Conservationists object to housing in one of UK’s key habitats for the birds. The Independent reports
Plans for one of Britain’s biggest housing developments, of 5,000 homes worth hundreds of millions of pounds, may have to be abandoned because of the presence of nightingales, the birds which sing in the night and have long been a favourite of poets.
The case, which centres on a disused army site in Kent, presents the conflict between the need to build new houses and people’s wish to preserve Britain’s threatened countryside and wildlife in its sharpest possible form. It is likely to lead to a bitter struggle.
The site at Lodge Hill, Chattenden, on the Hoo peninsula north of Chatham, has been earmarked by Medway District Council for what is in effect a new town, which besides its enormous housing quota is intended to provide 5,000 new jobs. The main developers are to be Land Securities, Britain’s biggest commercial property company.
Yet last year scientists discovered that Lodge Hill is probably the best site in the country for the nightingale, which is rapidly disappearing from Britain – its numbers have dropped by more than 90 per cent in the last 40 years.
Today the case came to a head when Natural England, the Government’s wildlife watchdog, declared Lodge Hill to be a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of its nightingale population, which means that development will be much more difficult, and may ultimately be impossible.
The move provoked a furious response from Medway Council, which said it was “deeply unhappy” and was considering its options.
“This is very disappointing news to receive from unelected quangocrats at Natural England,” said the leader of the Conservative-controlled council, Rodney Chambers. “As a local authority we are eager for this scheme, which is on Government-owned land, to progress and deliver the houses and jobs we badly need.”
He added: “What hope does the country have of beating the economic downturn when infrastructure and housing projects like this are being stalled all over the country by the Government’s own agencies?” Land Securities also said it was disappointed with the decision.
However, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gave the decision its full backing. “Natural England is right to designate Lodge Hill as a SSSI in the face of extreme economic pressure,” said Martin Harper, the RSPB director of conservation. “We think it is time for Medway Council and Land Securities to go back to the drawing board and think about where they should build their houses.”
The case is likely to raise strong feelings because the nightingale is one of Britain’s most beloved birds, famed for the midnight song which males sing to attract females, from mid-April to June, after their migratory return from Africa.
So many poets have written about it, in many countries and civilisations from the classical world onwards, that it has been called “the most versified bird in the world”. In English literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Clare and most famously, John Keats, all wrote nightingale poems.
But in England – the nightingale is not found in the rest of Britain – the bird has been undergoing a remorseless decline. The latest estimate is that its population dropped by 52 per cent between 1995 and 2010, yet an examination of earlier records by the British Trust for Ornithology has suggested that over the last 40 years, the bird’s population has actually fallen by more than 90 per cent.
In a recent paper, scientists from the BTO said the nightingale would have been placed on the Red List of birds of conservation concern if this figure had been known about when the list was last revised.
The bird’s range is steadily contracting and the nightingale is now concentrated mainly in the south-east corner of England, especially in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
It was known that Lodge Hill held nightingales, but its real importance was not discovered until last year, when the BTO carried out a national nightingale survey. It was found the core of the site held 69 singing males, and in total the figure was 84.
BTO scientists estimate that Lodge Hill contains about 1.3 per cent of the total national nightingale population, which the survey provisionally estimated to be between 6,250 and 6,550 pairs.
“If there is a better nightingale site in Britain, we don’t know of it,” said the BTO’s Dr Chris Hewson.
Mr Harper said: “Lodge Hill is probably one of the most important sites in the country for nightingales. We expect more than 80 singing males to return to this site in less than a month ready for the breeding season, and they need to have a secure home to come back to.”
- Thousands quizzed over future of airport (kentonline.co.uk)
- Sharp drop in bird poisoning cases (bbc.co.uk)
- WILDLIFE UPDATE : Budget cuts may trigger ‘perfect storm’ of threats to UK nature (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Britain’s wildlife facing ‘disastrous’ threats over budget cuts (telegraph.co.uk)
Invertebrates, the key monitors of the health of habitats, are – still – in trouble … When will those with backbone – us – ever learn? Your thoughts here or at NAEEUK
A startling 20 per cent of world’s invertebrates, including insects and worms, are now endangered. The Independent’s Michael McCarthy reports
One-fifth of the world’s invertebrates, “the little things that run the world,” may be heading for extinction, according to the Zoological Society of London.
