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“Simon Says” – Oil in Poole Bay: now is the time to stand up for wildlife

April 6, 2018

oil-rig-2191711_1920

(Above an example of an offshore oil rig)

Drilling in Poole Bay

Recently a proposal to drill a 1,800m deep exploration oil well out at sea in Poole Bay was sent around for consultation.  It would be just 6 km (3.7 miles) east-north-east from Studland, somewhere south of about Boscombe pier.  Strictly speaking it was the Environmental Impact Statement that was sent out.  Sited in the middle of Poole Bay and in a potential Special Protection Area, the mobile drilling unit would be on-site for up to 45 days.  By drilling the romantically named 98/11-E well, the company is looking to see if there is sufficient oil in reservoirs that can’t be reached from the existing wells on land at Wytch Farm.

Dumping waste in Dorset’s seas

20 years ago as a youngish aspiring applied research scientist I worked in a large Norwegian research institute in Stavanger.  I led a team of scientists helping various petroleum companies with decommissioning: the removal or shutting down of oil production infrastructure in the North Sea after the oil fields were exhausted.  One of the main issues was what to do with the large piles of drilling waste that remained on the sea floor.

In order to help lubricate the drill bit and to bring the chips of rock (cuttings) to the surface, drilling muds are used during the exploration drilling process.  In the early days of the North Sea oil rush both cuttings and muds were dumped at sea under the drilling platforms.  As some of the muds were oil-based and some of the cuttings were from inside an oil reservoir, it meant that the area around a drill cuttings pile could be polluted.  Indeed some scientists found traces of pollutants from the piles hundreds of miles away.

Nowadays we are more enlightened and technology has improved so that the muds and cuttings are separated off.  The muds are reused and rarely oil-based, whilst the cuttings can be brought safely to shore for land-fill.

Imagine then my surprise to read, 20 years later, that the proposal by Corallian Energy to drill an exploratory well in Poole Bay included the dumping of about 1.7 million kg of drill cuttings and muds in the Bay.  These were expected to be dispersed by the currents – even worse than building up a mound.

Bottlenose Dolphins © Stewart Canham

(Bottlenose dolphin © Stewart Canham)

The risks from pollution

From an environmental and marine wildlife perspective I think this is far from acceptable and completely un-necessary.  It is not as a nimby that I say that Poole Bay is the last place we should allow oil drilling.  Some sites, such as this are far too sensitive.  Within only a few square miles we have a major part of Dorset’s economy and reputation.

Dorset is not the industrial heartland of the country.  We don’t have steel smelters, aluminium works or car production plants.  We had our chance in Victorian times but chose wool over coal thank goodness.  Dorset does though have a thriving economy and businesses based in a large part on our natural environment.  A clean, healthy Dorset, and Poole Bay in particular, is vital for the tourism, commercial fishing, aquaculture, boating, angling and transport industries.  Add to that the resources we get from the sea or the fish, shellfish, dolphins and seals, sea birds, seaweeds and habitats such as rocky reefs, sandy gullies and seagrass beds, and you have a real concentration of riches between Old Harry and Hengistbury Head.

Undulate ray by Peter Tinsley

(Undulate Ray © Peter Tinsley)

A blow-out, such as happened to BP in the Gulf of Mexico or the type of chronic pollution found in the North Sea would be a disaster for wildlife and the local economy for years to come.  Now admittedly it would be over-dramatic to think that the Gulf of Mexico accident could happen in the far smaller scale operation planned for Poole Bay, but the geography is far smaller and more compact in Poole Bay.

The environmental record of oil production in Poole Harbour with BP and then Perenco was very good.  The drilling on land at Wytch Farm was carefully regulated and impacts very restricted.  That’s much easier to do on land than out at sea.

In my previous job I was sent to cover the Prestige oil tanker disaster off the northern coast of Spain.  Again, a much bigger scale than could happen as a result of the Poole Bay well, but the lesson to be learned from La Coruna was that the oil pollution damaged the reputation of fishing, aquaculture and tourism in the area for many years.  The market for the seafood products from there and tourism was compromised for many years after there was actually any residual pollution.  With a newly environmentally certified fishery in Poole Harbour, high quality shellfish farms, sea grass beds in and around Studland so important for a wide range of sea life including seahorses and undulate rays, and the newly designated Poole Rocks Marine Conservation Zone, there is just too much of importance to risk with an oil well close by in this day and age.

What about climate change?

