Tag Archives: Politics

Brexit and biodiversity: submissions invited to a Government inquiry

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Following on from my posts regarding how Brexit may affect the UK’s environmental policies and activities (see here and here) the Government has moved (surprisingly) quickly to begin an inquiry into how leaving the EU may affect issues that [quote] “include the future of funding for biodiversity and agri-environment schemes, the likely changes in the devolved administration, and the role that managed rewilding can play in conservation and restoration”.

I say “surprisingly” because the Government is no doubt focused on what they might see as more pressing concerns; but then much of this inquiry relates to how Brexit might affect biodiversity via subsidies to farmers, and the farming lobby is very powerful of course, and is no doubt pressing Defra to get a move on.

Here’s a link to the inquiry’s official website.  From that site I’ve pulled out the following text:

The Environmental Audit Committee invites submissions on some or all of the questions below:

  • What are the implications for UK biodiversity of leaving the EU, in particular the Common Agricultural Policy? To what extent do initiatives to support biodiversity in the UK depend on CAP-related payments? What risks and opportunities could developing our own agri-environment policy and funding present?
  • How should future support for UK agriculture be structured in order to ensure there are incentives for environmentally-friendly land management? What are the positives/negatives of current schemes (e.g. Countryside Stewardship) that should be retained/avoided?
  • How should future UK agri-environment support be administered, and what outcomes should it focus on?
  • What are the prospects and challenges for future environmental stewardship schemes in the devolved administrations? How much divergence in policy between the nations of the United Kingdom is likely? How can divergence be managed?
  • What are the future risks and opportunities to innovative land practices, such as managed rewilding? What role can rewilding play in conservation and restoration of habitats and wildlife? What evidence is there to support the incentivising of such schemes in any new land management policies?

There is a form for submissions (available on the website) and the deadline is Friday 9th September 2016.

I’ll be submitting a response via the Northamptonshire Local Nature Partnership, and welcome comments and ideas from any readers.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Northants LNP, Rewilding

Bees’ Needs week (9th to 17th July) #BeesNeeds

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In the current political turmoil around the Chilcot Enquiry, Brexit, leadership challenges and a change of Prime Minister you’d be forgiven for having missed the fact that 9th to 17th July 2016 has been designated “Bees’ Knees” week, as a follow on to the Pollinator Awareness Week of 2015.

Here’s the link to the Defra press release.

Unlike last year I’ve no specific plans to do any regular posts on the topic, but I will provide links to relevant items as and when I see them, starting with these two:

Why insects are declining globally, and why it matters.

Dave Goulson is trying to crowdfund a project to look at pesticides in plants from garden centres.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination, Wasps

What does Brexit mean for British biodiversity?

Friday 24th June 2016.  What a surreal day.  I spent it trying to understand why a small majority of the voting public had committed us to leaving the European Union, an organisation that has had a demonstrably positive impact upon our lives, our society, our economy, and our environment.  That dream-like state was not helped by the fact that I’d stayed up most of the night with my youngest son James, watching the results roll in.

Saturday 25th June 2016.  Twenty four hours later, after a good night’s sleep, I feel less dislocated but no less confused and disappointed.  It is what it is, let’s get on with it.

It’s much too early to properly answer the question of what this all means for British biodiversity, of course.  But as I pointed out in my post about the environmental arguments for remaining in the EU, there’s a whole raft of policies, legislation, agreements and initiatives that the government and NGOs need to consider.  Just to give a couple of examples, what will happen to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, or the Special Protected Area status of places such as the Upper Nene Valley?

What I really hope is that we can continue as before, building on the current situation rather than tearing up the whole thing.  To some extent I’m optimistic that we can for the near future, because the government will have (as it sees it) bigger things to worry about.  But I do worry that eventually we will get left behind as EU environmental legislation evolves.  That’s something we have to be mindful of in the coming years.

