Tuesday 17 November 2009

New Marine Act to Save our Seas

This week is an historic occasion for marine conservation. It will be remembered for years to come as the time when the landmark Marine and Coastal Access Act came in to force.


For over a decade the Wildlife Trusts have been campaigning for holistic and coherent laws to better manage our activities at sea and properly protect our marine habitats and species, which have been declining for years as a result of our actions. Finally, the hard work has paid off and we have a Marine Act. http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/index.php?section=environment:marine

The seas around Sussex are home to a wealth of fantastic wildlife, however, we have put our seas under sustained pressure and our marine habitats and the wildlife that they support have suffered as a result.

At present less than 0.001% of the marine environment around Britain is fully protected from damaging activities. The Marine and Coastal Access Act allows Government to designate new Marine Conservation Zones, areas where activities and exploitation can be managed so as not to damage the environment. This network of protected zones will allow degraded habitats to recover and wildlife to once again thrive. New legislation, however, is only the beginning and we will continue to press for strengthened provisions for marine wildlife through the implementation process. The decisions made, and actions taken, over the next five years will determine the future of the UK’s seas. This is a unique opportunity and we must seize it.

If you would like to read about how our seas are now but a shadow of their former selves I suggest you read “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by professor Callum Roberts.

This is an incredible eye-opener. The history of our marine environment is one of long term damage from unsustainable activities and poor regulation. It is a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation. Nobody will restrict their use of the sea, even if it would protect dwindling fish stocks because others would always step in and exploit them instead. The statistics are daunting. There would probably be about 20 times as many fish in the North Sea, if it was not fished, and the over-fishing of the last century means that we are now landing less than 10% of the fish that were landed in 1900.

Callum Roberts’ view, supported by clear logic, is that we need to protect as much as 30% of the sea and reduce the intensity of use over much of the rest. Far from disadvantaging the fishing industry, this is probably the only action that will save it. Protected zones are massively productive, so areas around them have significantly increased fish stocks. For example one small protected area near Devon has a lobster population 8 times greater than outside, and fishers benefit from this as stocks spill out into surrounding areas.

My feeling is that the situation in Sussex is actually improving. Much of the remaining fishing industry is conducted on a more sustainable basis and the trick will now be to make sure that regulation boosts local fishing, perhaps protecting it from over-exploitation from further afield. There are even ideas that the whole of the Sussex fishery should be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. If this was done then it would mean that anyone buying local fish could be confident that they weren’t damaging the marine environment by doing so. (If it is not done then perhaps people should question whether they should really buy endangered-fish-and-chips for supper).

Implemented well, the Marine Act will not be a case of conservation versus fishing; it will be a case of conservation ensuring the survival of fishing.

And there is more to the sea than fish for the dinner plate. Taken as a whole the sea is the fundamental regulator for the functioning of the whole planet. From the weather, to nutrient cycling and the provision of oxygen for us to breathe the sea is pretty important! World wide, the expansion of “dead zones” – zones where the ecosystem has essentially collapsed – should be a concern for all of us. Sorting out our approach to our own seas is vital. But we can’t just push the problem off to somewhere else.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Chris Packham at SWT’s 2009 AGM

Over 200 people came along to our AGM on Saturday 31st October and were treated to an excellent presentation by Chris Packham.

It would have been great to get him along just to hear about his favourite wildlife observations, and maybe listen to some stories from the Autumnwatch programme. But what we got was an inspiring challenge – recognising what we have done so far but spurring us on to do more.

Before Chris’s talk I gave a rather disorganised ramble through SWT action over the last year – a discussion of the projects we are engaged in. This had a positive slant because, obviously, I am quite proud of what the Trust is doing. He said that while this is great – it is not enough. We have still not turned the tide and reversed the wildlife losses of the last decades. We are still not winning.

And he is right. To highlight the size of the challenge he read back some of the points made in our own pamphlet “Sussex Wildlife Today”. This was a short document we produced to report on how we felt wildlife had faired since we produced our “Vision for the Wildlife of Sussex” in 1996. http://www.sussexwt.org.uk/about/page00006.htm

So what were some of the key points he pulled out:

Lowland meadows still suffering a greater rate of loss than any other habitat.
Coastal habitat still being lost in spite of projects to create more.
Reactionary objection to environmental schemes where they are being promoted.
Targets for heathland presented in the Vision not achieved.

And so on.

He summarised with one of the key conclusions that we drew in “Sussex Wildlife Today” –

The scale is unbalanced; we have big threats but only small opportunities.

So we have to make best use of those small opportunities.

Having said this Chris was very positive about the approaches that Wildlife Trusts are taking all over the country, including here in Sussex. The Living Landscape approach http://www.sussexwt.org.uk/conservation/living_landscapes/page00002.htm was praised as an initiative looking to work at a larger scale to deliver nature conservation over whole landscapes. Nature reserves are important, but they must be part of the wider landscape and be of value to people. He liked some of our large scale approaches, like the West Weald Landscape Project, and also liked the way that projects like this aim to integrate benefits for wildlife with the benefits for people.

Whilst we in nature conservation may be fascinated by the re-appearance of a wood boring beetle thought extinct in England for 150 years, to most people this would be of little more than passing interest. Being inspired by nature, recognising its value, demanding it and being a part of it are much more important. If we achieve that then perhaps everyone will be fascinated by rare beetles.

