The Tana River Delta on Kenya’s coast is at cross-roads. The massive pressure to exploit the area for growing sugar and biofuel crops amongst other development pressure is forcing an intense campaign to ensure that the delta’s peerless natural environment. We’ve been following the story here and here. For biofuels in particular, the pressure on land is mounting in Africa and European governments, including our own are not able to identify good sources from bad - a fundemental flaw in policy that risks a wave of damaging landuse change.
There is little doubt that the natural richness of the area is outstanding, local communities alongside Nature Kenya (with support from the RSPB) want to see necessary development in the area planned to ensure that the cost of smash and grab development isn’t measured in the inevitable loss of one of the world’s most important places for nature.
It’s not about no development – it’s about the right development shaped and led by the best information and with local communities at the heart of the process.
So it’s encouraging to hear that there are now steps to develop a plan for sustainable development for the delta. The devil, as always, will be in the detail and there is a tough struggle ahead for Nature Kenya’s campaign to ensure that the master plan does the job effectively and ends the era of bad planning and short-termism that has dogged the delta for years.
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Last week I was attending a meeting at our Rainham Marshes reserve, it was a good meeting but you don’t want to hear about that!
At the end of our discussions, we had a chance for a head-clearing walk around the reserve; it was a lovely day, until about ten minutes before the meeting’s end. And then the sky darkened – not just slightly, Lord of the Rings darkened. Black clouds with bulbous bottoms massed and down came the rain. We pressed on.
We made it to the Marshland Discovery zone. The rain slanted across the landscape obscuring all but the muddy-fringed pool in front of us. Two moorhens and coot were all we could see, until, entering stage right, a green sandpiper dropped in to land at the water’s edge.
Waders, I’m told, are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love ‘um. Their incredible journeys inspire us and their presence is always a sign that the place is special.
After a few minutes, we left the sandpiper pottering along the muddy fringe and trudged back though driving rain. A small flock of lapwings flickered over head heading out into the middle of the marshes to join many more.
Special birds, special places.
If it’s half term for you – get out and clear your head at Rainham or any of our other nature reserves.
And then, if that’s not enough, on 30 October, I hope you can join us in celebrating Feeds the Birds Day. This special day is a great chance to get the garden ready to help birds (and all the other wildlife) through the winter. This year, we’re running lots of Feed the Birds Day events across the UK both on the day and in the week leading up to it. Click here to find out more and I hope you can come along.
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Our economics team organised a great event yesterday. Yes, we have an economics team who are playing a vital role in mapping the ways that nature can avoid being the silent victim of the impending cuts.
Yesterday could have been a gloom-laden affair looking at just how bad things can be – but it wasn’t. It’s going to be tough but the un-missable tone behind yesterday’s event was optimistic.
Now, economics is a subject I find tough to follow – I’ve never quite got the hang of internalising the externalities (or is that the other way round) and I had to look up the meaning of fungible which sounds, at first hearing, like a new cake – but then I am on a diet. So huge credit to Professors Dieter Helm and Ian Bateman for their clarity and insight. Mark Avery, our Director of Conservation can save me having to repeat the highlights of the afternoon – you can read his blog here.
As always, at such events, there is a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues you haven’t seen for a while and the conversations can be illuminating. One of the options we identify in the report that goes with the conference (here’s a link) is the development of levies on fertilisers, pesticides and peat (working in ways similar to the current aggregate and landfill taxes). Such an approach can raise revenue for conservation but in the case of damaging peat extraction, can build pressure to end the wholesale destruction of peatland sites.
Many moons ago I was involved in surveys and campaigns to save the remnant lowland raised mires of Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Even a quarter of century ago, we were up against significant odds, land drainage, development pressure and peat mining were rapidly encroaching on these beleaguered sites. We did have some success – Red Moss, in near Bolton Wanderers stadium, was spared the fate of being converted to a landfill site after a massive community-based campaign. Other remnant mosses weren’t so lucky.
Yesterday I caught up with some of my old haunts when I met David Crawshaw representing Lancashire Wildlife Trust at our economic gig. Astley Moss, where I counted nightjars in the early 80’s, has had it’s peat mined out to depths that revealed the underlying sand – which has now been quarried, a narrow, drying, cracking ring of peat is all that remains. And Chat Moss – where tattered fragments still remain and is the subject of a campaign to save it.
