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Environment News Round-up: January 2023

We have a bumper news round-up this month. We’ll catch up with a couple of stories from late December. There are also new developments concerning two of last year’s big stories: the mass die-off of crustaceans in the north-east and the ongoing avian influenza outbreak. In other news, England banned single-use plastic cutlery and plates. And the government revealed their post-Brexit farm payment schemes this month. Further afield, there was outcry over the announcement of the COP28 president. Finally, some important research was published this month, including details of 2022’s global temperatures.

Target Date for Waterways Clean-up Changed

In the last days before Christmas, the Environment Agency (EA) came under fire over documents released concerning English waterways. Under the EU water framework directive, the UK was required to ensure all lakes, rivers and coastal waters would meet good ecological and chemical standards by 2027. Brexit means the UK can now set its own targets. However, the EA’s latest recovery plans push a target date back to 2063, a full 36 years later than EU regulations. A spokesperson for the Wildlife Trusts said that action to restore our water bodies is urgently needed and the government was ‘kicking action… into the long grass’. The last EA assessment made in 2020 found only 16% of lakes and rivers met the criteria for good ecological status.

River Wye
Campaigners are extremely concerned about the state of many of our rivers

Post-Brexit Farm Subsidy Scheme Announced

Towards the end of January, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced their replacement for the EU common agricultural policy, or Cap. In England, farmers can soon apply for a range of environmental land management schemes (ELMs). These include rewarding them for protecting or creating ecologically important features such as hedgerows or wetlands on their land. There are also payments for farmers who cut back on pesticide use. The overhaul has taken five years to finalise, leading some to fear environmental protections would be stripped completely (see September’s news). Environmental groups have cautiously welcomed this month’s announcement.

English farmers can apply for a range of payments when they help the environment

Avian Influenza Latest

Avian influenza continues to affect our birdlife, both wild and domestic. In late December the virus was confirmed in wintering barnacle geese on Islay. Last year thousands of barnacle geese died of bird flu on the Solway Firth. With 60% of the world’s population spending the winter on Islay, there are fears that the species will once again be hit hard. Pink-footed geese on the Moray Firth are possibly also being affected. The geese’s northwards migration in spring may have been responsible for some of the disease’s spread last year so conservationists are awaiting developments with trepidation.

Barnacle geese
Barnacle geese have been hit hard by bird flu

NatureScot revealed in late December just how badly the virus affected great skuas last summer. On the island of Noss, Shetland, the breeding population fell by 78%. The Hermaness population was also badly hit. Breeding gannets on Noss declined by 16.7%. There were some causes for hope, however. Those great skuas that did breed successfully raised chocks to fledging. And Shetland’s kittiwakes and Arctic terns had successful breeding seasons and seemed to avoid the virus.

COP28 President Announcement Causes Dismay

Dubai is hosting this year’s COP in November. Given the Emirate’s relationship with oil production it was perhaps no surprise when the identity of the climate conference’s next president was revealed to be the CEO of one of the world’s largest oil companies. Dr Sultan Al Jaber has been envoy to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change but is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). He supports the continued use of oil and gas in combination with renewables to ensure energy security. Climate activists spoke out against the announcement. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said that any COP president should be free of ties to the oil industry. The UN has now sent a number of questions to the UAE COP office to ensure its independence from ADNOC.

Panel Reports on Crustacean Die-offs

The government-appointed panel looking into mass crustacean die-offs in the north-east (see our November news) reported back this month. Despite a previous investigation commissioned by local fishing businesses suggesting dredging may be to blame, the new report suggests otherwise. The 12-person panel was unable to make any firm conclusions. They discounted chemical pollutants stirred up by dredging, however. Instead a new, as-yet unknown pathogen is the most probable cause and a combination of factors may ultimately be to blame. However, no pathogens have so far been detected in the region and the investigation was a purely desk-bound study. It carried out no new analysis and some local politicians do not feel the situation has been resolved at all. 

Spider crab
Crabs and lobsters have been predominantly affected by the die-offs

Single-Use Cutlery and Plates Banned in England

England followed Scotland and Wales in announcing a ban on single-use eating products this month. The ban will come into effect before the end of the year. It will cover items such as plastic cutlery, plates and polystyrene cups. Campaigners welcomed the move but were also clear that much more needs to be done. Takeaway utensils are very much just the tip of the iceberg with a national packaging reduction strategy and refill scheme more urgent tactics in the fight against plastic pollution.

