Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I warmly thank all noble Lords who are to take part in this debate today. With your Lordships’ expertise in key areas, I am sure that we will cover a lot of what makes up a healthy ecosystem, including water and soil. I also pay tribute at the start of this debate to all the farmers who, besides producing quality food, manage to contribute to enhancing biodiversity, landscape and public access, despite the downward pressures on produce prices.
I want today to look at specific actions which the Government could choose to take to improve England’s crashing biodiversity on farmland and, at the same time, to help those farmers who I have just mentioned. Across the board, the worst-affected categories of wildlife are those dependent on farmland, such as farmland birds. The RSPB/BTO figures show that in 35 years we have lost well over half our farmland birds and, despite some good initiatives, the post-2012 figures show further overall declines. If we look at flowers, of the 1,556 flowers in the British flora 37% are considered threatened or rare in England, and of these 97% grow within the productive environment. Despite this, as Plantlife points out, 80% of threatened lowland meadow flowers are not supported by the entry-level stewardship options, nor are 72% of threatened upland meadow flowers, so that scheme really does not seem to be answering the issue. Butterfly Conservation’s most recent big study also shows a significant decline in the total numbers of wider countryside butterflies, which have fallen by 24% over 10 years.
I think all those who are speaking today know the problem: a massive, sustained and relentless intensification of agriculture. There have been a plethora of excellent studies and strategies on ways to improve the situation but no matching suite of policy changes from successive Governments. However, I welcome one current and very important example of government action with regard to pollinators: the Government’s stand on the continuing moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids. Pollinators are a very good example of just how closely food production and biodiversity are intertwined. The fate of pollinators is largely driven by what happens on farmland, and the fate of insect-pollinated crops is of course driven by what happens to those pollinators. The Government are quite right to continue with the moratorium because the oilseed rape crop is not in an emergency situation. The figures given in a Written Answer by George Eustice on 13 July this year showed that the crop saw a 16% increase last year.
The UK is far from alone is these concerns. The latest place to join in this ban is Ontario, in Canada. Its Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has said that:
“A growing body of scientific evidence shows that neonicotinoid insecticides are highly toxic to honey bees and other beneficial insects”.
Another particularly good action of the previous coalition Government was to establish the Natural Capital Committee. Methodically and with hard data, the NCC linked economic well-being to environmental well-being. In its third and last report, it gave a clear recommendation about farming:
“Farming is an important sector of the economy but its impacts on natural capital are substantial. Addressing these impacts would deliver significant benefits for society. Channelling subsidies towards environmental schemes that demonstrate good economic returns would be very worthwhile. Also, investing in measures to connect wildlife areas across farming landscapes, as set out in the Lawton Review, will significantly increase net benefits to wildlife from these areas”.
Yet these advances are about to be undermined because, strangely, the Government appear to be going in the opposite direction: they are launching separate 25-year strategies for farming and biodiversity. Indeed, the farming strategy was launched this morning but I have not had a chance to look at it. No doubt it builds on the Conservative manifesto commitment to,
“grow more, buy more and sell more British food”.
The Natural Capital Committee is quite clear that increases in yields have been driven largely by the increased use of fertilisers and herbicides. As it says, those are severely affecting the wider environmental systems, including water and wildlife.
The NCC correctly analysed that part of the solution lies in new technology, such as real-time crop scanners, in a move towards more “precision farming” and more efficient use of agricultural inputs. However, the other part of the solution lies in supporting farmers who are trying to do the right thing. In the previous Parliament, the Government failed to deliver the maximum transfer from Pillar 1 production subsidy to Pillar 2 agri-environment subsidy. Every taxpayer in this country is paying £200 a year to support the CAP but it does not deliver on public benefits. There will be another opportunity in 2017 and I hope that the Government will make that essential change then, because farmers must be rewarded if they spend a great deal of time producing public goods and benefits to wildlife.
The NCC further stated:
“Government has missed many chances to line up farm support with public goods like flood prevention or farming that supports biodiversity. Continued support for maize farming, for example, was granted an exemption from strict cross-compliance rules on soil management, despite the fact that maize is a ‘high risk’ crop for soil compaction and erosion”.
I make no apologies for quoting so widely from its third report, which was excellent.
I hope the Minister will reinforce with evidence that the Government are committed to supporting farmers who are doing and trying to do the right thing. The Government’s own figures show that less land is being managed under the schemes they brought in to help improve environmental outcomes. In 2013-14, 450,000 hectares of land were managed under the Campaign for the Farmed Environment scheme, but in 2014-15 I understand that it is only 250,000 hectares. Why does the Minister think there has been such a big drop-off?
