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Environment News Round-up: January 2024

Sweat bee species

Welcome to our first environment news round-up of 2024. We lead with details of the UK Government’s controversial oil and gas licensing bill. This month also saw the release of the latest Office for Environmental Protection report on the government’s environmental performance. Defra, meanwhile, confirmed that long-awaited biodiversity net gain rules will come into force next month. Further afield, there was worrying news from Norway concerning offshore mining. And as usual, we’ll finish up with a round-up of the latest research news.

Fossil Fuels Update

There were a number of developments this month surrounding Rishi Sunak’s controversial plans to introduce annual gas and oil licensing rounds in the UK. As January kicked off, Conservative MP Chris Skidmore resigned in response to the policy. Skidmore said the UK could not expect other nations to phase out fossil fuel reliance while granting more licences ourselves. Although the Kingswood MP already planned to stand down at the next election, his immediate resignation means a by-election will take place instead.

Gas flaring
Rishi Sunak wants to ‘max out’ the UK’s oil and gas reserves

Elsewhere, analysis by campaign group Global Witness contradicted Sunak’s claims more licences are necessary to boost the UK’s energy security. They found that 80% of North Sea oil is exported, 20% more than was 20 years ago. The bill itself had its second reading in the House of Commons on the 22nd of January where it won by 293 to 211. No Conservatives voted against the bill, despite some unease over the policy. However, Glasgow COP president Alok Sharma abstained, saying the bill breaks the government’s promises on net zero and will do nothing to lower consumers’ bills. He added that we need to focus instead on green energy and nuclear power.

Wind Farm environment news round-up
Critics of the government are pushing for more focus on renewables

Further afield, the US oil lobby released an eight-figure advertising campaign to promote the continued use of oil and gas. The Lights on Energy campaign claimed that the fuels are essential to global energy security. The lobby actively downplays the role that renewable energy has to play, saying it is insufficient to supply growing demand. Climate campaigners were critical of the claims. They say that last year’s record US oil production levels are incompatible with avoiding the worst consequences of climate change.

UK Legislation Latest

As of the end of December, EU ‘cross compliance’ rules for farmers ended. The rules meant that farmers had to make sure they met a number of environmental conditions in order to receive rural payments. These conditions included protecting hedgerows and leaving a buffer zone between their activities and watercourses to prevent runoff. Although existing UK legislation, such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 offers some protections, wildlife bodies fear that the resulting legislation gaps on hedgerows, soil cover and watercourse buffer strips will put even more pressure on under threat farmland wildlife. Towards the end of the month the government announced that replacement protections for hedgerows would be introduced ‘shortly’ but there was no indication of when this would happen. In related news, a Guardian investigation found that since Brexit, the UK has been falling dramatically behind the EU when it comes to environmental legislation.

Environment news round-up hedgerows
Hedgerow protection was just one aspect of cross compliance rules

There were also concerns as the government approved emergency use of the neonicotinoid pesticide thiamethoxam by the sugar beet industry for the fourth year running. Neonicotinoids are extremely dangerous to bees, as well as other invertebrates, causing them to lose the ability to navigate and find food. In many cases they are fatal to a host of non-target insect species. As a result, the EU banned them in 2013, and there were hopes for a complete cessation of use here by 2023. See our research round-up below for more news about neonicotinoids.

Honey bee
Neonicotinoids affect bees’ ability to navigate and find food

A date was finally announced, however, for the delayed implementation of mandatory biodiversity net gain (BNG) as part of the planning process. The requirements will now come online for major developments (classed as those of over 10 dwellings or 0.5 hectares) on 12th February this year. They will come online for smaller projects on 2nd April. Some developments will be exempt from the rules. BNG means that non-exempt sites developments now have to show they have left the environment in a better state than before they began work. To measure this, habitat ‘units’ are assessed using Defra’s biodiversity metric.

UK Government Unlikely to Meet Environmental Targets

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) published its latest report on the government’s environmental performance this month. The OEP was created under the Environment Act 2021 to report annually on how well the government is meeting its legally binding environmental targets, including its Environmental Improvement Plans (IEPs). The latest report covers the period from 1st April 2022 up to 31st March 2023. It found that the government was not on target to meet its environmental goals. Chair Dame Glenys Stacey said that the government is ‘largely off track to meet its ambitions and its legal obligations’. The RSPB called the report a ‘damning assessment of inaction and a lack of progress by the Government in response to the nature and climate emergency’.

