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Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Swifts Locally Extinct

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Photo © Jorge Sanz

Every summer here in the People’s Republic of Suburbia, we’ve grown used to being entertained by the aerobatic antics of flights of swifts who’ve made the long journey from Central and Southern Africa to breed. London’s Swifts reported the first London arrivals on May 2nd, but here in Bromley the skies are empty and silent, so I guess for the first time in over twenty years we’ll be having a swift-free summer.

It’s been well-known for years that the swift is in trouble in its traditional breeding areas. Between 1994 and 2006 breeding numbers in South East England halved. Since Roman times, swifts have nested here in man-made buildings. Originally cave, tree-hole and cliff nesters, they switched their nesting to high man-made structures, under tiles, in the eaves, in lofts, spires and towers.

Swifts nest almost exclusively in pre-1944 buildings. While 10% of homes built before 1919 can house swifts, the figure for inter-war housing is 7%, and for post-1944 housing only 1.4%. This is because modern buildings deny swifts access to breed, as do refurbished or re-roofed older buildings when their eaves are obstructed or sealed.

The London’s Swifts site is full of information on things that can be done to help the swift, such as creating internal nesting spaces or fitting external nest boxes. I’ve had this on my list of things to do for ages, but it kept getting swept under the back burner. Now the swifts are a no-show, and I feel a bit guilty and sad to be honest. Maybe if I’d stuck a few boxes up under the eaves….

Perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up so much. Perhaps something happened that was completely outside my influence. Perhaps their flight path took them over a pack of gun-happy Mediterranean hunters. Perhaps climate change has led them to fly a bit further north to a cooler spot. Perhaps they had a better offer, and they’re happily holed up in a Croydon office block. All I know for sure is that their swooping, whooping circus act didn’t turn up this year, and our suburban environment is poorer as a result.

Anyone reading this who’s planning refurbishment work on their house this summer, PLEASE visit this page at the London’s Swifts site for advice on how swifts can be helped.


Written by Pete Smith

May 25, 2008 at 11:35 am

Guerilla Bagging

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Photo: zappers

Plastic’s been getting a pretty bad press for quite a while now. Bloggers like my erstwhile colleague Matt over at The Coffee House (‘The Dead Zone – plastic fcuktastic‘) have been covering the problem comprehensively, and quite right too. There can’t be too many people left who aren’t at least aware that plastic bags are a Very Bad Thing. How many of them take the issue seriously enough to actually do something about it is another matter.

Claire Morsman felt strongly enough about the media coverage of the thousands of marine creatures killed by ingested plastic each year, to make her own reusable cloth shopping bag, the Morsbag. This single individual act inspired a worldwide movement of over 200 ‘pods’ (groups of Morsbags creators), in the UK, America, New Zealand, Spain, Japan, Morocco, France. Since the ‘sociable guerilla bagging’ campaign began, the tally of Morsbags has reached 17,869, potentially saving 8,934,500 plastic bags. Says Claire Morsman:

“I’ve learned there are a lot of people out there who want to do something about environmental issues but don’t necessarily know how to start. There’s so much energy and emotion and intelligence ready to be unleashed. I’ve always thought there are many more good people than bad in the world, but now I’ve learned how brilliant people are! They’re joining in and not giving in to desperation.

“Everyone inspires each other. It’s a win-win situation. Anyone can do it, it’s completely universal, and you’re making a bag. How fabulous is that?”

For more information about Morsbags and instructions on how to make your own, go to

Written by Pete Smith

April 21, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Oh! Quel Cull T’as

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cull, kul, v.t. to gather; to select; to pick out and destroy, as inferior members of a group, e.g. of seals, deer. — n. an unsuitable animal eliminated from a flock or herd [Fr. cuellir, to gather — L. colligerecol-, together, legere, to gather]

It’s been a bad few days for wildlife. Hot on the heels of South Africa’s announcement that it is to raise a 1995 ban on killing elephants, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has just published its report on badgers and bovine tubercolosis, recommending limited culling of badgers in selected areas.

These are very different scenarios, of course. Compared with other regions of Africa, the elephant population in South Africa is booming, having reached 18,000, including more than 12,500 in Kruger National Park, one of the country’s major tourist attractions. There are serious concerns over the effect this success story is having on other species and habitats. The reintroduction of culling is a conservation decision, which actually goes against economic concerns such as the impact on tourism. The UK’s vendetta against the badger, however, is purely economic, driven by prolonged pressure from the farming industry based on dubious evidence of badgers’ role in transmitting bovine TB to herds.

