Spending Review & Hidden Rivers

The latest news on nature and conservation in the UK.

Spending Review & Hidden Rivers

National news

Spending review | Behold this small tragedy in two parts. Ahead of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending review, the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin wrote an article entitled: “Will the Treasury go green?” The hope was that the review would increase the funding devoted to the environmental measures in last week’s Ten Point Plan. However, just a few hours later, Harrabin published his next story with the headline: “Spending review ‘undermines UK green vision’”. Sunak’s speech barely mentioned the climate, instead pushing ahead with a £27bn roads programme and cutting the foreign aid budget. There is a short section on nature in the document itself, although it was “conspicuous by its absence” in Sunak’s speech, according to the RSPB’s analysis. “With very little truly new money for nature and poor marks against the nature priorities we identified ahead of time, it’s hard not to conclude that this was a missed opportunity,” said the digest of the key announcements.

Fisheries | The Fisheries Bill has received royal assent and passed into law, making it the first major domestic fisheries legislation in nearly 40 years. The Act will determine who can fish in UK waters. “Underpinning everything in the Act is a commitment to sustainability, ensuring healthy seas for future generations of fishermen,” the government said. But the Marine Conservation Society wasn’t impressed, particularly at the decision to remove “key sustainability amendments”. The next two years will be critical as the government draws up new fisheries management plans, according to Sam Stone, the organisation’s head of fisheries and aquaculture. “That means proper incentives for low impact fishing, proper monitoring of catches and proper commitments to sustainable fishing,” he said.

Trees | Tree planting in England has fallen this year, despite government pledges to increase tree cover, according to the Times and the Independent, who have written up the latest statistics from the Forestry Commission. Just 736 hectares of new forest were planted from April to September this year, which is only about 70 percent of the area planted in the same period of the previous year. The government responded to the coverage, saying that it will “continue to listen to the sector and make further changes to improve our existing schemes where we can, and as we design new schemes in the future.”

In other news:

  • The Old English Goat is now “desperately rare” according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, reports Farming UK.
  • The Scottish government is introducing a licensing scheme for grouse shooting, reports the Herald.
  • Wales is to get a new environment watchdog, although it could take years to set up, reports the BBC.
  • Police are investigating complaints that non-native bugs may have escaped into Wales during the filming of I’m A Celebrity, reports the Guardian. What a world.
  • A complex row over the rural funding replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy means that Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland could lose millions of pounds over the next three years, reports the BBC.
  • Environmental groups and Monty Don have written to the environment secretary calling for a ban on the use of peat in compost by 2025.
  • Northern Ireland Water has announced plans to plant one million trees on its estate within the next decade, reports the BBC.

Across the country

Birmingham | A river running through the centre of Birmingham, hidden for the past century, will be allowed to flow through the city as part of huge redevelopment plans, including 5,000 new homes and green corridors. The River Rea is currently confined to a brick-lined channel below street level, according to the Birmingham Mail. "A corridor rich in biodiversity, the green and blue environment will provide sustainable urban drainage and be resilient to climate change,” according to the plans. Separately, the city council is considering giving all wards at least 25 percent tree cover as part of its plans to tackle the climate emergency. The idea will be presented to the full council in January.

Lake District | The National Trust has stepped in to save a rare lichen that only exists on a handful of trees in Borrowdale in the Lake District, report both the Times and the Guardian. The lungwort is a survivor of the ancient wildwood that grew in Britain after the last ice age, but has been vanishing due to air pollution and habitat loss. One of the veteran oak trees that bore the species was struck down in a storm earlier this year, so conservationists have painstakingly moved the species onto nearby trees using wire mesh, staples and eco-friendly glue.

London | Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place of figures including Karl Marx, is under threat from climate change, reports the Independent. The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust is launching two competitions to find designers and architects to conserve the site. They say that extreme weather is eroding the gravel paths and overwhelming the historic drainage systems beneath the cemetery, while new pests and diseases are afflicting the trees.

Elsewhere:

  • The RSPB is trialling a new conservation project to protect turtle doves on farmland in Norfolk and Suffolk, reports the East Anglian Times.
  • Some 60 bags of rubbish were dumped in a nature reserve and set alight, according to the Dorset Wildlife Trust. Who does that?!
  • More than 60 healthy mature trees have been chopped down on a residential road in Doncaster to protect pavements, reports the Independent.
  • South Stack seabirds are under threat from a new tidal energy project off the coast of Anglesey, reports BirdGuides.
  • The installation of a 30-mile powerline through Dumfries and Galloway poses a risk to wildlife, reports the Ferret.
  • A community trust is making another bid for nearly 4,000 acres of land in Dumfriesshire, following an earlier rejection over lack of local support, reports the Scotsman.
  • A young otter has been found dead in an illegal crayfish trap in Norwich, reports the BBC.

