Monday, 16 May 2016

Centuries of woodland history destroyed in a few weeks.

As I write, Pondtail wood, near Henfield, is being destroyed. 

This is an ancient site, replanted with conifer trees many years ago but still with its rich flora.  Felling trees as part of normal woodland management is something to be welcomed, but this is not what is happening here.  The trees are gone, the soil is disturbed and imported rubble is being scattered across the site. The owner has been told to stop by the relevant authorities, but has simply ignored them.  And all this was done in the bird breeding season!

Forests used to cover the whole of Britain, but ancient woodland now only covers about 1% of our land area.  Ancient woodland is now our most well-protected habitat.  Government policy, County policy and Local policy all protect this important and irreplaceable natural asset. The battle to protect ancient woods was won nearly three decades ago.  How is it possible, therefore, that someone has been able to buy a piece of ancient wood and then destroy it?

Planning Authorities have the power to stop this, but negotiations have taken place and a stop order issued – all ignored. It is in the National Park, yet still the clearance continues.  Forestry Commission felling licence requirements ignored, European Protected Species ignored, and so on.

The Planning Authority (in this case The National Park) must now enforce the restoration of the site.  The longer the work goes on the more expensive it will be for the landowner to put it right again.  Ultimately, the responsibility for enforcing the laws of the land lies with the government.  Government must ensure that the planning authorities have the tools to do the job.

At this time of year it is all too clear to see, just along the road, how responsible landowners are caring for ancient woodlands.  We have had an excellent spring for bluebells and wood anemones, you can see wild garlic in the valleys and early purple orchids scattered on the woodland floor, all under the shade of ancient coppices that have provided resources for generations of woodsmen.  The air is filled with the sound of chiff chaff and at night you may be lucky enough to hear the sound of nightingales.  Not in Pondtail wood, however, where the sights and sounds of the English countryside have been wiped out by an act of vandalism.


Friday, 29 April 2016

Natura 2000 - the European network for nature

Last week I introduced the 'nature directives' – the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive – and reflected on one particular example showing how scarce heathland birds and their habitats benefit from the 'Special Protection Area' (SPA) status conferred on Ashdown Forest through the Birds Directive. I want to explore this ‘European’ designation further and its relationship to important areas for wildlife in Sussex.

‘Natura 2000’ is the formal term for the European network of protected areas established through the nature directives. It comprises SPAs for birds and ‘Special Areas of Conservation’ (SACs) for habitats, other animals and plants. By the end of 2013, a total of 27,300 terrestrial and marine Natura 2000 sites had been established across the 28 EU Member States, amounting to just over 18% of the 4.3 million km2 total land area. The nature directives provide the broad framework guiding Member States to identify and to designate under national legislation the SPAs and SACs which make up their contribution to the Natura 2000 network.

So how does Sussex fit into this European network? We have 20 Natura 2000 sites - six SPAs and 14 SACs, some of which extend across county borders into Hampshire, Surrey and Kent. The SPAs totalling about 9,000 hectares range from the south coast’s most important site for overwintering waterbirds (Chichester & Langstone Harbours) to the Rye Harbour/Dungeness complex hosting key breeding populations of terns, Mediterranean gulls, and wintering wildfowl, and inland to the heathland areas of Ashdown Forest and the Wealden Heaths. Sussex SACs total about 13,500 hectares. These include the diminutive 1.9ha Singleton & Cocking Tunnels site supporting Bechstein’s bats and barbastelles; the largest remnant patch of large-leaved lime woodland in southern England at Rook Clift (11ha); our own woodland reserves at Ebernoe Common and The Mens; and the chalk grasslands of Lewes Downs. Sussex also has a share in the vast 11,200 hectare Solent Maritime SAC which embraces a range of intertidal and coastal habitats extending, discontinuously, from Chichester to Lymington and the north-west coast of the Isle of Wight.

We recognise the importance of protected wildlife sites to achieving our goals, which is why we invest heavily in our own nature reserves. But our estate covers only a small fraction of Sussex (the 31 SWT reserves extend to 1,800 hectares – under 0.5% of the Sussex landscape). The Natura 2000 sites in Sussex play an important role in the network of protected wildlife areas, alongside sites recognised as nationally important (Sites of Special Scientific Interest, SSSIs) and locally significant (Local Wildlife Sites, LWSs).

