Virus Threat to Honeybees

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140626172742.htm

Scientists at the University of Warwick have discovered how a bloodsucking parasite has transformed Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) into one of the biggest threats facing UK honeybees.

Honeybees are a key pollinating insect, adding around $40Bn globally to crop value. Over recent years the spread of parasites and the viruses they transmit has resulted in high overwintering colony losses. New and emerging threats to insect pollinators are putting increasing pressure on the agricultural sector to meet the demands of a growing population.

DWV is one of the most common viruses infecting European honeybees. Although present in almost all colonies, high levels of deformed wing disease — characterised by developmental deformities, reduced foraging ability and longevity — are only common when Varroa is also present.

Researchers at the University of Warwick have discovered how the disease is amplified in the presence of Varroa destructor, a tiny parasitic mite invading hives across the globe. In colonies free from Varroa, DWV is present at very low levels and generally causes symptomless infections. However, the team found that when Varroa feeds on honeybee haemolymph (‘blood’), specific virulent strains of the virus are transmitted and amplified, explaining why colonies infested with the mite suffer most severely.

The researchers also demonstrated that direct injection of a mixed DWV population in the absence of the mite, resulted in the same virulent strain being amplified — suggesting that this route of virus transmission bypasses the insect’s anti-virus defence systems.

Professor David Evans, from the University of Warwick, who led the study explains: “We found that a harmful variant of the virus only multiplies rapidly if it is directly injected into honeybee haemolymph by Varroa. Once injected, the variant takes over. In mite-exposed bees, levels of this single virulent form can be 10,000 times higher than in the absence of Varroa.”

“Although exposure to Varroa caused disruption to a number of genes involved in the bee’s immune response, it is the route of transmission which has caused this severe strain of DWV to become widespread.”

The introduction and global distribution of the mite has had a significant impact on the health and survival of honeybee colonies. The research, published today in the journal PLOS Pathogens could lead to informed breeding programmes for Varroa and virus resistance.

Professor Evans added: “Our results strongly suggest that DWV is widespread in UK honeybees — even where Varroa is absent. However, the identification of a single virulent form of the virus is an important step in developing strategies to boost honeybee health, to prevent colony losses and to safeguard this important pollinator.”

The project is part of the Insect Pollinators Initiative, jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust under the auspices of the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership.

Professor Jackie Hunter, BBSRC Chief Executive commented: “This important study, part of the BBSRC-supported Insect Pollinators Initiative, provides important clues that could help to protect honeybee colonies. We rely on bees and other insects to pollinate food crops. We must sustain a healthy and diverse population of pollinating insects to ensure that we have enough food for the future.”

Surprise! UK Running Out Of Land

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28003435

UK faces ‘significant’ shortage of farmland by 2030

By Matt McGrath Environment correspondent, BBC News

Britain is running out of land for food and faces a potential shortfall of two million hectares by 2030 according to new research.

The report, from the University of Cambridge, says the growing population plus the use of land for energy crops are contributing to the gap. It criticises the government’s lack of a coherent vision on how to make the most of UK farm land. The authors warn that tough choices may need to be made on future land use.

The total land area of the UK amounts to over 24 million hectares with more than 75% of that used for farming. While self sufficient in products like barley, wheat, milk, lamb and mutton, the UK still imports large amounts of fruit and vegetables and other farm products including pork. Overall the UK runs a food, feed and and drink trade deficit of £18.6bn.

Under pressure

With a population expected to exceed 70 million by 2030, the extra demand for living space and food will have a major impact on the way land is used, the report says. On top of these pressures, the government is committed to using bioenergy crops such as miscanthus as renewable sources of energy, further limiting the stock of land for food. “That is putting some very significant future pressures on how we use our land,” said Andrew Montague-Fuller, the report’s lead author.

“If you look at the land that is required under some of the bioenergy projections made by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, that could potentially take some significant chunks of land.”

Another factor is the EU, in the shape of the Common Agricultural Policy which now requires farmers to put more land aside to protect nature. “They are meeting one of the objectives but maybe hurting some of our other objectives like growing more food, and biomass type crops,” said Mr Montague-Fuller.

The report estimates that all these factors will require an extra seven million hectares of land by 2030. However there are a number of factors that will offset this, including reductions in the 19% of food and drink that are wasted in the UK.

