Marine Protected Areas 'must do better' for our sealife
If London’s streets were said to be paved with gold, Scotland’s riches come in a more liquid form. Throughout our history, Scotland’s seas have been the place to make fortunes: from the boom years of commercial fishing, through the extraction of hydrocarbons and vast expansion of aquaculture, to the modern day, with renewable energy the new industry on the block. With all this activity, it became clear that marine environmental protection- and with it, better planning- were critical.
Following a decade of campaigning, RSPB Scotland were delighted to see the Marine (Scotland) Act finally become law in 2010. We even went so far as to brief our partners in the EU about its excellence. After years of the Marine environment being the poor cousin, here was an opportunity to ensure it was placed at the heart of decisions on how and where human activity took place at sea. And there is no doubt the legislation is commendable in its scope and approach.
The origins of this legislation (and its English equivalent) lie in the “OSPAR Commission”- which implements the Oslo & Paris Conventions on the North East Atlantic. This initiative was taken forward at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development where world leaders agreed to a network of marine protected areas by the end of 2012. I was pleased to be present at this gathering and even more delighted to see Scottish ministers lead the way in supporting this commitment.
What an opportunity it is too, full of ambitious commitments which should help recover Scotland’s beleaguered seas, including duties on ministers to declare a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and create a National Marine Plan. Cross-party and industry support gave this idea real momentum, which one might have expected to continue for many years after the words became law.
Now, 10 years after the summit, and a couple of years since the legislation was passed, the reality is rather different. The plans to roll-out marine renewable energy and an oil and gas strategy aiming at £30bn in annual sales continue apace but we are still without the National Marine Plan, now two years late – the very document that is supposed to ensure these activities happen sustainably and that essential marine assets, especially wildlife, are not damaged inadvertently by the dash for development.
Most worryingly, the process of identifying protected areas – the cornerstone of any conservation programme - is the greatest missed opportunity. The marine environment has been notoriously under protected; despite Scotland’s international importance for marine creatures, from the highly visible seabirds and cetaceans, through to undersea communities of corals and sponges. It has too often been out of sight and out of mind. There is not one protected area safeguarding the important places where seabirds feed at sea. We hoped this would be rectified by the process to identify MPAs, but sadly they have been almost completely ignored in the process of selecting the proposed MPAs. The Scottish Government says seabirds will be adequately protected by sites designated under EU legislation – the current state of play gives us little faith that this will be the case with modest areas alongside breeding colonies protected, but nothing to safeguard the huge congregations found around our seas in the autumn and winter.
It is a big leap forward to have new protected areas in Scotland’s seas – but why the lack of ambition? Why, despite the promises made, does the environment get sidelined by politicians as secondary to economic interests? Even economically speaking, this is short-sighted - work commissioned by Scottish Environment LINK conservatively indicated that a network of Marine Protected Areas could bring as much as £10 billion in economic ‘value’ over 20 years to our economy.
Ecological sustainability is the foundation of economic sustainability. Surrounded as we are by such dazzling seascapes and productive waters, the Scottish Government forgets that at our peril.
I always look forward to reading the State of the UK’s birds, which is a great example of Government agencies and NGO collaboration. The efforts of thousands of volunteers and professional scientists is carefully presented in 40 pages to give an overview of how birds and (as birds are often proxies for the Natural environment) our natural habitats are faring.
This year’s report is as eye opening as ever, with its cover picture of a Southern rock hopper penguin (yes it’s a British bird and it occurs on a UK overseas territory), to the list of surveys current and planned (p. 36/7), it’s full of facts, things to celebrate and things to worry about. Quite rightly its release earlier in the week attracted much publicity and once again shows how serious evidence can have an impact. The question I suppose is can it influence politicians and decision makers to do the right thing? Having the evidence to underpin your case certainly helps, but bitter experience shows that alone it is often not enough – but let’s not be downcast.
From a Scottish perspective there is certainly some good news. Birds like Great spotted woodpeckers, goldfinch, great tits and whitethroats are on the up. We also know that thanks to the hard work of RSPB Scotland and many farmers and crofters, rare species like corncrakes are doing pretty well. The black grouse too has recovered from its low point 5 or 6 years ago thanks to efforts by landowners, forestry and conservation bodies.
Great spotted woodpecker by Tom Marshall
But this good news is somewhat overshadowed by the bad. Willow tits are in deep trouble down over 60% in 15 years and they have disappeared from much of their range in Scotland. The Arctic skua which nests on Orkney and Shetland has crashed and is now less than 1,500 pairs. Repeated food shortages have disrupted the breeding success of this lovely piratical seabird.
