February, 2010

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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.
  • Severn barrage - the end of the affair?

    I’m just back from a briefing we organised in London.  The audience got to hear the details behind this story.  We’ve had a bit of a blog-fest on this topic today so you can read more by visiting Mark Avery’s blog and our News blog.

    The pursuit of tidal power by the construction of massive barrages has occupied a lot of work by the RSPB over the last 30 years – for four years I was deeply involved in the process of scrutinising the potential for a Mersey barrage in the early 1990s. Today we learned a lot about the potential environmental impacts and massive ongoing costs generated by building a storm surge barrier across the Oosterscheldte in Holland (and here’s a map to show you it’s location).

    The Dutch had few options given the hard-learned lessons of the devastating coastal floods of 1953.  As a storm surge barrier – it has been successful but at a cost.  A cost that is being measured in coastal erosion, increased flood risk (though not from storms) and environmental damage.  The barrier has created a sand hunger as the river and it’s estuary fight to achieve a new equilibrium.

    And this is the lesson for the UK – this will be the consequence of barraging the Severn (and beyond that the Mersey, Solway, Wash and Thames) - the ravenous sand hunger will be the same.  These are impacts and costs we can avoid – we have the choice.

    The search for sustainable tidal energy has been deeply skewed by the focus on the big-kit barrages that are at the most devastating end of the spectrum of impacts on our natural environment.  The lessons from the Dutch experience have been known to Government for a couple of years – and we urge the Government to publish the critically important, and delayed, studies into the impact on the tides and sediments of the Severn barrage. 


  • It’s World Wetlands Day, hooray!


    World Wetlands day falls today, Candlemas – 2 February.  A day marked in Mediaeval weather-lore ‘If Candlemas Day be fair and clear, there’ll be five winters in the year’.  Let’s hope not!

    February fill-dyke, the month of snow-melt, is an appropriate time to celebrate wetlands – but the reason for the date has nothing to do with our ancestors marking the passage of time.  Today is the anniversary of the signing, in 1971, of the Convention on Wetlands in the Iranian town of Ramsar on the coast of the Caspian sea.

    Known, for short, as the Ramsar Convention it has led to nearly four decades of having to say ‘Ramsar isn’t an acronym it’s a town in Iran’.  But more seriously, the signing of this convention was a critical moment in the history of nature conservation.  The convention’s mission is: ‘the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world’ and you can find out more about it here.

    The theme for World Wetlands Day 2010 is ‘Caring for Wetlands: An Answer to Climate Change’.  World Wetlands Day falls between the international junkets of Copenhagen last year, where the focus was tackling the climate crisis, and Nagoya in Japan in October 2010 where Governments will gather to tackle the biodiversity crisis.  A good time, then, to highlight the critical role of wetlands in both agendas.

    The cornerstone of the Ramsar Convention is the list of wetlands of International Importance.  The designation of these special wetlands is a significant and powerful mechanism for their protection both for their intrinsic value and as functioning ecosystems that can support sustainable human use.

    The RSPB is supporting our BirdLife International Partners in East Africa who are facing daunting threats to some of the most iconic wetlands in the world.

    Let’s start at Tanzania’s Lake Natron

    For the last three years our BirdLife International Partner in Tanzania, the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST), has been battling to protect Lake Natron which is where half a million pairs of lesser flamingo (pictured - image by James Warwick) nest.  The threat comes from proposals to extract soda ash from the lake, which we believe could lead to severe impacts on the flamingos.  To underline the vital role this Ramsar-designated wetland plays – it supports three quarters of the world’s population of lesser flamingos.

    The Ramsar Convention sent a Mission to Tanzania in 2008 to advise the government on the long-term management of the Lake – this was prompted by the soda ash threat.  Based on the Mission’s advice, in May 2008 the Tanzanian Environment Minister announced that an Integrated Management Plan for Lake Natron Basin Ramsar site would be developed before any developments were allowed to proceed, and the developer withdrew its original proposal.

    This demonstrates very clearly the role of Ramsar in caring for internationally important wetlands. And one of my colleagues, Sarah Sanders – RSPB’s Global Country Programmes Manager – is near Lake Natron today! Highlighting the importance of the site, the wildlife division of the Tanzanian Government are hosting a meeting to develop an Action Plan for the Conservation of the lesser flamingo.