Added to those local pollution concerns are questions about whether we should be drilling for yet more oil at a time when the government is struggling to reach our climate change targets.  Investment in renewable energy is now the way forward. The government’s Green Growth strategy is calling for a significant acceleration in the pace of decarbonisation in the UK.  Recent analysis shows that burning the reserves in already operating oil and gas fields alone, even if coal mining is completely phased out, would take the world beyond 1.5°C of warming.  It is difficult then to see how this proposal could fit in with the Green Growth Strategy or the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Spiny seahorse © Emma Rance

(Seahorse in Studland Bay © Emma Rance)

Not in Poole Bay

So my and Dorset Wildlife Trust’s objections to this speculative proposal is not because we are against development, nor is it a nimby approach.  Also I admire the more forward-thinking elements of the petroleum industry, especially having worked for them for many years.  If they turn their minds to it this industry has the money, experience and technology to apply to reduce the risks of damage to the environment and harm to wildlife.  Why then isn’t this being done in Poole Bay?  Why are 1.5 million kg of drill cuttings and drilling muds being dumped in our Dorset seas.  Local interests stopped the development of the Navitus Bay wind farm which was a far more benign and environmentally valuable project.  How is drilling for oil in such a rich and important area acceptable?

Personally, especially with drill cuttings and muds being dumped into the sea, I just can’t see this project as being necessary for society and too great a risk for the environment and community in Poole, Bournemouth and Purbeck.  I therefore hope the authorities will not grant the necessary licences, or in the very least require environmental standards appropriate for this sensitive, valuable and important site.  Now is the time we need to stand up for wildlife.

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“Simon Says” – The cost of wildlife crime in Dorset.

March 9, 2018

Dorset isn’t exactly the Caracas of the UK when it comes to crime rates, but we certainly do have several issues relating to wildlife crime that our staff, the police and various authorities have to deal with.  Some of you may not think of these as crimes, but some have received a lot of public attention.

Bats and planning

LONG EARED BATS - N BROOKS

Last month Dorset Police announced that a developer in Bournemouth had been sentenced to pay £2,500 under the Proceeds of Crime Act, with other fines and costs, all for demolishing a roost of a protected species of bat.  This is only the second case ever where the Proceeds of Crime Act featured bats.

The sizeable costs indicated that the judge took this case serious as she or he should.  There really isn’t any excuse for this these days.  Developments are so rarely stopped because of the presence of a protected species.  It just means that a developer needs to make a bit more effort – as they should.  I was talking to the boss of a well-known estate agent in Poole recently and he was expressing the usual concern about, “newts getting in the way of progress”.  I was able to explain that in most of Dorset there is now a protocol that protects wildlife and helps developers.  Yes both are possible at the same time.  The Dorset system is based around getting a good outcome for nature rather than just a set of hard and fast rules.  As long as a developer identifies wildlife issues at an early stage and takes steps to ensure that the species are in some way better off after the development than before, then that is a net gain for wildlife and should in most cases still allow the development to continue.

True, it may cost a little more than if there were no protected species and habitats present, but that is the price to pay for benefiting from our common resource – nature.  It is the responsibility of everyone, in Dorset or otherwise, to ensure they don’t degrade the county.  That developer paid the price and would probably have paid a lot less had they followed the law.

Trees

In addition to the principle of not degrading the environment, another principle that is protected in law is in effect one where we all need to do our bit.  This is shown most obviously in TPOs (Tree Protection Orders).  In my area of the county, most trees above a certain size are protected by TPOs.  Borough of Poole do a great job of enforcing this with reasonable fines for offenders, but they are sensible about it.  If you have a tree that is inappropriately large near housing you can still apply for a licence to remove it, usually on condition that you plant a replacement somewhere on your property.  However, if a tree has landscape value then it needs protecting.  If we all wanted to remove trees from our property (classic “not in my backyard” philosophy) then what a sad, hard, degraded environment we would live in. We all need to do our bit and plant or keep trees wherever possible for the sake of the whole community.

Two developers near me were sentenced for ring-barking, the removal of a ring of bark so that the tree would die apparently of natural causes.  This was just greedy because they had bought the land for £4.5m and intended to sell the developed plot for £11.2m.

Water fines

The River Allen © Amanda Broom

Another principle protected by law is ‘polluter pays’.  Our Dorset rivers such as the Frome, Piddle and Stour are fabulously rich in wildlife as they are a rare type of river called chalk streams.  They are sensitive and need all the protection we can give them, not just for wildlife but because we drink the water in the catchment.  The authority protecting our rivers, the Environment Agency (EA) has the power to apply civil penalties.  In some cases where a company, that has polluted a water course or doesn’t have the right permits, can agree to fund remediation through restoration of the environment.  DWT has received several such pots of funding which we have used to do some great work restoring or improving rivers to make them better for wildlife.  We’d rather these companies didn’t pollute in the first place, but at least we can make something good come out of the offence.

IFCA fishing

In the days of the old fishing authority illegal fishing was rife in Dorset with one of the centres for this important, insidious type of wildlife crime being Poole Harbour.  Since the Southern IFCA (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority) took over, such crimes have decreased markedly.  The IFCA has worked with a carrot and stick to deal with the bad guys, by encouraging them to fish legally and by greater enforcement through clever intelligence to catch them if they don’t.

