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House of Commons Hansard
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Protection of Pollinators
08 May 2018
Volume 640

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the protection of pollinators; and for connected purposes.

This Bill would place a duty on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in consultation with local authorities, to bring forward a mechanism for and plan to deliver a national network of pollinator corridors containing spaces rich in wildflower habitat. It would also encourage public authorities to seek opportunities to contribute to the development and implementation of pollinator corridors. There has certainly been a bit of a buzz about bees and insects in recent years. That was a nice one to start with, and I may reach something of a crescendo with the puns later.

Wild pollinators include bees, butterflies, moths, flies and various other insects such as beetles and wasps. More than two thirds of Britain’s pollinators are in decline, including many species of bumblebee, butterfly and moth. Indeed, 35 of the UK’s bee species are currently under threat of extinction. Although they make the headlines most often, it is not just bees that are struggling: 76% of UK butterfly species and 66% of UK moth species are also in decline. The public are very concerned about that decline—indeed, as many colleagues will attest, they often write to their MPs about this issue. In terms of the volume of emails on a specific campaign, this issue and other animal welfare concerns are always among the most popular. I am sure we have all experienced the enthusiastic campaigns of groups such as Buglife and the Wildlife Trusts at our respective party conferences.

Pollinators are facing unprecedented challenges, including climate change, intensive farming, pests and diseases, pesticide use and urban growth. They need food, water, shelter and nesting areas as well as the ability to roam far and wide—as they would naturally, without the barriers placed in their way as a result of urban sprawl. As the concrete jungle grows, their natural habitat inevitably shrinks.

Dramatic losses of wildflower-rich habitat and the fragmentation of the remaining protected spaces are some of the main threats to the survival of many pollinators. A significant further decline in their population would be a disaster for the UK: devastating for our farmers and our food sustainability. It would also have a huge impact on a wide range of businesses that rely on these insect-pollinated crops; our cider producers and food manufacturers, for example, would be hit hard.

Insect pollinators benefit both the yield and the quality of many crops. Studies suggest that their activity is worth nearly £700 million to UK food production annually—equivalent to 13% of the value of our agricultural produce. There is no overall assessment of the current impact of the decline on crop production, but we know that a lack of pollinators is already costing apple growers, for example, millions of pounds each year. A further decline would also devastate our wildflower population and change our biodiversity forever. It is important to note that creating wildlife sanctuaries and protecting our green spaces will not only support our bees and insects; it will also have other positive outcomes for everything else. It will have a beneficial impact on our local communities, and on our individual mental health and wellbeing. That is as significant—if not more so—in deprived areas as in our leafy suburbs. Green spaces are places of tranquillity and provide a space away from the hustle, bustle and stresses of modern life—the more the merrier, in my view.

I met my hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recently to discuss the protection of pollinators, which, I was pleased to hear, is a priority for the Government. I was pleased to hear about the positive work under way on the national pollinator strategy—an approach setting out how the Government, beekeepers, conservation groups, farmers and researchers can work towards common goals together.

A 2016 report on the implementation of the strategy highlighted positive progress across its actions, including on habitat creation, public engagement, protecting honey bee health and improving our understanding of this issue. Given the importance and value of pollinators, it is right that we should discuss whether there is a need for further legislation to work alongside the strategy and the powers currently in place. The national pollinator strategy is a 10-year plan, which was published in November 2014. It sets out the Government’s commitment to playing a leading role in improving the status of the 1,500 or so pollinating insects in England. The strategy is an important step in protecting bees and other insects.

It is also important to recognise that current legislation includes the provision to regulate the use of pesticides and provide protection for bees and our most threatened species. Those are all positive steps, but I still believe that more could be done. The strategy covers key issues such as supporting pollinators on farmland and supporting bees and insects across towns, cities and the countryside, but it does not emphasise or plan to support pollinator pathways and corridors. Government support so far has focused on temporary habitats and patches of protected countryside. Although those provide some benefits to pollinators, they do not provide the variety of flora or the nesting habitats required for them to thrive.

The best habitats are fragmented throughout the UK, and insects are still confined to small areas—pollinators are not free to fly as they naturally would, but are often stuck in small pockets without the freedom to roam far and wide. That is especially problematic when we develop on land that does not have the connections and pathways to allow insects and wildlife to move to new areas. Almost a fifth of these habitats have been lost. Independent scientific reviews have identified the loss of wildflower-rich habitats as the likely primary cause of the recorded decline in the diversity of wild bees and other pollinating insects. When we develop on green space, too often we lose the local wildlife. This is where the Bill and pollinator corridors come in.

