Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to counter the decline in songbird numbers and the threat that invasive non-native species pose to such birds.
My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register. As I cannot do it later, I thank all noble lords who will be speaking. The fact there are so many is testimony to the importance of this matter.
I wish to highlight the plight of the UK’s often forgotten passerines, more commonly known as songbirds, or little brown jobs—LBJs—to the bird-watching community. We do not hear much about the problems faced by many of our LBJs, as they are not spoken of in the same hushed, reverent tones used to describe our “iconic” birds of prey, charismatic seabirds or enigmatic waders, wonderful though they are. LBJs are those that delight many of us on our back-garden feeders and nesting boxes and on farms or other landholdings. They range from the cheeky house sparrow—once a common sight wherever we chose to live in our cities, towns and countryside—and the glorious skylark with its uplifting song of pure liquid gold, immortalised by Shelley and Vaughan Williams, through to the suite of summer migrants, such as the nightingale and other warblers that fill many a wood, glade, marsh and reed bed with the glorious dawn chorus, the avian sound of spring and summer.
The numbers of many of our most cherished and emblematic songbirds have crashed or declined alarmingly in upland, farm and woodland landscapes since systematic records of their numbers began to be compiled in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As examples, house sparrows, song thrushes, skylarks, spotted flycatchers and corn buntings are all down between 50% and 90%, depending on the species. Worst of all, the turtle dove is almost certainly doomed to extinction, with 98% gone in less than two generations. Overall, our farmland bird populations have declined by 56% and our woodland birds by almost a quarter over this period.
Since the rapid decline in the 1980s, efforts have been made to arrest the trend. Over 70% of England’s farmland is under countryside stewardship schemes, 7.2 million hectares of UK land is managed to benefit wildlife, and the size of broadleaf woodlands is increasing. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on environmental stewardship agri-environment schemes, or AES, and woodland grants. This has been backed by millions of pounds of donations spent by NGOs and some tremendous work by farmers given freely. Given that, this debate should be celebrating a rise in the songbird population, but it is not. My noble friend will doubtless highlight some of the successes but he will be the first to agree that the songbird decline continues remorselessly, year on year. We must ask why this help has not delivered as expected.
Many of our farm and woodland ecosystems are currently unbalanced. In stark contrast, the results achieved by the Allerton Project—scientific research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust over 25 years on a farm in Leicestershire—show a different and better way forward. Improving the habitat combined with good management, including sufficient all-year food supplies and targeted predator control, have not only allowed both the arable land and woodlands to be improved in condition, while remaining profitable, but benefited a whole range of wildlife, not just songbirds. The problem for farmers in England, in stark contrast to the more enlightened regime in Scotland, is that the current AES cover only habitat. The project has demonstrated conclusively that good management is needed as well.
In the absence of the apex predators, which mankind eliminated, it is our duty to intervene to maintain balanced ecosystems and accept responsibility for managing wildlife, just as we did successfully until the latter part of the 20th century. Such a policy still works well in other countries, and the Government and NGOs have recently employed it to good effect in South Georgia. The results of the project are a winning blueprint for farming, wildlife and the environment, and thus for us. Will my noble friend use this template when bringing forward proposals for the new farming regime that is needed soon?
In urban areas, our gardens are habitat havens for all-year resident LBJs, as well as for migratory and seasonal visitors. With the huge pressure for new homes, will the Government ensure that detrimental proposals such as the Mayor of London’s “grab a garden” for development planning guidelines, which have so little thought for wildlife, are blocked? While on planning, has my noble friend pressed MHCLG to impose a buffer zone of 400 yards against any new development around sites where species of conservation concern nest, to protect them from irresponsible humans, their dogs and especially cats? I have spoken twice recently about cats. I merely add that, of the 29 predators of songbirds, cats are the worst, killing about 55 million songbirds annually, but should be the easiest to control. I merely say that I thought my noble friend’s recent letter to me on this was peely-wally. There is scientific evidence that predation by cats is having a real impact on bird populations. The very least the Government should do is proactively support the efforts of charities such as SongBird Survival, which is working to mitigate it.
I welcome and have encouraged the planting of more broadleaf woodlands. However, as Robbie Burns wrote,
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley”.