The most encouraging development in efforts to improve the chances for England’s wildlife is the part played by the public—those thousands and thousands of volunteers who, along with the scientists and NGOs, map what is happening on the ground. They map whether certain initiatives are producing the beneficial results we hope for, and changes in bird and butterfly populations. They have become a vital part of building a picture of what is in decline and where declining populations of a species is reversed by specific land management techniques. This connects all those people intimately with their food production.
Last month, in Westminster, we held the first meeting of this Parliament of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology. We held a “meet the farmer day”, where farmers with a range of best practices met MPs and Peers. Deborah Meaden, the impressive businesswoman from “Dragons’ Den”, spoke about people knowing where their food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of that production. As she put it so succinctly,
“if they don’t know, they can’t care”.
However, more and more people are interested in connecting with how their food is produced.
One of my questions for the Minister is: how will the Government interpret the fact that more than 180,000 people have responded to the public consultation on the regulatory fitness check of the EU birds and habitats directive, to which the Government will have to respond? It would be a tragic mistake if that directive were undermined in any way. Some species—for example, migrating birds—are not static and need EU-wide protection. I hope that the Government will put their every effort behind the EU birds and habitats directives.
Further, can the Minister tell me the Government’s intentions for publishing their 25-year plan to restore diversity? When will it be published? Will that be quite soon after the farming strategy, and will it be cross-departmental rather than focused just on Defra? Will the Government urgently step up action to ensure that the Office for National Statistics and Defra meet the target of incorporating natural capital into the national accounts by 2020, as recommended by the NCC?
Finally, will he confirm that it remains the Government’s intention to transfer a full 15% of funds from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 of the CAP so that the public and wildlife can get the most for the money?
The Committee will be enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for giving us this opportunity to discuss biodiversity and agriculture. I declare my interest first and foremost as a farmer and, until recently, chair of the advisory board at the Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
I wish to concentrate my remarks on the need for a sound evidence base on which agricultural technologies and production systems can be developed to deliver optimal environmental benefits, including, of course, biodiversity benefits. However, I think we all first need to recognise that both intensive high-input and extensive low-input agricultural systems present challenges for biodiversity and ecosystem services. That is not to say that these challenges cannot be met but, of course, agriculture is about the production of food. We need to reconcile this with the enhancement of ecosystem services. Good research and long-term monitoring— that is particularly critical—have demonstrated the potential to reconcile productive agriculture with the provision of habitats and food for farmland birds, butterflies and pollinator insects, as referred to in the Question. Indeed, examples of best practice have been demonstrated. That is not to say that the impact of agriculture has not been extreme, as the noble Baroness pointed out. However, alongside that, there have been examples of good practice which we need to follow up.
My greatest concern is about not just the types of biodiversity mentioned in the Question—birds, butterflies and pollinator insects—but the need to look at the fundamentals, such as soil science. After all, this is the basis from which all biodiversity and habitats are derived. The ecosystem services on which we all rely, and on which the environment relies, depend on keeping the soil sciences in good heart. The trouble is, of course, that while any number of people join organisations to conserve birds, butterflies and lichen—like everyone else, I belong to several—somehow or other, to get people to take an interest in worms or soil biodiversity is rather more complicated.
It is a great pity that the debate is so often polarised between intensification and extensification. In both cases you require a multi-purpose approach. There is no technological panacea to meet the challenges of sustainable production. It requires a diversity of approaches specific to the crop in question, the locality and, of course, the ecosystem services which it is desired to enhance. If you are looking for flood control, there will be one set of requirements. If you are looking for biodiversity, there will be others, although of course there will be common factors. I give an example from my own farming practice. I am a fruit producer with intensive orchards containing 3,000 trees per hectare. That is intensive by anyone’s standards. Incidentally, we also have high-level schemes on different land, which are well funded and deliver their own environmental benefits. We do not get subsidies or grants for the intensive systems but they provide a surprisingly wide range of biodiversity benefits. Apple trees and the multi-species windbreaks they require provide habitats and food for invertebrates in spring and summer. The blossom provides pollen and nectar. The herbicide strips provide mining bee habitat—one of these insect pollinators which we simply have to learn to manage better. In winter, windfalls bring in whole flocks of birds which you do not necessarily see in other habitats. This system of production has its benefits, and delivers things such as carbon sequestration at levels that are about equivalent to woodland, and which are of course much higher than arable and grassland. Therefore the outcomes from intensive farming can be the same as, if not more than, the outcomes from some of the agri-environmental systems.