The society (ZSL) suggests that about 20 per cent of the world’s insects, spiders, worms, crustaceans, molluscs and other animals without backbones are endangered, for reasons ranging from pollution and over-harvesting to the effect of invasive species.
The report, entitled “Spineless”, and produced in conjunction with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the Red List of threatened species, is the first attempt at estimating the global conservation status of invertebrates.
Invertebrates constitute almost 80 per cent of the world’s 1.9 million known species and display staggering diversity, ranging from microscopic zooplankton to giant squid which can reach 18 metres in length.
But much less attention is paid to them than to vertebrate animals, which include mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, and are far fewer in number (totalling about 60,000 species).
And this is the case even though invertebrates are crucial in maintaining ecosystems – without insects, for example, we would lose much of the pollination services upon which agriculture depends, and without earthworms, the processes that spread organic matter through soil would be disrupted.
Two years ago, an earlier study suggested that a fifth of all vertebrates were facing extinction, and today’s report puts the conservation status of the smaller and more numerous invertebrate animals at the same level.
Threatened species in Britain include the brilliantly-coloured ladybird spider, once thought extinct and clinging on in Dorset and the freshwater pear mussel, famous for its pearls and now confined to a handful of rivers. Also at risk is the white-clawed crayfish, which has been ousted from many of its haunts by an American crayfish species. Others at risk in the UK include the shrill carder bee, the tansy beetle and the bog hoverfly, found only on Dartmoor.
The new report was carried out by analysing the 12,000 invertebrate species whose conservation status has been investigated and assessed by the IUCN, and projecting the threat across all species. It found that the highest risk of extinction tends to be associated with species that are less mobile and are only found in small geographical areas.
For example, vertebrate amphibians and invertebrate freshwater molluscs both face high levels of threat – around one third of species. In contrast, invertebrate species which are more mobile like dragonflies and butterflies face a similar threat to that of birds, and around one tenth of species are at risk.
“Invertebrates constitute almost 80 per cent of the world’s species, and a staggering one in five species could be at risk of extinction,” said Dr Ben Collen, of the ZSL.
The society’s director of conservation, Professor Jonathan Baillie, added: “We knew that roughly one fifth of vertebrates and plants were threatened with extinction, but it was not clear if this was representative of the small spineless creatures that make up the majority of life on the planet.
“The initial findings indicate that 20 per cent of all species may be threatened. This is particularly concerning as we are dependent on these spineless creatures for our very survival.”
At risk: Bugs’ lives
Bog hoverfly (Eristalis cryptarum)
A rare hoverfly that in recent years has been found only within a restricted area of Dartmoor.
Shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum)
Threatened by loss of the extensive flower-rich areas and suitable nesting sites of long tussocky grass it needs to survive.
Freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera)
Facing threats from illegal pearl fishing – 75 per cent of the species’ sites have been damaged by criminals.
Tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis)
Once widespread, but dependent for its sole food source on the tansy plant, which is declining.
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Facing disaster: the little things that rule the world (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- One-Fifth Of World’s Invertebrate Species Face Extinction (sott.net)
- Invertebrates said at risk of extinction (upi.com)
- Spineless Creatures under Threat, from Worms to Bees (scientificamerican.com)
- Butterflies ‘more endangered than tigers’ (junkscience.com)
- Q&A: Sustainability Now a Matter of Life and Death (ipsnews.net)
- At-Risk Species Still on U.S. Menus (news.discovery.com)
- The Future Of Fish Extinction: Sooner than you think (greenerideal.com)
- Rare mussels almost ‘wiped out’ (bbc.co.uk)
Fifty years ago, few people cared about pollution, deforestation or whaling. Then a remarkable book came along. In the first in a series charting the environment movement, Michael McCarthy looks back to its inspiration – Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring
The book that changed the world is a cliché often used but rarely true, yet 50 years ago this week a book appeared which profoundly altered the way we view the Earth and our place on it: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
This impassioned and angry account of how America’s wildlife was being devastated by a new generation of chemical pesticides began the modern environment movement: it awoke the general consciousness that we, as humans, are part of the natural world, not separate from it, yet we can destroy it by our actions.