When I ask people what they remember about his talk they often point to one particular example. I will probably summarise badly, however one of his key points concerned what to give children and grand children for Christmas this year. Instead of giving children some piece of plastic, consumer rubbish he said spend time with them, instead of spending money on them. Take them out into an area of green space and encourage them to experience the real world. Show them nature, get them to see it, hear it, smell it – and hopefully value it. Most of the people in the audience will probably have been turned on to nature by some direct experience in their past – not by seeing it on TV or over the internet or even by reading books. So we owe it to our children to give them that experience, rather than palm them off with just another “thing”.

Maybe this is not just a message for children though – perhaps we should all forget the shinny things and go out and enjoy nature instead!

Monday 12 October 2009

How will a New Town improve this!!?

This is the countryside between Adversane and North Heath - not far from Billingshurst. How will 4,000 houses improve this???!!

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Adversane New Town

We knew it would happen. If government tries to force large numbers of houses into an already crowded part of the country then conflicts were bound to happen. The South East Plan puts local councils in the invidious position of being forced to build over their own countryside.

This is what has happened in Horsham District and this is why we are now faced with mad schemes like the Adversane New Town.

A quiet, rural part of West Sussex, a small hamlet with just a few houses, will turn into an extended sub-urban settlement – 4,000 houses, as many as in Billingshurst and Pulborough combined. We will end up with ribbon development – continuous housing from north of Billingshurst to south of Pulborough – effectively doubling the population of the area to around 26,000 people.

But even bearing in mind the developer’s charter that is the South East Plan, is this inevitable?

The SE Plan dictates that the District must find locations for 13,000 houses yet all the proposals in Horsham’s Core Strategy add up to over 20,000.

Furthermore the SE Plan says that only 3,800 should be outside the Gatwick area (so why are there proposals for at least 4,000 in Adversane alone?).

Carry on reading the SE Plan and you find clear policies stating that at least 60% of any new development should be on previously developed land, otherwise known as brown field land. What is more, there are key policies about protecting the landscape, conserving and enhancing wildlife and building in such a way as to retain and enhance the character of an area. None of the plans in Horsham’s Core Strategy are for houses on brown field land and all the proposals will harm the character of the area.

Do the sums. Even if we accept the SE Plans demands (which I do not) we should be looking for locations for 3,800 homes in rural Horsham, of which 60% (2,280) should be on brown field land. This leaves only 1,520 to be placed on green field sites in rural Horsham. A large number certainly, but nothing like the 20,000 in the current Core Strategy.

Maybe it is disingenuous of the SE Plan. There may not be enough previously developed land in rural areas, like Horsham, to be able to keep all this housing away from green field land. Maybe Horsham District Council are not trying hard enough to find brown field sites, or maybe they are just not there to be found.

But government would never dream of reducing the housing allocation because it can’t be met on brown field sites.

Why is it that every time there is a conflict of policies it is always the environment that looses out?

The pattern is always the same:

You can’t put all the houses on brown field land so don’t reduce the number, just put them on green field land – forget environmental protection.

If there isn’t enough water then just find some more, no matter what the environmental damage.

The roads get congested, so just build them bigger and don’t listen to the complaints of the people who have had their lives ruined.

And so on

We are often told, in situations like this that “difficult choices may have to be made”. In practice, whenever people in authority say this, it means they want to be able to make the easy choice, not the difficult one.

In this case the easy choice will be to ignore everyone and over-develop the area come-what-may.

The difficult choice would be to plan within the ability of the area to absorb development. And if this means less development – then that is the difficult choice.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Concreting over the countryside

A “strategic site option”. This is code for a New Town, and that is what is threatened between Billingshurst and Pulborough around what is now the small hamlet of Adversane.

The proposal is for between 4000 and 5000 houses on about 155 ha of quiet rural West Sussex. That will be a population of around 10 to 12,000 people – bigger than both Billingshurst and Pulborough added together, and about the same size as the much criticised Ford “Eco” Town south of Arundel.

A new town of this size would essentially join up Billingshurst and Pulborough, making an expanded settlement of over 8,000 houses. Add in the 1750 houses also proposed for Billingshurst and 280 for Pulborough and we are heading for a major urban settlement of around 10,000 houses (total), more than 25,000 people. I thought that amalgamation of settlements into a large sub-urban mass was something that we were trying to avoid these days!

Swept away will be ancient woodlands, species rich hedgerows and the foraging areas of one of Europe’s rarest bats. Tranquillity would disappear to be replaced by many thousand extra car movements along the A29 and surrounding roads. This major development would completely devastate the area, changing it from a rural location into an expanse of suburbia.

And how do we know about it - through one of the passages in the Core Strategy of the Horsham District Councils Local Development Framework. Hardly bed-time reading for normal human-beings, but it shows how astute you have to be to stand a chance of arguing against major urban expansion.

I have seen reports tucked away in some of the local papers and the magnitude of the threat is slowly dawning on people. The Local Parish Councils, to their credit, are doing what they can to raise awareness. But I am slightly amazed that our local media, normally so good at these matters, are not jumping up and down.

So who would live in this new town and where would they work? There is no demand for a large work force in the area and no proposal for major industrial development to support the huge population increase. The consultation document itself says that this development would not support a range of services - an admission that it will be a dormitory town for people working elsewhere, probably in London. As such this form of town could be placed anywhere around London, there is no overriding need for it to be in Adversane. There is nothing wrong with people working in London whilst living in and appreciating Sussex. But we are now being threatened by a waste tip for London’s waste down the road at Laybrook, and a sub-urban sprawl designed only to be a dormitory town for London. Isn’t this all getting a bit unbalanced?

