Indulgence

I’ve been rushing about and don’t quite have time to write a proper blog today – plenty more coming in the next few days though! – and you did get two blogs on Tuesday, so please indulge me when I just post most of an email that a reader of this blog sent to me:

‘I waste (?) hours reading your blog and love your writing,  keep up the good work.  The wild world needs help, all it can get.  Thank something or other (not God)  for the McCarthys, Attenboroughs Cockers, you and all the other naturalists who try and make us aware of the destruction that we are causing our planet.  I really believe that conservationists need to be more hard hitting, less touchy feely, perhaps more like anti’s such as James Bartholomew (Daily Telegraph).  Read him and one realises what we are up against.‘.

That’s a very nice email to receive and I thank the person who sent it.

The readership of this blog keeps increasing so I may be doing something right.  And it seems likely to increase by another one as someone I met in Newcastle yesterday said to me ‘I’m going to have to start reading your blog every day as our chief exec does and then comes in and expects to know what we think about it!’.

 

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Dogger Bank – I wonder what is happening

This blog has raised the plight of the Dogger Bank in the past.  That started with a Defra announcement of the listing of the UK portion of the Dogger Bank as a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive a couple of months ago.

Regular readers may recall that after the proud announcement by Defra of the SAC it became rather difficult to find out what that designation meant for wildlife (see here, here, here , here and here).

The Dogger Bank is a long way ‘out there’. I’ve never been there and neither have most of your fellow readers of this blog.  If we did get ‘there’ we would most of us be restricted to floating on the surface of the water, whereas an awful lot of the wildlife would be metres below us in the water column and on the surface of the sea bed.  It’s difficult to connect with the wildlife in the sea – and maybe that’s why it gets a poor deal, there must be an element of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

But if we were bobbing about in a boat above the Dogger Bank we might find that we were seeing lots of seabirds – because that is what the JNCC found in this report.  And we know that kittiwakes travel long distances from the coast of Yorkshire to feed out at the Dogger Bank. There might even be enough seabirds to ensure that the Dogger Bank qualifies under the Birds Directive as well as the Habitat Directive so it, perhaps, should be an SPA as well as an SAC. I assume that the RSPB is pushing hard for SPA designation as well as SAC?  A good example of those pesky birds being of quite some value to all that creeps and crawls below?

We know already that the Dogger Bank is rich in wildlife and vulnerable to threats such as fishing and any form of development such as windfarms.

So you would have thought that because the SAC is an EU designation, and because the Common Fisheries Policy is an EU common policy for fisheries there might be some easy way to make sure that fishing doesn’t wreck the EU-acknowledged wildlife interest of the Dogger Bank. But I’m told that it is more complicated than that.

One of the difficulties is that fishing is an ongoing operation so, and this is a fair point, whatever fishing has taken place has been compatible with the internationally important wildlife interest that remains. But that is a little like saying that wife-beating is compatible with life provided the victim doesn’t quite die.  It is clear that the Dogger Bank could be much richer in marine life if it were made a no-take, no-fishery zone.  And indeed this might (I can’t say will) lead to more fish being available for fishermen in the medium term as stocks recover.

The CFP wasn’t designed to be a wildlife management policy just like the CAP wasn’t either.  Each, though, has major impacts on the wildlife in the economically active zones which they influence.  For those of us who are pro-EU, as I generally am, it is the clunkiness of the whole system that infuriates.  Everything seems like a struggle and everything is very slow.  The North Sea Regional Advisory Council has a Marine Protected Area working group which I am glad to see is chaired by Euan Dunn from the RSPB and I wonder how they are getting along with this issue?

The UK, under successive governments, has been awfully slow in designating marine protected areas under EU legislation and now (see Saturday’s blog, and yesterday’s blog) under English legislation too.  There must be a case for complaining to the EU over UK non-compliance with the nature directives and potentially taking legal action through the courts.

And the Dogger Bank is not just ours – I’m quite pleased about that.  The Netherlands and German governments (and people) have a stake in this stretch of sand and water. Cross-boundary sites are always tricky – three lots of politicians and civil servants!  And the UK (which in this case is really England) was the last of these three countries to do its bit and announce its bit of the SAC, and that was after years of foot-dragging and whittling down the size of the site, and weeding out inconvemnient features of interest such as porpoises.

Let us hope that the Germans and Dutch can pick the UK up by the elbows and hurry them down the street to agreeing a no-take and no-development zone for the Dogger Bank.  I don’t know whether that will happen but it is what should happen in many more places.  Despite them being ‘out there’ we need to give marine protected areas proper protection and that means full protection from damaging operations.  Marine wildlife has had a poor deal for so long and now it needs to catch up. The Dogger Bank case should set the precedent for protecting complex marine protected areas and restoring the sandbank to favourable ecological status.

This blog will keep coming back to this subject and any information that others would like to provide will be gratefully received and sensitively managed.