    Thirty representatives from Government and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have gathered including Lota Melamari, Director of WCST. He is hoping the meeting will ‘establish national priorities and synchronise conservation actions so that the future of Lake Natron is secured. Long live the flamingos of Natron!’

    In Kenya, they have been building up activities across the country for the past week, which will culminate with the Minister of Environment visiting Lake Naivasha, the focus of this year’s World Wetland Day - and you can find out more on NatureKenya's website.

    Naivasha – a Maasai word meaning rough water, describing the sudden storms that break over the lake. Renowned for its birds and an icon of wildlife film makers, it is a wetland in crisis.

    Kenya’s Lake Naivasha is already listed as a Ramsar site but needs help if it is to have a future.  Right now, the site has little hope as the human demand (including industrial flower growers) is taking out more water than nature can put in and excessive nutrients are polluting the water. 

    Urgent action is needed to encourage stakeholders to conserve the lake, which is in the best interests of horticulture and tourism as well as nature conservation.  Sarah Sanders attended a meeting last weekend organised by a consortium of European supermarkets to discuss sustainable flower production. Her view? ‘Most growers at Naivasha want to do the right thing - we in the UK could really help by asking supermarkets where flowers come from and if environmental standards are met’.

    Kenya’s Tana River Delta

    The Tana River Delta is one of the most important wetlands in Africa. It’s a vital refuge for over 350 species of birds, including 22 wetland birds found in internationally important numbers; Globally Threatened birds such as the Endangered Basra reed warbler, for which the delta is a critical wintering site; and two threatened primates found nowhere else in the world – Tana red colobus and Tana River mangabey.

    The heart of the Delta area covers 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) and is a rich mix of habitats supporting not only thousands of wetland birds, but also hippos, lions, elephants, buffaloes crocodiles, rare amphibians and breeding fish and other marine life.

    Longstanding environmental degradation and poor strategic management seriously threaten the Tana River Delta. More recently, interest in pursuing large-scale irrigated agriculture has increased with a number of schemes coming forward. Only last week a new 50,000 hectare project to farm oil crops including sunflower and castor on an industrial scale was proposed.

    The Delta qualifies for listing as a Ramsar site, but it has not yet been designated. The Kenyan Wildlife Service has started the process for its listing. Ramsar listing is anxiously awaited, and meanwhile the threat is from biofuels, which will displace traditional food production and natural ecosystems. 

    My colleague Helen Byron, who works with our international partners to help them protect important sites from inappropriate developments, is frustrated by the delay. ‘Listing the Tana River Delta as a Ramsar site isn’t just a paper exercise, it would open the way for production of a long-term plan for its wise use which builds on the rich biodiversity and life supporting systems of the Delta to provide sustainable livelihoods for the thousands of local people’. Current farming, herding and fishing practices are based on local knowledge, such as using the bore of the rising tide to irrigate rice on small farms and it will be vital that the development of a long-term plan involves local people and draws on this rich knowledge. 

    Back home in the UK, there are 168 Ramsar sites covering 1,274,323.  They don’t get a great deal of profile as here, and across the rest of the European Union (EU), as the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) takes precedence in policy making and site protection.  Together they make up the Natura 2000 series of the best sites for wildlife across the EU and form the centrepiece of the EU’s nature policy.

    Soon we will see the publication of the latest set of annual Wetland Bird Survey results and that will be a good chance to focus on some of the wonderful world-class wetlands in our own backyard.


  • Untamed Essex

    The Thames estuary and the Essex coast have appeared on these pages several times already.  The nature of this great estuary has survived in pockets and fragments alongside burgeoning human use and abuse of the place.

    Robert Macfarlane’s evocation of the Wild Places of Essex on BBC 2’s Natural World last night will open eyes to a world that is waiting to be discovered (you can view it for a few days – and here’s a review).  Our nature reserve at Rainham Marshes (featured in the programme and pictured) is already a hit with visitors and there are other places to visit – so if you get the chance you can see the wild side of Essex too.

    And we’re not finished either.  The Wallasea Island Wild Coast project aims to put a significant chunk of wild nature back – you can find out more about that here.

    So, if you thought untamed Essex got no further than the throaty roar of a Ford Capri – it’s time to think again.