Norway Becomes First Country to Allow Deep-sea Mining

Scientists and environmentalists have criticised Norway as it became the first country to approve exploratory deep-sea mining for minerals. The plans involve sections of the Norwegian Sea, including an area near the Svalbard archipelago. Critics say that the methods used will cause irreparable damage to the marine environment and many vulnerable species. They also say that there has been insufficient research into the effects of deep-sea mining. The Norwegian Government, however, says that the move is essential to access minerals such as cobalt and manganese which are used in a variety of electrical components, including electric car batteries. The initial approval only permits exploratory work and further legislation will be needed before any extraction can take place. Many fear, though, that it is only a matter of time before extraction is also approved.

EV Charging Sign
Norway says deep-sea mining is essential to keep making electric car batteries

Glen Affric and Loch Ness Bid for National Park Status

As part of the Scottish Government’s partnership with the Scottish Green Party, the Bute House Agreement of 2021 set out a shared plan for government for the next five years. One key commitment of this plan was to designate a new national park. This would join Scotland’s two existing parks, the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. As nominations opened last October, a number of areas expressed interest including Skye and Raasay and Lochaber. This month, Glen Affric and Loch Ness became the latest area to launch a bid for the designation. The bid is headed by Strathglass Community Council and partners with a number of groups. Their proposed park would include part of Loch Ness, as well as Kintail, Beauly and the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre in Glenmoriston. Glen Affric itself is regarded as one of the best remnants of ancient Scots pine woodland in the country.

Glen Affric
Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands

Research Round-up

Following on from news about emergency approval for neonicotinoid use on sugar beet crops in the UK, an ongoing research project in the US is exploring whether this group of insecticides are adversely impacting migrating waders. The lesser yellowlegs is a North American breeding species. It has been declining for over 50 years, and researchers wondered whether one factor involved might be increased pesticide ingestion. Waders such as lesser yellowlegs, pectoral sandpipers and killdeers don’t eat the treated seeds themselves. However, the research has discovered that they do ingest neonicotinoids through both their insect food and from water the chemicals have runoff into. More work needs to be done to ascertain whether the pesticides are impacting the birds’ ability to feed, navigate or store fat.

Environment news round-up lesser yellowlegs
Lesser yellowlegs are showing increasing signs of neonicotinoid ingestion

Staying with birds, a new study of short-eared owl movements by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and partners in Iceland and Spain makes for mind-boggling reading. Ornithologists have long known that this is a nomadic species, with birds particularly mobile in winter as they search for food. However, the latest research shows just how far short-eared owls travel. A total of 47 birds were tagged with GPS monitors in three countries: Scotland, Spain and Iceland. Birds were seen to range far and wide across Europe and into Africa. Perhaps most surprising was the lack of nest site fidelity some birds showed and the distances between nests from one year to the next. Incredibly, the maximum distance between subsequent sites was over 4,000km, with a bird nesting in Scotland one year and Arctic Russia the next.

Short-eared owl
Short-eared owls travel huge distances in search of food

Analysis of hermit crab photos posted online has revealed that they are increasingly using plastic and other manmade items as protective ‘shells’. Hermit crabs are famous for using discarded marine mollusc shells for protection rather than growing their own carapaces. However, the huge amount of human waste entering our marine environments means they are using ‘artificial’ items, ranging from bottle tops to lightbulb ends, more and more. It is also likely that there are less mollusc shells available as warmer seas and the resulting oceanic acidification makes the calcium shells dissolve much faster.

Hermit crab
Hermit crabs don’t grow their own carapaces but use mollusc shells

Forestry England confirmed this month that pine martens are now well-established in the New Forest with an expanding population. Pine martens have been absent from much of the UK for the last 200 years due to a combination of habitat loss and persecution. In recent years, though, populations in Scotland, Wales and the north of England have been expanding. Animals have also been translocated to parts of Wales and the Forest of Dean. The first sighting of modern times in the New Forest was in 1993. Forestry England has been monitoring the forest with camera traps to establish how the animals are faring. The latest footage confirms that the animals are breeding. Further study should help to establish the size of the population and how they use the forest.

Pine marten
Researchers have been using camera traps to monitor New Forest pine martens

Finally, there is good news for another of our mammals, the hedgehog. Researchers, including a team from University of Oxford, have developed a test to assess the risk that robotic lawnmowers pose to hedgehogs. Hedgehogs have declined dramatically in the UK over the last 20 years, in some places by up to 75%. While the biggest threats to hedgehogs are likely a combination of habitat loss, invertebrate declines and road fatalities, an increasing number of animals are brought to rescue centres with mower injuries. There is a particular worry that when left to work at night, when hedgehogs are most active, robotic mowers could severely injure or kill the animals. The researchers hope that their newly developed safety test will be adopted by manufacturers to ensure their models respond quickly to a hedgehog’s presence. Consumers can then choose hedgehog-friendly products.