Due to poor management, they have become safe havens for our already too numerous predators and inevitably have provided more trees for grey squirrels—a non-native invasive species—to gnaw. As broadleaf woodlands can support some eight to 18 squirrels per hectare, we have helped them considerably. In addition, they are very bad news not only for our native red squirrels but also for our nesting songbirds. Ring-necked parakeets outcompete native songbirds and other hole-nesting birds for nesting spaces and at garden feeding stations. It is a sad indictment that the most commonly encountered mammal in our royal parks, just a few hundred yards from here, is that destructive grey squirrel, and that the dominant birdsong and call heard there is that of the domineering ring-necked parakeet. They are both overabundant, oversexed and over here.
Returning to habitats for birds, rhododendron ponticum growing wild is a particular issue for ancient and native woodland. It results not only in the loss of native plants and a decrease in bird diversity but also in reduced populations of woodland species. Muntjac and fallow deer destroy the understorey and vegetative layer that the threatened native nightingale, wood warbler and other nesting birds rely on.
In 2010, the estimated annual cost of alien species to the British economy was £1.7 billion per annum. For comparison’s sake, that is about the same as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget for that year. On page 63 of their report, A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, when referring to non-native invasive species, the Government state:
“Where it is not feasible to eradicate these species because they are too widely established, we will seek to neutralise their threat by managing them effectively”.
What policies does my noble friend have in mind for these species and, just as importantly, what are his policies to mitigate the arrival and establishment of other species? Page 57 of the same document states that HMG will,
“support nature’s recovery and restore losses suffered over the past 50 years”.
That must apply particularly to songbirds.
We are an urban-oriented population, much of whose knowledge comes from books, the internet and television rather than from hands-on experience. If the Government are serious about protecting our environment, which includes the songbirds, they must heed more the advice of farmers and landowners, and the AES should be based on the Scottish model. Furthermore, would my noble friend agree that a substantial programme of education is needed, including active support for those NGOs already working in this field, as too many wildlife programmes are tainted by the syrupy anthropomorphism of celebrity presenters who deny the reality of rural life?
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly with regard to the land that I manage and run in Caithness. I thank the noble Earl for raising this very important subject, for two reasons. First, the decline in songbirds in particular but many other species, such as waders, seabirds and others, is a direct indication of the state of the environment, and an indicator of biodiversity and the environment generally. The decline is therefore worrying in itself, but it is also a red pointer on the environmental dial. The second reason why I thank him is for having caused me to read the excellent Library brief that was produced. I thought that I knew a little about this subject but, having read that brief, I realise that I have a great deal more to learn.
I would like to use my time to stray a little from what the noble Earl describes as the little brown jobs and talk a bit about some of the excellent work being done in Caithness to help to preserve and protect some other different species of birds. The noble Earl is absolutely right to call attention to the need for sound environmental management as part of putting together the package that is going to help our species. The problem that I have always found is that we humans are extremely keen on an instant and usually simple answer. Across the 40 years when I have been responsible for management in the Flow Country, I have observed a great number of well-intentioned schemes from a variety of different areas, all of which have been found over time to have negative consequences. At one time, we planted conifer trees everywhere. We are now taking them out and restoring the blanket bog through ditching. At one time, we declared that we should take all the sheep off. We are now putting them back, because we need properly grazed land in order for the waders to survive. In all those areas, observing nature and walking quietly over the land is probably the best way to manage.
Some 20 years ago, I sold a piece of ground to the RSPB to add to its reserve at Blar nam Faoileag, of which I shall give the Hansard writers the proper spelling afterwards. It means “the bog of the seagull”. In selling it, I came to an arrangement with the RSPB whereby I had a sporting lease on that ground and continued to do low-intensity grouse shooting, and it has a management agreement over the whole of my estate. We work together very happily, and have done for 20 years. I am delighted that, as a steward of that area, I have pairs of golden eagles, hen harriers, buzzards and many other iconic raptors. I have a film of a sea eagle taking a salmon out of a pool, which is quite something to observe. I delight in them, and delight that the way in which I manage with the RSPB allows the game management that I want to do to work alongside that. We have all come together with the Caithness Wetlands and Wildlife Initiative, the Scottish Agricultural College, the RSPB, a couple of other NGOs and landowners like myself. Since 2010, we have been working to preserve the wildlife and enhance the habitat—and I am delighted to say that it is a very good partnership. Notwithstanding that, many of our iconic species continue to decline, so we are working as far as we can together to try to work out what other land management steps we can take to get back to where we used to be.
