For many, this will be a five day working week for well, it seems like months! School holidays, Easter, Royal Weddings and May Bank Holidays mean that some of us have forgotten what it is like to put in a full week's work.
But a season of big Westminster political announcements on the environment should keep us on our toes:
- the fourth carbon budget must be set by 30 June 2011. This will set the cap on UK greenhouse gas emissions for the period 2023-2027.
- the UK National Ecosystem Assessment should be published in early June. It will outline the state of our natural environment and demonstrate the contribution it makes to our well-being.
-The Natural Environment White Paper - the first for 20 years - should appear soon after. It ought to outline the UK Government's ambition and plan for fulfilling the coalition agreement commitment to "protect wildlife and ... restore biodiversity"
- The England Biodiversity Strategy - apparently appearing two weeks after the NEWP - should provide more detail on how we will recover threatened species and habtiats.
Four big announcements and four big tests of this Government's green credentials. The RSPB has a lot to say on each, so watch this space.
I have just returned from my first Council weekend. The RSPB Management Board and Trustees have annual trips to get an insight into the work of different parts of the organisation.
On this occasion, we helped to celebrate the centenary of the RSPB’s work in Wales. It was a chance to reflect on successes and look forward to some of our future challenges: red kite, chough and black grouse populations all up; woodland birds, lapwing and curlew populations declining.
The weekend was brilliantly organised with a precision akin to the Royal Wedding, but with a little less of the pomp.
The highlight for me was being reminded of the impact of our failed attempt to stop the Cardiff Bay Barrage. Although unsuccessful at the time, there was a silver lining: we made the case that developers should provide new habitat to compensate for the damage caused to any internationally important site. The result was the creation of Newport Wetlands – a prime wildlife site which now receives 80,000 visitors a year.
The implications for any other development on the Severn estuary are considerable. Last year, the UK Government decided not to subsidise a tidal power scheme. But if a private developer can find the money, they would be wise to take environmental considerations into account in the design of any scheme. If the energy case adds up, if there are no alternatives and if consent was granted then the developer would have to compensate for any damage caused. And it follows, the smaller the impact, the smaller the compensatory habitat required.
Other highlights of the trip include:
- 83 bird species – much higher than my pessimistic prediction of 57 – including large flocks of whimbrel and shelduck.
- Being greeted by a the City of Newport male voice choir at Newport Wetlands
- Spring flowers including early purple and marsh orchids
- Following the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk at Laugharne. Folk are encouraged to do this walk on their birthday and recite out loud the last verse of Thomas’ Poem for October. This walk coincided with the actual birthday of Katie-Jo Luxton, RSPB’s Director of Wales. I didn’t hear her speak these words, but, if that way inclined, you could celebrate both Katie and RSPB Cymru’s birthdays by following the link and reading the poem out loud OR simply shout out Penblwydd Hapus!
The Independent has just announced the result of their competition for the best essay on the future of England’s woods and forests. I am delighted that Andy Byfield, a fabulous botanist and former colleague from my time at Plantlife, has won the prize. Andy is a passionate conservationist who writes with real knowledge and feeling for woodlands and other wildlife habitats.
His essay makes some excellent points on the need to bring woodland back into management and to re-create lost habitats. Publically owned land provides an excellent place to start, not only because public land should lead by example and deliver public benefits but these areas also have incredible potential. On the forestry commission estate alone, there is an area of heathland and ancient woodland potential almost twice the size of the Isle of Wight under conifer plantation waiting to be unlocked.
Whilst incredibly important, the public forest estate is only part of the picture. The FC estate covers about 18% of England’s woodland, which leaves about 900,000ha of mostly privately owned woodland. If we are to reverse the dramatic declines in woodland wildlife, such as the willow tit and lesser-spotted woodpecker, we need to tackle the lack of woodland management across the board.
A fresh look at forestry policy in England is needed to deliver productive, sustainably managed, wildlife rich woodlands fit for the future. This requires the conservation sector and forest industries to work more closely than ever before. In the wake of the government’s U-turn on forest sales, the Minister has launched an expert panel to make recommendations on this very topic, and Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive, has a seat at the table.
