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Environment News Round-up: April 2023

Pen y Fan

In this month’s environment news round-up we have details of new EU legislation aiming to help in the fight against global deforestation, as well as a new trade treaty for the UK that many fear will lead to more forests lost. We’ll also have details of the UK Government’s Plan for Water released this month, which sets out how it intends to ensure cleaner, more plentiful supplies in the future. There were mixed reactions to the Brecon Beacons National Park’s announcement of a name change and accompanying plans to tackle the climate crisis. As survey season gets going in full, those spending time outdoors were also warned this month that ticks have now been recorded in the UK carrying encephalitis. As the month drew to a close, Extinction Rebellion organised a huge weekend of peaceful protests in London to coincide with Earth Day.

EU Signs Historic Law to Counter Deforestation

The European Union adopted a historic law this month aimed at fighting global deforestation. The law doesn’t ban any products or countries from trading. However, it stipulates that companies wishing to sell certain products with links to deforestation into the EU will have to confirm that suppliers have issued a due diligence statement. These statements must confirm that the products being sold don’t come from deforested land or have caused forest degradation. Importers will also have to ensure that products haven’t been harvested in contravention of local laws, including those regarding human rights and respect for indigenous peoples. The products covered by the law include palm oil, soya, cattle, rubber, coffee and cocoa.

Coffee beans environment news round-up
The new law covers goods including coffee beans and palm oil

The law was brought in in recognition of the fact that the EU is a major importer of goods connected to tropical deforestation such as soya and palm oil. It is estimated that around 10% of overseas forest losses between 1990 and 2020 were a result of EU consumption of these products. The law is not without its critics. Countries where the bulk of the products covered are produced have called the law discriminatory and say that the required traceability checks on product origins will be costly and impractical. There are also concerns that the burden of checks will fall disproportionately on small farmers.

UK Joins Trans-Pacific Trade Bloc

Meanwhile, the UK signed an agreement at the very end of March to join a trade partnership that some fear will result in more overseas deforestation, not less. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, is a trade bloc that also counts Canada, Australia and Japan among its members. The concerns result from the fact the UK agreed to remove European import tariffs on palm oil as a condition of entry. Environmental campaigners were further angered when Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch called palm oil a ‘great product’ in defence of the treaty. Many feel the agreement makes a mockery of commitments made during 2021’s Glasgow climate COP.

Government Releases Plan for Water

Early on in the month, the government released its Plan for Water. This outlined how it intends to clean up the country’s waters and ensure plentiful supplies in the future. The government promised ‘more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement’. It also promised to bring water companies to account for pollution events following months of headlines about water companies discharging enormous amounts of raw sewage into the UK’s waterways. In addition, there were commitments to tackle water pollution from other sources, including agriculture, road run-off, so-called forever chemicals (such as PFAs) and plastic pollution. A consultation on banning wet wipes that contain plastic was also promised.

Sewage Outflow Pipe
Sewage releases have been in the news for the last year

Fines paid by water companies in breach of regulations will be invested into improving water quality via a Water Restoration Fund. The Plan also promises funds to help water suppliers bring forward infrastructure upgrades so that they start between now and 2025. There was some criticism that the plans do not go far enough, with many pointing out plastic containing wet wipes should be banned as soon as possible and no further consultations on the issue are necessary.

Brecon Beacons National Park Adopts Welsh Name

Brecon Beacons National Park announced that it would only be using its Welsh name, Bannau Brycheiniog, from now on in a move it hopes will promote the language and culture of the region. Bannau Brycheiniog means ‘the peaks of Brychan’s kingdom’, the borders of which are roughly the same as the park’s. The former emblem, a fiery beacon, has also been replaced. The name and logo change are part of a new management plan aiming to restore the park’s biodiversity and help combat the climate crisis. Not only did officials feel a beacon was incompatible with efforts to fight the climate crisis, but they also say there is actually little evidence beacons were ever lit on the park’s hills as was once thought. The announcement was accompanied by a short film presented by actor Michael Sheen and written by poet Owen Sheers.

Beacon park sign
Park authorities believe the old logo is incompatible with fighting the climate crisis

Peatland restoration, tree planting, water quality improvement and sustainable transport implementation are some of the projects set out in the new plan, with some already in progress. The park also aims to achieve net zero by 2035. The new plan is being implemented in recognition of the environmental challenges the park faces. Pollution, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and an addiction to fossil fuels are some of the issues it aims to address. Despite some opposition to the name change, many feel it is fitting that the park is reclaiming its Welsh heritage. It follows last year’s adoption by the former Snowdonia National Park Authority of Yr Wyddfa for Snowdon and Eryri for Snowdonia.

Plans to Reintroduce Ospreys to Ireland

The Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) announced that it is working to start reintroducing osprey to Ireland. Ospreys were hunted to extinction in Ireland in the late 1700s. There are plans to bring chicks to the south-eastern counties of Wexford and Waterford from Norway this summer. Reintroductions have succeeded with ospreys in the past. A successful programme in Rutland began in 1996 and a new scheme began in Poole Harbour in 2017. Meanwhile, it was confirmed at the end of March that a ringed bird seen in Barbados earlier in the month was born west of Glasgow last summer. It seems likely from earlier reports that the bird wintered on the island. Ospreys are a widespread species, and a subspecies breeds in the Americas. Their long migrations also mean that European birds have been recorded as far afield as the Azores. This is believed to be the first time a bird has reached the Americas from Europe, however.