In my view, and my experience of some 20 years of working with SNH government bodies and NGOs such as the RSPB, it is entirely possible to work constructively to arrive at a point where all parties involved can get what they want out of that management co-operation. In conclusion, and in thanking the noble Earl for raising this subject, I say that how we manage is vital, but taking time to work out what is right is equally vital. It is often better to wait and do nothing until we are surer of what we are going to do. Sphagnum moss is the greatest eater of carbon that there is, and replacing it with trees was wrong. I hope that we will go forward and use sound management, which will help the songbirds as well as my waders.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl for securing this debate on a troublesome subject. I have to declare one interest as the holder of a licence: a ringing permit from the British Trust for Ornithology. For over 50 years, I have been handling LBJs in migration stations in the Firth of Forth.
That there is a serious decline in the numbers of our songbirds is undeniable. Some species are more affected than others but I cannot think of a single songbird species that is more abundant than it was over 20 years ago. When I think about the reasons for this, threats from non-native species are not high on my list. On my list are the various challenges, almost all manmade, which affect birds that migrate and affect the places where they wish to breed when they get here.
Almost all our songbirds migrate to some extent but the worst affected are the insect-eating birds that migrate south to Africa. They face increasing obstacles that affect their ability to survive the journey. Climate change dries out areas where previously they could rest and feed; there are changes in land use; stop-over sites which were previously available leave them starving for food which they need as fuel for their journeys. Then there is the appalling slaughter of birds in some parts of southern Europe where the traditional pursuits of capturing and killing songbirds still live on, despite the EU directives. It has been estimated that more than 11 million birds are killed or captured in the Mediterranean region every year. Can the Minister assure us that we will continue to press the Governments of the countries involved to stamp out this practice as vigorously as possible? The environment that the birds breed in once they get here is vital too. We need to conserve the hedgerows and meadows where our birds breed and replace those that have been lost. Are we doing enough in that area?
Predation by our own native species plays a significant part. I think of magpies, sparrow-hawks, stoats and hedgehogs. We have to accept these as part of the way that our natural environment works. On the whole, birds learn to cope with these hazards. I worry about magpies, however, a huge increase in the numbers of which seems to have coincided—at least in my area—with the decline in songbirds. I wish that something could be done to control their numbers but the Minister may agree that to try to interfere with the course of nature among our native species, so as to prefer one over another, would set an unfortunate precedent.
What about invasive non-native species such as the ring-necked parakeet, to which the noble Earl referred? It is non-native and, in some places, invasive. I would be interested to know, however, how much they affect the survival of songbirds. They compete with other hole-nesting birds but not all our songbirds nest in holes. They compete with those that rely on bird feeders and bird tables but not all our songbirds look to bird tables for their feeding; they feed on insects instead. Parakeets are by nature vegetarians. In India, where they come from, they take only seeds, flowers, fruits and nectar. For these reasons, I am not sure that there really is a case for controlling parakeets because they are a threat to songbirds. Of course the grey squirrel is the main non-native species that one might be really concerned about and there is a case for controlling their numbers. In my area of Scotland, we are fortunate because the squirrels are red but the threat of grey squirrels is very present not far away. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what progress has been made in controlling the numbers of grey squirrels.
This is a serious problem. I have two other interests that I should declare at this time: I am a member of the Scottish Ornithologists Club and of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, both of which do great work in trying to promote the interests of songbirds.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Caithness on securing his debate today. He is a great supporter of all rural and agricultural matters. I listened to him carefully; his contribution was excellent and most knowledgeable. Forgive me if my glasses fall off—they have stretched. My noble friend discussed a wide variety of issues from habitat and land management, through winter feeding to predator control. Personally, as a countryman I was fascinated and impressed. I agree with everything that he said. I refer noble Lords to my interests as a member of the NFU and the Countryside Alliance, and to my involvement past and current with various shooting associations.
Before I go slightly off piste, I must concur with my noble friend about the enormous contribution that the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust makes. I have known it for many years and was a local chairman. The late Dr Dick Potts was a world-class act and a titan in his area of knowledge. He was the guiding light behind Loddington Farm and the GWCT’s working farm in Leicestershire, from whence so much expert advice has come over the years. I should declare my interest as a member of the GWCT.
