Monday 17 December 2012

Local people join debate to shape the future of our rivers

On the 26th November I promoted an important meeting that was about to be held by the Arun and Rother Rivers Trust (ARRT) to discuss the management of the Arun catchment.

The event actually took place on 6th December and was a great success.

Hosted by ARRT, the Arun and Rother Connections (ARC) Partnership and the South Downs National Park Authority, the event provided an opportunity for people to learn more about the catchment. It was an open event, held over two sessions at Pulborough Village Hall which encouraged people from within and around the catchment to debate and discuss their concerns for the rivers and streams, the different ways of managing them and to identify funding possibilities and opportunities for working together.

Sir Sebastian Anstruther, Chairman of the Arun & Rother Rivers Trust, said of the event: “I’m delighted that so many people took the time to attend our event, which shows just how important our rivers and streams are to people living in and around the catchment. “It was great to hear views from a range of people who work or live by the water - farmers, landowners, anglers and those who just enjoy living in and around them.

“Our local rivers are precious and important for our economy, health, well-being, leisure and for the wider environment, but they are under increasing threat. By working together we can develop a clear vision for a rich and thriving river system and the views, contacts and discussions from this recent revent will help us shape how we do that. We will continue to keep local people informed and involved as we progress with our work.”

I went to the evening session and was delighted (although not surprised) by the positive attitude by all in the room.  I am lucky in that I live in the area as well - so it is my home-patch.  The meeting helped confirm my long-held belief that if you get real people in a room talking about real issues in their local patch then it is not too difficult to get a consensus - no matter what sector or special interest group people feel they come from.

A good day, and congratulations to all who organised it.

Friday 14 December 2012

A pitiful attempt to save our seas.

I am bitterly disappointed by the government’s feeble attempt at marine nature conservation coming from the recent announcement about Marine Conservation Zones.

Defra has now released its long-awaited consultation on the next stages of designation of Marine Conservation Zones in English and non-devolved waters and proposes to designate only 31 of the 127 sites recommended by experts and stakeholders at the end of August last year.  This is less than 25% of what experts say was the minimum required in order to deliver an effective marine ecological network.

The 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones were chosen after two years of hard work by more than one million stakeholders from all sectors of the marine environment and at a cost of over £8.8 million to Government

In Sussex only 3 of the 10 proposed sites are going forward and none at all are progressing in Hampshire.

You can visit these zones on our interactive map and see some of the wonders they are home to at

Marine Conservation Zones should have protected the species and habitats found within them from the most damaging and degrading activities whilst mostly allowing sustainable activity to continue.  The network was designed to ensure that we don’t end up with isolated and vulnerable sites and to ensure that the wide range of marine habitats found in UK seas are protected.  Failure to designate all but a very small proportion of sites recommended by these stakeholders will mean that we lack the ecologically coherent network that our seas so badly need to recover.

The UK’s marine habitats are rich and diverse but largely unprotected - which is why The Wildlife Trusts spent a decade promoting the Marine and Coastal Access Act, eventually adopted in 2009.  This included a commitment to designate this ecologically coherent marine network of protected areas. 

Our surrounding seas have an astonishingly varied range of submerged landscapes which support wonderful marine life: from cold water coral beds to sponge meadows, canyons and sandbanks.  Without these there simply wouldn't be any fish, let alone fantastic jewel anemones, seahorses, dolphins, brittlestars and all the other wild and extraordinary creatures which are part of a healthy marine ecosystem.

Despite the variety of fantastic species and habitats, our marine environment is in severe decline.  In the last 400 years, two species of whale and dolphin have gone extinct in UK waters and of the 11 commonly sighted species found in UK waters, all are in decline.  Basking shark numbers have declined by 95% and species such as the common skate, once abundant in our waters are now critically endangered.  For too long, we have taken this environment for granted, taking too much, with too little care, destroying fragile habitats.

Designation of an ecologically coherent network would have provided our seas with the protection they need to recover from past abuses and help them to be restored to their full potential.  

This shirking of responsibility is now a significant failure of government. 

Whilst many fishermen have campaigned against MCZs, I do not blame the fishermen.  Indeed they have been the greatest victims of failure in regulation for decades.  An effective network of MCZs would have stimulated the recovery of marine life including commercially exploitable fish.  Some have presented MCZs as something that is being taken away from the fishermen when in fact the opposite is the case.  Evidence from around the world shows that even where areas are restricted to fishing the local seas become so much more productive that far more fish are caught overall.  In other words, looking after the marine environment properly provides more fish, not less.

Also, I know our local MPs have been active in supporting the Marine Act and in promoting MCZs.

Lack of information has been blamed but this is a pure smoke-screen.  After all this time, expense and the involvement of so many experts it is about as clear as it can be that this functional network of protected areas is vital to restore Living Seas.

So what has gone wrong?

I think the blame lies on the promotion of half-baked ideas of the socio-economic impacts, driven largely by The Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  A bland mantra promoting the removal of (perceived) blocks to (undefined) economic growth seems to be thwarting all attempts of more rational progress. In spite of good work being done elsewhere in government, they seem to have lost touch with the fundamentals that underpin the country’s economy – the environment.  Without fish you can’t have a fishing industry.  Reducing exploitation of something that is over-exploited is a sensible economic decision, not one that blocks the economy.  To do otherwise is like insisting on chopping more trees down once the forest has gone, like digging a deeper mine even though you know there are no more minerals or like trying to extract more water out of a well that is already dry.  Closing eyes and carrying on regardless is economically disastrous as well as being ecologically devastating.  The sea is far too important to allow second-level issues to subvert a far more important primary objective – that of protecting the resource on which we all rely.

The Wildlife Trusts will be responding to the Government consultation at the end of January.  We will be publishing our recommendations on the consultation on our webpage.  Meanwhile, we urge those interested in responding to the consultation, to sign up to be an MCZ friend so that we can contact you when we have considered our response to the consultation. Go to to sign up.

Monday 26 November 2012

An important meeting about the Arun and Rother river valleys.

Our local rivers are precious and important for our economy, health, well-being and leisure as well as being vital for wildlife and the wider environment.  Multiple pressures, however, impact on this valuable resource; including water abstraction, pollution, soil run-off and changing weather patterns (which have resulted in both drought and flood conditions in this area).  Our rivers are not the clean and healthy habitats they ought to be.

