minister sitting listening to this as well, and perhaps responding. We have to get to grips with the fact that we are building over agricultural land. “We are protecting the green belt,” we are told. Yes, we are protecting the green belt, but agricultural land is being built over in the south of England in particular to an extent that is positively dangerous to food production and our wildlife. That has got to stop.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Twigg. It is also a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale, with whom I have co-operated over many years on issues of animal husbandry, and all hon. Members who have spoken so passionately about hedgehogs.
Across the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, many Suttonians wish to see greater protection for our local hedgehog population. That is reflected in the huge number of people who have asked me to attend the debate and speak in it today—185 people from Sutton Coldfield signed the petition that we are debating.
I pay tribute to Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, based in Four Oaks in my constituency. Claire and her partner Matt have been rescuing and looking after local hedgehogs for eight years, once they built up their knowledge and expertise after rescuing a hedgehog they found that needed help. Since 2013, they have built up a local network of volunteers, including people who help to clean the facilities, provide foster care for hedgehogs as they recover, and rehome hedgehogs in a safe environment.
In December last year, I supported a new clause in the Environment Bill, which my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling referred to, that would have added the hedgehog to the list of protected animals under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It would create a legal imperative to search for hedgehogs in building developments and to mitigate the impact on their habitats, as we do for bats, for example. I am glad to have the opportunity today to speak briefly in favour of this greater protection for our hedgehogs. We know that there is significant public support for additional safeguards. As Jim Shannon said, surveys show time and again just how loved hedgehogs are by British people. They have been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys, including the BBC’s 2013 wildlife survey.
Over the past two decades, hedgehog numbers across the UK have plummeted by 50% in rural areas and 30% in urban areas. I support the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s campaign for hedgehogs to be moved from schedule 6 to schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, to allow them greater protection, notwithstanding the legitimate reservations that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell has mentioned.
I have been concerned, as others have, to read that the seventh quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 could introduce changes that would affect the status of many of our native species, including hedgehogs. I understand that the review seeks to change the eligibility criteria of the hedgehog, currently listed in schedule 6. It is proposed that the country-based statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in the United Kingdom. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Strangford; the effect of the proposed changes could mean that, rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as my constituents have asked, the level of protection that they currently enjoy could be removed altogether.
Hedgehogs are currently protected under schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as well as the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. This makes it illegal to kill or capture them using certain methods and prohibits cruelty and mistreatment. However, this legislation does not address many of the reasons why hedgehogs have declined over the past 20 years. I believe we need to take further action to help conserve wild hedgehog populations. Listing hedgehogs under schedule 5 of the 1981 Act would allow them greater protection. This would ensure that their nesting sites, as well as the hedgehogs themselves, are protected from disturbance or harm, and would offer hedgehogs the same protection as hazel dormice, red squirrels, water vole, otters and all our bat species.
This Government have a strong track record when it comes to environmental issues, including our commitment to net zero. Our world-leading Environment Bill will set a new and ambitious framework for environmental governance, to address environmental challenges including biodiversity loss and climate change. We have committed to leaving the environment in a better space than we inherited it. I therefore cannot understand why, in all these changes we are making, Ministers are not considering strengthening our protection for hedgehogs. I look forward to listening to this very accomplished Minister explain what plans the Government have in that respect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Vickers on initiating this debate.
I welcome this discussion, as the protection of hedgehogs is a topic that I hold close to my heart. As some of my Twitter followers may have seen, we recently welcomed a new tenant to the Halfon household. Horace the hedgehog moved into our garden earlier this year and has very much made himself at home. Given these modern times, although we have called him Horace, he clearly is a he/him or she/her hedgehog. He has even been brave enough to approach the back door to try to watch Netflix through the window, particularly “Sons of Anarchy”. He has risen to dizzying heights of fame on our social media page, and I have had individuals write to my office to ask whether Horace will be making an appearance in upcoming Zoom meetings.
