We are still reeling from the Chancellor's economic statement. I summed up our mood in an interview I gave to Farming Today (about 8 minutes in).
We can just about live with a review of the Habitats Regulations. As in the 2006 Davidson review, we think that the regulations will stand up to scrutiny. They have served us well for seventeen years during a period of unprecedented economic growth. We will, of course, engage constructively with the review. But to be clear - we will fight any attempt to dilute protection. It is what wildlife deserves and our supporters expect nothing less.
Let's also remember that the UK is at the bottom of the EU league table for the percentage of our land covered in wildlife sites of European importance. This does not look like gold-plating to me.
Yet the rhetorical intent from the Chancellor and the substance of the announcement made his intentions clear: he has no truck with sustainable development or ‘green economy’ investment approaches and absolutely no regard for climate change. While the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has repeatedly stated that a healthy natural environment underpins our economic prosperity, it appears that the Chancellor does not share this view.
It is ironic how some people see the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (and the accompanying Habitat Regulations) as a constraint on economic activity when in fact recent Government research demonstrates that it pays to invest in protecting our finest wildlife sites. The EU Nature Directives are responsible for the UK’s modern SSSI system – 80% of which underpin and are essential to the effective management of Natura 2000 sites. Evidence suggests that SSSIs generates benefits 8 times the investment in maintaining them. Such sites makes an immense contribution to the wellbeing of the millions of people who visit them each year.
So, during the review, whose terms of reference have now been published, we shall make the case that the Habitat Regulations should be treated as a force for good. Rather than overlook them or implement them in a partial and muddled way, we shall argue that they are key to achieving most of the aims for biodiversity set out in the recent Natural Environment White Paper.
They could help both shape and unlock landscape scale conservation in the UK - something that this Government wants and is backing to the tune of £7.5million.
The Directives themselves were born partly out of a desire to prevent any country from obtaining competitive advantage by destroying her local environment. They both create a level playing field across the EU, but also raise standards in environmental stewardship. In many ways, their legal framework provides the key to “smart regulation” complemented by other instruments in the conservation toolkit, whether they involve fiscal measures, exhortation, or the use of market instruments. Positive and timely investment in implementing the Directives can benefit strategic planning for key industries and avoid potential regulatory blight – for example by appropriate investment in establishing a coherent network of marine protected areas, in particular marine Natura 2000 sites.
My message to the Chancellor is, if you must, review these regulations and do consider ways of "enhancing the environmental benefits" - our prosperity will benefit. But, I am sure that I speak to for anyone who cares about wildlife when I say, do nothing to weaken them.
I shall use this blog to help provide updates on our engagement with the review and other issues which have emerged from this week's announcement. In the meantime, why don't you write to your MP to let her/him know what you think about the Chancellor's statement. I'm sure that they would love to hear your views.
It is a week since the Chancellor made his autumn economic statement. Since then I have been delighted by the response from our supporters. Hundreds of you have told us that you have written to your MP to make the case that wildlife and the natural environment don’t need to be sacrificed for growth - that they can be at the heart of our economic recovery.
And it seems others share our view. This article appeared from Mary Riddell in today’s Telegraph.
This is what our elected representatives (and the Chancellor) need to hear. So, if you have not yet done so, please do write to your MP.
And another thing they might like to know is that every day of every year, the RSPB is offering advice to developers about how to conform with the planning system and wildlife legislation. At the last count, we were engaging with something like 741 cases. These include applications for new houses, new windfarms, new airport capacity or new ports. A selection of these are featured here.
For example, over the past five years, we have engaged with about 1500 windfarm proposals often affecting internationally protected sites or species. We sustained objections to just 83 (c6%). Smart developers engage with us early. They want to understand the likely impacts of their proposal and, if they want their proposal to proceed without objection, then adapt their plans accordingly.