The Arun & Rother Rivers Trust (ARRT) is a new charity dedicated to improving the quality of all the rivers and streams within the “Arun and Western Streams” Catchment.  I have been delighted to be a member of the board of ARRT since it was established and see this charity as an excellent vehicle for bringing together all the people who are active in the river environment – from landowners, farmers and anglers to residents, conservationists and naturalists.

ARRT has now been asked by Defra to listen and engage with people who live, work in and manage the catchment and to take the lead in writing a Catchment Management Plan for the area. To explore this approach ARRT with the Arun and Rother Connections (ARC) Partnership and the South Downs National Park Authority are hosting an event to give people a real say in how their local water environment is managed now and in the future.

ARRT are therefore putting out an open invitation to everyone in the area to come and join a discussion about our local rivers, streams and wetlands. This event will be run in the evening on Thursday 6th December and is open to everyone - you do not need any specialist knowledge to participate. To make it as convenient as possible for people to attend, ARRT is running the event twice on the same day, once in the afternoon and once in the evening, so you can come along to either of the two sessions.

During the workshop you will have the chance to:
  • Learn more about catchment management, express your own concerns and discuss possible solutions
  • Help identify opportunities for working together
  • Learn about funding and support for local community projects

ARRT is keen for this important event to be well attended and I strongly support ARRT in its aims.  We hope that by working together we can develop a clear vision for a rich and thriving river system and develop practical projects to achieve it.

To book your place, please register on-line here or call Sara Denton on 07557 190705. Further information including an agenda and directions will be sent out to all registered participants before the event.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

The State of the South Downs National Park report

The South Downs National Park Authority became operational in April 2010 and it is interesting to look back to see what environmental organisations like the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the South Downs Network expected from the new Authority.  What did we ask for back in 2010 and has it now been delivered?

In order to know whether the Park is improving or degrading, there has to be a base-line survey.  You can’t tell if somewhere is getting better or worse if you don’t know what it’s like at the moment.  Therefore the first and most over-arching outcome we were looking for was a State of the National Park Report.  This is the essential first step against which to measure change. 

Two years later and this is exactly what has been delivered.  This State of the Park report is a major document covering over 140 pages that includes all the issues we then highlighted for which a baseline was needed.

This is a huge piece of work.  Exhaustive as the document is, this is really just the top layer.  It is supported by additional detailed information that is accessible on-line.  Even so, there are inevitably knowledge gaps and these too are highlighted.

A development over state of the environment reports of the past is an emphasis on the value of a healthy environment to people.  Nature has an over-riding value in ethical, spiritual and moral terms, but understanding its value to people in terms of the vital services it provides adds to, rather than detracts from, these deeper values.

Any report can only scratch the surface when assessing nature’s services but this document does, for instance, highlight the following:
  • 1.2 million people rely on drinking water from the Park and this is more likely to be drinkable if the wildlife habitats above it are in good health. 
  • 34,000 ha of woodland could be managed sustainably to provide heat for 9,000 homes while reducing carbon footprints and enhancing woods for wildlife.
  • Obesity costs Britain £5 billion a year but enjoyment of the environment by using the Park’s 3,300 km of public paths could contribute to the health of the nation.
You could add all sorts of other often immeasurable things like the cycling of nutrients, pollination, flood risk reduction, pollution amelioration, the simple enjoyment of orchid rich downland grassland or just using the South Downs brand in niche marketing.  The general message is the same – maintaining and improving the high quality environment of the South Downs is key to the areas economy and to the well-being of people in the area.  A statement of the obvious you may say, but still something that is often forgotten.

Valuing nature can be controversial, but it is not the same as “pricing” nature.  A better appreciation of the economic and non-economic value of the Parks special qualities should improve decision making.  If successful maybe this report might help reshape the economy as much as it might inform management of the environment.  As the report says, the “special qualities of the National Park are key to the future economy”.  The local economy will thrive if it supports and adds to these special qualities – not if it sees itself in competition with them.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Ash die-back is now a fact of life – what now?

The situation with ash die-back has moved very fast over the last few days.  It now looks like we have moved well beyond a time when simply eradicating the disease was a realistic possibility.  The disease is now here and we are going to have to live with it.

So what lessons can we learn?

First is a general point about the health of our environment.  Tree diseases happen, quite naturally, causing local tree death in woodland.  In limited amounts this is just part of a natural process that simply opens up woodlands, allowing light to reach the floor and encouraging natural regeneration to flourish.  This is not damage, this is nature, and the effect is to make a wood richer.  The first point therefore is that we need to develop a rich and resilient environment where the loss of occasional trees is made up by natural regeneration. 

Our problem today, however, is that we are seeing the appearance of more diseases and they seem to be more virulent than might naturally be the case.

The second point relates to biosecurity.  The UK must get much better at making sure that the incidence of these diseases reaching our shores is reduced.  Many people have made this point so we now need to see some long term action.

When it comes to the current situation with ash trees, however, what do we do now? 

The desire to “do something” might result in calls for expensive clearance of woodland, to burn the infected material, even to spray with fungicide and to replant with new ash trees.  Every element of this approach would be wrong.

Any strategy must be led by science.  This is why reported sightings from the Forestry Commission, Defra and the general public are so important.  This tells us how widespread the disease is and so what management strategies might work.  Science may also give us a better understanding of the disease and what remedial actions might be, to some extent, effective.  If cases were well isolated then local eradication may have been a possibility but the result of these surveys shows that this is not the case and therefore the slash and burn approach should probably stop. 

Cutting and burning suspect trees over a large area will result in the loss of trees that may have had some level of resistance to the disease.  It would not prevent the disease spreading but it would stop the development of a resistant ash population and it would damage the woodland ecosystem.  More than ineffective, it would be counter-productive.

Replanting opens the questions of what with and where from (and why)?  Ash trees are one of the most freely regenerating of the trees that we have.  Leave any area of ground near an ash tree alone and pretty soon you’ll have thousands of small ash seedlings competing for space.  The most successful will survive but the vast majority will die.  Ash die-back has been said to kill 90% of trees in some areas.  However, in freely regenerating areas 99% of these small ash seedlings could easily be lost and there will still be more than enough potential new trees available.  This will be far more vigorous, more successful and more genetically varied than a few replacement planted trees.

