As Mike McCarthy mentioned in his excellent piece in the Independent yesterday, we have our work cut out to prevent 21 March becoming a Black Wednesday for the environment.
We are working with others to make last minute pleas to the centre of the Government to ensure the reforms to the planning system and the review of the Habitats Regulations recognise the value of the natural environment to our economy.
My confidence that we will get a positive outcome is waning, but we are not giving up. We still have the people, passion and the power of evidence on our side. But perhaps alas politics is working against us. To illustrate this point, I am delighted that Tony Gent, Chief Executive Officer of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation has offered his perspective as to why newts have been in the firing line.
“The clock is ticking ever closer to the Budget Statement –an announcement that will show whether the negative rhetoric in the Autumn Statement wins over some of the positive opportunities for all that could arise from a review of implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives in England. The significance of the European Nature Directives should not be under-estimated. It has been reassuring that, judging by recent discussions, this is not lost on the DEFRA ministers overseeing the review. We share their vision that changes should only be made if they result in better outcomes for nature conservation.
Undoubtedly, the protection given to the great crested newt will be one of the issues that has been brought to the Chancellor’s front door.
Photo credit: Fred Holmes
The species is geographically widespread across lowland Britain and therefore gives the impression of being a frequent ‘problem’ as consideration must be given to its conservation when areas in which they live are developed. This is one of the issues that is perceived to be so damaging to British industry and where ‘gold plating’ the Directives is allegedly causing harm to economic growth. However, the UK’s performance in conserving this species has also caught the eye of the European Commission whose legal team, as I write, is deciding whether further action should be taken over a series of failures to reverse the decline of the species. So how can two perspectives be so much at variance?
Although great crested newts are not rare in the strict sense of the word, they are ‘conservation dependent’, that is they need positive measures to keep populations surviving. The protection arose largely through studies in the mid 1970s that showed that about half the known great crested newts ponds had disappeared in a decade; although protection has slowed the rate of decline, it has not stopped it. Without the Habitats Directive, we would be looking at a species that would be in a much more perilous state! Great crested newts are one the few widespread species that have this level of protection – and for every ‘issue’ raised by this iconic species we can only imagine the unreported and unrecorded losses of other wildlife that slip by unnoticed.
At Amphibian & Reptile Conservation we are dedicated to the conservation of these two groups of animals. We have been looking to make the Habitats Directive work better for species such as the great crested newt. There are certainly instances where better use of resources and the good intentions of developers (many but sadly not all) could have achieved better and more sustainable outcomes for this species.
However, to achieve this there is a clear need for better targeted ‘upfront’ investment – ensuring that there is proper information and expertise available at the local level and a sound and consistently applied direction that sets the conservation objectives at national and local levels. Such ‘targets’ are now out of vogue with the current Government, and so we see money spent by developers, local biodiversity initiatives and agri-environment schemes, without a clear understanding of what it needs to achieve.
We have been actively suggesting to DEFRA new ideas that could be trialled in ‘pilot areas’. We want to explore a much better system that will help to achieve better wildlife conservation – and by providing a much clearer set of objectives ensure that developers are working on a ‘level playing field’ and can direct their financial and intellectual resources to a shared agenda. We are supporting these ideas by developing predictive mapping systems that would be directly useful for planning authorities (and nature conservation bodies) as a means for setting local targets.
Despite this, and the technical support and input from a wide range of conservation NGOs offered to Government, we are concerned that opportunities for positive gain could still be lost. We are looking for positive signs that the small investments needed to make a real difference for developers and for nature will be made – perhaps by directing some of the funding identified to kick-start the housing market to ensure that this is done sustainably. So will the budget announcement show a ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ view of the environment; or will we see a judicious use of resources now to ensure a better outcome for nature and save angst and inconvenience for developers? ARC will remain, side by side with the RSPB, in banging the drum for nature conservation after the budget speech. Let us hope we can bang it together in celebration.”
Do you agree with Tony?
I am sure that he would be delighted to hear your views.
This week, in the countdown to the Budget, I thought it would be good to hear from our friends from other NGOs who have been engaged in the review of Habitats Regulations. Bats and newts have been in the firing line, so I am delighted that Julia Hanmer and Tony Gent (chief executives of the Bat Conservation Trust and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation respectively) have agreed to share their views through this blog.
Today, Julia provides her insights below.
