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Environment News Round-up: February 2024

Gannet and kittiwakes

It might be slightly shorter than other months, but there was still no shortage of environment news this February. We lead with UK politics as the Labour Party’s green investment pledge of £28 billion a year was abandoned. The European Commission, meanwhile, announced that the EU needs to cut its emissions by 90% by 2040. At the same time, protests by farmers about a number of issues, some of them related to environmental legislation, intensified across the bloc this month. There was good news for seabirds as commercial sand eel fishing is set to be banned in UK waters. And promising news for water voles, as well.

Labour’s £28 Billion Green Investment Pledge Halved

The Labour Party came under fire in the UK this month as it confirmed it would no longer commit to its green investment pledge of £28 billion a year. Announced as policy back in 2021, investment was to be aimed at a combination of measures including offshore wind, hydrogen power and home insulation. Following days of speculation and internal wrangling, however, Labour leader Keir Starmer confirmed it was no longer possible to commit to the amount if they win the next election. Instead, around £15 billion a year will be spent. Starmer cited changes in the UK economy since the 2021 pledge, in particular the huge rise in interest rates and the Conservative’s disastrous handling of the economy under Liz Truss.

Wind farm off Wick
Offshore wind farms were one area Labour planned to invest in

The announcement came under fire from both Conservatives and environmental campaigners. The Tory Party saw it as an opportunity to attack Labour U-turns. Climate and environmental campaigners, meanwhile, said that the £28 billion is essential to decarbonise the UK, increase energy security and lower householder bills. Critics also pointed out that £28 billion is a fraction of what the UK spends on imported oil and gas a year.

News From Europe

On the Continent, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, said the bloc should reduce its emissions to 90% of 1990 levels by 2040 if it is to reach legally binding targets. As well as cutting emissions, the bloc also needs to use carbon capture technology and tree-planting to remove CO2 from the atmosphere if it is to reach net-zero by 2050. While the Commission acknowledged the huge investments needed, they also said that an economy based on fossil fuels is ‘not sustainable’. Reducing emissions would also save the trillions spent on countering the effects of climate change, such as flooding and storm and fire damage. Initial responses from member states were largely positive. There are concerns, however, that European elections this coming June will result in a swing to a right wing and anti-climate action parliament if voting forecasts prove accurate. If this turns out to be the case, the EU’s ambitions could be stopped in their tracks.

Tree planting
Tree planting requirements are one of a number of flashpoints between farmers and the EU

There is also pressure across the bloc from farmers protesting about a number of complex issues. Although similar protests have taken place before now, over recent weeks actions have intensified and affected more countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Romania. UK farmers have also blockaded Dover this month. While some flashpoints are country specific, many of the grievances centre on cheap imports from outside the bloc, as well as falling margins. However, some farmers are angry at existing, or planned, EU green regulations. These include requirements to cut pesticide use, reduce nitrogen emissions, phase out fuel subsidies and restore nature. This has resulted in some right-wing politicians and commentators trying to frame the protests, incorrectly, as solely about climate laws. With the EU already making some concessions to the protestors, noticeably over pesticide reduction and emissions, it remains to be seen how many more they will make before the elections.

Avian Influenza Latest

We had hoped not to still be writing about avian influenza, or bird flu, by this time but sadly the virus is still devastating wildlife populations globally. Bird flu was confirmed in the Antarctic region last October, as reported in our November round-up. Both bird species and elephant seals have tested positive over the last few months. This month it was confirmed in two penguin species and the wandering albatross. So far, the positive samples have come from South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Scientists are fearful it will spread to the Antarctic continent, home to some of the world’s most vulnerable species. The news came against a backdrop of bad news from the UN’s migratory species COP in Uzbekistan. The first State of the World’s Migratory Species report was launched at the gathering. It made for depressing reading, finding that 44% of migratory species are in decline and 22% at risk of extinction.

Gentoo penguins
At least one gentoo penguin, like these captive birds, has died of bird flu in South Georgia

Closer to home, a recent report highlights the virus’ devastating effect on UK seabird populations over the last three years. Many of our seabird species were already in sharp decline as a result of a number of factors, including food shortages as a result of warming seas and overfishing. The new study shows that avian influenza is now an additional urgent cause for conservation concern. In particular, it found that the recent declines of three species (gannet, great skua and roseate tern), were mostly a result of bird flu. Sharp drops in Sandwich and common tern numbers were also likely caused by the virus, although the results were less clear. In a cruel twist, gannet and great skua numbers had actually been bucking the seabird trend before 2020, with numbers increasing across UK populations.

Better News for Seabirds

There was some good news, however, for seabirds this month. Sand eels form a large part of the diet of a number of species breeding in the UK. However, commercial fishing and warming sea temperatures have hugely affected sand eel populations in British waters in the last few decades, subsequently hitting seabird parents’ ability to find food for their young. To help counter this, both Defra and the Scottish Government announced total bans on sand eel fishing from April onwards. The Defra ban covers English North Sea waters while all Scottish waters are covered by the Holyrood ruling. The Defra measures also placed a partial ban on bottom trawling in some marine protected areas. Kittiwakes, auk species and terns are just some of the seabirds that rely heavily on sand eels. Marine mammals such as harbour porpoises also feed on this group of small fish species.

