Biomass – dirtier than coal?

Last week I pointed out that every form of energy production has snags – and suggested that we should give a higher priority to reducing our energy needs.

Here’s another example, and it’s rather similar to the situation regarding biofuels (described in Chapter 13 of Fighting for Birds).

Robin Stott [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Using biomass to fuel power stations looks immediately attractive.  If you lopped off a few tree limbs and burn them then the tree will replace the lost wood and you get back the carbon you have released.  Many of our UK woods could do with more management and so this looks like a great example where everyone wins – more management produces better habitat (if done well) and rural jobs and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Imagine some thinning out of our woods and the use of brash and thinnings to fuel power stations – sounds good doesn’t it.

That’s certainly how it could work – and that would be great.  However, you have to do the sums, and when you do, it seems that the immense need for biomass will lead to whole forests being cut down to meet it and most of them will be outside the UK.  DECC expects 80% biomass feedstock to be met from imports, primarily from Scandinavia, Russia, Canada and the US.

Forest Research state: The possibility that [UK bioenergy demand] might be met from ongoing management of forest areas already in production was explored, but finally discounted on both a pure theoretical basis and in the light of evidence on likely changes to patterns for wood demand. Instead it was concluded that a significant increase in requirement for imported wood in the UK would entail intensification of the management of forests in other countries, similar in some respects to restoration of management in neglected forests.

Similar in some respects?  But not presumably in others? For example, here are the fears of American nature conservationists about the prospect of bioenergy destroying the southern forests in which I enjoyed watching prothonotary warbler and in which the rare red-cockaded woodpecker hangs on in places.

The Renewable Energy Association seems to think that there is nothing to worry about here too – provided ‘procurement policies are coupled with strong sustainability criteria’.  That phrase really does ring some alarm bells in my head.  That is what desperate policy-makers have been saying about biofuels for years, and the simple fact is that it would be an enormous challenge to ensure that imports of timber were only from well-managed and sustainable sources.

Steven’s Croft biomass power station near Lockerbie. Chris Newman [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So, as I understand it, and I may not have it all right, we are planning in the UK to have so many biomass power stations that we will need to increase our timber imports greatly to satisfy their demand.  If you burn a tree today then you are in carbon debt for years until another tree has grown to replace it, and trees take a long time to grow so you spend a long time in carbon debt.  Added to which, if that timber would have been used for construction, fencing etc then someone will be looking for non-wood products to build their house or fence and that means an increase in carbon emissions.

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the RSPB have produced a report on this subject which seems to be backed up strongly by an unreleased EU report and the scientific opinion of the European Environment Agency on doing the sums correctly on bioenergy production.

Those mealy mouthed words from Forest Research got me slightly worried about their position on this subject.  You find lots about small-scale domestic and small industrial use of biomass on their website but you need to look quite hard to find this list of actual and proposed biomass power plants which will swamp all those local uses of biomass from UK woodland.  However, look hard enough through their website and you will also find these cautionary words from the Environment Agency ‘GHG emissions from energy generated using biomass are generally, but not always, less than from fossil fuels.‘ and ‘By 2030, biomass electricity will need to be produced using good practice to avoid emitting more GHG emissions per unit than the average for the electricity grid indicated to be necessary by the Committee on Climate Change‘.

In other words – it’s complicated (like most things are).

Clearcut near Franklin, Virginia. photo: Dogwood alliance

The closer we get to using ‘waste’ as the biomass from which to produce electricity, the better. There really are benefits to be had from greater management of our own woodlands in terms of woodland wildlife, carbon savings and a boost to the rural economy.  But the closer we get to very large industrial-scale biomass power stations the closer we get to depending on the good management of others, who supply the fuel to us, for any hope that there are real carbon savings and we then depend on their management to determine any wildlife benefits or losses.  Public policy is a very blunt instrument and almost always has unintended consequences.  when we are dealing with land use changes far from our shores then public policy finds it difficult to cope.

