Birdwatching Update – for Me!

During this month of May, I have twice visited the RSPB’s reserve at Dungeness to bird watch – something I haven’t done per se for many years – my former work and time always requiring me to look at the ‘bigger scene.’ Presumably due to our changing climate, these two outings were something of an update for me personally. Firstly, I saw a pair of Great Egret fly across a marsh, these, I have never seen in this country.

Great Egret

Secondly, while sitting in the sunshine having a sandwich there this week, I twice counted 7 Hobbys in view at the same time, they sweeping the skies capturing insects on a brisk easterly wind.

Hobby with prey

Just before I was about to get out of bed this morning, another new birding experience – that of laying in bed and watching swifts hawking high above the big oak immediately at the end of the garden – lazy twitching!

 

 

 

 

Are We Prepared to Make Changes?

Abridged article based on article by Gaby Hinsliff, columnist,  The Guardian, April 19 2019.

At this critical time…    Stores know (that many of) their young customers are eco-conscious, impressively fluent in the evils of plastic and diesel, where as past generations were oblivious. But they’re also human, still occasionally craving the disposable fashion they’ve always had. They want what most people secretly want, which is to enjoy the pleasures of a pre-climate-conscious age – foreign travel, strawberries out of season – but in ways sustainable enough to let us feel good about it…

To watch passing shoppers and tourists stop and film (climate protesters) on their camera phones is, however, to wonder how prepared we really are for the life of minimal consumption inherent in treating climate change as an emergency. The protesters have public sympathy for their broad aim in the bag. But that’s a very long way from securing public consent to the specifics…

In practice, that (would) indicate the kind of collective effort rarely seen outside wartime. It means goodbye to petrol cars, gas boilers and cookers – fine for those who can afford to replace whatever they’ve got now, impossible for the poor without significant subsidy and, hello to restrictions on flying. It implies eating significantly less meat and dairy, and no longer treating economic growth as the first priority, with all the possible consequences that entails for pay, tax revenues and public services. We might hope to create jobs in green industries but shed them in carbon-based ones but with no guarantee of the new, clean technologies basing themselves in those towns hardest hit by the loss of the old, polluting industries.

All of that might be necessary to stop global warming in the long run, but the difference is that doing it in six years, not 30, means it would have to happen at breakneck speed, with painfully little time for communities to adjust. Those who are prepared to accept sacrifices for themselves need to be honest about what they’re wishing on others, which is why alarm bells ring when Extinction Rebellion’s Gail Bradbrook says that “this is not the time to be realistic”. We’ve seen in the three years since the Brexit referendum what can happen when campaigners win an argument by refusing to be realistic about what their dream means for other people.

Salt Marshes – Our Unsung Landscapes

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/feb/19/plantwatch-salt-marshes-are-the-unsung-heroes-saving-our-coastlines

Salt marshes are the unsung heroes saving our coastlines

Paul Simons, The Guardian, Tue 19 Feb 2019.

Salt marsh in Norfolk.

Salt marshes are not glamorous – muddy flats on coasts and estuaries, washed with seawater on the tides, where only specially adapted plants can survive in such a tough salty environment.  Although frequently ignored, salt marshes are unsung heroes. They help protect coastlines from storms, storm surges and erosion by creating a buffer between dry land and the sea, building up the height of the coast by trapping silt during floods and adding new soil from their decaying vegetation.

Less well known is that salt marshes lock away vast amounts of carbon by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through their plant leaves and storing it in the roots. And, when the plants die, the carbon becomes part of the soil. Salt marshes also provide a refuge for birds, fish and invertebrates; they provide clean water by filtering runoff, and they are low maintenance because they naturally self-repair.

But, in many places, salt marshes have been destroyed by drainage for land reclamation, coastal developments, sea walls, pollution and erosion. Globally, about 50% of salt marshes have been degraded and the rest remain under threat.

Schemes to restore salt marshes have proved successful, though, such as the Wallasea Island project in Essex, the largest scheme of its kind in Europe. Land that had been reclaimed for agriculture long ago has been turned back into wetland.

Agroecology – the Future of Food Production?

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/20/european-farms-could-grow-green-and-still-be-able-to-feed-population

European farms could grow green and still be able to feed population.

Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian, Wed 20 Feb 2019.

Europe would still be able to feed its growing population even if it switched entirely to environmentally friendly approaches such as organic farming, according to a new report from a think-tank.

