Britain’s countryside and wildlife face a looming “perfect storm” of threats to environmental protection, conservationists warned. The Independent reports
The threats are headed by the possibility of massive cuts to EU funding for farmland wildlife schemes, which provides hundreds of millions of pounds annually to help British farmers look after the often-declining species on their land, from birds to butterflies to bumblebees.
But also greatly concerning environmental campaigners is the real possibility that the Government’s wildlife watchdog, Natural England, will be swept away and merged with the much bigger Environment Agency.
If this happens, it will be the first time since 1949 that there will no longer be a dedicated official body acting as a champion for habitats and species.
At the same time, local authorities are making swingeing cuts to their own environmental services and staff, an extensive new road-building programme is threatening valuable wildlife sites, and Conservative ministers are looking again at the possibility of undoing powerful EU wildlife laws which provide the strongest countryside protection of all in Britain.
Any of these threats would concern wildlife lovers, but the fact that they are all coming together has senior conservationists seriously alarmed.
“We may be witnessing the greatest shake-up in environmental protection for a generation,” said Martin Harper, director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
The greatest concern among environmentalists centres on possible EU funding cuts. Funding for agri-environment schemes from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the biggest single pot of money for wildlife protection available in Britain.
About £450m is spent annually on these “Environ- mental Steward- ship” schemes in England alone, 75 per cent of it coming directly from Brussels (with the rest put in by Whitehall), with another £70m-plus spent on similar schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
They have made a real difference in enabling farmers to repair much of the damage caused by intensification of agriculture – bringing back birds whose populations have been devastated, such as the skylark, and in particular the rare cirl bunting, whose recovery would have been otherwise impossible.
But when EU heads of government meet in Brussels on Thursday they seem certain to reduce the Union’s overall budget. Reduced funding for CAP is a likely consequence, with the parts of the programme that protect farmland wildlife particularly vulnerable. During the November budget negotiations, EU leaders discussed cuts of 13 per cent.
Analysis by the RSPB, however, suggests cuts might be as much as 23 per cent over the whole budget period, which the society thinks could prove disastrous.
The other threats are causing similar concern. The Government’s public consultation exercise on the future of Natural England closes today and many observers think it will be swallowed by the Environment Agency, meaning the independent voice for wildlife and landscapes will disappear with the larger body.
Local authority cuts to environment services and staff include proposals from Somerset County Council to cut the whole of its countryside service, and major losses of countryside rangers in London boroughs such as Ealing, Barking and Dagenham, while the Government’s new roads programme will, according to the Campaign for Better Transport, impact on four National Parks, seven Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 39 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, three National Nature Reserves, 54 ancient woodlands and 234 local wildlife sites.
It is also clear that some members of the Government still wish to weaken the Habitats Regulations, which transpose EU wildlife laws – setting up Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation – into British law. These laws form the toughest environmental protection of all in the UK. In November 2011 the Chancellor, George Osborne, said the rules “place ridiculous costs on British business”.
In his major speech on Europe last month, Mr Cameron hinted that these rules might be on the table during his planned renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU: “We need to examine whether the balance is right in so many areas… including on the environment,” he said.
If the cap fits: EU wildlife funding
The European Union money for wildlife matters enormously.
The agri-environment schemes funded by the CAP have spread extensively, and latest figures show they now cover a record 6.5 million hectares of England, which is 70 per cent of the farmland. About 60,000 farmers take part in the schemes, which are split into the basic Entry Level Stewardship and the more ambitious (and better rewarded) Higher Lever Stewardship, both of which began in 2005.
The HLS schemes in particular are making an enormous difference in bringing many species that had nearly vanished back to the countryside. The cirl bunting in Devon is one example, along with the marsh fritillary butterfly which is returning to parts of the West Country.
Scientists have estimated that the heat released into the atmosphere from buildings, cars and factories could play a significant role in the warming – and the cooling – of locations in other countries.
Using computer models of how heat is transported around the globe, the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change says that waste heat from 86 urban centres in the northern hemisphere could in theory raise temperatures of parts of North America and northern Asia by as much as 1C.
The same models suggest that other parts of the northern hemisphere, notably Europe, could actually become cooler at certain times of the year by up to 1C as a result of the heat affecting the direction of high-altitude winds such as the jet stream.
- Waste heat – a bigger climate effect than once thought (ascendingstarseed.wordpress.com)
- Cities affect surrounding temperatures for thousands of miles (phys.org)
- Cities affect temperatures for thousands of miles (prn.fm)
- ‘Bingo!’ Wasted energy from cities explains a global warming mystery (science.nbcnews.com)
As scientists at Rothamsted’s GM trials plead with activists not to sabotage their work, Michael McCarthy of The Independent visits the battle field
The trial involves a wheat strain modified to be resistant to aphid pests, but an ad hoc group of activists, assembled in a campaign entitled Take The Flour Back, have said they will march to the trial site this Sunday and attempt to destroy the young crops.
