March, 2014

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Climate change

News and views from the RSPB on climate change and what you can do about it.
  • 80 million plants go peat-free

     The UK’s largest garden retailer has switched its bedding plant production away from peat.

     Why is that a good climate change story?

    Peat has been a big part of gardening and horticulture since the 1960s, when mechanised extraction of peat began in earnest. Lowland raised peat bogs, many of them SSSIs, were drained and the peat-forming vegetation stripped off, for the peat soil scraped away and bagged for gardeners and commercial growers.

    As well being a rare habitat across Europe with an appalling history of destruction and mis-use, lowland peat bogs are important carbon stores. Our lowland bogs mostly have very deep peat, up to 10 metres or so, having been storing carbon away from the atmosphere or many thousands of years, since the last ice age. Draining and digging up the peat releases carbon dioxide – Britain's gardeners are responsible for emissions of some 1.25 million tonnes of CO2 from peat use every year.

    Peat has become a key part of commercial plant production, and of gardeners’ retail compost products. Concerned about both habitat loss and climate change, the RSPB has campaigned against its extraction and use for many years. We learned that whilst peat is convenient to use, it’s not essential to use, and so we’ve worked towards industry change to use more sustainable materials. We now have government targets to end peat use in UK gardening and Defra has a working group on sustainable growing media. Yet perhaps inevitably, there’s been resistance to this change and the peat industry is trying to push forward the oxymoron of responsible peat extraction.

    B&Q’s new bedding plant production shows that peat can be replaced at the commercial scale. Across the UK, its garden centres will sell around 80 million plants in the next few months whose production is between 95% to 99% peat free. It’s a major step forward: peat is now shown to be unnecessary at significant volume in a key horticultural sector, with clear implications for wider change by industry and gardeners. This knocks on the head claims that wide scale peat use is essential to horticulture, and even that its extraction for gardening can be justified. Looking at the facts, B&Q found that peat use causes serious environmental problems, and has stepped up to end these by adopting alternative materials.

    Alongside replacing peat, B&Q has also got rid of polystyrene packaging trays with what it calls easyGrow Teabag technology. This too has major environmental implications and will save 22,500 cubic metres of non-degradable waste going in to UK landfills – enough trays, placed end to end, to stretch from Land’s End to John O’Groats. And the plants are easy to handle and plant out in their new degradable containers.

    So we’re pleased to help B&Q launch its new bedding plant range. Look out for them in store – and ask your garden centre about peat-free composts and plants. It’s an easy climate change act we can all take. And enjoying our gardens, and making a home for nature in them, should not come at the cost of taking away nature’s home in the countryside – let’s keep our bogs for the amazing wildlife that lives there. 

  • Futurescoping our landscape scale conservation

    Alongside our nature reserves and species recovery work, the RSPB has a major landscape scale programme, working with other land interests in more than three dozen large areas of the UK – covering over a million hectares.

    This programme is called Futurescapes – so it’s apt that I’ve just been to a meeting for our Trent and Tame River Valleys Futurescape exploring how climate change will affect the area and what we should do about it.

    The meeting brought together a range of partners and we worked through the eight-step adaptation assessment process that we’ve developed at the RSPB. So it was interesting for me to see how this worked in action. Carl Cornish, our conservation lead for the area, ably demonstrated that with a little preparation, non-climate specialists can get to grips with climate change, run a workshop, and start to embed climate adaptation into their work.

    Our group, which included people from RSPB reserves, Nature after Minerals, Trent Rivers Trust, Environment Agency and Natural England, explored how the climate will change in an area; assessed both the direct and indirect impacts of changes on the conservation objectives; prioritised threats and opportunities; and developed strategies and actions for adaptation. It was great to see on-the-ground staff running things really well and exploring the issues in the detail relevant to an area of conservation interest – absolutely what’s needed, taking the issues from the climate specialists into the realm of practical nature conservation delivery.

       Photo: Carl Cornish RSPB

    How will the climate change?

    There was some surprise at the level of projected climate change, even for a 2°C world. The broad pattern shows warmer and wetter winters, drier and hotter summers and with an increased likelihood of extreme events – including the likelihood wetter as well as drier summers. That makes adaption less than straightforward, but cannot be ignored, as recent floods have warned us.

    What does this mean for wildlife?