"Martin mentioned last week the odd mixture of anecdotes in the case against the Habitat’s Directive including “bats shutting down places of worship”. For me, as both a passionate advocate of bat conservation and a committed Christian, I’m deeply aware of the need to find conservation solutions that work well for both people and for bats. That’s what bat conservation is all about, discovering solutions for people and bats to live together in harmony.
I’ve been dismayed by the bad press bats have had over the last 12 months - accused of stopping developments or costing the earth. Bats are one of the best examples of how necessary and important protective legislation is in helping threatened species and habitats. Bat populations declined steeply in the 20th century, but since they became protected the decline has stopped for many species and a few are even showing a small increase in population. Building and development has continued apace, but a whole network of expert volunteers, ecologists and researchers has grown up, working to discover more about bats and give people, from householders and churches, to developers and land managers, access to practical solutions that work for people and bats. A lot of the consternation about bats seems to stem from cases where this network of advice has failed, for example when mitigation to replace habitat or bat roosts that are lost is costly and does not work, or when people haven’t received the information or support they need at the right time. These issues can be addressed.
At the Bat Conservation Trust we don’t believe the solution is to attack the legislation. Rather it is to find ways of enabling development to go ahead in a sustainable way that works for wildlife and people. To do this we need to ensure people have access to the expertise, data and evidence they need to achieve truly sustainable development. Small investments in the capacity and training of expert advisors can have a big effect in providing access to high quality advice, whether it’s for developers or people with bat roosts in their home or place of worship. To continually improve this advice it is crucial we monitor mitigation - the practical solutions put in place to enable development. Mitigation for the loss of habitat and bat roosts doesn’t always work. Sometimes it is done badly, sometimes there are habitats that just can’t be replaced and other times it doesn’t work and we don’t know why. This is frustrating and disheartening for all concerned and makes for alarming headlines. Ecologists and developers need to monitor the mitigation and to be open about the results so we can learn lessons and share best practice. And we need to invest in data about bats and biodiversity to clarify the impact of decisions over proposed developments.
Next week we’ll know if George Osborne will respond to the widespread evidence that the Habitat’s Directive, far from being a burden to business, is a vital part of the mix needed to achieve sustainable development. Will he see sense? I hope so. Rather than attacking the Directives I would like to see the Chancellor focus on providing people with access to the expertise, information and evidence we need to implement it better."
Do you agree with Julia?
I am sure that she would love to hear your views. And I look forward to sharing Tony Gent's views on newts tomorrow.
A recent paper produced by my colleague Richard Gregory and Arco van Strien, statistician at Statistics Netherlands, has won the UniBio Press Award for Ornithological Science. This is another example of the excellence in the RSPB’s conservation science programme and deserved acclaim for Richard.
UniBio Press is the publisher of several biology-oriented academic journals. It is a non-profit organisation that distributes electronic journals including Ornithological Science and the journal of Ornithological Society of Japan.
The UniBio Press Award is given each year for each journal to the author(s) who produced their most frequently accessed paper in the previous year.
The paper is entitled: 'Wild bird indicators: using composite population trends of birds as measures of environmental health. Ornithological Science 9: 3—22 (2010).'
The paper reviews the strengths and weaknesses of using bird population trends as biodiversity indicators, and looks forward to how this work might be developed. There are a number of reasons to believe that birds might be useful indicators of biodiversity — they have a resonance and connection with people and their lives, they are sensitive to human impact and they are both well known and well recorded.
Wild bird indicators only measure a component of biodiversity change and they must be used with care to inform policy makers and land managers, but they have proven powerful tools in raising awareness of growing threats to nature and how nature is changing.
The wild bird indicators developed in Europe have already contributed to a global assessment of the 2010 biodiversity target and many European governments and the EU have adopted them for use. This work provides a blueprint for others to follow using similar information on other wildlife, and in other countries and regions around the world.
Congratulations, Richard! And here's to more awards for our team of scientists.
I spent the weekend under the flight path of a conservation success story – the red kite. While warming up for the cricket season in my friend’s Oxfordshire garden, we had, at times five red kites for company. Up close they are absolutely majestic animals.
It turned my mind to Gateshead where the Lib Dems assembled this weekend for their spring conference. The last time I was at a spring party conference in Gateshead was before the election in 2005. Labour were in town that year. We took time out to show a Number 10 official, Nick Rowley, red kites in the Derwent valley. He was a birder and political apparatchik. A useful combination when trying to influence the content of manifestos. Showing him red kites in all their glory may just have helped him feel more favourable towards environmentally friendly policies.
It’s been quite a weekend for the Lib Dems. They seem to have found their voice. About time too, some may cry.
