Developers must take more care to protect wildlife during building work, the Government has said, amid concern over netting trees to stop birds nesting.
Communities Secretary James Brokenshire has written to leading developers reminding them of their legal obligation to consider the impact of projects on local wildlife and the need to take action to protect habitats.
The move comes after members of the public and conservationists raised concerns over netting being placed over trees and hedgerows ahead of building work near housing developments.
Taking, damaging or destroying active nests is against the law but covering vegetation before the nesting season can prevent birds nesting in the first place.
Conservationists, who say the practice can be used to prevent delays in development by allowing trees and shrubs to be removed during the nesting season, have criticised it for showing an "alarming disregard" for wildlife.
The Woodland Trust said it blocks birds from finding a place to nest, can trap other wildlife that relies on hedgerows such as voles and hibernating hedgehogs, and allows the removal of valuable natural features.
A parliamentary petition to make netting hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting a criminal offence has received more than 225,000 signatures.
In his letter, Mr Brokenshire emphasised that birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and mitigation plans will need to show how developers will avoid or manage any negative effects on protected species during building work.
He has not ruled out further action to protect nature if developers do not follow their obligations, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said.
Mr Brokenshire said: "Whilst building new homes is vital, we must take every care to avoid unnecessary loss of habitats that provide much-needed space for nature, including birds.
"Developments should enhance natural environments, not destroy them.
"Netting trees and hedgerows is only likely to be appropriate where it is genuinely needed to protect birds from harm during development.
"I hope developers will take these words on board and play their full role to make sure we can deliver new communities in an environmentally sustainable way."
Martin Harper, the RSPB's director for conservation, said: "We cannot keep trying to squeeze nature into smaller and smaller spaces or demand that wildlife fits in with our plans.
"Across the UK wildlife is vanishing at an alarming rate, and our planning system must play a vital role in not just reversing this decline but helping nature to recover."
He said tree and hedge removal should be completed outside of the nesting season.
"However, if there is absolutely no alternative, then netting must be used sparingly in line with the legal duties and responsibilities on developers, including regular checks to ensure wildlife isn't getting trapped, injured or worse.
"We are pleased to see the secretary of state is acknowledging the concerns many people have about the use of netting, and how strongly we all feel about sharing our future neighbourhoods with nature rather than pushing it away."
Emily Beament is the environment correspondent for the Press Association.