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“Simon Says”-Playing lost & found with our planet

November 8, 2018

Sand Lizard © Andy Fale

(Above – Sand lizard on Upton Heath © Andy Fale)

The numbers

Here we go again.  The same old headlines from a bunch of greeny, tree-huggers moaning about the end of the world.  Is that how the world saw the latest report from WWF, reported widely in the media?  That humanity had wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish since only the 1970s.  For many of us this was a shocking and frightening figure, general as it was.  Despite how well we are doing in Dorset in so many ways, it was terrible to see that the UK was 189th  worst for biodiversity loss out of 219 countries.  No wonder Environment Minister Gove wants and needs to take action, starting with agriculture and fisheries.

Put in context this is the 6th mass extinction the world has seen and the first to be caused by a single species – humans. Even from now, it would take the world up to 7 million years to recover.  The Living Planet report is full of devastating facts: an 89% decline in species in South and Central America since 1970; an 83% decline in the freshwater species index; 6 billion tonnes of fish removed from the sea since 1950 and pretty much replaced with 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics.

Living Planet Report Front Cover

The numbers and examples from this and many other such reports run on and on.  Mike Barrett of WWF is quoted as saying, “we are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff.”  A metaphor that describes humans as lemmings (at least the lemmings of myths) mindlessly committing suicide.  What is going on?  Why aren’t we taking steps to protect ourselves and our future?

This blog isn’t another depressing resume of death and destruction, as bad and important as that is.  Nor is it an examination of the causes of this cataclysmic destruction, as well documented as they are.  What interests me is why this is still happening.  I don’t have all the answers but I do hope to start a conversation about why our supposedly intelligent and empathetic species is so hell-bent on destruction.  Please feel free to disagree with my views or propose your own.  The DWT social media is at your disposal.

Science and numbers

We’ve known for years that science has a problem communicating facts and more of a problem quantifying them.  Even simple statistics such as percentages don’t resonate with a lot of people.  If for example you are a visual-based person, the concept of what is in effect mathematics may not have much clout with you.  If you go to the next level of creating analogies, such as the weight of fishing bycatch filling nearly 100 super-tankers every year, that can give another part of the picture.  But the world is big, so are 100 super-tankers really that much?  Then you’re back to percentages or fractions.

It is really hard to present simple facts that relate to the context, describe the extent and indicate the importance, to a wide range of people of differing education, experience and interest.  DWT Vice President Prof. James Lovelock has been successful.  By creating the concept of Gaia he has been able to describe a model for how the world functions without the need for heavy, up-front data.  Likewise the pictures shown by Sir David Attenborough of marine creatures being killed by plastics struck a chord with the public far more than reams of figures.

Changing baselines

We have been alive for but a blink of the planet’s eye, but for us it really is a lifetime.  If we look back over the years for which we can remember changes, they may not have been that great, but 20 or 50 years is a miniscule period of time in evolutionary terms.  40 – 85% declines in insects in the UK, whatever the true figure turns out to be, can be devastating.  So many of us in our childhood remember the fronts of cars being covered with insects in the summer, but no more.  That change is in the space of a very few decades.

Pale_Blue_Dot

(The Earth as seen from the edge of the solar system  There is nowhere else to go if we get it wrong.)

Other agendas

Every issue wants attention these days.  Interest groups are far more media-savvy: the NHS, police funding; the rail network.  The list is almost infinite.  All with their own problems, demands for funding and sound-bites.  I wonder if we filter out this ‘noise’ and along with it either a belief in information and facts, or the ability to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t, what is crying wolf and what is urgent.

Self-interest

Undoubtedly one of the major reasons for the lack of protection for wildlife is prioritising other issues,  “Of course the environment is important, but jobs, homes and income are more so,” comes the reply in the next housing development discussion.  When other priorities such as money and jobs are seemingly threatened, then environment is pushed well down the list of priorities.  This short-termism is rampant in a crowded, competitive world.

It’s not me syndrome

Allied to this is a widespread belief that what we as individuals, or even companies, do is just a drop in the ocean.  Our removal of a bees’ nest, development of a house, use of an agricultural pesticide, are all small in the global scheme of things aren’t they?  The problem is nature has to exist somewhere and humans and their impacts are everywhere.  Impacts have to be dealt with at the individual level.

Language

86% of Dorset’s heathland has been lost.  Was it in some way mislaid?  It hasn’t been ‘lost’ as we know where it was.  It has been destroyed by development, often inappropriate and insensitive.  Chris Packham has been keen that we tighten up on our language.  Species have been killed, habitats have been wiped out, but we have found a range of euphemisms to cover the reality: lost, reduced, changed, etc.

Also in some countries such as the US, there is a back-lash against science and anything that is (wrongly) perceived as holding-up economic development.  Some fields don’t help themselves by talking in technical language that exclude the majority of the population.  Our own President Dr George McGavin is a good example to show that it is possible to combine technical knowledge, rigorous science and popular understanding.

Tuning out

Finally, I believe a major challenge is that people have heard the dire warnings so often now yet lifestyle, at least in the West, hasn’t altered, so they filter out the messages.  It’s old news, or repetitive, or worse still, boring.  We have to constantly find new and imaginative ways to present the information.  That can mean getting more outspoken and alarmist, even shrill, just to be heard, but that rhetorical inflation will ultimately lead to yet more people tuning out.

