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Lord Williams of Elvel: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I should like to address a question to the Minister rather than the noble Lord, Lord Wade.

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Is the undertaking that consultation should be considered by the Minister to be extended to local authorities as well?

Viscount Ullswater: I indicated that the consultation that we planned would be wide-ranging and would take in other representative organisations. I do not see that representative organisations can exclude a local authority.

Lord Wade of Chorlton: The wording used in the amendment is that used in the deregulation Act of 1994. Quite clearly, the Government must feel that such a system is workable; otherwise it would not have been used there. That drew attention to the fact that, particularly where people's businesses could be placed in a very serious situation, proper consultative procedures should be laid down. What we tried to achieve in the deregulation Act, as my noble friend will be aware, was a fairer balance between the regulated and the regulator. That is the purpose of my amendment.

I am sure that my noble friend has listened carefully to what all noble Lords have said. Clearly, this matter is of great importance to many people. I hope that he will be able to come forward with a satisfactory solution at the next stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 309D not moved.]

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 309E:

Page 86, line 34, leave out ("important").

The noble Baroness said: We seem to have strayed into discussion of this group of amendments during the discussion of the previous group. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, asked why hedgerows were important. That is the issue we address in this group of amendments. I shall address Amendments Nos. 309E, 310, 311, 312 and 313, and also I support Amendments Nos. 311A and 313A which will be spoken to by my noble friend Lady Nicol.

Amendment No. 309E seeks to delete the word "important". We have already heard that it is difficult to define which hedgerows are important. There is a sense in which all hedgerows are important. They are important not only for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, mentioned; namely, that he loves them and some of them are historic. They also contribute to the visual landscape. They are extremely important from the point of view of biodiversity.

The loss of hedgerows has been a serious depletion of our wildlife habitats in this country over the past 30 years. They provide vital corridors along which many species, some of which are rare, are able to extend their range. The destruction of hedgerows has led to the restriction and isolation of many such species. Sometimes that produces interesting effects. I gather that there is an isolated group of melanistic squirrels. They are black squirrels. They continue to be black because they cannot mix with red squirrels. That is one of the curious consequences of species developing in isolation.

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Therefore, hedgerows are important not only because within them breed many varieties of birds, butterflies and insects, but because they also provide important corridors between woodlands and means of escaping predators and getting round fields between other areas which are important to wildlife.

There has been an astonishing depletion of butterfly species over the past 20 years. For example, there has been a catastrophic decline among some fritillaries. The high brown fritillary has declined by 94 per cent. and other fritillaries have declined by more than 40 per cent. in the past 30 to 40 years.

Similarly, many birds have vanished. That is partly due to intensive farming methods. For example, grey partridges, which I remember as a common bird of the countryside in my childhood, have declined by 75 per cent. since 1970. That is in part due to the extensive use of pesticides on our agricultural land, but hedgerows and other areas such as set-aside and isolated promontories within farming areas would provide places where they could continue to breed and develop. In that way they would still be around for noble Lords' children, grandchildren and generations to come.

In those respects hedges are extremely important. They are also important for a variety of economic reasons. East Anglia is in danger of becoming a dust bowl like some parts of central America through the loss of topsoil, which is blown away because there are no hedges to act as wind traps. If one has seen soil erosion in some parts of the world, particularly the Far East, often due to water rather than wind erosion, one knows how astonishingly rapidly agricultural land can vanish. Therefore there is a certain element of enlightened self-interest for farmers in preserving hedgerows. There are therefore important reasons for retaining hedges. It is not only a matter of aesthetics.

I turn now to Amendment No. 310, which may appear on the face of it not to be specific in that it allows the Minister to make regulations relating to landscape features in general. Here we enter the area of such items as stone barns and other aspects of our landscape such as archaeological sites, barrows and so on, which may also be in need of preservation.

Particularly close to my heart are the amendments which relate to ponds, where again grants for drainage have meant that large numbers of ponds have vanished from the countryside over the past 20 or 30 years. Species such as great crested newts, glutinous snails and starfruit are now increasingly scarce.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: Has the noble Baroness considered the figures on ponds? I believe that she will find that ponds have been made in vast numbers. Perhaps I could ask her to make one small alteration to her speech. She referred to hedgerows. Can she possibly say, "Some hedgerows are of no value and some are"?

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: That point would obviously be defined as a result of the consultation to which we referred in the previous group of amendments regarding which hedgerows were valuable. However, in my view almost all hedgerows are valuable. I disagree with those who say that hedgerows can be easily

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reinstated. The tendency is to reinstate with hawthorn alone rather than with the variety of species which produces the biodiversity about which I speak.