Are SPAs and SACs better protected than SSSIs and Local Wildlife Sites? The simple answer is, in our experience, most definitely, yes. For instance, public authorities are obliged to take much greater care of the European sites, exercising greater scrutiny in the planning process to determine what the likely effects would be of any strategic plans (the local plans which focus on setting out areas for housing and other developments) and assessing the likely effects of any specific development proposals. The presumption is in favour of wildlife, and strict tests are applied to be sure that the habitats or species for which a Natura 2000 site has been established are not damaged, or, if a development is absolutely essential, then the effects on wildlife are properly and fully compensated. This is a powerful tool in the defence of nature, and something which we have come to value very highly indeed.

Visit our EU Referendum and Sussex wildlife webpage

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The EU Nature Directives

The oldest piece of European Union environmental legislation is the ‘Birds Directive’. This dates back to 1979 and was implemented in the UK through the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act. It was joined in 1992 by the ‘Habitats Directive’. Together they are often now referred to as the ‘nature directives’ and are the only EU laws specifically designed to safeguard wildlife.

The nature directives target species and habitats which are most threatened at European level, including migratory birds which by their nature require an international approach to protecting the sites and habitats which ensure their survival. The two key mechanisms deployed through these laws are:
  • Establishing a cohesive network of protected sites (Special Protection Areas –SPAs, under the Birds Directives; Special Areas of Conservation –SACs, under the Habitats Directive) across the Member States; and
  • Requiring the strict protection of species from deliberate or negligent actions which would harm them or their important habitats (for all species in the case of birds; for a defined list of other animals and plants)
It’s clear to me that over the years the nature directives have been extraordinarily useful to the work of Sussex Wildlife Trust. The well-defined and well-tested protection afforded to SPAs and SACs is vitally important in safeguarding specific localities which are of national and local significance to wildlife as well as protecting the ‘European wildlife features’ for which they are designated. And the tag of ‘European Protected Species’ EPS carries a significant advantage when faced with developments which could have a seriously detrimental effect on wildlife and habitats outside the network of SPAs and SACs.

For example, Wealden District Council is currently inviting tenders for a piece of work to devise an ‘Ashdown Forest monitoring strategy and visitor survey’.  Why? It’s all down to the Birds Directive. The 3,207 hectare Ashdown Forest has been classified by the UK as a SPA for its populations of breeding Dartford warblers and nightjars. A key risk to these birds, which nest on or close to the ground, is disturbance in the breeding season from informal recreation: walkers, and in particular walkers exercising their dogs off the lead. Such unintentional recreational disturbance can result in nest failure and population decline, so the local authority has included strategic provisions in their Local Plan to reduce the potential impact.

It’s hard to imagine that, with the best will in the world, Wealden District Council would be paying quite as much attention as it is to the fortunes of the Dartford warblers and nightjars of Ashdown Forest if it wasn’t for the EU Birds Directive. This is a specific example of European Union policy and legislation that influences the charitable objectives of the Sussex Wildlife Trust. In this instance, the effect is positive, with public authorities having clear duties under the Birds Directive to put in place measures that will help to secure populations of scarce breeding birds and their habitats for the future.

In the event of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, then the nature directives will no longer apply. We will, of course, still have domestic legislation to protect wildlife (the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act, the 2000 Countryside & Rights of Way Act and the 2006 Natural Environment & Rural Communities Act etc.). The key question will be, what guarantee is there that remaining laws protecting nature will be enhanced to fill the gap left by the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive or will the Government choose to weaken domestic legislation?

I’ll be exploring this and other aspects of the nature directives in the next couple of blogs.

Visit our EU Referendum and Sussex wildlife webpage

Friday, 15 April 2016

The EU Referendum

The EU referendum is only ten weeks away. I plan to write a series of weekly blogs focusing on those issues which affect wildlife and the environment to hopefully add some clarity to the burning question – in or out of the European Union.