Delivering both food and biodiversity on the same land is known as land sharing, which of course we hear a lot about from organic farmers and the like. I would describe the sort of system of intensive agriculture that I am talking about as precisely that. Also, incidentally, you can call it “land sparing”, in the sense that if you are going to produce a certain quantity of food from a certain area, quite frankly, the more you can allow spare land for alternative uses, such as stewardship schemes and environmental enhancement, the better.
The Cinderella sciences on which we rely—agronomy, soil science and general botany—have been in decline for a long time. We get a lot of research workers who are specialists in very specific areas of technology, and we need to encourage these wider old-fashioned sciences on which we depend. Of course we have to reduce leakages to soil, air and water; I am absolutely certain that minimal cultivations make an enormous contribution, and ploughing in green crops can be a total disaster.
The greatest success with agri-environmental schemes is when you work on the landscape scale, when farmers in a parish and a region work together. SSSIs are usually too small and isolated and, quite frankly, are badly managed. Bring them together; let farmers co-operate on a regional scale, and you will start to achieve critical mass.
My Lords, as we are here in the Moses Room, your Lordships might like to know that my Hebrew name is Avram—but today I will sound more like Noach. I am talking about huge floods and unnatural weather patterns which will soon become the norm, resulting in widespread damage to farming, property, communities and industry. This is an “ecosystem” issue now.
Just this month, in Aberdeen, local news reported:
“The heavens opened, the thunder clapped and the lightning flashed from 3 pm onwards this afternoon and a number of roads across the city are now under water”.
The council went on to say:
“Yesterday’s storm was due to a rainfall of an intensity which previously happened once every 30 years, but has been happening more frequently recently and is likely to increase further due to global warming”.
This increased frequency of extreme weather events is not just affecting Aberdeen but is UK-wide, and the cost caused by flooding damage in the UK in 2007 was £3.2 billion. According to a House of Commons report last year, Flood Defence Spending in England, the total cost of maintaining flood defences until 2080 will be over £550 billion.
I have been following the work on “natural catchment solutions” of a wonderful social enterprise, the Flow Partnership. It brings together partners from around the world, including from Yorkshire, Newcastle and Aberdeen, but also from as far away as India and Slovakia. It uses the power in the flow of water to achieve long-term multi-benefit solutions. In seeing water as a “dynamic flow”, it uses methods to shape the landscape to direct this flow most suitably to where the water needs to be. It takes simple, low-cost measures to slow down the flow of run-off rain from the surfaces, along the river, creating ponds in which to store water when needed. Slowing the flow minimises erosion, recharges aquifers, allows water to filter and store, and creates wildlife habitats. This method is used to stop the build-up of flood waters before they reach our homes. By the way, it also can revive rivers in desert areas.
Best of all, this method needs no further investment, so it not only prevents floods and eases drought, but protects the whole countryside, improves soil fertility and increases biodiversity. The World Wildlife Fund also says that this would help the Environment Agency with the river basin management plans for the next five years to raise the number of healthy rivers above 18%. It also helps cool the land and so has a wider positive impact on climate change, actually reducing extreme weather events across the planet, and it saves the Government billions of pounds in damage costs. For example, in Belford in Northumberland the Government estimated that the necessary work to prevent flood damage would cost £2.5 million. In a pioneering trial using these low-cost natural community methods, the work was completed for less than 10% of the government estimate, less than £200,000, successfully averting future flooding in the village. With the Government’s involvement in developing partnerships these methods need not be confined to small projects but could be a huge self-financing venture implemented nationwide.
In keeping with the nature of a shared approach, the Flow Partnership is developing self-financing mechanisms of pledges and returns. Its proposed financial instrument is building on the Environment Agency’s partnership model as laid down in Defra’s 2012 paper Partnership Funding and Collaborative Delivery of Local Flood Risk Management, but also draws from the Government’s social impact bond framework to encourage all those parties adversely affected by flooding to contribute profitably to flood defence and river management. We are well placed in this country to involve our expert financial organisations to measure the real cost-effectiveness of these methods. The necessary expertise of this kind is in place for a nationwide solution in the UK.
We should take the opportunity when, next month, partners from the UK, India and Slovakia are coming together for a “world water walk” from Lindisfarne, Holy Island, to Belford village. This water walk is to highlight the outstanding work already taking place in the UK by Defra, the Environment Agency and others. It will visit potential future project sites on the River Dee and the River Dearne. The River Dearne was mentioned earlier this year in discussions we had with Defra as a possible trial river. For £5 million we could pay for the implementation of comprehensive catchment works along the whole river. This could be a model on which a river and landscape bond could be designed. Will the Minister arrange a meeting with the Flow Partnership to discuss how the Government can take advantage of its proven expertise? Eventually, in collaboration with the Environment Agency, we could deliver community schemes along 40 vulnerable rivers and their catchments in the UK and this might grow into an international movement.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. I regard her as my friend because we work together on so many topics in this field. I declare my interests as entered in the register.