Take the London Array windfarm - in 2003 the developer consortium first brought forward a proposal for the largest offshore windfarm in the world in the outer Thames Estuary, to consist of up to 341 turbines with a potential 1-gigawatt capacity (equivalent to a nuclear power station). During baseline environmental surveys, the site and wider area was found to contain a previously unknown internationally important population of red-throated divers, a protected species that preys on small fish on shallow submerged sandbanks. The higher densities of feeding red-throated divers in the estuary were associated with the northern area of the application site, whilst the generally more exposed southern end held lower densities.
Divers are very prone to disturbance by boats and man-made objects, and a windfarm had the potential to displace very large numbers of divers from their feeding habitats. The developers had worked closely with the RSPB and other nature conservation stakeholders throughout the formulation and implementation of their environmental impact studies. The site was a candidate for listing as a Special Protection Area (SPA) designated under the EU Birds Directive, and, from the outset, the developers chose to treat the area as though it had been designated. Constructive discussion led to the developers amending the footprint of the windfarm to avoid the highest concentrations of divers. And after a few months of negotiation, a solution was agreed, in which the installation of 175 turbines would proceed, which would be economic for the developers, but by avoiding the northern part of the site, would not adversely impact the divers. Phase 1 of the wind farm is due to be completed at the end of 2012. That is great news for renewable energy and great news for wildlife.
The RSPB will, of course, oppose development which we think needlessly destroys our finest wildlife sites and species, but we are also happy to help support sustainable development. That is why we are offer any developer across the UK advice about wildlife legislation, including the Habitats Regulations which are now subject to review in England. The Secretary of State has suggested that the regulations work in 96% of cases. The question which the review will need to ask is for the remaining 4% of cases is it the developer that is at fault or the regulations?
If you are a developer, what problem do you hope the review will address? Have you ever thought about asking the RSPB for advice? And, don't you agree that it's worth taking the effort to adapt development applications to save species such as the red-throated diver?
It would be great to hear your views.
There’s lots of talk at the moment, not least in Durban, about what new commitments governments might make to help save the planet. But we shouldn’t forget one very important promise the UK Government has already made – in the revised England Biodiversity Strategy - to prevent any human induced extinctions of known threatened species before 2020. As I have blogged before, this is a bold and rightly ambitious commitment. But, the reality is Defra Ministers have their work cut to fulfil this promise.
The hen harrier is a spectacular bird of prey, which has been a rare sight in England for many years due to illegal persecution, mainly on land managed for intensive driven grouse shooting. Figures released today show that a population that has been in terrible health for many years is now on life support. Despite the Government’s own figures showing there is enough habitat for 323-340 pairs of hen harriers in England, in 2011, there were just FOUR successful nests. All were on a single estate in Lancashire, owned by United Utilities and managed in partnership with the RSPB. This is a terrible state of affairs. One wet spring, or a bad year for voles, or a fire at the wrong time of year or simply the pervasive effect of continued persecution and the hen harrier could be lost from England. This would be a tragedy for the birds and for anyone who cares about wildlife. But it would also mean the UK Government would have broken its promise.
With this in mind, you might think the UK Government would be throwing everything at saving these last few birds. Yet right now its quite hard to identify what they are doing. It is the RSPB and a few friends, including United Utilities and dedicated raptor workers, and with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who are fighting the harrier’s corner. We recently launched Skydancers, a project designed to help the hen harrier recover across northern England through a mix of community engagement and direct conservation work. Skydancers is named after the male hen harrier’s rollercoaster aerial display, known to many as ‘skydancing’. Through this, we have to dispel the notion that hen harriers and grouse shooting cannot co-exist.
I visited Langholm moor in southern Scotland in the summer, where a diverse group of partners are working to demonstrate exactly this. One of the techniques being trialled is diversionary feeding – basically a bird table for harriers so they don’t need to predate grouse. It is straightforward to deliver, and the good news is it appears to work. In four years of diversionary feeding, not a single grouse has been observed being brought to hen harrier nests at Langholm. Yet despite this, there isn’t a long list of grouse moor owners lining up to trial it for themselves. There are a few honourable exceptions in Scotland, but in England, to the best of my knowledge, no grouse moor is trialling it. We think they should be, and Natural England agrees with us.