I am a shooting man. I know that shoots, by their nature, whether you love them or loathe them, are conservationists. They have to be. They have to provide a good habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. In the process of establishing and enhancing hedgerows, conserving and promoting woodland, promoting insect production, vermin control, coppicing and a raft of other practices, they do all the things that assist in the promotion of songbirds.
Plenty of predators prey on songbirds. Where I live, on the borders of the Peak District National Park, we have numerous magpies. I watch them at nesting time sneaking down the hedgerows, robbing eggs and fledglings. The magpie is a thoroughly vicious bird. We cull them as much we can. Buzzards, too, although protected, cause many problems. I am told that the buzzard is purely a carrion gatherer. That is not so. I have watched him take young chicks and pheasant poults. He will circle over a release pen and all the poults will cower in a corner and smother to death. The buzzard population is out of control. Indeed, just the other day, I counted 11 over the 15-acre wood behind my house.
Among the various songbird predators, and there are many—my noble friend mentioned cats, but where I live, the cat is a minor problem; I think it is more of an urban issue—we have the fox, which has no natural predator. The only method by which we can protect other species which he preys on is by human intervention and control. The grey squirrel, which has already been mentioned, is also a predator on songbirds. They have little fear of predation, save for in the north-east of the country, where they are scared stiff of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. He is a highly successful predator of the grey squirrel and a great supporter of the red of the species; perhaps that is a little illiberal of him. I practised that line so many times.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, realised a number of years ago that the wild English partridge was becoming close to extinction, so he produced a programme on his land to engender a revival of the species. He is truly an expert and fascinating to listen to on the subject. He commissioned new hedgerows, planted on a ridge so that ground-nesting birds would not have their nests flooded and chicks would survive in heavy rain conditions. He established beetle banks and wildflower strips around headlands, ensuring that there would be an abundance of natural insect life for feeding birds. He also used sensible and proportionate predator control. Because of that initiative, the songbirds found a friend. I could go on, because I am passionate about this, but I am very much time limited.
In attempting to reach a conclusion, I suggest to my noble friend the Minister, who has always been a great supporter of rural issues, that Brexit provides an ideal and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a view on rural financial support. Surely future subsidy—I think it should be called support—should be targeted away from the large farmers who benefit from economies of scale and pointed to the small to medium-sized farms, uplands and less favoured areas, perhaps focusing on wildlife and habitat schemes designed by the GWCT, which is a world leader. Perhaps that body could be paid fees through an environment support fund, where landowners and farmers would be rewarded for the quality of their stewardship or penalised for their lack of it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, with his noted wisdom in this subject area and good turn of phrase. I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on securing the debate in this important area which we discuss all too rarely, having had other things to discuss recently. I declare my interest as chairman of the United Kingdom Squirrel Accord and of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.
The UK Squirrel Accord is a collaborative organisation with 35 signatories, which comprise the four national Governments, their nature entities and the large voluntary and private sector bodies. It has the twin aim of dealing with the threats to broadleaf trees in the UK and to red squirrels, both of which are posed by grey squirrels. I note that, according to the Mammal Society, there are now 2.7 million grey squirrels in the UK, and the number is growing. In 1875, there were none.
The SongBird Survival trust on its website has a section entitled, “impact of non-native species”. The first bullet point says:
“Grey squirrels eat songbird nestlings and eggs, compete for food, destroy broad-leaved trees, and are out-competing our native red squirrels”.
In summary, the two main problems are the eating of nestlings and eggs and the destruction of songbird habitat.
Turning briefly to the first, I was horrified to see last night when I typed: “Do squirrels eat birds?” into Google Images, the results were a terrible array of grey squirrels eating. The anecdotal evidence is so strong yet, frustratingly, the hard scientific fact as to how much a contributor grey squirrel eating habits are to the dreadful songbird number reductions remains elusive. Where songbird habitat destruction is concerned, scientific facts are banned.
Estimates for the timber value destroyed by grey squirrels over the last 10 years in the UK are between £100 and £200 million. The Royal Forestry Society is trying to update these currently, and I understand that the early signs point to a very significantly upward revision. Grey squirrels ring bark broadleaved trees aged between approximately 10 and 40 years to get at their sap, which destroys the trees. In southern England, effectively, there is no commercial planting of these species happening today, so native songbird habitat is not being replaced. I know this well, as this is why the UK Squirrel Accord was formed three years or so ago. The work of the accord is thus directly related to songbird habitat. The accord has many strands of co-operative work going on, aimed at controlling grey squirrel numbers.