I thank the numerous individuals who kindly wrote to me with advice on how to care for Horace and to ask me to provide an update on his recent escapades. The interest in looking after these wonderful animals shows just how much the public love hedgehogs. I may spend months writing a speech on education, and a few people might notice, but when it comes to Horace the hedgehog, literally thousands of people have written to me, commented or whatever it may be.
I am led to believe that Horace may have found himself a partner. We have purchased a proper hedgehog house, and there may be some hoglets on the way. Since Horace’s appearance, I am pleased to say that the slug plague in my garden has vanished. I understand that hedgehogs roll them into what is called slug con carne.
In 2013, hedgehogs were voted Britain’s favourite wild animal. Despite the public’s immense love for these small and spiny creatures, their existence hangs in the balance, as has been said many times in this debate. I was deeply saddened to learn that, since 2000, hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and a third in urban ones. The speed of the decline is akin to dropping off a cliff. In July 2020, the British hedgehog became officially classified as vulnerable to extinction, when it was added, as has been highlighted, to the red list for British mammals. That is extraordinarily depressing. That is why we have to do all we can to ensure that these special creatures are protected. We need to eliminate the risk of them disappearing from the UK forever. I strongly favour our children being educated at school about mammals on the red list, and particularly about hedgehogs, because it is important that we learn about these animals and how to look after them.
Some of my Harlow residents have written to me to ask that the Government act to move hedgehogs to schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to allow them greater protection. I would be hugely grateful if the Minister outlined what measures will be taken to preserve and enhance the UK’s hedgehog population.
Since the arrival of Horace the hedgehog in my garden, I have taken great care to educate myself on what steps individuals can take to look after hedgehogs. I say to members of the public that I have learned that if a hedgehog pays a visit to their garden, they should please be sure to leave out a bowl of water and allow areas of their garden to remain wild. Hedgehogs use piles of leaf litter and logs to build their nests. Horace used a plastic bag—not from my garden, I should stress—to cover the leaves that he used as his home before we gave him the hedgehog house.
We should all adopt hedgehog-friendly habits. Horace has changed my understanding and helped me develop a real love for hedgehogs. I hope this debate will ensure that the preservation of that species becomes a real priority. This is only the second debate on hedgehogs in many hundreds of years. I hope it will lead to a sea change so that hedgehogs are no longer a potentially extinct mammal but flourish once again up and down our streets in Britain, not just in Harlow but across the country.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend Matt Vickers for introducing the petition. It is an honour to be in the room with a true hedgehog champion—my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling, who has done so much to further the cause through parliamentary debate.
As we have heard many times, the hedgehog has been voted the most popular British wild mammal. But the numbers we have also heard are truly shocking. None of us could fail to be extremely worried that we are down to potentially our last million hedgehogs. To read that they are vulnerable to extinction would have been unheard of when I was growing up. A decrease of over 50% in the last 20 years is something that we should all sit up and notice. But why? Essentially, lockdown has focused our minds. It has made us re-evaluate much of our lives, and I am glad, because the environment has taken centre stage more than ever before. That has heightened our understanding of the delicately constructed ecosystems on which all our society is built.
This debate is calling for hedgehog protections to be increased by moving their status in schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to schedule 5. However, as we have heard, the seventh quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 to the Act potentially provides DEFRA with recommendations to make major changes to those schedules. The 2021 review seeks to change the eligibility criteria for hedgehogs, currently listed in schedule 6. It proposes that the country-based statutory nature conservation bodies should retain protected status only of species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. That shift in focus preferably considers Great Britain red-listed species, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The effect of the proposed change could mean that, rather than increasing protections for hedgehogs, their current minor level of protection might be further removed.
That is the nub of why so many of us are concerned. We simply cannot allow that to happen. Already we have heard that the species is in significant decline. It is affected by many things—the loss of hedgerows as habitat and traffic accidents. As my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale pointed out, the numbers would of course be down on the road, because the numbers are significantly down in the country. The decline in food, through the increased use of pesticides, is also a material reason why the numbers have decreased. We must do everything we possibly can to increase their chances of survival, not diminish them.