Even the courts seem to be coming around.  Until very recently there seemed to be a principle that it was better the criminals were out at sea doing something wrong than in someone’s house.  However the fines recently have been closer to counteracting the potential benefits of the crime.  Last year two fishermen over the border in Southampton Water were fined £5,000 each for obstruction when one used his boat to block the IFCA Officers whilst the other dumped his illegal catch overboard.

This sort of crime not only depletes marine wildlife, but commonly degrades habitats, often in protected areas, and damages the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen.

Dogs

Woman walking dogs, Inshriach Forest, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

Finally dogs.  Almost all of DWT’s nature reserves are open access and we encourage people to enjoy nature without damaging the wildlife in them.  Many such sites are however sensitive, either from the nutrients dog mess leaves behind, or to disturbance from the dogs themselves.  This is especially true in the bird-nesting period or near livestock.  On open-access land dogs must be on a short lead between 1st March and 31st July and at all times near livestock.  “Reckless” disturbance of specially protected birds like the heathland specialists Dartford Warbler and woodlark whilst they are nesting is also an offence.  Many dog owners are very responsible and understanding, but I’ve met some that aren’t and give the good owners a bad name.

Our wardens are very diplomatic in asking owners to keep their dogs on a lead, but it is surprising how many think their dog is under control, even though they are ranging far and wide on a sensitive site like a heath.  The principle here is consideration for others and for wildlife, though we want people to enjoy nature and thus support its protection.

The most common wildlife crime in Dorset sadly is poaching of deer using dogs.  DWT has on occasion had incidents of this on our nature reserves.

In principle

These are just a few of the crimes against wildlife that are surprisingly common in Dorset.  The laws are there.  We have to make sure they are enforced in a sensible, sensitive, balanced way and that the punishment matches the financial gain from the crime.  It’s often as much about maintaining a set of sensible principles as it is about adhering to the law.

Photos (in order)

Long-eared bats at The Urban Wildlife Centre, Poole © Nigel Brooks

The River Allen © Amanda Broom

Dog walking © Peter Cairns

 

Species of the Month – The fascinating world of toads and toadspawn

March 5, 2018

My name is Jack Bedford and I am an Assistant Community Conservation Officer for Dorset Wildlife Trust. As part of my job, I am responsible for organising the ‘Species of the Month’ programme, our project for recording wildlife across the county. One of the best aspects of working on ‘Species of the Month’ is researching each of the species. I search for the important facts about the animal, plant or fungus, such as how to identify it, its diet or growth pattern and its behaviour, to give a good overview of the species. I also look for interesting and quirky facts to include, so people have a chance to learn something new and entertaining.

Usually, I find a few interesting facts to include each month. But whilst researching for March’s ‘Species of the Month’, the toad, I hit the proverbial gold mine of fun facts! I only use around three facts in the page, so I thought I would share some more, that didn’t make the final cut, here.

First things first, the reason the common toad is our Species of the Month for March is that at this time of year, toads are coming to ponds to mate and lay their eggs. Males latch onto females in a position known as ‘amplexus’ (which is Latin for ‘embrace’), grasping under the females ‘armpits’. When the female is ready, she begins to lay her eggs, which the male then fertilises. Incredibly, toads can lay between 600 and 5000 eggs in two strings, which can measure up to three meters in length!

Another surprising fact I discovered about toads is their longevity. A wild toad can reach 10-12 years, an impressive age for a relatively small animal. However, in captivity, common toads have managed to reach an astounding age of 50 years! Their long lives could in part be thanks to the toxin they produce in their skin. This makes them foul tasting to most predators, sparing them a grizzly fate. That is, unless the predator is a grass snake or a hedgehog; apparently, neither is bothered by the toxic taste!

Toads benefit from their toxins in ponds too. The tadpoles contain the same toxins, and so are left alone by hungry fish. This means that you may well find toads in a garden pond with fish, whereas any frogs would likely be eaten! Although toads spawn in ponds, and spend the first part of their lifecycle in water, they actually pass most of their lives away from waterbodies. They can be found several kilometres from ponds or lakes and spend the winter in holes in the ground or log piles. That being said, toads have been found in some very startling places. In 2007, a team of researchers were using a remotely operated vehicle to survey the waters of Loch Ness. The vehicle’s cameras captured footage of a toad crawling along the bottom of the Loch, 98 meters below the surface!!! A bit deeper than your average toad pond!

Toads are known to travel between areas of water, but did you know they sometimes provide transport to other creatures? A scientific study by Kwet in 1995 found that a tiny freshwater clam (Sphaerium corneum) moved between ponds by catching a lift on the toes of toads! These clams grow to be a maximum of 1.3cm in diameter, it probably isn’t much of a burden for the toad.

