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Westminster Hall

Volume 660: debated on Monday 13 May 2019

Westminster Hall

Monday 13 May 2019

[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Bird Nesting Sites: Protection

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 244233 relating to protecting nesting sites for birds.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. The petition is titled:

“Make ‘netting’ hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting a criminal offence.”

I will aim to reflect that. However, as we found through outreach work by Petitions Committee staff, including the live Facebook chat I held last week, the issue goes well beyond the detrimental effect of netting on nesting birds; netting affects the wellbeing of other wildlife, as well as having environmental consequences.

I am grateful to Margaret Moran for starting the petition, which has attracted in excess of 350,000 signatures. She acknowledges the broader repercussions of netting, stating in the text of the petition:

“Developers, and other interested parties are circumventing laws protecting birds by ‘netting’ hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting. This facilitates the uprooting of hedgerows which aid biodiversity and provide the only remaining nesting sites for birds, whose numbers are in sharp decline. ‘Netting’ hedgerows threatens declining species of birds, presents a danger by entrapment to wildlife, and produces large amounts of plastic waste.”

No doubt we will hear from colleagues, as I have learned from the public, that the practice of netting also applies to trees, buildings and even sand dunes.

A second live e-petition on bird nesting, which calls for legal protection for swallow, swift and martin nest sites, has more than 70,000 signatures. It was started in reaction to reports of the removal of swift, swallow and martin nests by supermarkets to prevent those migrating birds from returning to their nests the following year. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that swift breeding numbers in the UK decreased by 53% between 1995 and 2016, which it attributes partly to the loss of nesting sites. I thank Simon Leadbeater, who started that petition, for raising the profile of that issue.

The practice of netting, especially the netting of hedgerows and trees by developers, appears to be on the increase. Experts say it is driven partly by the irrefutable demand for new housing, particularly affordable homes and bungalows. Indeed, The Guardian reported:

“The apparent rise in the use of netting this year has been partly fuelled…by a 78% increase in housebuilding over the last five years as developers respond to government pressure to build homes as quickly as possible.”

In the feedback that the Petitions Committee received, there are plenty of examples of the netting of hedgerows and trees up and down the country. In my constituency, a hedgerow was recently covered in green netting on behalf of developers seeking planning permission for up to eight new homes on adjoining land. Workers started to remove the netting and cut down the hedge, which does not require planning permission.

My hon. Friend mentions an important aspect of this issue. Netting is being used more and more, almost as a safeguard—just in case—but it ought not to be. It should really be installed by an ecologist and checked several times a day to ensure that nothing is trapped inside. Developers are far too relaxed in their use of the procedure. It seems to me that there is very little regulation, inspection or checking.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come on to those issues, but I acknowledge that, sadly, a bird died in her constituency as a result of being trapped in netting.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware of a recent controversy affecting my constituency, where netting was placed over cliffs before a major project called sandscaping to build up the beaches and improve coastal protection. Does he agree that it is really important that there is close collaboration on such schemes between councils and bodies such as the RSPB to ensure that everything is done absolutely properly to protect birds?

Yes. I became aware of the Norfolk case through the Petitions Committee’s interactive work, and I was shocked that the practice extended to such schemes. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point.

As we have seen in reaction to netting across the country, many of my constituents wrote to the council to protest against the installation of nets on the hedgerow in Hartlepool and its effect on wildlife and on birds’ nests. However, netting is used not just on housing developments but in all kinds of scenarios, including on major infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2.

Last month, HS2 contractors began netting hedgerows on the route near Quainton in Buckinghamshire, causing outrage among environmentalists. HS2 contends that all the work is legal, and it has employed an ecologist to monitor the site. In a statement, it said:

“The installation of this netting was carried out by HS2 contractors, as part of the pre-works for National Grid’s gas pipeline diversion scheme. This temporary netting is to discourage birds from nesting during construction and was installed before the nesting season started. The netting was installed under the direction of a suitably experienced ecologist and is monitored daily.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on opening the debate and I thank everyone who signed the petition. I think he must have read my speech, but the point bears repetition. Does he agree that the Government are the offender here, since HS2 is a Government project, so it is important that the Minister and her Front-Bench colleagues listen carefully to what environmentalists require so that schemes such as HS2 do not continue to murder our wildlife indiscriminately?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her contribution. It shocked me that this was happening on a Government-led scheme, and that the contractors were working to Government directives on this matter. I hope that is a wake-up call for the management of any future projects of such scale.

In response to the HS2 netting, the RSPB acknowledged that the practice was not illegal, but it said that

“careful consideration will be needed to develop rules around netting that really help birds, and allow legitimate activity to continue. But we cannot stand by and let the current practices spread unchallenged.”

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. I should probably declare that I am a member of the RSPB. Part of the issue is that the use of netting is voluntary, and we use it because we wish to develop. It should be used only when absolutely necessary—when there is no other option and it is in the best interests of wildlife—but almost every time it is used, that is not the case.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to the way forward, as the industry describes it, but she is absolutely correct.

Although it is an offence to destroy an active nest, there are currently no laws to prevent the installation of netting. The RSPB and other charities, such as the Woodland Trust, propose changes to current practice and the introduction of laws that commit the Government to ensuring the recovery and protection of nature and wildlife, which would cause practices such as netting to come under much closer scrutiny.

The RSPB went on to say:

“We all need nature in our lives–which means giving birds and other wildlife, more, not less room to breed, feed and sing.”

There may be some good, practical reasons why the banning of netting in all circumstances would not be either desirable or enforceable, but should we not, at the very least, ban netting during the breeding season?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. At the heart of this debate is the fact that the netting typically goes on before the nesting season. That is the whole point of the netting, as far as I can derive, so that proposition is timely and important.

