October, 2009

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Saving special places

Saving nature’s home is a big part of our work. Read the stories from the people on the front line of saving the best places that wildlife need to survive.
  • A new way for the Via Baltica

    Lynx photo by Niall BenvieOver the last five years we have been working hard to support our Polish Partner OTOP (BirdLife in Poland) with their Via Baltica campaign. Key Natura 2000 sites in north-east Poland are under threat from a series of road projects on this international road corridor, which will link Helsinki to Warsaw via Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The corridor upgrade is taking place as a series of separate projects rather than being planned in a strategic way.

    But today there is good news. The Polish Council of Ministers has taken a strategic decision on a new route for the Via Baltica expressway based on the recommendations made by experts and the findings of a Strategic Environmental Assessment. This new route will avoid damaging three Natura 2000 sites: the Biebrza Marshes, and the Knyszyn and Augustow Primeval Forests.

    The decision is a major step forward for the conservation of Poland’s unique nature and represents a significant move in the right direction towards the proper implementation of Polish and European environmental legislation.

    But our work is not over – unfortunately this decision does not automatically halt the current road construction inside Kynszyn Forest or other environmentally harmful road projects planned on the old route.

    The wildlife of this region is particularly varied with lynx, wolf, beaver, crane and elk having key populations here. Added to this, the aquatic warbler and greater spotted eagle are two birds at risk of global extinction which have their greatest populations within the European Union in this landscape of forests, valleys and marshes.

    What needs to happen next? The Polish authorities must implement their decision by ensuring that the Via Baltica is constructed on the new route and must stop the current piece-meal upgrades. With the new route for the Via Baltica corridor settled there is no need to continue with these large scale projects on the old route which will needlessly damage Natura 2000 sites.

    Read more about the Via Baltica on our Saving Special Places page

  • Whitson SSSI public inquiry - the first two days.

    Here’s the first update from the Public Inquiry currently underway in Newport.

    If you want to catch up with the story so far – you can read the first post.  In short, this Public Inquiry is now looking at an appeal into refusal of a retrospective planning application for development of an aerodrome which could affect the Newport Wetlands and nearby Severn Estuary through disturbance.

    So, the Inquiry finally got underway with ecological evidence from the appellant’s expert witness that flights from the airfield have not had an impact on the birds of the Newport Wetlands and the Severn estuary.  On cross-examination, two key issues came out.  He acknowledged the potential for aircraft to cause disturbance to birds, stating that without conditions, there is the potential for increasing use of the airfield to cause disturbance to birds.  In addition he admitted that he had not personally seen aircraft from the disputed airfield over-flying the key sites (which they currently can, and on occasion, do) and the levels of disturbance that this causes.

    Day one ended with Newport City Council building a case that that the appellant had failed to show that the development would not have a ‘likely significant effect’ on the important bird populations nearby.  The term ‘likely significant effect’ is one of those critical terms that influence how planning matters affecting our most important wildlife sites (such as the Severn Special Protection Area) will go.  If you can’t show that your proposal (or in this case your already built aerodrome) won’t have a likely significant effect, then this has specific consequences under the terms of the Nature Directives.  In particular, whether there is a need to carry out an Appropriate Assessment, which is an analysis that will determine whether a plan or project will have an adverse effect.

    The second day featured the appellant’s planning consultant, agreeing (under cross-examination) that an Appropriate Assessment was necessary.  This helpful acknowledgement moved the focus of the Inquiry onto the conditions that would need to apply to the operation of the airfield to avoid the risk to birds – and whether these were adequate or enforceable.

    With the RSPB’s expert witness about to take the stand the Inquiry was left with the question that the appellants’ suggested conditions might not provide enough certainty to ensure that there would be no adverse effect on the SPA.

    Step forward Dr Tony Prater.  Tony has worked for the RSPB for 30 years and prior to that established the Birds of Estuaries Inquiry that was set up in response to, amongst other things, the proposed third London Airport on Maplin Sands in the Thames.  He is a leading authority on waterfowl and wetland conservation and played a key role in developing the Newport Wetlands reserve.

    His evidence built the case that you could not safely say that there would be no adverse effect based on the inadequate data provided by the appellant. While conditions on the use of the airfield could ensure that the adverse effect is avoided, how enforceable and how reliable they are remains a key question for the Inquiry. 

    To be continued …


  • Thames Estuary Airport, no thanks.

    It’s forty years since proposals to create London’s (then) third airport in the Thames stimulated the conservation movement to get its act together and start to gather the data that has become the bedrock of campaigns to protect some of our best places for wildlife from damage.  The Birds of Estuaries Inquiry became part of today's Wetland Bird Survey

    Then it was a site off the Essex coast at Maplin Sands.  Forty years on and the engineer’s plans and schematics are sketching another Thames airport, further out but potentially home to six runways and associated infrastructure pushing fingers of development into the coast’s of both Essex and Kent.

    This is the so called ‘Boris Island’ – the proposals driven by the Mayor of London have spawned much ridicule but continue to attract the attention of serious-minded people.  It is too easy to dismiss such an initiative as outlandish and fanciful, too easy to lampoon it as yet another opportunity for trough-snouted consultants to spend years revising the costs, impacts and uncertainties upwards to a point where the project collapses under the weight of its sheer unsustainability.

    In many ways, this proposal takes the Greater Thames back to an earlier era of unnecessary conflict.  In recent years, there has been a welcome and refreshing culture of working with the grain of nature.  The London Array, the London Gateway port, the Thames Gateway with its innovative Parkland programme are just some examples. 

    We at the RSPB are proud of our massive contribution to delivering a pathway to a sustainable Thames and proud of our projects on the coasts of Kent and Essex.  Central to all of this has been a clear recognition of the importance of the Thames, its internationally important wildlife and the clear legal protection that comes form the European Birds and Habitats Directives, you can read about some of work here.

    The feasibility study eventually stumbled into the public gaze yesterday, but its ‘Can we build it? Yes we can!’ message had been well trailed.  We will respond, and we will respond in detail.  That it can be built is not and never has been the issue, critically is it the right thing to do?  The wrecks of airport proposals are scattered around the Thames, repeatedly this special place has been rejected as a site for an airport.  We will vigorously oppose this latest airport concept. 

    The last airport proposal was at Cliffe in North Kent, it was only 7 years ago and the memories are fresh in the communities that would have been affected – the opposition to this concept is considerable and will grow as the full implications of the scheme become apparent, that is a strong reason for hope.

    The timing of this proposal, as Government’s focus on Copenhagen, is at best unfortunate.  The Thames is the wrong place, but as we all grapple with the challenge of climate change this is most assuredly the wrong time to be proposing a six runway airport.