This is so often the case. We get big, menacing plans for housing development, being told that we are forced into this because of the South East Plan. But there are other policies in the SE Plan, including policies for nature conservation, and all policies are supposed to be balanced against each other. We have the site allocations for housing, so where are the site allocations for nature development?

Perhaps some policies are more equal than others.

Have your say!

Get the documents and response forms at http://www.horshamdistrictldf.info/LDDS/local_dev_documents_4625.asp
and go along to the exhibitions at Billingshurst Village Hall on 10am on 26th September and at Adversane Village Hall on 3rd October.

Let’s not sleep-walk into a miniature Milton-Keynes.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

This is not a barren quarry devoid of life!

My last blog posting outlined my general concerns about our throw-away society, in particular highlighting concerns about the proposed Laybrook landfill site as an example of the damage that can be done. I do not know the site but I had an excellent comment back from Pip Edgcombe who has clearly done significant research in the area.

I think this is a comment well worth reading so rather than leaving people to click on the comments box, I though I'd just publish it word for word as a separate blog posting:

This hole in the ground, Laybrook brickworks, does have significant existing wildlife interest. Far from being a barren quarry devoid of life, the varied mosaic of different habitats in and around the brickworks and the fact that it remains relatively undisturbed for much of the time has resulted in a site which supports a diverse mix of invertebrate, bird and mammal species. Many of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species and other high conservation species are represented.

23 bird species with high conservation status were recorded by Cory's consultants (ESL) but based on other records and local knowledge this is a very conservative figure, it could be as high as 45.

There is a considerable bat population at the site with 8 species (including barbastelles) being recorded by ESL at the site and another over the adjacent fishing ponds. Many of the foraging habitats and the hedges used as flight lines by the bats will be destroyed. Work being undertaken at Knepp indicate that ESLs records are incomplete.

Water voles are also present on the site. There are very few colonies anywhere in the Adur, and the existing populations are extremely fragmented and vulnerable to extinction. The proposed landfill, rather than affording protection that is required by law, will result in the total destruction of their habitat.

As far as invertebrates are concerned the site is incredibly rich which is why it can support so many other species. Of the 565 species recorded by ESL, 60 have formal conservation status. ESL themselves describe it as a ‘site with a wide diversity of invertebrate interest’. The reason there are so many insects is because of the wide variety of habitats. Most of these will be destroyed during the construction and running of the landfill site. Mitigation measures are proposed to replace the hedges and plant new trees. However the current habitats have developed over tens, probably hundreds of years. They cannot be replaced overnight. The result will be habitat simplification, with a concomitant simplification of biodiversity that again the more common, competitive, species at the expense of far rarer niche-specialists. In addition, there will be a considerable delay before any restoration is carried out and be functional even at a basic level.

Landfill gas, landfill gas flare emissions, leachate, polluted surface water, dust, litter, noise and vermin are known to impact flora and fauna. Planning permission for the landfill should be refused as it is not needed and not wanted but also on the basis that this is an area of great biodiversity value, the ecology reports submitted by Cory's consultants are not complete and that the full impact on the ecology of the brickworks and the surrounding area has not been assessed.

Very many thanks, Pip, its good to have an insight from someone who knows the area.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

We can’t throw things away – because there is no “away” left!

Chucking things away on a huge scale is a painful symptom of our modern society.

When you think about it, this makes no logical sense. We take resources that have taken millions of years to build up, make something briefly of use to us and then chuck them away where they become pollutants, make mess and take up space.

This is clearly unsustainable (yes – that “sustainable” thing again – it’s not jargon, it just means you plainly can’t do this for ever!). Furthermore, this causes damage to wildlife in all sorts of ways. One result that is all too obvious to people living in parts of Sussex is the need for landfill sites. We are running out of holes in the ground where we can casually throw our cast-offs so what we are left with is getting more and more damaging.

One site that is causing well-deserved concern is a proposal to fill a clay pit at Lay Brook with waste. This is a site near Ashington, immediately adjacent to Knepp – one of the country’s leading conservation projects.

I have talked about the Knepp estate in this blog before. For more details go to the estate’s own web site at http://www.knepp.co.uk/.

Suffice it to say here that the Sussex Wildlife Trusts has long supported the project and we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have one of the country’s best re-wilding projects on our doorstep. What is more, it is not just us that support it – friends of the project come from all over Britain (e.g. the Environment Agency and Natural England) and Europe. It has also received warm support from the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment. See:


The presence of a landfill so close to its borders could have a major effect. The proposed pit is wet – i.e. it fills up with water. Filling this up with any old waste would be extremely damaging. Dumped waste here would rot, chemicals would leach out and surrounding rivers would be devastated. This pit would leach directly out into the river Adur as it runs through Knepp. That would be the end of any re-wilding attempts. This would clearly not be allowed so, generally, two solutions are proposed. First the pit would be “sealed”, so nothing could leach out. Second, only inert waste that would not rot would be allowed in.

The trouble is that I am not sure this really works in practice.

First a pit will never really be sealed permanently – polluted water will always get in and out somehow, getting into surrounding rivers. Preventing a pit from flooding into surrounding steams becomes even more difficult with the increase in severe rains storms that we are now getting.

Second, can we really trust people dumping waste to only dump the most inert material into a big wet hole? Would anyone really notice the odd rotting refuse sack, oil drum or paint pot (until it started leaching into the surrounding river)?

