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4 Feb 2003 : Column 21WH—continued

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Wild Birds

11 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): It is a pleasure to be here this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This debate started in an unusual way. I was shocked last weekend when Grace, my five-year-old—like all five-year-olds, she knows everything that there is to know about nature and wildlife—asked, "Daddy, what is a starling?" It occurred to me that she had never seen a starling. These birds were once regarded as pests and they were all over the place when I was a kid. However, it struck me that in our small garden at home in Nottingham we have seen neither a starling nor a sparrow, although wood pigeons, blue tits and robins have passed through, and we were thrilled to see a weasel last week. Birds that were common a decade ago seem to be disappearing, even from the acute radar screen of a five-year-old. Alarm bells began to ring, and I thought about the thrushes, blackbirds and many other species that are going missing. The purpose of the debate is to ask the Minister, "What can we collectively do about it?"

We have recently debated the common agricultural policy, and I would certainly hold the Minister tightly accountable on that issue. On this occasion, however, I look to him to give us a few lines on what we can do together to revive some of the species of urban wild birds. Wild bird numbers matter in their own right, but they can also be regarded as a thermometer with which to test the environmental health of the United Kingdom. To their credit, the Government are using breeding bird populations as one such thermometer, and it is obvious from reading it that the UK environment is running a bit of a temperature.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): My hon. Friend will remember that five or six years ago my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister used starlings to monitor environmental pollution. Perhaps my hon. Friend will induce the Minister to tell us how that survey progressed. It was interesting that the starling was picked as a disappearing bird that could reflect what was happening to its environment.

Mr. Allen : My hon. Friend the Minister is well known as a starlingist in government circles, and I am sure that he will tell us about that survey.

During the past 30 years, the numbers of certain birds have drastically declined. The numbers of some thrushes are down by 57 per cent., skylarks are down by 52 per cent., great partridge numbers are down by 58 per cent. and some of our closest neighbours at home have suffered too—starling numbers are down by 71 per cent. and house sparrows are down by 62 per cent. These declines are catastrophic. If we were talking about white rhino or panda populations, everyone would rightly be up in arms. This is happening in the UK, and although the most recent surveys show a modest recovery of common birds since 1998, especially woodland birds, there is still a continuing downward trend in respect of farmland birds.

To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to bring hon.

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Members up to date on the state of research. What research is being conducted, what have the researchers reported and what is in the pipeline? We need to know why woodland and urban birds, and especially the house sparrow, have vanished from many of their former haunts. The decline in sparrow numbers has been so steep that many people have commented on the situation. The Independent, to its credit, ran a campaign to save our sparrows in order to bring the trend to the attention of the public. There has also been a lot of publicity in greater London that is intended to generate public awareness.

As far as I can tell, no one knows the reason or reasons for the disappearance of sparrows, although it is evident throughout the country from Liverpool to Glasgow, London and my own city of Nottingham. Many explanations have been proffered. Perhaps the Minister can synthesise the current thinking on which is the most likely and perhaps add some further suggestions. The current explanations are as follows: that pollution is killing off small insects and even young sparrow chicks; that there is predation by an ever greater number of cats and birds such as sparrow-hawks and magpies; that there is a lack of suitable nesting nooks and crannies in modern buildings—certainly the highest number of sparrow nests were in buildings and houses dating back to at least 1919—and that the use of pesticides by domestic gardeners, as well as those that we are used to being used on farmland, may reduce the availability of insects.

I spoke to Friends of the Earth this morning. Its representatives talked about a noticeable reduction in aphid numbers and, because of the use of slug pellets, a reduction in other bird foods that would normally be available in domestic gardens. As well as telling us what research is in the pipeline, will the Minister bring together some of the answers as to why there is a clear decline in the number of urban birds?

Dr. Gibson : I wonder whether we might induce the Minister to reflect and pronounce on articles that suggest that radiation from telecommunication masts may have some effect on sparrows. I do not see sparrows using mobile phones, so the masts must be the problem. It may sound trivial, but the environment can change rapidly and have effects on animal life. Does the Minister take this claim seriously?