I have spoken to people in the construction industry, who state that the practice of netting is done before the nesting season, always on an ecologically sound footing and in accordance with the law. They claim that netting is applied in a manner that is sensitive to the environment and to wildlife, and under the supervision of specialists. They have raised concerns with me that where wildlife has come under threat or been trapped behind the netting, it is often as a result of the netting being tampered with or shredded after its application.

Current restrictions lead to developers using nets to cover hedgerows and trees in and around their sites before any nesting activity begins, as that could stop or restrict building during the summer months. Legislation protecting nesting birds is pretty much exclusive to section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to destroy, damage or harm wild birds and nests that are in use or being built; to kill, injure or take any wild bird; to take, damage or destroy the nest of a wild bird; and to destroy an egg of any wild bird. To back that up, Natural England guidance states:

“You must not do any work which might harm nesting birds or destroy their nests. You’ll usually find nesting birds during the main nesting and breeding season from 1 March to 31 August.”

There is also legislation protecting hedgerows, which are described by the Woodland Trust as

“the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK”

that support

“a large diversity of flora and fauna.”

Many hedgerows are protected under the Hedgerows Regulations 1997, based on their age, length, location or importance. The regulations make it illegal to remove protected hedgerows without permission from the local planning authority. However, not all hedgerows are protected, and legal obligations on planning authorities are either complex or insufficient.

There is clearly strong opinion on this matter, and a mark of that is the fact that the petition calls for netting to become a criminal offence. There is no doubt that pressure has been put on developers, with some of them reviewing their practices; Bovis Homes and Bellway, for example, intend to change their policies to stop the use of netting at any of their sites. The industry’s union, the Home Builders Federation, says:

“As we build the homes the country needs, the industry is committed to supporting and enhancing biodiversity, proactively protecting wildlife and providing an overall increase in the number of trees.”

Is that enough to strike a balance between the need of people to have homes to live in and the need to protect our wildlife and green spaces?

There is no doubt that this petition has raised plenty of interest in the national press and media, as well as strong feelings. Perhaps it is time to make the law stronger, in an effort to protect our indigenous species and the environment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on opening the debate so well and referring to my main bugbear: HS2.

When I looked at the petition, of the 355,631 signatures, 1,162 came from my constituency, and 5,454 people from an area covering Aylesbury, Buckingham, Wycombe and Beaconsfield signed the petition to express their concern about netting and protecting birds. That is a sizeable number of people and reflects the great concern that is shown for our environment in Buckinghamshire.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time on my uncle’s farm in south Wales. One of the great joys was to go around the farm and pick up the egg shells after the birds had hatched—I used to save them. There were always a multitude of different birds nesting around the farm site. Over the years, living in the countryside, I have noticed a reduction in bird life, not least among small hedgerow birds and birds that were very common in my youth. There used to be an abundance of sparrows, but in my back garden I do not see as many sparrows as I used to see 40 or 50 years ago. The RSPB says that, over the last 50 years we have lost over 40 million birds in the UK; that is a great loss that cannot be replaced.

As the hon. Member for Hartlepool said, it is an offence to destroy an active nest but there are no laws to prevent the installation of nets. The Government need to look at that and regulate for it, because it is not necessary to leave this to the market. We need to have a positive intervention that will make some difference. The RSPB spokesperson said:

“We cannot keep trying to squeeze nature into smaller and smaller spaces or demanding it fits in with our plans. This is an issue we are talking to the Government about as they look at what needs to happen over the next 25 years to stop our wildlife from continuing to vanish at an alarming rate.”

As I said in my intervention, the trouble is that the Government are just as big an offender as any housing developer; they need to take that on board. The route chosen for HS2 passes through irreplaceable natural habitats and unspoiled ecosystems. Constructing a railway line with a land-take equivalent to a four-lane motorway will have a devastating effect on the natural environment in these areas. Over 130 wildlife sites on the first stage alone will be directly affected, including 10 sites of special scientific interest, an area of outstanding natural beauty and 50 ancient woodlands. That is in my backyard.

HS2 will cause an unacceptable level of damage to European, national and county-important species. A number of European protected species are present within the proposed HS2 route corridor, including the otter, the great crested newt and several species of bats. In addition, nationally protected species such as freshwater crayfish, stag beetle, smooth newt, great crested newt, common frog, slowworm, common lizard, European water vole, Eurasian badger, rare butterflies and breeding birds are known to be present in the impact zone.

The HS2 Action Alliance believes that insufficient regard has been paid to the impact of HS2 on biodiversity. Specific concerns about the risks facing wildlife include where the HS2 route is likely to cause direct loss or damage to the wildlife site through the land-take. This leads to the severance of habitats, causing fragmentation; reduction in the size of habitat areas; direct impacts on vegetation and on sedentary animal populations, for example in woodland and ponds; and/or the creation of barriers that affect the behaviour of species on a site, such as foraging.

The further environmental impact on ancient woodlands—areas that have been covered by woods for over 400 years—is alarming. Their biodiversity value cannot be recreated by replacement planting; nor can the habitats for birds be replaced, because birds return to the same site, and their behaviour will not always coincide with the marvellous plantation that has been created by the developer in another area, in another place. HS2 is systematically destroying a large corridor of the countryside through the centre of Buckinghamshire, and elsewhere, to make way for a railway that is literally costing the earth.

As the hon. Gentleman said, HS2 says that while the work is being carried out, it is using an ecologist to monitor events; that includes the netting being used to prevent birds from using their regular nesting sites, which is monitored daily. I decided to test the water by putting in a written question asking who the ecologists monitoring the sites are, how often they visit—how many times a day—and how many birds or how much other wildlife they have found dead or dying, or have released. Without digging into the detail, it is easy to state that the work is being done under the guidance of ecologists, when what is happening on the ground could be completely different. I look to the Minister to encourage the Department for Transport to give me not one of its brush-off answers to the question, but a detailed one, so that we can be reassured that where the Government are in charge, they are keeping up with their responsibilities.