Reports

Trees | The UK needs to plant more trees, but where? A new map by Friends of the Earth demonstrates what “the right tree in the right place” means in practice. Working with a mapping expert, they show where new woodland can be planted without damaging peat bogs or food supply. The counties with the greatest potential for woodland creation are Northumberland, Cornwall and Shropshire. Here’s the report with the underlying assumptions for the project. The Independent points out that woodland could be doubled without impacting other important habitats or high quality farmland.

North | The Conservative Environment Network has released a collection of essays by ten Conservative MPs from the North of England, setting out their vision for a net-zero Northern Powerhouse, building on the prime minister’s Ten Point Plan. There are two essays touching explicitly upon nature: one on the future of climate-friendly farming by Neil Hudson, MP for Penrith and the Border, and another on the Northern Forest by Chris Clarkson, MP for Heywood and Middleton. Take a read here.

Choughs | Conservation measures have helped to prevent further large population declines of the red-billed chough, according to a report by NatureScot, and the organisation is now exploring longer term recovery options. In Scotland, the bird has declined and is currently restricted to the islands of Islay and Colonsay, where there were fewer than 50 pairs in 2018. They are threatened by a lack of food, parasites and low genetic diversity.


Science & Statistics

Birds | The government has released the latest statistics on wild bird populations in the UK and England, adding 2019 to a timeline of nearly 50 years – and it’s not good news. Native wild bird populations have declined by 10 percent below 1970 levels, according to the report, with the trends for farmland birds looking particularly grim. Mark Eaton, the RSPB’s principle conservation scientist, has written a helpful digest of the latest statistics.

Agroforestry | In 2017, the Scottish government introduced the Sheep and Trees initiative in an attempt to get upland farmers to diversify and promote tree planting. However, the scheme has had a very low uptake – and a new study attempts to understand why. “The species of trees and styles of planting supported by the Sheep and Trees initiative appear to be misaligned with the preferences of farmers wishing to adopt an integrated forestry system,” the authors write. They conclude with some suggestions on how to make it more attractive to farmers in the future.

Oysters | Could financial investors help to save native oyster beds in the UK? A new study by researchers from the Zoological Society of London looks at a unique impact investment project that aims to save rhinos, and looks at whether a similar model could be used for oysters. This is the “only current impact bond model aimed at species recovery”, according to the study authors, and so there’s currently little evidence on whether it would work. The study concludes with some recommendations.


Driftwood

Museums | The purpose of museums is being called into question in light of the climate and nature emergencies alongside a renewed awareness of the history of colonialism and slavery. In a long feature for the Conversation, two academics from UCL look at how the Horniman Museum in London is attempting to tackle these issues together. “Museums will not solve the complex problem of climate change, but they might set a powerful example for how this work can unfold across society over the coming years,” they write.

Royalty | Given that much of the country is in the thrall of The Crown right now (I’m watching the final episode tonight), this piece on land management at Balmoral is timely. “While some neighbouring estates have been busy embracing a modern vision for the Highlands with efforts to rewild the landscape with new, lush forests, introducing new methods of managing grouse moors and innovative projects to revitalise wildlife, peatlands and plants, it is claimed that Delnadamph, part of the Queen’s Balmoral Estate, has little to show for what seem to be perfect conditions for a more natural and authentic Highland landscape,” according to the Herald.

Flooding | By letting floodplain wetlands resume their natural functions, we can prevent flooding in towns and villages while also tackling climate change, according to an article in the Conversation. It looks at how these ecosystems have been destroyed over time, and what is being done to bring them back, including restoration work in the Lake District. This will necessarily involve rethinking some agricultural practices. “Farming practices will have to adapt to wetter conditions, by changing livestock or grazing patterns,” the authors write.

Further reading:

  • The Guardian has an abbreviated (but free) version of Cal Flyn’s Granta essay about wolves.
  • Forestry England has written an update on the reintroduced white-tailed eagles.
  • The Wildlife Trusts look at how the prime minister could “rewild” his Ten Point Plan to tackle climate change.
  • Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, has given a speech about water and climate change.

Happy days

Nature | I know this newsletter contains a lot of bad news about the state of the environment; this recent column by Melissa Harrison is the perfect antidote. “I’ve witnessed a shift in the UK’s relationship with the environment. While it may take time for its effects to become visible – and time, of course, is in short supply – this change has the potential to affect everything, as disparate groups seek a renewed sense of connection with the natural world,” she writes. I recommend going into the weekend with this hopefulness, rather than my gloominess, at the top of your mind.


Image credits: Ian Halsey, Bernd Haynold , Teseum

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