Mr. Allen : Indeed. In a previous debate we touched on the common agricultural policy, which because of its subsidy regime has undoubtedly contributed to predation of bird populations throughout Europe, not only in farming areas but also in urban contexts. When the Minister goes invigorated—as I know he will be—from our debate to seek further reform of the CAP, I hope that he will feel that he has the massed ranks of bird lovers at his side as he tries to resolve some of the knottier issues. They do not affect only householders and farmers; they have a drastic impact on wildlife in general and wild birds in particular.

I hope that my hon. Friend will seek to use the good work carried out by him and his Department in respect of farmland birds and to point that effort also at urban wild birds. The Government have done a great deal—I

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commend them for that—and I am sure that he will give us a list of things that they are doing. A great deal is also being done by the voluntary sector. Perhaps I may focus on what is happening in my own county. In Nottinghamshire, the wildlife trust is working closely with farmers and the farming wildlife advisory group to advise them on how to manage their land more sympathetically given the current crisis.

At Attenborough in Nottinghamshire, the trust is creating reed beds for the endangered bittern. The Sherwood Initiative, thanks to a lottery heritage fund, is working towards restoring Sherwood forest as a stronghold for the woodlark and nightjar. The Nottinghamshire wildlife trust is working with a variety of farmers, local authorities and the Environment Agency to restore habitats along the Trent valley. Wet marsh land is being created for lapwings and waders, reed beds for bittern and marsh harrier, and shallow water to create habitats for thousands of wildfowl and waders.

This has knock-on benefits because we can combine enhanced amenities for birds with economic regeneration and the establishment of sustainable flood defences. That focus is clearly on farmland birds. I seek to draw the Minister not necessarily away from them but into a broader focus to encompass the urban bird population as well.

There are some greater problems that I do not have time to mention. Certainly, we should commend the Government's effort to slow and check global warming. If left unchecked, it will have catastrophic effects on all species, including human beings. However, in the medium term, we must plan for the impact of climate change, which is likely to alter the mix of species in the United Kingdom, with some habitats moving northwards and the complete loss of other habitats due to the rise in sea levels.

Bird habitats in the UK are highly fragmented and often isolated, which means that it is more difficult for species to shift naturally if their habitats migrate. The Government should consider that as part of their land use and development policies. The combination of rising sea levels and hard sea walls leads to coastal squeeze with habitats such as inter-tidal mud flats and salt marsh often being lost to the sea because they cannot move inland past artificial man-made barriers. In turn, that has an impact on the numbers of wintering wading birds such as red shank, curlew and wildfowl, including Brent geese and widgeon, for which the UK is internationally renowned.

Wildlife and wild bird numbers in the UK tell us much about the health of our environment. They also matter to those who elect us. I do not need to talk crude electoral politics to my hon. Friend the Minister because although it is part of his Departmental brief, his heart also in the issue. However, it may serve a purpose to remind Ministers and other Members that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more than a million members, a figure for which any of the parties represented in the House would be most grateful.

Given the importance of the issue, can the Minister assure us that the Government will specifically investigate the plight of urban wild birds, especially the fate of the sparrow, to try to get to the bottom of the

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decline in numbers and to find solutions to the problem? Do the Government intend to use planning legislation to protect birds?

Rather than this issue being an aside in diary columns or a funny piece in newspapers, I hope that it is mainstreamed, which I believe is the Minister's intention. There should be a public campaign led by the Government to alert farmers and town dwellers about the problem of the decline in wild bird numbers and to recruit us all to assist with solutions.

I do not want to sound like a "Blue Peter" presenter, but we would welcome the Minister's advice on nesting boxes, the sort of food that householders can supply to assist bird populations and other hints of that type. I do not know whether I should embarrass the Minister by asking whether he has a bird box at his Department or in his garden, but, knowing him, he has several.

Advice on avoiding the use of pesticides should be given across the range to householders and gardeners who care about their environment but may unwittingly add to the problem. They need to grow more shrubs and trees to provide more habitats for the insects that birds feed on.

We are all enthralled when we see David Attenborough on television creating brilliant and beautiful documentaries about the global ecology featuring whales or primates, such as in Sunday's episode. They are riveting to us all. This environmental crisis, however, is literally in our back yard. I hope that the Government agree that this problem is one that they need to address. They need to gather all the different layers of UK society together into one family—farmers, ordinary householders, Members of Parliament and the voluntary sector, which is working so hard on the problem. The Government have some great ideas, especially about farmland birds. With a great public campaign, we may see the revival of some of the species that were once commonplace in our back yard.