The Earl of Onslow: It is simply not true to say that it is difficult to reinstate hedges. There was a famous case recently of someone who went to a farm and said, "This is the most marvellous hedgerow. It dates back to Anglo-Saxon times becomes of all the different plants in it". The reply was, "No, it does not. I planted it 15 years ago". If you know what you are doing, it is perfectly possible to plant a hedge. One can put all kinds of plants in it. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, it is extremely easy to produce a Roman hedge with the right plants. After about 15 years it will look like a Roman hedge.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: I am sure that it is possible; I did not say that it was not. However, it is clearly more expensive to plant such a hedge than a straightforward hawthorn hedge. Often the reinstated hedges are far too narrow to be nesting sites for birds and to provide habitat for the biodiversity that we wish to see in our countryside. Hedgerows are important, as are ponds and other aspects of our countryside.

Lord Crickhowell: The more I listen to the debate, the more unhappy I am that we should be passing legislation of this kind. I have every possible sympathy with the objective. I should like to see hedges preserved. But we have a series of amendments which ask us what a hedge is. Is it a Pembrokeshire hedgebank built of earth and stone with thorn and suchlike on top? Is it the kind of hedgebank about which we have heard in the West Country? Is it the kind of hedge that some of my neighbours have in Wales? Such hedges are a curious mixture today of binder twine, old sticks, corrugated iron and uncut original hedge.

What do we mean by "protect"? My noble friend gave a distinction between "protect" and "preserve". I entirely understand the point. Indeed, from the point of view of the NRA, I am anxious to see wind erosion eliminated. I should like to see many hedges protected. But what happens if it is said, "We have a regulation: we shall make it difficult for you to plough up the hedge", but one does not cut the hedge, lay it, and do all the other things that have to be done?

The regulations may tell us all those things. Perhaps they will give a clear definition of how to preserve a hedge, what one has to do with it, how often one has to cut it and what one does when one's Pembrokeshire hedgebank is walked over by tourists travelling the coast path. Perhaps we shall have all the answers. But we are being asked to pass a blank cheque regarding some future regulations which we shall never have an opportunity properly to debate in this Chamber. That is the truth of the matter. I believe that it is a great mistake.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Nicol: We seem to be abandoning common sense in this debate. If anyone, wherever he or she comes from, sets out to discuss whether or not a hedge is important and worth protection, there is no mystery

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about it; he or she can quickly tell whether it is worth protection. The hotchpotch hedges to which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred, obviously do not come into that category unless, as has happened with many so-called hedges that I have seen, they happen to have Victorian brass bedsteads in them—in which case, of course, they have a considerable value!

There is no doubt that many hedgerows are important. Perhaps I may remind the Committee that, in addition to the need to protect biodiversity—to which the Government are committed, and I see no sign that they are withdrawing from that commitment—there is also the question of our responsibilities under the habitats and species directive. Hedgerows are an important element in the responsibilities of the Government and we must try to treat the matter seriously. I sympathise with those farmers who feel that we are treading on their toes, but I hope that when the regulations and the consultation process are in place many of the difficulties will be easy to overcome.

The Countryside Commission provides us with figures. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, seemed to question whether ponds were disappearing. The commission tells us that between 1984 and 1990 England lost 10,000 ponds. That is a serious loss in terms of wildlife protection and, I should have thought, in other terms as well.

I wish to speak to my amendments which propose the inclusion of dry stone walls in the countryside features which need to be protected. The Countryside Commission estimates that during that same period, 1984 to 1990, England lost 4,000 kilometres of dry stone walls. Many of the remaining walls are in poor condition. We have an estimated 112,500 kilometres left, only 4,500 kilometres of which are in anything like reasonable condition. The remainder are in various stages of deterioration and no doubt some are beyond hope.

Surely no Members of the Committee would dispute that dry stone walling is very important in some parts of the country. I do not suggest that we introduce dry stone walls in Kent, Norfolk or even Cambridgeshire, much as I would like to see them there. But they are extremely important in some areas of the country where they are traditional. The landscape would be greatly destroyed if dry stone walls disappeared. The Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain has written to me in moving terms. It is struggling to remedy the situation. It says that it is not anxious to encumber the farming communities with excessive legislation but it supports the amendments. I am authorised to say that, had he been able to remain this evening, the chairman of the National Trust would have supported them. Hedgerow protection is also supported by the British Horse Society. If we reach the stage of having a list of consultees, I hope that that society will be considered as being worthy of consultation because, in its sphere of operations, the hedgerows are important. The British Horse Society would like to see the word "important" in regard to hedgerows removed from the Bill. I am sorry that we have had to blur the discussion between the two groups of amendments, but that is how it has happened. The society is concerned—as were earlier

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speakers—that when consultations take place they should be as wide as possible. I do not wish to prolong the debate; I hope that we shall not be carried away with too much detail but retain our common sense.

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