As a UK-wide body, we are involved in commissioning scientific research of various types to assist. The most exciting and innovative in the world stage concerns fertility control. On our behalf, 18 months ago, the Animal and Plant Health Agency started a five-year project aimed at grey-squirrel-targeted fertility control. The work involves an existing fertility control drug in use in the USA, injecting this inside pollen, which is a new UK technology, mixing the pollen into a paste—and feeding the paste to grey squirrels in a specially designed species-specific hopper. The research is going well and it is hard to praise enough the team of exceptional scientists involved. In addition, this is a public-private project, with the squirrel accord committing to raise £1 million or so. Many generous individuals and trusts have helped fund this vital research. I believe this will be a key part of a strategy to help with the songbird habitat problem over what I regret will be a long haul.
In closing, I ask the Minister to comment on the research paper, which he had a very important part in commissioning himself.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Caithness for introducing this issue. It is, as the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, pointed out, an indicator of other, much deeper problems for our environment here in Britain.
We know that 16 species of our favourite songbirds have declined by more than one-third since 1995, including such iconic birds as the cuckoo and the wood warbler. To address this decline, and all the other linked environmental issues, we need massive changes to land use in our country. Part of that relates to the issue of land ownership. Too much land has been concentrated in too few hands. The vast majority of our land is still held by a small number of hereditary families, possibly including some of your Lordships. Many work very hard. I know of one Peer who has a 50-acre wildflower meadow, which is extremely difficult to create and maintain. Many large landowners improve their land for now and for future generations. But there is an inequality that has to be tackled. Margaret Thatcher used to speak of the home-owning democracy; perhaps the time has come for a land-owning democracy. I am using a Conservative link, so that it feeds into the Government’s ears.
Perhaps the biggest impact a freeholder could make is to lease parcels of land—the rocky, sloping marginal bits that you cannot work out what to do with, or that do not have any obvious use. If you lease a parcel of this marginal land to someone with ideas and enthusiasm, they can manage it in an ecologically friendly way. That is what happened in Old Sleningford Farm in north Yorkshire, where a 17-acre smallholding is leased and managed in a revolutionary way. In exchange for a peppercorn rent, this patch of rocky dirt has been transformed into what is called a “food forest”, with over 250 species of fruit and nut trees being grown organically. The freeholder himself loves it, and gets chickens and bacon and an endless supply of fruit; the leaseholders have crafted a successful local business; and local people visit to get involved in tending the land, as a sort of social exercise.
We are still stuck in the 20th-century mind set brought about by the world wars when maximising production was the sole purpose of agricultural policy. We have to move on from that and think in a more modern way. We know how to fix the problem of climate change, but we are not doing it fast enough. The longer we stall, the worse things will get and the more it will cost to remedy. Some people think that it is crass to talk about nature in monetary terms, because it is worth much so more than money can ever reflect, but it is a simple fact that our environment and ecology have an immense economic value in terms of the products and services that nature provides to us for free. It represents billions of pounds worth of natural capital. In the end, our natural capital is the only infrastructure that really matters—more than all the roads, rail, electricity and internet. We can lose all those things, and all the money in the world but, if we lose our environment and ecosystems, everything else becomes worthless.
We have big opportunities over this Parliament, with numerous Bills dedicated to farming and the environment. We will literally shape the future of our country with the words in those Bills. We showed in the withdrawal Bill that we will improve legislation in the face of stiff government opposition, and I hope that we will continue in that spirit as we address the challenges of our environment and ecosystems.
I went to a farmers’ market yesterday and was lobbied very heavily by a beekeeper. He outlined the problem that in Britain we import far too many bees and do not encourage our own natural bee population. No bumblebees are currently commercially produced in the UK, and the substitution of home-grown produce has commercial, biodiversity and biosecurity advantages for the whole country. Apparently, subspecies of honey bees are also being imported, with a resulting loss of quality over succeeding generations: bad temper, swarminess and lack of local adaptation. This goes way beyond songbirds; it is about every single part of nature, and we have to protect it.