The ecological internet is already starting to discuss these issues; here are links to a few pieces that I’ve seen:

Adventuresinbeeland has discussed what leaving the EU means for British bees and beekeepers, pointing out that EU funding has enabled bee inspectors to carry out apiary inspections and work with beekeepers on issues such as bee pests and diseases.

The Wildlife Trusts are trying to look positively at the future, with Brian Eversham, Chief Executive for the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, summing it up very well:  “Many of those who disagreed over the Referendum agree strongly that wildlife, our countryside and the natural environment matter, now and for the future. We need their voices loud and clear in the coming months. As we are now responsible for our own, independent future, it is up to all of us to make sure that we keep the environment firmly on the national agenda.”

Mark Avery has also summed up the current situation very succinctly on his blog – one cartoon says an awful lot.

Finally, here’s Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth, writing on how can we make Brexit work for the environment?

No doubt there will be more coming soon and I’ll try to provide updates on the blog.

In terms of my day job as an academic at the University of Northampton, things will also change across the whole British Higher Education sector, of course.  On one level that’s a different set of issues to what I’ve been discussing, but there are also links: a great deal of ecological research activity is being funded by the European Union and involves cross-border collaborations.  Scientists across Europe have to continue to make that work.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton

The environmental argument for the UK remaining in the European Union

Every week I receive an email bulletin called Science for Environment Policy, sent out by the Directorate-General for Environment, which is the European Commission department that sets and monitors European Union policies relating to the environment, for example pollution levels, conservation of biodiversity, etc.  Anyone can subscribe to these bulletins and they provide useful, lay-person summaries of recent research findings that have a direct or indirect bearing on how we manage and protect Europe’s environment.

A scan through the latest few bulletins reveals article titles such as:

  • Atlantic beaches of Europe reshaped in stormy winter of 2013–2014
  • Water management: five policy conditions to help overcome the challenges of an uncertain future
  • Climate change threatens early-flowering plants due to lack of snow
  • Black carbon emissions of individual cars measured under real conditions
  • Are endocrine disrupting chemicals responsible for downward trends in male fertility?
  • Environmental performance of construction and demolition waste management
  • Golden jackal should not be treated as an alien species in Europe
  • Environmental taxation in the right place can increase business productivity 

This set of topics is fairly typical, and demonstrates the complexity and breadth of the environmental issues facing the European Union.  All of these issues, however, share one feature: they do not respect political boundaries and are cross-border in scope.  Species, rivers, air masses, sea currents, economic resources, waste products: all of them can (and do) move through the different countries of Europe and beyond.

What this means is that the policies, laws and regulations that govern the behaviour of individuals and organisations towards the environment, and ultimately protect it, must also be cross-border in scope.  That’s where the European Union comes in, because it is largely EU directives that currently protect our environment.  Some examples of these directives, and some of their achievements, include:

  • Birds Directive which has helped to coordinate action plans for endangered resident and migratory birds.
  • Habitats Directive that relates to the conservation of natural habitats and the fauna and flora they contain, including setting up the Natura 2000 network that currently covers more that 18% of the EU’s land area and almost 6% of its marine territory, making it the world’s largest coordinated network of protected areas.
  • Water Framework Directive that determines action in the area of water policy.
  • Waste Framework Directive likewise determines action in the area of wastes policy and which, together with the Landfill Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, has been responsible for significantly reducing the amount of waste going into landfill, increased the amount being recycled, and placed pressure on manufacturers to take responsibility for packaging and end-of-life goods and materials.

There are many others, and you can find a list here.  It’s worth pointing out that these directives were not “imposed” on the UK by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels: the UK took an active role in their development and drafting.  In fact Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson, was one of the original authors of the Habitats Directive and is a prominent advocate of remaining in the EU.

Of course, no one is arguing that these directives are the only mechanism for protecting the environment, there are local regulations too, plus the work of NGOs such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts.  Nor am I arguing that they have been wholly effective: there’s still a long way to go in many of these areas.  But they have had a demonstrably positive impact on the quality and protection of the UK’s environment that could be halted, or even reversed, if the UK was to leave the EU.

