Nets Against Nature by Miles King


An extremely unpleasant new craze is sweeping the nation: It involves wrapping up lengths of hedgerow, mature trees or even entire cliffs in netting. The idea is that once a hedge or tree has been netted, birds are unable to nest there. Why would anyone want to stop blackbirds, robins, blue tits or sand martins from making nests?

Once a bird starts building a nest, that nest gains legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It cannot be moved, nor can the hedge or tree in which the nest is located. So, if you want to, say, build a new housing estate on land which is currently criss-crossed by hedgerows, and you don’t want to be delayed by some pesky nesting birds, then wrap the hedges up to keep them bird-free.

Can anyone see any problems with this cunning plan? What about birds that become trapped in the netting? What about hedgehogs which might stumble into the net and become stranded, unable to move, vulnerable to being eaten by predators, or just starving? What about bats – which are much more strictly protected (under European Law) than most birds? Yes, bats do roost in hedgerows and in trees – and when they emerge from hibernation, just around now, they will find themselves trapped on the inside of a large net.

This appears to be a new thing for this year, but nets have appeared across the country, as this Google map shows. After some fairly widespread coverage on social media, and in the news media (e.g. here and here), a petition was launched on the government petition website. That petition has now garnered over 350,000 signatures (as of 8 May, and will now be debated in Parliament on 13 May) and local people are taking action by removing netting and saving trapped wildlife, though some birds have been found dead in the nets. The petition calls for the activity to be banned.

The RSPB, whose job it is to protect wild birds, had initially taken a meeker position, asking developers (nicely) to think carefully before they put nets over hedges and trees. Subsequently, they and CIEEM brought out a slightly stronger joint statement calling for the use of netting to stop (except under exceptional circumstances), although this has been criticised for being woefully inadequate.

Bioscan director and expert on wildlife law, Dominic Woodfield, had this to say on social media:

“As this nonsense was probably dreamed up by a morally flexible environmental consultant, and as I also work in that industry, I have now been asked several times what my position is on this.

I disagree with the position taken by the RSPB and others that this is fundamentally a legal operation. Even if there is an argument that the matter falls into a grey area, I would expect our nature conservation NGOs to take a firmer position on this. I am disappointed that they have not and have written to them to take them to task on the matter.

Being very familiar with the relevant legislation, I believe that netting is only very questionably legal in the first instance, but in any event it becomes clearly unlawful the moment there is collateral death or entrapment. At that point the legal defence of ‘could not reasonably have been avoided’ becomes obviated. 

In recognition of this, RSPB and others have exacerbated the situation by issuing guidance statements that if you do it, netting should be checked three times a day or even (as the RSPB put it) “at least once a day” to “ensure that it has not become defective, loose or damaged and that no wildlife (such as birds, squirrels and butterflies) has become entangled”. 

Anyone who has ever done any bird ringing or trapping of bats will know that this is woefully inadequate to the point of tokenistic. You would not put up a mist net for catching birds or bats for scientific purposes and then leave it for hours on end. If you did, you would not be surprised to find entangled corpses dangling when you returned. But of course the manpower involved in checks every twenty minutes might cancel out the cost savings to the developer, and the moment it has entrapped something, such legal basis as it has disappears and at that point the netting must be removed. I do hope such considerations have had no part to play in the mealy mouthed responses from those who should know better. 

In the final reckoning there is no safe means to put this measure safely the right side of the legal line. That is because there is a clear and reasonable alternative – don’t do it. I have asked RSPB and others to both look again at their position statements on this issue. As a director of a consultancy practice I have also issued a clear direction to my staff that we will not countenance this as a measure even if pressured to do so by clients. I think that is the only responsible and legally safe position.

While developers seem to think it’s OK to wrap up wildlife habitat in netting to stop it from being used, another kind of net is being thrown over nature – the idea of Biodiversity Net Gain. It doesn’t sound very promising does it? But I doubt the best minds of Defra were called into action to work on an exciting title for this project since they have all been seconded onto the team planning how to use the army to distribute food to the masses, without using the gridlocked motorway network, if we do crash out of Europe without a deal.

Net Gain is an idea that’s been around for a while, but has re-emerged with a new name. The old name was Biodiversity Offsetting, which became tarnished by association with Owen Paterson, the ardent ‘Brexist’ and former Environment Secretary. Paterson you may remember blamed Badgers for “moving the goalposts” and who enthused over how ancient woodland could be easily replaced with new trees.

The premise laid out in Defra’s consultation on how Net Gain would work, is that when new houses are built, wildlife is lost from the land – usually farmland – where the houses are built. Normally, there would be a collective shrug and “Oh dear, how sad, never mind” before the Council leader ceremonially cut the ribbon on the latest shiny new housing project (which of course won’t solve the housing crisis anyway – as I have explained before) and the caravan would move on.

Net Gain seeks to not only address the loss, but to actively create more wildlife than was lost – hence ‘net gain’ – it’s a type of environmental accounting.

