WILDLIFE UPDATE : Budget cuts may trigger ‘perfect storm’ of threats to UK nature

English: David Cameron's picture on the 10 Dow...
English: David Cameron’s picture on the 10 Downing Street website (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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.

The cuts may be outlined this week when EU leaders, including David Cameron, meet in Brussels to decide their budget for the next seven years – a budget which seems certain to be slashed.

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.



ENERGY: Wasted heat from large cities – affecting distant places!

Nederlands: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Waste heat
Waste heat (Photo credit: Stefan Gara)

The Independent reports : The waste heat generated by large cities can affect temperatures in areas hundreds of miles away by changing wind patterns in the upper atmosphere, a study has found.

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.

Feeding a hungry world – or meddling with laws of nature?

English: Winter brassica seedlings at Rothamst...
English: Winter brassica seedlings at Rothamsted Rothamsted is the largest agricultural research centre in the UK and probably the oldest agricultural research station in the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As scientists at Rothamsted’s GM trials plead with activists not to sabotage their work, Michael McCarthy of The Independent visits the battle field

Three senior scientists made impassioned appeals yesterday to anti-GM campaigners not to destroy a field trial of GM wheat which is the culmination of several years’ work.

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.

Source :  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/feeding-a-hungry-world–or-meddling-with-laws-of-nature-7786187.html

How to protect our green and pleasant land?

A National Trust signpost at Milldale, River D...
A National Trust signpost at Milldale, River Dove, Derbyshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An environmental alert from The Independent . Comments here or at Learn From Nature 

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.

Source : http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-protect-our-green-and-pleasant-land-7579387.html

Circus ban update : Former adviser attacks Government ‘failure’

RSPCA official charity logo
Image via Wikipedia

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 RSPCA said it was “furious”. Three circuses, The Great British Circus, Circus Mondao and Jolly’s, use about 20 wild animals, including tigers, zebras, and pythons.

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.


Shanghai air pollution reaches record levels – how to track air quality around the world

Beijing Air Quality Index

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‘The Independent’ share ‘Shanghai Daily‘ reporting on my local filthy skies 

MY COMMENT: The ‘Clear blue skies’ that were a huge visible benefit of ‘Expo 2010‘, were an element I can personally a-test to. It is a huge disappointment, therefore, that as Expo went – so too did these same clean skies – and resumption of smog! 

Pollution in the southern Chinese city of Shanghai has reached record levels, pushing air quality levels to ‘severe’ or ‘hazardous,’ the highest level on the Air Quality Index Scale. Amidst long-standing concerns over pollution, governmental websites around the world allow members of the public to monitor air quality in their region.

Chinese newspaper Shanghai Daily reports that the air quality in the city over Tuesday, May 3 and Wednesday, May 4 was the “worst air quality to date.”

The US embassy in Beijing caused controversy last year when on its Twitter feed of hourly air quality (@beijingair) the automated system reported that air quality in Beijing was “crazy bad” after air pollution levels went off the scale. 

High levels of air pollution are not limited to China; on April 22 the British government issued the first smog warning in two years due to high levels of pollutants over the UK, and recent reports suggest air pollution in the US could be causing asthma.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures pollutants in the air; the index is also sometimes called the Air Pollution Index (API)  – though these two indices measure slightly separate pollutants they are often used interchangeably.

Though the AQI scale can vary between different countries, the scale of 0-100, as used in North America, is the most commonly adopted. 

The scale ranks the air quality from Good (0-50), Moderate (51-100), Unhealthy for sensitive groups (101-150), Unhealthy (151-200), Very unhealthy (201-300) to Hazardous’ (301-500). On May 4 Shanghai’s air quality was rated 500. 

Members of the public can monitor the daily air quality in their area with the links below: 

North America- http://www.airnow.gov/ 
Europe – http://www.airqualitynow.eu/ 
China – http://www.vecc-mep.org.cn/eng/ 


A full list of links to other international sites is available via the North American site at:http://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=topics.world








Turtles now world’s most endangered species

COMMENT: I recently visited another the Chinese city of Kungming where anyone can buy a tiny ‘cute’ turtle swimming around inside a tiny plastic bowl… It’s a toy. But read on, in THE INDEPENDENT today…

Turtles and tortoises are now the most endangered group of vertebrate animals, with more than half of their 328 species threatened with extinction, according to a new report.

Their populations are being depleted by unsustainable hunting, both for food and for use in traditional Chinese medicine, by large-scale collection for the pet trade, and by the widespread pollution and destruction of their habitats, according to the study Turtles In Trouble, produced by a coalition of turtle conservation groups.

The result is that their plight has never been greater, and the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles will become extinct in a few decades without concerted conservation efforts, the report says.

Asia is the worst affected region; of the 25 most endangered turtles, more than two thirds (17) are from Asia, a result of decades of massive exploitation. “For example, in just one market in Dhaka, Bangladesh, close to 100,000 wild caught turtles are butchered for consumption during a one-day religious holiday each year,” the report adds.

It goes on: “Furthering the problem is a lucrative international black market trade in pet turtles and tortoises that has escalated prices of some of the more rare species into the tens of thousands of dollars. Rumours even exist that some of the rarest Asian species are now commanding prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The world’s 328 species are divided into 263 fresh water and terrestrial turtles, and 58 species of tortoises (plus seven sea turtles which are not covered in detail by the report). With up to 54 per cent of the total considered threatened, turtles and tortoises are at a much higher risk of extinction, the report says, than other vertebrates such as birds, mammals, sharks and rays or even amphibians – which are usually considered the most endangered grouping.

“Turtles are disappearing fast and we are dealing with one of the most significant wildlife crises of our lifetime,” says Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) http://www.turtlesurvival.org/. Several species are down to just a handful of remaining individuals.

No. 1 on the list is the Pinta Island tortoise, one of the Galapagos tortoises species that contributed to Charles Darwin’s theories on “natural selection”. Sadly, only a single male of this species, “Lonesome George”, remains alive today, and the report comments: “Ironically, Darwin and other travellers often ate many of the islands’ tortoises and released rats, goats and other animals, which significantly contributed to their decline.”

Close behind is the Red River giant softshell turtle of China and Vietnam, weighing more than 250lbs with a shell more than three feet long. With only four animals left, the stakes have never been higher. Some species are in danger of disappearing before scientists even find out where they live. Zhou’s box turtle (the 6th most endangered) has occasionally appeared in the turtle markets of China, but to date no one has located a wild population.

The report, Turtles in Trouble, can be downloaded at the link below.


Five under threat

Sulawesi forest turtle This semi-aquatic animal is endemic to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and was originally used in Chinese food in the early 1990s. Habitat destruction has reduced the forest cover on which it depends for survival.

River terrapin With males exhibiting striking seasonal breeding colours, these unusual and attractive turtles have now all but vanished.

Ploughshare tortoise One of the rarest tortoises in the world, there are now only a few hundred left in Madagascar.

Roti island snake-necked turtle This freshwater turtle is found on the tiny island of Roti in south-eastern Indonesia.

Geometric tortoise This small species is found in low-lying sandy areas of the Western Cape in South Africa.