I want to quickly mention Hedgehog Haven in North Walsham, a wonderful local organisation run by my constituent Marian Grimes. She has told me many times that Government action to uphold our collective custodial responsibility is owed to those animals. We can do that. As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I know from the report that we released in the past week that we have to do more for our domestic ecosystems. Our Chair, my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, even highlighted that hedgehogs’ health and their quantity are one of the best indicators of a healthy micro-environment.
While the Government continue to do the work that they can, which we welcome, I hope this debate will be the start of a step change in the long-term prospects for the hedgehog population. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s review must strengthen the protective legislation for hedgehogs. I go back to the Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on biodiversity from the past week or so: we have to do more, whether through planning or agriculture legislation. We have to keep doing everything we can to protect nature. A very good starting point would be enhancing protection for our population of hedgehogs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank Matt Vickers for presenting and introducing the debate in such a passionate manner.
Clearly, this topic matters to many people across the UK and to Members from across the House. As my hon. Friend Liz Twist and others highlighted, the hedgehog has been voted the most popular wild mammal in the UK, and I wish the campaign for a hedgehog hospital, which they have highlighted, every success. I also commend the work of the Hedgehog Preservation Society and hedgehog rescues—which have some fantastic names, such as Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, which Mr Mitchell mentioned. Clearly, volunteers and groups up and down the country are working to turn the tide on decline.
We have heard about how people can make their gardens better habitats for hedgehogs. Simple interventions can make a big difference. We heard memories and stories about the wonderful hedgehog, from Sir Roger Gale, sharing the regular sightings when there were as many hedgehogs as people in the UK, to the latest household member of Robert Halfon, Horace. We heard about the decline and what issues may be causing it, from habitat destruction to pesticides and other issues. We heard about the incredible lives that hedgehogs have, with my hon. Friend Emma Hardy explaining that they can travel up to 2 km a night, which is extraordinary.
Before I directly address the prickly situation of hedgehogs, I will discuss the Department’s answer to the petition, which I read with great interest. Ministers have rightly framed their response to the plight of hedgehogs in relation to the wider issues of species abundance targets, even if they have yet to propose what those targets will be. We absolutely need biodiversity targets, and they should be ambitious. We should not only halt the decline of hedgehogs and other nature; we should reverse it. Ministers seem to agree. The Secretary of State said that he wants not only to stem the tide of the loss of nature but to turn it around and leave the environment in a better state than we found it. I hope the Minister will use this debate to outline why, in the other place, the Government’s proposals for species abundance targets committed only to
“further the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species”,
and what that means for hedgehogs. We need more than a halt to the decline; we should be aiming for a dramatic incline in species abundance and trying to reverse the trend for hedgehogs.
Our hedgehog population is threatened, and in response to the petition, the Department says that it is reviewing the species that will be protected as part of the regular five-year review. As highlighted by Jim Shannon, this year the rules have changed. Animals will be automatically added to the protection list only if they are critically endangered, and will be eligible to be added only if they are endangered in the first place. What assurance can the Minister give that hedgehogs will receive the protections they deserve? Hedgehogs fit neither requirement outlined above, but their numbers have rapidly declined—by 50% in rural areas and a third in urban areas over the past 20 years. As Duncan Baker asked, what will be done to keep the weaker protections they currently have?
It is fantastic that Chris Grayling is the species champion for hedgehogs. He reported on the steep decline since 1950, with hedgehog numbers falling from 30 million to 1.5 million. That is a shocking figure. The need for an holistic approach to nature and development is clear. Will the Minister address what conversations are occurring across Government to protect nature under new planning laws? I agree with Theresa Villiers that the decline means that we need to protect hedgehog habitats, making considerations in planning, and that we should actively intervene to restore habitats as part of what we do to create nature corridors and in the restoration of hedgerows. We also need to continue to make space for hedgehogs with methods such as creating tunnels, hedgehog highways and hedgehog houses in our urban areas.