My Lords, at first glance I thought this Question was rather daunting, and that the reference to invasive, non-native species was sort of new bird-Brexit talk. Having heard the excellent speeches which preceded mine, I now understand exactly what people are talking about. From the perspective of someone with a 95-foot garden, I am not equipped to talk about a lot of the things which large landowners will mention in this debate. I have noticed extraordinary changes in my garden over the nearly 30 years that I have lived there. I have not found a particular problem with the invasive ringed green parakeet on the bird table, although there is an awful lot of noise and pushing around. The only confrontation I have seen was with a greater spotted woodpecker, who stood and maintained his ground. There are very few songbird—and I agree that there is probably an overall decrease in them. Of course, they eat insects more than they go to bird tables.
My interest in birds began at a very early age. My father took me to the coast, close to where we lived Devon, to try and take the oil off the feathers of puffins, whose wings had become immobilised. I was only three years old, so I was hardly fit to judge whether he was very effective at that, but I enormously admired his efforts. From that point, birds have been an important part of my life. I luckily ran pretty well free and without discipline through my childhood during the Second World War, as both my parents were involved in the war effort in one way or another. Birds were one of my interests when I was in both the south of England and Scotland. I had all the necessary books to identify them and to pontificate to my friends on the subject, and that was maintained throughout my life until I went to an organised boarding school. What shocked me there was that I saw very little of birds outside but I saw a lot of stuffed birds, stuffed fish and stuffed everything—stuffed teachers, if you will. So that was a bleak period, except that I qualified for a bicycle by joining the natural history society. I used to say that I was using the bicycle to watch the mallards at the Binfield brickworks, but that was an excuse for going to the cinema in Bracknell, which at that time was a one-horse town.
One notable time for me during my bird-watching life was when I went to Africa on business, and I went to Lake Nakuru and saw the flamingos. Back then, in the early 1970s, there were between 2 million and 3 million flamingos. It was a fantastic sight and they made a fantastic sound. Their food source was the algae in the alkaline lake. Unfortunately, the lake has been subject to pollution in east Africa, and now there are just a few flamingos around the perimeter of the lake. So the reduction in bird numbers is a worldwide problem.
I end by saying that the public need much more information about birds. I highly praise the BBC for its “Springwatch” and “Autumnwatch” programmes. The other day I spoke to the chairman of the BBC and said, “That really is a star programme. Do keep up the good work”. I think that he was quite grateful for my words.
That is all I have to say. I continue with my bird interest in the mornings. I sit there with my porridge and coffee and have my field glasses to hand. I look at my garden and the bird table. I agree with the noble Earl, who in his excellent speech made a point about cats. That is where education is needed. People who have cats need to realise that they need to be controlled and kept away from the birdlife.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for tabling this debate today and for his excellent contribution. I also thank all noble Lords for their considerable expertise. As ever, I have learned a great deal from listening to this debate. It follows the excellent one that we had last week on the survival of bees and other pollinators. Many of the issues are the same. Disease, habitat loss, climate change and pesticides have all had an impact, and of course, where insects decline, there is an inevitable consequence for the food source of birds.
As noble Lords have said, the populations of farmland and woodland bird species have fallen dramatically over the last 50 years. Undoubtedly, intensive farming and the tearing out of hedgerows, which were encouraged in the past, have taken their toll, and the widespread use of pesticides has exacerbated that decline.
Thankfully, if rather belatedly, more recent Governments have started the process of reversing that damage with the support of farmers. Hedgerows are now being recreated, field borders are being left to grow wild, farmers are being rewarded for creating wild flower meadows, and the Government have listened to the science and banned the use of neonicotinoids for pest control.
All this is a start but clearly, as we have heard in this debate, there is a great deal more that we can do. For example, does the Minister agree that there is a growing need for a review of the use of all pesticides to take account of the negative effects, as well as the advantages, that they can bring? Does he also agree that, when we invest in science, we need to make sure that we harness the less damaging ways of tackling persistent weeds and pests by building on nature’s own natural biodiversity?