11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate, and on the knowledgeable and enthusiastic way in which he presented the issue of bird populations in this country and the undoubted problems that many of them face, which the Government acknowledge. He is right that, with about one million members, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is the largest conservation body in Europe, which illustrates the wide public interest in issues such as birds and conservation.

Dr. Gibson : Will the Minister give credit to the work of the British Trust for Ornithology of Thetford in Norfolk, whose news is regularly distributed to many Members? It works in isolation, in some ways, although Norfolk is a great county—a mecca, indeed—for many birds. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North has visited it several times to see the migratory bird life.

Mr. Morley : I am happy to compliment the work of the BTO, which works for the Department and undertakes a great deal of scientific analysis. Indeed, I

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shall say a few words about that organisation, as I had the privilege of launching a joint BTO-RSPB woodland bird study at Thetford not very long ago. I should say for the formal record that I am a member of the BTO, the RSPB and various other conservation organisations.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the decline of starlings and house sparrows. They were once common birds, but their numbers have seriously declined over the past 25 years. The starling is now on the red list of high conservation concern. Its numbers declined by 65 per cent. between 1970 and 1998. Recent research by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows that over the past 30 years, house sparrow populations have declined most in the south-east of England. Urban and suburban gardens have seen the most marked fall. In contrast, however, the good news is that they are thriving in urban and rural areas in Scotland and Wales, and there has been a slight increase in populations.

House sparrow breeding, however, has fallen from about 12 million pairs to fewer than 7 million. About 60 per cent. are found in rural and urban gardens. There is no doubt that a combination of factors account for the decline, such as food source and food availability, including for the young, and nesting availability. House sparrows, in particular, nest in old buildings. These days, farm buildings are much tidier and more modern, and modern houses are insulated and draught-proof. It is believed that insulation has denied nesting to house sparrows and starlings.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, pesticide use has had an impact on the availability of seeds and insects. Predation is also a factor, although separate studies of sparrow-hawk predation indicate that it is unlikely to have affected these populations, as sparrow-hawk populations and those of many other birds of prey declined significantly in the 1960s due to the use of pesticides. I am glad to say that many of these species have shown a recovery, but populations are much dictated by food availability. Interestingly, principal prey for sparrow-hawks, such as woodland birds, has increased over the same period, so there is no evidence that they are having a detrimental impact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North asked about the theory of increased telecommunication use and telecommunication masts. I have heard that theory, and have discussed it with some of our scientists. It does not stand up to examination. In Paris, for example, the house sparrow population has not declined. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the French are no less averse to using mobile telephones in Paris than in any other city in the United Kingdom. They might, in fact, be a little keener. I do not believe that there is a correlation between mobile telephone masts and the decline of sparrows. It seems more complicated than that. A study is being conducted by several organisations. The BTO common bird census provides an invaluable database for observing trends in British birds. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee is examining the research and will produce recommendations on the problem of house sparrows.

Mr. Allen : I want to underline the Minister's personal reputation on, and commitment to, this subject, not only while he has been a Minister, but since he first

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walked through the portals of this place. Whenever we received queries about the subject, we always referred to him, even before he secured his current exalted position. I will not go into the stories of the Minister doing bird imitations in Committee, because I know that you want me to get on with my point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

When does the Minister think that the committee is likely to report?

Mr. Morley : I do not have the details on that, but I will write to my hon. Friend. Indeed, he may want more details on what is being done about house sparrows, so I will arrange for that to be done, too.

My hon. Friend asked what the public can do to support birds generally, and house sparrows in particular. Many people feed wild birds in their gardens, which is important, especially during the winter as it means fewer mortalities and a larger potential breeding population in the spring. It is sometimes useful to provide food throughout the summer for supplementary feeding, and water availability is important.

It appears that nesting sites are a factor for the house sparrow. Many people are keen on nest boxes, and my hon. Friend asked what I do. I have a range of nest boxes in my garden—I think that I have seven. They are designed for a range of species including tits, and I have open-fronted nest boxes for robins and two colonial nest boxes that are designed for sparrows. I have my personal biodiversity action plan on tree sparrows in my garden, as I am trying to establish a breeding colony. I have established a wintering flock in a feeding station in my garden, and they are colonial nesters, so I have two boxes of three, which is like a little tenement block for sparrows.