We often forget the power of natural regeneration.  A good friend, Patrick Roper, has been studying what happens in just one square metre of land in his garden if you leave it alone.  Being an expert naturalist he can name everything that is on there – from trees to insects.  In his one square metre (that’s just the space taken up by one large paving slab) he has ash, hazel, oak, hornbeam, willow, holly, birch, sycamore, elder and hawthorn all regenerating naturally from seeds that blew in.  And the ash has survived even after being eaten by rabbits for three years!

Forget the heavy intervention and expensive approach of slash, burn, poison, replant (and then do the same again when it fails) and instead develop a rich and resilient nature that is able to heal itself.

Friday 2 November 2012

Ash die-back – cures far worse than the disease.

Late in the day – probably too late in the day – we have woken up to ash die-back (Chalara fraxinea).  Indeed, at last government seems to be taking tree diseases in general more seriously.  However, if we fall into panic mode then we could come up with a whole host of “cures” that are far worse than the disease.

The first reaction was to cut and burn infected trees.  This could only possibly work if the disease had not progressed far.  If caught in time, with just a few trees affected, then there could have been a policy of cutting infected trees and also removing trees in the vicinity in order to prevent spread. 

Increasingly, however, the evidence seems to indicate that the disease is now established in the wider countryside, and that spores may be spreading on the wind.  The genie may now be out of the bottle.  Far from helping, a slash and burn approach now may be counter-productive.  Some of our ash trees may have resistance to the disease.  If we destroy all ash trees in sight then any new race of resistant ash trees will never emerge.  Acres of dead ash trees, killed by the disease, will be bad enough, but a scorched-earth landscape with no chance of ash tree recovery will be far worse.

We are now also seeing the emergence of some most bizarre ideas for a “cure”.  Recent news reports suggests that “scientists” have come up with a “cure” and it is only “red tape” that is holding things up.  This cure is the aerial spraying of a solution of copper sulphate and nutrients, presented as a modern answer that just requires fast-tracking through trials.

On the contrary, the use of copper sulphate as an anti fungal agent is centuries old – throwing it out of an aeroplane does not make it a new cure and goodness knows what any “trial” might show that we don’t already know!  This is a highly damaging broad-spectrum fungus-killer.  It will kill a wide range of fungi, could well persist in the soil and might fundamentally damage woodland ecosystems.  Our under-rated fungi are the engines of woodland ecology.  They recycle all the nutrients, form soil and enable plants to grow.  Without them our environment would simply not work.  Tipping chemicals into woods in the hope of curing ash die-back is about as likely to be helpful as is randomly jamming a screwdriver into the back of a computer.  Indeed it is quite possible that we are seeing an increase in diseases because our fungal flora is already unhealthy.  The broad-spectrum killing of more fungi is not the answer.

This underlines the point that government needs to take proper advice on this subject from people who know something about woodland ecology.  They should not simply fall for any wacky knee-jerk reaction.

In the end I suspect that the only sensible course now is to let nature take its course and try to encourage a new generation of resistant ash trees.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Disease threat to our ash trees

There is a new threat to tree health which has appeared in Great Britain, the highly destructive Chalara dieback of ash trees, caused by the Chalara fraxinea fungus. Forestry Commission has produced a briefing note about this new threat and I repeat it below almost verbatim.


Chalara has caused widespread damage to ash tree populations in continental Europe, especially common ash (Fraxinus excelsior), including its ‘Pendula’ ornamental variety. Fraxinus angustifolia is also susceptible. Chalara dieback of ash is particularly destructive of young ash plants, killing them within one growing season of symptoms becoming visible. Older trees can survive initial attacks, but tend to succumb eventually after several seasons of infection.

It was unknown in Great Britain until recently, but the first cases were confirmed in a nursery in Buckinghamshire early in 2012, on ash plants which had been imported from The Netherlands. Since then, more infected plants have been confirmed in nurseries in West and South Yorkshire, Surrey, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, and in recent plantings of young ash trees at four sites: a car park landscaping project in Leicester, a Forestry Commission Scotland woodland near Kilmacolm, west of Glasgow, a college campus in South Yorkshire, and a property in County Durham. The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) are working to trace forward plants which had already been sold on to retail customers from the infected nursery consignments.

Chalara is being treated as a ‘quarantine’ plant pathogen, which means that Forestry Commission (FC) may use emergency powers to contain or eradicate it when it is found. This is being done in the form of Statutory Plant Health Notices which FC serves on affected owners requiring them to remove and destroy affected plants by burning or deep burial on site. Equivalent measures are being taken on land managed by the Forestry Commission. This is the only available treatment.

How you can help

1. Be vigilant – Chalara dieback could appear in ash trees anywhere in Britain, especially where young trees imported from continental Europe have been planted. Early action is essential if we are to eradicate this disease from Britain before it becomes established. FC has not found any evidence of Chalara dieback in ash trees outside nurseries and recent plantings, that is, no evidence that it has spread from new plantings into longer-established woodlands and hedgerows etc in the wider natural environment, and this gives cause for hope that it is not too late.

FC therefore urges you to inspect frequently any ash trees in your care, and especially any which have been planted during the past five or so years.  Make yourself familiar with the symptoms of Chalara dieback from the material on our website at There are other causes of ash dieback, so it is important to distinguish them from Chalara. However, if in doubt, report it.

2. Report it - Report suspicious symptoms to one of the following:

Forest Research Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service
T: 01420 23000;

Forestry Commission Plant Health Service
T: 0131 314 6414;

FERA Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate
T: 01904 465625;

3. Buy with care – Be careful when buying plants to buy only from reputable suppliers, and specify disease-free stock. A list of countries where C. fraxinea is known to be present is available in the Questions and Answers document on the website

4. Be diligent - Practise good plant hygiene and biosecurity in your own gardens and woodlands etc to prevent accidental spread of plant diseases. See our ‘Biosecurity Guidance’ document available at for advice on basic hygiene and biosecurity measures you can take.

