November was a dismal month for nature in our country – just dismal. This week the Westminster government issued figures showing that farmland birds were at an all time low but didn’t bother to comment on what they might do about it. The Chancellor had a swipe at the environment and announced a review of the implementation of EU Directives in England with a clear view to watering down their already insufficient effect – and all in the name of growth. The President of the NFU felt emboldened to show his Union’s true colours and say that government should shift its attention from biodiversity to production (and the new CLA President had to attempt to demonstrate his manhood on Farming Today by name-calling newts, bats and dormice). Defra can’t get its act together to designate areas for wildlife in our seas and peregrines are illegally killed on grouse moors. Dismal, dismal dismal.
There is a meanness and selfishness abroad which is distasteful. Why ‘we’ lash out at nature I really don’t know. But I do know it bodes ill for the non-voting, non-spending, not-heard wildlife around us. Governments have not always been efficient in doing things to better the lot of our wildlife but, on the whole, governments have been well-meaning if slow and sometimes inept. This government has shed, probably deliberately, any attempt to look well-meaning to wildlife.
Defra ministers are nice people (mostly) who have been left in a railway carriage parked in a siding while the train heads off to a destination called ‘callous disregard for nature’ driven by Driver Osborne and stoked by Pickles and Maude. The quiet carriage is occupied by the Liberal Democrats and David Cameron who are just going along for the ride. I don’t remember this journey being in the route-planner of the environment sections of either the Conservative Manifesto (which was actually quite good) nor the Liberal Manifesto (which wasn’t bad either). I didn’t vote for this lot anyway, but even if I had, I wasn’t offered this in the brochure for the excursion.
November was the cruellest month for wildlife in England for many years. Can’t you hear the cries? The Government offers us a wasteland of concrete and silence.
But are we down-hearted? Yes, I am a bit – I can’t help it. I don’t like feeling powerless when nature is calling out in pain. But this blog is called Standing up for Nature and that’s what we should all do – if we care. Come back on Monday to hear about one small way that I intend to fight back – and maybe you can help me.
The latest (up to 2010) official figures for the UK Farmland Bird Index (and for that for England alone where things are just a tad worse) were published on Tuesday. They show a further decline in numbers of the suite of 19 farmland birds which brings the index to its lowest ever point. Take a walk in today’s countryside (or, more strictly, the countryside of summer 2010) and you will see and hear half the farmland birds that you would have done in 1970. In a generation we have removed millions of birds from the countryside around us and it’s still getting worse not better.
Why should we monitor bird populations at all? The official government release answers this question thus: ‘Bird populations have long been considered by scientists to provide a good indication of the broad state of wildlife because birds occupy a wide range of habitats, they tend to be near or at the top of food chains and there are considerable long-term data on changes in bird populations which help in the interpretation of shorter term fluctuations. Birds also have huge cultural importance and are viewed as a highly valued part of the UK’s natural environment by the general public.’. We could add, that the efforts of thousands of volunteers mean that there are annual figures available for birds which mean that we can have meaningful annual updates like this one.
Why have farmland birds declined? The official government release answers this question thus: ‘Changes in farming practices, such as the loss of mixed farming systems, the move from spring to autumn sowing, and increase pesticide use, have been demonstrated to have had adverse impacts on farmland birds such as Skylark and Grey Partridge, although other species such as Woodpigeon have benefitted. Three farmland specialists, Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove and Corn Bunting have declined by over 90 per cent relative to 1970 levels. By contrast two farmland specialists, Stock Dove and Goldfinch, have doubled, or nearly so, over the same period, illustrating how the pressures and responses to them varies between species.’ and thus ‘The major declines in some farmland birds have several known and potential causes. Many of the declines in bird populations have been caused by land management changes and intensification of farming that took place over a long period, resulting in habitat loss, a lack of suitable nesting habitat, and a reduction in available food sources.
Some farming practices can still have a negative impact on bird populations, but farmers can and do make a positive contribution. In particular a number of schemes are in place to improve environmental stewardship in farming, with some specifically designed to help stabilise farmland bird populations. The ongoing decline for some species may be additionally contributed to by other pressures, for example there is evidence of an impact for some species from weather effects, disease, and land development pressures. There are also an increasing numbers of studies finding evidence of a changing climate affecting birds here and during migration.’
Defra put this information prominently on their website but they didn’t press release it as it’s not really news is it? We know that wildlife is bleeding from the countryside, we know the reasons behind it and we know how to fix it. We just aren’t fixing it because government isn’t bothered. No news there then.
And Defra don’t say what they are doing about it or what they intend to do about it. There used to be Ministerial announcements and press conferences on this index but now it’s not news – although things continue to get worse.
