[Written by Mark Day, Head of Partner Development Unit - Europe, Middle East and Central Asia - and it's his FIRST blog!]
It was not even 10 o'clock and the back of my neck was toasting in the intense sun already on the short walk from the car. Turning the corner away from the sea, I walked down the road, skirting an imposing 2 metre plus high chain link fence topped with two rusty barbed wire strands until I came to a tall, heavy steel gate closed with a thumb-thickness of chain and an industrial padlock. A lean tanned man with a grey polo shirt, long shorts, work boots and dark glasses approached me silently from the other side of the fence. "Good Morning" he said suddenly with a winning smile "it’s great to meet you!" Deftly removing the lock and swinging the gate inwards in a single move "Come on in - Welcome to Is Simar Nature Reserve" said Charles Coleiro, Site Manager of 12 years standing, and proud Maltese conservationist. My neck immediately appreciated the shade of the fine-leaved Tamarisk tree, as my eyes adjusted to the unfamiliar shade, as I entered Malta's Is Simar Nature Reserve for the very first time. Equally quickly, the oily smell of hot tarmac was replaced by a cocktail of aromatic Mediterranean plants - as if I had opened a cupboard filled with culinary herbs. Is Simar is tiny. Only 3 hectares (7 acres) in size, it is one of the two nature reserves that BirdLife Malta run with 2 staff seconded from the Government of Malta, including Charles. The Government also provides core funds for management, supplemented by funds raised by BirdLife Malta.
It quickly became clear that this tiny rectangular block of space for nature is completely hemmed in: On two sides by ever busy roads, and the other two by farmers' uniformly ploughed fields. Around the entire perimeter, the fences stand over 2m high. Originally, the high fence that encircles the Reserve was installed to keep out less welcome visitors, the hunters, who have broken in historically looking for their quarry. "Nowadays, it is to equally important to help control vandalism, or prevent against accidental fires" said Charles.Nestling in a small bay on Malta’s east coast, Is Simar is all that remains of an extensive coastal wetland that one spanned the width of the shallow valley and absorbed the run off of rain from the rocky hills. Canalised and drained for agriculture when the Maltese islands were under British rule, an original management plan from 1992 resulted in the site being engineered with excavators to restore some of the original features of the site - encouraging nature back one species at a time. We sat together in the first hide over looking the patches of reeds, open water and the central island with a mature Tamarisk and fruiting bushes. Charles was delighted by being able to point out rapidly the recent breeding successes of the Common Coot, Moorhen, Reed warbler and Little Grebe within the last 5 years, and took great pride in showing me the new interpretation panels - One in honour of the breeding of each species. This achievement is not to be underestimated given the hunting pressures on the Maltese islands.
Coot and chicks at Is Simar this year
Then from the initial hide he was visibly thrilled to see one of Malta's real rarities, a female mallard! Ducks get some of the worst attention of the hunters, so find very little space to breathe, and no longer breed in the Maltese Islands, so for Malta in general and Charles in particular, this was genuinely a special sighting.Leaving the hide, we walked together around the shady boundary trail, and he pointed out the numerous small panels the explain about the numerous species of plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and the single species of frog that reached this remote Mediterranean archipelago, between Italy, Tunisia and Libya, and now seek refuge from the onslaught of concrete.
The whine of traffic was replaced by slow determined buzzing – emanating from the metallic blue-black wings of the jet black (huge) bumble bees drawn magnetically to the wild plants of the Reserve, hovering like unstealthy helicopters before manoeuvring to land clumsily on the flowers of tall wild fennel, bear's breeches(!) and chaste trees. With a densely packed island of over 400,000 people, many live in apartment blocks and are almost totally disconnected from nature as a result – apart from on the Discovery Channel. Charles explained that he and BirdLife Malta's resident field teacher Jason Aloisio host schools groups every week at Is Simar during term-time.
Up to 100 children a week visit with their teachers and in this tiny oasis of nature to learn about their natural heritage - and are often shocked to discover for themselves that there is any wildlife on the islands at all.