5. Keep up to date – Check the website regularly at for updates on developments. ‘Follow’ the Tree Pest News account on Twitter at to receive rapid intelligence of new developments, delivered by text or email.
(Information about a wide range of other tree pests and diseases can be accessed via our page.)

Plant Health Notices
Owners of any ash plants found to be infected will be served Plant Health Notices requiring them to destroy the plants, either by burning or deep burial on site. All ash plants in a new-planting site will require to be destroyed, regardless of whether some do not have symptoms. This is because experience with other plant diseases shows that we must presume that asymptomatic plants in close proximity to symptomatic plants are almost certainly infected, but are not yet showing symptoms. However, we hope that if all parties act quickly now, few people will be affected by these measures.

FC is not able to offer compensation for plants destroyed in order to comply with a Plant Health Notice. It is felt that the available resources are best used for surveillance and eradication work. Plants are therefore purchased and planted at buyers’ risk, and any questions about recompense would be between the customer and supplier of the plants involved. However, hopefully few people will be put in this position if all parties move quickly now to tackle this disease.

The implications for growers of ash for the timber trade would be significant if the disease were to become established in Britain. The timber in infected trees might still be usable for some purposes. However, should it get to the stage where it is infecting mature timber trees, more stringent biosecurity measures would be required to ensure that the disease is not spread further by timber movement. Again, however, hopefully rapid action now by all parties will avert this scenario.

Further information
As well as the dedicated web pages about C. fraxinea at, there is further information on the EPPO website at

For further help or information, please contact the woodland officer for your area (look under ‘Area’ offices in the ‘Contact Us’ area of the FC website), or contact our Plant Health Service at:

Plant Health Service
Forestry Commission
Silvan House
231 Corstorphine Road
EH12 7AT
Tel: 0131 314 6214

Monday 10 September 2012

A debate on hydraulic fracturing

I went to a very interesting meeting last week on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, as it has become known.  Its objective was to help the community gain a better understanding of this method of extracting gas from underground shale deposits.  Is it an economic salvation or an environmental disaster?

This was very well organised by the Wiggonholt Association and excellently chaired by Prof. Joe Howe of Central Lancashire University.  Two others on the panel were County Councillor Morwen Millson, who was asking serious questions of public concern about fracking and Nick Grealy, an energy consultant who presented the case in favour.

The panel presentations and the lively scrutiny by the audience were all very good – whether you agreed with either side or not.  However, there is a tendency (not just at this event but elsewhere in the press and in general conversation) to consider this a complex, technical, difficult issue that lay people will have difficulty understanding.  The sub-plot by some might be to say we should leave it to the experts (but who are the experts?), disempowering local opinion, painting it as uninformed and emotive.  My current view is the complete opposite.  I will not explain fracking here, I am no expert, but a short internet search will give you all the basic information you need. 

The basic approach of fracking is simple.  Yes it is surrounded by all manner of complexities but the basis is simple.  Many ecological concepts that we regularly talk to “ordinary” people about are far more complex than fracking. It is not the case that scientific experts are saying one thing – that fracking is OK – but that emotive local objectors are saying another.  There are clear scientific concerns.  So don’t be put off, do some basic reading and you’ll be in a reasonable position to question the experts.  This was very clear at the meeting.  There were many in the audience who were almost as well informed as the panel and no “blinding with science” was possible.

The benefits of fracking are clear, and again simple.  Abundant gas supplies providing vast sums of money.  This is part of the emotive appeal of fracking, often presented as the key fact that trumps everything else.  Worryingly, I suspect this may prove correct.

In my mind the concerns about fracking boil down to 3 key areas.
  • Water resource use
  • Water contamination and disposal of fracking fluid
  • Climate change.

Water resource use
Huge amounts of water under pressure are needed to pump into a well in order to fracture the rock deep underground that holds the gas.  In a water-stressed region this is bound to be a concern.  Some answers to this point were rather unconvincing.  Desert regions elsewhere still carry out fracking, indicating that even they are not worried by water use.  I do not agree - bad practice in one area does not justify its use in another.  Nevertheless, total water use might be a relatively small proportion of our overall use so, at the right time of year and done in the right way there could be a technological solution to this.

Fracking fluid
Water pumped into a fracking shaft contains various chemicals, some of which we should be concerned about.  Fracking fluid coming out of the shaft is further contaminated by whatever it came into contact with in the underlying rock.  Attempts to dismiss this concern were, I am afraid, rather insulting, relying too heavily on assumed ignorance in the audience.  99.5% of what emerges, we were told, is still water.  Well, let us use an analogy.  Probably more than 99.9% of your morning cup of tea is water but I suggest you would not be happy with just boiled water.  Add a spoonful of sodium cyanide and it would still be mostly water, but I suggest you wouldn’t touch it!  (This is not to suggest that fracking fluid consists of either cyanide or boiled tea!).  Polluted water from industrial processes has been a problem since the Bronze Age, there is nothing new here and the weakness of the response was worrying.  The answers must be very clear and well-known – either transport fracking fluid away to be treated (huge numbers of truck movements) or treat and dispose on site or treat and recycle on site.  All approaches have huge issues which should be seriously addressed.

Fundamental to these issues is regulation.  If there are technical solutions then we must be absolutely convinced that regulation is in place and that it is robustly applied.  I am not confident about either.

Climate change
We are told that natural gas produces 50% less carbon dioxide than coal and that it therefore provides an excellent transition to cleaner energy.  There are several things wrong with this:

First this does not allow for any effect of methane (natural gas) leakage.  Methane is up to 70 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  Some estimate that, with leakage of a few percent, this could make fracking as bad to twice as bad as coal.  Opinions vary, but the industry claims this is untrue - why would a business waste so much of its product?  I remain sceptical – an industry’s cost-benefit analyses may point to it being more economic to waste a few % rather than go to the effort of plugging every last gap.  Arguably, however, this might be solvable but again may rely on robust regulation, detection and enforcement (how confident are you?).

Second, that figure of 50% less carbon only gets you a little way.  If we changed our remaining coal-fired power stations to gas tomorrow and energy use, inevitably, continues to rise, then in a few decades we will be using twice as much energy.  So – twice as much energy producing 50% less carbon per unit energy means a total of the same amount of carbon as we produce today.  Even without the fear of methane leakage, gas usage will continue to fry the planet.