What both culls have in common is their misuse of the word ‘cull’. As the definition above suggests, it has connotations of selection and precision, a scientific ‘pruning’ of individual animals to improve the health of the population as a whole. This sanitises the fact that both ‘culls’ will be indiscriminate slaughter on a disgusting scale. Elephants are usually culled by shooting entire herds. This is presented as the most humane option, on the grounds that elephants are social animals who mourn their dead and whose young need to be taught social behavior by adults in order to survive. The badger report fails to shut the door completely on gassing as a kill option, which is just about as indiscriminate and unselective as you can get. To their credit, the committee admits concern that disorganised culling could make matters worse. However, their way around this is a co-ordinated cull covering a large area, sustained for at least four years. Again, no precision, just killing all badgers in the area, young or old, weak or strong, sick or healthy.

Perhaps if I start a badger farm, I can ‘badger’ the government into approving a cull of cattle herds to prevent them infecting my cuddly charges with their foul disease. It is, after all, cattle tuberculosis. Farmers should put their own affairs in order before decimating wildlife.

L.A. Times: ‘South Africa to resume killing elephants’ [registration required]

‘Badgers and cattle TB: the final report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB’

Life After People

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Eiffel TowerTonight, The History Channel broadcasts a two-hour documentary special ‘Life After People’. The program speculates:

“What would happen to planet earth if the human race were to suddenly disappear forever? Would ecosystems thrive? What remnants of our industrialized world would survive?”

A mix of science fiction and science fact, using expert testimony from a range of disciplines, we are shown how the world as we have made it would change if the human race were no longer there to ‘maintain’ it. Judging by the accompanying History Channel web site, the program follows quite closely the general thread of a 1996 New Scientist article, ‘Return to Paradise‘, which traces the changes in a deserted London over 5, 10, 50 and 500 years.

The thing about ‘What if?’ scenarios is that they often raise more questions than they answer. In this case, one has to ask how the human race disappeared, because the manner of our departure could have a strong influence over how, or if, the planet and its remaining occupants survive us. The web site describes a number of possible causes: pandemic, nuclear winter, asteroid impact. Several of these would be relatively quick, but indiscriminate, possibly leaving a totally dead planet. The premise of the show seems to be an instantaneous vanishing, leaving all physical traces of our civilisation intact. This kind of begs the question, who turns the lights off? Who makes the nukes safe, and closes down industrial processes? What about the mess?

I suppose this is outside the scope of the program. As another New Scientist article ‘Imagine Earth Without People’ put it in 2006:

“Imagine that all the people on Earth – all 6.5 billion of us and counting – could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let’s not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses).”

Cheery stuff. Inevitably, ‘Life After People’ concentrates on the decay and collapse of our built environment, because it makes more dramatic visuals than watching grass grow, which I imagine would be a major activity if this were to happen for real. It should be remembered that there’s very little of the planet’s surface left that doesn’t bear the mark of human activity, and very few ecosystems that wouldn’t change once we went.

Runway 61 Revisited

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Last week the government launched its consultation into plans for a third runway and sixth terminal at London Heathrow. Greenpeace has been in touch with The Coffee House, asking us to support their ‘Stop Heathrow Expansion’ campaign. As in most issues nowadays, the prime arguments against the expansion are climate change and economics. To quote Greenpeace:

Already the busiest airport in Europe, the plan would mean a 70 per cent increase in flight numbers and a corresponding rise in climate change pollution. It’s crazy to be paving the way for such big increases in greenhouse gases when we should be doing all we can to reduce emissions.
What’s particularly short sighted about this proposal is that a third runway at Heathrow really isn’t needed. Well over a fifth of flights from Heathrow are to short-haul destinations, already well served by trains which cause ten times less damage to the climate than flying.

Hidden away in the small print are a few references to the effects on the local residents of additional noise and pollution. Nothing about wider environmental impacts on habitats and biodiversity. You get the impression that if this development was a Tesco rather than an airport no-one would bat an eyelid.