The England trees action plan commits to a mere 12% of woodland coverage by the middle of the century, which is 7% less than the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation of 19%. As well as being weak on woodland coverage, the document contains only four references to hedgerows. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what the Department will do specifically to encourage the creation of more of these habitats, which are so beneficial to hedgehogs. In addition to habitat restoration, there is a wider point to make about species abundance targets—a strange approach to biodiversity that is indifferent to the steep decline of the population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle passionately highlighted, we should not have to wait for a species to become endangered before extending protections to it.
Therefore, I ask the Minister whether her Department has any plans to reverse its approach, in order to ensure that the rhetoric on protecting species abundance matches the reality. If we are aiming for abundance, raising the threshold for species protection is a step in the wrong direction, certainly when species have faced such dramatic reductions in numbers. Will she support the beloved prickly mammal that our country is so passionate about in the upcoming review?
It is a great pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Twigg—I do not think that I have had the pleasure before, so it is very nice to see you in the Chair. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see all hon. Members and Friends here for this debate.
First of all, I must thank my hon. Friend Matt Vickers for introducing the debate and for making a very clear case, as he always does in these petition debates. He referred to the debate in 2015, and I think a number of hon. Friends and Members were probably at that debate. I do not know if you were there, Mr Twigg, but I must say that it was one of the best debates I have ever attended in Parliament—and it was about hedgehogs. It was responded to by my then right hon. Friend for Penrith and The Border, and it has stayed in my mind.
Today’s debate has demonstrated, with the number of speakers we have had and the number of people who have signed the petition, just how heartfelt this whole issue of hedgehogs is—they are wonderful creatures. We have had wonderful references to all sorts of hedgehog charities and organisations, and I thank them all. We had Hessle Hog House, Hedgehog Street, the Wildlife Aid Foundation and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, which arranged the petition and does so much good work. It is based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, who could not be here today but wanted to ensure that we thanked it for all the work it does in his constituency. We have also had Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, and we must not forget Horace the film buff hedgehog—I am sorry that he is outdoing my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon when it comes to his other debates, but that just goes to show the strength of feeling.
This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that our native species thrive, as we take action to address the declines that we are all so sad about. We—and I as the Minister—are deeply concerned about the findings of the red list for British mammals, published in 2020 by the Mammal Society, which has classed hedgehogs as vulnerable.
I am a great fan of hedgehogs, not least from reading all my children Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the amazing Beatrix Potter book. As a Back Bencher, I worked with others, and we secured a reference in the national planning policy framework for hedgehog highways—that reference is in there now. Only today, I made a speech on green infrastructure to the Town and Country Planning Association, and I referenced hedgehog highways again.
I warmly congratulate the Minister on that success. Now she has a real opportunity in her current role, because she will be signing off on environmental land management schemes. A good, simple scheme to promote hedgerows is great for farmers and even better for hedgehogs. I hope that we will see that in the ELM scheme.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for that intervention; she is obviously passionate about this issue and indeed worked in the Department. I am sure she knows that we have just announced the details of our sustainable farming initiative and the ELM scheme is very much about habitats, bringing nature back and being able to produce food sustainably, and there will be an emphasis on wildlife corridors and particularly river corridors. All these things will benefit our native wildlife and particularly hedgehogs. So my right hon. Friend is right, and I shall be taking advantage of the opportunity; indeed, I have been speaking up for hedgehogs.
I must mention West Hatch Animal Centre, which is just over the hill from where I live. It does absolutely brilliant work when hedgehogs are orphaned. I have been up there, and the centre has all these baby hedgehogs that are underweight and cannot get through the winter. The centre takes them on and literally drip-feeds them with pipettes to keep them alive. I was then very honoured that my garden was vetted and was deemed acceptable—I garden for wildlife—to receive some of these, now fattened-up, hedgehogs. I had some released in my garden. I was in Parliament one day, and the centre said, “You have to have a hedgehog house.” I thought, “What is that?” So I googled, “What is a hedgehog house?” I then had to build one in order to receive a hedgehog, which we duly did.
