Category Archives: News

The EU referendum: a vote to ‘remain’ is a vote for the environment

If you live in the UK, you can’t have missed the fact that, on 23 June, we get to vote on whether to stay part of the EU, or leave. The standard of the debate, from both sides, has been very poor: negative, fear-mongering, continued use of misleading statistics, and focusing on just a couple of issues. It seems to have turned into a Tory leadership contest. This has put many people off engaging with the topic – I have to admit, I haven’t watched the TV debates and interviews, because I know they’re not going to address the issues I care about. And even if they did, I don’t trust the people spearheading the campaigns to tell me the truth. But deciding whether to stay in the EU or leave is a really important step, so I think we (in the UK) all have a duty to look into it, beyond the negative headlines.

There are many important implications to consider when deciding whether to stay or leave. The impact it will have on the economy, jobs, protection of workers, immigration and free movement of people, security, science, sovereignty… the list goes on and on. It’s an important and complex decision. This post will try to summarise some of the environmental issues to consider.

The first thing to acknowledge in any discussion about the EU is that it’s not perfect. While some of its laws, policies and decisions have protected the UK environment, others have had a less positive effect, creating perverse incentives (eg. the Common Agricultural Policy). That means we need to weigh  up the pros and cons. This is made harder by the uncertainty over what would happen if we did leave the EU. The Wildlife Trusts, WWF and the RSPB commissioned an independent report to look into these issues, and I’ve drawn on the summary here, together with other sources, as this issue clearly goes beyond my personal knowledge and expertise.

What has the EU done for the UK environment?

Our environment was not in a good state in the 1970s and 80s. We  had the highest acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU and our seas were polluted with sewage. Many of our species had suffered huge declines due to pollution or lack of protection. Membership of the EU has led to:

  • Otter
    The come-back of the otter is thanks to improved river water quality, due to EU legislation

    Substantial improvements in air and water pollution, thanks to EU legislation – we have cleaner rivers, beaches, drinking water and air thanks to the EU. The revival of species like the otter, thanks to our cleaner rivers, is testament to this.

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting
    Beach on the Cornish coast
    Our beaches are cleaner, thanks to the EU

    renewable energy

  • Protection of species and our most sensitive wild places, mainly through the Birds and Habitats Directives – according to Friends of the Earth, before the Directives we were losing 15% of our protected sites a year – that’s now down to
    Torpid dormouse in nest
    EU legislation protects species like dormice

    1%

  • Increasing recycling and improving waste management
  • Banning harmful chemicals, including some pesticides
  • Legislation to protect our seas
  • The requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment if developers are planning a major development, or development in an environmentally sensitive area, so impact on wildlife can be taken into account in decision-making, and plans made to mitigate it, if appropriate

On the downside, the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy have created incentives for unsustainable practices which damage our environment and wildlife. And the TTIP deal currently being negotiated between the EU and USA could be very bad news for the environment.

Working together to tackle big issues

The EU brings together member states, and allows them to work together to tackle important issues. It’s particularly useful for issues

Swallow skimming the beach
We need cross-border action to protect migrating birds, like this swallow

that have cross-border implications. Many of the environmental challenges we face do have cross-border implications, for example climate change, marine pollution, fish stocks, protection of migrating birds… Nature doesn’t acknowledge national boundaries, so some issues, by their very nature, are better tackled in a united way by many nations.

Brexit uncertainty

It’s very unclear what will happen if the UK decides to leave the EU. One scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU but stays in the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and thereby retains access to the single market, following models similar to those in countries such as Norway or
Switzerland. This would mean that many EU environmental laws would still be mandatory in the UK, but there would be exceptions – particularly the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and the Bathing Water Quality Directive, which were responsible for several of the benefits from the EU listed above. There’s a clear risk that we would lose some of the protection for birds, special habitats, and improvements in water quality for our beaches.