Contrast this with the campaign being fought in Florida against the dual expansion of Fort Lauderdale International Airport and Port Everglades. Citizens Against Runway Expansion give a whole list of reasons why the project is a bad idea. Here are a few:

  • Eradication of protected mangroves, some of which are Essential Fish Habitat
  • Loss of hatching and nursery habitat for numerous aquatic, terrestrial and avian species
  • Destruction of Manatee habitat
  • Decimation of 15 or more acres of our coral reef system
  • Detrimental effects from noise pollution on wildlife
  • Probable damage to the potable water supply from leaching of toxins from dredged fill during dewatering and compaction processes

OK, I know we’re not comparing apples and apples. I doubt if Heathrow has many manatees or coral reefs, but there might well be some great crested newts. It’s still interesting how the Heathrow campaign has taken a completely different spin from the one in Florida, which even accepts that increased capabilities for trade and leisure travel are benefits, rather than Public Enemy Number 1 as they are seen in the UK.

Newt In My Back Yard

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A North Wales house builder has spent £140,000 on creating a special habitat for great crested newts on the site of a 26-home development. When environmental specialists arrived to move the newts to their new home, they could find only two. The same builder has already spent £300,000 at another development where a much larger colony of newts was discovered close to the site of 320 homes and a school.

‘ Two newts given £140,000 new home’

The great crested, the largest of the three British newt species, is a European Protected Species , listed under the EU Habitats and Species Directive 1992. It is protected under UK law by the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is an offence to deliberately kill, capture or disturb a great crested newt or damage its environment, carrying a penalty of six months in prison.

Conservationists estimate the UK has about 18,000 colonies comprising almost half a million individuals. Newts like to establish themselves in precisely the kind of spot that builders are being encouraged to build on: brownfield sites. If newts are discovered, planning applications must be withdrawn to allow a full environmental survey to be carried out. A special licence must be obtained from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If it is granted, an alternative home has to be found and the newts trapped and relocated by wildlife experts, work which is permitted only during the newts’ spring and summer migration between land and water. The process can last up to two years from start to finish.

With Britain in need of millions of new homes, and builders’ costs for newt relocation and other environmental work certain to be passed on to the customer, it’s no wonder there’s a dire shortage of affordable housing.

Climate Change Too Hot To Handle?

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It’s official, we’re in trouble again. Or still. You’d be forgiven for thinking the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is more of the same old same old. It is. The Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report is effectively a summary of three papers published earlier this year, and is intended to lay the foundations for worldwide agreement on emissions. You’ll have heard much of this before:

Snow and ice melting, sea levels rising by up to 0.59m by 2100, Arctic sea ice shrinking by 2.7% a decade, heatwaves and hurricanes increasing, human greenhouse emissions up by 70% between 1970 and 2004 and set to double by 2030, atmospheric CO2 at its highest level for 650,000 years, up to 30% of species at risk of extinction.

Despite all the doom and gloom, there’s still a surprising degree of confidence that if decisive action is taken now we can mitigate the worst of the projected impacts. In particular, not only do we have current or imminent technologies that will enable us to do this, but prompt action will be cost-effective and will have a minimal economic downside. In other words, it’s possible and it’s affordable.

It seems the UK government is having trouble balancing the books to make this happen. On Saturday the Guardian reported that DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is planning reductions in key environmental services to generate savings of at least £300 million. The cuts are driven by the huge costs of a series of recent disasters such as foot and mouth disease, severe flooding, and mismanagement of agricultural subsidy reforms. All fifty DEFRA agencies are expected to be affected, hitting areas such as National Parks, sustainable development, forestry, fisheries, energy saving, waste management, environmental protection and, last but not least, the fight against climate change.

Coinciding with the publication of the Climate Change Bill and constant re-affirmation of emissions commitments, the conclusion must be that the government is struggling to meet its targets. Concentrating efforts on climate change and neglecting wider environmental obligations is bad news for nature conservation, with Natural England facing budget cuts of 30% for new conservation projects. Spending cuts are under consideration for some of the country’s most valuable wildlife sites.

It’s time that someone realised that it’s not just about carbon, stupid. Making environmental policy around a single issue is short-sighted and short-term thinking. We must continue to support our natural resources, our habitats and wildlife, to keep them robust and resilient against the effects of climate change. Without a holistic view of the environment , we may win the battle to reduce carbon emissions, but we will lose our natural heritage. A landscape consisting of nothing but windmills set in fields of biofuel source crops is not somewhere I would want to call home.

Summary for Policymakers of the AR4 Synthesis Report

“Climate change department faces £300 million cuts” (Guardian)