Despite all the efforts of so many over so long, despite wise words and good intentions from the planning authorities the economics of peat continue to drive the destruction. If it’s the economy that’s driving the stupidity – the argument for economics to fix the issue through taxing peat extraction is compelling.
Coo, Michael McIntyre and I together in the last weekend’s Sunday Times magazine. Fame at last. Well, actually, I got some pithy quotes into an article about wind farms at sea - I'll probably have to wait for an invitation to appear live at the Apollo!
My quotes picked up the usual smattering of comments at work that always provide a welcome reminder that people are out there reading stuff in media land. As the week has gone by the interest has continued - which is unusual, perhaps not just chip wrappings.
Richard Girling's article started and ended in deeply cynical places with regard to offshore wind – not about the technology or about the climate crisis it’s designed to tackle but about the prospect of ever meeting the desire to see such developments put in ‘the right place’.
And he has a point.
Here at the RSPB we believe that wind energy in general and offshore wind in particular have a vital role to play in contributing to the renewable revolution. But the industrialisation of our marine environment means a massive change that must be planned carefully if we are reap the harvest of the wind without avoidable wrecking of a natural environment about which we know so little.
Girling scoffs at the environmentalist’s mantra of 'we're for wind energy, but in the right place'. But at sea he nails a truth and a real difficulty. Lack of knowledge is a clear and present danger to the hidden nature of the marine environment – and, in many ways to the aspirations of the industry as it seeks to develop it’s potential.
Years of failure to tackle the data deficit and to designate sites at sea have left an industry working blind. They have often, creditably, tried to fill the gap. The London Array caused as sufficient concern that we objected because of limited knowledge of the importance of the area for wintering red-throated divers (pictured) – the developer’s own surveys revealed entirely unexpected numbers of divers and as a result redesigned their scheme. Their approach and response was exemplary and not only did we withdraw our objection we supported it. Data collected by the industry has been key to designating the Outer Thames and Liverpool Bay Special Protection Areas (SPAs) – two significant steps forward in safeguarding seabirds at sea – both nearly thirty years after their original deadline but a start.
But we do and will continue to object to wind proposals on land and at sea, it’s a tiny proportion of the proposals that come forward for scrutiny. We also work with developers and advise on approaches to mitigate the impact of their proposals.
In the Greater Wash – the central focus of the Sunday Times article – we are working constructively with developers to ensure that the impacts are assessed. We welcome this early and continued involvement and hope to continue the current level of engagement. Our aim is to ensure the consenting process for offshore wind energy in the Greater Wash is based on a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment, so that renewable energy can be delivered at the scale needed, without compromising our natural heritage
Working hard to get decisions right on a case by case basis is, we believe, entirely compatible with our analysis that the development of wind power on and offshore is essential if the UK is to meet its climate change commitments.
We’re a windy island, offshore there is massive potential and we've got to make it work because the threat of climate change is so great - and we are absolutely committed to this. The challenge is for Government to show much needed leardership and, with developers, to face up to this lack of data. They should invest in strategic surveying of our waters rather than relying on the pre-construction surveys developers currently have to do. Not only would this make more sense, it might save time and money too by clearly identifying areas that are and are not suitable for development – an approach that will give meaning to finding the right place.
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Reports in the Sunday papers (here in the Independent on Sunday) indicate that tomorrow will see the massively damaging Severn barrage dropped on cost grounds. The cycle of wild enthusiasm, appraisal of the true risks and costs followed by collapse of proposals under the weight of their massive cost and predicted environmental impact is now becoming familiar. This is the second time on the Severn and already the first attempt on the Mersey went the same way. If Severn I and II and Mersey I tell us anything it's big barrages are a bad idea. Mersey II is already starting it's cycle (it's still in it's wild enthusiasm phase).
In pausing to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the latest grand threat to the Severn (and it's still wise to wait see the full announcement tomorrow) there is a real need to use this news to stimulate real innovation in tidal energy. Look to the future technologies that start from the principle that safegaurding the natural environment is a vital first step and move beyond yesterday's big bad barrages with their spiralling costs and massive predicted impacts which, by the way, added to the fundementally flawed economics of big barrages producing green energy.
If you can, today, go and look at the timeless tides of the Severn without the nagging thought that their days were numbered.
You can read more, here, on Mark Avery's blog.
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