It's been a while since we posted anything about fracking so I thought you might appreciate an update on where things are at across the UK.
It's a mixed bag, to be honest, with some countries doing better than others - as you will see.
There is good news from Scotland, as a moratorium has been in place on fracking for shale gas and coal bed methane extraction for over a year, and this was extended to cover underground coal gasification in October. Two separate review processes are currently taking place and a public consultation is expected in late 2016. We are engaging both as RSPB Scotland and as part of Scottish Environment LINK, in particular to ensure biodiversity issues are covered in the review process, as well as raising concerns about climate impacts.
There is an interesting position in Wales in that they have a sort-of moratorium. Welsh Assembly Members have said they will call-in any fracking applications that would normally be considered by local planning authorities. This means that the Welsh Government would decide on whether permission will be given. Not surprisingly the fracking companies are pushing back on this. Larger applications might well be decided at the UK level, and there are proposals to change the devolution settlement with regards to such development types.
In autumn last year the Northern Ireland Environment Minister announced that there would be a presumption against any fracking proposals, unless companies could show sufficient, strong evidence of its safety on all environmental impacts. This is great news but we will continue to keep an eye on the situation.
There is a very different picture in England where we have been fighting, with your help, to save protected sites from being included in areas licensed for fracking.
The Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom MP, recently told a Parliamentary group that it is the Government’s intention to ban fracking at the surface in all protected areas. This means that special places such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, including many RSPB reserves, will be put beyond harm’s reach.
The RSPB has long campaigned for special areas for wildlife and water to be no-go zones for fracking. Such a measure would protect rare and amazing wildlife like bitterns, water voles and kingfishers. This on-the-record statement from Government is very welcome. It suggests that when Government publishes its response to a consultation that was run in December last year, it will contain these protections. While these measures do not go as far as RSPB has been calling for, they are a sensible step in the right direction.
We consider that further changes are required in order to make sure that the UK’s regulatory framework for fracking is fit for purpose. These recommendations can be found here. But right now, we’d like to say thank you to all the campaigners who supported our online action asking Government to ban fracking in these special places.
Thanks to your efforts, it looks like we will get the decision we have been hoping for. We'll let you know as soon as we hear the Government's response.
If you haven’t yet taken the action there is still time to do so, in order to make sure that Government’s final decision is the right one. You can find it here.
It’s spring, and our nightingales have returned, swifts and swallows are back and breeding, and turtle doves and cuckoos can be heard calling on the breeze. Our migratory birds are coming back and they’ve crossed Europe from Africa to get to us.
Today marks exactly one year since we launched our Defend Nature campaign, joining hundreds of other organisations in the UK and across Europe under the umbrella of #NatureAlert to defend the Nature Directives, the laws that protect our shared nature.
These laws underpin a network of over 900 important and iconic sites for our wildlife across the UK and have given bitterns, red kites and avocets the protection they needed for their numbers to turn from sharp decline to rising and thriving populations once more. The Nature Directives set a level playing field for every country in the EU, so no single one can trash their environment for an economic advantage over a neighbour.
We spoke up for nature protection, so what was the result?
The scale of your response to the European Commission’s review of the Nature Directives, calling for them not to be weakened and instead properly put into practice, broke records and influenced MEPs and Environment Ministers across Europe (including our own, Rory Stewart MP) to stand up for them too - see the full story of what you’ve helped achieve here.
Whilst over half a million of us voiced our support for the laws that protect our nature, the Commission was also conducting a full, evidence-based review into how well they work. There is an overwhelming amount of both science and practical case studies to prove the effectiveness of these laws, but the draft findings were clear that problems occur where they aren’t implemented and enforced properly.
But we’re yet to hear from EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella what the future of these vital laws will be: the conclusions haven’t been published. In the coming weeks, the European Commission is scheduled to finally share the results of the “fitness check” of the Nature Directives.
Will the Commission go from #NatureAlert to action?
So now is the time, one year on from the launch of the campaign that made Commission history for its scale, to remind Mr Vella and his 27 Commissioner colleagues that we believe the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, and we want to see concrete action to ensure they can do an even better job than they already do.