That is the kind of offer I would find hard to refuse. Interestingly, we went to all the effort of making the house, then releasing the hedgehog into it, but I do not think that the hedgehog ever lived in it again. I think my garden was much more suited to it than the house. That is not to say that the boxes from Sutton Coldfield will not be a great deal better than those from Taunton Deane.
On the serious points, as we look to conserve and protect our native hedgehogs we have to consider the reasons for their decline. The main threat to the hedgehog is habitat loss, as many hon. Members referenced, particularly my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers and the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Habitat change has been due to such things as agricultural intensification and deterioration in the actual habitat, and that has affected so much of our other wildlife as well.
Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 focuses on deliberate harm against species. Although I agree with the sentiment behind the proposal of my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling to ensure that we protect our hedgehogs, it is not clear that the species is being threatened in that way. Therefore, that protection under the Act would not address the main challenges that the species faces, although I was interested to hear about the potential collecting and selling of hedgehogs. If there is evidence of that from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, I would certainly like to see it, because that has not been flagged to me and it would concern me.
I must go on to the points made by so many Members, particularly my right hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet and for Epsom and Ewell, my hon. Friend Duncan Baker and the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and for Blaydon, about schedule 6 of the 1981 Act, under which the hedgehog is listed. The schedule makes it an offence to kill or take listed animals by certain methods, such as types of traps and snares.
The quinquennial review process, which many have referred to, reviews schedules 5 and 8 of the Act, and the JNCC will make recommendations with regard to those lists. As I have highlighted to a number of Members, no changes to species protection have yet been recommended to us, nor have any decisions been made. Proposals for change will be formally consulted on later this year, and the Government will then consider the recommendations and advice provided by the JNCC before making any decisions.
Given that the Minister accepted in the debate on the Environment Bill—I am grateful for that—that the current legislative framework is really no longer fit for purpose in today’s world, would it not be better to set aside the quinquennial review and just get on with replacing the system? Carrying on with what we have at the moment will just cause confusion and uncertainty. It would be better to say, “This doesn’t work anymore,” and do something different.
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 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.
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?
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.
A number of people, including myself, have put forward the planning issue, to which the Minister referred. Is it possible, before anyone does any work on any site or development, to ask them to remove any hedgehogs and to relocate them? The Minister said that many farms would wish to accept hedgehogs. Is that possible?
That is an interesting suggestion. In the Environment Bill, we are bringing in new measures for strategies for certain wider groups of species and wildlife to look after habitats and deal with wildlife issues on a more comprehensive scale, rather than in the itsy-bitsy way that we do now, which often frustrates developments as well, because they are held up. Under biodiversity net gain and the nature that has to be put back by developers, they will be conscious that they have to look at things such as the hedgehog population, just as we do now with dormice and so on.
On that note, I will wind up. I hope that I have outlined that the Government have a real desire, and I believe the framework, to protect nature and biodiversity on a national scale, and that we are committed to reviewing species legislation so that we get it right. We give the assurance that we will be looking after our absolutely much-loved and indeed revered hedgehogs.
As ever, enthusiasm, energy and passion from the Minister. She is passionate about our wildlife and our nature, and there is a commitment there to work to further the interests of hedgehogs. Like my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling, I hope we will not be having this debate in a few years’ time. I also hope that there will be some robust population growth.
My right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), for Epsom and Ewell and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) talked about the need for a wider, cross-Government look at the issue. It would be good to get Planning Ministers to look at it—it needs to be in every thought, in every Department.
My right hon. Friend Robert Halfon with Horace the hedgehog and his sluggy con carne showed that, wherever we go, a hedgehog raises a smile, as it does in Blaydon, Chipping Barnet, North Norfolk and Sheffield. Local champions across the country, in every corner of the UK, including Northern Ireland, do fantastic work to support our hedgehogs. It was a hugely successful debate, and I thank the Minister and Members for their thoughts.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 550379, relating to the protection of hedgehogs.