The complexity of these issues keeps bringing me back to the need for us to reduce our energy consumption being a very high priority.


Please take a moment to complete this Readers’ Survey – there are only 12 questions and they are all very simple (click here).


Fighting for Birds – ho! ho! ho!

The perfect Christmas present for someone you know

If you are really struggling to think of a Christmas present for that wildlife-friendly friend or relative – then how about a signed copy of Fighting for Birds? You’d make my Christmas too!

Signed copies are available at £15 (inc P&P).  Email me at and we’ll get it all organised.  Don’t delay as Christmas is not that far away.

Fighting for Birds has been getting great reviews and there are more in the pipeline (see reviews below).

Or, if you are attending the BTO Conference at Swanwick then why not buy a copy from the NHBS book stall and ask me to sign it for you – I’ll be there on the Saturday.

Also available on Amazon where Fighting for Birds has been the best-selling wildlife conservation book on the site.  Read the 14 5-star reviews by readers and then buy it yourself!


Reviews of Fighting for Birds:

Quite cheap and very easy – the book, not the author.

Chris Packham in the book’s Foreword and on his website:  …if you have any real interest in the workings of saving species and their habitats then it’s a tremendously rewarding ‘must read’ Full review

Bill Oddie in BBC Wildlife: it should be read by RSPB members past, present and potential – which means anyone interested in British conservation.

Stephen Moss in Birdwatch: ‘great fun to read‘, ‘What also marks this book out is Avery’s eye for a telling phrase to describe a key moment‘ and ‘a must read for anyone who cares about the future of birds on this crowded island‘. Full review

Mike Everett in British Birds: …it should be used to make a lot of people sit up and take notice.  I also hope that the publishers can somehow sell thousands and thousands of copies.

Peter Marren in British Wildlife: It is wise, it is punchy, it is funny, it is thought-provoking, and best of all, it lives up to its title in showing how every inch of the way has, indeed, been a fight. Full review

Isn’t his hair a lot greyer than that now?

Keith Betton in Birding World: I found myself agreeing with about 80% of his views, but regardless I learned a lot from his experiences.

Michael McCarthy, environment editor, Independent newspaper: Dr Avery, now Britain’s premier wildlife blogger, was thus at the very heart of all the conservation and wildlife protection battles of recent times, from windfarms to persecution of birds of prey by landowners. Indeed, he was a prime mover in many of them, and his spiky and opinionated account – there are quite a few people he doesn’t like – is not only immensely instructive, but gripping.Full review

Rob Yorke in Countryfile magazine:  Mark Avery is a troublemaker – but in a good way. Full review

The RSPB’s Martin Harper on his blog: The book is everything you’d expect from Mark: beautifully written, instructive, forthright and fun. Full review

Bo Beolens,  fatbirderI knew that Mark is a passionate conservationist, what I hadn’t really taken on board is what a fluent writer he is too. Full review

Everything from ‘Abernethy’ to ‘Young, Barbara, Baroness’ – a great index.

Andy Clements, CEO of the BTO:  Chris Packham read it from start to finish without stopping – I took only two or three sittings. It’s a compelling read. A book of this nature, at its best, should inform, entertain, provoke thought, and even move the reader, and Mark managed all of these with me. Full review

John Miles in Birdwatching: Mark has done a great job writing his experiences and thoughts down, and any one interested in the natural world in any way will get something out of this book

Pete Etheridge, on his blog: Fighting for Birds is unlike any book I’ve read before.  Factual, yes.  Absorbing, as much as any novel.  Opinionated, certainly.  Pulls its punches – absolutely not.  From the moment I picked it up, I struggled to put it down.  This is not some glorified autobiography but a candid look back over 25 years spent working in nature conservation. Full review

Jon Dunn of Shetland Wildlife on Facebook: These are the carefully argued and clear opinions of a dedicated conservationist, and like the rest of this at times entertaining and always enjoyable book, they make for compelling and, dare I say it, essential reading.   Full review

Farmland birds, GWCT, Fetlar, red kites, climate change, corncrakes, Prince Philip, Gordon Brown, Rainham Marshes, ruddy ducks – just like most books really.

