December, 2013

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  • Review of the year

    It's traditional to reflect over the year as December limps towards its conclusion,, and who am I to defy tradition?

    January started with a focus on farming and it remained one of 2013's big themes. The others being aviation and wildflowers.

    The thread that ran ... and continues to run ... throughout is the scary decline of our wildlife. Nature is vanishing and if Dr Who existed, he'd be alarmed for all humanity and would be frantically waving his sonic screwdriver around.

    There was great support for the Big Garden Birdwatch 2013 and I enjoyed wandering round the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, accompanied by veterans from the fighting in the middle east who are still learning how to come to terms with their experiences. The healing power of nature is helping, but only time and support will help them feel whole. The same is true of the natural world. It is damaged and needs time and space to heal, not more damage inflicted upon it.

    Ooooh, Love Eric's Je-Thames pinbadge, don't you?In February, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered what we called a "regressive deal" for wildlife from Europe. As the figurehead of "the greenest Government ever", he had to rely on others to try to deliver for nature. Communities and local government minister Eric Pickles told an RSPB organised conference that he wanted to hear people's views on developments to ensure projects "..are good on the ground and good for the environment, because that is good for business".  I applauded loudly. I'm still waiting for proof that this approach is being followed. Decisions on major schemes such as aviation expansion, High Speed rail, new crossings for the Thames and clarity on the requirements placed on farmers to manage our landscapes have all been delayed; mostly until after we (electors) can pass judgement on ministers performance by voting in the next elections.

    As spring sprang, we started to hear back from people we'd sent wildflower seeds to the previous year. Poppies, cornflowers and sunflowers were blooming. Not everyone had a garden so they'd found other places to sow their seeds, like Jan Buffoni who sent this image of her parents and sisters' grave in Finchley.

    Jan Buffoni's wildflower tribute to her familyThe wildflowers were part of a project to increase wildlife in London. The nectar supports pollinators and the stems are home to all sorts of bugs and minibeasts, restocking nature's larder for birds, hedgehogs and other critters further up the food chain. Our capital city is Europe's greenest, but we're still losing wildlife at a dizzyingly frantic rate. It wasn't until late April that the weather brightened-up enough for me to mow my small lawn at home. It was at this point that the RSPB and others published a forensic report into the paucity of economic benefits that expanding aviation will bring.

    The following month in May, the Government's own Transport Select Committee wrote off Mayor Boris Johnson's idea of building an airport in the Thames Estuary, the seventh such report to reach the same conclusion since 1946. There's now an eighth as Sir Howard Davies has also written it off as too environmentally damaging and expensive. But, like an unwelcome bad odour in a music festival portaloo, it remains hanging in the air. It appears to be anchored there by the sheer chutzpah of Boris Johnson's weighty personality and the knife-edge survival of politicians who'd loudly voiced opposition to the alternatives.

    One pollinator which had been extinct in our countryside was reintroduced on our Dungeness nature reserve. Short-haired bumblebees are now breeding, supported by the creation of wildflower meadows.

    Landscape scale management is becoming a speciality of ours. Material excavated from beneath London for the Crossrail tunnels is shipped down the Thames to Wallasea, where a reclaimed island is being reshaped and reborn as part of the big and beautiful Thames Estuary. Further south and west near Portsmouth, we're also creating another natural wonder at Medmerry. Both schemes are designed to add extra and much needed protection from flooding, as the year also brought record-breaking storms. In East Anglia, we're still repairing the extensive damage from the last one.

    August saw the birth of a new RSPB initiative to try to reunite people with nature. Our Big Wild Sleepout was a great success, but many said they'd like the chance to participate in warmer times, so in 2014, we'll see the Sleepout  earlier. Start thinking about your camp site NOW!

    The pressure on nature didn't let-up in 2013. We and many others invested huge effort in lobbying minsiters, so they fought back with plans to curb our right to lobby them.  Spurring us on was the publication of the State of Nature, which revealed 60% of all UK wildlife is in decline. That's common and garden stuff like hedgehogs, sparrows and even the fish in our rivers. Diseases, pests and land management also threaten many woodlands, plants and habitats.

    A man called Bond stirred and shook us in October with the release of his film, Project Wildthing. David Bond revealed how the majority of people struggle to name birds and trees and live lives disconnected from the natural world that supports us all. You'd be forgiven for thinking we fear that other world as the few environmental stories that make it to the media involve violence. The final quarter of 2013 saw pigeons shot dead and dumped in a Kentish Town street, a duck shot with a crossbow in Hackney's Springfield Park and a Canada Goose injured by a crossbow bolt in Victoria Park this December.

    2013 was a tough year, but saw conservationistsa draw lines in the sand. Record losses of wildlife, shrinking budgets to support nature and the whittling away of legislation to protect it. What was previously missing was an annual MOT to show defects, faults and damage. Conservationists have come together and we now have the checklists we need to issue a certificate of road-worthiness, Laws to enforce it all DO exist, such as the agreement on reducing carbon emissions. 2014 will see that evidence refreshed and pursued, because I'm certain action is not just necessary, it's now overdue.