In more than eight pages of answers to questions on biodiversity sent to us by the House of Lords research services, I was shocked that there was not one mention of soil health. Without healthy soil, you can forget a healthy ecosystem. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization gives this definition:
“Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a living system with ecosystem and land use boundaries to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health. Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of soil organisms that help to control plant disease, insect and weed pests, from beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots; recycle essential plant nutrients; improve soil structure with positive repercussions for soil, water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improve crop production”.
Along with a lot of organic farmers, I believe that now is the time to take crop production away from the chemists and place it in the hands of the biologists, where it should be. A recent report by the Committee on Climate Change indicates that the degradation of soil is now a major crisis across the globe. It is particularly concerned about the state of soil in East Anglia, where intensive farming practices, deep ploughing, short rotation periods and exposed ground have led to soil erosion from wind and heavy rain. Soil is not simply dirt in which crops grow with the aid of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides. Indeed, it is these very products that destroy or inhibit the natural propensity for healthy soil to nurture the more than one tonne of bacterial and fungal biomass to be found in healthy temperate grassland. It has been calculated by microbiologists that 80% of soil nutrient functions are controlled by microbes.
Last August, I had the enormous pleasure of hearing Dr Elaine Ingham, founder of the Soil Foodweb, Inc, address a conference on soil health. She also addressed this year’s Oxford farming conference on the same subject. This lady has studied soil for more than 40 years and I recommend all noble Lords look at references to her work on the internet. They really are enlightening. She explained that plants use sunlight to make sugars, most which are sent to the plants’ roots as exudates that aerobic bacteria and fungi feed on. These beneficial microbes cluster around the roots. They protect the plants from anaerobic micro-organisms that cause disease; they break down and transform inorganic nutrients in the soil into organic nutrients for plants; and they play a critical role in the formation of the soil structure, which is necessary for water retention and to prevent nutrients from leaching. She explains that, in the life-to-death-to-life cycle, protozoa, nematodes and micro-arthropods eat the nutrient-containing bacteria and fungi, and it is their excretions of excess nutrients that constantly replenish the food supply for plants.
Every time chemical pesticides and fertilisers are applied to crops, they have an effect on the micro-fauna in the soil. Every time heavy equipment passes over the ground to apply these chemicals, the soil is damaged by impaction, and aerobic bacteria cannot survive in the anaerobic conditions that result.
That ubiquitous product, glyphosate, has recently been categorised by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen. It was first licensed as a powerful chelator. This means that it locks up many of the essential trace elements and minerals that plants, animals and humans depend upon for their health. It was later registered as an antibiotic. We do not need much imagination to envisage what an application of glyphosate, in the form of Roundup or one of its many other trade formulations, can do to the soil microbes, do we? It has been found to remain active in soil and water for much longer than originally thought, and recent German research has shown that residues of glyphosate found in the water column and sediment of the River Elbe inhibit the nitrifying bacteria which play an essential part in the nitrogen cycle. Glyphosate affects the shikimate pathway in plants and is described by its manufacturers as being safe; they seem to have forgotten that bacteria in water, soil and in the guts of animals and humans also have the same shikimate pathway and are also weakened and destroyed by Roundup.
Is the Minister aware of a considerable body of research which indicates that Roundup is not the benign herbicide we have been led to believe that it is? Is he aware that commercial preparations containing glyphosate have been found to be more than 1,000 times more toxic than the active ingredient alone? Will the UK be following a number of other countries such as France, the Netherlands, Germany, Sri Lanka, Argentina and Brazil, which are considering severely restricting the use of, or even a ban on, glyphosate-containing products?
The Minister knows of my concerns around neonicotinoids, which I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I am aware that an emergency application has been made by the NFU for a licence to use them prophylactically on rape crops in a limited area. In response to an Oral Question from me on 17 June, the Minister told the House that the application was being considered by the Expert Committee on Pesticides and by the Health and Safety Executive, and that their advice would then be considered by Ministers. In a recent paper, Conclusions of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment on the Risks of Neonicotinoids and Fipronil to Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning, the 30 researchers concluded that:
“Overall, the existing literature clearly shows that present-day levels of pollution with neonicotinoids and fipronil caused by authorized uses … frequently exceed the lowest observed adverse effect”.