Along with all of these incredible facts about toad biology, these amphibians are the subject of a multitude of folklores. Toads have long been associated with evil, or regarded as bad omens, possibly due to their toxic secretions. They were often linked to witchcraft, with women suspected of being witches having their houses searched for toads. If one was found, it served as confirmation! To add to the toad’s infamy, in the European Middle Ages, toads and frogs became closely linked with the Devil, with a coat of arms created for Satan, featuring 3 of the creatures!

Despite the often negative portrayal of toads, they are sometimes regarded in a more positive light. Up until the 19th century, people known as ‘toad doctors’ would use toads as a cure for scrofula (a skin disease) as well as other illnesses, perhaps ironically believed to be caused by witchcraft! The toad doctors would put a toad (or just one’s leg!) in a bag to be hung around the patient’s neck and wait for the patient to be healed!

Finally, and fittingly for this time of year, the author George Orwell apparently wrote an essay called ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, in which he declared toads emerging from their winter sleeps as one of the most moving signals of spring. If Orwell’s opinion, and all of these bizarre facts, haven’t convinced you to go out looking for toads, then I’m not sure what could!

If you’ve spotted a toad or toadspawn, let us know by filling in our online form by clicking here.

“Simon Says” – Marine Plastic: Time to end the plastic tide

February 2, 2018

 

A blue planet too

Conservationists have been warning of the problems of plastic waste especially in our oceans for years, but were making little headway against the huge pro-plastic lobby.  It took just one programme fronted by Sir David Attenborough to change everything and finally break the impasse.  Blue Planet 2 showed various threats to our oceans in a very non-accusatory, appealing way, but it was the dead whale calf and the plastics that were taken into everyone’s hearts.

Making progress in conservation is often a series of steps: identify the issue, suggest a solution, get sufficient profile to take action and then the action itself.  Blue Planet 2 really gave this issue the profile it so desperately needed because the scale of problem was already well known.  Here are some mind-blowing figures:

  • In the UK alone we discard 35 million plastic bottles per day. That a staggering 12.7 billion per year.
  • 91% of all plastics aren’t recycled.
  • Annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute.
  • A floating mass of plastics off the coast of California is about 5 times the size of the UK, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea-life six to one.
  • It takes 500 – 1,000 years for plastics to degrade.
  • Major food retailers in the UK alone gave out 7.6 billion plastic bags before the 5p charge was introduced.

Those statistics show that a great deal of what we throw away ends up in the seas, either through bad management or inconsiderate wastage.  95% of all marine plastics come from just 10 rivers, 8 of which are in Asia, and just 5 countries account for 60% of the pollution – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.

These plastics clog up the sea floor and float on the ocean surface, they get eaten by marine animals, and they get passed on in the food chain to us, either as particles of plastic in the tissue of the animals we eat, or as toxic chemicals in the flesh.  Levels are now at crisis point.

Helping other countries

But there is a light at the end of this acrylic tunnel.  There are things we can do to reduce this pollution, at least in the future.  In those countries wasting so much plastic, the introduction of waste management systems would halve the amount of waste finding its way into the sea.  I propose we use our foreign aid money to help some countries achieve this.  It would be a good use for our foreign aid because it would help provide a healthier environment for the citizens, provide business support for the recycle industry, encourage drinking water treatment and reduce pollution.  In those countries it will need to be a combination of changing behaviour and introducing new technology.

We must though be careful not to blame people in developing countries for using disposable water bottles, because in many countries water quality in distribution systems isn’t good, so bottled water is the only safe source.

What can we do?

What can we do here in the UK?  I think there is an awful lot we can do to make a difference pretty quickly.  Already councils are doing a great deal to recycle plastics and at the very least (and it is the very least) ensure they stay within landfills.  We have to play our part by buying less in plastic packages.

That means refilling preferably non-plastic water bottles.  That scheme championed by Whitbread and water companies around the country to top up water bottles at various shops and cafes is a great start.  We at DWT are selling a refillable water bottle (www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk) which Neal’s Yard Remedies, our corporate partner, are using to front their campaign as the first high street chain to roll out free water fill stations nationally.  All DWT’s visitor centres are offering free water refills.

Then what about hot drinks?  Let’s see the major coffee retailers fill up our favourite own mugs rather than give out plasticised cups.  Take reusable plastic bags to the shops.  They are a lot more useful and suitable than nasty, weak plastic bags anyway.  I remember many years ago shopping in Carrefour in France and finding at the till that they didn’t have any plastic bags even if you wanted to pay for them.  Loading item by item into the car was a strong incentive not to forget the shopping bags again.  The 5p tax on bags has had a dramatic improvement on the state of our own beaches, with the number of discarded bags declining by half.  It just shows what can be done.

Let’s make a real difference

I believe though that this is just scratching at the symptom not the cause.  We need to change the way we think about disposable products.  It should be no longer acceptable to buy products wrapped in single use plastics, except perhaps a small amount of thin films.  Maybe not even that.