Combined with increased yields and reductions in meat consumption that will boost land for farming, the authors say there is likely to be an overall two million hectare shortfall.The report highlights the fact that there are a number of uncertainties about how land will be used, and they point the finger at government for lack of a coherent overall vision.

“What they are not doing is stepping back and looking at the overall direction and vision for future land use, and making sure that all of these different policies all add up so that we are clear about what our demands are and where the land will be released from to meet those needs.”

According to a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the government was taking steps to deal with land challenges. “We are investing £70 million in agricultural technologies that will help us to increase the efficiency of food production and help our food, farming and science industries grow economically while meeting the increasing global demand for food.”

The report has been produced by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in collaboration with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), and companies including Asda, Sainsbury’s and Nestle.

According to Dr Andrea Graham from the NFU, the report highlighted some tough choices ahead. “This report shows that agricultural land will need to be multi-functional, delivering a range of goods and services. We will need the full range of tools to meet future demand, employing the very best technology and innovation to drive efficiency, quality, yields and profitability.”

Andrew Montague-Fuller says that there is a danger that the future farming landscape of Britain might not be compatible with the country’s needs. He said: “We may well find that there’s a large amount of the land growing biofuels, has solar panels and wind farms on it, when actually we need more land put aside for the food needs of our growing population. “We may get the balance wrong if we don’t face up to this shortfall.”

 

Wind and Other Renewables Generated a Fifth of Power

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/26/wind-renewables-generated-fifth-britain-electricity-energy?CMP=twt_gu

Wind and other renewables generated a fifth of Britain’s electricity in early 2014

New windfarms, strong winds and a good winter for hydropower plants sent renewable energy generation surging to 19.4% of all electricity from January to March

One fifth of all electricity was generated in Britain by windfarms or other green technologies in the first three months of the year, according to new statistics released by the Department of Energy and Climate change (DECC).

New windfarms coming online, strong winds and a good winter for hydropower plants sent renewable energy generation surging to 19.4% of all electricity from January to March 2014, up from about 12% for the same period last year. The power produced was enough for about 15m homes during the quarter. It was hailed as a breakthrough by the wind industry, which alone provided 12% of the overall power produced, and a rebuff to critics who have said that renewables would never account for such a large proportion of the energy mix.

However, the DECC data could stoke a new price row with energy suppliers because it shows gas prices to domestic customers rising in the first quarter with prices to businesses in decline at the same time.

The cost of gas to householders, including VAT, rose by 4.8% in real terms between the first quarter of 2013 and the same period of this year, while average gas prices to business customers, including the climate change levy, were 5.2% lower.

The statistics underline the significant strides being taken by the industry to meet a government drive to reduce Britain’s carbon emissions, although the scale of renewable energy subsidies remains controversial.

However, the data also shows that in 2013 only 5.2% of final energy consumption, including heat and transport, came from renewable sources – well short of the a target of 15% by 2020 set by EU directives.

The lobby group Renewable Energy Association (REA) said the UK was still lagging behind most other EU states and needed to do more, especially in the field of green heat and transport biofuels.

“Every percentage point increase in homegrown renewable energy makes us that much more energy secure. The progress in electricity is encouraging, but growth is not yet strong enough in renewable heat and transport to meet the government’s objectives,” said Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the REA.

But the UK continued to be highly reliant on coal for its power, according to the government statistics released on Thursday. About 37% of the UK’s electricity came from coal in the first three months of this year, down from a peak of 44% in the same period for 2012, but still a substantial amount.

While the UK’s own production of coal fell by 27% from January to March, owing mainly to controversial colliery closures, the amount of coal imported from Russia rose by 21%.

The picture on gas proved a surprise against the backdrop of ministerial plans to focus on it. Less electricity was generated in the UK from gas in the early part of this year than at any time in at least 16 years, the figures from the DECC showed, throwing into doubt the coalition’s vow for a new “dash for gas”.

Demand for gas fell by about 8%, and gas represented about 23% of electricity generation. Ministers from both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have made clear their backing for a big expansion of the UK’s gas-fired power generation in order to “keep the lights on”, as energy chiefs have warned of power shortages by the end of the decade because many of the UK’s current ageing nuclear reactors and coal-fired power stations must be taken out of service.

The DECC data reports the total amount of electricity generated by all forms of renewable power reached 18.1 terrawatt hours in the first three months of this year, up 43% on the same period last year.