As the formal Referendum Period starts, it’s fair to say that in all I’ve heard and read in the pretty intensive media coverage of the Referendum, the word ‘environment’ has appeared infrequently. ‘Nature’ and ‘wildlife’ seem to have been almost entirely absent from the public debate. Politicians and campaigners on either side of the debate are concerned with other matters. This is both disappointing and worrying, since the bulk of our modern environmental legislation originates from EU initiatives, and wider EU policies have significant consequences for wildlife on the land, in freshwater habitats and the seas around Sussex.

In my view, it is vitally important that nature should be a major consideration. I will be writing to both the designated ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaign lead organisations, asking the following questions:

To the ‘Leave’ campaign:

What mechanisms will be put in place following the UK’s withdrawal from membership of the European Union to ensure that the benefits to the environment, and in particular to wildlife in Sussex, conferred through membership of the EU are replaced and, where appropriate, enhanced?

To the ‘Remain’ campaign:

In view of the potential changes in the UK’s relationship with the EU based on the reform package negotiated by Mr Cameron, what guarantees are there that the benefits to the environment, and in particular to wildlife in Sussex, arising from our status as an EU Member State will be maintained and, where appropriate, enhanced?

I believe these points should be raised as widely as possible in order to bring wildlife and the environment into the EU Referendum debate. I will be putting these questions to Sussex MPs and the South East MEPs, and I will share their responses through my blog.

Over the next 10 weeks, leading up to the UK Referendum on membership of the European Union, I will be setting out Sussex Wildlife Trust’s experience of working with EU policies and legislation and our understanding of how these mechanisms impact on wildlife in Sussex.

I would never encourage you to vote one way or the other. I hope my blogs, to be published on a Wednesday each week, will help you to make an informed decision when the time comes to cast your vote.

Monday, 1 February 2016

The price of everything and the value of nothing.

Back in November 2015 the Scottish Wildlife Trust hosted probably the most important event you’ve never heard of - The World Forum on Natural Capital.  Around 600 people from 45 countries attended, and they were there to discuss the benefits that nature provides to people. 

Our economy is fundamentally flawed.  We know the price of everything but the value of nothing.  We attribute value to useless things (like diamonds and plastic robots) and attribute no value at all to things on which we totally depend (like oxygen, wildlife and an equitable climate).  The idea of natural capital is to recognize that nature – natural capital – does have value even if this value cannot be quantified or expressed in monetary terms.

If we do not value nature then it has a very low priority in any economic decision making.  Listen to the language that is normally used: putting money into anything to do with the economy is called “investment”; putting money into anything to do with the environment is call “grants” or “subsidies”.   Normal measures add up everything to do with the economy (whether positive or negative, it’s all counted positive) and call it GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  Activity to look after the environment is called “a burden”.  The implication is clear – the economy makes money but the environment costs money.

A few simple examples expose the nonsense of this situation.  If you over-fish the sea for economic gain in one year then you’ll have no fish, so no money, long term.  If you neglect soil conservation in order to gain maximum crop productivity on a farm in one year then soil will be degraded and you won’t farm, or make money, long term.  Fossil fuels short term – climate change long term.  Degrade wetlands short term – flooding long term.  Throughout many of these examples wildlife gives you a pretty good clue as to whether you are getting it right or not.  Landscapes rich in wildlife are probably the ones that are going to provide the most public benefit in the long term (perhaps indefinitely).

So – natural capital is our stock of nature.  Like any capital, if you erode the stock then you reduce your revenue.  As Dieter Helm (Chair of the Natural Capital Committee) put it “successive natural capital deficits have built up a large natural capital debt and this is proving costly to our well-being and economy”.

Reduce the stock of nature and you reduce the benefits we get.  If this is not reflected in decision making then either you need to recognize the economic value of nature or recognize that nature lies outside quantification and correct the market failure – probably both.  At present we do neither, so nature has no value and it is consistently degraded in the name of economic growth.

Some have reasonable concerns that a natural capital approach might result in the “monetisation” of nature, where we try to put a £ sign against every aspect of nature.  But what price an orchid, a molecule of oxygen or a sunset?  However, by ignoring nature as an “externality”, our economy can all too easily be used to undermine the very natural systems on which everything else depends.  We therefore need to question whether our current economy is fit for purpose.  Is our current obsession with economic growth really delivering human prosperity, now and in the future?  If not then why are we driven by it?  