There is, as far as I can see, no mention of these official government figures on the continued decline of life in the countryside on the websites of the NFU or the CLA. No news there either then.
birdwatching with your eyes closed is Simon Barnes’s new book, published by Short Books. It’s an introduction to birdsong and if you are a novice bird-watcher then it will help you to be an expert bird-listener.
Simon told me that ‘Learning birdsong really has changed the way I see the world. I’d love to help others to this revelation and I’ve written this book to seek converts. I’m basically in a missionary position here.‘. So just imagine that!
There’s an excellent and delightful podcast to which you can listen, and which, like the book, will take you through the year and the sounds that gradually add themselves to the voice of the robin as more birds return from Africa and more and more residents tune up for summer.
I find that on a normal walk I hear about 40% of bird species before I see them, and so getting to know birds’ songs is not only a pleasure but is essential to get the most from your encounters with nature.
On my visit to the USA earlier this year I was rather lost as a birder – I could see lots of birds and could learn what they looked like pretty easily but I needed better ears! I was a learner once again and I needed a book like this to get to grips with what I was hearing.
Simon’s book is a good place to start if you are a learner. And now is the time to start as, rather cleverly, it takes you through the year and teaches you the species one by one as they add their voices. That makes it much easier than starting with the cacophony of a May dawn chorus where you can hear everything and understand nothing at first.
Readers of this blog can get this book for just £10 with no P&P if you phone 01206 255600 and quote ‘birdwatching’ (Retail price is £12.99 +P&P). That’s what I have negotiated for you and I don’t get a penny for it!
This blog is one of five blogs featuring Simon’s book this week. Tomorrow it will be the turn of Punctuated Equilibrium but here is the schedule so that you can look back to Looking for Dragons Blog, The Well-read Naturalist and dovegreyreader.
The nastiness of George Osborne came out when he mentioned ‘endless social and environmental goals‘ in his Autumn Statement yesterday. George is keener on economic goals – although not so good at reaching them, so perhaps we can see why he doesn’t want any other goals to miss.
As predicted in this blog yesterday (just a lucky stab in the dark mind of the Chancellor) Osborne mentioned gold-plating; “We will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.” Things like habitats? What are you on about, George?
The crassness of the Chancellor’s words stung wildlife NGOs into something a bit more animated than puzzlement and sadness – there was a touch of real anger.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director said ‘The chancellor’s attack on vital environmental regulation is below the belt and shows how short sighted his policy for growth is.
“These regulations have been in place for 17 years and they have not been a brake on development. Many large scale projects have gone ahead in that time and this legislation has ensured that they have not trashed some of the most important wildlife sites in Europe.
“The Davidson report carried out in 2006 looked at the claim that the Government had goldplated European legislation, and found there was no case to answer.
“Clearly the chancellor believes that he can bring about a quick fix of the economy by allowing unrestrained growth to trample over our precious natural environment.
“His failure to rule out a new airport in the Thames Estuary signals a u-turn in the Government’s policy not to support such a development. This would be an act of environmental vandalism and would further undermine the Government’s commitment to a low carbon future.
“The Treasury’s plan is a simple one – let’s build our way out of recession. This marks the biggest backward step in environmental and planning policy for a generation and would simply serve as a short term economic sticking plaster on a problem which requires a long term plan for effective, sustainable growth.”
Stephanie Hilborne of the Wildlife Trusts said:
‘It seems that the Chancellor is not content with the massive shake-up of the planning system that is already under way, and which initially failed to recognise Local Wildlife Sites. Now sites and species of European importance face an uncertain future in England. When will the Government recognise that our natural resources are finite?
Does this Government want to go down in history as the Government that kick-started nature’s recovery or as the Government that tore down the long fought for protection for England’s richest wildlife sites?”
“The Wildlife Trusts are well known for taking a pragmatic and constructive stance in its dealings with developers and local authorities on the ground and with the national Government. Now we are beginning to lose our patience with the Government. The wrong outcome from this review risks driving a wedge between developers and conservationists at time when we ought to be cooperating more than ever.”
Melissa Moore, Senior Policy Officer for the Marine Conservation Society said:
‘The Habitats Directive is fairly written to enable Major Infrastructure Projects that are needed and for which there is no alternatives, but not to enable Governments to concrete over important habitats such as maerl, spawning and nursery grounds in estuaries unnecessarily. Riding rough shod over conservation legislation like this will cost the UK more in fines from Europe than it will generate for business.
Our seas as well as our economy need recovery. Putting money into port development, when world container shipping is in decline, is nonsense. The money would be better spent helping small businesses, not environmental destruction.’
But the CLA gave the Chancellor a big thumbs up. New President, Harry Cotterell said the CLA was delighted that the Government intends to review the way in which the Habitats Directive is implemented: “The Government is starting to melt the goldplating on this directive. We support conservation, but it is important that humans are considered as important as bats, newts and dormice.”.