  • The haunted estuary

    The Thames is haunted.

    An evil spectre has hung over its powerful currents for the past six decades, and now it's time to exorcise the river to let it fulfil its promise.

    Sir Howard Davies was tasked by the Government with sifting through some four dozen proposals on the future of aviation in the south east, and he's now delivered a gift wrapped chalice for ministers to sup from over Christmas. Of all the plans submitted, Sir Howard and his team believe better management of existing resources will help meet demand for increased flights and then favours new runways at existing airports, with Heathrow currently out-pacing Gatwick.

    The surprise in his report was the inclusion of a new airport on Kent's Hoo Peninsula. But he then immediately scuppered that option, stating it is too expensive; he puts it at £112 billion, almost double the backers estimates. More importantly, he highlighted the environmental destruction an airport in the Thames Estuary would cause. It is a mosaic of habitats, which collectively create one of the UK's most biodiverse landscapes, making it our Serengeti. Sue Armstrong-Brown, RSPB head of policy, said: “We have always said the Thames Estuary is a disastrous place to put an airport. It supports many thousands of wintering birds and other wildlife. Every time a spotlight is put on the estuary as a potential site for an airport it is revealed to be both an environmental disaster and economic lunacy. The more scrutiny put on this proposal, the more clear it will be for all concerned that it is a non starter."

    So why was it included? Zac Goldsmith MP and Mayor Boris Johnson maintain Sir Howard 's commission was not independent. Some media reports spedculate it's given the Government time to reshuffle their cards having publicly opposed expansion at Heathrow. Sir Howard himself says it is only fair they study the proposal further because it is an entirely new airport and infrastructure rather than an extension of existing facilities.

    Earlier in the year, he told me he was adamant that his final report would NOT include any proposal which was environmentally damaging. Given the signs then and now, the logical and sensible conclusion is that the Mighty Thames Estuary should have a happy new year, free of wicked spirits.

  • I sea water

    Just like King Canute, we cannot hold back the tide. Especially when the tide was bigger in some places than the worst on record.

    Eastern England was lashed by the sea. "I ain't seen the like since '53," muttered old salts dressed in oilskins standing on the shingle by the shoreline in my imagination. There was nothing imaginary about the destructive power of the storms. Thousands of pounds worth of property has been damaged and expensive coastal defences were damaged. Largely they held and areas of coastline identified as defences of last resort lived up to expectations. Including many RSPB reserves.

    Moving North to South along the coast. Frampton was bruised but will heal quickly. Snettisham was not so lucky. A concrete path was washed away and freshwater lagoons are now salty sea water ditches. One hide now sits at a 45 degree angle and another has vanished without trace!

    Waves swept effortlessly over Titchwell's sea wall defences. Part of the beach board walk has been washed away and the dunes more or less flattened. Again, freshwater pools and the wildlife they supported have been replaced by sea water. We'd undertaken extensive landscaping in this area to prevent storm damage and have been pleased by the fact that the effort prevented anything more serious from happenning. The freshwater habitats and species which depend on them will recover, as long the storm surge doesn't become the norm.

    At Berney Marshes, the waves were a good third of a metre (a foot) over the sea wall. Staff are now pumping the saline water back over the wall.

    The River Yare rose high, but has dropped back and waves lapped over Strumpshaw Fen.

    At Minsmere the beach was turned upside down, round about and thrown back down again. Primary sea defences were breached but secondary defences largely held. The reserve was quyickly re-opened for visitors.

    Dingle's shingle banks and sea walls were breached with waves crashing over the grazing marshes behind the defences. Outward drains we'd installed to manage water levels were blocked by the debris torn from the shingle banks, so repairs will take a while.

    Havergate Island boat trip in less stormy timesHavergate Island's sea walls have got a number of holes and a couple of our hides are no longer where they had been, but we've not been able to get an inspection team out there as it's still too rough to launch our boat. Having said that, we believe Boyton and Hollesley escaped major damage because the breaches at Havergate reduced the volume of water that would otherwise have swept along the estuary. Low-lying Snape wetlands are now temporarily Snape seawater wetlands.

    It all could have been far worse but for the work and planning that's gone into bolstering natural defences. Things like shingle beaches, salt marshes and reedbeds all help ease storm surges. Where these are supported by grazing marshes and pools, storms are more likely to be slowed and managed. It's part happy coincidence and part design. These are exactly the sorts of places where you'll find a great range of wild creatures. The mosaic of habitats contains a wealth of creatures and different plants. They're also the sorts of places that were once considered empty and non-productive, so we lost lots of it to housing and reclaimed farmland.

    It's predicted that we could see far more extremes of weather. Investment in natural defences should be top of a national priority list. Our east coast did us proud, saving other areas from damage, including the Thames Estuary and Kent. Nature is an awesome power. Using nature against itself is far cheaper than repairing and insuring lives, infrastructure and livelihoods. It's far prettier and way more interesting too.