Of course, diversionary feeding isn’t the only option. Scotland has introduced vicarious liability – making landowners legally responsible for ensuring their gamekeepers don’t kill birds of prey. The public interest case was accepted in Scotland - is there any reason why it wouldn’t also be met in England given the damage being wrought on our birds of prey? I can’t think of one. Defra has asked the Law Commission to consider how wildlife protection laws in England and Wales can be improved - we expect the Commission’s proposals to be made public in mid 2012. We will suggest vicarious liability as one means of strengthening protection for wildlife. There will be opportunities for readers of this blog to have their say – more nearer the time. In the meantime, and if you haven’t already, please support this epetition, asking for the idea to be debated in Westminster.
So the gauntlet has been laid at Defra's dorr. If you want to keep your promise to prevent extinctions on your watch, then you need to commit to a dedicated species action plan for hen harrier and other highly threatened species. This is what England’s wildlife needs and what everyone who cares about the rare and threatened demands.
What do you think the answer is? Diversionary feeding might be an easier option, but does it need the stick of vicarious liability to deliver real change? Maybe both?
PS Did you watch David Attenborough's Frozen Planet finale last night? Read what RSPB Chief Executive, Mike Clarke, says here.
This afternoon in the House of Commons, Caroline Spelman announced that the UK Government is to proceed with a badger cull. This is a contentious decision and I’m sure one that she will have thought long and hard about. It cannot have been easy, the coalition was committed to pursuing a cull but there are also strong arguments against. The Secretary of State is in a difficult place.
I will try to set out my thoughts on why ultimately I think we all lost today. First, let’s make it clear bovine TB is a serious disease that is having a huge impact on cattle farming throughout the south and west. It must be devastating for farmers to lose their herds to this disease. Almost 25,000 cattle were slaughtered last year at a huge emotional cost to farmers and financial cost to the taxpayer. So, it is serious and we need to find effective, sustainable solutions. Yes, that is solutions in the plural as there is no one silver bullet.
I also think it is beyond doubt that badgers play a part in the transmission of this disease. Not the only part and probably not the main part, but they are involved. Mrs Spelman was keen to stress to the Commons that no other country had eradicated bTB without addressing the so called ‘wildlife residue’. That may be true, but culling is not the only option and there are significant questions over whether culling is practicable and effective.
One of the key aspects of this issue relates to how badgers respond to culling. These stripey-headed creatures normally live in social groups. When their population is disrupted by culling, animals move around more, often fleeing from the culled area, with badgers from outside entering the area to fill the void. This stirring up of the population is called perturbation and it is important because detailed research on culling shows that it increases disease transmission. So the incidence of bTB in badgers may actually be increased by culling. Culling in the initial stages can increase the level of bTB in cattle, particularly in the immediate vicinity. The detailed science that has been carried out suggests that badger culling will bring about reductions in bTB if carried out across a big enough area (at least 150 km2) for four years and in a co-ordinated and highly synchronised way.
The science is not that rosy in terms of making a real difference though. After 9.5 years (culling over a four year period and 5.5 post culling) bTB in cattle was reduced by around 12.4% across the 150km2 and a 2km perimeter around this area. This means that even after the effort of this culling, not to mention the killing of many badgers, more than 85% of the problem is left unaddressed.
But the problems do not stop there. The scientific research used a carefully controlled method of cage trapping and humane dispatch carried out by trained staff in a highly synchronised way. Most of the culls were carried out over 8-11 days. Those that were carried out over longer periods were less effective - no doubt due to perturbation. The scientists who carried out the work were keen to point out that using different methods in an unco-ordinated way could make matters worse rather than better. It is therefore of great concern that the Government is proposing to allow farmers to use the untested method of shooting free ranging badgers over a period of up to 6 weeks. We believe this is a high risk strategy that could backfire.