Arctic skua chick by Andy Hay
Seabirds in particular are now in serious trouble. The species most affected are those which feed on sandeels – particularly surface feeders like Arctic terns and kittiwake. Species such as Gannets which take discards and plunge dive for bigger fish continue to do well. It is the terns and kittiwakes where the problems occur. Indeed RSPB Scotland staff are reporting the loss of whole colonies of kittiwakes on Orkney and only tiny numbers of chicks in formerly thriving Arctic tern colonies on Shetland. The fall in breeding productivity and survival of these birds has been related to declines in sandeels – probably linked to changes in the zooplankton caused by warming seas.
Arctic tern by Chris Gomersall
One of the more curious facts from the report is on page 21, where an estimate of the biomass of all wild birds in the UK is given. This shows starkly that non native birds like Canada geese and pheasants make up approximately a quarter of the total bird biomass in the UK, despite forming only 3% of the bird population! One wonders what impacts this must have on the ecosystems into which they have been introduced – and how much commoner foxes and other generalist predators must be as a result! A quite thought provoking statistic.
Lastly on the seabird theme I am shocked by the serious declines in long -tailed ducks and velvet scoters. These birds nest around Finland and in the Baltic – they have crashed in numbers. I love visiting the sea wall at Musselburgh to watch them displaying in late winter on the sheltered waters of the Firth of Forth. This is a great wildlife spectacle which we cannot let go – for they are such wonderful birds and off the coast of Edinburgh is one of the best places in the UK to see them.
Long-tailed duck by Danny Green
We need to protect these Scottish wintering grounds through establishing Marine Protected Areas for them, and work internationally to save these species on their Baltic breeding grounds. Support our campaign to establish Scottish MPAs here.
Dirtier than coal
Scotland is a forested country, and our native pine forests are an important part of our identity. I’m proud that the RSPB Scotland owns and looks after some of the country’s most beautiful and important woodlands - such as the wonderful Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms National Park – but as well as conserving forests, we’re also ready to fell them when that’s the right thing to do for nature. Look at our work at Forsinard Flows, for example, where we’ve been restoring an enormous peat bog by removing hundreds of hectares of plantation forestry that should never have been established in such a precious place in the first place.
Bog pools and conifer plantation, Forsinard Flows
That’s why I read the RSPB’s new report – Dirtier than coal? – with great interest.
The premise of this report is that burning whole trees in power stations emits more carbon than burning coal. This is because wood is less energy dense than coal, which means it is bulkier to transport, requires drying, and is less efficient to burn.
Governments across the world, and the growing bioenergy industry argue that the emissions that come out of the chimney in a power station when wood is burnt can be counted as zero as they are neutralised by regrowth of the forest following harvest. In reality, it takes time for trees to regrow and recapture the carbon, thus a ‘carbon debt’ is created when the wood is burnt, and it can then take decades or even centuries for forests to regrow, recapture this carbon and repay the debt.
Taking conifer trees as an example, research has shown that burning the whole tree – including the trunk – emits 49% more CO2 than coal.
The Scottish Government have shown leadership on this issue, recognising the serious problems associated with using trees for industrial electricity generation. Critically, they have proposed a cap on the size of power stations they will support with public subsidy. However, they need to go further and ensure support for burning whole trees is ruled out entirely.
This isn’t just a carbon issue though. Across the UK, plans to burn trees in power stations will create an enormous demand for wood – Government projections suggest it could be as high as six times the total current UK wood production. Most of this wood will, of course, be imported from countries like Canada, the Baltic States and the USA, where their forests are already under serious pressure for the existing wood and paper industries.
That’s why conservation groups like the Dogwood Alliance – who work to protect the extraordinary wildlife of the USA’s Southern Forests – are opposing plans for new pellet plants that are coming forward to supply the UK and European bioenergy market.
I wish them the best of luck, because just as Abernethy is one of our great treasures, the Southern Forests are part of their natural heritage, and I for one do not want to see electricity generation in Scotland or the rest of the UK causing wildlife decline there, particularly when we have a huge renewable energy resource of our own in the wind, sun and waves.
What role does society expect farmers to play in caring for the countryside-and are farmers in the mood to be the custodians of our wildlife?