This last point is an important one to make and it’s not an example of the fear-mongering that has marked the EU Referendum debate on both sides.  Here is how I see it:  we cannot trust the UK government (whatever its political flavour) to safeguard our environment.

This is because, despite the best efforts of genuinely committed and environmentally savvy politicians, the political parties to which they belong are too focused on short-term goals of winning the next election to really consider the 20, 50, or 100 year perspectives that are required for environmental legislation.  This inevitably means that the environment is low on the list of priorities for most ministers, and environmental policy is subject to undue influence by special interest groups.  For example look at how easily Defra was persuaded to allow exceptions to the EU moratorium on neonicotinoid pesticides.  Likewise the HS2 project which ministers seem determined to keep going despite serious concerns about the environmental impact of the project (see my post “Ordinary by Choice“).

When considering whether or not to vote to remain in the EU, most people (understandably) are focused on the social and economic arguments: the impacts on jobs, standards of living, resources for health, etc.  But in part the environmental argument is a social and economic argument, because the natural environment underpins many jobs, our standards of living (who doesn’t want to live near unpolluted green space that is protected for future generations?), and plays an important part in the nation’s health and wellbeing.  The provision of these “ecosystem services” were clearly spelled out last year in Tony Juniper’s book What Nature Does for Britain, which I reviewed on this blog.

I’m not arguing that everything in the European Union is perfect, or even that the environment of the UK and the rest of the EU is as good as it ought to be, or could be.  But for every statistic about declining species and poor environments, it’s possible to quote figures for the success of other species and improvements in quality.  For example our major rivers such as the Thames, Tees, Mersey and Avon are now swimming with fish where once they were swimming with excrement, as I’ve previously discussed in relation to the River Wear.  Our membership of the European Union is, at least in part, responsible for these positive trends and I hope that they continue.  Please consider this when you’re deciding how to vote on 23rd June.

 

Postscript: much of what I’ve discussed above is being widely talked about amongst environmentalists, and I don’t know of any major environmental organisation that is in favour of the UK leaving the EU.  In fact a large number have publicly come out in favour of staying, including:

Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management

The Wildlife Trusts

Greenpeace

The RSPB and WWF-UK, who have produced a joint statement.

Friends of the Earth

Buglife

There is also a group called Environmentalists For Europe

So don’t just take my word for it.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, RSPB

Pollinators seminar at the Houses of Parliament – 2nd December

Skipper on ragwort - cropped

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has organised a “Pollinators Update” afternoon seminar in London on Wednesday 2nd December, to discuss recent developments in pollinator conservation research. I’ve been asked to give a 15 minute presentation on the pollinator extinctions research we published in Science last year.

The full programme will be:

 

  • 2.30pm Sarah Newton MP, Chair’s Welcome
  • 2.40pm Presentations
  • Professor Simon Potts (Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) – Reading University
  • Professor Jeff Ollerton (Professor of Biodiversity) University of Northampton
  • Dr Claire Carvell – NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • Dr Richard Gill – Imperial College London
  • 3.40pm Discussion
  • 3.55pm Chair’s closing remarks
  • 4.00pm Refreshments

 

The seminar is free to attend but you need to book a place: see the POST website for details.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Pollination, Wasps

Our nature conservation laws need to be defended, not weakened

If you’ve not already heard, there’s a proposal going forward in the European Parliament to review (=weaken) the current EU Nature Directives.  If this happens some of the most important wildlife sites, as well as vulnerable species, could be at risk in the UK and the rest of Europe.

If you have any strong feelings about nature conservation, or if you simply want more information about what’s happening, then I’d urge you to visit the RSPB’s page where you can watch a video about the issue and/or complete a short form to add your voice to the consultation process.

This is important.