A middle-aged marine biologist, Carson was not the first to perceive this, to see how intimately we are bound up with the fate of our planet; but her beautifully-written book, and the violent controversy it generated, brought this perception for the first time to millions, in the US, in Britain and around the world.
Down the centuries many people had expressed their love for nature, but Silent Spring and the furore it created gave birth to something more: the widespread, specific awareness that the planet was threatened and needed defending; and the past half-century of environmentalism, the age of Green, the age of Save The Whale and Stop Global Warming, has followed as a natural consequence.
When it began serialisation in The New Yorker on 16 June 1962 (it was published in full the following September) Silent Spring revealed to a horrified America – or at least, to those who did not know already – that its wildlife was being wiped out on a staggering scale by use of the new generation of synthetic pesticides, compounds made in the laboratory rather than from naturally occurring substances, which had followed on from the forerunner of them all, the chlorinated hydrocarbon DDT.
In particular, the songbirds of America’s countryside and small towns were everywhere falling silent. They had been killed by colossal pesticide spraying programmes, usually from the air, sanctioned in the 1950s by the US Department of Agriculture, individual states and local authorities, and aimed at insect pest threats which turned out to be largely illusory.
There was no need for them; their real driver was the American chemical industry which had managed to convince US agriculture that its bright new range of deadly super-poisons, organochlorines such as aldrin and dieldrin, organophosphates such as parathion and malathion, were just the wonder drugs that farming needed – in huge doses.
Even now, it is hard to read Rachel Carson’s account of these mass sprayings without incredulity, like the 131,000 acres in Sheldon, Illinois, sprayed with dieldrin to get rid of the Japanese beetle. “It was a rare farm in the Sheldon area that was blessed by the presence of a cat after the war on beetles was begun,” she wrote.
Tens of millions of acres were covered in poison in campaigns against the spruce budworm, the gypsy moth and the fire ant, none of which succeeded in eradicating their targets, but all of which exterminated countless other wild creatures – the American robins on suburban lawns, the trout in forest streams – to the bewildered dismay of the local people watching it happen around them.
Carson’s achievement was to bring the situation to national notice in a remarkable synthesis of dramatic reportage and deep scientific knowledge, explaining exactly what the new pesticides were, how their catastrophic side effects were occurring, and how senseless were the mass spraying campaigns (although she recognised that agricultural pesticides were necessary and did not advocate banning them all). To a reader today, her account is compelling and entirely convincing.
Yet it produced an explosion. The US chemical industry, and parts of the US scientific establishment, lashed out in frenzy against this presumptuous upstart holding them to account, with a long and bitter campaign of criticism and personal denigration; and it seemed as if what aroused their ire more than anything was the fact that their opponent was a woman – “An hysterical woman”.
A professional biologist from Pennsylvania who had worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, she was 55 when Silent Spring appeared. Unmarried and childless after a life spent looking after her mother and her young nephew, she had found emotional solace in a deep friendship with a neighbour at her Maine holiday home, Dorothy Freeman, about which there has inevitably been speculation; certainly, they were very close. Yet Carson was more than a scientist, she was also an acclaimed author, having written a trilogy of highly-praised books on the marine environment, one of which,The Sea Around Us of 1951, had been a best-seller.