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Hopeless delay – Government all at sea

This morning Richard Benyon made a written statement on Marine Conservation Zones.  Read the statement and you might struggle to discover what it means – it means that this government and the previous government, between them, have made a massive mess of delivering the promise of the Marine and Coastal Access Act.

After setting up a very time-intensive process of stakeholder engagement to identify the best wildlife areas at sea (the previous government) this government has given the information to a bunch of expert boffins who have said that the data aren’t perfect.  And so this government has decided to do some more chatting with lots of people again before moving to protect the wildlife of our seas.  The first Marine Conservation Zone designations are envisaged to take place in 2013 and not expected to include any more than about 25 of the 127 put forward.

The data from the marine environment aren’t perfect.  And that is because every government I have known has underinvested in monitoring in the marine environment.  This is an area where NGOs can’t bale out the government and organise the studies and flood the seas with volunteers counting sea horses, porpoises and starfish – the logistics are just too difficult.  If you want perfect data on wildlife go to a car park – the data are good but the wildlife is missing, but at least you can be sure that it is missing.

The English process was set up to use the best available evidence  but now wildlife protection is being delayed further because the evidence available isn’t perfect (and to be fair it is far from perfect).  But no-one in Defra should ever have been in any doubt that the data were  a bit ropey in places – and no-one in Defra should be in any doubt that the data are ropey because Defra hasn’t invested in making them anything else .  Whose side is Defra on?  This is a sad day for nature conservation in England and the government just looks hopeless and pathetic.  Greenest government ever?

Joan Edwards, Head of Living Seas for The Wildlife Trusts, said:

We welcome the commitment that Defra has announced today to consult on all 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in English Waters.  However, despite international evidence for the urgent need to protect our seas, the Minister’s statement will result in further unacceptable delay.

“Stakeholders have been discussing Marine Conservation Zone recommendations for more than two years, based on Defra’s 2010 guidance to use ‘best information currently available’.  But now Defra appears to be changing the level of evidence required, after stakeholders have made their recommendations.  If more data is needed, it could be collected during consultation or even after MCZ designation.  We are disappointed that we now face a further delay of at least 12 months when more damage to marine habitats will continue to occur.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director said: “We do not understand how Government can still claim to be delivering an ecologically-coherent network, and to be a world leader on marine protected area designation, when there is so much uncertainty around. There is no clear business plan for completing either the English Marine Conservation Zone network or designating sites of European importance, and the international 2012 deadline will be missed.”

“To achieve true coherence, sites such as the Flamborough-Helgoland Front should be included in the marine conservation zone network. A network cannot be ecologically coherent if it doesn’t cover all marine wildlife.”

“It is hard not to feel short-changed by Government. We have committed time, energy and money towards achieving comprehensive marine protection for example with our own work in furthering marine research.”

“While wanting to wear the mantle of ‘Greenest Government Ever’ our Government seems strangely reluctant to invest in and come up with a convincing business plan to deliver the commitment for protecting our seas. We can, and will, continue to do all we can to support marine research and site designation, but in reality we will never get the evidence we need to support the marine protected network area unless Government steps up and provides resources to support adequate monitoring of our sealife.”

These comments are pretty mild.  There is nothing to welcome in the Minister’s statement but there is a lot to condemn.  This fiasco makes border controls look like a well-run regime.

The data for the marine environment will never be perfect.  Why not give nature the benefit of the doubt and designate all 127 sites until the data show that they should not be designated? Why is it that wildlife should suffer for government’s lack of investment?

 

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Spoonies

The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the most gorgeous birds on the planet – and also one of the most threatened.  With probably only a few hundred pairs surviving and their numbers thought to be decreasing each year it is a bird destined for extinction in the wild – perhaps.

‘Perhaps’ because the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Birdlife International, Birds Russia and the RSPB don’t want it to go extinct – and neither do I, and I suspect, neither do you.  I wonder whether there is anyone on the planet that we share with the spoon-billed sandpiper who actually wants this bird to go extinct.  But it is our species, without wanting to, which is driving this species to oblivion.

Loss of wetland habitat on its migration staging posts,  such as the Saemangeum estuary in South Korea, and hunting on the wintering grounds, such as in Myanmar, are thought to be the most important factors at this stage of what we hope will not be a terminal decline.

Who knows, with even more research we may find that there are other factors too.  It might be that predator increases, perhaps driven by human land use changes, have an effect locally.  When you get down to such a low population then a new rubbish dump somewhere which attracts more foxes or skua could easily be a factor in a local decline where a local decline can become a major part of a global decline.  Once a species gets to such a low ebb then every little thing matters. And big things, like climate change, matter too and the Arctic will change more dramatically than lower latitudes due to global warming over the next few decades.

Nature conservationists are pulling together to try to tackle these incompletely known and not necessarily tractable problems across an annual range of thousands of miles which takes in many different countries in a last ditch attempt to save the spoon-billed sandpiper.  And I wish them every success.

