The debate about windfarms is heating up again. Earlier this year, 100 Tory MPs wrote to David Cameron calling for a cut in subsidies to onshore wind farms and last week Donald Trump appeared in front a Scottish Parliamentary Committee complaining that wind farms (not golf courses on SSSIs) will destroy Scotland.
LIke the rain, this is a public policy debate that will just not go away.
I remember soon after my arrival at the RSPB in 2004 that two representatives of the renewable industry were (jokingly?) overheard issuing death threats to my predecessor given his and the RSPB's views about windfarms. We had the temerity to oppose windfarms which would cause damage to wildlife.
Three years ago, we received a similar backlash when we published a report which outlined ways in which the planning system could evolve to enable more wind farms to be built in ways that did not harm to wildlife.
In the intervening years, many colleagues have been caught in the cross-fire attacked by those who want us to oppose developments which pose no problems to wildlife and those who do not want us to oppose developments that do.
This can be wearing, but I rarely hear a complaint from staff working tirelessly on the frontline (often in the communities) of these developments. And here's a little secret - we have lost members from both sides of the argument.
But, despite this pain, we will continue to do what we think is right both to protect wildlife and to tackle climate change.
Our policy is clear.
We think that climate change is the greatest threat to wildlife and that unless we take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly, a third of land-based species will be committed to extinction.
We have supported successive governments' targets to reduce these emissions in line with the science. We have argued that this demands a revolution in the way that we use and generate energy. This means a massive reduction in the amout of energy we use and a significant increase in the amount of renewable energy.
But we want this energy revolution to take place in harmony with the nature environment which means that we want to ensure renewable developments do not cause needless harm to wildlife.
This policy has guided our input to debates about bioenergy, barrages and of course windfarms and is informed by the emerging science about the impacts of renewable energy on wildlife. This includes research published recently which showed that moorland breeding waders are displaced by wind farm construction and that the real threat for some species is not from the turning blades of the turbine itself, but from the construction work which happens before they are even switched on. The study did not focus on birds of prey or migrating swans and geese, where collision with turbine blades is more often a damaging impact of wind farm development.
The policy has also guided our commitment to reduce our own carbon footprint. We have, for nearly a decade, sought to reduce our emissions from business travel and from our estate. I am proud at what we have achieved and am delighted to have been able to announce ten days ago our intention to build a wind turbine at our Headquarters.
We’ve always supported taking power from the wind, waves, the tides, the ground, and anything else that can justifiably be labelled as a renewable energy source that doesn’t damage the environment.
But we know there are some proposals out there – like the Lewis windfarm or the 2008 proposal for a barrage from Cardiff to Weston across the river Severn – that don’t meet sensible environmental standards. Based on the available science, we believe they'd harm the environment and are not essential in the fight against climate change - there are more environmentally benign solutions. And for this reason, we’ll continue to oppose them robustly, and other developments like them.
The statistics tell a story - from 2006-2010, we commented on 1288 wind farm applications and upheld objections to about 55 (4.3%).
If any renewable energy proposal threatens sensitive wildlife through its operation or construction, we’ll oppose it. But if it won’t have an adverse impact on the wildlife around it then – just as we always have – we won’t stand in its way. Indeed we should be encouraging it to go ahead.
Why? Because we can't afford to. I don’t mean financially – although opposing stupid windfarms proposed for inappropriate locations can be very expensive and time-consuming – but because the planet cannot afford to.
For the foreseeable future, we need wind energy to combat climate change. If we are going to wean our planet off fossil-fuel based energy production before we reach the point when climate change can’t be stopped, we need dramatic action. We need to find a constructive way through the obstacles that are currently preventing this. If we don’t act now, we’re effectively condemning thousands of species of animals and plants to extinction. And threatening the lives of millions of people.
We’re passionate about the natural world around us. If something threatens that environment, whether it’s climate change or an inappropriately sited windfarm application, we’re duty bound to challenge it.
I recognise the emotion tied up with wind turbines - some love them, some hate them. And this fuels propoganda on both sides. I argue that the climate crisis demands a serious debate based on evidence and not rhetoric or half-truths.
We will contiune to do what we can to make sure that we get the wind energy we need, in the right places, and in time to tackle the climate crisis. We will continue to work with the Government, planners, developers and other NGOs, to secure this outcome, and the future of the wildlife on our planet.
What's your view of wind farms? Love them? Hate them? Love them in the right place?
It would be great to hear your views.
The hosepipe ban comes in tomorrow, so I thought I would dedicate this week's blogs to the drought. Today, I focus on what we are doing to manage water for wildlife on our land.
As an aside, I spent yesterday at Hope Farm with John Godfrey, the chairman of the the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (and, so I found out, President of Scunthorpe United). It is always good to share our experiences with key figures in the farming sector, to demonstrate how we have managed to triple the numbers of farmland birds whilst maintaining profitability. And it is always good to get fresh perspectives and learn from others.