My Lords, this is a vitally important debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the noble and knowledgeable Countess, Lady Mar, who has made a spot-on point about the soil. There used to be a wonderful Yorkshire gardener on “Gardeners’ Question Time”, who I think was called Geoffrey Smith. No matter what question he was asked, he always began his answer with, “The answer lies in the soil”.
I stand corrected, quite rightly so.
There is no doubt that farming practices in Britain and in all practices in Britain and in all efficient western economies have changed dramatically over the past 40 to 50 years. There is a huge demand for food, and most of the public seem to want it at dirt-cheap prices. That means that farmers have to farm more intensively. If we do not do it here, we will simply end up losing UK agriculture and getting all our food from abroad. The abandonment of the countryside may be good for some wildlife but it is not a practical consideration. It stands to reason that, if farming has changed, there will be a change in the numbers and types of wildlife that formerly depended on past practices. We know that farmland bird populations are half the level of 40 years ago. Hares and hedgehogs are declining, hedgehogs catastrophically so. What can be done about it? There is more wildlife on organic farms, of course, but organic farming is just not economic for more than 90% of farmers. If all our consumers bought only British organic produce, that would be a totally different matter, but that is not going to happen and it would not apply to most wheat and grain production. Part of the answer is in agri-environment schemes, where farmers are paid to keep field margins wild with no crops on them or to keep wetlands or other features that harbour wildlife. That is costly to the taxpayer, but if the public want it, the public will have to pay for it.
Cost of production is a determining factor. Take milk production. The big dairies and supermarkets are paying farmers less for milk than the cost of producing it. There is no way, in that situation, that dairy farmers can decide to grow hay, let the wild flowers bloom and the wildlife thrive and cut the hay late in July. Farmers have to grow silage, stuff it full of nitrogen, squeeze out at least two cuts per annum from every inch of their fields and leave them as bare as a bowling green at the end of it. Until that fundamental economic dynamic changes, we will not get Gainsborough-style scenes of flowering hay meadows and carts being loaded by glowing country lads and wenches.
I would like to see some carefully controlled experiments with rewilding in the United Kingdom or in England. It has worked for beavers and I hope that Natural England, or whatever it is called this week, will look carefully at other proposals for, say, brown bears, lynx, wild horses and wolves in very carefully selected parts of the country, after full consideration of all potential negative effects on other species and humans. Creating habitats for those species will automatically create habitats for hundreds of others, for the bugs and little beasties we would not normally see, and for flowers, and so on.
However, without straying too far from the subject matter of this debate, preservation of our wildlife is not uniquely a countryside or farming responsibility. I suspect that most town people think that all wildlife is supported by the countryside and that that is a farmer’s duty. Not so. Our towns and cities are vital to UK biodiversity. Of course there is more biodiversity in our countryside, because it is larger than our towns, but acre for acre, towns and cities can support as much wildlife of certain species—particularly birds and mammals—as the countryside. However, in the last 40 years, the decline in species and urban areas has been even greater than in farmland. The noble Baroness rightly said that the public have a vital role. Yes, but not just in going out to the countryside to monitor what farmers are up to; they also have a vital role in their own back gardens and front gardens. The State of Nature report of May 2013 states:
“Of the 658 urban species for which we have data, 59% have declined and 35% have declined strongly”.
Reports show that our hedgehogs will be extinct within 10 years. How in the name of goodness can we let that happen? As well as being killed on roads, they are being driven out of town gardens. Thousands of gardens are being paved over every week, depriving a whole range of mammals and birds from getting a food supply, and precision larch lap fences and walls do not leave gaps for hedgehogs and other species to get through. Urban dwellers can save the hedgehog and they must rise to the challenge. Keeping hedges is also important. Even leylandii hedges provide tremendous cover for nesting birds.
I end with a more sensitive issue, but one that has to be addressed. A United States study in 2013 showed that US cats were killing between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds per annum. That is just birds; when you add all the other species it comes to tens of billions. A United Kingdom study a few years ago estimated that British cats killed 200 million mammals per annum, including 55 million birds. However, that is a gross underestimation. The United States has 93 million pussycats; the UK has 12 million. If British cats are killing birds at the same rate as American cats—and there is no reason to believe that they are not—the British bird population killed per annum is 175 million.
Do noble Lords wonder why we no longer see any sparrows in our cities? That has nothing to do with farmers. Sparrows are the top kill birds for cats, followed by blue tits, blackbirds, starlings, thrushes and robins. Then, of course, one can add the shrews, voles and mice, including harmless little field mice. I am appalled to read of those millions of people who let their cats out to roam at night and others who think that they do not need to feed them so much because they can go out and kill things in the wild. They are killing things in the wild and wiping out our urban wildlife. Let me be clear, I am not advocating drastic action against little pussy cats and moggies. I do not want a fatwa against me from Cats Protection but I am asking for an education campaign for cat owners.