But time is short and success is not guaranteed by any means. It would have been a good idea to start 20 years ago one might say, and it probably would have been a good idea but other species were being saved and far less was known about the spoon-billed sandpiper then.  So, better late than never, and let’s hope that all goes well.

But if it doesn’t go well then Friday saw an important step in a brave attempt to keep all options open.  Thirteen ‘spoonies’ were brought to the WWT site at Slimbridge where it is envisaged that they will form a captive breeding programme,  and perhaps, if all goes well, and in future, supply birds for a release programme into the wild.

I commend the team who have managed to get this far with this brave project.  Just think, the 13 birds which arrived at Slimbridge last week were eggs sitting in real spoony nests in northern Asia this summer.  They were found (easier said than done), transported to Moscow Zoo (easier said than done), hatched and reared (easier said than done), kept alive in captivity (all captive birds act as though they have a death wish so, again, easier said than done) and were transported last week from Moscow to the UK and to Slimbridge (a longer migration than their natural one and a stressful journey for the birds (who don’t know they are being kindly helped) and for their transporters who will have done everything they can to make the long journey safe and stress-free but you can never tell what might happen).  The worry won’t end there but it is worth marking the successful completion of these legs of an amazing conservation journey.

And meanwhile a few hundred spoonies are travelling south to their wintering grounds in large flocks of commoner species of wading birds.  Birdwatchers will look out for them on their journeys and hope to see them at sites like Mai Po in Hong Kong, and those spoonies will face the dangers faced by their commoner wading relatives on the long migration route.  Will there be a few fewer spoonies returning to the breeding ground next spring?  That is the expectation for next spring and the next spring until in not many more springs there really may be none.

Let us hope that keeping the spoony in captivity is a great success and that numbers increase at zoos and collections across the world.  But let us also hope that they do not become the only examples of their kind in the world.  Let us hope that the conservation work across the east Asian flyway proves effective and that the wild population picks up and begins to increase through concerted action by governments, agencies, NGOs and indviduals, because hoping is not enough, someone has to do something too.  And ‘doing’ costs money, so since you cannot ‘do’, perhaps you can give so that others can ‘do’.

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Only a wasp

I went racing at Cheltenham on Friday, on what is called ‘Countryside  Day’.  My drive across the Cotswolds, often very beautiful at this time of year, was so misty that the autumn colours weren’t showing well at all.

As I passed over the railway at Adlestrop I remembered Edward Thomas’s poem but this was no day for blackbird song.

Apart from one small speculative losing bet I kept my money in my pocket until the last race where I thought that Cue Card had a very good chance but he jumped badly, and unseated early on, so I knew my fate and could head to the car park for an early get away as Grands Crus stormed impressively up the hill to the winning post.

There is a lot of Countryside Alliance activity at Cheltenham on Countryside Day, and it is mildly irritating to someone like me, who is not their greatest supporter.  I had a look at the assembled huntsmen and admired the hounds but the public address system seems to assume that everyone at the races to use their wits in the betting ring is fully committed to fox-hunting, and I am not.  Although, to be fair, I’ve never lifted a finger to oppose fox hunting either – privately or professionally.

As I made my getaway from the races I was wondering whether, on another day, Cue Card would be a good bet but as I drove up Cleeve Hill a small scene that occurred as I was viewing horses in the Parade Ring kept replaying in my mind.

I was standing next to a rather grim-looking man who was also looking at the circling horses.  A wasp flew past us and landed on the bark mulch in a flower bed next to us.  I looked at the wasp and, remembering the date, wondered whether that would be my last wasp of the year when the man next to me lashed out with his racecard and smacked the wasp before turning back to carry on looking at the runners for the next race.

I was quite impressed by his aim and his speed, but quite shocked, and a little troubled, at the instinctive nature of his action – see wasp, kill wasp.  This insect was not bothering us or anyone else, and would be dead soon in the natural scheme of things.  It wasn’t buzzing around his face or near a small child, it was a little behind us and would probably have headed off further if it had been left alone.  I was closer to this wasp than the man in question and there were many others nearby, although none was as interested as I in either the wasp or its attacker, and the man had to step across me to get at his intended victim.  This man, out to enjoy himself on Countryside Day, saw himself not as an interested and sympathetic observer of nature but rather, put himself in a position of self-appointed executioner.  I wanted to ask him why he felt entitled to behave in the way he had.

Would he have talked about ‘vermin’, ‘restoring natural balance’, the need for ‘management of natural populations’ or would he have told me that he just hated wasps,  that he just loved killing things or maybe that it was ‘only’ a wasp?  Obviously I do not know,  but his action seemed terribly callous to me.

This all happened on 11 November and there were poppies proudly worn everywhere.  Somewhere, we all have to draw a line on cruelty and death.  After all a wasp is ‘only’ a wasp, a blackbird is ‘only’ a blackbird, a fox is ‘only’ a fox, a racehorse is ‘only’ a racehorse, a soldier is ‘only’ a soldier, and a baby is ‘only’ a baby.

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