Our Birdlife partners across Europe are calling on Commissioner Vella to do just that. Once the “fitness check” is published, the Commission needs to work on a clear way forward – a proposal for full implementation of the laws. If you’d like to add your voice to this pointed reminder that public support for our nature protection hasn’t gone away, please join Birdlife Europe’s Thunderclap on May 16th at 12.00 to urge the European Commission to get moving from #NatureAlert to action.
Here in the UK the country is considering the implications of the forthcoming EU referendum. Whatever the result on the on 23 June, the Nature Directives will continue to matter for our migratory wildlife, which of course doesn't respect political boundaries. These laws ensure that as our birds cross continents each year, they and the stopping points they rely on have the same level of protection across much of their route, which is why we must continue to fight to protect them.
What’s happening at Lodge Hill?
Last year, nightingales were added to the UK red list of endangered birds for the first time; after the last census revealed there are now fewer than 6,000 singing males in our country, a shocking 90% decline over the past 50 years. Kent has become one of the nightingales’ last remaining strongholds, and in 2013 a site called Lodge Hill and Chattenden Woods became the UK's only site protected specifically for nightingales. Lodge Hill is special because it holds such a large population of our now scarce nightingales.
But this unique and valuable site has long been earmarked by Medway Council for development of up to 5,000 houses, which would completely destroy it. In 2014, a developer submitted an application to build those 5,000 houses. If this development goes ahead, it would undermine the Government’s own tests to prevent damaging development on every other nationally protected area in England (places designated as ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSIs) and set a dangerous precedent for harmful activities on our SSSIs in the future.
After several years of opposition from local people and conservation organisations, from September 2014 to early 2015 you helped send more than 12,400 personal letters to the Government asking for a ‘call in’ of Medway Council’s decision to approve the development at Lodge Hill, because of its national importance. And last February, we celebrated the news that the Government would do just that, and that the Secretary of State for housing would decide Lodge Hill’s future after a public inquiry.
But then things went very quiet…
So what’s happened in the last year?
Changes to the developer’s team, requests for updated information and other delays mean that despite us working hard, this inquiry will not take place until 2017! The good news is that we’ve confirmed the RSPB will be one of the parties allowed to present our evidence at the public inquiry. Lodge Hill isn’t only important for nightingales, and throughout our campaigning, we’ve worked alongside other conservation organisations. We’ll therefore be standing alongside Kent Wildlife Trust and Medway Countryside Forum in the inquiry to give all the wildlife that Lodge Hill protects a voice in the proceedings.
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have seen that Rampisham Down in Dorset, another site that could set the same precedent for damage to our nationally protected areas, was called in not long after Lodge Hill. We’re expecting that public inquiry to start much sooner that the Lodge Hill one, in the Autumn this year, and it will examine many of the same issues.
Meanwhile, Lodge Hill’s nightingales have nested, reared their chicks, migrated to Africa for the winter and are returning to Kent once more, where the future of their home still hangs in the balance of the developer and the Council’s ambitions. As the nightingales prepare to return to Africa once more this Autumn, we expect Medway Council to launch a further consultation on their Local Plan for housing. Their last Local Plan was rejected by the Government’s Inspector because they included Lodge Hill, a protected site, as one of the key developments. We fully, but sadly, expect it to be central to this forthcoming draft Local Plan as well.
We’ll need your help in the months ahead to keep fighting for both Lodge Hill’s nightingales and the principles of protection from development from special sites like this.
Enjoy their singing throughout the spring
But for now, our nightingales are returning to mate and nest, and the males are singing their hearts out. By early June they’ll have gone silent, disappearing elusively into the scrubland to rear their chicks. Whilst it lasts, head to Northward Hill, Cliffe Pools and Blean Woods (all in Kent), Minsmere in Suffolk, Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire, Garston Wood in Dorset or Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex or one of these Wildlife Trusts reserves.
Never heard a nightingale sing? Our bird guide includes a recording so you know what to listen out for.
You can ready the full story of our fight to save Lodge Hill over on our Lodge Hill casework page. To keep up to date with all our campaigning, why not sign up as a Campaign Champion?