Summer might be well and truly over, but my mind is turning once again to the deep blue sea and all the fabulous creatures that live above and below the waves.
As I have blogged before, the UK’s seas are internationally important for wildlife and today’s publication of the long-awaited network of proposed English Marine Conservation Zones is a great step forward towards ensuring the long-term protection of special sites and species. It begins to implement the requirements of the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) for which hundreds of thousands of people campaigned for the best part of a decade.
The idea is that nationally important sites are established to complement those of international significance to create what government’s stated ambition of an ecologically coherent network: protecting the best places for wildlife at sea in the same way that we protect our finest sites on land.
The intention is laudable and the announcement of 127 potential Marine Conservation Zones around England’s coast is good news. Any announcement that protects threatened wildlife is good news in my book.
But it is frustrating that key species, such as basking sharks, seabirds and dolphins have largely been ignored by the proposed sites. It is equally frustrating that the UK Government has not made progress in identifying Special Protection Areas for the feeding and resting grounds for our seabirds.
I think that those RSPB members that campaigned for better protection of the marine environment will be scratching their heads as to why there are no sites proposed to protect seabirds.
They might reasonably ask - why on earth would anyone want to insure only half their house or protect only half their possessions? Surely, it’s sensible to safeguard everything that’s valuable to you.
We have been told by government that Marine Protected Areas for seabirds will not be identified until at least 2015. It is wrong to delay protection for key seabirds and other species when there is good information about marine sites that are important and worthy of protection for these species available right now.
We’ve invested a huge amount of effort in contributing to the regional stakeholder groups and it is fair to say that we feel a little short-changed by this announcement.
If you agree, then why not tell the minister, by joining our campaign now.
There is one lucky chap, Gary Prescott, who has vistied all RSPB nature reserves... by bike! I've met him and he is great. And I have to say that I am a bit jealous. There are loads of sites which, despite more than 7 years working for and 20 years a member of the RSPB, I have yet to have the pleasure of visiting. Today I am off to visit our Northern England team to see one of our newest sites - Dove Stone. I am looking forward to seeing the scale of our work in a fabulous part of the world.
My favourite reserve is... no I had better not say. Not sure I should be declaring my hand.
Anyway, if you have a favourite RSPB reserve or want to find out what we've been up to over the past year, then have a dip into our latest edition of our Reserves Review.
This review looks back at 2010. It considers the role our reserves can play in halting biodiversity loss with sections on saving nature, restoring lost habitats, providing wildlife experiences for people, benefitting the environment and supporting partners round the world.
Working in partnership is a key part of our success, whether it is working with Scottish Natural Heritage to expand our ‘Celtic rainforests’, or by assisting farmers to restore wet grassland at Lough Beg in Ireland.
The review features Winterbourne Downs in Wiltshire to see how the chalk grassland has developed over the last 5 years, forming a core part of the Wiltshire Chalk Country Futurescape.
We celebrate 100 years of protecting Welsh wildlife and 50 years of RSPB at the Lodge. Looking ahead, we consider what new colonists might arrive on our reserves and what we should be doing to support them.
Finally, two articles describe our overseas work covering management planning in the steppes of Turkemenistan and work in Poland to restore habitat for aquatic warblers at Biebrza.
So, happy flicking and maybe, just maybe you might get to a new site this year.
Here's what happened yesterday at the NGO meeting with Planning Minister Greg Clark. We will obviously continue to work with Government to find a way through this, but the ball is probably back in the Government's court.
If you are not a planner and want to get a better understanding of the debate about the proposed reforms, take a look at the RTPI's top five planning myths. I think they serve to reinforce the view that there is neither justification for nor benefit from giving primacy to economic growth in the National Planning Policy Framework.
Here’s two of them:
“The default response to a planning application is ‘no’. Government wants to change the planning system “so that the default answer to development is ‘yes’” (Plan for Growth, HM Treasury, March 2011). Government statistics show that for at least a decade over 80% of planning applications have been granted – higher (around 90%) for the major commercial applications critical for economic growth.”
