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Environment News Round-up: March 2024

Red grouse

In this month’s environment news we’ll look at the contrasting fortunes of two major pieces of environmental legislation, one in Scotland and one in the EU. Both faced opposition from conservative parties and land managers, with the EU proposals collapsing as a result. Meanwhile, there was controversy from the fossil fuel industry as ExxonMobil’s chief executive blamed consumers for the lack of progress towards a transition to renewables. In the UK, new research revealed that Great Britain is lagging behind other major European powers when it comes to green investment. Defra did this month ensure that hedgerows are now protected in England once again, however, following the end of EU coverage in January.

Scottish Muirburn Bill Passes

The Scottish Parliament passed the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill this month. Introduced with the aim of tackling raptor persecution and ensuring land is managed sustainably, the bill introduces a licencing system for grouse moors. Driven grouse shoots have long been associated with illegal raptor killing. The system aims to remove licences from those estates found guilty of wildlife crimes. The burning of heather to benefit red grouse will also be strictly controlled. This element of the legislation centres on concerns that burning not only releases carbon from these valuable stores, exacerbating the climate crisis, but also degrades land, causing erosion and flooding elsewhere. As reported here last August, the legislation also bans the use of snares in Scotland, as well as glue traps for rodents. In addition, it gives the SSPCA greater powers to tackle wildlife crime.

Red grouse
The Muirburn Bill introduces a licencing system for grouse moors

There was opposition to the bill from conservative politicians and shooting bodies. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) successfully campaigned earlier this year for an amendment removing what they saw as ‘disproportionate licence suspension powers’. To remove licences, the regulatory body NatureScot will now have to provide evidence of wrongdoing, rather than relying on allegations or simply the initiation of an official investigation. Despite this amendment, BASC is still strongly critical of the legislation. The body feels it will negatively impact both rural economies and biodiversity in Scotland. In particular they oppose the length of each licencing cycle and the banning of snares. Supporters, meanwhile, say the bill is necessary to help Scotland meet its climate and wildlife protection ambitions.

Heather management
A Scottish hillside showing signs of previous burn areas

EU Nature Restoration Law Vote Cancelled

There has been similar, if much larger scale, opposition to the EU’s planned nature restoration law. As reported last month, farmers have been protesting across Europe for months. Some of the issues raised centred on these tighter EU environmental protections, although there is also anger at cheap foreign imports eroding EU farmers’ financial security. As a result of the protests, some aspects of the law had already been watered down. These included removing a requirement for farmers to reduce pesticide use and delaying one to turn over more farmland to nature. However, despite earlier expectations the law would be ratified, a crucial vote at the end of the month was cancelled as eight member states withdrew their support for the bill, meaning a majority vote in favour was unlikely. The vote is now postponed indefinitely. Environmental campaigners fear that if the predicted swing to the right happens in June’s European elections, the law will never see the light of day.

Cabo Wetlands Spain
The EU’s nature restoration law would have helped to restore wetlands like this one in Spain

The main focus of the legislation was a commitment to ecosystem restoration across EU member states. This is because habitat restoration will not only improve biodiversity, but also provide resilience against climate change and provide better food security. Currently, more than 80% of habitats in Europe are in poor condition. The law would have required member states to improve at least 30% of those habitat types covered by the legislation, such as peatland, from poor to good condition by 2030. This proportion would then have increased to 60% by 2040 and to 90% by 2050. States would also have had to outline how they intended to achieve these targets.

UK Round-up

There was a mixture of good and bad news for the environment from a UK perspective this month. Climate campaigners were dismayed as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a commitment to building new gas power stations beyond 2030. Climate groups say this will prevent the UK achieving its net zero ambitions, while also failing to improve our energy security. At the same time, a Greenpeace study revealed that the UK spends less on green energy policy than any other major European power. The report includes details of spending on green transport, building energy efficiency and clean energy investment. This was also borne out by Jeremy Hunt’s spring budget. The budget included no green investment incentives or support for measures such as home insulation or heat pumps.

Electric chargers
The UK invests less in green transport than other major European powers

Meanwhile, towards the end of the month the Environment Agency revealed that water companies had released raw sewage into English water bodies for more than 3.6 million hours in 2023. This amounts to a 105% increase on the previous year. The news was met with a barrage of criticism and calls for regulators to punish the companies involved. At the same time, crews in the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge were warned not to enter the Thames due to high levels of E coli bacteria detected on the course. The winning team traditionally throw the cox into the water at the end of the race but organisers issued new safety guidelines as a result of the tests.

Sewage outfall pipe
Water companies blame high rainfall levels on increased sewage discharges

There was bad news, as well, for those hoping to see a ban on lead shot for hunting in the UK. Although shooting bodies pledged to phase out use of the toxic shot over a five-year period that began in 2020, research shows there has been little progress. And the UK Government has now also admitted that there will be no legislative decision on banning lead shot until later on this year at the earliest. Lead shot toxins don’t just affect wildlife. Research from a range of partners including the University of Cambridge and the WWT found that 93% of pheasants for the human food market were killed with lead shot during the last shooting season.

