March, 2014

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South East

Find out how we are working to save nature, with your help, in the South East! Follow our Twitter and Facebook pages for updates @RSPB_Southeast or @RSPBUrban
  • Are we fit to frack? Don't drink to it!

    How did you mark International Day of Action for Rivers?

    What do you mean you've never heard of it? It's a globally recognised date when we all think about what we should and could do to improve our waterways. Rivers like the Quaggy in south London, with it's banks decorated by plastic bags. Or maybe the River Lee in east London. Both have large sections encased in concrete channels and look more like drains than rivers, but we could re-naturalise them to become more beautiful and functional public spaces; for relaxation and storm water storage.

     The Quaggy in Lewisham. Loved by many and littered by a few too many.

    Water appears to be playing a major part in my life right now. I've started drinking more of it instead of gallons on black coffee. I've been fixing leaky water pipes at home and playing a very small role in the launch of a major new report into fracking in the UK. This controversial practice is being pushed through as the new solution to our energy needs. It involves drilling deep underground and detonating controlled explosions to fracture the underlying rock. The idea is that you then pump water mixed with chemicals or other substances [they've used a variety of undisclosed products in the US, some believed to be industrial waste] into the fractures, forcing out natural gas for collection to fuel our energy needs.

    To help encourage UK fracking, the Government has identified suitable areas and invited private companies to bid for "licences" to start drilling. One of those sites identified is the infamous Balcombe site south of London in West Sussex. Work had begun on site but the french licence holders, Cuadrillo, halted work when they discovered the ground rock was naturally fragmented. In simple terms that means any gas present could seep out through natural fissures as would whatever was pumped into the borehole. It wasn't a closed system.

    One area identified as suitable for fracking lies in south London, taking in Worcester Park, Croydon, Bromley, Orpington and beyond the M25 past Swanley. A very urban area. When most Londoners turn on their taps, the water that comes out is sourced from aquifers under the London clay beneath our feet. There is a very real danger that those aquifers could be compromised by fracking. The southeast is already short on water in summer months and we simply wouldn't cope if we lost access to those aquifers. Some question if we'd have enough water to supply the fracking industry, which needs thousands of gallons of it to pump into its boreholes.

    The RSPB and many other organisations have pooled expertise and resources and created a ten point plan we'd like to see adopted and enforced; if this technology is to go ahead. Our major concerns are that the current situation does not offer sufficient checks and balances and that licence holders will not have to cover the costs of any mishaps. One yawning loophole in the Governments plans is that some 10% of the land they've identified as suitable for fracking lies within protected areas, such as National Parks and other environmentally sensitive areas. These are protected from all other development by UK and EU law, yet they could feasibly be drilled for shale gas. It makes no sense. We want fracking banned in these sensitive areas.

    Media scrum to photo Martin Harper of the RSPB, kneeling. Alan Whitehead MP, Alan Whitehead MP, Paul Knight of the Salmon & Trout Assoc, Paul Wilkinson of the Wildlife Trusts, Tessa Munt MP, Martin Salter of the Angling Trust and Zac Goldsmith MP.

    Fracking is a new technology, but it is still a carbon based one, which would undermine the UK Government's legally binding commitments on curbing harmful emissions.The money being invested in fracking would surely be better spent  developing sustainable clean energy sources and upgrading homes and systems to reduce our energy needs.

    The recent floods proved conclusively that we can't control nature. Fracking is another attempt at human control with far too many unknown outcomes from far too many plausible mishaps. The International Day of Action for Rivers recognises the importance of water to our lives ... to all life. Gambling with the security of our water puts our fagile existence in danger.

    We take water for granted.   Don't. 

  • Groundhog Day

    Another Guest Blogger hijacks our pages this week. The lovely Alex Cooper is one of our hard working team of conservation officers endeavouring to create a world richer in wildlife for us all to enjoy:

    The Thames Estuary is an incredible place for wildlife and it has some of the rarest bugs and beasties in the UK aswell as being one of the most important migration routes in the country for hundreds of thousands of birds. It is a highly developed area with some great examples of sustainable development such as DP World’s London Gateway port development. Sadly, there are also plenty of potential threats to the wildlife of this unique and special place. The Thames Estuary Airport and the Lower Thames Crossing are two high impact developments that we are currently looking at as part of our casework.

    Winter flock of Dunlin at the Hoo Peninsula; proposed Estuary airport site

    I have to admit though, that working within the planning system can sometimes feel a bit like you’re stuck in Groundhog Day.

    This is the experience I have had recently with the proposed Lower Thames Crossing. It is a new crossing which would be east of the existing Dartford Crossing and the Government believes it is the only long-term solution to the well known congestion problems there. We believe that if it is considered properly it can provide a solution to the congestion, be economic and have minimal impact to wildlife. A win – win!

    The crossing has been on the cards for at least the last 5 years and has been fully investigated with various options (there were originally 5 options A – E) slowly being ruled out. Options D & E were eliminated by the government because research indicated they would only make a minimal improvement to congestion at the existing crossing, they would be incredibly expensive and they would have a serious environmental impact. It made sense to everyone.