I cannot remember whether it is the RSPB or Natural England that says the nets need to be checked three times a day by people who know what they are doing. I do not believe that that is happening. Was the right hon. Lady able to glean any more information about that when she did her research?

The hon. Lady will know that I often have a great deal of difficulty getting any information about HS2 out of the powers that be, but I continue to press because I do not believe we should give up. I have only been at it 10 years, trying to scrutinise the project. I hope I have another 10 years to go.

HS2 was clear in its statement about the bird netting:

“The netting was installed under the direction of a suitably experienced ecologist and is monitored daily”,

but I want further and better particulars, as they say. I am not entirely convinced that those nets will be monitored on a daily basis. Perhaps I will be called cynical, but I want to check. It is important, particularly in the light of the number of people showing great concern about what is a relatively new development, in terms of trying to get rid of some of our wildlife and bird species.

The right hon. Lady is making an excellent point. In my constituency I have seen where the habitat of ground-nesting birds—lapwings in particular—has been destroyed by herbicides being put down on sites that developers hope to develop. Does she agree that we need not just stronger legislation but stronger penalties for such actions that deliberately harm our wildlife, including actions leading to the destruction of raptors? I see such actions happening across my constituency, and there is little repercussion.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and I shall let it stand, but I should certainly be interested to see where the route lies and where the path takes us. There is no doubt about it: 20 years ago, after I became the MP for Chesham and Amersham, one of the great joys in the Chiltern hills was the reintroduction of the red kite. One of the great pleasures—if the hon. Lady would like to come out and visit the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty—is to see the red kites flying. They really are a source of great joy. It is a pity that we cannot do the same with some of our smaller nesting birds, which, sadly, we are losing.

I think I have made my point about HS2 and the Minister has heard it, but I must say that it begs the question why, if parts of the countryside have to be removed to make way for so-called progress, tree and hedge removals cannot be completed outside the nesting season. After all, it has taken 10 years and we do not even have the go-ahead for HS2, but we are already damaging the environment—irreparably, in my view—with the enabling works, even though we do not know whether the project will go ahead.

We are engaged in a major battle for the environment against global warming. Today we are discussing another battle—the battle for our birds in the United Kingdom. If we do not pay attention to the smallest creatures of our wildlife, we shall end up with a sorry, barren world, in which the next generations will be forced to live.

I think this is the first time that you have chaired a debate that I have taken part in, Ms McDonagh, so it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.

It is good to see so many hon. Members here to discuss this important environmental issue. We have already heard some excellent speeches on the consequences of netting and the action required. I commend the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), who set the scene well.

In a short speech, I will concentrate mainly on my constituent, Maggie Moran, who started the petition that is the reason we are all here this afternoon. Maggie and her family are in Parliament today. She started her petition in the early hours of the morning after a long shift at Hull Royal Infirmary, where she works. At first it was shared among friends; it went on to gain more than 300,000 signatures, national media coverage and a response from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which I understand has written to developers reminding them of their legal obligations.

Maggie was kind enough to write to me before the debate. I know that she has also spoken to the media and received a lot of media coverage, and has explained why this issue is so important to her. In her note to me, she talks powerfully of her upbringing and how her family instilled in her a deep love and respect for nature. She speaks fondly of holidays where she and her father calculated the age of hedgerows. As she reminds us, our hedgerows are ancient, beautiful, rich ecosystems. They are homes, breeding grounds, safe corridors and hibernation spots for birds, bats, dormice, reptiles, insects, hedgehogs and others. They play a major part in preventing soil loss and reducing flooding. I represent a constituency in east Yorkshire. The Humber estuary is prone to flooding and 95% of the city of Hull is below sea level, so flooding is an important issue for me and my constituents. Also, hedgerows help to reduce road noise, and they produce oxygen, which of course helps with the climate challenge. Hedgerows are not obstacles to be removed, but life support systems to be protected. As has been discussed in more depth today, netting puts those fragile ecosystems at risk. It can entrap birds, dormice, bats and hedgehogs, separating them from their nests and food, injuring them and even putting their lives at risk.

We must look seriously at ending the practice of netting, but we must also think beyond that. Last year in the UK, numbers of bats, hedgehogs, birds and insects continued to plummet. The UN report last week spoke powerfully of how nature’s decline will presage our own. Awareness is growing that to support society, we must change the rules to give nature room to thrive. The Government must look again at how the developments we need—houses, schools and hospitals—can be achieved without destroying nature. As Maggie said, we must look at prioritising brownfield land, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England has said can be used for more than 1 million homes on 18,000 sites. When greenfield is the only option, we should include original habitats, including hedgerows and trees, in the designs.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech; I hope her constituent appreciates what she is saying on her behalf. As parliamentary species champion for the swift, I am keen to ensure that in urban development we put swift bricks into houses, which provide those birds with a habitat,. That is a really easy step and councils such as, I think, Exeter have made it compulsory for new developments. Does she agree that that is an excellent way to provide a home for swifts?

My hon. Friend, who is a great champion of nature and the environment, makes an important point. If that practice could be spread far and wide, it would be an excellent measure.

I will conclude by saying that it was nice to meet Maggie’s children Nell and John today; they are seeing at first hand what campaigning can achieve. Maggie told me that she put together the petition and brought her children to Parliament today because she hopes they will witness the lesson that, if we speak out, we can create real change for the future. To use her words:

“I want them to see that…if they believe in a cause, and if they have conviction and are willing to speak out and work hard, then anything can be achieved”.

I am profoundly thankful to Maggie for raising this issue with us. I hope that this debate will prove her right and that action will be forthcoming to deal with netting of hedgerows.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on obtaining this debate in response to the public e-petition, which has rightly engendered a lot of support and interest up and down the country.