Instead of “monetising nature” what we need should be viewed more as the “naturalization of the economy.”

Monday, 25 January 2016

Flooding, fossil fuels and unpaid bills

There is a myth in circulation today - “expensive green energy”.  You know the story – green energy is fine but it is expensive.  Hard-pressed businesses have to pay “green taxes” to satisfy an ideology of green energy.  “Hard-working families” (that phrase so beloved of politicians) have to pay this unreasonable cost through higher fuel bills – because of the lobbying of overly influential green pressure groups.

There is no truth in any of this but it is part of a manipulation to resist change and stick to an old fashioned economy fueled by coal, oil and gas.

Whilst green taxes are mentioned in almost every other news bulletin, the cost of fossil fuels barely gets a mention.  Staggering ironies are generally completely missed in news reports; climate change, flooding and extreme events are detailed alongside news reports promoting new airports, roads and tax relief on energy intensive industries.  We despair at climate change and bemoan the effects of burning fossil fuels whilst at the same time promote activities that inevitably result in the burning of more fossil fuels.

But fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas – are cheap in comparison to wind, solar and tidal power, aren’t they?  Well they are only cheap for one reason – they don’t pay their bills.  I would be rich if I didn’t pay any of my bills!  Fossil fuels have an unpaid bill that all of us have to cover.  We may not pay it at the petrol pump, but we do through our tax system and, increasingly, in many other ways as well.  Even if we manage to avoid paying these bills, then future generations will have to pay instead.  However, the past is catching up with us; we are turning into the past’s future generations, paying the bills from the poor decisions of the past.

A classic case is flooding.  We are now as certain as we can be that climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, and making those events worse than they would otherwise have been.  The billions of £ of flood damage, increased insurance bills and lost productivity is a cost caused by climate change, itself caused by burning coal, oil and gas.  It is an unpaid bill.  But someone has to pay – those people affected by flooding.

Wildlife issues are also central to the climate change debate – though often forgotten or misused.  Even the Prime Minister seems to imagine that these floods are down to the eco-fanatics desire to conserve a couple of water voles!  The truth, however, is that restoration of natural systems, with their rich wildlife, produces a landscape that is resilient and more able to adapt to the changes forced upon it.  In the process a living landscape can reduce flood risk, reduce erosion, improve water quality and more.   Fossil fuels are the problem and promoting natural systems are part of the solution – not the other way around.

Nevertheless, improving nature can only go so far in ameliorating the effects of climate change.  We should not over-claim and society should not over-expect – extreme weather events are going to have an impact, they will get more frequent and they will get worse.

If we remove the tax advantages for fossil fuels, pay the true costs of exploitation, pay the true and increasing costs of flooding, coastal defense, wind damage, increasing heat, drought, sickness and so on, then fossil fuels start to look rather like an expensive and old fashioned luxury.  Some say that a weakness is a strength over-played.  Maybe this is the case with fossil fuels.  They have been an enormous strength, creating the society we all live in today.  They are now way past their sell-by date and hugely over-played.  We need to move on.


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Flooding - the inconvenient truth

“Flooding equals lack of river dredging” is the simplistic message often promoted by the media, sometimes with bizarre claims that rivers were left un-dredged just to protect wildlife.  Some pundits even go so far as blaming “eco-zealots” for the floods, with accusations that environmentalists are more concerned about bugs and beetles than they are about people!  It’s all so simple in some minds.

To all complex problems there is a solution that is simple, clear, obvious – and wrong!  And this is where we are with some responses to flooding.  The simple solution is the wrong one – the one that makes the effects of flooding far worse.

The practice is that flood risk can be reduced (not eliminated) with careful and sophisticated approaches that actually deliver results, rather than political knee-jerk reactions.  And the practice is that careful management of river catchments to reduce flood risk downstream, also supports a rich and varied wildlife.  Rich wetland wildlife is a sign that we are getting flood management right.

This has been shown time and again. In academic studies, government reports, careful case studies and direct on-the-ground experience.  The problem for the media is that showing an area that didn’t flood because of some careful work done upstream does not make a good story.  “Here’s a place where nothing happened” is not very riveting - far better to show misery and then blame someone.

