Property developers row back on netting used to stop birds nesting

Some developers are reviewing their policies after protests from environmentalists

A grassroots uprising is forcing builders and councils to remove netting over trees and hedgerows installed to prevent birds nesting and hindering their developments.

Environmentalists have condemned the practice and say it has exploded in scale this spring. The use of netting to prevent birds nesting in hedgerows and trees allows developers to get around the law that prevents the removal and damage of birds nests, and avoid delays to development caused by the nesting season.

The apparent rise in the use of netting this year has been partly fuelled – experts say – by a 78% increase in housebuilding over the last five years as developers respond to government pressure to build homes as quickly as possible.

But the sight of trees and hedges covered in netting has sparked protests and direct action across the country, with campaigners filming birds and mammals trapped within netting and reporting offences to the police.

David Savage, from the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, took down netting thrown over hedgerows near a nature reserve in Wingerworth after discussions with the developer involved, Bellway. The trust also persuaded developers William Davis to remove netting from 600 metres of hedgerow which is due to be torn out for an estate called Skylarks, to the north of Chesterfield.

David Savage, Derbyshire wildlife officer, who took down the hedge netting.
David Savage, Derbyshire wildlife officer, who took down the hedge netting. Photograph: Handout

Savage said: “It has gone crazy this year. There seem to be more and more nets being used.

“I would like to see it banned altogether; it is completely unnecessary. It really does feel like nature is an inconvenience to developers that needs to be sorted out, and meanwhile we are losing species at a dramatic rate. We need new legislation which is better and more fit for purpose on this.”

Since the 1950s the UK has lost an estimated 120,000 miles of hedgerow – amounting to four times the earth’s circumference – and, with it, prime habitat for birds and wildlife.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it is illegal to knowingly damage or destroy an occupied nest – even if you have planning permission to remove a hedge. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and others believe some developers are netting the trees to prevent nesting so that they can carry out their building anytime.

A Natural England spokesperson said: “All wild birds are protected by law. We do not regulate the use of netting on trees, but it is essential that developers look at the most suitable option for complying with the necessary regulations.”

Many, however, are calling for stricter controls. The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management is meeting Natural England next week. In a joint statement with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, they said they had considerable concern.

Netting is an overly simplistic approach that has become more prominent recently,” they said. “There is an understandable negative reaction from both the public and from professional ecologists to the real and potential harm that it may cause to wildlife.”

Across the UK activists are taking pictures and logging scores of sites where netting is preventing nesting birds from settling. A map created by the Facebook group Nesting not Netting has logged more than 80 areas.

bird netting map

Karen Drake, a member of the public who took down netting in hedgerows on the A601 at Carnforth, Lancashire, said she would do the same again.

“We could see birds inside [the netting] and a dead rabbit who had obviously struggled,” she said. “If we see anymore we wouldn’t hesitate to take it down. This is barbaric, what these developers are doing, and it should be made illegal for them to carry out further netting.”

In Cambridgeshire, local action has forced the council to take down netting over 18 trees in Ely, where it plans to expand a school. In a statement the council said it was acting “in response to public concerns”.

In Theale, West Berkshire council is removing netting around 100 metres of hedges on the site of a primary school development. They agreed to remove it after footage of birds trapped in the netting was sent to police and the RSPCA by Carolyne Culver, chair of West Berkshire Green party.

In a statement the council said: “Repeat visits by the ecologist to the site confirmed that no birds were harmed while the netting was in place.”

Simon Bramwell, from Stroud, makes regular inspections of netting installed at eight sites in Gloucestershire. “We have found blackbirds trapped in the netting and have removed the netting ourselves in three areas so far,” he said. “I have been a builder myself and I see this as a ploy by developers to speed up their developments and their profits.”

The Woodland Trust said it could not condone members of the public taking action themselves but condemned the practice of netting.

Jack Taylor from the trust said: “Birds are being blocked from nesting and other wildlife that may rely on hedgerow habitat – such as stoats, bank voles and hibernating hedgehogs – could become trapped.”

A hedge covered with netting in Alveston near Stratford-upon-Avon.
A hedge covered with netting in Alveston near Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph: Handout

The action being taken across the country is leading some developers to review their policies. William Davis told the Guardian: “Our discussions with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust were a definite factor influencing our policy decision, as was finding ourselves technically in the right but clearly at odds with public sentiment. We have removed the majority of nets and will by close of business on 5 April have removed all nets from our development sites.”

Bovis Homes and Bellway said they were changing their policies to stop the use of netting at any of their sites.

The Home Builders Federation said that properly installed netting was legal and developers were under huge pressure from government to build 300,000 homes a year and speed was of the essence.

Andrew Whitaker, the HBF’s planning director, said last year housing developments incorporated about 9 million trees and shrubs, making the industry one of the nation’s biggest providers of new trees.

“As we build the homes the country needs, the industry is committed to supporting and enhancing biodiversity, proactively protecting wildlife and providing an overall increase in the number of trees,’” he said.

But Tom Fyans of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said as the country rushes to build homes, the planning system had to contribute to the “protection and enhancement of our natural environment and all developments must provide a biodiversity net gain”.


Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

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