Another scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU and sits as a completely independent State outside the EEA and EFTA agreements. This would mean EU environmental legislation would no longer apply. Our government would be responsible for developing legislation on all environmental issues. Given the current focus on economic growth at all costs, that prospect fills me with terror.

Over the years, a lot of the criticisms of the EU (or at least the criticisms that aren’t thinly veiled xenophobia) have been around the level of red tape the EU imposes. I’m not saying there is no unnecessary bureaucracy in the EU, but a lot of the ‘red tape’ those critics are referring to are the rules that protect our environment (or workers rights). In the current political climate, we’re unlikely to see adequate protection of the environment enshrined in any post-EU UK legislation – it will be an opportunity for the proponents of deregulation to quietly get rid of annoying rules that protect our natural world, and ourselves. Do you trust Boris Johnson, the man who buried negative findings about air pollution around hundreds of London’s primary schools breaching EU limits, to be involved in developing a newly independent UK’s environmental legislation? Or George Osborne, who has publically condemned the EU’s habitats directive?

There’s also no reason to assume that if we’re no longer part of the EU, we won’t end up with something along the lines of TTIP anyway: the UK has been one of the drivers of some of the most damaging clauses of the potential deal, and would need to look for trade deals with other partners if we were to leave the EU.

Areas for improvement

Friends of the Earth, in their position paper on the EU referendum, spell out some of the improvements they are campaigning for in how the EU operates. This includes changing priorities away from economic growth and free trade, improving their laws, and increasing democratic accountability. But despite this need for change, Friends of the Earth are still strongly advocating for the UK to remain part of the EU, as the benefits to the environment outweigh the harms.

The EU isn’t perfect, and it’s environmental record isn’t flawless. But its legislation does provide significant protection to our wildlife and natural resources. By being part of something bigger we can more effectively tackle cross-border issues, which pose some of the biggest environmental challenges we face today. And by being part of the EU we can try to influence it positively. The MEPs we vote for will have a say. If we leave the EU, we lose that voice.

This referendum is important. If you care about the issues I talk about here, please vote on 23 June.

 

 

Advertisements

Another 10 Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts

Breaking news: Christmas is coming. It’s kinda crept up on me, but I notice from the web stats that quite a few people have been looking at my previous posts on Christmas present ideas for wildlife lovers.

So I guess it’s time for the next installment.

The previous two lists cover some fairly broad ideas. This year I’m trying to give some specific ideas that fall under the categories mentioned in previous years.

  1. A Sting in the Tale: this is by far my favourite wildlife book that I’ve read this year. I’m not particularly into insects, but Dave Goulson’s evident passion for bumblebees, engaging writing style and fascinating facts held me entranced. I ended up underlining loads of sections that I knew I’d want to come back to again and again. I’d recommend this to anyone with an interest in wildlife.
  2. Trip to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition: I’ve not yet been to this year’s exhibition, but it’s always one of my highlights of the year. It’s on at the Natural History Museum in London until April.
  3. Wildlife Broadcasting on a Smartphone course: Surrey Wildlife Trust are putting on an intriguing course next year. Having recently been delving into filmmaking in my professional life, I’m keen to find out more about how I could apply it to wildlife. It doesn’t come cheap, but sounds fascinating.
  4. A monopod: having got myself a massive telephoto lens this year, and had to lug my tripod around, I can see the appeal of a lighter, sturdy monopod to take with me on walks.
  5. Some wildlife art: I’ve seen so much beautiful wildlife art this year – things I’d love to have around me at home to remind me of the wonders of nature. The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation has a good selection, with profits going to fund conservation. Try your local gallery as well.
  6. The New Wild: I bought this book because of its beautiful cover, and intriguing (and controversial) central argument: invasive species will be nature’s salvation. It’s certainly a thought-provoking read. (I’m planning a blog post on this soon, as there’s lots to mull over…)
  7. A subscription to Lynda.com: The Lynda.com website has a huge library of online courses, including hundreds of photography ones. I get access to this through my work, and have found the courses very informative. Useful for brushing up your skills during those long winter evenings…
  8. Wildlife photography courses: there’s a wide selection available. Local Wildlife Trusts or wildlife centres often run them. Birds, badgers, deer, fungi, reptiles, flowers – something to suit any wildlife photographer in your life! I’ve got my eye on David Plummer’s courses.
  9. Some sturdy wellies: I’ve really appreciated having comfortable, sturdy wellies this year, helping me through the muddier dormousing months and squelchy harvest mouse surveys.
  10. A good head torch can really make a difference for night-time wildlife surveys, camping or just walking back from a country pub. I’ve really appreciated my new one this year.