The activists say the trial, at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, is a threat to agriculture because pollen from the GM wheat could contaminate non-GM plants outside the trial boundary, and they believe GM is in general a dangerous and inappropriate technology for agriculture. But the scientists say cross-contamination from the site is virtually impossible, and that the new strain of wheat they are producing, besides being a boost to food security in an ever-hungrier world, itself has significant environmental benefits, as it will mean the input of pesticides is considerably lessened.
At Rothamsted yesterday, three of the leading figures in the project appealed to the protesters not to destroy it, saying they would be on the site on Sunday and would be happy to talk to the activists. “Call off your plans to destroy our experiment and come on the day and talk to us, but don’t come in a mindset of destruction,” said Dr Gia Aradottir. “This is a sustainable method that would reduce the carbon footprint for agriculture, if we don’t need to be driving tractors spraying pesticides. Surely that’s a good thing for environment? If they understand the technology and they understand what we’re doing, then they should embrace it, because really we have the same goals.”
Professor Johnathan Napier said: “Why would you want to destroy knowledge? I would ask the protesters what their solutions are to the problem of food security with the growth of the human population. What are your solutions to how are we going to feed nine billion people? We can’t do it by just simple highly-intensive, low-input organic production systems. We have to use lots of approaches.”
Professor Huw Jones, head of Rothamsted’s Cereal Transformation Lab, said that to destroy the experiment would be “absolutely counter-productive”. He said: “We are going to need to grow an awful lot more food to feed the world by 2050 and to do this more sustainably, with less water and the prospect of climate change, will be a very big challenge.”
The demonstrators are meeting at noon on Sunday in Rothamsted Park, and will march to the trial site, which is about a mile away, and which has a 2.4-metre chain links fence surrounding it. A spokesman for Take The Flour Back would not specifically say they would attempt to break through the fence, but said the purpose of the demonstration was “a decontamination” of the site.
Hertfordshire Police said they would have an “appropriate presence” at the demonstration. “We fully recognise the right to demonstrate lawfully, but it is also our job to uphold the law, and we will respond appropriately to any criminal acts,” a spokeswoman said.
The GM wheat plants are now nearly a foot tall, and due to be harvested in September, and the current research consists in measuring the aphid presence in the GM wheat against the number of aphids found in control-plots of non-GM wheat.
The modified crops contain a pheromone which is identical to the chemical used by the aphids as an alarm signal; when the aphids encounter it, they scatter, and aphid predators are attracted. The chemical, E-Beta-farnesene or EBF, is naturally occurring and found in about 400 plants, from hops to peppermint. The current trial at Rothamsted is being sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, so in effect it is being funded by the taxpayer.
In this, as in several other respects, it differs from the widely publicised trials of commercial GM crops promoted by giant agribusiness companies a decade ago, which found they would damage the environment as the extra-powerful weedkillers they were designed to tolerate would kill much other wildlife beside the target pests.
There has since been a virtual moratorium on GM crops in Britain and in much of Europe, although in other parts of the world GM technology is widely employed in agriculture on crops such as maize and soya beans.
- The Genetically Modified Food debate moves on… (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Farmer charged with criminal damage at GM crop trial site – The Guardian (guardian.co.uk)
- Farmer charged with criminal damage at GM crop trial site (guardian.co.uk)
- Modified wheat trial vandalised (bbc.co.uk)
- Man Charged Over GM Crop Trial Lab Vandalism (news.sky.com)
- GM wheat ‘damage attempt’ condemned (independent.co.uk)
- Hertfordshire town holds key to rich harvests, claim scientists. So why do activists target it? (guardian.co.uk)
- Organic Farmer Charged for Disturbing Genetically-Modified Crop Trial (commondreams.org)
- Aristocrat old Etonian eco-warrior ‘vandalises’ controversial GM wheat field trial (dailymail.co.uk)
For more than 60 years, the English countryside has been preserved from unthinking development by a demanding set of planning laws which evolved from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Too much so, this Government believes. It is taking the 1,300 pages of planning regulations and reducing them to just 52. Groups which campaign to protect the rural landscape have been fighting to prevent the Government sweeping away these laws. It looks as though they have failed.
George Osborne will make reference to the Government’s intentions in his Budget today. But the full National Planning Policy Framework is not to be published until next week, in an apparent attempt to make it look as though the changes are not primarily driven by economics. But the truth is that the planning system is being changed from an instrument that protects the countryside to one that facilitates economic growth – in two key ways. First, the system is to be altered so that the default answer to any “sustainable” development proposal will be Yes. Second, the historic recognition that ordinary countryside has “intrinsic value” will be scrapped.