Furthermore, these holes in the ground often have significant existing wildlife interest, or have the potential to develop it. The largest sand marten colony in Sussex is in an old sand pit for example. Holes in the ground are not just wasted land waiting to be dumped in – they are assets that could have a very positive potential use.

The current issue - Laybrook landfill - will shortly be considered by the County Council. For further details, with advice on how to make representations on the proposal, then the web site http://www.nolaybrooklandfill.co.uk/ is perhaps a good starting point.

However, we shouldn’t only be fighting against landfill sites, instead we should be forming partnership to work together and make best use of these potential assets. In other words we should be pushing for what we do want in these places, not just having to fight against what we don't. For my part I’d like to see a restored, re-naturalised lake and wetland there.

But all of this comes down to our attitude to consumption and waste. If we can’t consume without wasting then we shouldn’t consume in the first place. It may be reassuring to blame the County Council or the landfill companies (and the Sussex Wildlife Trust will oppose damaging landfill along with everyone else), but really they are just dealing with a problem that we are giving them. Obviously we have to produce less waste, obviously we have to reuse and recycle more and maybe there will always be some residue left to dispose of (maybe in an incinerator outside somebody else’s house). But the only real answer is to move to a no-waste society. Idealistic? Well I would say not, indeed our current get it, use it, chuck it approach is a silly ideal, and one that is now failing.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Book Review: “Where the Wild Things Were” by William Stolzenburg

I haven’t yet reviewed a book on my blog but this one was so good that I thought I would make a start. “Where the wild things were” looks pretty drab when you first pick it up but when you start reading it a fascinating story unfolds of how big fierce things rule the world (or should do).

We’ve all seen the nature programmes on TV. They are excellent and I am not one to criticise them. Good ones might tell you all about an animal – maybe giving you a year in its life. The very good programmes may tell you more about the habitat in which an animal lives. But there’s the rub – a habitat is generally portrayed as something an animal lives in. It is very rare for us to get a picture of how an animals shape the world they live in. This is a huge gap in the way nature conservation is put across to people - what we should be seeing is animals as integral parts of their habitat.

Animals often drive the ecology of an ecosystem rather than just live within it. For example large herbivores graze areas so, obviously they create grasslands, similarly beavers build dams, blocking rivers and so create wetlands. You can therefore see how animals impact on vegetation and so alter ecosystems. Large predators, however, are often just thought of as something that sits at the top of the food chain. We may think of them as a method of keeping the numbers of herbivores down, but surely a few lions or tigers wandering around cannot have much effect on what a forest looks like?

Stolzenburg, however, shows, in a clear, entertaining and readable way, how top predators are fundamental in shaping whole ecosystems, effectively driving the ecology of areas. Furthermore, he shows that many ecosystems around the world are in a tail-spin of degradation and collapse because they lack predators.

This is an excellent book. We may know that wolves are back in Yellowstone, USA, but nowhere else have I read such a clear explanation on how wolves have changed the behaviour of other species and in the process beneficially altered the vegetation. We may have seen cute pictures of sea otters off the Canadian coast but did you know that they eat large numbers of sea urchins and without otters sea urchin populations would explode leaving them to graze the marine kelp forests to destruction. So, centuries of hunting otter for fur actually resulted in the destruction of a major marine ecosystem.

He introduces us to concepts such as a “trophic cascade”, the idea that if you remove predators then the effects bounce around the ecosystem in unpredictable and destructive ways. For example when wolves were hunted to extinction in Yellowstone then, predictably, deer numbers exploded, vegetation became over-grazed and many plants and animals declined. Less predictably, without wolves, coyote populations increased which hunted Pronghorn Antelopes. When the wolves returned, the coyotes received a tough lesson in top-dog diplomacy! And Pronghorns increased. An interesting insight of how a predator can increase the population of a prey species. Also surprising was the effect on riverside vegetation – when the wolves came back the grazing animals avoided rivers as that is where they got ambushed. The result was less grazing alongside rivers and a huge flush of regenerating wetlands.

Examples pour out of this book developing a powerful argument to show the critical value of predators. From the effect of starfish on mussels to cougars on white-tailed deer, to coyotes on domestic cats, in each case the presence of a predator sends out ripples giving a richer, more diverse, more stable and better functioning ecosystem.

Discussions on what drives the ecology of ecosystems are always fascinating. The world is so diverse that most views are probably right somewhere – often the keystone species will be predators, often large grazers, sometimes ants, fungi, even midges! Stolzenburg makes an excellent case for predators.

Stolzenburg also does not shy away from “political” implications. The deepest resistance to the return of wolves in Yellowstone came from hunters who wanted the maximum number of docile deer that are easy to shoot. Killer whales are now eating otters and seals because we have killed off their main prey – the large whales. This is uncomfortable to both whaling commissions (unhappy that whaling could be damaging ecosystems) and conservationists (who consider over-fishing as the main cause of seal decline).

This book also boosts the case for re-introducing predators, or for carrying out management practices that mimic the effect of predators. Whole ecosystems are suffering, in Britain as anywhere, through lack of predators. We need them back for the health of our own environment, and if we do not get them back we need to find ways of controlling the things that top predators would have controlled.