Another year in the Wild South

Today is the 2nd birthday of this blog, so to celebrate I’ve been back over my posts from the last year, and picked a couple of my favourites from each month. I quite enjoyed looking back – brought back lots of memories!

September 2014

Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
  • Photo Special: Isles of Scilly – I had to choose this one, really, as not only do I quite like some of these photos, but, as it happens, I’m actually in the Isles of Scilly at the moment. It’s a beautiful place with excellent wildlife watching opportunities.
  • Hedgehog pawprints – I just love hedgehogs really.

October 2014

Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
  • Scrumping badgers? – it’s so exciting seeing badgers (even if I didn’t get any photos)!
  • Moles: perfectly adapted – I’ve still never seen a mole in the wild (alive, at least), but you can’t help admire how suited they are to their subterranean lifestyle.

November 2014

Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
  • Looking for Harvest Mice at an airport – this day of surveying for harvest mice at Gatwick airport was really memorable, even if we didn’t find any in the end. It’s fascinating to see what wildlife can exist even in the most unlikely places.
  • How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts – some close-up photos of nuts nibbled by dormice and other mice, with guidance on how to distinguish between the two.

December 2014

New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
  • Dormouse licence! – It took a long time to get enough experience with handling dormice to obtain my licence, so this was quite a significant milestone for me. This year I’ve enjoyed having my own site to survey.
  • On the trail of wild beavers – I’ve really enjoyed following the story of England’s first beavers in the wild for hundreds of years, and it was amazing to see signs of them when we were visiting the River Otter.

January 2015Grey squirrel

February 2015Skeletal hydrangea flower

March 2015

What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide
What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide

April 2015

Supporters of Christian charities call for action on climate change
Supporters of Christian aid agencies (and others) call for action on climate change
  • British Animal Challenge: March and April 2015 – a summary of my progress on seeing every species of British Animal
  • Church speaks and acts on climate change – While the new government seems to be implementing as many policies as possible to increase climate change (fracking, cutting subsidies to renewable energy, imposing the climate change levy on green electricity, the list goes on), it’s encouraging to see the church take a strong stance on this issue

May 2015

Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
  • Election summary – I spent a couple of months during the election campaign trying to find out where the main British parties stood on various issues relating to nature, the environment and wildlife. I must say, I didn’t enjoy the process much – it was quite dispiriting. But this post summarised all that work.
  • In which I learn I need a new approach to seeing bats – another batty adventure.

June 2015

Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June
Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June

July 2015

Work in progress: my barn owl cross stitch
Can you tell what it is yet?
  • Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife during a heatwave) – I think the rather dull summer we’ve had might be my fault – I wrote this post during a hot period, and since then heat has not been a problem. But still, it’s good advice for if we do get another heat wave.
  • My barn owl project – this is a little different from the projects I usually write about on this blog, but I’m enjoying it, and making good progress.

August 2015

How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years
How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years

Cycle races, quiet and learning to share

I left the house at 8.30am this morning, and immediately noticed something was missing. Something that I don’t usually notice at all – the background hum of traffic. Today is the Prudential RideLondon cycle race, which comes through my home town, and means the roads are all shut for most of the day. As I walked to church the main sound was a distant plane overhead, and the whir of the first few cyclists to make it this far. (By the time I was walking back from church it was another story – the streets were lined with people cheering on the cyclists who were still coming through).