The petition comes virtually at the same time as the publication of the United Nations report that shows the extinction rates accelerating and “nature’s dangerous decline”. That report, from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, raises some interesting points. It ascribes some of the loss of those natural species and habitats to

“changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species”.

I instigated a debate here on the latter subject not long ago, regarding the importing of plants, trees and so forth from overseas.

It seems to me that the RSPB strikes a chord when it states:

“We cannot keep trying to squeeze nature into smaller and smaller spaces or demanding it fits in with our plans.”

The problem is that since 1970 the global human population has more than doubled, from 3.7 billion to 7.6 billion. Since 1900, the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%. There has also been a 100% growth of urban areas since 1992. All those things conspire to squeeze out nature or, if not to squeeze it out, to squeeze it into a tighter spot.

That is why I believe that, with the exception of some eminent hon. Members sitting around this Chamber, we have woken up very late to all this. There must be a trade-off between economic growth and the need to provide houses for people, which no one debates, and the requirement to ensure that the built environment is sustainable for the natural environment. We cannot have one without the other. Where would the world be without birdsong? A very sad place. Where would the world be without swallows? I have not spotted a swallow in my part of the world, Devon, at all this year.

Doing nothing is simply not an option. For too long we have put up with some of the behaviour of the volume house builders. It is perhaps unfair to paint them all with the same brush. It is an easy thing to castigate, but somebody has to build those houses. I lament that there are not more local house builders. I think this Government can do a lot more, as they have said they will, in encouraging smaller local house builders—those same house builders who were squeezed out by the last recession—to play their role, because they are from the communities in which they will be building, so they are likely to build in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

Time and time again we have seen, up and down the country, the major volume house builders riding roughshod over local planning officers—because there are not enough of them and many of them are not qualified enough—changing the terms on which they develop and, too often, squeezing out the natural environment. I am not against profit; I am a Conservative, and I believe in profit and that a rising tide lifts all ships. However, I am a believer in responsible capitalism, and it is about time that this Government, or any Government of any hue, were a little tougher with some of those volume house builders. Perhaps then we, as Members of Parliament, would not have to put up with so many constituents complaining to us about shoddy finishes and the like.

The point the right hon. Gentleman is making about the volume house builders and their complete disregard, it seems to me, for some of the planning regulations in place has been reflected in my local authority area. In Humberston, Persimmon Homes has cut down about 200 perfectly healthy trees to build its properties without having the proper permissions in place. It will now have to replant all those trees, but they should not have been removed in the first place. Does he agree that there should be much more enforceable action on these big build companies to ensure that they adhere to the rules that are laid down in the first place?

I do and I do not agree; I agree that that sort of behaviour is wholly unacceptable, but I do not agree that they should replace like for like, if it is the case that they have done this where there were tree preservation orders or the like. If they have cut down a number of trees, they should be obliged to plant many, many times the amount of trees they have cut down, to encourage a change in the pattern of their behaviour.

I am afraid that it often comes down to the lack of local planning officers or their inability to challenge those large companies. Local councils are terrified of being taken to appeal, because then they have to fund it, so it becomes a vicious circle and a win-win for the volume house builders, as we have seen—although I say again to the volume house builders, or their representatives watching this debate, that I do not view them all in the same light.

That is one of the points on which I wish to conclude. The Government have been quite clear, but they need to be a little bit clearer what they are going to do about this. Why do we not have a register run by the Department, naming and shaming the worst offenders, so we can see on a regular basis which house builders and developers are behaving responsibly and which are not? There are also such things as shareholder action groups, and they and others can vote at annual general meetings and so forth and can bring the matter to the board’s attention. Naming and shaming, in this instance, is an extraordinarily good way to proceed.

I believe it is time to stand up to that sort of abuse. We are in the slight conundrum—or I am—of castigating some of these volume house builders while at the same time recognising that we need to build more houses, and quickly, if we are to avert what is becoming a national crisis in getting younger people on to the housing ladder. However, with the current scrutiny of developers, I would have thought it would make eminent good sense from the point of view of their own public relations. Indeed, if I were advising them—I am not available to advise them, incidentally—on public relations, I would say, “This is precisely the sort of headline that we don’t want to read about ourselves.”

In my constituency, there are a couple of developments on greenfield sites. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) report that Bellway has now decided not to use netting, because until a few weeks ago it had netted an area in my constituency where it was about to develop, which, as he said, caused great uproar and consternation among people who were opposed to the development in the first place.

That is very good and shows that some of these companies are more concerned about the environment than gross profit—or, indeed, net profit. They should concentrate on having no netting, not net profit, in some instances.

To conclude, a list of offenders would be a good thing. However, I do not think that we should use a hammer to crack a nut. Parliamentarians should insist only on proportionate, enforceable legislation. As I said, I am not convinced that it is either desirable or practical to ban netting of hedgerows, bushes and trees throughout the year—because I am not really an environmentalist in this sense, I do not know whether it is. However, as a start, we should ban netting during the breeding season, which the Minister will hopefully say something about when she concludes the debate. If we can achieve that this afternoon, it seems to me that we will not have wasted our time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), along with the Petitions Committee, for securing this important debate.

Many of us will have sung the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Some will have sung it rather well, and some, like me, less well, but we will all remember the line

“each little bird that sings”.

The dawn chorus provided by our feathered friends is one of life’s most uplifting and natural sounds. Let us not lose it; it is diminished as it is. We need to cherish it.

Birds have played an important part in our lives for centuries, from the canary that protected the miners to the pigeon that carried messages in war and the budgerigar that perhaps provided companionship to a person on their own. The wild birds in our hedgerows are equally important for our wellbeing, the pollination of our plants and tourism, bringing twitchers, if I may call them that, to areas such as the Isle of Islay, where there is a host of wildlife—it is well worth visiting—and Loch Doon, in my constituency, where ospreys nest.