Clear examples of where a proper approach has worked are places like Pont Bren, the Exmore mires and Pickering where Natural Flood Management has been successfully employed alongside more traditional flood engineering.  Not heard of them?  Of course not – nothing dramatic happened there.  Other examples in the past include management by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust of their Potteric Carr preventing Doncaster from flooding and Hampshire Wildlife Trust managing of their reserve probably preventing flooding in Winchester

Rivers flood for three reasons. 

First of all, lots of rain!  When huge amounts of water fall out of the sky it has to go somewhere.  The maths is actually quite simple, eloquently articulated in a recent farming conference.  The catchment area that picks up the rain is likely to be well over 1000 times larger than the area of the river it eventually goes into.  So 1 inch of rain in the catchment, if delivered to the river all at once, becomes 1000 inches in the river.  No amount of concrete pouring, dredging or defence building will cope with that. If we defend one area then water will go somewhere else.  If we prevent flood plains from flooding (there’s a clue in the name!) then water will move to the next weak point, often an urban area.

Second, what causes increased storminess and more intense rain?  Climate change.  There is little scientific doubt that climate change increases the energy in the system and this increases the incidences and severity of heavy rain storms.  This is no surprise.  Climate scientists have been saying this for 20 years.  Governments have preferred not to hear this and hope it might all just somehow go away.  Storm damage and flooding is therefore another hidden cost of climate change, essentially a cost of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas).  Hidden costs have a habit of not staying hidden for long.  The billions of £ of flood damage and lost productivity to the country is largely an unpaid bill for the fossil fuel industry (paid instead, by us, through the tax system).  If the true cost of fossil fuels was reflected in the price we paid then it would be clear that green energy is a great deal cheaper.

The third reason is catchment management.  How we manage river valleys can increase, or reduce, the flood risk to people downstream.  Building hard flood defences, concreting over land with new development, woodland removal and river dredging upstream forces water ever quicker down the river and just increases flood risk to people downstream.

Building houses in floodplains is nonsensical, and yet it is still allowed.  Even if we protect them with engineering from small floods, we can never stop the big floods.  Furthermore, by preventing flooding in one area, we simply create it in another – maybe this is why areas that have not flooded in the past are now starting to get flooded.

The key is to allow areas of low-lying land away from people and property - flood plains - to flood, and then to slowly release water afterwards.  This reduces the height of a river in flood.  In Sussex there are now many examples of landowners doing woodland planting, washland creation and river re-naturalisation (such as putting back meanders and allowing rivers to merge with their flood plains) to reduce flood risk and to deliver other public benefits.  This is done because of the careful thought and good will of the landowners involved, with a small amount of financial help from incentive packages.  What is needed is good government policy and financial packages to enable this to happen in a planned and strategic way. Oh – and by the way, all this is good for wildlife too. 

There is a place for dredging and engineered hard defences, but these have to be part of a far more sophisticated approach to managing flooding across the whole river catchment.

Does this all sound expensive?  In truth it is expensive not to manage our catchments in a more sophisticated and naturalistic way.  A study in the West County calculated the costs of such naturalistic catchment management against the financial returns in terms of reduced flood risk and other benefits.  The result was a 65:1 return on investment!  A cost of £1 delivered £65 worth of benefit.  Bad catchment management is not £1 saved, it is £65 spent!  At present it is hard for farmers and landowners to gain the funding – even stay in business – by allowing flood plains to flood and deliver these public benefits.  This is ludicrous.  It should be easy, even lucrative, for a landowner to have the opportunity to manage catchments in a positive way.

The sad thing is that this is not even new.  They have taken this approach in The Netherlands for decades and here the Environment Agency moved to this approach many years ago.  A media frenzy, backed up by a lack of support by government for its own agencies could, however, throw us back into the dark ages.


Flood management is not a balance of wildlife versus people, as was implied to the Environment Agency’s CEO recently. Currently both people and wildlife are struggling with an antiquated approach to flood management which has left a legacy of poorly planned infrastructure, too much urban surface water run-off and over-drained landscapes which flood too easily.  In the past we have chosen badly, perhaps we can make better choices for the future.