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Filed under Biodiversity, RSPB

Biodiversity conservation pays its way – Nature Improvement Areas are boosting wildlife, communities and economy

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This is the text from a national press release that’s been sent out today by the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area:

Wildlife, communities and local economies are reaping the benefits of England’s new Nature Improvement Areas, according to a report published last week (14th November).  The Nene Valley is one of these twelve Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) set up by the government in 2012, which have helped farmers to access EU grants, made valuable contributions towards university research and boosted the £210 billion rural economy.

They’ve also attracted outside investment – more than £730,000 from business partners and £7.8 million from NGOs and not-for-profit organisations.  Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said:

“A healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand. These Nature Improvement Areas show how protecting our precious wildlife and outstanding landscapes can help grow our £30 billion rural tourism industry and create more jobs for hardworking people as part of our long term economic plan.”

Almost 19,000 hectares of threatened habitat – equivalent to 23,000 football pitches- have been created or restored since the NIAs were set up with £7.5 million of government funding.  Volunteers have spent 24,300 days – or 66 years in total – surveying wildlife and improving habitats, and more than 11,000 people have taken part in educational visits.

These wild habitats are now bigger, better connected, and more widespread, enabling wildlife such as butterflies and water voles to thrive.

The Nene Valley NIA covers an area of 41,000 hectares running through the heart of Northamptonshire and skirting Huntingdonshire to the eastern fringes of Peterborough. It includes the River Nene and its tributaries, gravel pits, reservoirs and much of the floodplain. Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager said:

“In the Nene Valley we must find a careful balance between the pressures for development, tourism and recreation and the valuable wildlife that the valley is increasingly known for.  Through the NIA we have so far ensured that 1,500ha of farmland is managed in a more environmentally-friendly way, created over 100ha of wildflower meadow, and engaged communities in the future of their local environment. As we work towards the end of this round of Government support for NIAs in March 2015, we urge the Minister to build on the good work already achieved through NIAs, and provide leadership and support for existing and new NIA projects into the future.”

NIAs were first announced in the Natural Environment White Paper, the first government White Paper on the environment for 20 years, with the aim of creating 12 initial areas to reconnect nature on a significant scale through local partnerships.

The NIA partnerships have improved access to the countryside, creating new public footpaths and connecting a network of paths which will span 540km by 2015.

The NIA partnerships are on track to restore, create, enhance and maintain a further 5,500 hectares by 2015, joining up people and communities with their landscapes.

But the vision doesn’t end there. In the Nene Valley there are plans to continue to protect and enhance the landscape for the benefit of wildlife, people and the economy for years to come. Local people can help us to form our plans for 2015-20 by adding their thoughts to the interactive map on the Nene Valley NIA website http://www.nenevalleynia.org/my-nene-valley.

ENDS

Notes for Editors

The report is: Monitoring and Evaluation of Nature Improvement Areas Year 2 (2013-14) Progress Report (Defra Research Project WC1061) and can be downloaded from WC1061.

The 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) are:

Birmingham and Black Country
Dearne Valley
Humberhead Levels
Marlborough Downs
Meres and Mosses of the Marches
Morecambe Bay Limestone and Wetlands
Nene Valley
Northern Devon
South Downs Way Ahead
The Dark Peak

The Greater Thames Marshes
Wild Purbeck

  1. The Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) Programme, with funding of £7.5 million, was established, as announced by Defra in the Natural Environment White Paper (2011). This project has been supported by Defra, DCLG, Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and Natural England.
  1. Defra launched a competition to fund an initial 12 NIAs in July 2011, judged by a panel led by Professor Sir John Lawton. Seventy-six applications were received. The Nene Valley is one of the 12 successful partnerships that started work in April 2012.
  1. NIAs are large, discrete areas that will deliver a step change in nature conservation, where a local partnership has a shared vision for their natural environment. The partnership will plan and deliver significant improvements for wildlife and people through the sustainable use of natural resources, restoring and creating wildlife habitats, connecting local sites and joining up local action. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk
  1. It is not the intention for NIAs to stifle sustainable development. It is a matter for local authorities to decide what weight they wish to give to NIAs in their local plans.
  1. The Nene Valley NIA is a partnership project of more than 20 organisations in Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough and covers over 41,000 hectares including countryside, urban fringe and town centres:  www.nenevalleynia.org