Anne Rogers on her website: a terrific book and a great read. Full review

Nicholas Milton on his website:  if the RSPB wants more of its members and staff to engage with the issues that really count they could do a lot worse than to give away a copy of Mark’s book with membership and make it compulsory reading for any new member of staff joining the society. That would be a fitting tribute to his 25 years in the front line of conservationFull review

The Friends of Charles Darwin websiteAvery is also particularly good on the politics of conservationFull review

Andrew Cameron blog: very good, very interesting and…enlighteningFull review



Please take a moment to complete this Readers’ Survey – there are only 12 questions and they are all very simple (click here).


Ralph Underhill cartoon


twitter @RU_orangejam
tumblr at


Buglife’s Matt Shardlow gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on Wednesday and said:

The economic case for neonicotinoids is marginal at best the environmental cost is a price too high to pay. The use of these indiscriminate pesticides must be suspended before it is too late to halt the alarming decline in wild pollinators.  Italy, Germany, France and Serbia are among the nations to have already suspended the use of these killers. It is time the Government realised that the public have no wish for the UK to be considered the dirty old man of Europe.

For more on Buglife’s campaign click here.

See also Guest Blog on this subject by Rosemary Mason and Derek Thomas.



Please take a moment to complete this Readers’ Survey – there are only 12 questions and they are all very simple (click here).


An underwater bounty

On Wednesday evening I was in the Royal Society building in Carlton House Terrace (allegedly where Hitler would have lived if his plan to invade the UK had been more successful) waving at a bunch of kids on Pitcairn Island.  Really, I was. Not alone of course, but in a room full of people.

Through what we will call, cliche-like, the wonders of modern technology, we, be-suited and be-frocked (I had a suit – but there were frocks), had gathered to watch an amazing film about the underwater life surrounding the UK Overseas Territory of Pitcairn Islands but were able to talk and wave, to the inhabitants of one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world.

Pitcairn Island has 59 inhabitants and they seemed all to be in view as we sat in St James in a William IV building where, upstairs there is a lock of hair from Sir Isaac Newton (arguably, the world’s ‘Number One Scientist Ever’).  It takes 5 days to get to Pitcairn from the UK (if everything goes fine) and yet we were there immediately.  The point of this easy journey, whilst seated in a suit, was to hear the inhabitants of Pitcairn enthuse about the idea of a large marine no-take zone around Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducio and Oeano islands.  They’ve decided that they don’t want the pristine richness of these waters to be destroyed by careless and insensitive commercial fishing (or plundering).

And after we had seen the film, made by National Geographic and the Pew Global Ocean Legacy programme, there would be few in the audience who weren’t of the same view.  Surely, I thought, there ought to be some ocean areas left to act as a baseline – to show how wonderful the oceans can be, so full of life, so rich in marine creatures.  Should we exploit them all, carelessly, just because we ‘can’?  The answer must be ‘No!’.

Have a look at the film for yourself and see what you think.

There are few places on this planet that can be described as pristine – in truth, perhaps none.  But some of the waters in this outpost of the UK influence, where the mutineers from the Bounty hid from retribution, are as close as anything to pristine.  They are, at the very least, a wonderful example of how the oceans would have been much more commonly a couple of hundred years ago before the major pillaging began.

The man from the Ministry, in this case from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, didn’t quite seem to have caught the mood to me.  It was good that the UK is committed to ‘sustainable management’ but only so long as that includes no management in terms of large-scale fisheries as far as I am concerned.  The proposal on the table from conservationists and the whole Pitcairn Island population is for a no-take marine zone but the man from the Ministry described this as an ‘interesting proposal’ and kept mentioning the ‘marine resources’ and ‘assets’ and that we should ‘manage resources sustainably’ and that there were ‘big practical issues’.