Putting his face close to the boundary fence and looking through to the ploughed agricultural land bleached out by the aggressive sun without a single spot of shade, Charles told me that water extraction for vegetables in these fields is slowly salinating the land around the Reserve, but explained that this poses no threat to the Reserve with its salt-tolerant Tamarisk and reeds. With the quiet determination of a stoic, he concluded "One day the salt will cause these fields to fail, and we will be ready to expand this Reserve and home much more wildlife, and attract many more schoolchildren and tourists." Many of our BirdLife Partners identify, propose and argue for protecting special places just like this, but BirdLife Malta takes it one stage further and has been managing this site for 20 years. Reluctantly leaving Is Simar and saying goodbye to Charles, it was clear that in some cases, like Malta, our combined efforts for saving nature really are achieved just 1 person, 1 bee, 1 bird, 1 day, and 1 acre at a time. www.birdlifemalta.org
Today’s blog title misquotes John Keats from his Ode to a Nightingale. This year was the BTO’s National Nightingale survey – a periodic stock-take of the light-winged Dryad of the trees.
But sadly over recent decades the music of nightingales has fled from much of our verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
OK, enough of the Keats.
I took on a tetrad – a word, of which, I suspect Keats was unaware, but basically a 2km x 2km square of rural Bedfordshire. Though I listened, none did I hear. We will have to wait a little while for the BTO to crunch all the numbers (and ‘0’ is still a number) and reveal the current status of nightingales in England (the only part of the UK where they breed).
But recent trends have been dispiriting with numbers falling and range contracting – Breeding Bird Survey results show nearly 6 out of 10 nightingales have been lost between 1995 and 2009.
But in one place the trend has been bucked – on Kent’s Hoo peninsula (yes the place being eyed up as a four runway airport + associated infrastructure, but that is a different story) preliminary results from this year’s survey have revealed that the Hoo Peninsula is a national stronghold for nightingales.
Around 150 nightingales were giving it large (and you can here just one here) on the peninsula this spring, almost double the number found during the last national survey in 1999. This makes the Hoo Peninsula one of the bird’s strongholds in Kent and, indeed, nationally.
A nightingale; singest of summer in full-throated ease - but for how long? Picture John Bridges RSPB Images
The key areas were at Lodge Hill near Chattenden, and the area between Higham, Cliffe and the RSPB’s reserve at Northward Hill. With 84 singing males, the Lodge Hill area looks like it is one of the most important in Kent and possibly the whole country.
So much for the good news.
The reason the BTO pulled out all the stops and made available this preliminary assessment is because of the threat from a plan by Medway Council to build up to 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill. You can read more about this case here.
Our regional director for the South East, Chris Corrigan, is clear about the risk, “Most of the nightingales are found in the proposed development site, a development that would wipe out their habitat. Recreational disturbance and predation by domestic pets mean the remaining nightingales in the adjacent Chattenden Woods Site of Special Scientific Interest would be very badly affected.”
“We objected strongly to the development at the recent inquiry into the Council’s plans and urged them to reconsider their plans. We find it astonishing that a site that is so important for a rapidly declining species is earmarked for development. This is precisely the kind of magical place for wildlife that the Council should be protecting for the nation.”
Chris went on to say, “The Council and the developers have claimed they can create new habitat for nightingales, but this is untried and untested – we simply should not be taking a risk with somewhere this important.”
“Now that the true value of Lodge Hill has been revealed we are calling on Medway Council to withdraw its damaging proposal and instead work with the RSPB, other conservation bodies and the local community to celebrate Lodge Hill and the Hoo Peninsula; this place is one of the natural wonders of Kent, the nightingale was celebrated by Keats and Shakespeare and should be protected for the inspiration of future generations.”
For 2012 the breeding season for nightingales is over, their plaintive anthem has faded for another year. How safe will be their white hawthorn and pastoral eglantine? That is the question that must now be answered.
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Since the hoo-ha over the Government’s new planning policy, there seems to be a new level of interest in how the planning system can deliver for nature.
Now that Government has put in place much of the national framework, to general applause, the spotlight turns to England’s 354 local planning authorities, who have the day-to-day business of making plans and deciding planning applications.
We saw that interest last week in the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry, which made a number of recommendations for planners, such as this one: Planning policy and practice should encourage local authorities to take professional forestry and aboricultural management advice where planning applications affect trees and woodlands.
Woodland creation and tree planting will often be part of wider green infrastructure schemes. New advice to planning practitioners was launched on Monday in Good practice guidance for green infrastructure and biodiversity. Published by our colleagues at the Town and Country Planning Association and the Wildlife Trusts, but with significant input from the RSPB and 60-plus organisations and individuals, this advice should help planners working for developers and local authorities to play their part for nature.