I am worried that all the efforts of those in the farming community to help address declines in wildlife in the farmed landscape are going to get ‘drowned out’ by the row over the badger cull. I am a bit of an observer on the sidelines, as Defra’s plans don’t affect Scotland, and just as importantly we are thankfully free of the bovine TB in Scotland. The RSPB’s views on the badger cull are set out here. We don’t consider the science justifies what is proposed.
But the stance adopted by the Government in England is a worry. Serious evidence and rational views promoted by well regarded scientists are being ignored, or in some cases traduced by some of the sillier statements from the NFU. It’s also noteworthy that you don’t see these farm leaders making rousing speeches exhorting farmers to do more for wildlife on their farms – instead lots of good people quietly get on with it below the radar – the RSPB actively celebrates them through the popular Nature of Farming Award, sponsored by the Daily Telegraph and run with our partners in Plantlife et al.
The big risk is that the approach adopted over the badger cull will create division between people who should work together, and equally worryingly some of the farmers who go the extra mile for wildlife may feel discouraged or isolated. The media will make this a farmer vs. animal lobby debate.
I think we are going through an odd time at the moment. Some farmers seem to be increasingly intolerant of the bits of nature they cannot bend to their will. And rather than work on the basis of evidence, science and pragmatic compromise politicians are selling wildlife short. This applies in Scotland as much as England.
Recently through some parliamentary questions from Alison Johnstone MSP we discovered that the Scottish Government and SNH were licensing the culling of some 600 ravens annually. It is permitted to licence the killing of ravens to prevent serious losses to crops, livestock and property. And don’t get me wrong ravens can attack young lambs. But 600 ravens out of a population estimated to be between 2,500-6,000 pairs (but more post breeding) is a fair percentage. It’s fair to ask what steps the farmers who suffer the losses are taking to minimise such impacts before reaching for the gun. And are some sporting estates controlling ravens under the cover of preventing loss or damage to sheep rearing interests-but really trying to rid themselves of another wild predator of red grouse - something not permitted by the legislation (or warranted)?
The publication Scottish Farmer is full of letters and comment based on anecdote often showing an implacable hatred of raptors, ravens and now geese. A recent letter stated that tolerance of Sparrowhawks by SNH had driven blackbirds to local extinction . In fact breeding blackbird numbers in Scotland are up 24% in the last 15 years. In Dumfries and Galloway a small population of red kites are reportedly decimating sand martin numbers – again the data shows sand martins are actually increasing all across the UK.
I am afraid farmers cannot divorce themselves from nature and control the wildlife they have on their land to suit these prejudices. The law, EU policies and the public think differently. And the public do have a say as they give their money very generously to farmers. Farmers should also be aware that serious declines in many of the bird species (and lots of bees, butterflies, plants and so on) found on farmland – started in the early 1970’s (and perhaps earlier but the data are scant) well before the recovery in numbers of buzzards, sparrowhawks or red kites. And although what has happened to some birds is stark-it is no less so for other groups of once common creatures.
Photo: Mike Edwards
No bird of prey has destroyed the great yellow bumble bee – once found in many parts of the UK, but now confined to Orkney, along the Caithness coast and parts of the Hebrides.(see map from NBN below). It was farming changes that caused it to decline. Detailed scientific investigations by bodies such as the BTO, RSPB, GWCT and NERC/ITE have produced copious evidence that changes to farming practice – often quite subtle changes, have had a huge impact on wildlife in the countryside all over the UK.
Great Yellow bumblebee records: 1900-1990 (yellow) and 1990-2010 (red). Data from NBN
The loss of stubbles as farmers adopted winter sown crops was one of the biggest changes. The drainage of wet areas, the loss of flower filled hay meadows to green silage fields and the switch away from mixed farming have all played a part. Specialisation, bigger machinery, pesticides and fertilisers have boosted production but have combined to leave less space for wildlife-not just birds. But rather than be implacably opposed to each other-many farmers/crofters and bodies like the RSPB recognise that we need farmers skills to help solve these problems-without them it’s simply not possible. So we must find sensible ways to do this-and lobby jointly for the policies, such as a well funded agri-environment schemes, to make it happen.