Media Contact

For more information, interview requests and photographs of the Nene Valley and its wildlife please contact Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager, heather.procter@wildlifebcn.org or 01604 774032.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

The National Pollinator Strategy – some reflections

Moth in hand 2014-08-25 19.47.20

After many months of consultation and workshops, the National Pollinator Strategy for England has finally been released by Defra, and can be downloaded from this website.  It reflects an important, wider change in societal attitudes to nature, and specifically the ecosystem services it provides, though the strategy itself is by no means perfect.  I rather wish that it had been a UK-wide strategy, as biodiversity does not respect political boundaries, but such is a the nature of our partly-devolved political system. Wales already has an Action Plan for Pollinators and I hope that the rest of the UK follows, though a strategy for Northern Ireland would surely have to include the Republic of Ireland?

In the following sections I’ve quoted liberally from the summary section of the National Pollinator Strategy, and added a few comments and reflections of my own in italics.  As always, your views and comments would be very welcome.

The 10 year National Pollinator Strategy aims to deliver across five key areas:

1. Supporting pollinators on farmland

  • Working with farmers to support pollinators through the Common Agricultural Policy and with voluntary initiatives to provide food, shelter and nesting sites.
  • Minimising the risks for pollinators associated with the use of pesticides through best practice, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Comment: at the moment many farmers are already pro-actively encouraging pollinators and other wildlife, but most are not.  Will “voluntary initiatives“, including encouraging Integrated Pest Management, be sufficient?  About 70% of the country is farmed and any wildlife conservation strategy has got to include agricultural stakeholders.  But the influence of large agro-chemical businesses should not be under-estimated.  I’ve seen figures suggesting that fields of oil seed rape in this country receive applications of up to 20 different chemicals (biocides and fertilisers) each year.  That represents a significant profit for these companies, who will not want to change the status quo.  Data showing a slow down in the rate of decline of  plants and pollinators in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium may be evidence that CAP agri-environmental schemes have had a positive impact, but I’d like to see more data addressing that question (and not just for pollinators – farmland birds are doing worse than any other category of birds in the UK).

2. Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside

  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.
  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners
  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.

Comment:  “simple changes to land management” can do a lot for supporting local biodiversity, even in the most unlikely, urban settings, which is the underlying philosophy behind our award-winning Biodiversity Index tool.  Quite a number of local authorities are getting the message that it’s A Good Thing to reduce the frequency of cutting amenity grasslands, both for pollinators and for budgets.  But local authorities are also taking foolish decisions with regard to developing sites that should be protected, and brownfield areas are being specifically targeted for building urban housing, despite the fact that we have long known that they are some of our best sites for pollinators.  How do we reconcile these different priorities?  Brownfield sites by their nature are transitory, early successional habitats, so perhaps local authorities should be encouraged (made?) to have a rolling stock of a minimum proportion of undeveloped brownfield sites as part of their portfolio of land holdings?  Or how about a requirement that all developed areas of brownfield land are replaced by an equivalent area of brown roofs?

3. Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks

  • Working to address pest and disease risks to honey bees whilst further improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices to strengthen the resilience of bee colonies.
  • Keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.

Comment:  interestingly there’s no mention of disease risks to non-managed pollinators, yet we know that honey bee diseases can be passed to bumblebees, for instance.

 Actions to support these priority areas:

4. Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive

  • Developing and disseminating further advice to a wide range of land owners, managers and gardeners as part of Bees’ Needs.
  • Improving the sharing of knowledge and evidence between scientists, conservation practitioners and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ensure that actions taken to support pollinators are based on up-to-date evidence.

Comment: yes, dissemination of sound, evidence-based knowledge has got to be a priority.

5. Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide

  • Developing a sustainable long-term monitoring programme so we better understand their status, the causes of any declines and where our actions will have most effect.
  • Improving our understanding of the value and benefits pollinators provide, and how resilient natural and agricultural systems are to changes in their populations.