As an example of what we are up against, mineral water companies are a good example.  They argue that transport costs and therefore carbon footprint will escalate if they have to convert to glass bottles.  They also say their branding is vital to sales and they need to keep the shape, colour and size of the plastic bottles we have become so addicted to.  I don’t agree.  I believe there are plenty of solutions they could adopt and I hope that what will probably be a decline in sales will force them to think a little outside of the box, or in this case bottle.

For example, they could tanker water into local bottling and distribution centres and use glass.  Instead of recycling the glass, why not put a deposit on the bottles like we used to?  Then you could hygienically clean and reuse them without melting them down.  Better still why doesn’t the government introduce standard bottles of different sizes and shapes that could be endlessly recycled.  Any one bottle could have fizzy water in it one day, pickle the next and gin the next.  It cannot be beyond the wit of marketers to come up with an endless array of on-product labels and marketing to retain that desperately sought-after brand recognition.

Government and the big retailers say the producers won’t do it, but we have seen the huge purchasing power they have and how they can force producers to take the actions they want.  My point is that we can fiddle around the edges and decrease plastic wastes somewhat, or we can really use the momentum that Sir David has given us and make a real difference, now while the producers are on the back foot.

Support the petition

We need to keep this issue in the public profile until it is properly sorted.  One person doing just that is Patrick Howie.  He has come up with the idea for a national awareness day for marine plastics.  He is asking for government support and needs as many sign-ups to his petition as we can get.  Please go to  https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/202198 to support his valuable initiative.  I have.

At DWT we will continue to raise this issue and lobby for change.  But change mainly starts at home and businesses respond when people vote with their feet, or wallet.

“Simon Says” – The Future of Farming & Wildlife – “We stand on the cusp of a revolution in how we protect and manage the countryside.”

January 5, 2018

(Image above © Tony Bates)

The future of farming

A couple of months ago I sat in one of Kingston Maurward College’s conference rooms on a dark November evening with 100 or so good people.  It was the AGM of the Dorset NFU (National Farmers Union).  I was there despite recently having disagreed with several NFU policies such as neonicotinoids damaging bees and pollinators, and of course the badger cull.  We are however supportive of farmers, recognising that sensitive farming can be a huge benefit to wildlife.  Farming and wildlife are intrinsically linked.

I may have been wrong, but I got a strong sense from the members there that the industry felt their livelihoods, legacy and calling was under sustained threat.  Many elements of the farming industry are in decline, yet it is one of the most important, if not THE most important profession in the world.  I for one like to have food on my table each day.

The concern that is being expressed more and more is that our current system of farming is not sustainable.  By sustainable I don’t mean in a general, fuzzy, non-green way as the word is often misused, but rather in both a quantifiable business and habitats sense.  Farm subsidies through the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), just as fishing subsidies through CFP (Common Fisheries Policy), though usefully providing financial stability, can serve to maintain an unfit, non-competitive industry that doesn’t need to look to the future.  Our farming industry deserves better than that.  Farming in this country needs to be prosperous, stable, dynamic and forward-thinking.  If it were all of those things it would also be sustainable.  Subsidies based purely on the amount of land you own (Basic Payments Scheme) lead to perverse incentives and can, in some cases, reward people for not protecting the future of the industry or the countryside.

A vision for a healthy countryside

A thriving, long-term farming industry has to be built on an environmentally sustainable footing where the health of the countryside is maintained and enhanced so that it is productive and diverse – protecting pollinators, building soil, valuing natural habitats, reducing flooding – the list goes on.  All of this amongst a commercially productive landscape.

The Wildlife Trusts, along with colleagues especially in the National Trust and RSPB, have a vision for the countryside and a plan to support farming.  The CLA (Country Land & Businesses Association) are making similar positive noises.  We have recently published a summary document that spells out, in both policy and practical terms, a way forward for farming in the UK: ‘What next for farming?’ (see link below).  For its own future, farming has to find a way to coexist and benefit from nature, not work separately or fight against it.

Into this debate comes our Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) Minister Michael Gove.  In a recent announcement, Mr Gove made a game-changing speech that, if followed through, will be one of the most important steps for wildlife and equally for farming in decades.  At an organic farming conference in Oxford he announced plans to reform the current EU subsidies regime to shift payments based on the amount of land owned, towards the public (aka environmental) benefits farmers deliver.  In a new regime to be phased in over 5 years he will incentivise farmers, for example to provide habitat for wildlife, create wildflower meadows and improve water quality.  His view agrees with what The Wildlife Trusts have been saying.  It also challenges those resistant to change, but embraces innovation and the development of new ways of ensuring a prosperous farming sector which contributes to a healthy environment and a healthy society.