The RideLondon event is a bit controversial where I live. Many people are inconvenienced by not being able to get anywhere by road for the day. Some locals enjoy the festive atmosphere, and the chance to see some of the top cyclists in the world come past their doors (I fall into that camp, even though I’m not normally a cycling fanatic). Those who haven’t noticed the numerous signs warning of road closures that have been up for the last month or so are left frustrated – we heard one driver at the end of our road talking to stewards, asking how he can get to Gatwick. I wouldn’t like to be in that situation (although at least the trains are still running). And while some businesses on the route do well out of the custom of the crowds who come to  watch the cyclists, others who aren’t on the actual route, but whose customers can’t reach them, lose out.

Once the 25,000 amateur cyclists have been through, we wait for the professionals to arrive. They do 5 laps of my town, so I get plenty of chance to see them. And the race is televised on BBC1, so the whole country gets to see the splendour of the Surrey Hills (on a day like today they look glorious).

It’s such a treat to have a day without traffic. I’d love to know what effect it has on air quality and carbon emissions. It’s made a noticeable difference to noise levels (although when the pros come through the filming helicopters and support vehicles will make up for the absence of ordinary traffic). I wish we could have a few more car-free days. Some South American cities have them regularly, but I can’t see them taking off here anytime soon.

The Surrey Hills have always attracted plenty of cyclists (weird people who ride up hills for pleasure), but the numbers have noticeably increased since it was first announced the 2012 Olympic Road Race would come through the area. Every hobby cyclist wants to test themselves of the route that Wiggins, Cavendish and the rest competed on. That does lead to some conflicts, particularly on narrow country lanes. On a sunny weekend it can take much longer to get anywhere on the narrow lanes round here, as there are so many cyclists out and about. And, while most are considerate, there are a few who take unnecessary risks, zooming round blind bends in the middle of the road.

Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills
Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills

As I’m not a cyclist myself, I don’t know how much riders get to enjoy the views, and being amidst the woods and hills of this area. Does it all rush by in too much of a blur? Or do they get to experience the same feeling of communing with nature that I do when I’m walking? I think everyone should spend time enjoying nature, and if cycling is what gets them to do it, and seeing the pros race through our beautiful countryside inspires a few more people to give it a go (or even just come and visit), then that’s a good thing. If that means that next time I’m driving to my dormouse site it takes me an extra five then I can live with that. I just need to learn to share what I have the privilege to enjoy.

 

International Tiger Day

Happy International Tiger Day! International Tiger Day was founded five years ago to raise awareness of tigers, and their plight. I’ve already written about how amazing tigers are, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, here are a few photos I’ve taken of tigers. I think they speak for themselves.

Bengal tiger100 years ago there were 100,000 tigers in the world. The current estimate is 3,000. They are threatened by poaching (for Chinese medicine and souvenirs for the rich), habitat destruction, conflict with local communities, and climate change. They need a large territory, as they require lots of food – they can eat 21kg of meat in a single night. Do have a look at the links below to see how you can help tigers.

Bengal tigerAlmost 10 years ago I was lucky enough to see tigers in the wild, in India’s Ranthambore National Park. One of the tigers I saw (pictured in the first photo in this post) was Machli, who was a rather famous tiger. I was delighted the other day to spot that the BBC had a repeat of their documentary about her and her cubs available on iPlayer. It’s available for the  so do check it out if you can access iPlayer.

In the meantime, I’m off to celebrate Internation Tiger Day with a bottle of my favourite big-cat branded lager.

Tiger eyes
Tiger eyes

Urgent threat to the Hunting Act – act now!

Last week, while everyone was preoccupied with the Budget, the Tories announced (very quietly) that on Wednesday 15th July there would be a vote over an amendment to the Hunting Act of 2004.