It is important that humans and wildlife co-exist in harmony for a balanced ecosystem. It is therefore disappointing to learn of the practice of netting trees, bushes and hedgerows prior to construction work commencing on various sites, with the clear aim of preventing birds from nesting, alleviating the risk of delay to those developments. However, there is some good news, as has been mentioned: I understand that Bovis Homes and Bellway will not use netting at any of their sites. That is a welcome step, although I fully appreciate that there has to be a balance among supporting businesses, providing homes and protecting wildlife. Let us hope that other house builders, major and smaller—I am sure many smaller house builders have very good practices—follow the good practice of Bellway and Bovis.

The Woodland Trust believes that netting, while not necessarily unlawful—the relevant offence would be to take or destroy an active nest—shows a complete and selfish disregard for birds and other wildlife. The RSPB is campaigning to introduce a law to protect nest sites, to enable migrating birds to return and rear their young in a safe environment. I understand that the intention is to do so in a manner that does not prevent the development of land but encourages considerate and careful development. Potential options include the relocating or replacing of hedgerows at an early stage in development, prior to nesting season commencing, or putting up nesting boxes as a compensatory measure.

Birds and wildlife are part of our ecosystem and our planet, and we should embrace them, not evict them. Protection is available for bats nesting in buildings, with strict rules about disturbing their chosen habitat. Why should birds not be given the same or similar consideration, with a balanced approach between the needs of nature and of the developer? I ask the Minister to consider enhancing the protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which already protects nesting wild birds, to make netting an offence as well, although in a sensitive and balanced manner, to allow all interests to co-exist.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the points raised in the second petition, about returning birds, and that equal measures are needed for netting places where birds normally have their nests? They migrate and return to find netting there to prevent them from nesting. I opened up a small housing new build in Hartlepool only last Friday, and incorporated into those houses and bungalows were bat boxes and bird boxes. Such cheap and good practice should always be the way ahead.

I totally agree. We cannot meet our housing need, which I think we all agree we have to secure for our fellow citizens, at the expense of evicting wildlife or birds. We have to embrace them. Innovative ways have been suggested for how we can host them and make them part of our lives and part of our communities, because they are part of the planet and we need to share it. On that kindly note, I shall end my speech.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on securing the debate. His observation on the plastic-waste debris from this practice flies in the face of pollution from plastic not ruining our planet. It is hard to believe that this is actually a practice at this moment.

I also liked what the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) said on HS2. The reckless ruination of ancient woodlands and the subsequent impact on wildlife is not acceptable and should not go ahead. I particularly praise the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and her constituents for raising the petition. I very much liked the points of the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on volume house-builders and championing local builders. We need to hear an awful lot more of that throughout the whole UK.

As we all know, there are few greater pleasures in life than the music of wild birdsong. The dawn chorus has just been mentioned, and blackbirds and robins in our gardens are an absolute pleasure for us all to watch. In fact, I have a one-eyed blackbird in my back garden who goes round in the same direction all the time. I do not know if that is because of where I put the food out, but that is the way that he manages to go. Birds are very much part of the sights and sounds of our communities. They are everywhere. They are the embodiment of the natural world, which is why it is abhorrent to see them taken for granted, to the extent that they can be disregarded like pests or vermin.

In my hometown of Denny and Stoneywood, I have witnessed probably some of the worst practices of developers. Some giant sequoias—giant redwoods—planted 50 or 60 years ago by local children were cut down accidentally by a developer, and I never felt such a gut-wrenching feeling in all my life. Netting prevents birds from breeding in their natural environment, and it has become so prevalent that their numbers could be at risk. If someone in the future reads of the practice of netting to aid housing development, they would be forgiven for thinking that this country and the planet was going through a pronounced period of planet stability and had an overabundance of wildlife. One would think the planet was managing very well, when we all know that that is not the case—perhaps apart from the developers of this mad scheme.

It appears to any casual observer that developers and conservationists have laid down together in amity on this, but I emphasise that that is not the case. Like others, I was taken aback when made aware of this practice. I was absolutely astonished and astounded to see those nets all over these trees. Stories are widespread that trees in some areas across the country have been covered in nets before developers even have planning permission. As if dealing with climate change is not enough, our birds, some returning from abroad, find their nesting sites on trees, bushes and hedges draped in plastic nets.

I congratulate the Morans for initiating the debate and for putting the issue on the agenda in the way that they have; I assume these are the Morans in the Gallery. We have heard about the massive decline in bird numbers in this country—14 million in the last 50 years, according to the RSPB. Habitat loss is a big part of that, and netting is increasingly a part of habitat loss. It may not be the biggest part, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is without doubt the crudest demonstration of, at best, our disregard for the natural world, and at worst the ongoing war against nature that we have seen in this country, which has massively reduced our biodiversity and which needs to be addressed, if necessary through legislation?

I totally agree. This practice sends all the wrong messages about what we are trying to do; it gives everyone the wrong message. We should be sending clear messages that we are environmentalists and are trying to protect our planet. This practice tells people the opposite, and the fact that those employing the practice think that they can get away with it is, again, unacceptable. Others have mentioned what we need to do about that.

As we have heard, there are two open parliamentary petitions concerned with bird nesting. The one that we are discussing is specifically about making the netting of hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting a criminal offence, and I believe that it had attracted more than 350,000 signatures by 2 May. As has been mentioned, articles in The Guardian and reports on the BBC have shown where nets are being used across the UK and have helped to highlight the deep concerns of the public and prominent environmentalists. Important organisations, including the Woodland Trust and the RSPB, have led the objections to the practice. Environmentalists Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham have spoken out against it, warning of the impact of the widespread use of nets. Only a fool would ignore the warnings from those great people.