Several academics active in this area say that, from a climate change perspective, the only safe thing to do with gas from fracking is to leave it in the ground.

There does remain, however, the possibility of using fracking as a transitional energy source on the way to carbon free energy.  An interesting idea but there are major worries, for instance:
  • We’ve been here before.  Renewable energy was abandoned in the 1970’s when we found oil in the North Sea
  • Why would a gas company engage in a “transition” strategy that would result in its own eventual destruction.
  • With all that money rolling in to shareholders and going to the public purse as tax revenue, who is going to change course to systems that will inherently be more expensive.
  • We are told that there could be 200 to 1000 years’ supply of gas available from this method globally. If true, then no one is going to stop production in a few years. 

Meanwhile, we now hear that the arctic ice has broken all records in terms of the amount lost this summer, three weeks before the normal minimum, for arctic ice cover.  Unless better answers are found, climate change repercussions could be a complete show-stopper for fracking. 

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Leadership still needed for nature’s recovery.

A recent House of Commons report is disappointed with the progress made since the Natural Environment White Paper was published.  

It’s been just over a year since the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) came out.  I welcomed this at the time  – it reflected many important points in the independent report on Britain’s ecological network (“Making Space for Nature”) and picked up key messages from the National Ecosystem Assessment.

Action is taking place on several of the commitments in the White Paper, and we in the Wildlife Trusts are contributing to many of them, but are we achieving the step-change in ambition for the environment that we feel is required?

The House of Commons “Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee” (EFRA) has now examined the policies in the White Paper to see how it has done over the last year and has come up with several key concerns. Find this report here.  I welcome the report.  It reflects some of the worries I have with progress over the past year and gives valuable guidance to government on what needs to happen now.

Overall, I don’t think we as a nation have grasped the basic point.  We depend on the natural environment for services that are essential to human well-being.  Putting a financial value on something that is “essential” is dubious, but if you did then it is clear these services are worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.  The NEWP recognised this but government is not showing the leadership needed in order to ensure that all Whitehall departments fully value nature’s benefits.

The Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is to be congratulated for the work it has done in this respect but the report says that stronger leadership is also required from HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office to effect the necessary culture shift amongst policy makers.  All government policy and legislation must be proofed for consistency with the government aspiration that the value of nature is fully reflected in decision making.

So far this has not happened.  NEWP’s laudable aims have not been incorporated into policies on transport and planning for instance.  This will affect us here in Sussex.  Although much improved over early drafts the new National Planning Policy Framework does not pay enough attention to NEWP so guidance is now needed to help planners and developers protect the environment.  Without this, government’s laudable environmental objectives will point us in one direction whilst the push for development will send us the opposite way.  Sussex, and the counties around London, are the most likely areas to feel this clash.

We need to incorporate the value of nature into everything we do – basically we need to pay for the essential services that nature provides.  We are all bogged-down in the idea that looking after the environment is a “cost”, because we don’t work out the value of the benefit (if we did then we’d realise that benefits can be 100 times the costs).  Nevertheless, government is unlikely to commit more public money to environmental resilience.  The report therefore says that DEFRA should set out how payments can flow from the beneficiaries of ecosystem services to those who protect and enhance environmental systems.  There are few good examples of this so far, but the National Ecosystem Assessment gives a wealth of evidence to help us achieve this.

The Natural Environment White Paper was a good step forward and some progress has been made.  However, we are in danger of resting on our laurels because of one or two good initiatives.  The fundamental changes are yet to be made.

Friday 6 July 2012

Saving the Forestry Commission is just the start.

Government has now committed to keeping the public forest estate in public hands.  This, however, is not the end of the matter.  There are many good recommendations in the Independent Forest Panel report and we need to ensure that these now get adopted.

The point I’d like to pick up in this blog is about woodland management and restoration.

Woods generally need to be managed in order to keep the whole forest ecosystem in a good state.  This may seem counter-intuitive because surely woods are “natural” and should be able to look after themselves.  This is a big subject and perhaps something I’ll touch on in another blog but for the present I’ll just summarise by saying that woods are not natural, they are semi-natural.  They are the product of centuries of interaction between people and wildlife; their value will generally be best maintained by keeping that interaction going – ie traditional management.

There are exceptions, but generally woods are best when they are managed.  Obviously this is not carte blanche for any management, it has to be appropriate.  But, done well, we are really talking about sustainability, not simple exploitation.

The Forest Panel report does bring this out.  This should provide good support for the forest industry, and in the process should underpin the public benefits gained from woodland (whether public or private).

What does this mean in practice?  Woodland wildlife is under threat – species and habitats are still in decline.  This is not due just to woodland loss (although this will contribute in some areas), indeed woodland area has increased steadily over the last 100 years.  The evidence shows that one main cause of woodland decline is woods becoming dark and overshadowed.  This is linked to lack of management.

For centuries, when woods were managed this provided clearings and openings within woods which then went through regeneration and growth before becoming dense woodland again.  The result was a patchwork within woodland, all at different stages of growth and supporting a diverse range of species.  This, in effect, mimics the natural disturbance that might have taken place in truly natural woods.  If management stops, the diversity goes and woods become dark and overshadowed.

The nightingale provides just one example of a species that has suffered as our woods have dropped out of management.  This is a woodland bird that has declined as woods have increased.  The reason, it actually prefers shrubby regrowth - part of the woodland regrowth cycle.  If woods get dark and overshadowed consisting of tall trees with little shrubby regrowth then nightingales loose habitat.

Today nightingales are often found in blackthorn scrub rather than in woodland.  However where woodlands are managed the nightingales can return.

I’ll stress again that there are exceptions to this rule.  There are woods that are to some extent “re-naturalised” and are maintaining their own diversity without the need for great management input.  These places are special, there should probably be more of them and they need special consideration.

But staying with nightingales, try this link – an incredible recording of nightingales in the second world war, singing as the RAF bombers flew overhead.  It’s a long track – but listen and you can here the birds sing louder as the planes get closer! 

A sign of success for forest policy in the UK will be if southern England once again reverberates to the sound of nightingales every spring.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Forest Panel Report – it’s out and it’s not bad!

The Independent Panel on Forestry’s report was published today and I have now had a chance absorb its contents. 