We will find it difficult to get measures to increase biodiversity in the countryside but it is not up to farmers alone. Everyone, especially people in towns, can do their bit and we will have to do our bit if we are to retain some of our splendid and unique British wildlife.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and congratulate her on tabling this excellent Question. I must declare not only my interests in the register but I am chairman of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, chairman of the United Kingdom squirrel accord, of which I will say more later, and I am on the council of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society. Biodiversity offered by well-managed broadleaf forestry is not something on which I need to lecture your Lordships. It is very special and very diverse. The trouble is that the grey squirrel problem in the United Kingdom is making this idyll very difficult and well-nigh impossible.
The United Kingdom squirrel accord came together last year as a response from a number of pretty desperate, fairly large organisations. There are 33 signatories covering every part of the United Kingdom, including governmental bodies, voluntary bodies and the private sector. Defra is one of the signatories and has a very good and active official on the accord. The private sector organisations have around 6 million members, so they are big, meaty bodies. People are worried about the twin difficulties of red squirrel numbers being severely impacted because of the disease they catch from grey squirrels, which I am not going to talk about today, and the threat to forestry posed by grey squirrels. For those who do not know, grey squirrels will ring-bark or peel back the bark on our native broadleaf trees, particularly on oak and beech which are delicious to them. They do that when the trees are semi-mature and at a height of about 10 to 15 feet. That introduces disease and insect damage to the trees which either kills them or certainly renders the trees economically useless. That means that considerably less planting is going on throughout the United Kingdom for broadleafs at the moment. There is less land management and, therefore, less biodiversity.
I want to make a number of points on which I hope that the Minister will be able to help. First, immuno- contraception is essentially a science whereby you give grey squirrels a drug and it makes them infertile. The delivery method would be something like medicated nuts. The major research on this type of technology for mammals is going on in the States. Britain’s only expenditure on this at the moment is around £10,000, which we pay to receive research from the United States into white-tailed deer, which are doing damage to American forestry.
The outstanding Pirbright Institute is doing research with very good immunocontraceptive credentials, as it has been big on insect immunocontraceptive. Will the Minister consider taking the lead in commissioning research in this area in Britain now? The voluntary sectors and the private sectors to which I have referred within the UK squirrel accord would certainly help with funding, but Britain should take a lead in this area of science and I hope that the grey squirrel could be the first port of call for that.
My second point is about warfarin, which was pretty well the only weapon that could be deployed against grey squirrels. In a very unusual way, warfarin has been withdrawn from land managers as an effective measure. Its use will not be allowed from later this year. This is entirely due to a vagary of EU procedure points, which I will not go through now. It is pretty odd seeing as it is our private battle in Britain—only Britain and a small part of Italy are impacted by the grey squirrel. Would the Minister consider looking again at the warfarin issue and having another go at seeing whether it would be possible to reintroduce this important weapon in the control of grey squirrels?
My final point is on traps. There are a number of commercially available grey squirrel traps but the world is, in fact, a wonderful place and lots of inventive people are inventing new traps all over the world and, in particular, in New Zealand and Canada. With adaptions, these traps could be more effective in Britain. The trouble—I am advised by the BASC—is that if you introduce a new trap in Britain, you would have to pay between €30,000 and €100,000 to license the trap. The difficulty is that none of the people inventing these traps has that sort of money available. Would the Minister consider sponsoring a trap or two through the process so that we could have access to the latest trapping technology, which would greatly help the broadleaf forestry industry?
As I have said, there is nothing better in our green and pleasant land than a well-managed broadleaf woodland and there is nothing better for biodiversity. These woodlands need our help.
My Lords, this has been a hugely interesting debate and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for introducing it and all other contributors for their remarks. I declare my interests as a dairy farmer in receipt of EU funds. The problem has been very ably documented: over the past 50 years there has continued to be a long-term decline in UK biodiversity. Farmland birds and butterflies have declined substantially since the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, and 14% of all farmland flowering plants—or 62 species—are on the national Red List. This certainly matters.
As Professor Sir John Lawton’s Making Space for Nature review in 2010 concluded, England’s collection of wildlife areas, both legally protected and others, does not currently represent a coherent and resilient ecological network capable of responding to the challenges of climate change and other pressures. Pollinators are vital to the successful production of crops, underpinning jobs throughout the food chain. Proximity, quantity and quality of open spaces are necessary to well-being and health. This has been brought about as a result of sustained changes in agricultural practice, overexploitation of nature’s resources, habitat destruction and, regrettably, pollution.