In Scotland, section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it an offence to obstruct or prevent any bird from using its nest, and section 5 makes it an offence to use a net to kill or take a wild bird. However, provided that the net is put on before nest building commences, no offence is committed under that legislation, which is strange. Under the habitats regulations, it is an offence deliberately or recklessly to obstruct access to a breeding site or resting place of a European protected species or otherwise to deny the animal use of the breeding site or resting place. Similarly, it is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place used by the species protected under schedule 5 to that Act.

Scotland, like other countries, is a nation of animal lovers. We take the welfare of our pets, wild creatures and livestock very seriously. Developers in Scotland are aware that they have a responsibility to preserve important environmental assets such as landscapes and wildlife habitats. They should act responsibly and care for our natural habitats. Given that there is a significant body of European Union legislation on animal welfare, the Scottish Government, through the SNP, will work to ensure that the Government here ensure that the protections that that offers are maintained and that there is no lapse in standards in this arena as the UK leaves the EU.

Calls have been made for those wishing to keep birds away from certain sites to work in harmony with nature, not against it. Why not work around the nesting season and employ someone who knows about wildlife to advise on how people should go about their business while causing the least harm? I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham about how often checks must be done. If nets cannot be avoided, regular checks should be made to ensure that no bird or wild animal has been caught in them.

I have to say that, even with some safeguards in place, my feeling is that this practice is in no way acceptable. If we treasure our precious wildlife at all, netting simply has to stop. If developers will not exercise proper care and diligence, suitable penalties should be applied to them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on introducing the debate in the way he did and on setting out the need for urgent action to stop the cruel and inhumane practice of netting of bird nesting sites. Every bird matters, and because our wildlife does not have a political voice of its own, it is important that we in this place provide that voice. Today, the Minister will have heard a comprehensive and cross-party argument—on both sides of the House—as to why this cruel practice needs to be stopped and why measures need to be taken to discourage not only developers but, as a number of colleagues have said, the public sector and public organisations from using this practice.

Humans are threatening our planet’s wildlife. They are causing huge and potentially irreversible climate change, and we all need to do something to stop it. A few weeks ago, the House agreed to a Labour motion declaring a climate emergency. The emergency is not just about carbon. Although it is about carbon, it is also about species loss, habitat decline and the pollution of our seas and waterways and our atmosphere. All of that needs to be taken together. When it comes to habitat decline, netting around bird nesting sites is a contributor to the wider issue of habitat loss—a point made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). From the bees that pollinate our crops, to the forests that hold back flood waters, the report published last week by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reveals how humans are ravaging the very ecosystems that support our society.

It is not a coincidence that the same quote has been given by both a Labour and a Conservative Member of Parliament:

“We cannot keep trying to squeeze nature into smaller and smaller spaces or demanding it fits in with our plans.”

We need cross-party consensus that we will not accept any form of economic behaviour without a plan as to how it will protect our environment.

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is making a very good case for the need for cross-party consensus on what is a long-term problem. If we are to deal with nets on nesting sites, does he agree that we should also do something about roosting sites, which are not mentioned in the current legislation? In Whorlton, in my constituency, thousands of starlings have been doing murmurations for the last two years, but some developers, where they are building new houses, want to knock down the hedges that have become the roosting sites of those starlings. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should also cover the issue of roosting sites if we are taking the time to change the legislation?

I agree that this is a complex area that requires detailed consultation not only with developers, but with public-sector land managers, such as Network Rail, HS2 and local councils. We also need to look at the way our wildlife uses not only our built environment but our natural environment in different ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) made a clear distinction between building on brownfield and building on greenfield sites, but there can be bird nesting sites in beautiful trees on both brownfield and greenfield sites, so we need to take steps to deal with what is sometimes a false distinction in our legislation between brown and green, but also to deal with the different ways in which different species use our built environments. I am grateful for the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) has just made.

The report from the UN said that we need “transformative change” to stop the trend of habitat loss, and we do. That is why it is really important that the Minister take the concerns expressed in this debate not only back to her Department—I hope that she will speak about the built environment in a moment—but to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because we need a cross-Government approach to address many of these concerns.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. It is important that we look at how we farm our land. The vast majority of land in this country is used for growing food, and there is a real issue because as it becomes more industrialised in scale, there are fewer hedgerows, bigger fields and less attention to biodiversity. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should support measures to encourage farmers to farm more sustainably, with more regard for the biodiversity on the land?

I agree entirely. A few weeks ago, I visited a farm just outside Plymouth run by a fantastic farmer called Johnny Haimes, who demonstrated how agriculture could be more sustainable and still be profitable. That is the type of best practice that we need to encourage right across our agricultural sectors if we are to address the high levels of carbon that they use, but also to make our soils and our waterways in and around those agricultural lands more sustainable.

A number of hon. Members have made the point that it is not just developers that we need to look at. As the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) said, we need to look at how the public sector should lead by example on this matter. The majority of that can be done by local councils, but the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), in the good and passionate rebuke to austerity that I am glad he made, spoke about the loss of planning inspectors at local level. That has hollowed out some of the expertise, particularly in relation to wildlife; I am thinking of the loss of wildlife officers from our local councils.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the superb work that the Labour council in Exeter has done in choosing swift bricks. More councils should be looking at that. Indeed, about a month ago, there was a national day for putting up a bird box, and my mum—who should always get a good mention in these debates—bought me not one, not two, but three bird boxes for my birthday, so my garden in Plymouth has plenty more nesting sites.

That brings me to a good point about whether the habitats that are lost should be replaced one for one. That is a discussion that has just been had. I mentioned to the Minister before the debate that there was a fantastic piece on “Countryfile” last night about the net gain consultation—perfect wordplay for the debate that we are having today

That consultation was run by DEFRA, and it asked whether we should have a net gain of biodiversity if there is to be economic development. The Government consultation received 670 responses and closed in February. In theory, the results are to be published alongside the environment Bill later this year. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether that is still the plan, because we know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs publishes plenty of consultations, but takes very little concrete action. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what she intends to do in respect of that.