Now, it’s not news that (some of) the Tories want to see an end to the Hunting Act 2004, which banned hunting with dogs. They had a manifesto commitment to a free vote on repealing the Act. What they’ve done now is rather different – it’s not a free vote on repealing the act, it’s trying to bring in a Statutory Instrument that would undermine the Act, and make it impossible to enforce.

The proposed amendments would allow an unlimited number of hounds to ‘flush out’ a fox, as long as the plan is then to shoot it. This amendment will, in effect, allow Hunts to return to hunting with hounds. As you can probably imagine, it will be very hard to get a clean shot at a fox when it is surrounded by a pack of hounds as well as the hunters and hunt supporters themselves. It would also be hard to stop the hounds killing the fox before it can be shot.

The proposed changes cherry pick some of the bits of current Scottish legislation, without the higher penalties that are available in Scotland. The Hunting Act of 2004 is a much more successful piece of animal welfare legislation, with 64% of prosecutions under it being successful. The Scottish legislation is much harder to enforce, with only 35% of prosecutions succeeding. The proposed changes would make it impossible to police.

So, why are they using the sneaky approach? It’s probably because they realise they will never have enough support from MPs to repeal the Act. The Act is one of the most popular bits of legislation going – 80% of the British public support it. Not all Tories would vote for it to be repealed. When I contacted my Conservative MP, in the run up to the election, about his views on the Hunting Act, he wrote back reassuring me that he would vote against any repeal of the Hunting Act.

By introducing the changes like this, instead of outright repeal, I think that they hope it will pass under the radar. There’s only 90 minutes allocated to debate the changes (the original legislation was debated for 700 hours). As it’s not downright repeal, maybe some MPs will be (willingly) fooled, or not think it’s important enough to turn up and vote against. And because the proposed changes are similar to the current legislation in Scotland, I think the hope is that SNP MPs will feel like they can’t vote against the changes.

So, what can we do? It’s vital that we use the few days we have to get in touch with our MPs and urge them to vote against the legislation. Petitions are all very well, but we need every MP to have been contacted by constituents, so they know that how they vote will be scrutinised. The Hunt lobby will also be mobilising, but, if we all act, there are enough of us to outweigh them. I’ve contacted my MP asking him to vote against the changes. I urge you to as well – by email, phone, Twitter, in person… If you don’t know how to get in touch with your MP, find out who it is on http://www.theyworkforyou.com – you can send them a message through that site, or use the power of a search engine to find out their contact details once you know their name. You could also use a search engine to look for details of your MP’s office, with surgery times and contact details. Or use this simple RSPCA tool to help you send an email to your MP.

Our national bird

Other countries have fearsome eagles or majestic cranes as their national bird. Now, finally, the British public have decided that our national bird should be the…. Robin.

image

Almost a quarter of a million votes were cast in a poll to decide which should be the national bird of Britain. The shortlist of 10 included the beautiful barn owl, dazzling kingfisher, and incredibly rare hen harrier. But the humble robin was a run away winner, getting a third of the votes.

So why did the robin win? Here’s my guess. Robins are pretty common and widespread across the country, all year round. With their striking red breast everyone can recognise it, and sees them pretty regularly. It’s an egalitarian choice – you don’t have to be an expert or live in a particular place to see them. Their song is loud, drawing attention, and they’re not too scared of people.

Many gardeners will have had the company of a robin just a metre or two away as they work, the robin on the lookout for any worms that get turned over by digging. With patience, robins can even be trained to take food from your hand.

The results of this poll remind me of the poll to choose our national animal a few years ago. The humble hedgehog won – another animal that town and country dwellers alike can encounter in their gardens, although sadly hedgehog numbers are declining rapidly, meaning many people haven’t encountered one for years.

image

Some people have criticised the choice of the robin, as robins will fiercely defend their territory. Others campaigned for the hen harrier to win, in the hope that raising awareness of the plight of the bird would help to conserve it. The hen harrier has been illegally persecuted by gamekeepers for years. Last year only four pairs of hen harriers successfully bred in England.