Rutland osprey environment news round-up
This bird is from the successful Rutland translocation programme

Tick-borne Encephalitis Confirmed in UK

Health officials issued a new warning this month to hikers and bikers, stressing the importance of tick bite prevention. As survey season gets underway, this is also extremely relevant to ecologists and researchers in the field. The warning comes following confirmation of the first UK acquired case of tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) in a man bitten in Yorkshire. TBEV can cause anything from mild flu-like symptoms to meningitis or encephalitis. While officials stress that encephalitis is still extremely rare and the risk to the public low, they are highlighting the need for vigilance due to its life-threatening potential.

Red deer and bracken
Areas with deer are particular tick hotspots

They also reminded the public that ticks can also carry a number of other diseases such as Lyme disease which can have a long-lasting impact on health. Anyone spending time outdoors, especially in woods, long grass and on moorland, should check themselves for ticks and reduce the risk of bites by following a few simple steps such as covering legs and carrying a tick remover. Read more on how to deal with the risk of ticks here.

Extinction Rebellion Organises ‘The Big One’ Weekend

Extinction Rebellion, with support from more than 200 environmental and social action organisations, held a four-day gathering in London to coincide with this year’s Earth Day. Dubbed ‘The Big One’, the event highlighted the group’s move away from disruptive protests, announced earlier in the year, with an emphasis on a family-friendly weekend. They also collaborated with London Marathon organisers to ensure the race on Sunday wasn’t affected. Speakers included Chris Packham, Caroline Lucas and Mark Thomas. Each of the four days had its own theme and workshops, panel discussions and music formed the backdrop to a number of peaceful pickets around government departments in the city. There was also a big march on Earth Day itself, the 23rd, to highlight biodiversity loss. The march ended in Parliament Square with a mass ‘die-in’. Participants lay down in silence to draw attention to the 70% decline in wild animal populations since 1970, the first Earth Day.

Climate graffiti environment news round-up
Ending our reliance on fossil fuels is a key Extinction Rebellion demand

The four-day event ended with a mass gathering in Parliament Square on Monday 24th. Organisers gave the government a deadline to announce ending all new gas and oil projects. When this deadline was passed with no government response, activists vowed to step up their campaigning.

Research Round-up

Our research round-up this month leads with the results of this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch from the RSPB. This annual citizen science event uses the public’s garden bird sightings to help identify trends and monitor the populations of some of our most familiar bird species. It has been running for 44 years. House sparrows topped the poll for the 20th year running. However, despite this, 60% less sparrows were seen during the event than in the first survey. That amounts to approximately 10 million pairs. This shows how even our commonest species are suffering worrying declines. Blue tits came second this year and starlings third.

House sparrows
House sparrows topped the Big Garden Birdwatch for the 20th year running

A newly published study on how offshore windfarms affect red-throated divers found that diver numbers were reduced by 94% within a kilometre of windfarms. Researchers looked at diver numbers before and after the construction of a group of farms in the North Sea. They also found that numbers reduced by 54% within 10 kilometres of the farms after construction. Birds concentrated instead in an area further away, suggesting the farms have affected the foraging habits of red-throated divers. The study’s authors concluded that the species is affected more than any other seabird by offshore windfarms. They also highlight the need for more studies on the affects of windfarms on birds as we try to balance a move to more renewable energy with its impact on wildlife. Coincidentally, this month also saw the world’s deepest offshore turbine installed off the coast of Scotland. The SSE turbine’s foundation is at a depth of more than 58 metres.

Red-throated diver environment news round-up
In winter red-throated divers spend most of their time at sea

In last month’s news we reported that lockdowns changed London peregrine falcons’ diets. This month, a study from the Journal of Animal Ecology used lockdown data to identify the animals that benefitted most from traffic-free roads. The Cardiff-based Road Lab researchers analysed roadkill data on the 19 species most affected by collisions to assess whether there were any changes to death rates during COVID-19 lockdowns. They found that, unsurprisingly, given the reduction in traffic, roadkill rates across all species were 80% lower during lockdowns. They also discovered that nocturnal species living in urban environments and birds that take flight at greater distances from an approaching predator are most likely to be hit by cars so benefitted most from quieter roads. Badgers, foxes and pheasants all fell into this category. The researchers hope that by understanding why certain species are more vulnerable to car collisions, we can better protect wildlife.

Pheasant environment news round-up
Pheasants are one of the UK’s commonest roadkill victims

Finally, a ringed northern wheatear has returned to the Welsh island of Skokholm for an incredible eighth year running. Male bird, ‘A31’, was ringed on the island as a chick in 2015. The ringing project was set up to find out about island wheatear longevity as well as site faithfulness. The project also shows that A31 seems to have paired up with the same female for the last four years. Despite increasingly sophisticated tracking technology, the discovery highlights the ways bird ringing continues to support research.

Northern wheatears like this one migrate from Africa each year to breed