Bee decline: Government announces ‘urgent’ review

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The government is to announce it will carry out an “urgent and comprehensive” review of the decline of bees. The BBC online reports

Minister Lord de Mauley will tell a bee summit, organised by Friends of the Earth, that the review will lead to a “national pollinator strategy”.

There is great concern across Europe about the collapse of bee populations and the European Commission wants to ban pesticides linked to bee deaths.

But the UK has opposed the move, saying that the science is inconclusive.

The review is expected to look at current policies, the evidence on what is happening to bees and other pollinating insects and what action charities and businesses are taking to help the insects.

The work will form the basis of a “national pollinator strategy”, which will bring together all the initiatives already under way and help develop new action.

‘Alien species’

Speaking in London, Lord de Mauley will say: “We must develop a better understanding of the factors that can harm these insects and the changes that government, other organisations and individuals can make to help.”

Defending the government’s position on Neonictinoid chemicals in pesticides, the minister will say bees would be vulnerable with or without restrictions on insecticides.

“I do not deny for a moment that it is important to regulate pesticides effectively and to avoid unnecessary pesticide use.”

But he will tell the conference: “Changes in land use, the type of crops grown, alien species, climate change – these all have an impact. The relative importance of these factors and their interactions is not well understood.”

Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins welcomed the review.

He said: “We all agree prompt measures are needed to tackle all the threats bees and other pollinators face, but an urgent and comprehensive route map and timetable are needed to ensure this happens.

“The minister’s plan of action must be in place when bees emerge from hibernation next spring – we can’t afford to gamble any longer with our food, countryside and economy.”

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.

 

Grim reality – flooding in England this Christmas …..

Heavy rain late on Monday has brought more flooding on Christmas Day as the bad weather continues to threaten homes, businesses, roads and railways. My thoughts are with my friends back in the UK! The Guardian reports

Rail bosses urged people not to travel in the south-west of England with the main rail route into Devon and Cornwall blocked until Friday at least by floodwaters from the River Exe between Tiverton and Exeter.

Emergency services also warned people not to walk or drive near floodwater. A disabled woman had to be rescued when her car stalled at Saul, near Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire, on Monday, while Devon and Cornwall police released video footage of a rescue of a woman at Umberleigh, near Barnstaple, Devon.

The woman had been swept away after calling 999 for help from a stranded 4×4 early on Sunday morning. The woman had to cling on to a tree branch until a helicopter crew found her by using a heat-seeking device. They then guided firefighters in a rigid inflatable boat to save her.

A man and his son were also rescued from the top of a 4×4 by a local farmer using a tractor.

Coastguards warned walkers to stay away from rivers and coastal paths which could be unstable and, on beaches, to keep their distance from cliffs. On the railways, a landslip at Teignmouth and flooding hit other services in the south-west with rail companies warning that replacement bus services may be limited and themselves affected by flooding of local roads. First Great Western was operating buses between Tiverton Parkway and Exeter St David’s stations while CrossCountry was stopping at Taunton for road transfers. Flooding also caused disruption in south Wales where buses had to replace trains between Bridgend and Barry.

Other delays, between Birmingham New Street and Rugby, and between Hove and Chichester in Sussex, were caused by people being hit by trains. Electrical supply problems affected services between Seaford and Newhaven, also in Sussex.

On Britain’s roads, spray was a problem for many drivers, while flooding closed the A27 eastbound near Chichester and an overturned lorry blocked the A30 eastbound between the turnings for Redruth and Truro. In the Scottish borders, three people died early on Monday in a crash that closed the A68 about 1.5 miles south of Pathhead, Midlothian. Three passengers in one car died, a man was cut free from the same overturned vehicle and the female driver got out before emergency services arrived. No one in a second car involved in the crash was hurt. Other accidents led to lane closures on the M6 in Cumbria and Staffordshire and the M54 in Staffordshire.

While people tried to clean up homes and businesses hit by the floods, some for the second time in months, 154 flood warnings and 258 flood alerts remained in place in England and Wales, mainly in the south and Midlands, with similar warnings still covering swaths of Scotland from the Borders to Aberdeenshire.