One thing is for sure, we have a long way to go. I will keep you up-to-date on the developments in this blog, but in the mean time take a look at Andy’s excellent essay here. If we had more people like him pushing in the right direction I have no doubt our woodland will be a brighter place for all.
I’m off to get a sneak preview of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) today. “The National Eco what?” I hear you say, as you no doubt stifle a yawn and hover your mouse over the x in the top right corner of the screen.
Wait...bear with me...it really is quite interesting. The NEA is being launched next week and we think it’s great. It’s the first complete assessment of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to our prosperity and social well-being. It provides the case for why it pays to invest in the natural world.
Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we, especially as many RSPB scientists and economists contributed to the report. The NEA has been produced by a wide number of stakeholders, from government, academia and the private sector, as well as from NGOs like us.
Given that it’s not a political or policy document, it’s great that politicians seem to like it too. Oliver Letwin does anyway. He said last month, in this article from the Western Gazette, that it made him “gasp for breath”. Now Mr. Letwin has been an MP since 1997, and has probably seen a few things in his time that would make the average person’s hair curl, so I don’t imagine many things leave him feeling light-headed these days.
We have long argued that the value of nature needs to be recognised in decision-making. Some of the benefits are obvious. We can value apples and fish, for example, in monetary terms because we buy and sell them. And ecosystem services, like the complex biological processes that that create nutrient-rich soil and clean water have an economic value too.
Other benefits though, like the value many of us place on the sheer existence of different species, is far harder to gauge in monetary terms, yet are just as significant. Capturing it in some kind of national well-being index is one thing, but the intrinsic value of nature needs to be taken into account across the full spectrum of government policy.
We will never be able to express the full range of nature’s value in pounds and pence. And we probably wouldn’t want to, as putting a price on a bird, or a butterfly, is a potentially slippery slope. The idea of ecosystem services must complement, not replace, the ethical and scientific justifications for protecting nature.
Here’s hoping Mr. Letwin manages to replenish his lungs quickly, so he can be equally enthusiastic when he discusses the NEA with his Cabinet colleagues. And hopefully he can sell them the benefits of protecting and restoring the natural world, as he apparently managed to do in securing the Green Investment Bank.
See? It is quite interesting. No, really, it IS. And there’s more to come, as June will see a policy pile-up that could have huge implications for wildlife and the natural environment. I’ll return to this subject very soon....
The Committee on Climate Change published a major report on renewable energy yesterday. This report matters because the so-called CCC, established under the Climate Change Act, has clout. Ministers tend to listen to what they have to say.
It's worth a read. It gives a good overview of what the UK energy mix could look like up to 2030 and some of the challenges for the UK Government.
The RSPB has welcomed the report and its headline conclusion that renewable energy has serious potential to deliver in the UK. Why? Because wildlife is already feeling the heat from climate change and it's set to get worse.
Our Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds concluded that, for the average bird species, the potential distribution by the end of this century will shift nearly 550 km north east, be reduced in size by a fifth and overlap the current range by only 40 per cent. Alarmingly, the atlas shows that three quarters of all of Europe's nesting bird species are likely to suffer declines in range.
This is why followers of these pages will know that the RSPB has long been calling for moves to a low Carbon economy. We support the CCC's earlier conclusion that we must decarbonise electricity generation by 2030. This requires a massive reduction in the demand for energy and major investment in renewable energy - nothing short of an energy revolution. Our challenge to governments has been to ensure that this revolution takes place in harmony with the natural environment.
This is why we were pleased that the CCC recognised that we need a new strategic approach to renewables deployment. We've been advocating this for some time.
The CCC notes that the planning system in England is not delivering sustainable renewable energy, and that the Coalition’s planned reforms may make matters even worse. They also recognise the success that the Scottish Government has had in delivering wind power, and the critical role that ensuring wildlife is properly protected has played in this. This has been achieved by being strategic in their approach, guiding the industry towards the most appropriate sites, and ensuring that the organisations like the RSPB are consulted and listened to.
If the UK Government adopts these particular recommendations, they will get three cheers from the RSPB.