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Environment News Round-up: May 2023

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In this month’s environment news, we’ll look at the extreme weather events and their link to climate change dominating overseas stories this month. In the UK, water quality was very much in the news again, with a number of water companies offering apologies for not performing as they should. Also here, the Green Party had some unprecedented successes in local council elections held in many wards. The Labour Party, meanwhile, pledged to extend the right to roam and block new North Sea oil and gas projects if it wins the next general election. Some alarming figures were released this month that highlighted the effects of intensive agriculture on birds and invertebrates. And there was good and bad news on the wildlife persecution front, both here and abroad.

Climate Change and Extreme Weather

Extreme weather events affected a number of regions at the end of April and continuing into May. Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Algeria experienced temperatures typical of high summer in an unprecedented heatwave. In some places, temperature values were 20˚C higher than normal for the time of year. Many local records were smashed. A value of 38.8˚C reached at Córdoba Airport broke the April record for the whole continent. The heatwave was caused by ‘superheated air’ pushed north from the Sahara. By early May, scientists using advanced modelling techniques confirmed that the high temperatures were ‘at least 100 times more likely’ due to climate change.

Fiery sunset environment news
Heatwaves hit the western Mediterranean at the end of April

Elsewhere, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo suffered devasting floods and landslides that killed hundreds. Italy was likewise hit later in the month, with rains causing at least 23 rivers to overflow. In Asia, Cyclone Mocha caused widespread destruction in Myanmar in mid-May. The storm was the most powerful recorded in the region for some time. At its peak while still offshore, scientists estimate it was joint-strongest on record for this northern area of the Indian Ocean basin. In the Pacific, Typhoon Mawar battered Guam and headed on towards the Philippines. Worryingly, scientists warned this month that we will soon be facing extreme events such as these more frequently. They predict that global temperatures will exceed the 1.5˚C limit above pre-industrial levels within the next 5 years. The result will be more frequent and more severe climate impacts around the globe.

Water Companies Apologise but Are Accused of Hollow Words

Following months of criticism for releasing untreated sewage into our rivers and seas on numerous occasions, water companies in England apologised for failings this month. They also pledged to invest £10bn over the next 7 years to drastically cut pollution incidents. In addition, three company bosses announced they would not be taking bonuses this year in recognition of public anger. Yorkshire Water and Thames Water CEOs, along with the owner of South West Water will all forego payments. However, the announcements were met with anger when it became clear much of the investment will come from increased bills rather than from a reduction in shareholder dividends. Not long after the apology, new research was published showing the scale of the problem. The study revealed that a sample set of 30 water treatment works released 11 billion litres of raw sewage in 2020 alone.

Sewage Outflow Pipe
Water companies apologised for releasing sewage into our waters this month

There was further concern about the health of our waterways when analysis of Environment Agency data revealed the scale of chemical pollution in English rivers. Researchers looked for evidence of five chemical cocktails known to be harmful to wildlife. The chemicals were present in 81% of 1,006 river and lake sites with available data and 74% of 1,086 groundwater sites. Over half of the sites contained three or more of the cocktails. Affected rivers include the Exe in Devon, Derwent in Yorkshire and Yare in Norfolk. Charities including the Wildlife Trusts, Surfers Against Sewage and Wildlife and Countryside Link united to call on the government to do more to regulate harmful chemicals being released into the environment. As reported in February’s news, there is already concern about the high levels of so-called ‘forever chemicals’ polluting UK and European sites.

Local Elections and Labour Pledges

There were local council elections in many parts of England at the start of May. As well as the headline news that the Conservatives lost control of more than 40 councils, the Green Party won overall control of a UK authority for the first time ever. The party took 24 of the 34 seats on Mid Suffolk council. They also did well elsewhere, becoming the biggest party on both Lewes and East Hertfordshire councils. Overall, they successfully defended 225 seats and gained 201 new councillors. The party hopes the above anticipated success will act as a springboard for them and green issues in the next general election.

Private property sign environment news
Labour says it will extend the right to roam if it wins the next general election

The Labour Party, meanwhile, has pledged to extend the right to roam if it wins the next election. It says it would change the law to resemble a Scottish-style approach which allows much greater, responsible access to privately-owned land barring a few exemptions such as land sown for crops. One aspect of the plan is to enable more people to connect to green spaces. Currently, only 8% of England is accessible via right to roam. The pledge was welcomed by campaigners who stepped up attempts to change the law over the last year with a number of mass trespasses. Many voices from the farming sector voiced their opposition to Labour’s plans, however. They say that greater access will damage farmland and wildlife and will also have public safety risks. At the end of the month, reports suggested that Labour is set to announce they would block all new North Sea oil and gas exploration if they gain power. They would instead focus on green energy.

Intensive Agriculture and Wildlife Declines

Two separate reports published this month highlighted the links between intensive agriculture and wildlife declines. A collaboration between researchers from across Europe found that increases in pesticide and fertiliser use are the main cause of bird population declines in Europe and the UK. Data from 37 years of monitoring at 20,000 sites across the continent assessed the effects of land use and climate change on 170 bird species. The authors found that farmland species were the worst affected group. Numbers had more than halved between 1980 and 2016. Insectivorous birds such as swifts and yellow wagtails, were worst hit. The RSPB, who contributed to the study, said the report highlights the need for more wildlife-friendly farming.

lapwing environment news
Lapwings are one of our fastest declining farmland birds

Hot on the heels of this study came the latest European Grassland Butterfly Indicator report. Jointly led by Butterfly Conservation Europe and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the research team also found that agricultural intensification is the cause of drastic butterfly declines across Europe. Following 20 years of stability, grassland butterfly species have declined by 36% over the last decade. Some species, including the wall and small heath, have declined by over 60%. Once again, the increased use of fertilisers was a key factor, along with greater use of herbicides and conversion of wildflower rich grasslands to arable fields. All these factors reduce the numbers of flowers that butterflies, and many other invertebrates, feed on. And of course, if invertebrates decline, so do the birds and animals higher up a food web that feed on them.

