Whether it’s varieties of ale, dialect, football chants, scenery or soap opera, there have always been many differences separating southern and northern England.
Now it seems there is another: birds.
The RSPB, in conjunction with the BTO, has revealed a startling fact: bird populations in the south of England are faring less well than they are in the north.
Take the linnet, for example, why should the numbers of this colourful finch have almost halved in parts of southern England, while they have only dipped slightly in the north. Similarly, goldfinch numbers have increased everywhere, but much more so in the north.
This is intriguing and it’s a fact that we can’t fully explain (yet), but there are some theories which could explain the differences. There are variations in land use across the length of England and other factors like water scarcity and climate change could also be having an effect.
As our Nature of Farming Awards demonstrated, many farmers and landowners are already doing the right thing for wildlife. We also know from our own work at the RSPB’s Hope Farm, near Cambridge, that populations of birds can be recovered. It is a highly successful arable farm and we are producing a good crop of birds. In ten years we have tripled the number of farmland birds. By contrast, the numbers of other farmland birds in East Anglia has fallen.
The RSPB is developing solutions to help farmers and other land managers restore birdsong to the countryside, but as I have blogged previously, existing schemes need to be made to work harder for wildlife. And, we need to boost the amount of money available to support famers that want to step up for wildlife.
In the launch of the Natural Environment White Paper, the UK Government showed an encouraging commitment to protect biodiversity. However, without providing funding for those farmers who want to put wildlife back on the land and without guarantees that planning reforms won’t damage hotspots for nature, the situation for birds and other wildlife could get worse.
In short, we need more support for people and policies that benefit wildlife.
It is a strange and surprising day when the Prime Minister decides to say something about our land use planning system.
But Mr Cameron's intervention yesterday was welcome. None of us (including the National Trust) is interested in a game of brinkmanship. We want to find a way through this mess and we now have the opportunity to do just that.
So, we have offered the Government the terms of negotiation and talks will resume!
One thing that we will be seeking clarity on is the fate of England's finest wildlife sites - Sites of Special Scientific Interest. We were uncertain about how the National Planning Policy Framework would affect SSSIs and so we sought legal advice. The advice, which we have now shared with the Government, essentially concludes that those SSSIs which do not underpin internationally designated sites will be more vulnerable under the NPPF as currently drafted.
The current system essentially advises local authorities to reject development that damages SSSIs unless the benefits of the development outweigh the negative impacts. Under the proposed new system, local authorities will be obliged to consent development "unless the adverse impacts of allowing the development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits".
We therefore do not think that the Prime Minister was right when he stood up in the House of Commons last week and said that protection for SSSIs was unaffected by the draft NPPF proposals.
Now I know what you are thinking - that lawyers can often give you the answer you want to the question you set. Yet, I think that saying SSSI protection has not changed is akin to saying that the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is the same as the presumption of guilt until proven innocent.
These are not semantic points. The RSPB knows from experience how the words in the new planning policy will be used by developers and lawyers. We want assurances through the redrafting of the NPPF that SSSI protection remains as strong as it is under the current system. Anything less would seriously undermine this government's credentials of seeking to "protect wildlife and ... restore biodiversity".
We look forward to continuing our conversations with ministers and officials...
I received this lovely response to yesterday's blog...
"I thought you might like to know that blue tits don't have the memory of an elephant, in fact they seem rather forgetful. We still have milk delivered in bottles with bottle tops, but the blue tits have forgotten how to steal the milk. For nearly 30 years there hasn't been a gap in deliveries and the milk is proper, fresh from the farm with a thick layer of cream (aren't we the lucky ones) but over the years the blue tits have either found something more to their liking or have simply not passed the information on to the next generation and our bottle tops are now un-punctured."
You learn something new everyday. Or not, if you happen to be a blue tit...
If you're of a certain vintage - probably over the age of around 35 - you'll remember the dawn raids. No, I'm not talking about wartime air assaults or a policeman breaking down your front door. I'm talking about a much smaller, much quieter invader.
You can probably remember opening your front door to collect the milk bottles from your doorstep (yes, kids, milk used to arrive in something called a "milk bottle" delivered by someone called a "milkman"), only to find a big hole gouged out of the bottle top. Not only that, the cream was missing (yes, kids, milk used to contain something called "cream" and was covered with a piece of foil called a "bottle top". The latter was a special currency used by Blue Peter to buy guide dogs, as far as I recall).