Across the whole of 2013, the amount of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, including solar, hydro and biomass, was up by 30% on 2012. Offshore wind rose the most – by 52% – but solar was also up by 51%, while hydro generation fell by 11%, reflecting lower rainfall.

The DECC data reveals that the price of electricity for domestic customers was up by 5.9% in real terms quarter on quarter – the same figure as recorded for industrial electricity prices.

 

If You Like Eating Shellfish, Don’t Read!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27812367

13 June 2014.

Crayfish may experience form of anxiety.

By Rebecca Morelle. Science Correspondent, BBC News.

Crustaceans may be able to experience some emotions, a study published in the journal Science suggests. Researchers in France have found that crayfish seem to show anxiety, a feeling previously thought to be too complex for these primitive animals.

It follows a number of studies that suggest that crustaceans can also feel pain. Some experts say the seafood industry may need to rethink how it treats these creatures. Dr Daniel Cattaert, from the University of Bordeaux, who carried out the research, said: “Crayfish are primitive, they have been around for hundreds of millions of years. “The idea that this animal could express some anxiety didn’t seem possible, but with our experiments we’re more and more convinced that this was the case.”

To investigate, the scientists exposed the crustaceans to a stressful situation – in this case an unpleasant electric field. The creatures were then placed into a cross-shaped tank. Two of the arms of the cross were dark – an environment that most crayfish prefer, while two were light. Dr Cattaert said: “When you have a naive crayfish (one not exposed to the electric field), you observe that the animal will go in all of the arms, but with a slight preference for the dark arms. “But when we place a stressed animal in the maze, we observe the animal never goes in the light arms.

The researchers found that the crayfish produced high levels of serotonin, a chemical that is released by the brain to counteract anxiety. They also discovered that when they injected the stressed creatures with an anti-anxiety drug, they stopped being so wary and began to explore the light arms of the tank.

“The behaviour observed was reminiscent of anxiety behaviour,” said Dr Cattaert. He said that anxiety could have evolved much earlier than previously thought and that it was a useful feature for survival.

“If an animal has expressed stress, after this, if the animal doesn’t change at all its behaviour – it goes on exploring – then it may encounter a predator,” explained Dr Cattaert.

“But if the crayfish changes its behaviour, then it will avoid being in a situation where danger may occur. Even if there is no predator, it will be minimising this threat.” The fact that these animals may get anxious adds to a number of studies that suggest crustaceans also feel pain.

Commenting on the research, Prof Bob Elwood, from Queen’s University Belfast, said: “This work shows the behaviour is consistent with a state of anxiety. “But pinning together what the animals are feeling is the impossible thing. We know how we are feeling, and we know the behaviour associated with that – but you cannot ask a crayfish how it feels. “The crustaceans are showing the behaviour, but some people will say that doesn’t mean they feel anxious in the way we feel.”

However, he said that if there was a possibility that the creatures feel anxiety and pain, then their welfare should be looked at. Crustaceans are not considered sentient by bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority, and there are no regulations concerning their treatment. Prof Elwood said: “I think it must be regarded as a possibility that they experience anxiety and pain. “And if we consider there is a possibility, then effective safeguards against inflicting pain should be taken just to be on the safe side, and we should also ensure they are killed rapidly.”

Short-Toed Eagle

Ashdown Forest has been in the spotlight of the birding world recently with a juvenile short-toed eagle having temporarily taken-up residence.  Being something of specialist feeder from mainland Europe, it is presumably finding Ashdown’s heathland reptiles rather tasty!

Over the past week, there’s always a gaggle of twitchers on station at Gills Lap car park, high up on the Forest, glasses and ‘scopes trained on the valley to the east, for it appears to commute to feed between here and an area over to the south of Wych Cross.

I’m still to see it, though I’ve watched this specie in southern Spain…

Energy From the Skies Or From Down Below?

Two quotes I recently have come across concerning energy and the wider landscape.

“Interesting how despoiling the landscape to frack appears to be politically acceptable but wind farms are not, while the former is highly polluting big business owned and the latter is clean and potentially community owned.”

“Interesting point.  I am unconvinced about the efficacy of wind farms, (energy produced vs energy used in production, assembly, maintenance and dismantling).  I have a small scale hydro-scheme which I am pursuing on the River Gowy.  This little river at one time used to power 18 mills and now almost all this energy is wasted.”