A week after research revealed a steep decline in global insect populations that has been linked to the use of pesticides, the study from European thinktank IDDRI claims such chemicals can be phased out and greenhouse gas emissions radically reduced in Europe through agroecological farming, while still producing enough nutritious food for an increasing population.

Agroecology takes into account natural ecosystems and uses local knowledge to plant crops that increase the sustainability of the farming system as a whole. The IDDRI study, entitled Ten Years for Agroecology, used modelling to examine the reduction in yields that would result from a transition to such an approach.

Reductions, the authors argue, could be mitigated by eliminating food-feed competition – reorienting diets towards plant-based proteins and pasture-fed livestock, and away from grain-fed white meat. More than half the EU’s cereals and oilseed crops are fed to animals. The study models a future in which European meat production has been cut by 40%, with the greatest reductions in grain-fed pork and poultry.

“Pesticide-hungry intensive production is not the only way to feed a growing population” said Rob Percival, the head of food policy at the Soil Association. “The Ten Years for Agroecology study shows that agroecological and organic farming can feed Europe a healthy diet, while responding to climate change, phasing out pesticides, and maintaining vital biodiversity.”

The study suggests that agroecology – using ecological principles first and chemicals last in agriculture – presents a credible way of feeding Europe by 2050. But it says action is needed now, with the next 10 years critical in engaging Europe in the transition. The agriculture bill now going through parliament in the UK makes no mention of agroecology, although an amendment drafted by a cross-party group of MPs proposed that farmers using the approach should receive some sort of payment.

Could flexitarianism save the planet?

“The idea of an entirely agroecological Europe is often considered unrealistic in terms of food security because agroecology sometimes means lower yields,” said Percival. “But this new research shows that by refocusing diets around plant-based proteins and pasture-fed livestock, a fully agroecological Europe is possible.”

The study is being published in parallel with the UK launch of the Eat-Lancet “planetary health diet”, which proposes a shift towards a more plant-based diet. The agroecology study addresses similar concerns, but places greater emphasis on farmland biodiversity.

Rewilding Making Strides Across Europe

Balkan chamois

Take a look at the following link concerning the Rewilding Europe organisation which was set up in 2011 to encourage rewilding in suitable areas across Europe, with much of the funding coming from the EU’s LIFE project.  Items in the attached link include: Rewilding of peatlands in Finland, making community forests in Portugal more wildlife friendly, the RSPB’s Wallasea Island project in Essex, the bio-diverse Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria (I have been there – fantastic!) and habitat restoration in the Oder Estuary in Germany.

https://rewildingeurope.com/category/news/

 

The Future of Home Heating?

Did you know that over 80% of UK homes are heated by gas, and that heating accounts for 1/3 of UK CO2 emissions?

The UK is actually doing more than it’s part to reduce carbon emissions – our goal of a 57% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 dwarfs the EU goal of 40%.  Even more ambitiously, we want to reduce them by 80% by 2050.  The plan was, or is, to de-carbonise electricity production which has been happening with the push towards solar and wind energy.

The next step was to electrify heat.  The only problem is that the aggregate peak demand for heat is 300 gigawatts, which is more than five times the demand for electricity.  The problem is that at the moment coal and fossil fuels are proving more practical to store, and there aren’t that many alternatives.

However, there could be one…  Hydrogen could be the key to unlocking a sustainable energy economy.  Its main benefits are that it is next to carbon neutral, and it could be stored in fuel cells.  What’s more, the current gas pipeline is largely compatible with hydrogen, and the only real change consumers may have to make is to change their burners on their equipment.

There are already experiments happening over the UK, such as in Leeds where Northern Gas Networks and Wales & West Utilities are studying the feasibility of converting the existing natural gas networks to transport hydrogen.

They have found that: 1) the gas network has the correct capacity for the conversion, which would reduce emissions by 73%.  2) the network can be converted incrementally to minimise disruption.  Likewise Keele University have trialled blending hydrogen into the existing gas supply to prove that a hybrid could be rolled out to the public without disruption.

Finally, the Hydrogen for Heat programme aims to design and develop new appliances that can be run on hydrogen and explore the practicalities of using hydrogen in homes.  Eventually, they aim to implement a pilot project in a small village or town.

Written by Zak Hurst, Director of Southern Energy Solutions, Hastings.