Comment: monitoring of pollinators is a real sticking point in the strategy, as there’s still no consensus on what should be monitored, how, where, and how frequently.  This was the subject of a workshop at the Natural History Museum in London that I attended about a year ago, and there’s still much that is undecided.  I know that a partnership led by CEH Wallingford is working on this at the moment, and hopefully a scheme will be in place by next year.  Let’s see what they come up with.

In taking action across these five areas, the National Pollinator Strategy wants to achieve the following outcomes:

  • More, bigger, better, joined-up, diverse and high-quality flower-rich habitats (including nesting places and shelter) supporting our pollinators across the country.
  • Healthy bees and other pollinators which are more resilient to climate change and severe weather events.
  • No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species.
  • Enhanced awareness across a wide range of businesses, other organisations and the public of the essential needs of pollinators.
  • Evidence of actions taken to support pollinators.

Comment:  “More, bigger, better, joined up…” has been the buzz phrase in British conservation since at least the Lawton Report.  One of the outcomes of that report was the setting up of twelve flagship Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs), one of which is the Nene Valley NIA, a project on which my research group has been working.  The Strategy mentions the NIAs several times and states that “extending the monitoring and evaluation framework for Nature Improvement Areas to include pollinators” is one of its interim aims.  But as I recently mentioned, funding for the NIAs finishes at the end of March 2015 and Defra has indicated that there will be no additional government money.  How will this aim be met?  I’d be very interested to know as the Nene Valley NIA is one of the few which specifically focused on pollinators as part of our remit.  It would be a terrible shame to lose the expertise and momentum that we’ve built up when funding stops next year.  As regards “No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species“, the talk I gave at SCAPE 2014 was on that very topic and a paper outlining our results is currently in press.  I hope to be able to share those findings with the broad readership of this blog very shortly.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Hedgerows, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

A Westminster pollinator seminar and The Great British Big Bee Count

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In the run up to Defra’s publication of a National Pollinator Strategy, due for release some time before Christmas, the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology yesterday ran a two hour seminar at Westminster.  It was a full meeting in one of the small rooms, and apparently over-subscribed which doesn’t surprise me: there’s huge interest in pollinator conservation in the UK at the moment.  So it would have been better moved to a larger room to allow more scientists, practitioners, MPs, civil servants and other interested parties to attend.  In any case it was a useful couple of hours, with some interesting updates on what’s happening in relation to British pollinators.

The event was chaired by Sarah Newton MP and was kicked off by Adam Vanbergen from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology who got everyone up to speed by giving an overview of the science of pollination, pollinator diversity, and the issues affecting pollinator populations.  In the process he cited our “How many flowering plants are animal pollinated?” paper which has fast become the default citation to use as evidence to support the ecological importance of biotic pollen transfer.  That’s hugely gratifying and is what it was designed to do.  We now have additional data with wider geographical coverage and I hope to update that analysis in the near future.  A lot of the information Adam was using can be found on the Insect Pollinators Initiative website.

Adam’s talk was followed by a presentation by Simon Potts from the University of Reading who discussed how we value pollination as an ecosystem service and how we can safeguard pollinator abundance and diversity.  There were some stark statistics on the economic contribution of pollinators to crops such as apples, including data from a study by Garratt et al. (2014) which suggests that both quality and quantity of apples could be improved by having more pollinators in British orchards.  Perhaps another way of viewing those data is that the UK apple industry is already experiencing the kind of pollinator deficit that conservationists have predicted?

Jane Memmott from Bristol University was next, presenting the preliminary results of the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is the first comprehensive study of the distribution of pollinators in large British cities.  The data look really exciting and it will be great to see the results finally published as it will make for an interesting comparison with Muzafar’s data on solitary bees in Northampton, the first manuscript from which has recently been submitted to a journal.