    However, over the last month various MP’s have again raised the issue of options D & E and asked for David Cameron to reconsider them. In light of the overwhelming evidence, that these options would not provide an effective solution, would be hugely damaging to some of the most important habitats along the Thames and would be vastly more expensive than the other options, this seems bizarre. Groundhog Day rears it’s ugly head once more!

    Both these options have been estimated to cost between £3.5 and £10.5 billion in stark contrast to option A which is only estimated at £1.25 to £1.57 billion and they would have a disastrous effect on important wildlife sites along the Thames, including the RSPB’s newly created wetland site Bowers Marsh. They would completely destroy some of the Thames' greatest homes for nature.

    These special places are some of the few remaining unspoilt natural habitats along the Thames, providing mudflats and saltmarshes with crucial food and resting areas for thousands of wintering geese, ducks and waders.

    The RSPB is trying to work within the planning system to achieve sustainable development. In the context of the Lower Thames Crossing this means that if the government decides a crossing is necessary it should effectively tackle congestion problems and be built and designed in a way causing least harm to the environment while contributing to the economy. Only by considering planning in this way will we achieve a sustainable future for ourselves and the wildlife that we depend on.

    We need your help to remind MP’s that the Thames is a special place and it is important to wildlife and people. Together, we can fight to see that the Thames remains an incredible home for some of the world’s most amazing creatures. If you have a Twitter account we are asking you to mention @RSPBLondon and tweet your local MP telling them how you feel about development in the Thames.

    Thank you!

    Alex Cooper

  • Nature - The good, the bad and the inspiring

    Moving around London this week has been a joy following the long, dark, cold and wet start to the year. There's been the sweet smell of cut grass in the air around parks and gardens. Sunshine's kissed the soil and drawn crocuses and daffs into bloom, butterflies have decorated the air and birds have sung loudly for mates. I defy anyone not to feel inspired by nature.

    Urban hog art in Shoreditch

    London's bursting with nature and although many residents have never visited the countryside, everyone has some affinity with the natural world. The RSPB London team is just one of the many groups in the capital working together to protect what we've got and encourage more of it alongside new homes, roads and other developments. Some battles we win, some we lose and given that we have limited resources, our success rate is high. We can influence and cajole to protect nature, but there are still many things we can't do.

    We can't control the weather and we can't force anyone to change the way they live their lives. The former has led to serious issues as a result of the recent storms. Homes have been flooded, lives disrupted and property damaged. The latter is down to every individuals will to want to do something for nature.

    All along our southern coastline and across the channel in France, thousands of dead seabirds are being washed-up. It's not disease or pollution that's killed them. They died of exhaustion, worn out battling the storms. Many of those recovered were found in poor condition suggesting they'd also struggled to find food, leaving them in a weakened state and vulnerable.

    There's been national debate over managing floods. The truth is we can't prevent floods when there is exceptional rainfall. What we can do is manage landscapes in ways which reduce the damage floods cause. A great example of this is a new report into how restored peat bogs on Exmoor retained water, reducing serious flooding downstream by reducing the amount of run-off by a third. Learning lessons like this and acting upon that knowledge is key to reducing the impact of severe weather incidents. What it amounts to is valuing and keeping or restoring the natural habitats that existed before we removed or damaged them. As an added bonus, these lost or reduced habitats are also what's needed to protect  and support our vanishing wildlife.

    The RSPB has been busy restoring and creating lost habitats for some time now. We call them nature reserves and yes, in some cases we secured public money to fund this work, which some commentators subsequently claimed was using tax-payers money to support birds at the expense of people. If you've ever visited either our Pulborough Brooks or Cliffe Pools reserves after wet weather you'll notice a lot of water and a lot of birds. You'll probably not notice that surrounding homes aren't flooded so the link isn't made obvious. Right now the finishing touches are being made to Medmerry, which is a major new RSPB site on the Sussex coast, which also happens to offer 7km of flood wall protecting nearby homes and towns from flooding.

    London and the Thames Estuary escaped lightly from the unusually heavy rain. Cliffe and other managed sites along the Thames are part of the soft-engineering protecting against flods. The Thames Barrier is part of the hard-engineering solution, along with banks, walls and gates which control and direct high tides. Communities further upstream and west of London were hit badly. Water levels have dropped and those communities are starting to tidy-up. The flood waters carried debris and pollution. Sunshine will kill bacteria left by raw sewage. The soil and its wildlife will take some time to recover but digging in water retaining compost will help restore the balance. However, it's best to leave any digging for a couple of weeks while any bacterial contamination clears. Staying off waterlogged land helps drainage, as it avoids compacting the soil.

    As for changing individuals behaviour. That's up to each and every one of us. We are all responsible for our own actions and cannot blame nature when bad things happen. While I feel desperately sorry for the residents of this Stockwell home damaged by a roof fire, I will not blame the bird identified as carrying a smouldering cigarette butt into its nest. Together we can stub-out irresponsible actions.

    Stockwell house fire started in a birds nest - Photo (c) LFB