The headline is that, despite concerns to the contrary, the report clearly states that the forest estate should remain in public ownership.  This is not too much of a surprise.  I am a little remote from the panel itself but I did attend a couple of its events and the whole thrust of any discussion did support the continued role of a public forest estate.

However, just keeping the forests public is not enough by itself.  We asked for a strong Forestry Commission with a renewed remit.  So, if we check the report against the recommendations The Wildlife Trusts made, how does it measures up?

  • The report does propose an enhanced remit for the Forestry Commission, as we recommended, focusing on delivering benefits for people, nature and the economy. 

  • It also does fairly well in promoting forests as integral parts of a coherent and resilient ecological network.  I would have preferred the report to say more – a healthy forest ecosystem within a coherent ecological network is the essential first step to any of the benefits we get.

  • It is less good in improving protection for woodland, especially ancient woodland – it does show a refreshed commitment to protection, which is important, but does not offer anything new. 

  • It is, however, quite strong in promoting the use of forests to improve the connection between people and the environment.  There are many opportunities for FC to be at the centre of re-energised community involvement in woodlands, we know plenty of existing good examples, it just needs to happen more often.

  • Although the report does propose an expansion of woodland, to extend, buffer and link woods it does not go far enough in promoting a “right tree in the right place” principle.  Hopefully the days of poorly designed plantations are over; however the report does promote a huge increase in tree cover.  This could be a good thing, but only if done sensitively. 

  • In the same vein, the report could say more about the restoration of open habitat like heaths and meadows.  Open habitats tend to get forgotten, or even seen as countering forest productivity, but they are some of our most threatened habitats.  Perhaps promoting planting trees in one place to make up for trees lost when open habitats are restored in another may ease any potential tension.

  • Lack of management in woods is a major cause of wildlife decline so it is good that the report is quite strong on restoration of woods.

Overall then, the report is pretty good.  And there are other messages in there that deserve emphasis.

In the body of the report it mentions that if we calculate financial value of all the public benefits that the public forest estate provides (including the easily calculated values like timber, but also the less easily valued benefits from healthy, functioning ecosystems) then we find the estate delivers £400M in public benefit a year.  The report also admits that this is an underestimate – the true value is probably much more.  The cost to the public is only £20M per year.

So – the Public Forest Estate provides a yearly 20:1 return on investment - in perpetuity!  And that’s an underestimate.  Every £1 we don’t spend on forests is £20 wasted.

I doubt that there is any other investment that could match this, indeed even some proposed road schemes struggle to reach a 1:1 return on investment.

This makes a general point.  If we actually calculate the benefits we get from healthy, functioning ecosystems then their value is huge (probably irreplaceable and probably should just be considered a poor approximation of infinity).  The past situation where the FC had to continually sell woods in order to balance its books was a failure in our economic system, not a failure of FC.

Of over-riding importance is the need for our society to gain a better understanding of the whole value of nature (in this case in forests).  This is a point made in the very first recommendation in the report – “We urge society as a whole to value woodlands for the full range of benefits they bring….”.  There is thus a very strong emphasis on really appreciating the ecosystem services provided by forest ecosystems.  The superficial, short-term financial valuing of a few of the most easily measured attributes (such as timber value), although important in themselves, are just one benefit from healthy functioning forests.  Add in the rest and our decisions will be different.

Looking back at the National Ecosystem Assessment last year - and lining it up with statements in this report, the optimist in me says that it will be in forest ecosystems where we at last start to value the natural capital on which we depend and make this value fundamental to our decision making.

Government will respond to the report by next January but already Caroline Spelman, Secretary of Sate for the Environment has committed by saying that “our forests will stay in public hands”.

This is not “job done”, however.  This is the panel’s report not a government report.  The report has a lot of good recommendations in it (plus a few short-falls) so it is important that government are persuaded to pick up the good points (and fill any gaps).  So, we now need to see how government will respond.

Thursday 28 June 2012

We await the report of the Independent Forest Panel, due to be published on 4th July

Earlier in 2011 the government announced its consultation to look into the disposal of the Public Forest Estate – the land managed by the Forestry Commission (FC).  This was an ill-considered move and it led to a predictable public outcry.  Disposal of the Public forest Estate has been considered at various times in the past, the environmental NGOs have opposed it each time, and each time the government has pulled back and the estate is safe for a bit longer.  (Except for the fact that FC have had to continue to sell individual forests in order to try to balance the books).

Two things were different this time.  First was the level of public outcry – heartfelt and well-organised, coming as a welcome surprise to NGOs and as a shock to government.  See, for instance "Save Our Woods"

Second was the government response – to set up an independent panel to look at the future of the Forestry Commission and the Public Forest Estate.  My link to the panel is remote, and opinions vary as to whether this is either a put up job or a valuable independent review.  We will discover which next week when the report is published.

The response of some organisations is to set out criteria against which they will measure the panel report.  The Wildlife Trusts have produced their view here.

 The Public Forest Estate represents the single biggest opportunity to implement the commitments made in last year’s Natural Environment White Paper and the recommendations made in the independent “Making Space for Nature Review”.  It is critical that this opportunity is taken.  The Public Forest Estate (and the body managing it) must have a clear purpose that focuses on excellence in environmental management.  It should be given the responsibility and resources to work in partnership across all sectors, from local communities to wood-based industries to enhance England’s ecological network and deliver ecosystem services (including such key public benefits as access).

The Wildlife Trusts have been working with the Forestry Commission for decades.  About 30 years ago this was often from the perspective of conflict – we saw the Commission as largely damaging to nature.  The FC of today is a very different organisation to the FC of the past – I have been on their various meetings and committees for about 20 years (from the perspective of a critical ecologist – I do not come from the perspective of automatic support) and whilst we may have had some lively discussions, criticisms of the organisation has been extremely rare.

But – coming from the perspective of two decades of critical questioning of FC, from a perspective of not automatically supporting anyone and having no political ideal about land ownership – I feel that FC has an excellent history of delivery and now has a very strong role to play in delivering environmental and other public benefits in an outstandingly cost effective way.  It could do more with an improved remit and in order to do more it must have the resources and responsibility to deliver.