A calculation is made. The losses – which could range from badgers and great crested newts being evicted, hedges full of songbirds or butterflies being destroyed, ancient soil under wildflower meadow or heathland being dug up and shifted elsewhere – are totted up. And the totting is converted into a number – technically called a metric (let’s call these Metric A). Then the replacements – ranging from a bird box on the side of a building, a new amenity pond in a housing estate, some urban green space where trees are planted and seeds of flowers sown, right through to the creation of large new plantations or wetlands – are also converted into a number; another metric (yes, you’ve guessed it – Metric B) and the final calculation is done. Is Metric A more or less than Metric B? If B is greater than A then a Net Gain has been achieved and, as Charles Dickens said, “result – happiness.”

Those of you who have read some of my writing will know that I am not enthusiastic about this accountancy approach to wildlife or nature – it’s the natural capital approach; the idea that the extraordinary, wondrous and infinite value of nature to people (quite apart from to itself) can be boiled down to a few numbers, for the purpose of converting that value into financial value. Because, despite the new terminology, this is what lies underneath Net Gain.

On the surface, the idea of ending up with more wildlife after a housing development than was there before it was developed, seems intrinsically appealing. Who could argue that this would be a bad idea? We know that people are happier when they live in surroundings with more nature, more greenery, more open spaces. Having nature around makes people happier and more contented, we know that’s true.

Some canny developers are already working with conservation charities to incorporate wildlife into their developments – I wrote recently about an interesting development near Aylesbury where the developers are working with the RSPB on just such an approach. And what could possibly be wrong with trying to quantify the gains for nature resulting from such developments?

Those in the conservation world are always using statistics to argue for changes in policy or law, for example “these farmland birds are declining because of these types of intensive agriculture, so if we change that policy, and farmers are supported to change their practices, then farmland birds numbers will go up again.” This is an argument you will often hear, entirely dependent on data collected by people (mostly volunteers) going out, rain or shine, and counting the number of farmland birds they see, week in, week out, year in, year out.

The problem arises when scientific statistics are converted by economists into the language of accountancy.

Instead of farmland birds – yellow hammers, corn buntings, skylarks – we have a metric, a number. Think of it like this: “Yes, we’re very proud of the wildlife on our farm. We have yellow hammers. There are hares. I saw a hedgehog last week. The primroses in the wood are beautiful in the spring, they remind of that day when….” You get the picture. All of that – that wildlife, that history, those memories and stories – boiled down into: Yes, that farmland has a value of 2.63 on the Defra biodiversity metric.

According to the proposals from Defra, Net Gain will be defined by a 10% gain in the metric; so Dickens’s “happiness” will be a value of 2.893. This figure of 2.893 might mean any number of different things: it might mean a new park with a pond is incorporated into the new housing development; it might mean swift tiles in the roof of every house; it might even mean a new 10ha wildflower meadow is created on some other farmland 10 miles away. All of these things might contribute to 2.893. But can they replace what has been lost? Can a metric include all of those aspects of a place with a history? Of course not. But then these things are usually lost when farmland is converted to housing – or rather, with those losses, a new chapter in that history unfolds.

The really odd thing about Net Gain to me is that it only applies to housing developments. Over 80% of the UK is farmland or forestry (and that’s where most wildlife is found), but there’s no suggestion that Net Gain should apply to these activities – why not? The simple answer is that it’s too difficult. Developers need to go through the process of gaining planning permission before they can build houses. Ploughing up a heathland or converting woodland into conifer plantation is much easier.

While Net Gain might make sense on one level, as a way to extract a financial contribution from a developer to pay towards improving the overall lot of wildlife in the area where the development takes place, one has to wonder where the money will come from. After all, who pays?

Defra’s idea is that the developer will know, before shovel hits ground, how much they will have to pay towards Net Gain – in real cash terms. Developing on a particularly wildlife-rich site will mean more is paid out for Net Gain (and in theory could act as a disincentive to develop such land.) The developer won’t see this come out of their profit margin, so it either comes off the purchase price paid to the landowner, or it goes on the cost of the houses. I’d bet on the latter. You might end up paying more to buy a new house in a wildlife-friendly housing development, unaware of the destruction of nature that led to its creation.

Net Gain – as with netting trees and hedges to exclude wildlife – epitomises a particular attitude towards nature. Nature is seen primarily through a financial lens: the developer will regard the hedge and think, if we can prevent these birds nesting we can get on and build those houses and bank the profits more quickly, with less cost associated with paying environmental consultants to check for bird nests. For Net Gain, it’s the same accountancy-led thinking. If we can pay a few thousand pounds for some low quality habitat to be created elsewhere, where it won’t cause any inconvenience for us, we can get on with the job of building houses more quickly, and bank the profits. While nature continues to be viewed, and thought about, through this financial frame, we will continue to lose it, and distance between people – and the rest of nature – will continue to increase.

Miles King MCIEEM works for People Need Nature and writes for Lush Times.

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