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House Sparrows

Volume 596: debated on Wednesday 3 February 1999

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2.53 p.m.

Whether they will respond to the rapid reduction in the number of house sparrows, especially in London, and whether the cause has been identified.

My Lords, the Government are aware of reports of the national decline in numbers of certain species of birds, including the house sparrow. While changes in agricultural practices are implicated as causing declines in house sparrow numbers in farmland areas, there is no evidence of significant declines in urban areas. However, the Government are monitoring the situation and will take what action they can to reverse this trend.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is not the Department of the Environment basing its assumptions on the last full census which was in 1991–92, rather a long time ago? Does my noble friend accept that her comments about agricultural and agri-chemical practices may be entirely relevant, for the decline is now very general indeed? It seems appropriate for my noble friend to suggest that the department should be associated with urgent research if that is necessary. Is my noble friend aware that for many years canaries were taken down mines to serve as health and safety indicators? The disappearance from the conurbations of such a common species as the house sparrow may have implications which we ought to consider seriously.

My Lords, my noble friend is correct to say that there is little quantitative information on the numbers of house sparrows in London. A paper by Oliver in 1997 found no change in the number in inner London in the areas in which the species was present. However, as my noble friend said, a decline has been reported. The most recent report from the British Trust for Ornithology refers to surveys, including one in the spring of 1995, showing a gradual decline of about 1 per cent. a year.

My Lords, would the noble Baroness the Minister care to come to visit me roughly 14 miles north-east of York, where she will see quite a lot of house sparrows? Does she not agree that it is encouraging that there are still some left in some parts of the country?

My Lords, I would be delighted to accept the noble Lady's invitation to visit and to see the position in that part of the country. The noble Lady may be interested to know that one of the problems with detecting the numbers of sparrows in a particular area is that sparrows may be subject to predation by magpies, squirrels or sparrowhawks. That can have an effect locally. I am informed that that predatory threat can cause small birds to skulk and become less visible.

My Lords, I am glad the Minister is aware that grey squirrels have been seen to take not only the eggs out of the nests of small birds but also the chicks. That has been verified by the Forestry Commission. In the light of what she said about reversing the decline, if indeed there is one, will she say what she would come forward with to control grey squirrels in order to arrest the decline in inner London?

My Lords, the noble Lord is very vocal in his support for dealing, in a final solution sort of way, with the problem of grey squirrels. He is also aware that many people in the country do not wish to see that. The Government are keen on the work being done at Sheffield University to control the population expansion through birth control for grey squirrels. Perhaps that would be the answer.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the time has come positively to reward farmers and landowners for managing their land in a positive way for environmental purposes? Can she say what the result of consultation has been on the need to protect wildlife sites? Is there any hope of an early government decision on that?

My Lords, the Government will treat the need for a decision as a matter of urgency. It is extremely important that we do all we can to encourage that kind of diversity. For that reason, through the Comprehensive Spending Review, we found £6 million more for English Nature, of which £2.6 million is to protect habitat and for work on biodiversity.

My Lords, larks are due to die out in four years' time. Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for the reduction in the numbers of game birds and other dicky birds is the unrestricted protection of raptors? Raptors have to be kept under control.

My Lords, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects all wild birds and fulfils the UK's obligations under the EC wild birds directive. The provisions of the Act provide a powerful framework for the conservation of wild birds, their eggs, nests and habitats. It does not permit the control of birds of prey.

My Lords, I was challenged by one of my noble friends to bring the European Union into this Question—and, of course, I always rise to challenges. Is not the over-use of artificial chemicals, fertilisers and insecticides and the rooting out of hedgerows, as a result of intensive farming due to the common agricultural policy—which, as everybody agrees, is absurd—a contributory factor to the loss not only of sparrows but of other birds and wildlife?

My Lords, the noble Lord identifies clearly and accurately one of the factors causing concern. There are a variety of factors. I am sure that my noble friend would wish to support the UK Government in drawing to the attention of the Commission and ensuring that it takes action against, for example, the French Government for their failure to implement UK policy in regard to the large number of migratory birds which are killed.