November, 2009

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Saving special places

Protecting our best wildlife sites from damage is big part of the RSPB's work - read about our work from the people on the front line
  • All at sea

    This blog does get its feet wet occasionally and we have visited a number of coastal sites – but we haven’t ventured too far off shore.  One (rather bad) reason is that there’s only one Special Protection Area (SPA) designated out there, in the sea and that’s Carmarthen Bay.  Given just how important the UK is for seabirds and just how critical our marine areas are in ensuring they have somewhere to feed you might have expected that there were more than that.

    Well there should be – and when you consider the UK has managed to designate just one in the 30 years since the Birds Directive came into law a sense of urgency would be good.

    So lets welcome the news that numbers 2 and 3 are in the pipeline for designation, along with 10 sites qualifying for designation as Special Areas for Conservation (SACs) under the Habitats Directive.  Together these 12 sites add to the Natura 2000 network of protected sites across the European Union.

    Hoorah.

    But you can spot the ‘but’ coming can’t you?

    We do genuinely welcome today’s announcement of formal consultation on two new SPAs and 10 new SACs.  The two proposed SPAs are in Liverpool Bay and the Outer Thames.  Liverpool Bay is being proposed because of its important wintering numbers of red-throated divers and common scoters and the Outer Thames for its wintering red-throated divers – you can find out more here.

    But it's what is not included that gives us serious cause for concern.  These areas are absolutely the right ones to designate but its crucial to ensure that they a based upon a full assessment of the birds they are important for – otherwise it’s a bit like insuring the house but leaving out the valuables.  In addition to the divers and common scoter, Liverpool Bay supports internationally important numbers of terns both on passage and during the breeding season.  The internationally important numbers of little gulls on passage are a real feature of Liverpool Bay but they don’t feature in the designation.  Similarly, in the Outer Thames, the criteria for designation have been pared to the bone.

    So if the site has a justifiable boundary and it's going to get designated – what’s the problem? And at one level, getting the designation in place is a huge step forward.

    Designations are there to help frame and influence wise decision-making.  If major reasons for a site’s importance are not included then the ability make the right decisions is impaired.  Different species need different food at different times and are sensitive to different things – starting with the right baselines is critical.  If its not on your policy your insurance company is less likely to pay up, to stretch that analogy a little further.

    The consultation starts today – and here’s where you can take part.

  • Groundhog Day on the Mersey?

    Lets hope it’s going to be different this time around.

    You may remember the film when Bill Murray repeats the same day over and over again – well nature conservation can feel like a bit like that.   A couple of days ago I joined some colleagues to discuss emerging plans to harness tidal energy from the river Mersey.

    I’d been here before.

    Two decades ago my life was taken over by proposals to build a tidal power generating barrage across the Mersey.  The RSPB was profoundly concerned that if the project went ahead, the natural environment of the Mersey estuary would be seriously damaged. We had an uphill struggle even to get recognition that the Mersey had a natural environment worth saving!  It’s well deserved reputation as the most polluted river in Europe, cast a long and dark shadow. 

    But by then the river and estuary were already recovering, driven by initiatives such as the Mersey Basin Campaign.  The international importance of the estuary for bird conservation was becoming better known and, crucially, was accepted and understood by the Mersey Barrage Company set up to deliver the project.  

    The studies built a better understanding of the way the barrage would affect the estuary.  Indeed, they were critical in the decision to halt the proposal as the predictions revealed risks of ever greater impact and increasing costs. 

    Yesterday the developers, Peel Holdings, unveiled a range of options to harness tidal power from the Mersey that they are considering as part of their Power form the Mersey project.  The RSPB attended the meeting and we have broadly welcomed this approach.  But there is a but – and I’ll come to that later.

    So what’s changed?

    Then, concerns about the impact of climate change were not so sharp – it was most certainly an issue even ‘way back then’ – the risk of sea level rise swamping coastal habitats was fully recognised.  The trouble with the big bad barrage was that the impoundment of the tide would have led to the loss of the very same habitat. 

    Now the contribution of tidal power will be critical if we are to tackle the pressing climate crisis. Now there is a far greater range of options available and a potentially exciting drive to bring forward technologies that will harness the tide for energy generation and which can be deployed in ways that minimise their impact on the natural environment.

    But (and there’s often a but) the option of a big impoundment barrage is on the table again – at this long-listing stage there is a real need to accentuate the positive and the priority now is to ensure that the Power from the Mersey project backs the best technologies.

    The RSPB does believe there is scope to harness energy from the Mersey but the environment of this special place will need to be given the priority it deserves to ensure the right options will go forward.

    So, is the RSPB going soft on barrages?  No – the more that is understood about their profound and long term impacts the more support cools.  This happened 20 years ago on the Mersey and the signs are that its happening on the Severn at the moment.  The challenge for all is not to be beguiled by the size and scale of projects that aim to maximise energy output but to get behind innovation and those proposals that seek to deliver energy while respecting the environmental limits of our fabulous estuaries.

    At a personal level – it will also help in meetings where colleagues score me on how many times I refer to the old days (19 at the meeting the other day, apparently!).

  • Naturally Inspired

    We’ve been running a photographic competition in Northern Ireland. The winning images have just been announced.  You can have a peep here (follow the link at the bottom of the page). And here's some press coverage.

    The competition was called ‘Nature’s Hotspots’ and its theme was celebrating the importance of Northern Ireland’s Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs). If you are a regular reader, you will have seen ‘SSSIs’ mentioned on numerous occasions – the two terms mean the same thing and both are part of the clunky vocabulary of nature conservation which wasn’t really designed to set the pulse racing!

    Whether it’s a ‘site’ or an ‘area’ to many people the most important word is ‘special’. The response to our competition clearly inspired many to capture an image that showed just why these places have the power to inspire.

    The results of the competition were announced at an event in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont.  This celebration of the beauty of the best of Northern Ireland’s wildlife provided an opportunity for the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, to acknowledge that more needs to be done to complete the network of ASSIs boosting the 288 that have so far been designated to 440 by 2016.

    Designation is, of course, just the first step to ensuring that the inspiration these special places give to us now is sustained.  The competition’s overall winner, Dr Domhnall Brannigan, now lives in Sydney and has spoken of how much he misses the landscapes of his childhood – but with effective protection they will endure and the fond remembered places will continue to inspire new generations.