Tuesday 30 June 2009

The Big Biodiversity Butterfly Count

The Big Biodiversity Butterfly Count is a fantastic event that takes place between Saturday 4 July and Sunday 12 July. It aims to do what the name implies – to encourage people to engage in the identification and counting of butterflies in Brighton and Hove. To take part, you can pick up a butterfly identification guide and recording form at any library in Brighton & Hove or follow the link on the Big Biodiversity Butterfly Count web site.

Butterflies are easy to identify and are sensitive to changes in their habitat. They are, in most of their characteristics, typical insects, and the impact of environmental changes on butterflies is probably similar to the effects on many other insects. So by counting butterfly numbers we have a measure by which we can easily monitor the rest of biodiversity.

Much of this information you can pick up from the BBBC web site, but I also asked Dr Dan Danahar, who is leading this project, for some further information for me to post on my blog. I expected something about butterflies and just how nice they are. What I received was an excellent articulation of nature conservation philosophy! So rather than plagiarise it and claim the credit, I thought I’d quote it directly – so here it is…..

If you were born during the 1950's you belong to the first generation of human beings to see the world population double during your own lifespan, which is of course part of the exponential growth pattern currently happening to the human population.

Of course if you were born in the fifties, many of you will be coming up for retirement soon and will have had a pretty good life, if you lived in the west. As it currently stands 6.5 Billion people live on the planet and it is estimated that global human population will plateau at between 8 & 10 Billion by 2050. This is rather worrying when you consider that most young people know no other life than one of consumption, utilising natural resources at an ever increasing rate.

Since around 68% of the worlds terrestrial ecosystems have already been damaged by human activity, and around 75% of our marine fisheries are unsustainably harvested, only a small proportion of the earths natural ecosystems remain intact. As we destroy more and more of the worlds natural ecosystems so we also degrade the invisible environmental services that they supply, free of charge.

Ultimately this can lead to one of two possible scenarios. Either keystone species will become extinct and the planet will suffer ecosystem collapse and the sixth mass extinction or the earths biodiversity will become increasingly impoverished, so that when you travel from one part of the planet to another you will only ever see the same species of animal and plant, the weeds that can cope with what humans do to their environment.

So, one of the reasons why we are running the BBBC is to encourage people to become interested in biodiversity, wildlife, to make them bio-literate because we believe that we all need to be as aware of our local biodiversity as stock brokers are aware of the stocks and shares on the stock exchange.

We hope that by looking people will become involved in the fascinatingly complex life histories of our local natural history. We hope that people will learn to value biodiversity.

Let me put it another way:

TRY NOT TO READ THESE WORDS. Of course this is a paradox - as soon as you have read them its too late, because you had to read the instruction to be able to realise you weren't meant to read them. If you can read it is impossible to look at any words with out comprehending their meaning.

So what if it was in some other language that you can't read, like Chinese? Then the information would be concealed until you became familiar with Chinese. Reading the natural world is pretty much the same thing, we have become so unattached to our local environment that we no longer have any real sense of how to read it.

Becoming familiar with local biodiversity is rather like learning to read. So, if you are new at this, the BBBC is like your first reading lesson. Your ABC to Biodiversity if you like. If you can't, read how can you be adequately informed about what's happening in your world?

Of course it’s also true that butterflies are great indicators of environmental change because they are easy to identify, there are currently only 45 species in the Sussex. They are sensitive creatures to, dependent on subtle changes in microclimate, habitat structure, etc., as are most insects.

So by identifying and recording butterflies we hope to make two gains:

1) increased knowledge about year on year changes in our local environment and

2) an increasingly bio-literate populace, a community that values the natural world more that it currently does."

Well done Dan!! Butterflies are nice to look at and a world with them is far better than a world without them. But we all need reminding now and then about the deeper need for nature conservation and the need to re-engage with the natural world.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Climate Change - a major report indicates what we can expect in the UK

Climate change is on the agenda again today (indeed it is such an important issue that is should never be off the agenda) as Hilary Benn MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, launched the UK Climate Projections (UKCP09). These give detail to how we might expect the climate of the UK to change in coming decades. for an introduction to these projections go to http://ukcp09.defra.gov.uk/

No-one should be surprised!
Predictably, the projections are not good news, but they should be no surprise to anyone. A “greenhouse effect” was first proposed about 200 years ago and carbon dioxide was identified as the main greenhouse gas around 100 years ago. By the 1970’s it was very clear that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (by burning coal, oil etc), while at the same time damaging the earth’s ability to react to these changes (i.e. by damaging biodiversity) was bound to change the balance of this greenhouse effect - hence global warming. After 30 or 40 years of procrastination at least the subject of global warming is mainstream even if our reaction to it is sluggish.

Inevitable change – adaptation is as important as reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
The government claims that it will pursue a concerted action programme to address climate change. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case, but they have set out a broad 5-point plan and I am glad to see that “preparing for the future” (i.e. adaptation) is included. Temperatures are very likely to increase by around 2 degrees before 2050 even if we react responsibly now (which we probably wont!), and continue to grow even further after that point. I am not convinced, however, that predictability can be that precise. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if our current relatively amicable climate changed into something that was much more unpredictable, with perhaps wide swings between hot and cold, wet and dry.

A healthy environment must form the basis of any future strategy for climate change.
Whatever happens, our environment must be able to adapt. Consequently we need a long-term vision for land-use. We need a healthier environment where the best sites for nature are conserved, enhanced, expanded and joined up to make the natural environment more robust, allowing people and wildlife to adapt to these changes. For a better idea of what we mean by this see our climate change strategy at:
and see our Living Landscape documents at: http://www.sussexwt.org.uk/conservation/living_landscapes/page00002.htm

Furthermore, restoring the natural environment will enhance our essential ecological services, such as carbon storage in peatlands, purification of water through reed beds and flood management in wetlands.