Charities such as Buglife have been working on solutions to our pollinator problems. One option is something it has called “B-Lines”. B-Lines are a series of insect pathways running through our countryside and towns. Along them stretch a series of wildflower-rich habitat stepping stones, providing support for these species and others. They are effectively a road network for insects. B-Lines provide a framework in which to target large-scale habitat restoration, as well as small-scale pollinator resources. The framework helps to encourage landowners, businesses and the public to get involved locally. Going forward, the B-Lines network would ideally be identified within local plan frameworks to ensure a more joined-up approach, so that local authorities, developers, landowners and managers, and other partners, can work together to support pollinator corridors. Co-ordinated habitat restoration will help to ensure that we develop pollinator-friendly landscapes more efficiently and quickly.

The fragmentation of habitats presents a significant threat to species, as they find it increasingly difficult to colonise new areas, particularly as our climate changes. Where there is more continuous habitat, species can spread faster.

Modelling has demonstrated that targeting support at grassland habitat restoration and creation, and creating a channelled pattern of habitats is the most effective way of promoting species dispersal. The Bill will encourage local authorities to reference and support pollinators within their local plans and local environmental strategies. It will help to ensure the increased delivery of the national pollinator strategy locally and importantly it will promote the B-Lines network as a priority for action.

There are some positive case studies which show that this approach can be successful. On the banks of the River Derwent, east of York, a landowner was inspired by the B-Lines idea and proposed the creation of a new wildflower-rich floodplain meadow. The landowner worked with Buglife to turn a six hectare arable field, where flooding was an issue, into a large wildflower-rich habitat, which acted as a new stepping stone for pollinators on the B-Lines network. In addition, it helps to reduce sediment leaching into the river system. It shows that increasing our wildflower networks can have multiple environmental benefits.

In Kent, commercial orchards within the B-Lines network near Maidstone have been increasing pollinator habitat by changing mowing regimes to promote wildflowers between fruit trees. This is a win-win situation: a simple change that results in increasing habitat for wild pollinators and also helps to increase crop yields.

In the north-west of England one of the B-Line partners, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, is working with Highways England to focus on key stretches of the A66 and A595, aiming to use parts of the highways estate and other land to support pollinators and create B-Lines, increasing wildflower-rich habitat and helping to reduce the fragmentation of existing wildflower-rich areas.

B-Lines also provide an opportunity for Government Departments and agencies to prioritise work for pollinators. Buglife is working with both the Ministry of Justice and the Environment Agency to identify key sites, including prisons, seawalls and floodplains, where wildflower habitat creation could be taken forward. I hope that the Bill will place renewed emphasis on that work. The Bill asks the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to bring forward a mechanism to deliver B-Lines, including a national map of pollinator corridors, which will in turn encourage local authorities to act to support pollinators. Local authorities are of course best placed to know their local environment, understand specific local challenges and the needs of the local population.

Protecting pollinators involves action by many different groups, including large-scale and small-scale farmers. Farmers have played an important role so far. They are the custodians of much of our natural environment and have generally worked hard to support bees and insects. I want to recognise the work that farmers have played in supporting our pollinators and their crucial role in the success of pollinator corridors, as well as the importance of protecting wildlife for our agriculture and food supply too. Protecting pollinators does not need to be an onerous commitment for farmers, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or local authorities. It is an example of an evidence based approach with all-round benefits that need not consume huge resources to deliver an impact.

Local Authorities already have a duty to conserve biodiversity under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. The national planning policy framework states that plans should include a strategy for enhancing the natural, built and historic environment and support for nature improvement areas. The Bill is another step towards encouraging local authorities to explicitly reference pollinators within local plans. I am pleased to confirm that it will also involve minimal expenditure for local authorities.

Helping bees and other insects can be easy, as the case studies I mentioned have demonstrated. Whether it is changing the patterns of cutting local verges, decreasing grass cutting in remote areas or working with local charities and housing developers to encourage pollinators in our urban spaces, the Bill does not seek to place a financial commitment on local authorities. Buglife and Friends of the Earth have published a paper that looks at developing local pollinator action plans. The Bill is another way to advance those plans.

You will like this bit, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am going to end on a high. We have an opportunity to make a beeline for the protection and growth of our pollinator population, which I am sure colleagues will flock to support like moths to a flame. DEFRA has been a hive of activity and positive announcements in recent months, and this could add further to their success. There has been a lot of talk and some positive steps. I do not believe that we have been just bumbling along. We must ensure that there is a sting in the tail. Further action must be taken. I had a joke about calling somebody “Honey”, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I will take it out as Mr Speaker has left the Chamber.

Having spoken to colleagues, I know that there is widespread support across the House for the protection of pollinators and for the idea of pollinator corridors. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Sir Roger Gale, Sir Oliver Letwin, Dr Matthew Offord, Andrew Selous, Neil Parish and Ben Bradley present the Bill.

Ben Bradley accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October, and to be printed (Bill 206).