Nearly 250 properties including 30 businesses were flooded in Devon and Cornwall over the weekend but most people who were evacuated have now returned.

Although the rain is expected to ease on Christmas Day and into Boxing Day, with sunshine and showers on the two holiday days, the Met Officeand Environment Agency urged people to remain prepared for trouble.

Tim Hewson, Met Office chief forecaster, said: “Following a very wet and windy few days, we expect brighter skies for many on Christmas Day – although there will be some heavy showers around. We will continue to see spells of heavy rain through the rest of the week and this will fall onto already waterlogged ground in many areas, bringing the continuing risk of localised flooding. We will be monitoring the situation and keeping everyone up-to-date with the latest picture through our forecasts and warnings. By thinking ahead the public can be more weather aware and better prepared for severe weather.”

John Curtin, head of incident management at the Environment Agency, said: “Flooding is devastating at any time of year, but it is particularly hard at Christmas time, and our thoughts are with those who will be out of their homes over the festive period.

“Although the rain is set to ease a little in the coming days, the ground is still very wet and river levels remain high, so we would ask people to keep up to date with the latest warnings and stay prepared for flooding. We also remind people not to walk or drive through floodwater – which can be extremely dangerous.”

The unsettled weather looks set to continue throughout this week and into the weekend when strong to gale force southwesterly winds will bring spells of heavy rain across the UK at times, according to the Met Office.

It said the wettest place in the UK since rain started on Wednesday 19 December to 6am on Monday was Tyndrum in Perthshire, with 155mm (6.1in) of rain, while Cardinham, near Bodmin Cirnwall, was the wettest in England at 128.8mm (5.1in). Some areas have exceeded their full-month December average in those five days – such as Plymouth, which had seen 128.8mm (5.1in), compared with a 118.8m (4.7in) average.

Despite the troubles in the south-west and Wales, 91% of rail services were operating within 10 minutes of timetables for long-distance trains and five minutes for commuter trains, according to Network Rail. As for the problems in Devon, where the River Exe has burst its banks, a spokeswoman said “many dozens” of its staff and contractors were trying to keep water out of electrical circuits which would cause major problems if damaged.

‘UK lacks ambition to preserve seas’ – MCS

English: Beach and rocks west of Wembury The f...

English: Beach and rocks west of Wembury The foreshore, seen here from the coast path as it follows Wembury Footpath 16 along the top of the low cliff, is part of Wembury Marine Conservation Area http://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/index.php?reserveid=23§ion=places%3Areserves . On the left is 8689. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Marine Conservation Society Logo

English: Marine Conservation Society Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The Marine Conservation Society says the UK needs proper protection for its seas – now! I agree!

The government has been accused of a “lack of ambition” to preserve the seas, about plans for a series of protected marine areas.

A total of 127 potential marine conservation zones have been selected in a multimillion-pound programme involving wildlife groups, local coastal communities and marine industry representatives.

The areas would be protected from damaging activities such as fishingalong the seabed or dredging, with restrictions varying from zone to zone, as part of moves to create a coherent network of protected areas throughout England‘s seas.

Marine debris on a Hawaii beach.

Marine debris on a Hawaii beach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has raised concerns that the government will only designate 31 of the sites as protected by the end of next year, despite many more being severely threatened.

The charity said the government’s advisers backed 127 marine conservation zones to create a coherent network of sites to protect the sea’s habitats and wildlife and had said 59 sites were highly threatened and should be designated immediately.

The MCS wants the government to designate the 59 high-risk sites now, and all 127 by the end of 2014.

If ministers designate just 31 sites by the end of next year, they will have delayed the opportunity to create areas which will allow marine wildlife to thrive, the conservation group said.

Jean-Luc Solandt, senior biodiversity policy officer at MCS said: “Designating just 31 sites in 2013 shows a complete lack of ambition and no duty of care to the 59 sites that are at severe risk of damage, let alone the 127 sites that the government was advised would create a network of marine conservation sites.

“We cannot delay protection.