Thus when Silent Spring appeared, she already had a substantial audience, and the furore stirred up by the US chemical industry only served to boost it a thousandfold; by the end of 1962, three months after full publication, the book had sold half a million copies, and public opinion was solidly behind her. (It did nothing to hinder her cause that President John F Kennedy took her side and referred Silent Spring to his Science Advisory Committee, which the following year vindicated her stance.)
So the madness of the mass poison sprayings came to an end, and the robins and their song returned to America’s spring; DDT was banned for agriculture in 1972 (although it remained in use for malaria prevention), and bans on dieldrin, aldrin and other substances followed.
Rachel Carson did not live to see it: she died of cancer in 1964. But her achievement was much more than to end a crazy and murderous assault upon nature, enormous though it was.
What she introduced to a mass audience for the first time, in explaining how the catastrophe was happening, was the idea of ecology, of the interconnectedness of all living things, of the connectedness between species and their habitats.
The pesticide falls on the leaf, and the leaf falls to the ground where it is consumed by worms, who also consume the pesticide; and robins consume the worms and consume the pesticide too, and so they die.
In showing how everything in the natural world was linked, she showed how humans were part of it too, and how human interference could wreck it, could wreck the balance of nature built up over billions of years.
That is a commonplace insight now, but in 1962 it was a new one. It was truly radical, because it implied – for the first time ever – that scientific advance and economic growth, closely linked as they were in America, might not be endlessly a good thing. There was the Earth itself to consider. And that perception has been at the heart of the movement that Silent Spring inspired, which is 50 years old on Saturday.
Spreading death: the new pesticides
Insecticides made from natural products, such as pyrethrum from chrysanthemum flowers and naturally occurring arsenic, had been known and used for centuries, before the more powerful effects of synthetic lab-produced pesticides became apparent during the Second World War.
The first was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT – synthesised in the 19th century but whose insect-killing properties were only discovered in 1939. DDT was used with success in disease prevention during the war and was followed during the 1940s and 1950s by a family of similar organic chemicals.
However, the new organochlorines and organophosphates were not just more deadly, they built up in body fat and the accumulated dose could be passed on. “One of the most sinister features of DDT and related chemicals is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chains,” Rachel Carson wrote.
The deadliest of these chemicals have now largely been banned, but controversy over pesticide use and its effect on wildlife has not gone away. It now focuses on the neonicotinoids, one of which, thiamethoxam, was banned by the French government last week after research showed it affected the homing ability of bees.
- Quiet Spring: Fifty Years Since Rachel Carson (ecology.com)
- Rachel Carson: The green revolutionary (independent.co.uk)
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Rachel Carson-50 years on and the DDT debates continue (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Carson and the legacy of Silent Spring (guardian.co.uk)
- 50 years on and the DDT debates continue (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: In recognition of Rachel Carson-the green revolutionary (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- Silent Spring ~ Rachel Carson (evolutionarymystic.wordpress.com)
- Original Green Goddess 50 Years on (socyberty.com)
- We humans dislike facing up to unpleasant truths (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- Rachel Carson’s redwood dreams, and 50 years of “Silent Spring” (hcn.org)
- Happy Birthday Rachel Carson (ecology.com)
From Michael McCarthy of The Independent
Growing up to 15cm (six inches) long, the species is more commonly found in the waters of the Mediterranean and Canary Islands, although it is sometimes encountered around the British coasts, especially in the south and in the Thames Estuary.
The last sighting of a seahorse in the Thames was at Dagenham in 2008 – much further down river than the one caught at Greenwich, which is only five miles from Westminster.
“The seahorse we found was only five centimetres long, a juvenile, suggesting that they may be breeding nearby,” said Emma Barton, Environment Agency Fisheries Officer.
“This is a really good sign that seahorse populations are not only increasing, but also spreading to locations where they haven’t been seen before. We routinely survey the Thames at this time of year and this is a really exciting discovery.
“We hope that further improvements to water quality and habitat in the Thames will encourage more of these rare species to take up residence in the river.”