On the other hand,  ‘at the very highest level, in the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, you have enthusiastic advocates for what you have just seen here’ said the man from the Ministry.  It’s good to know that the PM is so engaged.

You’d have to be a pretty soul-less bean-counter not to believe that the Pitcairn Islands are a natural wonder that should be cherished as a global example of pristine oceans.  With their coral reefs, sharks and turtles these waters are exceptional.  It’s because the Pitcairn Islands are so remote that these waters have retained so much of their natural richness.  Let us, and it is us in the UK who have the major say in this, let us not allow these marine wonders to be reduced or destroyed.  Let us keep the bounty of Pitcairn intact.


Please take a moment to complete this Readers’ Survey – there are only 12 questions and they are all very simple (click here).


Support the National Trust please

This blog has touched on the performance of the National Trust as a nature conservation organisation a few times (including yesterday) and hasn’t always been gushing in its praise for that immensely successful organisation – immensely successful in selling itself, nice cakes and a day out, that is.

But fair’s fair and here is an area where the NT is doing the right thing, where it isn’t, I imagine, completely straightforward to do the right thing and where others will criticise the NT behind closed doors.  That’s why I am asking you to show your support for what the NT is doing.  And you need to do that today or tomorrow, please.

NT is consulting on their vision for the High Peak Moors.  This is an area of upland England surrounded by areas of high population.  At the moment the area is not fulfilling its wildlife potential and all those visitors are cheated out of the wildlife experience which they might have.  The NT is bravely planning to do something about this.  Their vision is for a more natural upland landscape, not dominated by land managed for red grouse shooting, but one which delivers more for wildlife and more for people in terms of those funny things called ecosystem services – carbon storage, water management, high water quality etc.

This all seems very sensible but it is a brave move as there will be some entrenched views on the necessity (how can it be a necessity?) to maintain heather burning and commercial grouse shooting, and in addition people tend not to like any sort of change.

All you have to do to show your support for the NT’s bravery is to reply to their online consultation.  It could be as simple as sending a supportive email along the lines of ‘Well done NT, I think your vision for the High Peak Moors is great!’ to .

But if you want to say more then here is one I completed earlier as far as the first important question is concerned.  You could adapt it as your online response:

Do you think our Vision should have any different or additional outcomes?

No I think it is great!  I am attracted by the more natural landscape that it will provide which will be more attractive to visitors and much better for wildlife.  I also understand that your vision will deliver more carbon storage, better water management and higher water quality from this area of land.  I cannot see many drawbacks at all.

The Derwent Valley is one of the worst hot-spots for illegal raptor persecution in England.  That this is the case in a National Park and where the NT is a major landowner is totally unacceptable to me.  I would see the move away from burning of blanket bog and heather moorland as a very positive one.  Far too many of England’s uplands are dominated by grouse shooting and the illegal persecution of raptors which all too often seems to go alongside it.  The NT is to be commended on trying to make one small corner of the English uplands a more diverse and wildlife-rich , and more attractive, landscape.

I would imagine that wildlife such as goshawks, black grouse, a range of woodland and scrub species (eg whinchat, cuckoo) would benefit from this management – and actually, even if they don’t (which I think they will) it will be very interesting to see which species do benefit as this type of management change has rarely been done in the English uplands.

I have seen the comments on your website from others involved in the consultation which talk up the value of red grouse shooting and heather burning.  i don’t accept that these are the appropriate activities for NT land in this place if they lead to calls for reduced access, burning of sensitive blanket bog, killing of ‘vermin’ and illegal destruction of birds of prey.  This is the time for the NT to stand against such nonsense and as a NT member I am expecting you to do just that.


Please take a moment to complete this Readers’ Survey – there are only 12 questions and they are all very simple (click here).