My noble friend Lord Stone of Blackheath spoke of the flood and water management issues resulting from climate change. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, highlighted the importance of healthy soils. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, was correct to point out that this can lead only to changes in nature.
The Government have inherited a long history of initiatives, strategies and organisational structures to halt and reverse this loss. In their manifesto, the Conservative Party committed to developing a 25-year plan to grow and sell more British food. This is an ambitious plan. Will the Minister update the Committee on the timetable for the publication of this plan? Will accountable milestones be set along the way? The noble Earl, Lord Selbourne, based his remarks on research and evidence-based conclusions to develop sustainable production.
The Government have also committed to developing a 25-year plan for restoring biodiversity, working with the Natural Capital Committee. How will these two contrasting plans be integrated? The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, also asked the Minister three questions on this topic. This represents an enormous opportunity to set out a clear vision for both agriculture and nature, how it will be transformational in the UK and how it will be managed, with the potential to promote significant social and economic benefits. Can the Minister clarify how these plans will be developed and how conflicts between the economic and environmental priorities will be reconciled to produce an integrated approach and be incorporated systematically into policy decisions? From this, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm the long-term vision for CAP development and say whether the balance of these competing aims translates into a move to a 15% modulation rate, as Labour argues.
The balance to be struck is reflected in the present challenge over neonicotinoid pesticides. On 17 June, the Minister answered pertinent questions in relation to the EU’s ban on the use of these pesticides for agricultural crops. There is huge public interest in the issue. To my question, he stated that the application is being considered by the Health and Safety Executive and the independent UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. However, there seems to have been some dialogue with the NFU, which has stated disappointment that the reply received revealed a technical deficiency in its application that could have been clarified through yet more timely dialogue. Can the Minister clarify whether the HSE has reached a conclusion? Is it to accept or reject the application? Have any other applications regarding neonicotinoids been received? Why does Defra continue to refuse to publish the NFU’s application? Why has the publication been delayed of the minutes of the meeting of the Expert Committee on Pesticides of 20 May to consider the NFU’s application? The agenda of 7 May is also being withheld from publication. All of this is contrary to best practice and the code of practice for scientific advisory committees. There is great anxiety about this issue. Will the Minister provide full answers before the Summer Recess?
Labour supports the temporary ban and the precautionary principle as the basis for government decision-making on pesticides. We agree that this must be evidence based with the full knowledge that science can provide. The Government have a clear opportunity to halt the decline of the natural environment. Will the Minister go further than providing warm words and take decisive action?
My Lords, I should first declare my interests as a farmer and say in a different tone that I enjoy planting trees and the natural environment. I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this debate, which provides an opportunity to set out the Government’s intentions. If there are any areas where, given the time, I am not in a position to give the answers due to your Lordships, I hope you will forgive me if I write to you.
The Government recognise how important biodiversity is for a flourishing natural environment. We are committed to improving the quality and extent of wildlife habitats. They are vital not only for the enjoyment and sense of well-being that they bring to us all, but also because of the important ecosystem services that they provide. Four years ago the Government published a natural environment White Paper which set out a bold vision for a resilient and connected natural environment, providing services vital to our economic prosperity and social well-being. Our Biodiversity 2020 strategy set out plans to take forward that vision.
The Government are committed to working with the Natural Capital Committee— an independent advisory body mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer—on how England’s natural assets can be better protected and improved. We now know that concerted action is needed to reverse historical declines and to safeguard the vital benefits we receive from those assets.
The Government are committed to developing a 25-year strategy plan which will set out our ambition for a healthy and resilient natural environment which benefits both our economy and our nation. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked about the 25-year plans. I can assure all noble Lords that Defra’s 25-year strategies on food and farming and the environment will complement each other. We are aware of how important the links between the two must be and are.
The Government will respond to the Natural Capital Committee’s third report in the second half of this year, including an outline of the 25-year plan for nature. Once this is published we will engage with a range of experts and industry bodies on the development of that plan. I very much hope to help to keep noble Lords in touch with all the plans, as 25 years is a decent period in which we want to do the best we can for our environment.
I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for highlighting the important role of research and soil science. I think that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, quite rightly also raised this. Defra has introduced new soil rules which, under cross-compliance, require farmers to put measures in place that prevent erosion, maintain a minimum level of soil cover and protect soil organic matter. I say as strongly as I am permitted in your Lordships’ presence that soil is absolutely critical and central to food production, and therefore that soil science and soil health are terribly important.