As ever, we were accompanied by our farm manager, Ian Dillon. Ian has the (enviable) responsibility of ensuring that the farm delivers decent harvests of wheat, beans, oil seed rape as well as delivering more wildlife. He seems to enjoy the pressure but has been fretting about the lack of rainfall. He was clearly a relieved man when, at the end of the day, the rain finally arrived. The change in the weather will doubtless bring cheer to many farmers in the east and south of England, but will, unfortunately, do little to address the drought we are facing - we will need serious rainfall this autumn and winter.
But, it is not just farmers that will feel the effect of the drought. Many site managers of wetland reserves up and down the country will also be feeling the heat.
With great foresight, our reserves ecology team have developed a water management audit for drought vulnerable sites and this is now underway. This will help site managers identify leaking structures like weirs and sluices and indicate where and how water can be moved around a site to optimise the success of breeding waders and other target species. As each site is different, we think that a site-by-site assessment is the best way to come up with tailored plans for each situation. We hope to share this approach with other land managers and the statutory agencies, Natural England and the Environment Agency, to help provide other wetlands with the resilience they need in the face of further drought.
There are a range of things that we can do when to help our sites cope with severe water shortages. We can store water in reedbeds, ditch systems and in shallow floods and scrapes. Some sites have ‘reservoirs’ that double-up as reedbeds – and these are designed to release water into adjoining wet grasslands to help maintain ideal conditions for breeding waders in the event of prolonged dry weather (and up to 18 months of drought).
Site managers are encouraged to eke out what water they have and target it at specific parts of reserves where wader productivity has the chance of being high; and it is a testimony to their hard work that many sites are looking in good condition despite the drought.
I should say that we have welcomed the ‘one-off’ flexibility for wetlands with abstraction licences which may help get water into those sites if water becomes available in the next few months. Most of our reserves that have licences have winter-only licences that stop at the end of March and our wardens are working with local Environment Agency staff to identify previously unused sources of water like that lost from pumped drainage. Sites such as Frampton Marsh are being helped with this, and Elmley now uses water previously lost from Windmill Creek by Environment Agency pumps.
We think that this planned approach will help us deliver what wetland wildlife needs. I have a feeling that this will become a feature of management planning for years to come. But dealing with environmental change is all part of running some of the UK's finest wildlife sites.
Tomorrow I shall outline what we can do to help and offer an agenda for the Government and water companies to follow.
How do you think we should be managing water for wildlife?
It would be great to hear your views.
Phragmites reed and other plants silhouetted, at the edge of a pool. Frampton Marsh RSPB reserve, Lincolnshire
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Today the hosepipe bans comes in for parts of eastern and southern England. Yes, it is snowing or raining in many parts of the UK and it is doubtful that anyone will be reaching for their hose this weekend, but the ban is a symptom that we just have not had the right amount of rain.
While not all of us are covered by the ban, we all have a role to play in both responding to the drought and in taking the necessary steps of minimising the impact of future droughts.
Yesterday, I outlined some of the things that we are doing to respond to the drought and manage water for wildlife on our reserves.
Today, I want to offer those simple things we can do in our own lives and what government and water companies should do.
There are some simple things that we can do to reduce the water we use in their home and garden which will help to protect rivers and wetlands.
...take short showers rather than baths ...use water butts and used water from washing up bowls and basins to water gardens and house plants and water in the evening to reduce loss from evapo-transpiration...only use washing machines and dishwashers when you have a full load...comply with hose-pipe ban restrictions and please don’t use hose-pipes or sprinklers in the garden or to clean your car...contact your water company for water efficient shower heads, water butts and shower timers....use drought-resistant plants in the garden and use ample compost and mulch to retain soil moisture...if you’re buying new bathrooms or ‘white goods’ go for the most water efficient kit available (which will also save energy of course)
[I have to say that this was a little painful to write as I do like baths, but I am determined to shake the habit.]
We can also help garden wildlife by...
...considering leaving some water (from your butt) for birds to drink and bathe....maintaining an area of mud to help freshly arriving migrant birds like swallows and martins gather material for their nests.
And it is worth remembering that our heathlands are very dry at the moment (70 acres of Ashdown Forest burnt just 2 weeks ago) so please also please take care whilst out and about in the countryside. Threatened species like the nightjar and the Dartford warbler, and rare reptiles like the sand lizard and the smooth snake, are exceptionally vulnerable to the risk of fire.
While the RSPB is urging the public to play its role in helping our river and wetland wildlife through this drought, we are also working with the government and its agencies to help make sure that we and our environment can cope better with future droughts.
...more investment in the next water industry business plan period (2015-2020) to renew our mains infrastructure to help drive wasteful leakage down (leakage in the drought areas has flatlined since the last drought as most companies are at their so-called economic level of leakage despite environmental risks and social concern which hinders drought management). ...action to stop water company abstractions that threaten our most important rivers and wetlands even when there is no drought....far greater efforts made to make our society water efficient and to painlessly cut consumption levels from 160 litres per head per day toward 100 litres per head per day.