Culture

Most of the above list of possible reasons why we don’t take seriously the current crisis that will impact our very survival, is cultural.  If that is the case then firing more data at people, or showing them how wrong they have all been, just isn’t going to work.  Our messages need to be positive rather than always negative.  They must allow people to do the right things, not just stop them doing the wrong things.  We must be cognisant of how not everyone understands or is motivated by numbers, but may see the world in conceptually different ways.

We know how bad things are.  We know pretty much how to fix things.  We know how to protect and manage species.  But we don’t know how to communicate with our own species, and this could cost us not only our fabulous wildlife but our own future as well.

View to Poole from Upton Heath © Mark Heighes

(Above – Upton Heath over-looking Poole © Mark Heighes)

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“Simon Says” – Act now for wildlife

October 1, 2018

Otters 2 © Stewart Canham

Changing times

In my 30+ years of working with environmental issues, I don’t think I have seen before so many stars aligning in such a potentially good way.  This constellation of stars is so complicated it can be hard to see what is actually going on.  But look behind the clutter and there are some common messages, one of which is a widespread agreement that we need to reverse the declines in nature and wildlife and move to a more healthy, sustainable, biodiverse and productive lifestyle.  To do so requires some pretty fundamental changes in our thinking and what we consider normal and acceptable.

Especially since WW2 there have been some enormous and increasing pressures on our natural environment (for even longer at sea): the industrialisation and intensification of agriculture; the inexorable spread of housing development; the huge increase in fishing boat engine power; competition for space on, and around, a small island; the population explosion; people, especially children’s disconnection with nature; and the overuse of and dependence on fossil fuels driving climate change.

With changing baselines all of this change is an insidious spectre at what should be the feast provided by our greater knowledge, experience and improved technology.  Most of us only remember back 10 – 50 years, and so the changes don’t appear so huge, but over longer timescales they are profound.  We are losing wildlife, from insects to birds and habitats, from wildflower meadows to heaths, at an alarming rate.  However, as I’ve written in numerous previous blogs, are we depressed and beaten down?  No, far from it.  Today promises to be the start of a brave new world where we acknowledge these issues, recognise the value of a healthy environment and take some action.  We have had so many successes in the past.  We just need to build on them.  In Dorset we have fabulous wildflower meadows in the west of the county, better managed fish stocks at sea, otter populations recovering, damage to heaths reversed.  The list goes on thanks to DWT, its supporters and a range of like-minded organisations.

The stars aligning

So what are these stars that are aligning and what are the reasons?  Firstly my guess at the reasons are:

  1. The situation worsening to a point where it just can’t be ignored. Look at weather changes, bee numbers and fisheries catch declines for example.
  2. Good science and research into both the declines and the opportunities. From recent studies on insect population declines to better understanding as to how environment underpins business development.
  3. An environment minister that does actually know his sustainability from his elbow. Minister Gove does seem to be driving an agenda of nature restoration, more sustained if not sustainable business development, and improved public health.
  4. Some great lobbying, profile raising and successes by the Wildlife Trusts, The Green Alliance and many other partners, that show environment and development need not be in conflict, as well as support from industry groups like the CLA and local authorities.

A major step forward was the publication of Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Natural Environment, supported by no less than the Prime Minister herself.  More of a vision than a plan, but with a focus on most of the right things to make our countryside, healthier, more diverse and more safely protected.  Three of the main things the 25-Year Plan calls for are a nature recovery network, environmental net gain and connecting people with nature.

Field Barn Farm, Dorset © Graham Birch

Defra has also recently proposed an Agriculture Bill which is calling for public benefits for public money.  In other words paying farmers to look after the natural environment that sustains us and the farming industry, rather than just subsidising the industry as Basic Payments currently do.

Working at a landscape scale

All this from government is ground-breaking stuff, but then add some concepts that are finally coming of age after years of gestation.  One such concept is rewilding – a much misunderstood concept.  In Britain, and particularly in Dorset DWT is focussing on rewilding as a landscape scale opportunity.  It isn’t about bringing back wolves and mammoths, but rather about farming and managing more natural landscapes that will provide us with a range of services such as flood prevention, soil protection and pollinator support.

Another concept gaining traction is natural capital which I’ve blogged about previously.  A useful means of getting business and development to consider and value the natural environment.

With these concepts and more local, on-the-ground initiatives such as catchment partnerships, and a range of building development protocols, I think we are getting to a tipping point on the seesaw whereby we have enough of these initiatives and concepts to show that looking after nature really works –  for nature, for people and for business. However we need one last shove to get it over the line, to recklessly mix metaphors.

View to Poole from Upton Heath © Mark Heighes

Wilder Britain

The big thing we need in order to pull all this together is an Environment Act for the UK.  This is especially true now that we are leaving Europe and all its environmental protection laws and sector subsidies such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.  To push for this Act which the Wildlife Trusts have been advocating for years, we will, across the country, be running a Wilder Britain Campaign. This will give people an opportunity to take action, to show to government the level of support there is for nature, and prescribe the features we want to see in such legislation.

These are indeed exciting, complicated and even unstable times, but there are so many opportunities that I am confident the tide will soon turn, as it must if we are to survive as a species, let alone hand over Dorset in a better state to the next generation.

Read more about the Wildlife Trusts’ vision for a Wilder Britain here.


Dr Simon Cripps is the Chief Executive of Dorset Wildlife Trust.

Photos (top to bottom)

Otter in the River Stour at Blandford © Stewart Canham

Field Barn Farm in Dorset.  Taking part in the Jordan’s Farm Partnership initiative, which promotes farming practices to help protect wildlife © Graham Birch

Upton Heath looking over the town of Poole, Dorset © Mark Heighes.

“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.

“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.