Finally Chris Connolly from Dundee University talked about pesticides in a presentation entitled “Why pick on the neonicotinoids?” and provided some disturbing statistics on how little we really know about what happens when the c. 350 types of pesticides (plus about 700 herbicides and fungicides) that we use in modern British agriculture combine in the environment to produce synergistic effects.  It’s also worrying that there is little understanding of the amounts of pesticides being applied because systematic data are not collated.  Chris is a neuroscientist working mainly in a medical context and gave the analogy of how combinations of therapeutic drugs can have unforeseen (even deadly) side effects.  Chris also used an image of Nigel Farage to illustrate a point which was a brave thing to do in the Houses of Parliament in the current political climate, but which got him a big laugh.

There followed 30 minutes of questions and discussion, and I managed to get in a plug for the Biodiversity Index when making a point of how difficult it is to get business to engage with biodiversity.  That led to an interesting conversation afterwards with a consultant that I need to follow up later today.

Out into the unseasonably warm London air by about 6.30pm, there were people standing outside pubs and sitting at cafe tables, as if we were in southern Europe rather than England in late October.  It reinforced some of the things I discussed in a post earlier this summer about climate change and current weather patterns.

Coincidentally (or not) Friends of the Earth released the results of their Great British Bee Count, a Citizen Science project designed to augment the monitoring work being done by specialist groups such as the Bees, Ants and Wasps Recording Society (BWARS).  I have mixed feelings about the Great British Bee Count.  On the one hand it’s great to engage the public in campaigns that raise the awareness of the importance of pollinators, and to get them out looking at bees.  But the reality is that the 832,110 records submitted to the count have very limited scientific value, despite what Friends of the Earth might claim.  That’s because it is very, very difficult to identify bees to even broad groups unless you’ve had some training, and (apart from some distinctive species) impossible to identify to species level unless you are a specialist.  I’ve been studying pollinators for 25 years and there are whole groups within our c. 250 native species that I have great problems identifying, and defer to the opinion of real specialists such as Stuart Roberts, chair of BWARS.

Stuart has made public his concerns at the quality of the data being submitted to the Great British Bee Count, and the fact that records cannot be checked because no photograph was taken and (worse) there are no specimens to compare.  The issues are neatly embodied in the fact that four species which were  recorded from Northern Ireland (Tawny mining bee, Hairy-footed flower bee, Red mason bee, and Tree bumblebee) have never previously been seen in Ireland and can all be confused with other similar species.  Of particular concern is the fact that Friends of the Earth expects the National Biodiversity Network Gateway to archive the data.  If that happens the Great British Bee Count data MUST be kept separate from the high quality, verified data on bee distributions that NBN already possesses, otherwise it will completely devalue the latter.  By all means let’s get the public engaged with pollinators and biodiversity more broadly, which is one of the purposes of this blog after all!  But let’s also be realistic about what can be achieved by these kinds of campaigns.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Nature Improvement Area Annual Forum 2014 – influencing the future of conservation in England

NIA Forum - Sept 2014

The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Annual Forum took place in London yesterday and the Nene Valley NIA was well represented, with five of us from the University of Northampton attending, plus representatives from our partners in the Wildlife Trust, the River Nene Regional Park, the RSPB, and the River Restoration Centre.  It was an opportunity to see and hear what the twelve NIAs have achieved in the two and a half years since their inception, to compare notes, and (importantly) to think about the future of the NIAs.

The NIAs, as I’ve mentioned before, were meant to be pilot, flagship schemes to show how the future of conservation in England could become bigger, better and more connected across large swathes of landscape.  Their origin lies in the Lawton Report and Professor Sir John Lawton kicked off the day with a general introduction that, from the very beginning, brought up the one thing on everybody’s mind that day: the financial sustainability of the NIAs. The money runs out in March 2015, so where do we go from there?  All of the NIAs (ourselves included) have been applying for funding to continue the good work being done, but, as John Lawton, pointed out, if the Government is serous about the NIAs and wishes them to continue, there needs to be an investment of public money.  I deliberately use the term “investment” because we know that the natural environment of our islands plays a significant role in public health and the national economy more broadly.