Plight of Our Chalk Grasslands

I feel that it’s now pertinent to reappraise, to question, why and how we move forward with conserving our iconic chalk grasslands.  So, two questions come to mind for me and I shall here attempt to answer them.

1)  Where does the conservation of chalk grassland fit into a much broader, evolving view of nature conservation in today’s Britain of the 21st century?

2)  Can we, and how do we justify the expenditure of the currently very limited amounts of funding and resources, in dealing with the threats to conserving our chalk grasslands?

To try and answer the first question we need to begin by looking backwards…  The latest cutting-edge research is very much pointing to the following scenario: that it was likely that the chalk grasslands of southern England following the retreat of the last Ice Age, were fairly open – perhaps a mosaic of grassland and scrub with occasional stands of woodland on the deeper soils. With the arrival of Man some 10,000 years ago, who practiced ‘intentional’ hunting, followed by approximately 5,000 years later the introduction of farming,  it was likely that this open, grassland habitat on these lighter soils of the chalk would have been encouraged by the increased grazing with the occasional breaking-up of relatively small areas of grassland by effectively shallow, ‘organic’ tillage, this soon being recolonised by the large wild seedbank, once cultivation had been moved on.  Chalk grassland was further enhanced over millennia peaking during the medieval period and again during the 18th and 19th centuries, with the arable element waxing and waning according to the demands of the market place.

Chalk grasslands are today, largely an inconvenience on most farms that include such areas; they are just somewhere to hold some livestock during the occasional pinch-point or in some cases, are simply disregarded, several unacceptable examples to be found on the Firle Estate in the BoPeep area, pictured below.  Other sites are simply badly managed, for example, the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat.  However, chalk grassland forms one of this country’s great biodiversity assemblages, rich in both flora and fauna and comparable in this respect to tropical rain forests.  We have though, regrettably lost during the past century somewhere in the region of 97% of this treasured habitat.  (Incidentally, the UK ranks as 29th from the bottom out of 218 countries assessed upon their remaining richness of biodiversity!).

As to the answering of the second question…  We are now conditioned by some 70 years or more of interventionist conservation or ‘gardening,’ of our prize wildlife habitats including the one under discussion.  Oddly, nearly all our designated landscapes (National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are valued primarily for their cultural value and not for their true potential wildness.  Challenges faced by chalk grassland have been: the slump in agricultural production (grazing) during the first half of the twentieth century and following hard in its heels, the demise of the rabbit population and the fragmentation of farmland from the post-war industrialisation of farming.  Then more latterly there are the repercussions of bovine Tb restricting where cattle can safely graze.  All four challenges have led in general, to courser and ranker chalk grassland vegetation and also in places, to its loss.

But there are more recent, more sinister threats to chalk grassland which a century ago would have been virtually unheard of: nitrogen pollution; destruction from the use of pesticides and lastly, climate change.  To briefly explain: nitrogen compounds emanate from the various types of exhaust emissions released into the atmosphere.  These have almost certainly led to soil enrichment (most wild flora requiring nutrient-poor soils) aiding the spread of the rampant, native tor grass (Brachypodium rupestre) across much of the chalk grasslands and now possibly the increasing occurrence of soft brome grass (Brachypodium sylvaticum).  These grasses are of little use to modern breeds of farm livestock.  Then there has been the use, often indiscriminately, of artificial fertilizers.  Also affecting chalk grassland is the diffuse drift of spray from the widespread use of a whole host of chemicals.  Finally, there is the enormity of climate change which we’re increasingly being affected by and can only guess at what impact this will have in the future on this habitat.

So, we as a nation – national and local government (I castigate national government for their emasculation of Natural England!), NGO’s, (I here single out the National Trust’s achievements as being exemplary), with assistance and encouragement from the public, must continue to fight for and safeguard our chalk grasslands.  Continued, sympathetic grazing by farmers and land managers together with well-considered control of scrub where thought necessary, are vital to safeguarding this much threatened and very finite wonder of the natural world here in the UK.  Education too of course of our younger generations also has a vital part to play in the longer-term struggle.

 

Appetite For Destruction

https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-10/WWF_AppetiteForDestruction_Summary_Report_SignOff.pdf

A lot of people are aware of the impact a meat-based diet has on water, land and habitats, and the implications of its associated greenhouse gas emissions. But few know the largest impact comes from the crop-based feed the animals eat.  Go to the above WWF link and take a look!