This will mean substantial changes for the industry, but it will put them on a more sustainable, competitive footing which will also gain them more public support which has been flagging since the badger cull and agrochemical issues.  The Wildlife Trusts have calculated that it will cost just 0.5% of UK public expenditure (£3bn pa) to restore the natural systems that sustain us and indeed the farming industry itself.

Our aims for farming

Our plan, which Mr Gove seems to be supportive of, has eight aims:

  1. More, bigger and better natural habitats. Restoring and creating new habitats for wildlife to prosper. Some of this will come from farmland too marginal to be productive.  So this would help those farmers currently struggling on marginal land such as in parts of West Dorset.
  2. Thriving wildlife everywhere. Connecting habitats, restoring soils, replanting lost hedgerows.  Paying farmers to benefit nature and themselves, such as in central Dorset around Blandford where so many hedgerows have been lost.
  3. Abundant pollinators. For example managing 3% of arable land specifically for pollinators and banning neonicotinoids.  That way we don’t turn into China where pollination often has to be done by hand with paintbrushes.
  4. Healthy soils. Ploughing less often, increasing the organic content, ensuring plant rotation and replacing artificial fertilisers.  Nature and farming working together to boost long-term productivity.
  5. Clean water. Reducing the levels of nutrients and chemicals in our rivers and watersheds making our drinking water safer. Poole Harbour has a major problem with historic agricultural nutrients flowing down the Piddle and Frome rivers. Dorset farmers are working to reduce nutrient inputs, and this plan should reward them for doing so.
  6. Clean air and climate change mitigation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions – a useful measure of the efficiency of an industry.
  7. Flood risk management. I have long been calling for landowners to be paid for farming water. Hold water back away from towns and valuable crops in more natural catchments less likely to flood in the way we have seen at Christchurch.
  8. Healthy People. Mr Gove announced plans to reward landowners for improving access to the countryside, thus promoting exercise, enjoyment, health and wellbeing.  The Dorset LNP (Local Nature Partnership) is working with the NHS and social care providers to treat mental and physical ill health and prevent illnesses by getting people out into nature.  Landowners across Dorset can help with that.

A great leap forward

We stand on the cusp of a revolution in how we protect and manage the countryside on which we are all dependant, either for food, health or enjoyment.  I believe Mr Gove’s plans will result in a more prosperous, healthy and enjoyable country and countryside, and one where we are, finally after over a century of thinking we are above nature rather than a part of it, valuing our wildlife and environment as our life support system.

Further reading:

Click here to read – What next for farming? A future policy for land in England: investing in our natural assets.  The Wildlife Trusts.

“Simon Says” – Development: Don’t forget the environment

December 6, 2017

Changing politics

As a result of some focussed and relentless lobbying of MPs, the Wildlife Trusts and most of the other main environmental groups in the country including RSPB, National Trust, Woodland Trust etc, we are starting to hear some positive messages from government about protecting the natural environment, in particular Environment Minister Michael Gove.  Signs of national consciousness in our fabulous and vital natural environment are good.  We must only hope that Mr Gove, the sort of high flier that DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) does not usually keep for long, will not move up the ministerial pecking order before he has followed through on his commitments.

At a local level things are not looking nearly so good.  Indeed, there would appear to be a considerable mismatch between national and local policy and vision.  Within some sectors in counties including Dorset we are seeing a downgrading, or complete absence of, environmental considerations.  Now true, the environment departments of local authorities, Natural England, Environment Agency, the fisheries authority (IFCA) and others are doing their usual great jobs.  It is those responsible for economic development that do not seem to have got the message.  This, despite considerable lobbying and hand-holding from ourselves at DWT, other environment groups and the local environment bodies set up by government to champion nature – the Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs).

At the moment, as local authorities and business scramble to position themselves in a fast-changing political world, we are seeing a plethora of development projects being proposed and growth plans being published.  The development projects in Dorset focus almost entirely around infrastructure and housing, with a bit of sectoral development.  Nothing wrong with that in principle as some of these are much needed in Dorset.  The problem comes when environment and social or community needs are almost entirely forgotten.  As an example, the West of Dorset Development Strategy published recently gives no mention of environment or even farming even though Dorset is in their words: ‘The natural place to do business’.

Where has the environment gone?

What is happening here?  Where has the environment gone? Why is there such a disjoint between national aspirations and local actions?  Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend The World Forum on Natural Capital, held over a couple of days in Edinburgh.  During the more practically oriented sessions a light came on for me as to why we are struggling so hard to get an understanding of the value of nature and environment by some of the economic development and business specialists.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that natural capital is a relatively new concept that has been developed to explain, especially to economists and financiers, how environment fits within and is vital for sustained, successful development.  It is a straightforward parallel with financial capital.  In summary it is the world’s stock of natural assets.  As with money, you can build it up and live off the substantial interest or services the assets give you, such as clean water, food production, flood protection and pollinators, or you can erode it so you have less to sustain us in the future.

