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.
from The Independent: Thousands of seabirds may have been harmed by a pollutant in the waters off the south coast of the UK, conservationists warned on Friday.
Tests by the Environment Agency have established that the problem has been caused by some sort of refined mineral oil, not palm oil as had been suspected.
Hundreds of birds have been found coated in the substance. Some have died and washed up on beaches from Hampshire to Cornwall, while others have been rescued and are being cleaned up. The bird charity the RSPB has branded the incident a “disaster” and some experts fear thousands of birds could be suffering out at sea.
The problem was first noticed on Tuesday, when a few birds were found coated in a sticky white substance. By Thursday the numbers coming ashore, often with their wings pinned to their sides by the substance, had increased substantially.
About 100 birds were found on Chesil beach in Dorset, 60 a little further west at Brixham and many other individual birds and smaller groups elsewhere along the coast. Fears grew on Friday morning when 20 birds were found dead on Chesil Beach and another 10 later at Bournemouth.Many more birds were reported to have been in distress out to sea.
Most of the birds affected are guillemots, which spend most of their life out at sea, making them vulnerable to oil spills.
Some rescued guillemots are in breeding plumage, which suggests they are residents of the south-west. Others are in winter plumage, meaning they are from further north, probably Scotland and Norway.
A spokeswoman for the RSPB said staff and volunteers were making spot checks around the south-west coastline. She said: “The information gathered will help us assess the scale of any impacts and inform discussion on whether to undertake an emergency beached bird survey.”
She described Lyme Bay as “internationally important for seabirds”, adding: “Currently we know the area is being used for 25,000 guillemots, although we don’t know how many will be affected by this disaster. The area is also used by rare seabirds, including scoter, divers and grebes. Impacts on these species could have higher conservation significance.”
Many of the surviving birds are being treated at the RSPCA’s West Hatch centre, where there are more than 200 birds. Supervisor Paul Oaten has been cleaning them in the centre’s dedicated cleaning room using vegetable oil and margarine, followed by detergent.
“The birds that have been deemed fit enough and bright enough to wash have had margarine massaged into the areas of feathering where this very sticky contaminant is,” he said. “We’ve left that for half an hour, maybe a little bit more, to break down the contaminant and now what we are doing is putting them through our usual wash process with washing detergent.”
He said many more birds would be affected out at sea. “There will be thousands affected in the Channel. We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg. There are lot more out at sea that are dead or coming ashore. It can affect thousands and thousands of birds depending on the number of birds passing through and the size of the slick out there.”
Kevin Rylands, an RSPB conservation officer who spent Friday in Devon, said that when the cargo ship MSC Napoli beached in 2007 it was several days before it became clear how many birds had been affected. Some were eventually found not just on British beaches but on French ones.
On Friday Stan Woznicki, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency‘s head of counter-pollution, said: “Initial analysis indicates that the contaminant is a refined mineral oil and further analysis results are awaited.”
Simon Boxall, associate lecturer at the school of ocean and earth science at the University of Southampton, said such a substance could have come from a ship’s engine but the apparent range of the problem suggested it might have come from a cargo that had been accidentally spilled or deliberately discharged.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has had a spotter plane up looking for a slick but found nothing so far.
Tim Birkhead, who has studied the guillemots on the Welsh island of Skomer for the past 40 years, said: “My first thought on hearing the news about this incident was that this will have affected some Skomer guillemots – including some of my ringed birds that I’ve known for many years.
“The priority is to find a way of cleaning the birds’ plumage. The other priority is to find out who is responsible. For those suffering from this unknown pollutant, what an ignominious end for a long-lived seabird.”