Kittiwakes rely heavily on sand eels during the breeding season

The Scottish Government’s environmental body NatureScot also announced changes to the way it issues licences for urban gull culls this month. Licences to destroy urban colony nests or eggs, or kill adult birds, are sometimes issued if local authorities deem them to be a hazard to health or an excessive nuisance. In response to declines in the breeding populations of all five of Scotland’s gull species, NatureScot says it will reduce the number of licences issued. Much stricter criteria will now have to be fulfilled. Gulls, especially herring, lesser black-backed and common gulls, are increasingly nesting in urban environments as a result of food shortages at sea and easy pickings in town. All are declining, however, with four out of Scotland’s five breeding species Amber-listed. The herring gull is Red-listed.

Herring Gull Young
Herring gulls are now common urban breeders

And Good News for Water Voles

There is new hope that the main threat to UK water voles, the non-native American mink, could eventually be eradicated here. Since mink escaped from fur farms and became established in the wild, they have been a major factor, along with habitat loss, in devastating declines in our water vole population here in the UK. Previous attempts to cull animals have proved difficult with limited resources. Now, however, the Waterlife Recovery Trust has announced encouraging results from using new methods across a large area of East Anglia.

Water vole
Water voles have disappeared from much of their former range

The trial used ‘smart’ traps that not only help animal welfare but also reduce the amount of time volunteers have to spend in the field. It also used improved lures to attract mink. The hope is that their methods can be rolled out nationwide. While culling animals can be controversial and is always a last resort for conservationists, the American mink’s success at wiping out whole water vole populations means no other recovery programme for the voles is viable on its own.

American mink
New trapping methods could help to eradicate American mink

Greta Thunberg Case Thrown Out

Finally for our main news section, an update on Great Thunberg’s arrest at an anti-oil protest last October, as reported in our round-up at the time. This month, a UK court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict Thunberg and four other climate protestors of failing to comply with section 14 of the Public Order Act 2023. The controversial act came into force last year and increased police powers to stop certain types of protests altogether, as well as banning individuals from protesting. In throwing out the case, the judge said the protest had been peaceful and non-violent, and police had not told those arrested what the conditions they were subject to actually were.

Research Round-up

As well as featuring in our main round-up this month, seabirds also kick off our research news. With more offshore wind farms likely to be built over the coming years, ornithologists have long recognised that we need to understand how they impact seabird movements. One recently published study looks at Sandwich tern movements in relation to the installations. Scientists from the BTO attached GPS trackers to birds from Norfolk’s Scolt Head Island colony to monitor their movements between 2016 and 2019. By the end of the study period, seven windfarms were operational within the terns’ known foraging area. The study found that birds avoided the wind farms when travelling between their foraging areas and colony, creating a ‘funnel’ effect. There was also a significant drop in the amount of time the terns spent in the area around two of the newer installations between the first and second years of coming online. The study shows that more work needs to be done to understand various species’ relationship with offshore wind farms.

Sandwich terns
Sandwich terns change their flight paths around wind farms

In a blow to the environmental sector’s diversity and inclusivity aims, new research shows that only about one in twenty within the sector identified as from an ethnic minority in 2023. This compares to one in eight in the general workforce, making it one of the country’s least diverse sectors. The study, carried out by the Race (Racial Action for the Climate Emergency) Report campaign used data from 142 different organisations across the sector. Many interviewed said that while rhetoric surrounding increasing diversity had intensified following the global Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, little of this had translated into real action. A common concern also centred on the disproportionate effect climate change has on the global south and the lack of significance placed on this by many environmental groups.

Research on wolves living in the Chornobyl* Exclusion Zone appears to show that they have developed some resistance to cancer. Following the devastating explosion at the nuclear plant in 1986 in what is now Ukraine, radiative material spread over a wide area. A large exclusion zone of approximately 2,600km2 was set up to protect humans from the high levels of radiation. With humans largely absent, large mammals including wolves, bears and elk, began to return and populations are now higher within the zone than in the surrounding area. These animals, though, are exposed on a daily basis to more than six times the legal limit of radiation for human nuclear plant employees. We have long known that radiation can affect genes and the study shows that this is the case with wolves in the region. They are now genetically distinct from wolves outside the zone. In addition, part of their genome seems to be resistant to cancer meaning they are more likely to survive it than wolves elsewhere.

*We have opted for the Ukrainian spelling of the name due to its location in what is now Ukraine.

Grey wolf
Wolves in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone are now genetically altered

We finish with some good news from California. North America’s sea otters are regarded as a keystone species. One of the reasons for their importance is that they eat large numbers of sea urchins that would otherwise destroy valuable Pacific coast kelp forests. In fact, when sea otters had been hunted almost to extinction for their fur, this important habitat all but disappeared. However, new research shows the otters are also crucial for helping to stabilise salt marshes in Monterey Bay. Just like kelp forests, salt marshes are valuable carbon sinks. They are also home to a wide range of specialist organisms. The salt marshes of Elkhorn Slough, though, had been collapsing due to unchecked burrowing and vegetation removal by a large population of shore crabs. Cue sea otters to the rescue. As otter numbers have recovered, they have increasingly preyed on the crabs, reducing the impact the crustaceans have on the salt marshes.

Sea otter
The return of sea otters to Monterey Bay is helping stabilise vulnerable salt marshes