 

Impact of Fracking on Farming

The following is an abstract of a recent document that I was sent. Even if it isn’t entirely correct, it still paints a fairly grim picture. The amount of water that is consumed – much of it becoming highly toxic, is frightening!

http://frack-off.org.uk/

The Impact of Fracking on Farming.  By Sonya Oldham, June 20, 2014. Amended by Huw Rowlands, Sunday 20th June 2014.

Consider the experiences of farmers in the USA who have been living with fracking, and also the findings of the 2011 EU study on the ‘Impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction on the environment and on human health’.

Air Quality

*Lowers crop and pasture yields (1).

*Major possible impacts are air emissions of pollutants.

Water Quality

Groundwater contamination due to uncontrolled gas or fluid flows due to blowouts or spills, leaking fracking fluid, and uncontrolled waste water discharge. (5)

*Wastewater from fracking can contain radioactivity levels over 1000x the USA Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended standard for drinking water. When wastewater is released into our streams and rivers without adequate radiation treatment, highly radioactive elements like uranium and radium, which had previously been safely trapped thousands of feet below the surface, can then enter the food chain and bio accumulate in humans, plants, and animals just as heavy metals do. (4)

*Each gas well drilled for hydro-fracking requires the use of millions of gallons of water. This water is taken from nearby lakes, streams, and rivers and is then loaded with tens of thousands of pounds (lbs) of toxic chemicals and sand. Unlike the water used in farming, which remains a part of the water cycle, water used for fracking fluid becomes largely irrecoverable and the risk of pumping aquifers, rivers, lakes, and streams dry is serious. Between 60 and 80% of the water used in fracking remains underground where it can potentially leak into and contaminate underground aquifers. The remaining 20-40% of the water returns to the surface, where it can poison nearby water sources if it is not dealt with properly.(4) An average of 5 million gallons of fracking water is used to drill each gas well in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. (6)

Endangers Humans and Livestock

*Livestock drink surface water – ponds, steams. Frequent small and large spills flow onto pasture and into these waterways. (1) 40% of the chemicals added to create fracking fluid are known endocrine disruptors, chemicals that interfere with the body’s natural signalling system. These chemicals can cause problems such as male and female infertility in livestock and humans. A falling reproductive rate for livestock can have serious consequences on the sustainability of food production and of the viability of livestock farms. (4)

*Surface water contaminated by improperly handled fracking fluids has killed many animals nationwide (USA). Even a small spill of the highly toxic mixture can have large impacts on the surrounding livestock and wildlife. Unfortunately, animals are attracted to the saltiness of the fracking fluids, leading them to imbibe lethal quantities of the fluids and die.(4)

Soil Contamination

*Pasture and soils are contaminated with heavy metals, radioactivity and hydrocarbons. These substances thus become part of the food chain. (1) Fracking releases toxic heavy metals like arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury into soils. Growing plants absorb these metals, which then enter the food chain. Humans and animals that eat these plants are exposed to these heavy metals, which accumulate in body tissues and cause serious damage. Mercury, for example, is a highly potent neurotoxin. Eating food grown in soils contaminated with heavy metals poses a serious health risk. (3)

*Increased soil acidity around oil and gas pipelines reduces the available essential nutrients for plants, making it more difficult for health fruits and vegetables grow. Methane leaking from gas pipelines reduces the ability of plants to fix nitrogen, create cellulose, and maintain proper hydration. Fracking itself releases toxic heavy metals into the soil (arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury) and these are absorbed by plants, ultimately exposing animals and humans to them. (2)

*Soil acidity increases in the vicinity of oil and gas pipelines where flaring occurs, reducing the amount of usable essential nutrients in the soil such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous. The reduction of these nutrients makes it much more difficult for plants to grow and produce healthy vegetables and fruits. (4)

*When methane, the primary component of natural gas, leaks from gas pipelines it changes the oxygen and bacterial content of the soil. This reduces a plant’s ability to fix nitrogen (the process by which nitrogen, an essential nutrient, is made available for biological purposes), create cellulose (the essential component for plant growth), and also limits a plant’s ability to maintain proper hydration. (4)

*The detrimental combination of soil acidification and de-oxygenation disrupts plant cell growth, which makes it difficult to grow even the hardiest crops. (4)

*Groundwater contamination by methane, in extreme cases leading to explosion of residential buildings, and potassium chloride leading to salination of drinking water, is reported in the vicinity of gas wells. (5)

Endangers Food Safety

*Then there are questions of certification and regulation of food. Will food grown near fracking operations undergo additional testing? What about organic certifications for farms near fracking wells? (2) Would Red Tractor, Organic, Freedom Food and LEAF Marque certification still be applicable?