The difference with house sparrows that most people do not understand is that they have a problem with nest boxes. Most nest boxes that people buy are for blue or great tits. That is understandable, as people like to see them in their gardens, but the holes are generally too small for sparrows, and if one wants to encourage breeding sparrows in nest boxes, one needs a larger entrance hole. The boxes are easy to make, and they can be bought. I have specialist boxes and know that as part of several studies into sparrows, suitable boxes have been erected with considerable success. I know that one farm has a line of them and, with it, a successful colony of house sparrows, so the boxes are significant for populations. I also have boxes for breeding tawny owls and artificial house martin nests. I have perhaps gone a bit overboard on boxes, but most of them are occupied and effective.

DEFRA has committed £600,000 to the woodland bird study, which has already received contributions from English Nature and the Forestry Commission. The study is being carried out by the RSPB and the BTO. It is a detailed examination of our woodlands birds, which is interesting in itself, as there appears to be a decline of certain woodland species. There is a decline in the south-east of England, which is strange because it is one of the better forested areas, but an increase in the midlands, including Nottingham. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that. They are thriving in different parts of the country.

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There are some issues that we have to understand about why certain species—the woodpecker and marsh tit, for example—have declined, while other woodland species, including most of the tit species and the greater spotted woodpecker, have increased significantly. There have also been increases in a number of wetland species. We have sites of special scientific interest, which are important protected habitat areas, and that protection has been strengthened by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. In the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, there are three SSSIs: Sutton and Lound gravel pits; the River Idle washlands; and the Welbeck estates, which are well known not least for the honey buzzards that nest there.

As my hon. Friend says, in many instances the numbers of farmland birds have declined catastrophically—the tree sparrow population, for example, has declined incredibly by 95 per cent. Much of that is linked to changing farming practices. These changes are not in any way malicious; they have been driven by intensification, trying to achieve outputs, economies and efficiencies. I have to agree with my hon. Friend that many of them have been driven by the common agricultural policy, which has had a negative effect on the way in which the inducements have encouraged intensification in certain farming practices which, in the longer term, may not be desirable or sustainable in relation to the climate and habitat.

It is likely that we will see changes over time. In the interim, we are arguing for changes to the CAP. We are also extending the countryside stewardship scheme and the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, which have been very successful. Schemes targeted at species in decline such as stone curlew and red kite have had considerable success in rehabilitating the populations. I was pleased recently to be in Derbyshire to launch the first RSPB's peak birds project annual report. Part of its purpose is to examine how to arrest the declining population of twite, which breed on the Pennines. I am confident that we will make progress on that issue.

Our new entry-level agri-environment schemes, as part of the reforms recommended by Sir Donald Curry, will have benefits in relation to the measures that we can implement in farmland areas. The organisation of our agri-environment programmes is undergoing its mid-term review. I know that concern has been expressed about the specialist schemes that can be targeted on species recovery. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that in terms of future reforms there is no reason why we cannot continue to have specialist schemes designed to bring about species recovery within agri-environment programmes.

Mr. Allen : As time is running out, I am keen that my hon. Friend should refer to my point about wider public awareness and a possible campaign, not least on urban wild birds. Would it be possible, even arising from today's debate, for the Department to issue, if not guidelines, a press release listing some of the things an average person without a great deal of knowledge who wants to do their bit, as well as the farming community, can do to help?

Mr. Morley : That is a practical suggestion. We support the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, which works with farmers and landowners on

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conservation. English Nature does a good job with its range of leaflets and information on how people can support biodiversity and wildlife. It is the Government's main conservation arm, and perhaps the most appropriate body to deliver that advice. I shall speak to its representatives on how we can collaborate with non-governmental organisations and wildlife groups on the matter.

I recently took part in the national garden birdwatch, which is run by the RSPB every year. It is a good awareness raiser. I am glad to say that it was launched in No. 10, because it demonstrates our commitment as a Government to biodiversity, conservation management and the issue of wild birds. As my hon. Friend rightly stated, the Government have set public service agreement targets, both in terms of restoring farmland birds but also in relation to birds as a quality of life indicator, which is important.

I appreciate my hon. Friend raising this serious quality of life and conservation issue today. We take it seriously and I shall look closely at his helpful and considerate suggestions.

Sitting suspended till Two o'clock.

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