A brave new approach is needed.
However, the current approach of fiddling around the edges of existing policies has failed us for too long. Without a long-term vision for the future of our land with joined up decisions on agriculture, planning, water management and more, the future looks very bleak.

Furthermore, the impacts of climate change on wildlife are not restricted to land. Marine wildlife also needs the flexibility to adapt to climate change. More than 50% of the carbon dioxide we produce is absorbed by the sea which is why we must act now to ensure we manage our marine environment sustainably.

A brave new approach with a large-scale vision is what we are seeking from government.
The Government must now show political will by investing in large-scale habitat restoration and creation. It is vital for the natural environment to be placed at the heart of adaptation programmes.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Natural Solutions to Flood Management

It is interesting how the tide is turning (no pun intended!) regarding flooding in this country. Not long ago the only answer seemed to be to just keep pouring the concrete to build up hard defences along rivers and coasts. But - like trying to squeeze yourself into clothes that are far too small – all the excess has to bulge out somewhere. Hard flood defences in one place just mean that the spate in a river builds up and it simply spills out, often catastrophically, at the next weak point.

The Wildlife Trusts’ report - Nature’s Place for Water - launched in November 2008, shows how The Wildlife Trusts are working with nature to provide sustainable solutions to flood management. While flood defence walls remain vital in protecting homes and farmland, if the UK is to address the future effects of climate change, natural solutions to flood management must play a significant role. You can download the Wildlife Trusts report here http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/files/uploaded/Flooding%20web.pdf

There is now a Draft Floods and Water Bill which seems to take a more natural approach to flood management. I haven’t read this yet but, going by recent releases from Natural England, it does seem to recognise that conventional methods of managing floods and coastal erosion may no longer be adequate or sustainable especially in the face of climate change.

Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England, said: “This Bill must ensure that our natural environment plays a pivotal role in flood management. If we increase its capacity to retain more water it will play a greater role in reducing flooding and consequently our reliance on miles of costly concrete and earth embankments”. She stresses that flood management should embrace natural solutions, such as restoring river channels, increasing floodplain wetlands and allowing re-alignment of the coast.

If you look at a map of Sussex you will often see places that are referred to as flood plains. Now there is a reason for the word “flood” in flood plain – and that is that they tend to flood! Fighting against this is not always successful and even when it is it might just mean that somewhere else might flood instead. Well government policy, it seems, might be accepting this now and as a result we might see more naturally functioning wetland, more wetland habitats and more wetland wildlife (along with better flood defence and a much improved landscape).

The way rural land is managed can reduce rural and urban flooding at the local level. Both the Environment Agency and Natural England should work even more closely together to deliver more schemes that work with natural processes. There are, of course, examples of work progressing in Sussex, with re-naturalisations schemes planned for the Cuckmere (for which I have praised EA in the past) and the possibility of more wetland establishment being discussed for rivers like the Ouse. There are also imaginative schemes being put forward by private landowners who aim to re-naturalise upstream river sections to create attractive wetlands and reduce flood risk down stream.

These ideas, good though they are, will all effect somebody’s land. A more natural approach to flood defence should not just be something that is imposed to the disadvantage of the landowner who happens to own part of a flood plain. Flood management is something that we will all benefit from so it wouldn’t be right if the wider public gained the benefit but the landowner had to bare the cost. This approach must therefore be done in parallel with advice, support and incentives to make this a viable option for a landowner.

So –
- flooding events are likely to get more frequent with the changing climate,
- working with nature is a more sustainable approach to flood management
- working with nature delivers other public benefits as well (wetland wildlife and an improved landscape) and
- advice and incentives should be available to landowners to make re-naturalisation of river catchments a more viable option.

If the Floods and Water Bill achieves all this then we will be moving in the right direction.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

To those who are not so pleased about the National Park

Well the National park is here and, while the majority of people are delighted about this, there are a few who are less than pleased. To read the media one might be excused for thinking that the years of work to get the Park had been marred by unpleasant antagonism between the “pros” and the “antis”. You can perhaps imagine a clash of the titans with the irresistible force battling against the immovable object!

Maybe I am na├»ve. Perhaps I do insist on solidly fixing my rose-tinted spectacles in front of my eyes, but I don’t see this issue as such an aggressive conflict. Yes, there may have been the occasional rant but, generally speaking, any opposing views have been very polite and “English”. People have heard each others views, recognised differences and, rather than putting up barriers, have got on with life in areas where they do agree.

It may have seemed hard, sometimes, if I was unable to persuade people about the Park but, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that this relatively well-handled difference has actually led to a kind of creative tension. With most people in favour but others against (but, generally, people are trying to get the best for the Downs) it means that the approaches are properly tested and whatever comes out at the end should be the best solution.

I will give a couple of examples to explain what I mean.

In general it is true to say that while conservation organisations have been in favour, many farmers, landowners and their representatives have been against. In my experience, however, this has been more a disagreement amongst friends than a clash of opposites. Conservation groups are not anti-farmer, and farmers are not anti-conservation (indeed the distinction between farmer and conservationist is itself blurred). Whilst I do not agree with the opposition from some landowners, their concerns are certainly legitimate. The point now is that we should work together so that their concerns are not realised. Farmers and landowners should not be disadvantaged by being in the Park. These are the very people who are looking after this nationally important landscape so the National Park should aim to provide improved mechanisms (whether grants, incentive schemes, improved markets or support for diversification schemes) to support environmentally-friendly farming. Farmers should do well as a result of being in a National Park. Ensuring this is the case should be the job of all involved in setting up the Park.