I hope that the panel report will recommend a new remit for the FC, focussing on nature and the delivery of public benefit and acting as an exemplar of sustainable management:  
  • It should promote forestry as part of a coherent strategy for the natural environment with woods being one part of a diverse and resilient ecological network.
  • Woods, especially ancient woods should be better protected and better managed.
  • It should promote a reconnection of people with nature through good access to forests.
  • It should encourage a “right tree in the right place” principle reconnecting woods through appropriate woodland expansion at a landscape scale.
  • It should restore existing woodlands, continuing an already active programme of woodland restructuring in order to better deliver public benefit.
  • Furthermore it should look after all habitats in its care, not just the wooded areas – areas of lowland heathland, meadows and other open habitats, currently planted with conifers should be restored with urgency.

To fulfil this remit the FC will have to be bigger and be better resourced.  Is this likely at a time of austerity?  Well maybe.  If you count the benefits of a public forest estate, not just the cost, then investment in the FC is possibly one of the greatest returns on investment you can make!

Friday 8 June 2012

Destruction in Sumava National Park

There has been quite a movement in recent years to find some level of protection for near-wilderness areas in Europe.  Actual wilderness probably does not exist anywhere in this part of the world, but there are pockets where natural processes and the range of wildlife are still extensive enough for us to consider it near enough to being wild.  I doubt there is anywhere in England that we could consider in this category – our nature reserve at “The Mens” is perhaps close, but it is still nothing like wilderness.

In some places elements of the “wild” are being recreated, such as Oostvaardersplassen in Holland, and in others, such as the Bialowieza in Poland, you can get pretty close to wild forest.  But anything near wilderness in Europe is a rare and precious thing.

One such rare and precious thing is the Sumava National Park in the Czech Republic, but this is now under threat.  A small but influential element in the new Czech administration is proposing imminent legislation that will restructure Sumava, enabling large-scale felling of forest in what is currently its core non-intervention area, and development of a ski lift with other infrastructure in close proximity.

Widely known as the “Wild Heart of Europe” this area is iconic among scientists, and in the tourism sector, for the intact state of its ecology governed by natural processes, and for the unspoiled beauty of its landscape.  It is seen as a symbol of the care which the Czech Republic extends towards its natural heritage.

Yet the actions currently planned will cause damage to this ecology that will take many decades to repair, as well as changing the character of the wider area forever.

Above all, this is a clear signal that even the best known National Parks are not protected.   Beyond being a tragedy for the iconic ‘Wild Heart of Europe’, this action poses a challenge to the protective status of National Parks everywhere.

The Czech Republic has an excellent record of caring for its national heritage, and the proposed legislation for Sumava is opposed across the Czech scientific establishment. In 2008, over 130 conservation organizations across Europe united to petition for improved protection of wilderness areas. The following year, the European Parliament passed a Resolution along similar lines, supported by a massive 538 votes.  This recent step would be a huge step backwards.

Conservation organizations are petitioning the Czech government to think again.  This petition is targeted on organizations rather than individuals but I think it is important that everyone should know of the threat to one of Europe’s last surviving near-wilderness areas.

Monday 14 May 2012

Brighton & Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere Reserve

The Biosphere is the world in which we live and share with other living things - the zone of life around our planet – for which UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is developing a global network of Biosphere Reserves which promote a balanced relationship between people and nature. These are real world-class natural environments.

The Brighton & Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere Project  is a new partnership which aims to gain international recognition from the United Nations for the special nature of the local environment in and around Brighton and Hove

The Sussex Wildlife Trust is glad to support the project.   The aim is to become a “site of excellence” and part of UNESCO’s family.  Currently there are 580 sites spanning 114 countries including areas as diverse as the Amazon rain forest, Canary islands, to the city surrounds of Paris, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.  In the UK there are 7 Biosphere Reserves, including projects at North Devon and on the North Norfolk Coast.

By gaining international recognition the Biosphere bid hopes to enable the partnership to attract funding to improve our environment and to join up current work and activities.  The international accreditation will also help with tourism (economy), education and research as well as the more obvious health and environmental benefits.

The vision of the Biosphere project is to develop a unified approach to better care for, manage and enjoy our local environment. This includes the city itself, surrounding countryside of the South Downs and the sea, so we can help to bring people and nature closer together.  At present the only large conurbation within the project area is Brighton & Hove, but the bid is equally relevant to surrounding towns and villages such as Steyning, Upper Beeding, Shoreham, Lewes, Newhaven, Peacehaven, East Saltdean, Ditchling, Hassocks, Hurstpierpoint, etc.

It is about increasing understanding about how our lives, whether rural or urban, are hugely dependent on the quality of natural environment.  For example, most of the area’s water supply comes from the chalk aquifer, the quality of which is dependent, in part, on how the Downs are farmed and the quality of the biodiversity on the Downs.  The Downs also provides food, including South Downs Lamb, cereals and other crops.  The sea provides locally sourced fish.  Both land and sea are also important for recreational opportunities, but the potential is again related to the quality of that resource.  For example, clean seas and beaches attract visitors, surfers and other recreational users, helping boost the local economy.

Three events are to be held in different parts of the Biosphere to launch the bid.  These will be on Tuesday 22 May 2012, the International Day of Biodiversity.

  • 10:00 - Madeira  Drive, Brighton - Opposite the Brighton Wheel on the mid level promenade.  A flock of starlings has been jet-washed on a Brighton seafront wall as part of a bid to put the international spotlight on the natural attractions of the area. 
  • 15:00 – Devil’s Dyke – National Trust with National Trust members
  • 16:30 – Lewes Downs – Lewes District Council and Sussex Wildlife Trust. 

In addition, between 12:00 and 13:30 there will be a debate:  ‘Food for Thought, what role should the South Downs play in our lives?’  at The Old Courthouse, Church St, Brighton BN1 1UD.  It will be chaired by Professor Martin Price of UNESCO, speakers will include representatives from the National Farmers Union, the Environment Agency, the South Downs Society, the South Downs National Park Authority and myself from the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Tickets are £5, which includes a light lunch of locally sources and organic food. They are available from Brighton Fringe on 01273 917272 or at

Thursday 12 April 2012

Prosperity and Environmental Protection go hand in hand

I very much welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s recognition that prosperity and environmental protection can go hand in hand.