The species adds to the growing numbers of wildlife returning to the Thames, which a survey in 1958 showed was “biologically dead”, with no viable fish populations from Kew in the west to Greenwich in the East.
But London’s river has undergone a dramatic transformation, beginning with the secondary treatment of sewage in 1964, and it now supports more than 125 fish species such as eels, pike, sea bass, flounder and roach.
Last year the Thames was awarded the International Theiss River prize which celebrates outstanding achievement in river management and restoration.
Two of the world’s 35 seahorse species have been found in British waters, the other being the long- snouted seahorse, Hippocampus guttulatus.
Most of the remainder are found in tropical seas, and many of them are endangered, because they live in the most vulnerable of marine habitats, the coastal environment – coral reefs, estuaries, mangrove swamps and seagrass beds – which are all being hard hit by pollution and coastal development.
They are also threatened by over-fishing, being targeted for use in traditional Asian medicine, as live pets and for the souvenir trade. Every year an estimated 30 million seahorses are traded by between 70 and 80 countries.
- Seahorse Family (knowledgeguild.wordpress.com)
- Rare seahorse found in the Thames (bbc.co.uk)
- Rare sea horses found in the River Thames (telegraph.co.uk)
- The News Matrix: Saturday 8 October 2011 (independent.co.uk)
- Thames Barrier to last 60 years (autonetinsurance.co.uk)
- Seahorse found in the River Thames (thesun.co.uk)
- Fun Facts About Sea Horses (seahorserun.wordpress.com)
- New Cable Car Will Cross London’s Thames River (shoppingblog.com)
- Flood defence schemes to start early (autonetinsurance.co.uk)
- Thames Estuary Port Project (southeasttourguides.co.uk)
A calamity is waiting to happen….. Michael McCarthy reports
Any serious oil spill in the ice of the Arctic, the “new frontier” for oil exploration, is likely to be an uncontrollable environmental disaster despoiling vast areas of the world’s most untouched ecosystem, one of the world’s leading polar scientists has told The Independent.
Oil from an undersea leak will not only be very hard to deal with in Arctic conditions, it will interact with the surface sea ice and become absorbed in it, and will be transported by it for as much as 1,000 miles across the ocean, according to Peter Wadhams, Professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge.
The interaction, discovered in large-scale experiments 30 years ago, means that the Arctic oil rush, which was given a huge boost last week with a $3.2 billion (£1.9bn) investment from Exxon Mobil, is likely to be the riskiest form of oil exploration ever undertaken, said Professor Wadhams, who is a former director of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute.
“If there is serious oil spill under ice in the Arctic it will be very hard, if not impossible to stop it becoming an environmental catastrophe,” he said. “It will be very much harder to deal with than a major spill in open water.”
The world’s oil companies are now turning to the Far North as supplies elsewhere across the globe start to run out or become harder to extract, and both the potential profits from Arctic oil, and the fears about the damage that extracting it may do, are enormous.
The area north of the Arctic Circle is thought to contain as much as 160 billion barrels of oil, more than a quarter of the world’s undiscovered reserves. Some of it is under land, as in Alaska’s North Slope field, but large amounts of it are known to lie under the seabeds of the Arctic Ocean and Baffin Bay off Greenland, which are ice-covered for all or part of the year, depending on the region.
It is this offshore oil which is now the focus of a new exploration rush, with Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon among the strongest contenders, focusing on the Arctic Ocean itself, while the first wells in the sea off Greenland are already being drilled by Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy.
However, many observers are seriously alarmed about the spill risks in the extreme conditions, especially in the wake of BP’s calamitous leak at the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico last year, which could not be controlled for three months, released as much as five million barrels of crude, and came close to wrecking the company.
“A spill in the Arctic would essentially make dealing with something like Deepwater Horizon look almost straightforward,” said Ben Ayliffe, polar campaigner for Greenpeace.
“There are problems with ice encroachment, the remoteness of the Arctic, darkness, extreme weather, deep water, high seas, freezing conditions and icebergs. Basically it would mean that responding to a Gulf of Mexico-style spill off somewhere like Greenland would be impossible.”