It is also clear that some of the Local Authorities have been firmly against the National Park, and have fought hard to prevent it. Whilst we disagree on this, these same Authorities have a good track record in other environmental matters (of course we would always lobby for them to do better but when you compare with others, these are pretty good Councils). For example, take the West Sussex County Council – the leader of the case against the Park. We have been able to put this disagreement to one side for nearly 20 years and the practice is that the County Council has been one of the most positive supporters of the Sussex Biodiversity Partnership and the Biodiversity Record Centre, they have one of the best systems to protect Sites of Nature Conservation Importance, have supported woodland management and hedgerow planting, have assisted us in major landscape projects and included us in discussions on key environmental issues. Nobody has slammed any doors because we disagree on the Park. Their opposition has probably meant that we have had to think carefully about how planning matters could be handled and the proposed outcome of delegating day to day planning back to Local Authorities could be a good solution.

I am confident that a National Park for the South Downs does provide the best way of looking after this landscape and its wildlife. The more important thing now, however, is that a decision has been made. I say to those who remain unhappy, sometimes it is better to have a decision than it is to have no decision – even if you do not like the outcome. At least there is now some certainty so we can plan for the future.

My conclusion from this is that, at the end of the day, there will be mostly the same people sitting around roughly the same table discussing broadly the same issues, and all concerned want the best solution for the Downs. The only difference is that we consider that a National Park will give us the best way of achieving this. A new, exciting chapter has been opened in the history of the South Downs and it is down to all of us to make best use of this opportunity.

Tuesday 31 March 2009

Great News - At last we have a National Park for the South Downs!

A National Park was first proposed for the Downs back in the 1930’s. In 1949 it was formally recommended as a National Park, along with 11 other areas, but we had to wait until 1999 before the government announced its desire to make the Downs a National Park. Even then it was still 10 years before we got there. Nobody could be accused of rushing into this!

However, here we are – 31st March 2009, near the 60th anniversary of the designation of our first National Parks, and at last we have proper recognition of the South Downs. We have our National Park.

See the map here:

and see the Secretary of State's decision letter here:

This is brilliant news. The South Downs Campaign, formed in 1990 at the initiative of the Sussex Wildlife Trusts (along with many others), has spent nearly two decades promoting the case for a National Park. In the end the logical weight of the argument, plus the support of the majority of people in Sussex (polls indicate up to 80% support) has eventually won the day. Furthermore the Secretary of State has agreed with the Campaign in most cases in relation to where the boundary should be drawn. We have a sensible-sized National Park that comprises the most important high-quality sweeps of landscape – not one just limited to one particular area.

With the announcement of a South Downs National Park it is a good time to review the benefits the decision will bring.

The South Downs Joint Committee (SDJC), who manage the South Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a good body but has significant shortfalls. Its funding is limited (it has to negotiate annually with 16 different bodies for funding, whereas a National Park Authority (NPA) receives funding direct from Government). It is not independent (being local authority dominated), has no planning powers, no duty to manage recreation, is not permanent and has less power for conservation than an NPA.

The NPA is a special type of local authority governed by elected members from local councils, parish councils and people appointed from the local area. An NPA does not undermine local democracy. (It is not correct to say that a NPA is an unelected, undemocratic body, and that its members are nominated by the Secretary of State.)

The NPA is centrally funded at higher levels than for AONBs. In 2008/09 the 12 National Parks received £46.23 million, while the 36 AONBs received £9.48 million. In addition the NPA will have a greater ability to raise funding from other sources. Significantly, these funds would be available permanently, allowing the NPA to work to long-term objectives, which the SDJC was not able to do.

An NPA will bring greater consistency and protection to the area. While there is no theoretical difference in the Government policy protection afforded to AONBs and National Parks, there is a crucial difference in the way that planning is delivered. With 15 Local Authorities each with their own plans and policies, Local Authorities struggle to make consistent planning decisions. A NPA has a single set of consistent planning policies for the whole area. Furthermore, the NPA’s planning powers are set out in legislation whereas the AONB body is purely advisory. In short NPAs are far more effective in the positive use of planning control. This does not mean a layer of bureaucracy designed to stop things happening. In existing National Parks there is a higher rate of planning approvals for higher quality development than in areas outside.

Economic benefits:
The South Downs is worth over £330 million to the regional economy. A NPA has a duty to foster social and economic well-being in pursuing National Park purposes and research has shown how important National Parks are in terms of the local economy and jobs. For instance surveys demonstrate that over half of a Parks’ businesses feel that National Park designation has a positive impact on their enterprise.

Public enjoyment:
An NPA is not an agency for promoting tourism. The South Downs already receives 40 million visits a year, more than any UK National Park and visitor numbers will rise regardless of National Park designation. An AONB body has no statutory duty to manage recreation, unlike an NPA. An NPA has a statutory duty to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the Park’s special qualities by the public. Crucially, however, if there is a conflict between conservation and public enjoyment then it is required to give priority to conservation. In other words, an NPA is not an agency for promoting tourism but for improving the quality of the experience of people enjoying the National Park.