Nicola Sturgeon

(Above: Nicola Sturgeon at the Natural Capital conference © Simon Cripps/DWT)

Talking development

The Dorset LNP for instance produced a Natural Capital Investment Strategy to sit alongside the Local Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP – the economic development organisation for Dorset) Growth Strategy.  Dorset County Council (DCC) also produced a valuation of Dorset’s natural assets, worth over £1.2 billion per annum.  Our aim is not to stop appropriate development nor even to make it all about the environment.  We are merely trying to ensure that when a project is developed, such as a new road or housing scheme, environment and communities are considered in the choice of scheme, and are included in the plans to maximise the benefits of the scheme.  You need look no further than the Weymouth Relief Road to see how incorporating environment and community benefits into a scheme you get so much more than just a new road.  Our aim is to ensure that every single development projects results in more natural capital after than before.  Great for Dorset, great for you and me, and great for the success of the project.

Weymouth Relief Road © Phil Sterling

(Above) The Weymouth Relief Road © Phil Stirling

The trouble is that this just isn’t happening in Dorset at the level it should.  It would appear that many economic development people still see environment as a restriction on growth and development.  It isn’t!  At least not for well thought-through schemes in the right place.  The light that came on for me in Edinburgh was as follows and comprises 3 parts.  In summary it is a cultural rather than environmental issue.

Firstly, development organisations are often comprised of business entrepreneurs, as encouraged by central government.  They are great for understanding the needs of business and for innovation, but do not commonly have experience of policy, evidence-based reasoning such as science (except of course in technological companies), community needs and environment.  When formulating the needs of the county all of these elements are required, not just the needs of business.  There are though some great examples of innovation, environmental understanding and community benefit: Lush’s support for wildlife, particularly birds; Siemen’s Corporate Citizenship aims; Nestle’s global leadership in natural capital; the estate agent Domvs working with us on planning issues; John Lewis’s work on Brownsea; and long-term community and environment supporter Battens, a legal firm.  These all show environmental leadership that will benefit both wildlife and hopefully their company’s bottom lines.  They also show that no matter what your company does, it can play a part in securing Dorset’s or our world’s future.

Secondly, whilst central government, as I mentioned above, has been saying the right things, they are equally at fault because their departments don’t seem to talk to each other: BEIS (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) don’t talk to DEFRA who don’t talk to Treasury who don’t talk to DCLG (Department for Communities & Local Government).  Even within departments it appears that sectoral experts don’t talk to each other.  What then happens is a tendency for strategies without joined-up thinking and the local development agencies are required to just implement projects handed to them, without the opportunity or requirement to consider potential beneficial, or mitigate detrimental, impacts.  Natural capital thinking isn’t purely an extra, possibly expensive or restricting, element to bolt-on to a project.  It cuts across all elements of the development.  It therefore requires a culture of integrated and cross-cutting thinking that seems to be missing in our development agencies.  If they had it, the projects they chose would be more suitable for Dorset, better supported by communities, less damaging to the very environment that will sustain future benefits and would have far higher returns on investment.  The agencies would also be better protected against accusations of self-interest because the return on investment would have been transparently calculated using natural capital as one measure.

Thirdly, the Natural Capital Conference showed that what we need in Dorset and indeed across the UK are four, what I call ‘enabling criteria’, for successful economic development projects and strategies: 1. sound, reliable data (we have that in the form of ecosystem services mapping and examples of natural capital benefits); 2. an understanding of, and interest in, the value of the natural environment and communities (we are working on that); 3. regulations to ensure this happens (I don’t believe in self-regulation); and 4. possibly most importantly, leadership to drive forward something that isn’t business as usual, but will be vastly more successful.

Cultural blocks

Dorset Wildlife Trust and the many organisations and individuals that comprise the Dorset LNP will continue to work with the development agencies at various levels to ensure that natural capital is incorporated into their thinking, for the sake of nature, economic development and the people of Dorset.  This week I realised though that this isn’t just a problem of understanding that environment facilitates development, not hinders it.  It is a cultural block in society to thinking more laterally and to communicating between different cultural groups.

 

“Simon Says” – Should we reintroduce nature?

November 2, 2017

Ladybird Spider 1 © James Hitchen

(Above: Ladybird spider © James Hitchen)

Back from the brink

Much as the future of nature on our planet depends on the wealth of biodiversity, which includes creatures of all shapes and sizes from viruses to blue whales, it is often the charismatic megafauna that grabs our attention and spurs us to action.  Most people are far more likely to support the protection of giraffes than a cryptic wasp species.

Yet when you look at the range of species reintroduced by conservationists, they tend to be iconic, charismatic, sizeable beasts.  Here I am talking about restoring creatures back to where they once lived, rather than new introductions for a variety of well-meaning or dubious reasons, such as foxes for hunting into New Zealand, rabbits into Australia and cotoneaster to a lot of British gardens.  Nor am I talking about accidental introductions or invasives such as rhododendron, signal crayfish into Dorset rivers or japweed that clogs up the coasts.