We are seeing species decline in all parts of our wildlife in every part of the United Kingdom. The breeding farmland bird index is falling. It has declined by more than half since 1970. The breeding woodland bird index for the UK declined by 25% between 1970 and 2017. We cannot keep squeezing nature into smaller spaces and we must put the environment at the heart of Government policy. The best way to do that is for the Government to lead by example in the projects that they run and the leadership that they can provide for the environment sector.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. In the past fortnight, many of us attended an RSPB drop-in called “Let nature sing”. I am sure that we all supported the goal of getting their nature CD into the charts. I am told it got to number 18 in the charts. There is a bigger issue. He is talking about planning issues and squeezing nature. Many residents are concerned that when we develop greenfield sites in particular, but other sites as well, it feels as if the environment is a long way down the priorities list. We look at off-site mitigation and other things, but what we want to do is preserve the site. This has been a huge issue in my constituency recently.

Singles like that would make a proud addition to my collection of Britney and Kylie songs on iTunes, so we need to promote it. We also need to ensure that every type of economic activity that we have as a country becomes greener. If we are to meet our Paris climate change obligations, we need to remove 80% of the carbon from our economy. We will not be able to do that simply by recycling some more plastic bottles. We need fundamental economic change. The UN report on species loss outlined the transformative change that is required, and made it clear that when it comes to the loss of habitat in respect of the trees and hedgerows that are being lost through bird netting we need to take quicker action.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he ignored me when I tried to ask him to give way earlier, when he was talking about net gain. Regarding the aim of net gain, I hope that we all will observe that in some instances it is impossible. If we destroy ancient woodland, we cannot replace it: it is irreplaceable. I look at net gain with a great deal of scepticism, as I hope others do.

The right hon. Lady is right to be cautious, because with net gain the devil is in the detail. It cannot simply be used as a stamp, to pretend that it makes the activity greener when it does not. A number of us share that suspicion about the consultation, so I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that.

Finally, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I thank Maggie Moran, Nell and John for their work in setting up the petition, as well as Simon Leadbeater, who initiated the second petition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned. We all need to do our bit to put pressure on developers, to ensure that the cruel and inhumane practice of netting precious bird-nesting sites comes to an end. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how the Government will be doing that with a cross-Government approach in the weeks and months ahead.

It is also my first time serving with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on securing the debate. I am sure it was a bit of a lottery and that probably many people applied for it.

As we have heard, more than 355,000 signatures are on the petition. That shows the strength of feeling about the misuse of anti-bird netting in our country, so I am pleased to see the passion shown in this debate. I am grateful for the contributions made by hon. Members from across the House and representing most parts of the country. The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), who has unfortunately had to leave, highlighted the importance of developers using netting when it is not necessary. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) reminded us that netting should only be used outside the nesting and breeding season. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) made such a powerful point about the great interest shown in this issue by the good citizens of the Buckinghamshire area in particular.

I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position and the action we are taking, and to respond to the important points made in the debate. This Government share the public’s concern about the misuse of anti-bird netting. That is why we lost no time in taking action. On 8 April, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government set out the Government’s views. In an open letter to major developers, circulated by the Home Builders Federation to all its members, he made it clear that using anti-bird netting to prevent birds from nesting is not acceptable. He called on house builders to act, reminding them of the Natural England guidelines that specify what surveys of the potentially developed land are to be carried out, and how we can prevent or mitigate any danger to wildlife.

It is worth taking a moment to remember why this is so important. Native bird species have been in shocking decline since the 1960s, with 40 million birds vanishing from our skies. Some 56% of bird species in the UK are in decline. Nets stop birds getting through to make their nests. Gaps in the netting can leave birds trapped or young birds unfed.

I am aware that this is a complex issue. Nesting birds present in trees and hedges can cause real delays to construction. Some of the nets are placed with good intentions. In Norfolk recently, a district council draped nets over cliffs so that a sandscaping project could proceed. However, the nets covered more than the spring breeding ground of sand martins than was necessary. In this case, with advice from the RSPB, the upper section of the netting was removed, allowing nesting where there was no risk to the birds during the work.

A lot of people were very distressed when they saw the pictures of the sand martins that had flown thousands of miles back from their winter migration and could not get back to their nests. I accept that there probably needed to be some work done on coastal erosion, or whatever the reason for the netting was, but there must be an issue of timing with such things. It was done at exactly the wrong time, when those birds were returning to their homes.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. That council has learnt its lesson. It should have brought the RSPB in much earlier, but it did rectify the situation. I also watched that footage and it was very distressing.

Netting is permissible if the intention is to protect birds, but I suspect that many of those who signed the petition are concerned that these rules are often carefully misunderstood by some developers. Netting should never be used to hinder the natural cycle of nest building and the nurturing and feeding of young birds. Nets should protect birds not profits.

The law on protecting birds and preventing the disturbance of nests is clear. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, prosecutions can be brought if someone causes unnecessary suffering to a bird by an act or failure to act, especially when the person concerned knew or reasonably ought to have known that their action or inaction would cause harm. Breaches can lead to fines or imprisonment. I am happy to acknowledge that some developers get the message. As we have heard, Bellway and Bovis Homes have declared that they are both changing their policies to stop the use of bird netting, and Barratt Homes does not net hedges or trees on any of its 400 or so sites across England, Scotland and Wales. Their actions show that it is possible not to use bird netting when firms plan ahead, so that construction does not clash with the nest-making and chick-rearing season.