The Government’s plan to grow more trees, creating in particular more broad-leaved woodland areas, will also have a positive effect where they are appropriately managed. I take the point made by several noble Lords about that important caveat. As the Minister might acknowledge, currently the Government are some way off target on meeting their ambition to plant 11 million more trees. At the same time we need to make a concerted effort to make urban areas more attractive to wildlife. I absolutely take the point about communicating with home owners and the importance of programmes like “Springwatch”. Home owners need to be encouraged to abandon decking and concrete and to find new pleasure in birds and insects that will make their gardens come alive again. The planting of dense vegetation encourages songbirds to nest.
Finally, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, reminded us all of the particular threat to songbirds of invasive non-native species. While many non-native species are harmless, occasionally there are those which creep up on us and pose a threat to our native biodiversity. One detrimental impact which has already been mentioned is that of non-native grey squirrels, although again cats and rats also play their part in raiding nests, eating eggs and killing young birds. A number of references have been made to magpies and raptors. I have to say to noble Lords that the research I have seen is rather less decisive on this point, although I am sure that it is a debate for another occasion. Noble Lords have referred to parakeets and we know the effect they can have by chasing native birds away from food sites and excluding endemic birds and bats from nesting cavities. It has been suggested that there could be a cull of parakeets, but I hope that we can take other measures which are not quite as drastic as that. I am sure that the Minister will be able to tell us what more the Government are proposing to do about this issue.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the actions the Government are taking to tackle the threat of non-native invasive species and I hope that he will acknowledge some of the ideas which have been presented in this debate. They give us more hope of looking forward to the return of native songbirds as a welcome part of our lives.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on giving us a lead to share our delight in songbirds and I acknowledge their importance. I have to say that I had always thought that “All the way with LBJ” referred to an American President, but I am now better informed.
Songbirds are a much-loved part of our wildlife and are to be found in a diverse range of habitats: farms, wetlands, woodlands, gardens and urban parks. The crescendo of the dawn chorus and birds feeding in our gardens, the robin and the blackbird waiting alongside the garden fork appeal to our senses. Indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, gave us a fascinating account of his early years with birds.
Songbirds are a diverse group of around 300 species of small to medium-sized birds, making up just under half of the UK’s bird species. We should be concerned about the decline in many species of songbirds since the 1970s. The trend since the mid-1990s is more mixed with a low or no overall change in abundance, although while many populations are now stable or increasing, some individual species have continued to decline. For instance, I see more goldfinches and long-tailed tits but fewer greenfinches. I am delighted this year to have two nests of spotted flycatchers on the front of the house. Declines in songbirds are due to a combination of factors, including changes in land management practice, land drainage, loss of biodiversity, overgrazing by deer in woodlands and invasive non-native species. All have had an impact.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised the important factor of the effect of climate change on migratory bird species, and only today a report has been produced on our efforts in our military bases in Cyprus and the steps being taken. The UK’s network of 273 special protection areas protects the most vulnerable and threatened wild bird species and their habitats, while our network of sites of special scientific interest provide valuable habitats for a range of bird species. Indeed, overall 3.3 million hectares of land in England are protected, providing important habitat for species.
In the wider landscape, agri-environment schemes are the principal mechanisms by which we support the conservation of songbirds by providing food and nesting resources. Since 2015, over 2,000—or nearly half—of new countryside stewardship agreements included the wild pollinator and farm wildlife package. The Forestry Commission and Natural England have produced countryside stewardship woodland bird guidance for applicants, to create the optimum conditions for songbirds, such as tree pipits and the wood warbler.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, spoke of some of the clear evidence of successful recovery of some farmland birds due to land management funded by the agri-environment schemes. My experience is now with advances in agri-tech and precision farming, basing our decisions on pesticides on independent and the best available scientific advice. That is the basis on which we will take these matters forward.
An independent study in 2012 found that provision of winter food resources with over-winter stubble and wild bird seed crops resulted in a positive effect in local populations, as I saw on a visit to the Cotswolds, when seeing a profusion of linnets and yellowhammers. Indeed, I am reminded of the work at Loddington, to which my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lord Shrewsbury referred. I am very much looking forward to a forthcoming visit to Arundel to see what our noble friend the Duke of Norfolk is undertaking on his estates.
Another interesting point of success—we are always very worried about the declines, and rightly so—is the ninefold increase in the numbers of cirl buntings. Indeed, a new reintroduction in Cornwall of now over 1,000 birds is considered the first successful songbird reintroduction in Europe. My noble friend Lord Caithness has highlighted concerns about the impact of predator control and its effectiveness, and has suggested that we should consider our options in this matter. I share the view that targeted management of predators, using a mix of land management methods, can benefit the conservation of bird species, especially ground-nesting species.