Environmentally sensitive farming:
An NPA will bring additional funding to environmentally sensitive land management and will be able to influence agri-environment funding at a regional level. National Park would not mean ‘nationalising’ the land; landowners will continue to manage their land. A South Downs National Park Authority is especially desirable because it would provide the focus and the mechanisms needed to conserve and enhance this internationally important landscape. It would bring additional resources to the area and allow the NPA to define long-term objectives in partnership with landowners. An NPA would have a strong voice in defining the priorities through its management plan and the new mechanisms being put in place to allocate funding for agri-environment programmes at regional level. Experience in the other National Parks has shown that NPAs are very well placed to drive forward schemes at the practical level.

Obviously we now have to move from campaigning for a national park to working together to make sure that it delivers on its promise. So, in some respects the work has only just started. Perhaps we can all now put the discussions about “whether or not” behind us and focus more on the issues affecting the Downs.

Clearly the Government should be congratulated for taking this visionary step by creating the National Park but on top of this there are a great many people who have pushed for a long time to achieve this status for the Downs. Of these I would like to pick out two for particular praise – Chris Todd, the Campaign Officer who has led the work for many years for the Campaign and, especially, Robin Crane, the Chairman of the South Downs Campaign. It was mainly due to Robin’s initiative back in 1990 that the people in the Downs were galvanised into action and, as a direct result, we now have a National Park.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Congratulations to the Environment Agency on the Cuckmere Valley!

The Environment Agency (EA) has been looking at the future management of the Cuckmere for years now. Throughout this time it has preferred an increased reliance on natural processes rather than reverting to the heavy engineering of hard sea defences. To their credit the EA has stuck to its guns and is now withdrawing maintenance of these sea defences.

There are limited funds available for flood defence, no homes are at risk from flooding here and better public benefit can be delivered by improving the natural functioning of the river. It has therefore concluded that it is not in the public interest to rebuild hard flood defences in the valley. This is the right decision and The Sussex Wildlife Trust supports this view.

The valley is of very high importance for nature conservation. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, will be a National Park and is a very significant asset for public amenity and tourism. Nevertheless, past construction of an intrusive canal along the valley, along with hard sea defences, has isolated the valley from nature. It could be far better. Sea level rise plus general ware and tear means that these sea defences are near the end of their lives anyway so the EA had a choice – highly intrusive, ugly and expensive concrete sea defences or a more sensitive approach based on re-naturalising the valley. To their credit the EA chose the latter. A modern, environmentally sensitive approach will now be achieved by understanding and working with nature, rather than fighting against it with hard coastal defences.

Obviously there might be details that we could argue about but an approach that starts from the perspective of re-naturalisation is the right approach. Furthermore this could provide an excellent model for approaches to coastal defence in other areas. It will improve the area for wildlife, in particular by expanding areas of uncommon habitats such as salt marsh, mud flat and coastal grazing marsh (even if at the expense of the relatively wildlife-poor grassland in the valley). It should result in many more species able to use and live in the area, birds in particular likely to be especially benefited.

The Cuckmere meanders form one of the most valued views in the county. However, past engineering works have cut them off from the river system and so they are silting up. They will disappear under the current approach. Rebuilding the sea defences would keep the meanders isolated from the river and so lead to their eventual loss. Improving the natural functioning of the river is more likely to conserve them – even though their course will change with time (as they should – meanders are active, dynamic features, which should move).

The Cuckmere valley is a complex area catering for many uses so specific issues will need to be addressed. The canoe club, for example, provides an excellent resource for allowing access to the natural world. If the club has to be moved it should be re-sited to a location that takes advantage of the enhanced environment. Similarly the various paths, bridleways and campsites allow people to enjoy the area; these should be maintained and where possible enhanced. This is perfectly possible against the back-drop of a more natural valley.

There are some local concerns about the approach, however. Some of this is based on miss-information – for example a belief that the whole valley will be turned into an expanse of mud. In fact coastal mud flats are so rich (having the energy equivalent of about 17 Mars Bars per cubic metre!) that they support an enormous number of birds. However the area won’t all be mud flat – picture an area more like Chichester or Pagham Harbour rather than the Wash in Norfolk.

Some also have a perception that the landscape will be damaged – they like the way it is now so any change is threatening. However, change happens anyway – like the eventual loss off the meanders through silting up - and there are external forces acting on the valley, such as sea level rise and the erosion of current sea defences. So change will happen anyway but the EA’s plans are more likely to deliver positive change.

There is also a desire to make sure that specific issues are handled correctly, such as access around the valley. These are reasons get any plan right, not reasons to oppose a plan.

In my mind these concerns are a healthy sign that people are concerned about their local environment – it would be far more worrying if nobody cared what happened! The EA has tried to consult widely and engage people in these plans. Clearly there is a need to continue and expand this – people should be engaged and their comments (both positive and negative) carefully considered.

The basic principle of re-naturalising the valley is right but there are things that need discussing and details that need sorting out. There may also be extra benefits that can be worked into any plan (like re-located footpaths) that may need novel funding. However, this is the point of working in partnership. If a partnership develops a shared agenda for what is desired for the area then it is more likely to be able to source the funding to deliver it than if all are in opposition with each other.

Fortunately such a partnership already exists and this could be the driving force to move from conflict and opposition towards shared ideas and positive outcomes. This partnership is developing a web site and I believe this will provide a helpful forum to find out about plans for the area and input view and ideas about them http://www.cuckmere.org. Why not take a look and get involved in the discussion?