The NFU President Peter Kendall agreed with the overall thrust of the speech; businesses and industry must be freed from the stifling grasp of red tape and regulation if they are to achieve their potential. This doesn’t, I guess, necessarily mean environmental red tape and regulation – but it might!
It’s simply not true that the Birds and Habitats Directives stifle any economic development – but they do constrain it – which seems to me to be perfectly fair since we are dealing with the very best wildlife sites of the continent. Dorset heathlands, The Wash, the New Forest and the seabird cliffs of the Yorkshire coast all seem to me to be the types of places that we ought to protect for their beauty and their natural wonder – just like we should protect Stonehenge or Durham Cathedral. We could bulldoze any of these things to build a new Tesco or a car park or an ugly shed of a distribution centre, but isn’t it better that we make that destruction rather difficult? Because without the protection someone will want to make money out of those sites – and I fear George Osborne is desperate enough to be in favour of destruction rather than protection. We will be the generation who can say to their children ‘We left you less natural beauty but more car parks, concrete and ugliness. Sorry!‘
If anything, the wildlife NGOs have been too reticent to use the powers of the Directives to give governments a hard time. And with the Chancellor showing his colours, black, so clearly, perhaps it is time to flex some muscles. There are potential legal complaints and cases to be taken against the UK government (but let’s concentrate on England here) over lack of designation of sites (particularly at sea) and failure to protect nature generally. Take the Special Protection Areas of the English uplands designated for their raptor interest that don’t have those raptors any more? And how about the lack of designations at sea? And what about the massive declines in farmland birds which are greater than those in most other EU countries? Plenty of scope for using the Directives here now that the coalition government (what is the point of the Liberal Democrats?) has shown its true colours – black not green.
Nature Directives – use them!
George Osborne doesn’t get the environment and he doesn’t seem to like it.
These are the most relevant parts of the Coalition Government’s (yes, the LibDems are in there too) thoughts on the Habitats Directive (which was largely written by that ultra-leftie, Stanley Johnson (yes, Boris’s sire)).
This passage comes from that part of the National Infrastructure Plan 2011 (page 111) which is about solving problems for developers, rather than in the section about the UK’s Environmental Systems (starts page 72 and is about water and waste). Clearly the Chancellor (sorry – the coalition government) regard environment as water and waste and regard wildlife as an impediment to concrete pouring.
The highlighting is mine.
6.26 The European Union’s habitats and wild bird directives protect Europe’s most precious ecosystems, flora and fauna. The Government strongly supports this objective but is keen to ensure that compliance with the directives does not lead to unnecessary costs and delays in the delivery of important, sustainable infrastructure projects, such as offshore wind developments. In order to tackle problems, the Government is reviewing the directives as currently implemented in England by Budget 2012 and has published terms of reference for this work. In addition the Government will:
• establish a Defra-led problem-solving unit to address blockages for developments where compliance with the directives is particularly complex or has large impacts;
• make it easier for businesses to understand what they must do to comply with the directives by improving Natural England’s support and assistance offer to developers and consulting on updated guidance before Budget 2012; and
• give industry representation on a group chaired by Ministers so it can raise concerns deriving from the Directive at the top of Government
6.27 In addition, the Government can announce progress on a number of projects which have been held back by difficulties stemming from the directives:
• the Marine Management Organisation and the Port of Falmouth have agreed a way forward on a scientific trial to resolve environmental issues around development of the harbour. A decision on the developer’s marine licence application will follow if the trial succeeds. If this application is then successful, it is anticipated that development could proceed in early 2013;
• Natural England have confirmed that environmental issues relating to the Habitats Directive need not cause delay to the Able Marine Energy Park, as satisfactory options are available to address the main concerns stemming from the directive; and
• Natural England is working closely with Chiltern Railways to resolve licensing issues at the Wolvercote tunnel by January subject to receipt of satisfactory information from the company.
6.28 Combined with reform to terrestrial planning, the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) has introduced a new marine planning and licensing system designed to provide regulatory simplicity and certainty for developers. Marine Plans will form a framework for sustainable development, and inform licensing decisions. Impact assessments have estimated that a completed network of Marine Plans in England will provide benefits of £50 million per year in reduced industry burdens due to the greater certainty and the evidence base that plans will provide. This is in addition to anticipated localised socio-economic and environmental benefits. The approach has support across industry stakeholders and environmental groups for providing regulatory simplicity and certainty, backed up by clear evidence and the involvement of stakeholders and coastal communities. The Marine Management Organisation is currently engaging with stakeholders as part of its development of the first two English Marine Plan areas, with a complete network of Plans to be in place by 2022.
Initial thoughts from me:
Thames Crossing and new London Airport might depend on bending the rules around the EU-wide Nature Directives. The Directives apply to onshore windfarms as well as offshore ones.