August, 2012

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • What Price Power from the Severn?

    Gwyn Williams, Head of Reserves and Protected Areas, contributes this blog about the Severn Barrage, following this week’s publicity around a new proposal by Hafren Power:

    With a week gone, Martin’s prediction that it was likely to be a quiet fortnight is looking a little insecure, given the coverage over the weekend [19 August] to a new proposal from Hafren Power for an energy-generating barrage across the Severn!

    In thinking about energy, the RSPB starts from a similar place to most, including those who support a Severn Barrage: we need a renewable energy revolution to combat climate change. However, if energy developments are not to put even more pressure on a natural environment that is already deeply stressed and further threatened by climate change, we need to make sure we use the right renewables in the right places.

    The potential for energy generation from the Severn has attracted engineers since Victorian times. The most recent DECC study focussed on whether a scheme generating maximum power using current technology could be economic, and if so with what side-effects, including - very much as a secondary consideration - impacts on the natural environment. The RSPB strongly criticised this approach: we thought that the starting point should be to look for a type of technology which could provide maximum energy output from the Severn for minimum environmental harm. It took two years and a small forest of paper to conclude that construction of a high-head barrage with high-velocity turbines would be too costly, and result in big negative environmental side effects.

    Now Hafren Power has resurrected the idea, with a lower-head, low-velocity turbine concept, that it believes can still produce c5% of UK electricity needs, but with less harm to the environment than the high-head, high-velocity options which have been the focus of barrage proposals to date. The company has now presented its ideas to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a meeting brokered by ex-Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain MP. Mr Cameron is reported as being very interested and has instructed officials to look into the project.  Powerful sponsorship indeed!

    The undertaking remains mammoth – a wall over 18km long, housing over 1,000 turbines of 9 metres in diameter across an estuary with the second highest tidal range in the world.

    The company claims the barrage can be built without up front public funding, and that it can raise £30bn needed without public money, using sovereign funds from Qatar and Kuwait. Its ask of the UK Government is that the electricity generated should be subsidised in the same way as offshore wind energy, and that time should be made available for the ‘hybrid’ Parliamentary Bill necessary to give powers to the company to construct it.

    The big worry is obvious – that in order to give investors confidence to back the scheme, Government will reduce the scrutiny process to a minimum (think red-tape challenge, and all the proposals for planning reform!). We can expect the checks and balances on development projects created by the Birds and Habitats Directives to come under renewed pressure. It is also obvious that consumers will be expected to pay for the scheme through the new subsidy system that Government is currently designing as part of the Energy Bill, and that will be key to the scheme‘s viability. This will also have considerable implications for other forms of renewable power generation, given the current Treasury cap on renewable generation subsidies.

    So what are the environmental concerns? The big one is that whilst a lower-head barrage should reduce the immediate loss of mudflats, which are the reason why the Severn is so important for wildlife, the geomorphological impact of the structure will be felt for many decades and quite possibly over several centuries – and could eventually result in an impact as severe as the high head option. Removal of so much energy from the Severn is likely to result in sustained erosion of mudflats and saltmarshes, as the estuary seeks to find a new equilibrium to match the conditions created by the presence and operation of a barrage. 

    Once lifted by the tides, sediment is likely to be deposited into the deepest parts of the estuary in an attempt to reduce the depth of the channel. The result could be the loss of protective mudflats and the undermining sea-defences within the estuary - bad for wildlife and bad for people. The Dutch understand this well, having seen changes of this kind following the Eastern Scheldt barrage.

    The risk of extinction of important fish populations has always been a major concern in relation to tidal power generation in the Severn. The threat to migratory fish from low-velocity turbines should be less, but to date we have not seen evidence to support this, and much will depend on the design and deployment of untested technology.

    We continue to regard estuarine barrages with scepticism because of their high cost and potential for environmental damage.  However, as with the DECC study, we will seek to work constructively with Hafren Power to contribute to understanding of the implications of their proposals. A structure that will be with us for more than a century is just too big to get wrong!