We will also be continuing our efforts to change the way we manage water in the countryside to retain more water in the landscape, to help protect and enhance our precious aquifers and to reduce the waste of land drainage. We think that habitat repair and creation have an important role in protecting our groundwater sources of water from pollution while also helping to prolong the period of recharge (Soil Moisture Deficits are made worse by intensive agricultural activities above aquifers).
So we (including me) can all do our bit and step up for nature in times of drought.
What about you? Are you doing your bit?
P.S. I am off to Wales next week for a short break before our Members' Weekend in York. We may or may not have some guest blogs lined up for you next week. I'm not sure yet! In any case, have a great Easter weekend.
On Thursday, a housepipe ban will be introduced to large parts of southern and eastern England. Eight water companies have said they will impose water restrictions after two very dry winters have left reservoirs, aquifers and rivers below normal levels. Across East Anglia - where I live - the last six months have been the driest since records began in 1921.
While many of us do not use (or even have) a hosepipe, the introduction of a hosepipe ban is a warning to all of us to be responsible water consumers. And even though (with impeccable timing) the weather looks like it has turned and we'll have a wet and cold Easter, as reported by the Environment Agency here, a long wet spring and summer will not necessarily provide a lasting solution if followed by another dry autumn and winter.
The impact of the drought will not just be felt by gardeners and farmers.
I wrote in February here about the threat that the drought posed for wildlife. At the time, site managers at our southern and eastern England wetland reserves were expressing concern about the forthcoming breeding season. Since then reports are coming in of desperate times for many of our wetland reserves.
For example, our Nene Washes reserve near Peterborough is in danger after failing to flood - this would be bad news for the wetland wildlife especially for black-tailed godwit as the Nene is the most important breeding site for this species. My colleague Phil Burston was quoted at the wekend as saying "our other worst-hit areas are in Kent such as Elmley marshes on the Isle of Sheppey and Northward Hill on the Hoo peninsula. The lack of water is wiping out wading birds".
I have feeling that the interest and concern about the drought will only grow. So, for the rest of this week, I shall dedicate this blog to what can be done about the drought.
I shall share what we are doing to try to manage water on our sites to support wetland wildlife, what we should all be doing in our homes to be responsible water consumers and finally I shall outline what we think government and water companies should be doing to provide long term solutions to water shortages.
And as ever, whether you are in a drought area of not, I'd be delighted to hear your views.
I'm still on holiday but in my absence, I've asked Richard Gregory to share an insight into his world with you. Richard is Head of Species Monitoring and Research here at the RSPB.
When you think about nature and what is important, it’s natural to think about blue whales, tigers and pandas, the rarest and the most threatened anywhere on earth, but we have our share of rare and threatened animals and plants in miniature in the UK.
They are important to us and we at the RSPB would argue that we have a moral responsibility to look after them. Some of them don’t live anywhere else in the world, most have been in long-term decline, others are known from a tiny number of sites or just a few individuals and for others, we hold a significant part of their total European population.
They are precious, weird and wonderful and many are suitably named. Some sound regal like the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, the Noble Chafer or the Royal Splinter Cranefly, whilst others conjure more sinister images like the Black Night-runner, the Wart-biter or the English Assassin Fly – but they’re all worth saving! So, in different ways and for different reasons they are vulnerable to being lost and we need to do our bit make sure they are safe. They are our ‘crown jewels’ when it comes to nature.
A whole range of people and organisations from individual experts to NGOs and governmental agencies work terribly hard to catalogue, count and protect them and the places they live - we do this for birds and other wildlife ourselves - but you might be surprised to learn that overall there is no system to track their fate.
We could lose the lot and we would not know. We could have lost the lot and we would not have known. I exaggerate for effect but this is almost true.
The last assessment of the status of our rare and threatened animals and plants in the UK was in 2008 and this looked at less than half the relevant species, and since then there has been nothing……radio silence.
The reasons for this are complicated, linked both to changes in government, devolution and changes in strategies. I have attended two workshops in the space of two weeks recently to talk about how we fix this problem.
The good news is that there is a real appetite to do so from both NGOs and government agencies as well as a willingness to work together. We need to check on the status of our priority animals and plants and track their fate. By doing this we will be able to assess how we are doing on an annual or near annual basis and act accordingly. We know a huge amount about some of these species, like some of the butterflies, birds, mammals and plants but hardly anything about others and expertise is thin on the ground. Part of what we want to do is to fill these gaps in knowledge. We don’t want to be responsible for losing some of our rarest wildlife on our watch.
What can you do? Visit your local nature reserve and learn about the special wildlife that lives there. Why not help out with their local recording efforts? It is a great way to help and learn at the same time. There are a wide variety of recording schemes for wildlife, from birds to mosses. Some need a high level of expertise to contribute, but for others complete novices can make valuable contributions – the more that contribute, the better.
The RSPB sees this as a real priority for nature conservation in the UK, do you share our view?