I am pleased to report that, since the publication of Biodiversity 2020 in 2011, progress has been made. We have set in hand the creation of 67,000 hectares of priority habitat including arable field margins, wetlands and woodlands. As promised in our manifesto, we have committed to planting 11 million trees during this Parliament, primarily through the rural development programme’s countryside stewardship scheme. This scheme aims to invest £18 million in new woodland planting each year. We have maintained more than 95% of our sites of special scientific interest in favourable or recovering status. These are some of our most important sites, covering 7% of England, but we need to do more. Twelve nature improvement areas have been established to create and restore priority habitats across entire landscapes. Partnerships have demonstrated how much can be achieved when people work together towards a common goal. Volunteers working with the nature improvement areas contributed more than 24,000 days of their time, which is good news for biodiversity as well as a benefit to the volunteers, who I thank very much.
I also acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, said in drawing my attention to the Flow Partnership. I understand that the noble Lord has met my noble friend Lord De Mauley, who was at Defra in the last Parliament, on this issue. Indeed, I have made a careful note of the noble Lord’s words and I will pass them on to my ministerial colleague Rory Stewart, along with the desirability of a meeting.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, highlighted the threats to our native wildlife, which of course includes the grey squirrel. I have had first-hand experience of the considerable damage that this arrival on our shores has presented for us all in the countryside, and indeed in urban areas. I am very pleased that Defra has signed the squirrel accord and, more generally, that we are taking the lead in Europe in tackling the threats posed by invasive non-native species. On the funding of research, Defra is funding research into mammal fertility control in collaboration with partners in America for a better understanding of grey squirrel physiology and how this affects bark-stripping behaviour. I have made a careful note of the noble Earl’s questions. I want to reflect on them with colleagues because this is clearly important.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra spoke of rewilding. The position is very clear that native species can be reintroduced under licence only after careful consideration of the potential consequences on the local environment, farming and public safety. There have been recent examples where this policy has seen the reintroduction of the large blue butterfly, the great bustard, the red kite, the pool frog and other butterflies. Indeed, there is currently a trial reintroduction of the European beaver.
Investing in the agri-environmental schemes will deliver benefits for wildlife and are therefore a priority for this Government. More than £3.1 billion will be made available for schemes between 2014 and 2020.
I acknowledge the 47,000 farmers currently involved in these agreements. We simply cannot achieve our goals without the land management skills of farmers. I think that my noble friend Lord Blencathra spoke in support of the many land managers, farmers and landowners across our land who over many generations have secured the wonderful landscape and countryside that we have. However, lessons have to be learned from environmental stewardship and incorporated in the design of new stewardship schemes. These are to encourage take-up of the right action in the right locations and create more effective ecological networks across the landscape.
For this reason, countryside stewardship is more targeted and better focused than its predecessors. I hope it will meet with the approval of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, because it addresses some of the strands of her speech. Monitoring agri-environment schemes has shown that they have had a positive effect. The Defra/Natural England study showed positive benefits at individual farm level for the grey partridge, house sparrow, lapwing, reed bunting, tree sparrow and yellowhammer, for instance, from 2008 to 2011. We are encouraging all eligible farmers, foresters and other land managers in England to apply for the new scheme. I thank Natural England for ensuring that there is a considerable amount of promotional work going on. We have made funding available to nurture co-operation among groups of farmers and landowners wanting to work together.
The wild pollinator and farm wildlife package, which will provide benefits for wild pollinators, farmland birds and other wildlife, is a very important part of the Government’s commitment to playing a leading role in improving the status of the 1,500 or so pollinating insect species in England. The strategy is a shared plan of action between Government, our partners and the public. I am pleased to assure my noble friend Lord Blencathra that the strategy aims to support pollinators in towns and cities as well as across farmland and the countryside, but I hope that he will understand that, given the shortness of this debate, I am not in a position to go into cats today. We are in active partnership with our pollinator advisory steering group, made up of 17 stakeholders, and I am delighted that there has been enormous support from the public. How timely for the noble Baroness’s debate that this week is Pollinator Awareness Week. We are running a series of events and activities; indeed, yesterday I was delighted to visit the Defra beehives on the rooftops of Nobel House and to meet Hannah Reeves, the young beekeeper who cares for our bees and is learning her trade through an apprenticeship scheme that has been part-funded by Defra.
A number of questions have been asked today, and when I run out of time I will of course write to your Lordships. However, let me say to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and to noble Lords that on pesticides the Government are committed to ensuring a high degree of protection for people and the environment from any risks. All assessments are made on the best scientific data. The neonicotinoid application is still under consideration and as soon as we are in a position to make an announcement, following the best scientific assessment, we will do so. The Government are committed to supporting England’s biodiversity, recognising the multiple benefits.