I am also conscious of ecosystems and the natural world, in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and I very much hope that she will be involved in “Bees’ Needs” week. She will forgive me if I do not go down her line of country in terms of land ownership, because I would definitely be on a different page. However, we are united in wanting the best for the natural world.
Leaving the EU, whatever our view, undoubtedly presents an opportunity to devise new environmental land management schemes as a cornerstone of future agricultural policy. I was, of course, particularly taken with what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said of his experiences in the Flow Country, and how success can be secured with what I call sensible collaboration with all interested parties. That point was also made by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury.
In the 25-year environment plan, we are committed to developing a strategy for nature covering our land and freshwater habitats and to take forward our international commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity. As with Biodiversity 2020, the new strategy will seek to enhance our natural habitats, and ensure conservation and recovery.
My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to planning and the potential use of buffer strips. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, made the point in terms of the urban situation as well. The Government are looking at how embedding a net-gain principle in planning could contribute to nature recovery alongside facilitating housing development. This approach could help to address the impact of development on songbird habitats by improving incentives to retain habitats within development sites or by increasing the amount of habitat enhanced or created.
My noble friend Lord Caithness also mentioned cats, and the joint project between SongBird Survival and Exeter University to look at this issue in more depth. Last week, when I attended the all-party group that deals with cat welfare, I was brave enough to raise this matter and explain that there would be a debate in your Lordships’ House on songbirds. My officials and I are very interested to see what the Exeter study concludes.
Invasive non-native species such as grey squirrels and muntjac deer have had a profound impact on songbirds and can undermine conservation. The pipits and pintails are back in such numbers in South Georgia—where I would love to go one day—for one reason: we tackled the invader. It is extraordinary how nature has recovered so dramatically in but a few years. I have seen at first hand the impact muntjac have had in the overgrazing of the under canopy, which means that nesting sites for birds such as the nightingale are disappearing.
My noble friend Lord Caithness has raised the matter of the loss of songbirds. Our country has long been the most active country in Europe in addressing invasive non-native species. The EU invasive alien species regulation, which our country was instrumental in developing, sets out strict restrictions on the keeping and sale of species listed under the regulation, as well as prohibiting their release to the environment. To me, biosecurity means that a key priority must be to reduce the risk of new species entering the country and to control the spread of a number of established species.
Under the joint grey squirrel action plan for England, Defra and the Forestry Commission are committed to working with landowners and other organisations to implement a package of measures to support targeted grey squirrel control. We should thank my noble friend Lord Kinnoull and all those involved in the Squirrel Accord for what they are doing. He referred to research into the development of an immuno-contraceptive. The research continues to progress well, and I acknowledge the exceptional scientists who are so engaged in this vital work. APHA is working with the UK Squirrel Accord and its donors. The formulation for the vaccine has now been identified and tests are under way with captive grey squirrels to ascertain the longevity of the vaccine and identify any potential side-effects.
I am informed that there are more deer in this country than at any time since the Norman conquest. We believe that the management of deer is clearly best carried out by local deer management groups, so that the natural flora and fauna are kept in balance. My observation is that traditional country people—who care about the land and about wildlife—appreciate that it is all about balance. If something in nature becomes out of balance, problems start to occur, as we are seeing in some areas with corvids and magpies in particular. Deer species such as the muntjac are causing damage because of their prolific breeding. It is important to look at these matters through the Deer Initiative, which brings together local groups to ensure that deer management is sustainable and effective.
We humans have the capacity to do much good. We also have the capacity to do extraordinary harm to the natural world. It is surely the responsibility of all of us to act as good custodians of the natural world and to foster it for future generations. My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned education. This is an issue about which the next generation feels very strongly. The balance and management of nature and the wise use of land is so important. It requires a collaborative approach at home and abroad between the different UK Administrations and landowners, farmers, non-governmental organisations and members of the public. Songbirds are surely a true glory of our natural heritage. Everyone should be able to enjoy ready access to a better environment with an increasingly healthy songbird population. That is our task and our responsibility. I am so grateful to my noble friend Lord Caithness for ensuring we could debate this.