The cream thieves were an intrepid and rather ingenious bunch. They crept up on milk bottles and, quick as a flash, pierced the foil top and devoured what my mother always referred to as the "best part of the milk".
What's more, their actions inspired others to follow suit. Up and down the country, the sound of a front door opening in the morning was generally accompanied by a loud tutting noise as the Great British Public realised that they had once again fallen victim to this cheeky gang of thieves.
I'm talking, of course, about the blue tit. No-one really knows when or where the first ingenious blue tit worked out that a milk bottle provided an easy, tasty breakfast. What's clear though, is that other blue tits, and the occasional great tit, were watching with interest and quickly learned to copy their pioneering relatives. Perhaps this was an early form of Twitter?I still get my milk delivered (in bottles), but I suspect I am one of a tiny minority. Alas, the advent of cardboard milk cartons and plastic bottles, coupled with the demise of doorstep deliveries, put paid to the exploits of these avian cream rustlers. But the blue tit has never stopped being an opportunistic feeder with an experimental approach to mealtimes. And now it is putting these characteristics to good use.
If I may be permitted to share another childhood memory, it's of autumn lunchtimes in the school playground, locked in combat with my peers in a ruthless game of conkers. But, like the doorstep milk delivery, this staple of childhood is under threat. Not only from video games and health and safety zealots - the conker itself is at risk from the invasion of the leaf miner moth.
The caterpillars of this non-native moth were first spotted in the UK in leafy Wimbledon in July 2002 (perhaps they came to watch the tennis?). As their name suggests, they "mine" into the leaves of horse chestnut trees. The mines cause the leaves to dry out, go brown and fall prematurely. In extreme cases, a tree can die.
But help may be at hand from opportunistic blue tits. The sudden influx of leaf miner caterpillars has not gone unnoticed by these feathered fans of exotic cuisine. The Sunday Times reports that Darren Evans, a biologist from the University of Hull, has found that blue tits have started to hoover up these invasive pests, which provide abundant and easy pickings during the breeding season.
As a child, I was never very enamoured of the idea of sharing my breakfast time milk with a pilfering blue tit. But I would have been much more forgiving had I known that the same opportunistic instincts could, one day, provide a lifeline for a much-loved tree and my favourite knuckle-bruising game.
photo credit: Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
We had a feisty fringe last night at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham. This was unsurprising as we were debating the planning reforms. Planning has been front page news for weeks and it was a good opportunity to find out how the Liberal Democrats were feeling about the controversial proposals.
I shared a panel with three others including Andrew Stunnell, a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, Louise Bloom, an Eastleigh Borough Councillor, and Dr Tim Leunig, Chief Economist from Centre Forum.
It was my job to make the case for the prosecution. The planning reforms fundamentally skewed the decision-making process in favour of economic growth effectively trumping socio-environmental concerns. The evidence is in both the National Planning Policy Framework (see paragraphs 14, 15 and 19) and the Localism Bill (see what was clause 124 but is now clause 130), currently being debated in the House of Lords.
I argued that the Government’s ambitions (which of course are shared by the Lib Dems) to “protect wildlife and... restore biodiversity” would be undermined by these reforms. All the good bits in the NPPF (for which my colleague and man of the moment, Simon Marsh, deserves credit) counted for nothing when faced with local planning authorities who will now be obliged to approve all individual proposals “unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”.Generously, I thought, I offered the Minister a way to escape the current furore: include a definition of sustainable development (incorporating the ambition to live within environmental limits) on the face of the Localism Bill, remove clause 130 (which gives greater weight to local financial considerations) from that Bill, establish socio-environmental tests against which development applications can be assessed and remove from the NPPF the phrase which establishes that “the default answer to development proposals is yes”.
The Minister, despite arriving late (which is a bit of a ritual at party conferences), gave an assured performance yet gave little away (another ritual).
He reinforced my view that some ministers are trying to do the right thing (perhaps I was slightly swayed when he brandished his RSPB member’s card at one point) but the draft NPPF has been captured by other bits of Whitehall which see planning as the obstacle to economic growth. As I have previously blogged, the evidence to support this view is thin.
The evening ended with differences of opinion aired but little resolved. So we had a warm glass of white wine, ate a slightly crusty canapé and then went our separate ways. There will be a quite few more debates on planning during the conference season so it is best not to peak too soon...
A colleague once said that the party conference season started in summer but ended in autumn. I remain, as ever, confused by our weather, but one thing is certain - the planning storm looks set to continue for some time.