- Thousands of seabirds may be harmed by oil off UK coast (guardian.co.uk)
- British seabirds fall victim to mystery goo (guardian.co.uk)
- Seabird ‘pollution’ incident probed (express.co.uk)
- South coast seabirds in a sticky ordeal: Hundreds wash up on coast covered in … – Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk)
- Mystery deepens as increasing numbers of stricken birds wash up on Dorset coast (independent.co.uk)
- Seabird ‘Pollution’ Substance May Be Palm Oil (news.sky.com)
- Rescue for birds covered in ‘wax’ (bbc.co.uk)
The Daily Mail reports
- More than 100 distressed birds, mostly guillemots, were discovered
- Volunteers try to wash glue-like substance off the birds, which have been ‘paralysed’ by the waxy substance
- There are fears hundreds more could be affected in the next few days
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2271691/South-coast-seabirds-sticky-ordeal-Hundreds-wash-coast-covered-palm-oil-fell-passing-ship.html#ixzz2JocYyVUx
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- Seabirds wash up on English coast covered in sticky substance (sott.net)
- UK News: Probe no closer to identifying ‘sticky substance’ covering hundreds of seabirds on the south coast (birminghampost.net)
- UK News: Probe no closer to identifying ‘sticky substance’ covering hundreds of seabirds on the south coast (walesonline.co.uk)
- National News: Probe no closer to identifying ‘sticky substance’ covering hundreds of seabirds on the south coast (coventrytelegraph.net)
- Mystery substance covers hundreds of washed-up seabirds (independent.co.uk)
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.
- You: Heavy rain threatens Christmas Day flooding (guardian.co.uk)
- Rain and floods cause travel misery (standard.co.uk)
- Christmas washout fears heighten as flood risk rises with new downpours (metro.co.uk)
- More flood misery for thousands of people over the festive period Swathes of South-west cut off after worst seasonal weather in living memory (Independent) (independent.co.uk)
- Flood chaos following heavy rain (bbc.co.uk)
- Heavy rain threatens Christmas Day flooding (oddonion.com)
Will the Government ever learn NOT to meddle with something when it’s working?? Some of Britain’s most precious landscapes are in danger of being built on under the Government’s latest plans to weaken protection of the countryside by scrapping environment quangos. From The Guardian
The Wildlife Trusts fear this will lead to a cut in staff and budgets, threatening key programmes to protect rare species.
Even more seriously, the review suggests that Natural England should “support and contribute to the Government‘s aims and priorities as effectively as possible”.
But legal advice commissioned by the RSPB points out that this clashes with NE’s original purpose, that is “to ensure that the natural environment is conserved.”
Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said the review threatened the independence of NE and therefore its ability to stand up to the Government on controversial planning decisions.
“Natural England is one of the most important defenders our wildlife has in this country.
“It is critically important that it is free to provide impartial and scientific advice on matters within its expertise. If it is expected to factor in economic considerations before giving ecological advice, there is a serious danger that this will lead to ill-informed decisions and a failure to safeguard our most important sites for wildlife.”
In a foreword to the reveiw, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, described the work of his department as: “growing our economy, improving the environment and safeguarding animal and plant health.”
Earlier in the year the Government attempted to make economic development more of a priority in planning.
Mary Creagh, Shadow Environment Secretary, said the review is just the latest attempt to allow development in the countryside.
“Merging the Environment Agency with Natural England, when both are sacking large numbers of staff to deliver government cuts, will leave strategic weaknesses in our environmental management, as ash dieback has shown. Whether it is planning reforms, or cuts to flood defences and National Parks, this weak and incompetent Tory-led government has failed every environmental test.”
It is also in charge of thousands of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), where many endangered species survive, in areas including Richmond Park, the New Forest and the Peak District.
Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscapes at The Wildlife Trusts, said Natural England is already struggling to maintain SSSIs.
He feared that merging the body with EA would mean years of concentrating on administration rather than conservation, leaving wildlife at risk of dying out.
“There is a huge risk that if you do collide those organisations together at this point you lose good staff and expertise, you slow things down and you look inwards rather than outwards.
“Millions of people across country want the protection and restoration of wildlife. They do not want the continual demise and erosion of natural assets.”
The Wildlife Trusts are also concerned that the Government is failing to protect the oceans.
Following an £8.8 million two-and-a-half year discussions, 127 sites around the coast were recommended to be made Marine Conservation Zones in 2011.
Some 59 of the sites are in danger from human activity, such as dredging, and all contain rare sea creatures like dolphins and seahorses.
But it is believed the Government will suggest just 31 MCZs should be created next year in a consultation to be launched today (Thurs).