The very same day a group of MPs in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity published a report on Planning and the Natural Environment which made a number of helpful recommendations. Unfortunately I can’t find an online version, but they highlighted the need for local authorities to have access to competent ecological advice and expertise, and called for ‘Biodiversity Champions’ in planning departments and among elected members, to ensure nature policies are properly implemented.
Is there a theme emerging here?
It’s not that long ago since the Policy Exchange think-tank concluded in its report Nurturing Nature that we are failing to properly value the services provided by a robust and connected natural environment. PEx found that only 37% of all local authorities had in-house ecologists, very close to the figure of 35% from the Association of Local Government Ecologists. Having an ecologist was closely linked to whether a local authority had run a biodiversity offsetting scheme.
On Wednesday, Defra quietly published a report on the effectiveness of planning policy in protecting biodiversity. It’s a fascinating piece of work that undertakes a robust audit of the end-to-end decision making process in a representative sample of English planning authorities.
It shows what most of us long suspected; that the appropriate policies were largely in place (at a national level, at least), but that local authorities often failed in their duty to implement them. Statistics always need careful interpretation, but in 8% of major applications studied, biodiversity was overlooked or insufficiently addressed. Furthermore, it was the positive policies relating to environmental enhancement that were most frequently ignored.
The report suggests that culture and capacity (again!) were the two main barriers to successful implementation. Even where biodiversity was considered, it was rarely afforded much weight in decision making, unless it affected sites or species with legal protection. Access to ecological expertise is another crucial factor. Where such expertise was available, the study reported ‘good’ outcomes for biodiversity in 72% of applications, as opposed to just 33% in its absence.
The report also highlights the critical role of Natural England as ecological experts. Although this is no substitute for in-house expertise, local authorities rely heavily on Natural England’s advice and guidance when dealing with biodiversity issues. This must be at the forefront of Defra’s thinking when it undertakes the forthcoming review of their statutory agencies.
The Nationl Planning Policy Framework provides an excellent planning framework for the natural environment, above and beyond what was there before. But even with the best policy and guidance, you need willing, skilled people to deliver for nature. That is why we need a culture that values biodiversity within local government, enough local authority ecologists, and a statutory nature body that is fit for purpose.
The first document has just landed and is currently having its details unpacked.
To readers of this blog the many and various proposals to build large airports in the Thames estuary have been regularly covered, here's some background.
Sufficient it to say that we think this is a very bad and dangerous idea – for safe flying, for local communities, for the environment of the Thames estuary and for its wildlife. These are arguments that will play out in the context of a consultation in airport capacity in the South East of England.
And we have been geared up for that consultation in parallel with the Government’s draft Aviation Policy Framework. But they’ve been disconnected, the Framework now and the South East and its options in the autumn.
Whether politically-driven or delayed by process matters little as the economic drivers within the Framework now skew the argument from the start and risk missing the wider context of impact on our climate, on our communities and on our environment.
We’ll be making sure the dots are joined.
Here’s RSPB Conservation Director on the tests that need to be applied.
The Independent Panel on Forestry has published its final report – crucial advice to Government on an issue that the public campaign of 2011 brought to boiling point.
The report should now form the basis of a constructive engagement to take the recommendations forward. One thing is for sure – there’s no chance that this report will be left to gather dust, the activism of last year is still there and will, I have no doubt, ensure that the report won’t be ignored. But for today – the reaction seems pretty much universally positive – with the caveat that it is ‘only’ a report and to be effective must be acted upon.
Here at the RSPB we certainly welcome the report – here’s Martin Harper’s view.
In a recent public survey asking why people value woodlands, wildlife was the top response. However, woodland wildlife is declining at an alarming rate, faster than almost any other habitat.
A wood isn’t just a bunch of trees – the richness of their wildlife is important both in its own right, and to us. Here’s a post I wrote back in February 2011 where I attempted to illustrate the link of one family with one wood.
Searching for woodland wildlife ... and finding heath fritillaries. Photos by me.
The report urges “greater protection and continuing restoration of habitats identified as being of high priority” and highlights the pivotal role that woods and forests have in our lives; in providing vital space for plants and wildlife, keeping people healthy and connected with nature, helping to keep our air and water clean, helping us adapt to climate change and driving a move to a greener economy.
So, the baton now passes to Defra – here’s Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman’s initial reaction.
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