As we have just marked Hedgehog Awareness Week, I am particularly aware that there must be wider recognition that we must do all we can to safeguard and enhance our biodiversity for the future. Today, local authorities already have a duty, under our national planning policy framework, to pursue net gains for biodiversity. The Government intend to give local authorities more powers to insist on the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. Our 25-year environment plan is a symbol of that deep commitment and a reflection of our shared desire to leave our environment in a better place than we found it. To answer the question of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) specifically, our forthcoming Environment Bill will make biodiversity net gain mandatory for development.

The Minister is doing well in picking up on all the points. If it will be made mandatory for all developers, why do the Government not make it mandatory right now for HS2 to stop its netting?

Regretfully, we need legislation to do that. When the Bill comes in, that will be the legislative vehicle for it, because whether it is birds or hedgehogs, we are determined that our wildlife does not just survive, but thrives.

I sit on the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which have been conducting pre-legislative scrutiny on the bits of the Environment Bill that have been published. Although I welcome the idea of biodiversity net gain, there is real concern about how it would be enforced. It is not something that we can replace like for like; it would take an awfully long time to replace what was destroyed, and in some cases, it could not be replaced. I urge the Minister to talk to environmentalists, ecologists and other specialists about whether it is feasible to make the proposed swap.

Again, the hon. Lady makes a perfectly reasonable point. I am sure the people in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have heard it and will pick up on it.

DEFRA’s recent consultation proposed introducing a requirement for new developments to deliver a 10% net gain for biodiversity, onsite or off. It also includes an alternative tariff that developers could pay to offset the costs of providing environmental improvements. I look forward to seeing those proposals considered and debated in due course. I hope the hon. Lady will be involved in that.

Does the Minister accept that many residents faced with the loss of hedges or the offsite mitigation of environmental benefits are unhappy? They want their local environment to be preserved for birds and other wildlife and for local enjoyment, rather than some money to be paid to address the issue in another place.

In every planning application, the matter will be dealt with at the local level, so local wishes will be part of the decision-making process.

I am sorry to say this to the Minister, but if the legal framework is inadequate, the local planning authority cannot take such matters into account, because it does not have the vires—the powers—to do it. That is why we are looking for legal change in the area.

Indeed, and as I like to remind hon. Members, that will be debated as part of the Environment Bill when it is introduced. I am sure that all hon. Members present would like to take part in that debate when it happens.

In due course.

There is no question of making a choice between homes and nature. We can and must have both, because for us, as well as for animals, the benefits are clear. Our natural environment can have a profound impact on our physical and mental health. We need access to our natural environment; it is part of what makes life on earth worth while.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with all of us. Our planning system and our planning authorities play an essential role in the mix; mechanisms allow them to say what can and cannot take place on a construction site, as well as when. Planning conditions, including surveys and other pre-construction stages, can be enforced by local authorities. If developers do not comply, a development may become unlawful.

The Government are working tirelessly to set up further protections. Through our revised national planning policy framework, and with help from stakeholders such as the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust, we are supporting planning tools that protect our natural environment. We have increased the protections for irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees; any loss or harm from development must be “wholly exceptional”. We have also clarified the importance of local wildlife sites in plan making by introducing the need for plan makers to take a proactive approach to rising temperatures and, wherever possible, to help to improve environmental conditions, including water and air quality.

As announced in the housing White Paper in 2017, we have provided £6.9 million over three years to Natural England, which will allow it to roll out a proportionate risk-based approach to protected species licensing nationally—principally, for great crested newts. That will provide greater protection at the same time as speeding up the process and reducing costs. We have also provided £210,000 to the Woodland Trust to support the first update of the ancient woodland inventory maps since the 1980s, to make protection more effective.

Developers must play their part in the wider wildlife agenda. They must provide access to new green space and develop green infrastructure, such as swift bricks, bat bricks and hedgehog highways, because our wildlife and its habitats are interconnected. We would like developers to design in as many nature-friendly stipulations as are reasonable. The Housing Minister saw that done impressively on a visit to Kidbrooke Village last week, where natural corridors and landscapes are a core part of the masterplan behind the regeneration. Let me be clear that gains in biodiversity must be genuine, not just a token gesture by a developer ticking a box by drilling holes for a theoretical hedgehog highway.

We must all play our part. Existing householders, neighbourhood planning bodies and parish and town councils can help to ensure that wildlife-friendly features are built into every garden in every neighbourhood. People can also make their voices heard—for example, the recent public outcry about the netting spread over a hedgerow in Berkshire led to it being removed by the council. Today’s petition is another example of democracy in action and people making their voices heard. Although we reject today’s call for yet more detailed regulation on bird netting—I have described the protections that already exist—I have the deepest respect for the aims of the petitioners, in particular Mrs Moran and her family.

Even as we pursue our campaign to build the homes this country so badly needs, we must do all we can to champion our natural environment. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”.

Equally, in the words of Joni Mitchell:

“They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.”

I hope we do not get to that.

Next to Hartlepool is RSPB Saltholme, which is a lovely nature reserve in an industrial landscape. Recently, a site of special scientific interest was extended around Hartlepool’s beautiful coast. Because netting had been used in my town for development, I was grateful that the Petitions Committee allowed me to introduce the debate.

I must thank the petitioner, Maggie Moran, who is present, and the second petitioner, Mr Leadbeater. I also thank the right hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and all hon. Members who intervened so wonderfully. I thank Petitions Committee staff for, as ever, getting involved in researching the subject and for all the interactive work they did on Facebook.

It has been a helpful and useful debate. I hope we make some progress to tighten up on a practice that has clearly been escalating lately, given the demands of the housing sector and the requirements to protect our wildlife. On the second petition, the netting of existing buildings to prevent migrant birds returning to their nests needs to be looked at as well. As has been pointed out in relation to HS2, the Government have a responsibility for the work that the contractors who work for them do on such big projects.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 244233 relating to protecting nesting sites for birds.

Sitting adjourned.