All sorts of species have been reintroduced, including lynx, bison, beavers, wild boar, red kites, great bustards, sturgeon, brown trout, sand lizards, the large blue butterfly and ladybird spiders.  Some successfully, some less so.

The successful introduction of a species, such as the large blue butterfly, takes a great deal of work and resources: studies of habitat and food needs; impact assessments; disease risk implications; ecosystem impacts; garnering community support; licencing; monitoring; to name just a few.  With so many of our native species in trouble, why then are conservationists so keen on reintroductions?  This is a question that I have struggled with for many years.  Are reintroductions just a profile-raising gimmick? Are they a cost-effective means of repairing degraded ecosystems? Are we choosing iconic species when we should be reinstating something less charismatic?

The answer to these and other such questions is no doubt species and context specific, but many of you will have different answers and views.  Here are my views which you are most welcome to disagree with.

Otter 1 © Paul Williams

(Above: Otter © Paul Williams)

Why reintroduce?

So what are the reasons that we would want to reintroduce a species?  When I was in my first job working for The Vincent Wildlife Trust in East Anglia trying to find out why otters had died out in the area, my boss the famous Don Jefferies, gave me some good advice I’ve kept throughout my career.  I asked him why we spent so much money restoring otters to an area, when we could be looking after them better where they flourished.  He replied that you have to work the hardest at the fraying edge.  This is because that edge will always be frayed and will work its way back, just as the end of a rope unfurls.

This fraying edge principle is perhaps why birds and butterflies are reintroduced.  The red kite for example was persecuted by gamekeepers down to just 2 pairs in 1932.  In 1989 100 birds were reintroduced from the continent and legislation was tightened, so that there are now many kites, often seen down the M4 corridor.  Otters too, after misguided river management and hunting with hounds, slumped to dangerously low numbers and small isolated populations in the UK.  Now they are found in all of Dorset’s main rivers from the Fleet to the Avon.  Personally I think these types of reintroductions were more than justified as they link up isolated, genetically at-risk populations and reduce the risk of a local perturbation damaging the whole population.  DWT’s own work with partners to reintroduce the ladybird spider in Purbeck should help to safeguard the population possibly at that fraying edge in Dorset.

Another reason for reintroductions is that they are keystone species – that is they provide a critical role in the function of the ecosystem or provide a service, either to the ecosystem or mankind.  Included here might be lynx, wolves and beavers.  Usually hunted to local extinction, these species once thrived across the UK and since their loss the natural environment has changed, often for the worse.  The story of the introduction of wolves back into the Yellowstone Park causing the rivers to clean up, is famous.  The wolves caused the lazy elk population to keep on the move and not browse away most of the bankside willows that beavers needed.  The beavers made dams which changed the hydrology and improved the water quality.  There were some downsides, but a lot of benefits.  Anybody for a pack of wolves along the Stour Valley Way?  That would liven up a Sunday walk with the kids.

red squirrel tree © Paul Williams

(Above: Red Squirrel on Brownsea Island © Paul Williams)

Closer to home, beavers have been reintroduced into small areas of Devon and we are considering it here in Dorset.  Initial results have been amazing.  Providing they are in the right location so they don’t damage crops or housing, they have already been shown to reduce flooding downstream, substantially improve water quality and produce diverse habitat for everything from water plants and insects to fish.

I suspect though that some species are introduced for other reasons either instead of, or as well as, those above.  Several species are blatantly charismatic such as red squirrels, osprey, beavers, otters and lynx. They can tell a great story and gain media attention as well as support.

The pros and cons

There are several debates in the conservation community.  How far back do you go?  Should we seek aurochs grazing across Salisbury Plain – or rhinos?  What is the balance between funding reintroductions and protecting the species we already have and are trying to hang on to? Are reintroductions a key part of rewilding?

I believe if there is a clear ecological benefit, or you are seeking to restore that fraying edge, then reintroductions can be hugely valuable.  Only as a spin-off might they benefit conservation as a profile-raising figurehead.  I think also that there must be community support, and that means conservationists not taking too worthy a view, so that people impacted do not accept them – possibly leading to poaching at worst or a lack of support at best.  Beavers are a good example of this.  They can, if located correctly, have huge ecological benefits, but landowners are unlikely to be welcoming if they feel that once introduced they can never be touched or managed.  In some cases it may be necessary to relocate an over-industrious beaver.  If that is what is needed to get landowner support, then so be it.

What do you think?  Do reintroductions have a place in our countryside, or are we just hanging on to the past? What is your red line – squirrels, beavers, lynx, wolves, aurochs or velociraptors?  Do you have good or bad experiences of reintroductions?  Let us know on DWT’s Facebook or Twitter pages.