Yet Professor Wadhams, who was the first civilian scientist to travel under the Arctic ice in a submarine, in 1971, and who has made five more under-ice trips, is spotlighting an even greater level of concern with his knowledge of how oil and ice interact – with potentially calamitous consequences.
It stems from large-scale experiments he took part in off the coast of Canada in the 1970s, in which substantial quantities of oil were deliberately released into the frozen sea, to see how it behaved. “What we found, and one of the great difficulties, is that spilled oil becomes encapsulated in the ice and is then transported around the Arctic by it,” he said.
“The oil is caught underneath the ice, so you can’t get at immediately to clean it up or burn it off. You don’t know exactly where it is, and then it gets encapsulated in the new ice which grows underneath, so you then have a kind of oil sandwich inside the pack ice.
“And that’s being transported around the Arctic and isn’t released until spring, when it may be several hundred or even a thousand miles from the source of the spill, so you can have a huge area of the Arctic becoming polluted by oil without initially it being clear where that oil is.”
He added: “Once it is released in springtime, it’s very toxic, because the encapsulation in the ice preserves the oil from weathering, so that instead of the lighter fraction evaporating and the heavier fraction becoming just tar balls, you have fresh oil being released exactly where the ice is melting, usually round the edge of the pack ice where you’ve got a lot of migratory birds.
“Not great for the environment. In fact, I think the appropriate word would be ‘terrible’.”
Professor Wadhams is so concerned that he is helping to organise a high-level scientific workshop on the subject of oil spills in sea ice, in Italy later this month.
While companies such as Cairn Energy stress that they will be drilling exploratory wells only in the summer months, in areas of sea which are ice-free, it is likely that once oil production actually begins, it will be a year-round business and continue through the winter when production facilities are ice-bound. “We would need to produce all year round, in order to make the whole thing worthwhile,” a spokesman for Shell said at the weekend.
The oil companies insist that they are aware of the risks and have prepared detailed oil spill response plans, but Professor Wadhams, who has read several of them, said they did not amount to comprehensive plans for dealing with oil in ice.
* Professor Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University, is an oceanographer and glaciologist and one of the world’s leading experts on polar ice. He is celebrated for submarine voyages beneath it.
His concern about how sea ice will interact with oil from a spill as the Arctic is opened up for drilling is so great that he has helped to convene an international high-level academic seminar to discuss Oil Spills in Sea Ice – and Future at Italy’s Polar Geographical Institute in Fermo, Italy, from 20-23 September.
- Unlocked by melting ice-caps, the great polar oil rush has begun (independent.co.uk)
- Arctic oil spill plan condemned (independent.co.uk)
- Arctic oil spill response plans are triumphs of hope over expectation | Damian Carrington (guardian.co.uk)
- Arctic Riches Lure Explorers – Exxon, Rosneft, Shell Set to Pour Billions Into Potentially Huge, Risky Prospects (gcaptain.com)
- Arctic Riches Lure Explorers – Exxon, Rosneft, Shell Set to Pour Billions Into Potentially Huge, Risky Prospects (uwtreasures.wordpress.com)
- Leading article: The case for a moratorium on oil drilling in the arctic is overwhelming (independent.co.uk)
- New Videos Prove That All Is Not Well At Fukushima … Or The BP Oil Spill Site (destructionist.wordpress.com)
- Oil update: Shell given go-ahead to drill off Alaska (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- UK’s first Amundsen exhibition celebrates extraordinary explorer (uwtreasures.wordpress.com)
- Exxon Mobil Teams Up With Russian Oil Company, Gains Access To Arctic Drilling Rights (inquisitr.com)
- Exxon Mobil to Learn: In Soviet Russia, Oil Explores You! (blogs.wsj.com)
- Pipe dreams (bbc.co.uk)
- Rosneft and Exxon Mobil sign deal to explore Arctic for oil (telegraph.co.uk)