The Government is proposing a trial cull in two areas to test assumptions on whether large enough numbers of badgers can be shot safely and humanely. We have doubts that a one-year trial under carefully controlled conditions will reflect what will be achieved over any wider cull that is proposed next.
Why has the Government diverted from the science? In a word - cost. It is cheaper to shoot in the open than to trap. It is cheaper or easier to do it over a longer period than in a controlled, synchronised way. It is a high risk strategy that could be a recipe for perturbation.
But there is an alternative. Rather than stirring the badger population, we should be jabbing it. An injectable badger vaccine has been developed and is being deployed on a small scale. Detailed field trials have shown that vaccination is effective in reducing the number of badgers testing positive to bTB by 74%.
It is cheaper than cage trapping and culling badgers, though more expensive than the untested shooting of free ranging badgers. It also has several very important advantages over culling. It doesn’t lead to perturbation, it doesn’t risk making TB worse, it doesn’t need to be administered in a highly synchronised way and it is an approach that has widespread public support.
It won’t be a solution on its own, it would need to be carried out alongside cattle testing, movement controls and improved biosecurity measures. When available, an oral badger vaccine and cattle vaccination should replace it.
The Government has announced that £250,000 will be made available to support vaccination in each of the next three years but this, whilst welcome, is too little. It is half the anticipated policing costs of the trial cull. How bizarre is that?
The Government’s costings suggest that a badger cull will cost farmers more than it will save them in bTB outbreaks. I believe that, rather than passing the buck and most of the cost to farmers, the Government should have taken the lead by accelerating a programme of vaccination. This would be a publicly acceptable, sustainable alternative to a high risk and divisive badger cull.
But what about you? What do you think? Do you think today's decision helps farmers or badgers or neither?
As with any statement on the economy, the devil is in the detail and it is worth delving to see what is being proposed.
In addition to reopening debates about an airport in the Thames Estuary, announcing a £250 million package to help energy-intensive industries meet the costs of their carbon emissions targets and reviewing the Habitats Regulations, the Chancellor proposes further reforms to the role of statutory consultees including Natural England and Environment Agency.
The National Infrastructure Plan makes a number of proposals for ‘improving’ the planning and consenting regime, on the grounds that it results in delay and costs for building infrastructure in the UK. Many of these proposals seem to be designed to give developers more power in the planning process in relation to statutory bodies such as Natural England, which play a vital role in advising local planning authorities on the environmental impact of development projects.
As reported in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, under the plans, the Environment agency, Natural England and English Heritage will have a new “remit” to promote “sustainable development”. The Government said this would mean that the agencies would have to “contribute to a competitive business environment”. I am not sure that is really why we have these agencies. We want independent champions of the natural environment.
One of the more worrying proposals is to make it easier for developers to obtain an award of costs if a statutory body has acted ‘unreasonably’ (para 6.15, p109). At the moment, if a local planning authority has refused permission for a development and a public inquiry is held, a developer can apply for costs if the authority, or a statutory body which is advising it, has acted unreasonably. This can cover a range of issues from spurious reasons for refusal, to over-enthusiastic requests for information. It also applies the other way round where a developer has behaved unreasonably, perhaps by submitting new information at a very late stage in inquiry proceedings. Ultimately it’s for the courts to decide what is unreasonable. Successful awards for costs are rare, but developers often use the threat of costs as a tactic to ensure their proposals are favourably considered.
Making it easier for developers to get costs will mean that bodies like Natural England will spend their time looking over their shoulder, fearful that they’ll be burdened with the developer’s legal fees if they mount robust objections against damaging development. Like local authorities who give developments the nod, frightened of bullying and deep-pocketed developers stinging them for costs, they may be tempted to take the easy way out and not object to damaging development.
What’s more, the Government talks about extending this approach from the inquiry stage (normally at the end of the planning process) to the pre-application phase of planning for major infrastructure.
There may be more, but this is surely enough for us to cope with for now.