John Lawton’s introduction was followed by a short speech by Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science (who, incidentally, gave a nod in his speech to the National Pollinator Strategy). The Minister said a lot of the right things, how impressed he was with the NIA programme, that the government was committed to it in practice (but not necessarily financially), etc., etc.  There followed another speech by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, who listed some of the achievements of the NIAs (see below), including the fact that for every £1 of Government funding, £3.50 was leveraged from other sources to support the activities of NIAs across the country.

There was an opportunity to ask questions of the first two speakers, plus representatives from the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the first of which came from our own Oliver Burke who asked about the government’s vision of the future of the NIAs.  All of the panel agree that there was a future, they just were not sure what it was, though there was commitment from Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) that their staff would continue to advise and support NIA activities as part of their core activities.  That’s promising though perhaps not surprising given the nature of most of the partnerships, involving organisations that the NE and the EA would normally work with anyway.

The question I wanted to ask, had I found the right form of words, would have been about the current Government’s poor record on the environment.  But by the time I worked out a way of saying it that didn’t make it sound like a simple attack on the coalition, the opportunity was over.  A whistle-stop tour by the Minister and his coterie of the displays set out by the NIAs followed, which John Lawton later said had visibly impressed Lord de Mauley.  Amongst the achievements of the twelve NIAs, after only two years of activity, are:

  • Tens of thousand of hectares of priority and other habitats created, restored and/or improved in condition
  • Hundreds of kilometres of boundary and linear habitat (e.g. hedgerows) restored/created/improved
  • Tens of thousands of days of volunteer time devoted to the NIAs
  • Thousands of  people participating in educational visits.
  • Thousands of hectares of habitat managed specifically for ecosystem services such as improving water quality.

After lunch there were further talks including one from Simon Smith about the Cotswolds Ecological Networks project which had been one of the 70 applicants for NIA funding, was unsuccessful, and (impressively) went ahead with the project anyway as an “unofficial” NIA.  The Nene Valley NIA’s interactive website and photography competition was also highlighted in a talk by Helen Ashley from Dialogue by Design, and Dr Andy Stott from Defra discussed the monitoring and evaluation report for year 2 of the NIA programme.

Later in the afternoon we had a workshop at which, in small groups, we brainstormed some pressing questions, including (not surprisingly) innovative funding streams, and using the evidence base to demonstrate the effectiveness of the NIAs.  With regard to the latter it would seem sensible to use independent, long-term monitoring data such as the repeated species counts done by Butterfly Conservation (e.g. Big Butterfly Count) and the British Trust for Ornithology (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey) to verify whether or not the NIAs are being effective, though this of course requires that surveys have historically taken place within the NIAs (something that is certainly true for the Nene Valley NIA).  This would require quite a bit of coordination with the NGOs concerned, but should be doable.  I’d happily develop such a project if there’s someone out there with funding!

And then, with some final, supportive words from John Lawton, the day was over and we started to disperse out into an unseasonably warm mid-September London.  Several of us from the Nene Valley and the RSPB decamped to a great local pub (The Lord John Russell) to discuss the day.  One of the topics that everyone was talking about was, of course, the Scottish Referendum.  As I write this the country is absorbing the news that Scotland is to remain part of the UK.  As far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing because (amongst other reasons) I think that a vote for independence would have negatively affected conservation in the British Isles.  Political focus of all government departments would move from environmental issues and on to trying to manage the split, which would take up a huge amount of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.  And NGOs such as the RSPB would have to devote time and resources to considering how they manage and fund their organisations, given their cross-border roles. That could have been to the detriment of Scottish conservation given that most of the funding is flowing south to north (which is purely a function of population size – there are many times more members in England and Wales than in Scotland).

Thank you Scotland, you’ve done the right thing.  And thank you to all 12 NIAs, you’ve shown the Government how successful large-scale nature conservation can be: let us hope they take notice.

 

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Hedgerows, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton