January, 2011

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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.
  • Dakatcha – communities and conservation

    Helen Byron’s trip to Kenya has moved on the Dakatacha woodlands – here’s her latest letter from Africa (which sounds so much better than email).

    First impressions of the Dakatcha woodlands

    I've spent quite a lot of time working with Nature Kenya over the last year on their campaign to defend this site from a huge (50,000 hectare) Jatropha project. This inedible crop produces oil which can be used for biofuels.  It’s planting – driven by policies in the EU and at home in the UK – is a major threat to sites in Africa that are really important for wildlife.

    So, after many emails and stacks of documents about the area and the threats it faces, it's fantastic to have the chance to visit the site in the flesh. Although its called Dakatcha woodland its actually a mixed habitat - large areas of undisturbed forest, areas of more open woodland and scrubland and areas where people are growing crops around their villages.

    Our host for the visit is Dominic Mumbu – NatureKenya’s (NK’s) man on the ground who clearly loves the site and its birds.  Two of the most important are which include the globally threatened Clarke's weaver (pictured) which is thought to nest here, and Fischer's turaco.

    Communities and conservation together

    NK have been working in Dakatcha since 2008. They have been establishing a site support group (SSG) and Patrick Changawa, the energetic SSG Chair joins us for our trip. NK are working with the SSG to explore sustainable ways of generating money for local people from the site. At the moment, charcoal burning is a major threat to the site and although some of this is being done by locals it’s mostly large scale commercial operations. The Kenyan Forest Service should be clamping down on this, but the decapitated stumps of indigenous trees and smouldering piles of wood are all too evident in parts of the forest and tell a different story....

    This is sad to see, as there are other possibilities. NK and the SSG have been developing ecotourism initiatives. As well as the birding, there's the spectacular Hell's Kitchen site to visit - a kind of mini Grand Canyon in stunning shades of vibrant orange weathered from the rock. There's around 40 people a month currently visiting the site mostly from the coastal tourist resort of Malindi. And it’s at Hell's Kitchen where I see my first drongo....

    But Hells Kitchen is not the only thing to see there's also the Giriama Traditional Cultural Centre which is  the burial site of Mekatilili Wa Menza - a female freedom fighter from the time of Kenya's independence. Her's is an amazing story - worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

    Other NK activities include setting up a new resource centre and library and a central unit for processing honey generated by the bees in the new hives distributed by NK.


    In early 2009 an Italian investor came forward with a proposal to clear part of Dakatcha to grow jatropha. Jacob from the minority Watta tribe that live in the affected area tells us about the court case taken in late 2009 by his community to challenge this project. This case was successful - excellent news for the Watta who make a living from growing pineapples, but did not deter the investor who simply moved the proposal to a different area within Dakatcha.

    You'll have read about this proposal on the blog before - it would devastate most of Dakatcha and displace 20,000 people. After a weak environmental assessment, the Kenyan environmental regulator rejected the large-scale project but the investor is still undeterred and has started a pilot project.

    We drive past the pilot area to take a look. Gone is the undisturbed forest replaced with a small jatropha plantation guarded by security and with bulldozers waiting to clear more land. Shockingly we hear that to keep the plants alive water is being brought in by bowser. Can this be right? Surely not when close by we see food aid being distributed as crops have failed due to lack of rain.

    We have to drive past the pilot area pretty quickly – threats to NK staff are by no means unknown.

    Community forest area

    Next we visit Mulunguni village and meet the elders from the village which is setting up a Community Forest Area (CFA) to take control and manage their own natural resources and defend them from developments. Joshua the Chair of the CFA entertains the group with mimes about the local MP who was the one who brought the Italian investor to the region. We can't understand the language but the sentiment is clear and Joshua clearly enjoys being the focus of attention of Dixon the KBC TV journalist who is travelling with us. I wonder if the footage will make it onto the TV - it would make good viewing!

    And we’ll try to link the blog to it if we can (ed)

    I'm blown away by the scale of the site - the landscape views are stunning and it takes us all day just to drive round the woodland. Although this is not helped by having to spend 2 hours digging our vehicle out of the loose sand - its not rained properly here for 2 years. Dixon continues the filming - I hope the footage of me labouring to push the bus isn't going to end up on TV! Although the delay does give us time to enjoy the solitude of forest and I see my first hornbills.

    Having seen Dakatcha I'm even more passionate that this fantastic woodland must not be decimated to grow biofuels which could end up in our cars. The Life Cycle analysis study we've commissioned to look at the carbon consequences of the project and how it stacks up against the sustainability criteria in the EU Renewable Energy Directive is almost finished - so watch this space to hear about the results which we plan to share with decision-makers in the UK and Brussels as well as Kenya.

    This is the BirdLife Partnership operating at its best - teaming up across the world to influence policy-makers. I hope we’re successful with this case - as the consequences for Dakatcha and so many other sites if we're not will be terrible.

    We'll here more about Helen's trip once she's back

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  • Celebrating the importance of wetlands

    Next Wednesday (2 February) is World Wetlands Day, it is 40 years since the seminal international conference held in Ramsar, Iran, established the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

    The early years of the 1970s saw a blossoming of environmental awareness of which the Ramsar conference was a significant part.  In many ways it marked the dawn of the modern era of nature conservation – it is a significant anniversary.

    I hope to come back to the Ramsar story next week – but in the meantime, here’s an event I can thoroughly recommend taking place in Shropshire organised by the Lapwing Meadows Project to celebrate World Wetlands Day.

    And here's a couple of lapwings showing off

    On Wednesday, 2nd February 2011 the RSPB, Shropshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England and the Environment Agency are holding a public consultation event and celebration of World Wetlands Day at Wall Farm near Kynnersley.

    RSPB, Shropshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England and the Environment Agency are working together with farmers and landowners to revitalise the wetlands of the Weald Moors and Baggy Moor in Shropshire to enable breeding wading birds and a host of other wildlife to flourish in the area.   The project has been dubbed ‘Lapwing Meadows’; to reflect the type of landscape and wildlife we hope to see more of in the future.

    Wetlands are a vital part of our countryside, they are essential wildlife habitats and interesting places for people to visit.  They also play an important part in our everyday lives supplying us with fresh water, helping to control flooding and mitigating the effects of climate change. 

    To celebrate Ramsar’s  World Wetlands Day the project will be hosting a special event between 3pm and 8pm at Wall Farm, near Kynnersley.  Throughout the afternoon there will be opportunities to learn more about wetlands with activities for all ages.  There will be a guided walk at 3pm giving you the opportunity to visit a successfully managed wetland area and see the positive difference it makes to wildlife.  There will also be a talk from our own RSPB Wetlands Advisor Mike Shurmer at 5.30pm.

    As well as providing opportunities to find out more about wetlands and the animals who live in them, the event will be used to share the vision for the project with the people who live and work in and around Weald Moor and to help us understand the views of the local community.  Members of the project group will be in attendance and provide further information about the project and answer questions.  There will also be activities and opportunities to share ideas and raise any issues or concerns. 

    The event is free with tea, coffee and light refreshments provided and all are welcome.  If you would like further information, please contact Sarah Wheale on 01952 433211 or email sarah@pleydellsmithyman.co.uk.
    It’s a good few years since I visited Wall Farm, it’s a special place and fantastic example of the best mix of farming and conservation.

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  • The path less travelled – discovering the Brecks

    I was lucky – my parents took me to the Brecks as part of an East Anglian holiday back in the 60s.  We drove up the A11 in my father’s new ford Corsair and visited the flint mines at Grimes Graves.  So for me England’s semi-arid nearly-desert is part of the landscape of my life – but generally it’s a place that when mentioned gets a ‘where’s that?’

    So Jack Watkin’s article in the Independent brought my own memories flooding back; of those early holidays, and of other visits over the years seeing red squirrels (now gone from the Brecks), stone curlews and woodlarks and listening to the nightjars (pictured) churring their song into the dark.

    The Breck’s has an interesting past – and you can read about that in the Inde article.  The future of the Brecks has featured in these posts before (here’s an example). There’s been some encouraging progress in recent months – the A11 will be dualled but with measures to protect the stone curlew population.  The local authorities – led by Breckland District Council - have adopted well-researched local plans that give effective protection to the area’s natural resources.

    We’ve been working with landowners and farmers in the Brecks for over 25 years to help reverse the fortunes of the stone curlews – showing just what is possible. It’s a good start – but the Brecks is about so much more than ‘just’ stone curlews and it’s good to see that the richness of the area is now becoming more widely recognised.

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