Wall butterfly environment news
The wall butterfly has declined in many grassland areas over the last decade

There was one small glimmer of hope this month, however, for one of our fastest declining farmland birds, the turtle dove. For the third year in a row, the European Commission has recommended a moratorium on hunting the bird as it passes through France, Spain and Portugal on migration in spring and autumn. Although the main cause of declines are changes to farming practices, hunting puts extra pressure on the ever-decreasing population. Approximately one million birds were routinely killed in the three countries before the first moratorium.

Wildlife Persecution in the News

Another study published this month revealed the extent of illegal hen harrier persecution carried out in the UK. The report found that illegal killing is the main cause of death of the raptor and that rates are higher on managed grouse moors where they are seen as a threat to chicks. The new study also found that birds typically survive just four months after fledging, an unusually low annual survival rate and one that makes it impossible for numbers to increase. Conservationists believe that numbers are far lower in England and Scotland than the available habitat can support. In total, 21 birds were either found dead (some horrifically mutilated) or had gone missing in suspicious circumstances in the north of England in the last 12 months alone.

Hen harrier
Hen harrier persecution is preventing the species recovering across the UK

There was more positive news for wildlife in Wales, however, as the Senedd voted to ban snare use completely in the province. Snares are commonly used to trap foxes, stoats and other predators that might kill lambs or gamebirds. They work by catching an animal in a wire loop that then progressively tightens as the animal struggles. Critics have long argued that the traps are cruel and often lead to a slow, agonising death. They are also indiscriminate and so often catch non-target species. When ratified, it means Wales will be the first province in the UK to completely ban snares.

Research Round-up

The latest plastic research dominates our round-up this month with some encouraging developments as well as a sobering report on recycled plastic. Positive news came as scientists announced they have found microbes that can digest plastics at a relatively low 15˚C. Previously, it was thought plastic-digesting organisms could only perform at temperatures above 30˚C. This meant that utilising them involved a lot of heat and was not carbon neutral. Even more exciting was news from researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in collaboration with others. They found an array of fungi and bacteria able to digest plastic in an area of saltmarsh north of Shanghai, China. In total, 55 bacterial and 184 fungal strains were identified as able to break down the biodegradable polyester polycaprolactone.

Environment news plastic pollution
Over 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, much of it single use

A new Greenpeace report was more sobering, however. The environmental organisation researched a range of studies on plastics and found that recycled plastics are actually more toxic than the parent material. Recycled plastic has higher concentrations of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants and various carcinogens. The report also highlighted that only about 9% of plastics are ever recycled. Greenpeace released the report in the run up to the start of new international talks on dealing with plastic, saying that reducing plastic production, and not recycling, is the answer to the plastic pollution crisis. Fittingly, the theme for this year’s World Environment Day on June 5th is #BeatPlasticPollution. There was also some good news as Mars announced it is trialling paper wrappers for Mars bars in an effort to cut plastic waste. Tesco will be stocking the bars for a limited time at 500 of its stores.

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Recycling is not the cure-all we once thought it was

Research published at the start of the month highlighted just how important mosses are to soil functions, especially where there are few vascular plants present. The authors used data from 123 sites across a range of habitat types and from all continents to find out how soil mosses interact with the earth beneath them. Although they only have direct contact with the topmost layers of earth, these mosses affect a range of important soil functions. These include organic matter breakdown, carbon storage and nutrient cycling. Mosses also prevent soil erosion and absorb harmful pathogens, stopping them from entering the soil, as well as supporting a range of fungi, microbes and invertebrates. The study estimates that mosses growing on soil cover an area about the size of China.

Bog bead-moss
Mosses that grow on soil benefit soil health greatly

Meanwhile, a University of Exeter study has found that small-scale wildlife surveys can be just as effective as large ones in measuring the health of an ecosystem. Wildlife surveys looking at individual species are an important tool in conservation work but are often costly both in time and money. Exeter’s research, though, shows that by studying the interactions between organisms, a reliable record of the health of a community can be created. These interactions include organisms feeding on one another or pollinators visiting flowers. The process is quicker than traditional surveying. This in turn should allow conservationists to respond quicker to any problems highlighted by the surveys.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Studying ecological interactions, such as insects visiting plants, can yield valuable information

Finally, some good news for councils and developers dealing with the bane of giant hogweed. This highly invasive non-native plant spreads along water courses and quickly outcompetes native flora in an area. The sap is also harmful to humans, causing skin burns. Now, though, a four-year trial has found that sheep grazing effectively prevents its spread while causing no harm to the animals. The NatureScot-led project introduced sheep to a site along the banks of the River Deveron near Macduff, Aberdeenshire. Before long, they were choosing to eat the hogweed over other plants. Consistent grazing over time then killed the plants off. This is much more cost-effective and quicker than using pesticides which involves many years of treatment to deal with the 20 – 50,000 seeds a single seedhead can produce.