But I think the robin is a good choice. It’s fiesty, easily identifiable and attention grabbing. Like the hedgehog, it’s one of few wild birds and animals one can get really close to. Still, I have to admit it didn’t get my vote – I plumped for the blackbird for its song that gladdens my heart each morning.

image

Defend Nature

The laws that protect otters are under threat: defend nature by supporting the RSPB campaign to protect the EU Nature Directives
The laws that protect otters are under threat: defend nature by supporting the RSPB campaign to protect the EU Nature Directives

We have some special, wild places in Europe (and the UK), and some remarkable wildlife. This isn’t by accident: without strong protection in law many of these places and species would be no more. The EU Nature Directives, laws which protect precious species and places, are under threat.

European leaders are considering making the Directives weaker. Now is not the time to be despondent about politics, despite last week’s results – it’s time to take action to protect what we value. Take action now to tell them EU leaders that you support the Directives, and the protection they offer to our wildlife, and don’t want to see them weakened. And share this with others, so they too can defend nature.

 

Election summary

Thank goodness there’s only one day to go until the election. In case you still haven’t decided whom to vote for, here’s a quick summary of where the parties stand on some issues relating to wildlife and the environment.

Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues

Of course, this table is a very simplified summary. If you want to find out more, please read the full posts:

Fellow blogger Georgia Locock has been looking through the party manifestos to see what they have to say on a variety of other nature issues (sadly, in most of cases she’s investigated, most of the parties have little to say, reflecting the importance they place on these issues). Do have a look at her posts, as they provide a useful summary of the issues, even if the party manifestos are uninformative:

I hope that, if you can vote in the UK, you will consider some of these issues (along with other important things like the NHS) when deciding who to vote for. And if you’re wavering on whether to vote or not, please do, as there is real difference between the parties on some of these issues.

I’m looking forward to normal service resuming on this blog, focusing on my wildlife adventures rather than politics. But we only get a chance to vote in a national election once every five years, so we need to make the most of it.

Church speaks and acts on climate change

Update, 1 May 2015: Since I wrote this post earlier this week, the Church of England has announced that it will cut its investment in fossil fuel companies. The Church of England has investment funds worth £8bn, so this announcement is significant. While it's not withdrawing all its funds from fossil fuel companies, it is using its position as a shareholder to press for increased transparency on climate change.

I’m heartened to see the Church (both Catholic and Anglican) speaking out about climate change, and challenging politicians to do more.

The Catholic Church have been holding the Vatican Science Academy, where leading scientists, economists and theologians have been discussing climate change, in the hope of influencing UN meetings on Sustainable Development Goals. The Vatican are expected to issue a statement saying  that action to cut climate emissions is “a moral and religious imperative, highlighting the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people – especially the poor, children, and future generations”.  

Meanwhile, Church of England Bishops have also been speaking of a moral duty to tackle climate change, and calling on politicians to back their pledges up with firm action. And in the US the head of the Episcopal Church has recently come out to say that climate change is “is certainly a moral issue in terms of the impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable around the world already.”

Some people (especially politicians when they’re being criticised) say that the church should keep out of politics. But reading the Gospels (and the Old Testament prophets) has convinced me that the Church has a duty to speak out on some political issues. Jesus wasn’t a politician, but his teaching was revolutionary. The House of Bishop’s pastoral letter to parishioners in the lead up to the General election explains why they believe the Church should be speaking out on political issues, including the environment.

The Church (and others) have been speaking out about climate change for years. But this recent intervention is timely, at least for the UK, with our General Election next week. Climate change hasn’t featured highly on the political agenda so far. Hopefully this will make some Christians consider the parties’ policies on climate change (among other issues) when deciding whom to vote for next week. Twice as many people attended a Church of England service last Sunday than are members of all the political parties put together in the UK, so Christians have a real opportunity to influence the outcome of this election.

Further information