These measures go way too far. There is no question that Britain needs more new homes. And we would argue that the definition of the Green Belt needs to be adjusted to facilitate more building. But these measures do not affect the Green Belt, they apply to the ordinary, unprotected countryside. The danger is that the changes will promote ribbon development between our major cities, changing the look of the country for ever.
During a three-month consultation on the changes, the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England found serious risks, but just two small concessions have been made: a recognition that brownfield sites are to be preferred, and a definition of “sustainable” that would otherwise have meant whatever developers wanted it to.
The English countryside needs more protection if it is not to be disfigured by development. We must not allow short-term economic interests to desecrate our heritage and endanger our long-term wellbeing.
- The builders’ charter: Osborne to overturn 65 years of planning law (independent.co.uk)
- BUDGET 2012: Boris island airport could get lift off as Osborne rips up 60 years of planning law to drive economy forward (dailymail.co.uk)
- Planning system reforms: Countryside campaigners warn MPs they face a major ‘headache’ (dailymail.co.uk)
- Fiona Reynolds: ‘It’s thanks to the National Trust that Britain doesn’t look like New Jersey’ (independent.co.uk)
- Michael McCarthy: ‘Visit Britain’ could soon become a much harder sell (independent.co.uk)
- Hands Off Our Land: Developers now to be forced to build on brownfield sites before the countryside (telegraph.co.uk)
- Opinion: the ongoing disaster of British land-use planning (libdemvoice.org)
- New towns to ‘disfigure’ UK: Fury over move to ditch 60 years of planning law in bid to construct new garden cities (dailymail.co.uk)
The battle between the Government and ‘the other side’ – now a former advisor joins the fray – heats up!
The Government’s failure to ban wild animals in circuses has been criticised by a former expert adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Raymond Ings, a specialist in elephant welfare who served on Defra’s Zoos Forum for eight years, described the decision as “completely barking mad”. He said circuses were “fundamentally unsuited” to keeping elephants, big cats, bears and other wild animals
Mr Ings, who trained Government-approved zoo inspectors until last year, said: “When I heard this I was spitting blood. There is not an animal-welfare scientist in this country saying circuses could ever provide an environment for elephants.
“After the public has gone home the animals are chained up in beast wagons for hours. The environment is far too restrictive. The best zoos can meet the needs because they are static. Circuses can’t, because you have to up sticks all the time and you can’t give them the space.”
As The Independent predicted earlier this month, Defra did a U-turn on its support for a ban last week and proposed new regulations that would instead see officials inspect and license every wild animal performing in the big top. Downing Street is understood to have blocked a ban because of concerns about introducing extra red tape.
The debate about wild animals in circuses was ignited again last month when undercover footage showed a groom at Bobby Roberts Super Circus beating Britain’s last circus elephant, Anne, with a pitchfork. Anne was relocated to a wildlife park. But more elephants could be imported, as they were two years ago when the Great British Circus borrowed three from Germany.
Circus owners say their animals have adequate space and are not mistreated during training. But animal-welfare groups complain that the animals spend long periods confined in “beast wagons” or enclosures, which are much smaller than those recommended for zoos.
In the aftermath of the dispute over Anne, officials told newspapers that ministers would announce a ban within days. Opinion polls have shown around 70 per cent of the public supports one. Within 10 days of its launch, almost 18,000 people have signed The Independent’s online petition calling for the Government to introduce a ban.
The campaign has the support of the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, Born Free Foundation and the Captive Animals’ Protection Society. Representatives of all five will present the petition to Downing Street tomorrow. The target is to reach 20,000 signatures by then.
Harvey Locke, president of the British Veterinary Association, which represents 12,000 vets, said: “The veterinary position on this issue is grounded in our deep understanding of animals, but we’re not ignorant of the political arguments.
“In response to Labour’s consultation in 2009, a massive 94.5 per cent of 10,500 respondents agreed with a complete ban. It’s no secret that Defra was badly bruised by the forests issue. Surely it could do with an easy policy win that enjoys huge public support?”
To sign the petition, visit Independent.co.uk/circusanimals.
- Circus ban update : Ministers under pressure over failure to back the ban! (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Campaign to ban wild circus animals wins huge public support (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- No 10 blocks plan to ban wild animals performing in circuses (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Circus animal ban latest : Ministers wobble over legal risks! (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Government rejects ban on wild animals in circuses (independent.co.uk)
- 10,000 back Independent circus animals petition (independent.co.uk)
- Twitter leads to thousands signing circuses petition (independent.co.uk)
- Twitter Sends Thousands To Signing Circuses Petition (femaleimagination.wordpress.com)
- No 10 blocks plan to ban wild animals performing in circuses (independent.co.uk)