Pheasant
Most pheasants destined for human consumption in the UK are killed with lead shot

There was better news for English hedgerows, however. Following on from January’s news that EU protections for these vital wildlife habitats were ending in England, Defra announced new regulations. One requirement will be a two-metre buffer strip from a hedgerow’s centre free from pesticides, fertilisers or cultivation. The rules also ban hedge-cutting between March 1st and August 31st to protect nesting birds. Full or partial removal of rural hedgerows without prior permission by the Local Planning Authority is still covered in England by the Hedgerows Regulations 1997. The new rules will come into force when ‘Parliamentary time allows’. Defra and the Forestry Commission also announced an increase in the levels of payments available to farmers and land managers planting trees on their land. Amounts of up to £11,600 per hectare represent a 45% increase on current payment levels.

Fossil Fuels in the Spotlight

It was a busy month for the fossil fuel industry. Early on in March, ExxonMobil’s chief executive, Darren Woods, claimed that consumers are holding back a transition to renewable energy, not the oil industry. In the interview, Woods said that customers would not be willing to pay the higher prices that would enable more investment in green power. Critics quickly pointed out that companies such as ExxonMobil have been making record profits of late and should not be putting the responsibility onto consumers. They also point out that a raft of evidence shows that oil companies knew of the climate impacts of fossil fuel use as far back as the 1950s but worked to suppress the information in order to keep making money from them. Campaigners say this gives them no excuse for not investing more in green energy sooner.

Cromarty Firth
North Sea oil and gas extracting nations show no signs of slowing production levels

A report published by campaign group Oil Change International this month shows that the five biggest oil and gas extracting countries working in the North Sea are well off-target when it comes to meeting their Paris Agreement commitments. None of Germany, Norway, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands are on course to stop drilling in time to prevent the Earth reaching 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Norway and the UK were singled out by the report due to their plans to exploit new fields in the region. There was also worrying news from the International Energy Agency as they revealed that methane emissions rose from the energy sector in 2023. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with only CO2 more potent. The news came as it emerged that temperature records were broken in February for the ninth month in a row. Climate scientists believe the run of warm temperatures is the result of a combination of human-induced climate change and the El Niño phenomenon.

Shetland Gets Marine Recognition

Shetland has been awarded Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) status in recognition of its importance to cetaceans. A range of species visit waters around the islands regularly, with three orca pods semi-resident. The archipelago is also important for harbour porpoises, minke whales and there have been increasing sightings of humpbacks over the last decade. Following a call for proposals in 2023, a group including Karen Hall of NatureScot put forward the case for Shetland. IMMAs act as useful tools to identify areas that should be managed for conservation of marine mammals or proposed as areas needing greater legislative protection.

Humpback fluke
Humpback whales are increasingly visiting Shetland waters

Research Round-up

Our first research item centres on a BTO study looking at red kites and wind farms. Wind turbines are a valuable generator of renewable energy. There are valid concerns, however, that they may have too great an impact on vulnerable bird species in a landscape. The study looked at whether the recovering Welsh red kite population would be at risk if more onshore wind farms were established in Wales. Encouragingly, it found that the population is unlikely to decline as a result although its growth may slow. There may also be local issues where turbine numbers are at their highest. Researchers concluded that key to this will be careful planning and a commitment to placing turbines in the right place where they will have least impact on the birds.

Red kite
Researchers have been exploring the impact of wind farms on red kites

There was good news for butterflies along with good news for citizen scientists this month. Butterfly Conservation, in conjunction with the University of Derby, has found that counting butterflies reduces anxiety by as much as 10%. Citizen scientists taking part in the charity’s annual Big Butterfly Count in 2022 were surveyed to find out how participation made them feel. As well as reducing anxiety, respondents said they felt more connected to nature, and it enhanced their mental wellbeing. This is a double win. Citizen science events like the count are vital ways of obtaining information by charities short of resources. The data produced can then help them target conservation work more effectively. Crucially, this research clearly shows that those taking part also benefit, though, along with the wildlife they are helping to survey.

Marbled white
Counting butterflies, like this marbled white, reduces anxiety

Joint research from the Universities of Oxford and Exeter provides less good news for bees, however. Their studies show that many plants sold to wildlife gardeners as ‘pollinator-friendly’ flower up to a month too late to help them during the early stages of colony foundation. Researchers examined when pollen and nectar demands were highest, as well as the effects food supply had on colony success and queen productivity. The two study subjects, buff-tailed bumblebees and carder bees, both needed most food between March and June, and especially during March and April. Less food availability during those months was more likely to lead to a significant drop in the number of daughter queens produced or a colony’s failure to survive to the end of the season. The results show that early flowering plants, including hawthorn, willow, ground ivy and red dead-nettle, are crucial if we are to help our struggling pollinators.

Common carder bee
Bee colonies need pollen and nectar early in the season to survive

Finally, new research shows that, when it comes to migration at least, white storks use experience built up as they age to help them do so effectively. While scientists have long thought that a number of factors are at play in animal migration, including genetics, copying adults and sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field, the new study highlights the way some animals use learning, as well. A team led by researchers from the University of Wyoming tracked German and Austrian white storks between 2013 and 2020. As birds aged, they tended to fly more directly to the breeding grounds rather than meandering round and exploring. The implications are that they learnt the best and quickest routes from experience.

White stork pair
White storks learn from experience