In a speech made on 11th April Nick Clegg stated that: ‘the environment contributes to our economy in a range of ways, many we don't always appreciate’ and that ‘lean times can be green times’.

His comments, made at the KPMG headquarters, come following a Government review of the EU Habitats Regulations, which concluded they are not a burden on development. The final National Planning Policy Framework, which it was feared would put the needs of development ahead of the natural environment, also showed more of a balance between the economy and the environment. I mentioned the thawing of both of these concerns back in my blog of 30th March, but the Deputy Prime Minister has gone further by clearly destroying the myth that the environment has to be put to one side while we dabble with economic concerns.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s speech is a welcome sign that the Government is moving away from the damaging rhetoric that preceded the budget, which suggested that protecting the environment is at odds with economic growth. Protection of the natural environment is not only compatible with increasing prosperity, but the services healthy ecosystems provide are vital to underpinning a healthy economy.

Indeed I would go further than the Deputy Prime Minister has – the world is moving on quickly and politicians are having trouble keeping up. It is not so much recognising that growth can be green; more that growth must be green. If not then it is not growth at all – the choice is between green growth or no growth. Bearing this in mind, there are signs that we are moving in the right direction – Nick Clegg mentions energy efficiency and low carbon industry for instance. Very good, but these are perhaps the areas where we should already be far more advanced. Far more difficult problems to address will be how to truly reflect the value of nature in all our decision making. The value of pollinating insects, for instance, was mentioned by Nick Clegg – perhaps worth about £1.8bn as the value of pollinating crops. But this is only the tiny tip of the ice berg in terms of all the services that nature provides for us for free. £1.8bn may sound a lot but is a poor approximation of infinity against the cost of ecosystem collapse if we really were to loose our pollinating insects.

I look forward to the Deputy Prime Minister’s promised statements on Natural Capital in the coming months. I urge him to grapple fully with the key messages that came out of the National Ecosystem Assessment and to drive forward the ambitions in the Natural Environment White Paper. The Government must put the recovery of the natural environment at the heart of any plans for economic recovery.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Water water - anywhere?

So, the much-publicised hosepipe ban is upon us.

This should not be a surprise. It’s been talked about for weeks and everyone should have realised by now that we are living in one of the driest periods since records began. Indeed I heard one commentator say that the water resource situation now is worse than it was at the height of the famous 1976 drought.

People might complain about how somebody should have done something – more pipes, more reservoirs, desalination plants or whatever. But the point is that water is a finite resource. It does naturally replenish but if we use it at a faster rate than it is replenished then we are inevitably in trouble. Dreams of technological fixes, complaints about Water Companies, political niggling or whatever do not overcome a basic ecological resource issue.

Dry periods happen. Whether made worse by climate change or not, there is a great deal of natural variation in the weather so periods of drought are inevitable. Yet we are very vulnerable to this and our actions are making us still more vulnerable.

I heard someone on the radio this morning say that the Victorians would have sorted this out. And perhaps this is the problem – we are still thinking like Victorians. We believe we can build our way out of any problem and when this doesn’t work then we blame the people who failed to build our way out of the problem.

Technology is important, but alone it is not the solution. Furthermore by focusing on techno-fixes we are overlooking the ways that we are making things worse for ourselves. Below I will mention just two of these:

The first relates to how we come by our water.

75% of our water comes from underground aquifers, not rivers or reservoirs. Rainwater falls onto our countryside then slowly percolates into the ground where if forms the bulk of our water resources. What happens to our countryside to encourage water to seep underground is therefore fundamentally important to our water resources. If it falls on the South Downs for instance, is captured by stable, long-established vegetation then it can seep into the aquifer. If it lands on hard surfaces or bare soil then it is more likely to wash quickly into rivers and out to sea rather than going into the aquifer, perhaps causing erosion and flooding as it does so. Having rich and diverse vegetation, such as flower-rich chalk grassland, on our Downs is therefore helping our water resources (and perhaps reducing soil erosion and flooding at the same time). So nature conservation is protecting a vital service, as well as protecting plants and butterflies.

Therefore we should be conserving, expanding and interlinking these rich Downland habitats.

In the distant past about 20% of Sussex would probably have been “wetland” - areas where water naturally collected forming marshes, reed beds and floodplain woodland. Now less than 2% is wetland and much of what remains is highly constrained. In the past these natural wetlands would themselves have encouraged the accumulation of water in aquifers underground. Centuries of drainage might have provided more agricultural and housing land but we have reduced the ability of our land to absorb water underground. As nature conservationists, this loss of wetlands makes us concerned about the loss of wetland wildlife – the reduction of toads and newts, fewer wetland birds like snipe and lapwing, the threat to water voles and otter and the damage to fish populations. Important though these are they are but an indicator of deeper trouble regarding a hydrological system on which we are totally dependant.

Therefore we should be restoring wetlands, expanding them and re-naturalising valleys, financially encouraging farmers to farm in ways consistent with wetland habitats rather than requiring their drainage.

The second relates to our demand for water.

We use enormous amounts of water. Each one of us, on average uses 150 litres per day. That’s over a tonne a week each. With 1.4 million people in Sussex that means we use over 200 million litres a day - from a water resource that is not currently being replenished. Even this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of the things we use or buy have a “water footprint” – they use water in manufacture and transport. For instance one cup of coffee needs about 140 litres of water to be grown, processed and transported. But even ignoring this, there are too many of us in the South East and each of us is putting too much demand on water. So we need to reduce our demand. There are plenty of water saving devices and water efficient appliances, and plenty of alternative ways of living in order to use less water. We just need the will – a general rethink about a resource that we must really understand is finite.

However, whilst leafing through Wealden District Council’s development strategy (most districts have them, I just happened too see this one) I see a list of house building allocations – 9600 homes to be built in the next 25 years, that’s about 25,000 people. This would increase our water demand by about 3.7 million litres a day, just for Wealden District. If you add in all the other house building plans for the rest of Sussex then you really get the picture of a planning system that is not paying any regard at all to environmental limits. We may need house building, to upgrade or replace existing housing stock, but at the moment our plans are based on a presumption of ever increasing expansion. In a finite world with finite resources and particularly with finite water – this is madness.