  • Proof that we need to cherish protected areas across the UK

    Today’s guest blogger is Richard Bradbury from our Conservation Science team.

    Our changing climate is forcing wildlife to move in response (see this blog, 26th June) – yet for decades nature conservation has placed huge emphasis on protected areas which are, by their very nature, fixed – do they have a future as climate change takes its toll? The answer, which we reveal in a paper published today in a leading scientific journal, is a resounding yes.

    Here in the UK we have some very special place for wildlife. They have been shaped by both natural and human influences.  We have been left with a patchwork of sites that , with a few exceptions, require continuing management to maintain their nature conservation interest. We at RSPB are therefore great fans of protected areas – those sites like Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, where conditions can be managed for our special wildlife and where species are given critical protection from damaging development proposals.

    The legal protection these sites receive has been criticised as a barrier to economic development, though sense prevailed in the review of the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives in England back in March. But issues remain – one concern is that, if species ranges need to shift in response to climate change, all these sites will be in the wrong place, reducing their relevance.

    This sounds plausible, but it is flawed. Yes, some species may move out of some of the sites which have been designated for them, but research modelling the likely affects of climate change on species distributions suggests that many sites will retain their important species – in effect the quality of the site’s habitats will outweigh the impact of climate change for some time to come. Moreover, most sites are important for more than one species, so it’s unlikely that all the key species from a given site will move on.

    And here’s the crunch. A lot of rare and threatened wildlife is very picky about what it requires from the landscape, so given their sensitivity, where on earth will species on the move find suitable locations to set up new homes anyway? Today’s paper, published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles this question head on.

    Led by the University of York, with RSPB among the research partners, the paper capitalises on two things. First, in the UK we have a wonderful collection of data on the distributions of a wide range of wildlife, thanks to the magnificent efforts of both professional, and especially amateur, recorders. The paper was therefore able to analyse millions of records of wildlife species, sent in predominantly by members of the public. Secondly, and thanks largely to the availability of these great data-sets fuelled by citizen science, the UK has been at the fore-front of demonstrating that our wildlife is already responding to climate change, with wildlife as varied as birds, butterflies and dragonflies already showing strong northwards movements.    


    Dartford Warbler, Ben Hall (rspb-images-com). One of the species shown by the study to be using protected areas to help its northwards spread.

    In this paper, we were able to show the absolutely crucial role of protected areas in these northwards movements. On average, when arriving in new locations, species as varied as birds, beetles and spiders were around four times more likely to colonise protected areas than might be expected, given how much of the land surface they cover. And yes, we did account for any differences in recording effort between protected areas and other places! For seven species of birds and butterflies that we were able to study in the greatest detail, 40% of new colonisations occurred in the 8.4 per cent of the land that was protected, even though those sites hadn’t originally been protected for those species.

    So, here is convincing proof that these sites will remain crucially important under climate change. Even if the composition of species within them may change, they remain the most important parts of the landscape for our most picky and vulnerable species.

    Interestingly, despite the overwhelming importance of protected areas, the paper found that some sites which are not currently protected were also important. It will be crucial to assess these sites, and protect them where appropriate, if we are to complete the network called for in the Making Space for Nature and achieve the landscape-scale conservation that will be so crucial to helping our wildlife adapt to the challenge of climate change.

    Perhaps this isn’t surprising, but it’s always good to have the data to prove the apparently obvious! So, a huge thank you to everyone who submits their records and makes these analyses possible! And it provides another good reason to make sure that we cherish our protected areas across the UK, and that we have the resources to look after and manage them properly.

    Have you noticed nature changing in ways which might be caused by climate change? If so, please do share your experiences below.

  • A special announcement

    I am now on holiday.  While there may be the odd guest blog appearing here, it is likley to be a quiet fortnight.  Normal blog service will resume on 28 August.