Vince Cable's interview with the Guardian and his conference speech challenged the view that regulation is necessarily bad for economic growth. "I am going to confront the old-fashioned negative thinking which says that all government needs to do to generate growth is cut worker and environmental protections, cut taxes on the rich and stroke 'fat cats' until they purr with pleasure. I'm completely repudiating the idea that government has to get out of the way. Government has a positive role to play."
And then the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, seemed to direct his fire at the Chancellor, George Osborne, for suggesting in that now infamous autumn speech that there was a choice to be made between being green and backing growth.
Mr Clegg said: "What a load of rubbish. Going for growth means going green. The race is on to lead the world in clean energy. The new economic powerhouses – China, India, Brazil – are competing.
"So the choice for the UK is simple: wake up, or end up playing catch-up. Going green is not a luxury for the good times. It is the best road out of the bad times.
"Our party is the green party of government. We have always been a green party. And let me tell you this: we always will be a green party because we need an economy fit for the future to pull us out of this economic downturn."
I am pleased.
For the past ten years, the Liberal Democrats have argued that their was a green thread running through their policies. They have now been part of the coalition government for two years. It is time to match their rhetoric with action. And what better place to start than the Budget in nine days time.
But, despite the more positive noises to come out of Gateshead, and despite my rather obsessive interest in environmental politics, my friend's garden was absolutely the right place to be this weekend.
What did you think of the performance of the Lib Dems this weekend? Can you think of a better UK conservation success story than the red kite?
It would be great to hear your views.
A year ago today we handed the Prime Minister a list of 360,000 people that had signed the RSPB’s Letter to the Future. The letter was simple – it called upon politicians to think about the health of the planet while making big decisions about where to invest and where to make public spending cuts.
This was also the day that we launched our Stepping Up for Nature campaign. We wanted governments, businesses and individuals to work together to help meet the international commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity and begin its recovery by 2020.
One year on – how well are we all doing?
I am staggered that, since our launch, three million steps for nature have been taken. The millions of small steps taken by individuals certainly add up - from making homes for wildlife in people's gardens through to giving gifts of time by volunteering at our nature reserves.
We've played our part as well. We launched our Together for Trees partnership with Tesco to boost rainforest conservation. This is a great expression of what we are trying to achieve with the campaign: Tesco will help to raise £1million by engaging its customers and by working to reduce the forest footprint of its supply chain with a plan to sustainably source tropical commodities. We’ll work hard with our partners in seven countries to protect and restore 240,000 hectares of rainforest. And we will hold the UK Government to its commitment to finding the finance needed by other countries to help keep their tropical timber standing.
The UK Government also deserves credit for providing seed funding for the launch of 12 landscape-scale conservation projects (Nature Improvement Areas) in England. This has helped to create new partnerships that will leverage in an average £4 for every £1 invested by Government. That's a pretty decent use of public funds.
But, but, but...
Progress will be limited unless others in government listen to what those 360,000 people were saying last year. As with economic debt, any ecological debt that we create will be felt by our children. Sacrificing our natural assets for the sake of short term economic stimulus (such as buidling a new airport in the Thames Estuary) will sell our children short. The Budget will be a big test of whether those at the centre of government "get it".
So, I would like the Messrs Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander to take a moment to re-read our Letter to the Future, which more than 360,000 signed. The message is as pertinent today as it was a year ago. Once they've read it, I hope that they will decide to take their own steps for nature. They could start by greening the Budget and by recognising the positive role that environmental regulation (including the planning system) can play in safeguarding these assets.
Here is the letter in full.
I'm writing this now to make sure our children have a chance of growing up in a world worth living in.
Today there's still time to save nature.
If we act now, our children may yet be able to share their world with sparrows and polar bears, eagles and tigers. There's still a chance that they'll inherit a world where the engines of life - the air, seas, rivers and forests - are healthy. Where bluebell woods and rainforests won't be lost forever.
Yes, I accept that recovery from recession has meant spending billions of pounds - one way or another future generations will have to pay for this. The least we can do is to use this money to create a future they'll thank us for. I want governments to invest in a healthy economy and a healthy environment. As well as protecting jobs, I want them to tackle climate change and to protect our seas, countryside and wildlife.
I'm signing this letter to show that I care deeply about nature and the world we are creating for our children. In years to come I hope they'll be able to see that their world is a richer one because of the action we took today.
I'm hoping that many thousands of people will join me in signing it.
Together we can be a powerful voice for nature.
Yours in hope.
Have you taken a step for nature recently?
It would be great to hear if you have.