Let’s finish on geese. Geese graze grasses, and salt marsh and bog plants. Scotland is famous for its wonderful flocks of wintering geese. As farmers improved fields for agriculture, including wetlands and Merse where geese were always found – the geese soon learnt that these more productive swards were not just good for cattle and sheep, they were more nutritious for them too. Better nutrition means more survive the winter and return to their high arctic winter grounds in good condition. Breeding productivity increases..more return. So the geese are taking advantage of the farmland intensification that has been driven by production orientated Government subsidies, latterly via the CAP. Farmers now find that geese are damaging these intensively managed fields of grass. They want goose populations reduced, and the Government (ie you the taxpayer) to pay for this and compensate them for their losses. Geese have always been a part of the landscape – arriving every winter from the high Arctic. We have a legal and moral duty to care for them. We must also recognise that some farming systems in Scotland are highly valuable for wildlife. Big numbers of geese can cause farmers to change these beneficial practises so that areas which support corncrakes and corn buntings are lost. We need to explore all options so that wild goose populations and high nature value farming can coexist – that will need flexibility from all sides and a calm evidence based approach-with farmers playing their part as the custodians of the countryside and our wildlife. I for one am happy to lead RSPB Scotland down that path-who is joining me on the journey?
Red tape makes politicians go ape......
And quite a lot of other people too! Its a pretty regular occurrence to hear business leaders, farmers, politicians, doctors, teachers and many more professions bemoaning the stultifying effect of red tape, ‘jobs worths’ and the gold plating of EU rules that we in Britain apparently have to put up with. But the evidence to support this charge is less compelling as the ‘Davidson’ review demonstrated.
Sometimes I have been known to express my frustration with regulation! You can imagine the scene. RSPB Scotland is preparing to restore an area of habitat to its former glory – so it supports more scarce and declining species. Species which have been listed by the UK Government, and the Scottish Government as priorities for conservation action. The habitat was afforested by non-native conifers some 25 years ago (with no environmental considerations) by the previous owner who received a large slab of taxpayers money for his pains. Our proposals to restore the area are held up by 18 months so that an Environmental Assessment can be carried out and interested parties consulted. Were they consulted when the damage was done? Was an environmental assessment required? You can guess the answer!
So I do understand the frustration people can have with ‘mindless’ bureaucracy, which does not appear to be joined up or ‘sensible’, but imagine the scene for a moment if industry, developers,farmers or the forestry industry were allowed a free for all. Factories could discharge pollution into our rivers and seas. Smokestacks would belch toxic fumes into the air impacting our health and wellbeing. Your neighbour could extend his house blocking your amenities, farmers could drain wetlands, plough up moorlands, even kill protected species they viewed as pests, and spray pesticides willy nilly. Ancient woodlands could be felled without any sanction. Developers and Local authorities would construct new roads, housing and factories, often in inappropriate places of high landscape or conservation value. Or they would build in floodplains where storm events would flood out the new homeowners.
The fact is regulation is necessary to curb individual behaviour for the common good. To stand up for the wider public interest against short term gains. That way we can protect what is precious, and ensure our health and the environment is cared for-for the benefit of all,including those generations yet to come. But still the pressure to look for a light touch approach seems relentless as is the pressure on the regulators themselves, such as SEPA, or Planning authorities.
The latest red tape review affecting rural areas has recently been announced by the Scottish Government. My old friend Brian Pack has been pressed into service again. He has a wise head on his shoulders. I am confident the team chosen to do this task will approach their work thoughtfully under his lead. They should look at reviews which struggled to find gold plating of EU Environmental requirements. The review should be evidence led, and not be swayed by loud voices with vested interests. Certainly improvements can always be made and any unnecessary duplication should be challenged. But industries which rely on large sums of public money should not begrudge the public in having a say on how those businesses are conducted. That is why farmers who receive payments from the CAP are subject to ‘Cross Compliance’ or GAEC. This requires them to follow rules to maintain the land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition. In my view much energy is given over to the agricultural- from tagging sheep, measuring the exact boundaries of fields, deciding if land is rough grazing or not for example, and nowhere near enough on the Environmental. Including protecting watercourses and wetlands, keeping the scrub and hedges of value to wildlife, looking after protected areas and obeying laws not to poison protected birds and the like.
But as in all things the health of our people, the look of our countryside and the wildlife it supports depends on a balance of regulation which is open and fairly applied, and incentives which invest in those qualities that make our countryside (& towns and cities) something to be proud of. I certainly support the view that taxpayers should pay farmers and others for going the extra mile and changing their practises to benefit conservation-but all farmers, especially if they take the subsidy should deliver the basic requirements to protect soils, water and wildlife. If Brian Pack and his team can focus down on what really matters, and make regulation efficient and proportionate-in a way which helps improve our farmed Environment and the wildlife it supports, he will have done all society a big favour-not least the farming community.