*All of these toxic components introduced into the soils make their way up the food chain as plants absorb toxins, primary consuming animals eat the plants, and secondary and tertiary consumer animals eat those animals and drink their milk. The toxins build up within these animals at a rate that is faster than their livers can process, resulting in accumulation in their tissues. The toxins are then passed on to whatever animal eats that contaminated organism. Humans are at the top of this chain. If we consume meat from animals that have been exposed to grasses and feed contaminated with fracking fluid, we risk unhealthy exposure to the fracking fluid chemicals. (4)

*Fracking fluids contain hazardous substances, and flow-back contains heavy metals and radioactive materials from the deposit. (5).  Examples from the US:

 Louisiana: 18 cattle deaths in 2010 from fluid spill; Chesapeake Co. fined (1).

 Western Pennsylvania: 80 dead cattle after surface spill into pond and stream (1.)

 Western Pennsylvania: 18 stillborn calves on one farm with congenital cataracts (1).

 Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle belonging to Don and Carol Johnson, who farm about 175 miles southwest of Jaffe. The animals had come into wastewater that leaked from a nearby well that showed concentrations of chlorine, barium, magnesium, potassium, and radioactive strontium. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a fracked well began bellowing, foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead. Homeowners near fracked sites complain about a host of frightening consequences, from poisoned wells to sickened pets and debilitating illnesses (3).

FRAGMENTED FARMLAND

*When access roads cut across farms or well pads are constructed within existing farm fields, productive farmland is fragmented. In addition to taking away parcels of usable farmland, fragmented farmland requires much more work to cultivate than contiguous farmland. This can mean that farmers either have to exert more effort to receive a pre-well site wage, or accept lower profits with the risk going out of business. As farms go out of business, local businesses that function to support farms also disappear, which makes it harder for the remaining farmers to continue. The effects of fracking are not limited to only those farmers who choose to lease their land to fracking companies. (4)

*Richard Moorman CEO of Tamboran Resources, a company involved in fracking in Ireland, said, “We expect to drill hundreds of wells over 15 years.” He also said that they expect to build pads with 6-12 wells on each pad with pads situated at least 2 – 4 kms away from each other. (7)

*As the law stands, fracking companies are prevented from fracking beneath property without the consent of the owner. The government intends to change the law in the next session of parliament so that the consent of the owner is not required. You, your farm, livestock, livelihood and farm land are under threat. (15).

*Dart Energy’s licences in the Welsh Marches cover over 250 square miles from Chester and Ellesmere Port through to Wrexham and Oswestry. In the East Midlands they have a licence of over 500 square miles in a swath from Doncaster through Worksop and Gainsborough to Lincoln, as well as areas running north from Scunthorpe to York. (16). The quantities of gas which Dart claims that it might be able to get out of these licence areas would require thousands of wells to be drilled. If all this gas could be extracted it would require 3,400 CBM and 3,100 Shale wells in Cheshire and 2,400 CBM and 4,800 Shale wells in the East Midlands. Thousands of miles of pipelines, compressor stations, gas processing plants and waste disposal facilities would also be needed. (16).

References.

1. Fracking and Farming: http://www.google.ie/url?

2. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2011/05/fracking-farming-dont-mix.php7

3. http://www.grist.org/natural-gas/2011-05-19-fracking-with-our-food-howgas-drilling-affects-farming

4. http://www.catskillmountainkeeper.org/node/2657

5. 2011 EU study on the ‘Impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction on the environment and on human health’.

www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201107/20110715ATT24183/20110715ATT24183EN.pdf

6. Marcellus Shale, Citizens’ Guide, Prepared by the National Sea Grant Law

Center & Pennsylvania Sea Grant water management plans. http://nsglc.olemiss.edu/Advisory/marcellus_citizens_guide.pdf

