Below is my speech during Monday’s Westminster Hall debate on the protection of hedgehogs. You can watch the full debate here.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for presenting and introducing the debate in such a passionate manner.
Clearly, this topic matters to many people across the UK and to Members from across the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and others highlighted, the hedgehog has been voted the most popular wild mammal in the UK, and I wish the campaign for a hedgehog hospital, which they have highlighted, every success. I also commend the work of the Hedgehog Preservation Society and hedgehog rescues—which have some fantastic names, such as Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned. Clearly, volunteers and groups up and down the country are working to turn the tide on decline.
We have heard about how people can make their gardens better habitats for hedgehogs. Simple interventions can make a big difference. We heard memories and stories about the wonderful hedgehog, from the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), sharing the regular sightings when there were as many hedgehogs as people in the UK, to the latest household member of the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), Horace. We heard about the decline and what issues may be causing it, from habitat destruction to pesticides and other issues. We heard about the incredible lives that hedgehogs have, with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) explaining that they can travel up to 2 km a night, which is extraordinary.
Before I directly address the prickly situation of hedgehogs, I will discuss the Department’s answer to the petition, which I read with great interest. Ministers have rightly framed their response to the plight of hedgehogs in relation to the wider issues of species abundance targets, even if they have yet to propose what those targets will be. We absolutely need biodiversity targets, and they should be ambitious. We should not only halt the decline of hedgehogs and other nature; we should reverse it. Ministers seem to agree. The Secretary of State said that he wants not only to stem the tide of the loss of nature but to turn it around and leave the environment in a better state than we found it. I hope the Minister will use this debate to outline why, in the other place, the Government’s proposals for species abundance targets committed only to “further the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species”, and what that means for hedgehogs. We need more than a halt to the decline; we should be aiming for a dramatic incline in species abundance and trying to reverse the trend for hedgehogs.
Our hedgehog population is threatened, and in response to the petition, the Department says that it is reviewing the species that will be protected as part of the regular five-year review. As highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), this year the rules have changed. Animals will be automatically added to the protection list only if they are critically endangered, and will be eligible to be added only if they are endangered in the first place. What assurance can the Minister give that hedgehogs will receive the protections they deserve? Hedgehogs fit neither requirement outlined above, but their numbers have rapidly declined—by 50% in rural areas and a third in urban areas over the past 20 years. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) asked, what will be done to keep the weaker protections they currently have?
It is fantastic that the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) is the species champion for hedgehogs. He reported on the steep decline since 1950, with hedgehog numbers falling from 30 million to 1.5 million. That is a shocking figure. The need for an holistic approach to nature and development is clear. Will the Minister address what conversations are occurring across Government to protect nature under new planning laws? I agree with the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) that the decline means that we need to protect hedgehog habitats, making considerations in planning, and that we should actively intervene to restore habitats as part of what we do to create nature corridors and in the restoration of hedgerows. We also need to continue to make space for hedgehogs with methods such as creating tunnels, hedgehog highways and hedgehog houses in our urban areas.
The England trees action plan commits to a mere 12% of woodland coverage by the middle of the century, which is 7% less than the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation of 19%. As well as being weak on woodland coverage, the document contains only four references to hedgerows. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what the Department will do specifically to encourage the creation of more of these habitats, which are so beneficial to hedgehogs. In addition to habitat restoration, there is a wider point to make about species abundance targets—a strange approach to biodiversity that is indifferent to the steep decline of the population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle passionately highlighted, we should not have to wait for a species to become endangered before extending protections to it.
Therefore, I ask the Minister whether her Department has any plans to reverse its approach, in order to ensure that the rhetoric on protecting species abundance matches the reality. If we are aiming for abundance, raising the threshold for species protection is a step in the wrong direction, certainly when species have faced such dramatic reductions in numbers. Will she support the beloved prickly mammal that our country is so passionate about in the upcoming review?