    Wildlife is vulnerable to change, especially unpredictable, extreme events - yet there will be winners as well as losers. Water availability will become an issue for wetland sites, with too little at some critical periods and conversely too much at other critical periods. Drier summers will be bad news for breeding waders that need wet areas and soft ground, and extreme events like heavy downpours of rain in spring could wash out ground nests. How water is managed in the river valleys will be key to the developing adaptation plan.

    Changing temperatures will shift the distribution ranges of some species. We are already seeing northward expansion of species’ breeding ranges, with little egrets breeding in the Trent Valley for the first confirmed time last year.

    What can we do?

    The group endorsed that being prepared needs an adaptation plan that builds resilience and plans for change for key habitats in the area. Having a landscape-scale approach to conservation really helps this – habitat areas can be better, bigger and part of a network. And working with partners over a large area not only helps deliver the best bits of this Futurescape for nature and societal benefit, but also helps other countryside interests understand nature’s needs, and so develop their adaptation to contribute to the wider picture as well as to their own needs.

    The workshop completed five of the eight steps for an adaptation plan. Carl is now busy writing up the notes into a draft a plan, agreeing it with partners, and starting to implement its recommendations.

    I’ll look forward to a return visit to see how things develop. And if you’re interested in our adaptation assessment process, please do get in touch.



  • The Wildlife Trusts' Paul Wilkinson asks, are we fit to frack?

    Continuing the theme, Are we fit to frack? Here's a post from The Wildlife Trusts' Paul Wilkinson...

    Fracking, like many controversial issues, is complicated.  It has the power to polarise opinions. We must therefore seek answers in the evidence, and press strongly for appropriate actions to be taken as a result.

    That’s why we have worked closely with the RSPB, and a range of other organisations, to produce a peer-reviewed report on the potential environmental risks, and developed a range of policy recommendations to address them.

    Some of the arguments in favour of fracking include the potential economic benefits and its claimed low environmental impact, or its role as part of our transition to a lower carbon future.

    However, what this report shows is that this particular basket, into which Government is rapidly throwing its eggs, needs to overcome a number of huge challenges - environmental, social and reputational - if it is to prove its acceptability to the majority of people facing fracking on their doorstep. We share the very serious concerns being expressed by communities across the country, and also recognise the urgency in finding a sustainable way to generate our energy in the future. But, we cannot accept an argument for energy at any cost.

    Habitat loss and fragmentation is recognised as one of the most serious threats to wildlife.

    Our key concern is around the potential impact on and loss of special wildlife-rich places across England. As an example, 40 well sites built over the next decade could result in a potential habitat loss of 40 hectares in the Bowland Shale region alone. There may be further losses through the construction of associated infrastructure, such as stormwater systems for capturing flowback water, new roads, compressor stations for pumping natural gas and pipelines.

    In many cases, local communities have fought long and hard to protect these special places, which include international and national sites, nature reserves and Local Wildlife Sites. 

    We expect these to be out of bounds to fracking. They often represent some of the last remaining fragments of what used to be much more extensive wild places.  As a result, we will certainly fight tooth and nail to continue to defend them from further destruction..

    The picture is no rosier if we consider the more insidious threats posed by considerable water use.  This is particularly relevant in some of the driest parts of the country where available water for people, let alone the natural environment, is in very short supply at different times of the year and which could, for example, impact on fragile chalk streams.  The figures here are pretty astounding when you consider that the annual production of nine bcm of shale gas would require 1.25 to 1.65 billion litres of water per year.

    Then there is the treatment of highly saline and potentially radioactive waste water, the potential risk of groundwater contamination and, to top it all off, the potentially huge contribution that the exploitation of shale gas will make to man-made climate change, one of the biggest threats facing the society, the economy and the natural environment.

    All in all, it’s a pretty ominous mix.

    The industry can go a long way to dealing with many of these issues, through use of best practice, refinements to the technology, undertaking rigorous assessments of the potential impacts and identifying potential mechanisms to compensate for damage.

    But, it is ultimately Government which must ensure that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose.  It must ensure industry pays its fair share for this regulation, and it must ensure any problems which may occur are dealt with urgently.  At the moment, things are falling short.

    If the Government doesn’t act now to ensure that the framework is fit for purpose, local communities and the environment are left wide open to avoidable, but potentially significant, risks  and could pay the price for decades to come.