Plastic cup
An English ban on single-use items will come in by the end of this year

Scotland Closes Hunting Loopholes

The Scottish Government, meanwhile, passed legislation that closes loopholes in its existing hunting laws. A new Hunting with Dogs Act replaces the 2002 Protection of Wild Mammals Act. The 2002 act allowed animals to be flushed with packs of dogs to enable shooting them for the purpose of stopping the spread of disease or protecting livestock or ground-nesting birds. Some were concerned that loopholes in this law meant animals were still being hunted for sport, despite this being illegal. The new law makes it illegal for anyone to use more than two dogs to flush animals without a licence. Crucially, it also bans trail hunting. Although trail hunting for sport uses an artificially laid scent, campaigners say it is often used as a cover to continue hunting live animals.

Red fox
Foxes are among the animals given clearer protection under the new law

Right to Wild Camp on Dartmoor in Court

Hikers lost the right to wild camp on Dartmoor without a landowner’s permission in a court battle this month. Alexander and Diana Darwall, who own land in the national park, took the case to the High Court in a bid to overturn a local law permitting the practice. They claim that unregulated wild camping is environmentally damaging to the park. Their bid was successful, to the dismay of right to roam campaigners. Dartmoor had been the last place in England and Wales where wild camping without permission was possible. The following week, the Dartmoor National Park Authority secured an agreement with the majority of landowners on a temporary solution. For a price, paid for by the park, wild camping in some areas can continue for now. Critics of the deal say wealthy landowners are holding the park to ransom.

Hikers could previously wild camp on Dartmoor without permission

Since the ruling, concerns have also been raised about the environmental impact of the Darwall’s estate. This is despite the fact the Darwalls say they brought the case in part to protect Dartmoor. Pheasants appear to have been released close to Dendles Wood, a SSSI on the estate. The wood is home to the rare blue ground beetle. Natural England has warned the estate not to release pheasants in the location as a result of their likely impact on the beetle.

Research Round-up

A new year allows researchers to publish a more or less complete set of climate data from the year before. The results from last year made for sobering reading. It was the warmest year on record for 28 countries including the UK. Europe as a whole had its hottest summer and second warmest year. It was the fifth warmest year globally. Extreme weather events, including heatwaves, wildfires, drought and flooding, affected multiple regions throughout 2022, as covered in many of our monthly news summaries. Greenhouse gas levels also hit record levels.

The Met Office published analysis this month showed that the UK’s record temperatures last year were made 160 times more likely by the climate crisis. Their research shows that without our greenhouse gas emissions, we would only see similar temperatures once every 500 years. Now we can expect them every three or four years. And in another climate-related study, researchers revealed that the Earth could lose more than three-quarters of its glaciers by the end of this century if temperatures rise by 4˚C or more. If they rise by just 1.5˚C, we could still lose nearly half of them.

There was good and bad news for bees this month. In the US, a new vaccine to prevent the spread of a devastating disease called American foulbrood was approved. The disease can wipe out entire colonies. Beekeepers will be able to mix the vaccine with worker bee food. The workers then pass it onto the queen. She will in turn pass it on to the larvae she produces. In less positive news, a study by scientists at Queen Mary University of London has found that we are almost certainly underestimating the negative effects of insecticides on bees. Insecticides work by targeting neural receptors. However, the researchers discovered that bees’ receptors are much more varied than previously thought. This makes it much harder to assess whether the insecticides are harming them or not.

Honey bee and ivy
There was good and bad news for bees this month

Finally, a partnership between a Japanese fishing community and Koushi Chemical Industry has produced an incredible hard hat made of waste scallop shells. Called the Shellmet, the design uses a mix of ground up shells and waste plastic to make extremely strong safety helmets. The process produces less greenhouse gases than by using new plastic and the helmets also have a fitting shell-like look. Initial trials will take place in the fishing industry this year. There are hopes, though, that the hard hats can eventually be used in any industry requiring safety wear, including construction.

Scallop shell
Ground up scallops are mixed with waste plastic to make hard hats