8. http://tambeta.hypemedia.ca/ireland-uk/frequently-askedquestions/wellpad/

9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_district

10. Rural Land Registry Maps 2012.

11. http://robinwestenra.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/cows-dying-in-frackingareas.html

12. http://www.salon.com/2014/01/31/were_all_in_the_crosshairs_of_fracking_partner/

13. http://blog.ucsusa.org/what-do-food-and-fracking-have-in-common-130

14. http://foodnotfracking.org/

15. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/04/plan-frackingfirms-drill-homes-queens-speech

16. .http://frack-off.org.uk/dart-frack-attack-multi-well…/8

 

Recent Pony-Related News

Last week, I sourced a new (read good second-hand!) truck for the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust. With two of us now job sharing the one truck, we desperately needed a second pair of off-road wheels.  Just as well, for last week the current truck developed some nasty rear suspension problems together with the prop-shaft having to be removed and sent away to be repaired. Both vehicles should be on the road again very soon… Think we’d better pass the hat around for some pennies!

We’ve had an unprecedented number of enquiries recently for pony grazing in various diverse locations.  I’ve now got to try and work out how to best satisfy these new requests and work out additional numbers of new ponies.

2014 would appear to be a good year for orchids judging from sightings and conversations. Alas, from a grazing point of view, ragwort has started flowering in some places – perhaps earlier than usual? Pulling ragwort is always a chore of mixed blessings; legally, we are obliged to control it. On the other hand, it’s a brilliant plant for insects.  So, we’ll clear the worst of it but leave some. Horsey-people get so emotional on this subject for it is very poisonous to equines. We’re not too bothered by it as the ponies always have plenty of other herbage and they instinctively know to avoid it. (I suppose if horse’s are in a bald paddock, the temptation might be for them to eat it).

Coalition’s Plans Opposed By Environmentalists

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27698840

4 June 2014

Green opposition to coalition final-year plans. By Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst.

Environmentalists are opposing the government’s plans to boost roads, housing and fracking – all announced as part of the Infrastructure Bill. The government says the changes are needed to promote economic growth and clear obstacles to new development.

The plans include: making it easier to frack under people’s homes; speeding planning applications; and diluting planned house-building standards.

The fracking initiative provoked Greenpeace to set up a mock shale gas site outside the Prime Minister’s country house. Its director John Sauven said: “The Government is making a mockery of public participation by announcing legislation to ‘open up access to shale gas’… just days ago ministers launched a consultation on whether or not to strip away householders’ rights to say no to companies fracking under their homes.”

Ministers intend to change the law on trespass to allow fracking pipes to be run under houses without asking for householders’ permission. Current law allows firms to mine coal under homes without the householder’s permission, but not lay pipes – and ministers argue this is anomalous. The trespass issue itself may not be environmentally significant, but it does provide focus for opposition to fracking.

Changes to house-building rules may have more environmental significance. Ministers fear that rules imposed on developers are stunting home-building. The government has already lowered Labour’s Zero Carbon homes standard, which demanded that new homes should be ultra-efficient and generate much of their own power.

Now the policy will be weakened again because house-builders on small sites will be exempt from the standards expected of large house-builders. Ministers have not defined what constitutes a small site, but experts warn that it could lead to up to 40% of new homes in the UK being built to standards which may be greatly improved on previous years, but slip behind the best in Europe.

Paul King, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, said small developments should not be exempt from the higher standards: “Zero carbon homes save a fortune for households in energy costs and are better for the environment,” he said.

Back in 2006, the government envisaged that all new homes would be as efficient as the Lighthouse at the Building Research Establishment (pictured above), which saves carbon emissions and is said to have power bills of £40 a year.

The bill will also make it easier for the government to sell off unused public land for development, enable the construction of new garden cities and give small house-builders more support.  A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Everyone needs the security and stability of a decent, affordable home, and more people who aspire to own their own home should have the opportunity to do so.  “That’s why the Government, through its long-term economic plan, is getting Britain building again.”

The bill also includes new species control orders for getting rid of invasive non-native species, and a mandatory 5p charge in England for plastic bags – following the successful launch of the idea in Wales which saw a 76% fall in usage in a year after its introduction in 2011. Small and medium-sized shops will be exempted, along with biodegradable bags.

The Break the Bag Habit Campaign opposed the exclusions: “The result will be a scheme that is different to the ones in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – confusing for both retailers and consumers,” a spokesman said.