“We wouldn’t stand by and let wildflower meadows and ancient forests be dug up and cleared, and yet heavy fishing gear is dragged across all kinds of habitats, destroying large swaths of the seabed with very little control.”

The government is expected to unveil its plans, which will be put out for public consultation, for marine conservation zones on Thursday.

Decarbonisation target ‘could be postponed until next parliament’

English: Logo of the Committee on Climate Change

English: Logo of the Committee on Climate Change (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Senior source says difficult negotiations over plans to limit the carbon emissions of future power stations could delay decision . The Guardian reports

Plans to limit the carbon emissions of future power stations are on the brink of being delayed until next parliament, in what would be a blow to the climate and energy secretary, green campaigners and business chiefs.

 

Ministers have been wrangling over whether to include a 2030 “decarbonisation target” for the power sector in the energy bill, which is expected to be published in parliament within the next fortnight.

 

The Guardian understands a decision on such a target now risks being delayed until after the next general election. A senior source close to the talks said: “It’s been a very difficult negotiation, there has been talk of postponing the setting of a target until next parliament. But if we are to address investor concerns, it has to be addressed this parliament.”

 

However, the source added that the talks were still ongoing and “it is still possible that there could be agreement on a target to be set this parliament, and that will come down to how hard they want to negotiate on the Liberal Democrat side.”

 

A spokeswoman for the climate and energy secretary, Ed Davey, denied the target had been dropped or delayed. “We’ve not actually reached an agreement in government on the various energy negotiations we’ve been having,” she told the Guardian.

 

The splits between the coalition on energy are reportedly so unresolved they were left off the agenda at the “quad” meeting on Thursday of the four most senior figures – David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander.

 

Dropping or delaying the target would clear the way for the “dash for gas” backed by the chancellor, and mark a defeat for Davey and theLiberal Democrats, who backed a motion in favour of a decarbonisation target at their conference.

 

Business leaders have also warned over the past few weeks that failure to include the target would harm low carbon investment in the UK.

 

Last week, the heads of Unilever, Doosan Power Systems, Anglian Water, Philips Electronics UK, B&Q owner Kingfisher, EDF Energy, Johnson Matthey and Heathrow airport wrote to the prime minister saying the target would be a “useful step to help deliver the required certainty” for investment. It followed a similar earlier letter signed by an unusual coalition of the trade bodies representing the renewable energy, nuclear power and carbon capture industries.

 

The decarbonisation target was recommended by the government’s climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, who said electricity in 2030 be produced at no more than 50g of CO2/kW by 2030. Gas power stations emit around 350g of CO2/kW, and would therefore only be allowed if their emissions were captured and stored, or they were only used as backup power for renewable energy sources.

 

Others in favour of the target include the energy and climate change committee of MPs chaired by Tory MP Tim Yeo, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, who backed the idea in September.

 

Greenpeace UK executive director, John Sauven, said: “If the coalition government kicks this decision into the long grass it will throw into doubt investment in Britain’s energy future for years to come. International businesses are itching to invest in a UK clean energy sector that could be leading the world, but they need certainty. New factories and thousands of jobs are at stake here. We know the chancellor is the big roadblock to green growth, but unless the Liberal Democrats stand up to him they’ll also be responsible for years of lost investment.”

 

Friends of the Earth’s executive director, Andy Atkins, said: “It would be scandalous if Ed Davey threw in the towel over energy decarbonisation – he mustn’t do George Osborne’s dirty work. Delaying decarbonisation targets until after the next election is like an alcoholic pledging to give up drinking – but not today. We need urgent action now to end our economy’s addiction to dirty and increasingly expensive fossil fuels. If the Liberal Democrats fail to keep their promise to include power sector decarbonisation in the energy bill their credibility will be in tatters. MPs from all parties must fight hard to ensure the energy bill has a clear plan for meeting UK climate targets.”

Ethical living: could felled ash trees be a source of green power?

Ash tree canker, Lawthorn Wood, North Ayrshire...

Ash tree canker, Lawthorn Wood, North Ayrshire, Scotland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can’t the environmental disaster of diseased ash trees be turned into clean power? Across the country the trees could be felled and burned to be used as a free source of zero-carbon power? The Guardian reports

This carbon cycle diagram shows the storage an...

This carbon cycle diagram shows the storage and annual exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere in gigatons – or billions of tons – of Carbon (GtC). Burning fossil fuels by people adds about 5.5 GtC of carbon per year into the atmosphere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your ecological multitasking is impressive. Given that the UK has 80m ash trees, turning the tragic infestation of the Chalara fraxinea virus into zero-carbon biopower could keep a couple of biopower stations in business for some time. Despite the fact that Swedish researchers argue the trees should be allowed to develop resistance to this latest invasive pest, the Forestry Commission‘s principal pathologist is in favour of culling diseased trees by burning them, so your practical solution would provide some clarity and purpose.

But not so fast, because first we must consider the idea that burning trees is somehow carbon neutral. Indeed this is a concept that has made biogenic power (biopower) the hottest thing since, well, fire. Trees grow, extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and making them spectacular carbon sinks. The idea beloved by biopower prospectors is that when you cut the trees down and burn them you neutralise the carbon released by this process by replanting the trees. It’s the type of carbon cycle that means biopower plants burning wood can attract renewable energy subsidies.

Except it transpires that burning trees is hardly a quick fix. For starters, research shows that since newly cut wood is almost half water by weight, burning it emits 40% more carbon pollution than burning coal to produce an equivalent amount of energy.

Meanwhile new trees are not a carbon fix either. It will take a tree at least 10 years to be an effective carbon sink. Indeed, a US study by the National Resources Defence Council, Forests or Fuel, charts an acre managed for biofuel and shows that this land needs a quarter of a century to regrow to its full carbon density. That’s some heavy carbon accounting that must be carried across decades.

In the interim the biogenic emissions from burning have been kicked out into the atmosphere and the carbon sink that once dealt with emissions has been lost – it’s an ecological double whammy.

The loss of some ash trees now seems inevitable – pathogens permitting, I agree it would make sense to derive some benefit by burning these for fuel. But as for creating a dash for ash in the name of a sustainable fuel source? Let’s not go there.

Green crush of the week

In an old airfield at Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, community shares in a solar farm have sold out in just six weeks. According to the 1,650 investors,Westmill is the world’s largest co-operatively owned solar farm and can generate enough power to keep 1,500 homes in electricity. Power to the people.

WILDLIFE UPDATE : Invasive species changing the nature of UK cities

THE UK has Himalayan Balsan, New Zealand has rabbits, Australia has toads – all invaders because live where they do not belong… But whose fault it is? What do we do, now? Henricus Peters   

Previously unseen wildlife is colonising British cities but local authorities are concerned by the increase. The Guardian reports

First came the urban fox, then flocks of colourful tropical parakeets. But now deer, woodpeckers, hedgehogs, jackdaws, birds of prey and exotic spiders, fish and insects are colonising British cities, say wildlife experts.

Previously unseen muntjac, roe and fallow deer now boldly enter inner-city areas such as Finsbury Park in north London and have been seen in cemeteries, gardens and golf courses on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bristol, Guildford and Newcastle, says the London Wildlife Trust’s deputy director, Mathew Frith.

He gave a warning that people could soon expect to see wild boar in suburban streets and gardens: “It will not be too long before they impact on our urban areas. They have no natural predators, it is complicated to hunt them, and their numbers are increasing. We can expect them soon.”

Birds of prey, once common in cities, have this year returned in numbers. Red kites, extinct in England and Scotland by the 1800s and down to just a few pairs 20 years ago, are now not just seen flying over London and other cities, but have been found feeding in gardens in places such as Reading, Frith says.

In a remarkable turnaround from the polluted wildlife deserts of the 1970s, inner-city parks and private gardens are now attracting creatures once practically extinct in urban areas and providing habitats for wildlife seldom seen before in Britain.

The invaders, which are mostly welcomed by ecologists but worry local authorities as their numbers increase, are becoming bolder every year as they fill ecological niches.

Jackdaws have been found raiding pigeons’ nests on the British Museum and the National Gallery, and peregrine falcons, which were almost exterminated by the use of pesticides after the second world war, have taken to nesting in the Houses of Parliament, Tate Modern and the O2 arena, as well as on tower blocks and housing estates.

“They used to be persecuted, but now they are returning,” says Frith. “Twelve years ago there were no breeding pairs at all. But now we have eight to 10 pairs in London.”

Smaller animals and birds once rare in cities are also thriving, says ecologist Tony Canning, who works at the Camley Gardens nature reserve near King’s Cross in north London. He attributes some of the increase in urban wildlife to a declining use of pesticides by gardeners. “Sales shot up in the 1980s gardening boom, but people don’t use so much now,” he says.

Increasingly urbanised landscapes are thought to be of mixed value for birds, with species such as pigeons and chaffinches able to survive in these environments, while others, such as the swift, starling and song thrush, are in decline.

One of the most successful urban birds may be the tropical ring-necked parakeet, which colonised Esher in Surrey years ago and is becoming widespread in urban areas in the Midlands. “We now have great spotted woodpeckers right in the centre of cities. I saw one flying over London Bridge last week,” says Frith.

Exotic animals have often been brought to London and to British port cities on boats, but they seldom breed. But no one can explain how a self-sustaining colony of non-venomous metre-long Aesculapian snakes has come to live near the canal in Regent’s Park. They normally eat birds and eggs, but appear to be feeding on rodents.

Hundreds of terrapins, which can live for up to 60 years, are known to inhabit British cities following the craze over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show in the 1990s. This year a mink was spotted in an artificial lake in Thamesmead, one of London’s most deprived communities. “What we are seeing especially is new insects. The red-eyed damselfly was virtually unknown a few years ago. Now it’s in central London. Wasp spiders are spreading everywhere,” says Canning.

Milder winters are thought to have extended the range of insects and spiders to London and southern England cities. Jersey moths and exotic, brightly coloured wasp spiders, almost unheard of a few years ago, have spread from the continent, and red-eyed damselflies, first spotted in Britain in 1999, are now common on London’s waterways.

In August a rarely seen long-tailed blue butterfly was found trying to establish a breeding territory in East India Dock. It is possible that it came off a boat, but just as likely that warmer winters have made it possible for it to survive.

Ecologists cannot say if the present boom in wildlife is because species are being driven out of the countryside or because cities are becoming more attractive. “We have lost some urban habitats, like old industrial sites, and a lot of front gardens have been concreted over,” says Canning. “But a huge amount of conservation work has been done in nature reserves in the past 20 years.”

Equally, thousands of ponds in the countryside have been filled, but frogs and newts now find it easier to live in cities because pesticides are used less.

The work of local authorities may also be encouraging wildlife. Tens of thousands of street and park trees were planted in the 1950s and 1960s in British cities and many of these are nearing maturity, offering new habitats for many types of birds such as magpies, which only nest above 25ft.

But not all new urban wildlife in urban areas is welcome. Last week scientists from Queen Mary College, University of London, said that almost 100 freshwater species not native to the UK have invaded the river Thames catchment area, costing hundreds of millions of pounds to eradicate. They include Chinese mitten crabs, zebra mussels, Asiatic clams and other species which can rapidly multiply and take over the habitats of native wildlife and infest waterways.

The recolonisation of British cities parallels what is happening elsewhere in Europe and also the US. Wolves have been found within 25 miles of Rome, and wild boars are now so common in Berlin that the city authorities have issued hunting licences.

American scientists warned last week that wolves, mountain lions and wild dogs could soon be a common sight in densely populated cities. “Raccoons, skunks, foxes – they’ve already been able to penetrate the urban landscape pretty well. The coyote is the most recent and largest. The jury’s out with what’s going to happen with the bigger ones,” said Dr Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University, who has been tracking the wild dogs.

“It used to be rural areas where we would have this challenge of coexistence versus conflict with carnivores. In the future, and I would say currently, it’s cities where we’re going to have this intersection between people and carnivores. Overall, I think it is amazing what is happening. If we give a bit of room here and there, nature does its own thing. We are finding many animals are surprisingly tolerant of what humans do.”