“Planning is a drag on economic growth. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has described the planning system as a “drag anchor” on growth, while the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills has talked of the distortions on the market of a “slow and prescriptive planning regime”. The certainty provided by the planning system is essential in supporting business investment decisions. Such certainties include, in particular, the knowledge that there will be customers and a workforce, that infrastructure will be provided, and that other developments would not be allowed that would prejudice a business’s investment. Unconstrained growth is not in the interests of business. In 2003, the then ODPM Select Committee Inquiry into Planning and Competitiveness said “claims that planning damages the nation’s competitiveness seem to have been made without evidence. The evidence that we have received suggests that business generally support the planning system and seek a number of changes in implementation, which do not necessarily require legislation.”
So what’s changed? The economic crisis has meant that decision makers are crying out for answers and they have stumbled on the planning system (again) as a constraint that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, too many people who are understandably focusing on growth but have little understanding of planning, have corrupted what could have been a sensible policy. The good news is that there is still time to put things right.
Another day and another lesson from a colleague in the environment movement. This time from Peter Marren - a respected writer, wonderful naturalist and someone who I admire a great deal.
Peter wrote a piece in the Independent yesterday arguing that wildlife needs a louder voice.
He is right to highlight wildlife decline as an overlooked environmental issue – and he is partly right in the directions he points his finger when looking for the causes.
In attacking conservation groups like Buglife, Plantlife and the RSPB he conveniently ignores the many success stories we have achieved in recent years both directly on nature reserves and through dogged campaigning for better wildlife protection legislation. I’m immensely proud of our record but yes, we can and will do more. We will do more to secure CAP reform which benefits wildlife, we will do more to secure better protection for the marine environment and, yes, we will do more to ensure that the proposed changes to the planning system do not undermine existing protection for wildlife. And, unashamedly, we will do more to work with other protect nature overseas.
The really interesting point he makes is around the changes to the business model of Natural England – the Government watchdog charged with championing and protecting our wildlife.
Wildlife needs a strong independent voice in this country at a time when farmland birds, woodland butterflies, marine life and many others species are under threat and habitats are facing increased pressure from a proposed planning system which puts the economy before ecology.
Natural England’s staff includes some of the country’s most passionate and able wildlife experts. Since the Coalition Government came into power, funding for Natural England has been cut and their public voice has been lost. We need Agencies that are able to speak truth to power when it comes to protecting our precious native wildlife. Alas, the tests which the Prime Minister set public bodies when Leader of the Opposition, has arguably prevented these bodies from speaking out publicly.
I thought it then and still believe today that this is bad news for wildlife. And, bad news for governments as ministers and officials need to hear bad news from people who know what they are talking about. This is why Natural England must retain its scientific integrity and, I would argue, be encouraged to publicly report the facts about what is happening to wildlife.
The Government has a responsibility to our natural environment and Natural England is a central part of that - they must be equipped to do their job.
Am travelling to Brimingham for the Liberal Democrat conference. I am looking forward to it! Party conference season always offers a few surprises and I am sure this year will be no exception. Tonight, I am speaking on a panel about the planning reforms. I am looking for support for the NGO campaign to remove the economic bias which threatens to undermine existing wildlife protection. Given that the Liberal Democrats have stewardship of the environment written into their constitution, I am hopeful of a strong response. And if they come out strongly against the reforms, I am sure that they will be given a pat on the back by the electorate.
I think that it is fair to say that we all like to get a pat on the back from time to time. So, how are the finalists of our Nature of Farming Award winners are feeling? Collectively they have just received over 22,000 pats on the back for their work stepping up for nature - the public voting for the coverted title of the UK’s most wildlife friendly farmer. And the winner is? Well you can find out who won here. Needless to say, having created and restored key habitats such as native woodland, wetland, peat bog and moorland their farm is an example to us all. Wildlife has flourished, and includes field gentian, wood bitter vetch, corncrake and curlew and a host of invertebrates; including more than 300 species of moths and butterflies. Farming and conservation can go hand-in-hand.
It is great, with our partners Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and the Daily Telegraph, to be able to profile the work of all the finalists in this year’s competition. The quality was so high this year we created a new “highly commended” category. Whilst any competition has an ultimate winner, this time I am pleased to say, it isn’t simply an individual farm – it is all the wildlife which finds itself living on any of these farms. The passion and commitment of all these farmers is an inspiration to all of us – it certainly is to me. So I hope they won’t mind, this is one more pat on the back from me!
And, as for the Lib Dems? I'll let you know tomorrow...