Nests not nets

Nature can't be seen as an inconvenience - it must be protected

Hedgerows, trees, cliff sides are not just pretty punctuations in a hard human landscape – they’re homes and places for our wildlife to raise young.

The importance of these habitats is brought into focus when looking at the sand martin. In the spring, these birds travel thousands of miles to the UK to nest in sociable colonies, in steep, sandy cliffs.

They also use artificial nesting banks like those at our Testwood Lakes and Blashford Lakes nature reserves, which are increasingly important locally with the cessation of active sand extraction sites in Hampshire.

Refilling sand martin hide at Blashford Lakes nature reserve

Volunteers replenishing the sand martin hide at Blashford Lakes nature reserve

Sand martins can often be seen roosting in large numbers in autumn before departing our shores for the epic return journey in October.

Given the incredible journey these birds embark on to breed every year, it’s been heart-breaking to see the images of sand martins desperately trying to get into their burrows in a cliff in Norfolk, which has recently been covered by netting. Unfortunately this isn’t an isolated case.

Netting habitats

The netting of hedges and trees prior to a site being developed for buildings seems to be an increasingly common practice and it is a depressing sight that can lead to birds and mammals becoming trapped or tangled up. 

Some developers do it because it is illegal to knowingly damage or destroy an occupied nest, even if you have planning permission to remove the habitat it’s in.

Blackbird © Neil Aldridge

Blackbird © Neil Aldridge

We at The Wildlife Trusts work across the UK to influence planning laws and actual developments seeking to minimise damage to wildlife and maximise creation of new habitats. 

Our view is that planning permission should not be granted for the removal hedgerows and trees unless absolutely necessary. With Britain being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, every action against wildlife really counts.

Nature isn’t an inconvenience, but is essential – both in and of itself, and for us too.

These habitats are home to wildlife but they also create vital connections between bigger wild spaces, forming nature corridors through our towns and farmland which can otherwise be wildlife deserts. We always argue that existing habitats such as hedges be kept wherever possible and are woven into new developments.

Nature Recovery Network illustration

Nature Recovery Network

Too often wildlife has been forced into fewer and smaller pockets of wild space, surrounded on all sides by urban development or intensive agriculture.

We instead need to create connected spaces across our landscape - in our towns and cities, on farmland, and in natural places - to give wildlife a chance to recover and adapt to pressures like climate change.

Read more

The need for net gain

Ultimately the removal of hedgerows and trees is a permanent loss of wildlife habitat now and into the future. However if hedgerow removal has been shown to be necessary for some reason and has planning permission, it must be done well outside of the bird breeding season and be subject to prior replacement through biodiversity net gain policies.

This would mean there is no chance of active nests being at risk from development so no-one even thinks about using nets.  It’s great to see responsible businesses like Southern Water taking the lead and committing to not using nets at all – read more here.

We need to raise the levels of awareness amongst developers and other land managers of these issues, so that the timing is considered right at the start. We are also pushing for better rules around ensuring this kind of loss of habitat is an absolute last resort, and must be offset by not only replacement of, but the increase in good quality wildlife habitat.

We hope this will become standard practice as new building rules to deliver wildlife gains come into effect.

A movement of wildlife champions

Excitingly, the movement against the often unnecessary and harmful practice of netting has gained critical mass, with the council responsible for blocking the sand martin nests reviewing their position.

People power like this is absolutely essential to creating Wilder Future; together we can create the positive tipping point nature needs to start its journey towards recovery.