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Environment News Round-up: October 2023

Offshore windfarm

In this month’s environment news round-up we have details of the latest climate related developments around the world, including record-breaking spring temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s also a catch up on the latest green energy news. We’ll look at the cancellation of the northern section of HS2 in the UK. And as usual we’ll have a round-up of the latest research news.

Climate Latest

As temperatures around the globe continued to break seasonal records throughout September, scientists this month announced that this year is very likely to be the hottest on record. This will come as little surprise in a year that has seen the hottest July, hottest August, hottest September and the hottest individual month ever (July). September was also confirmed as 0.5˚C hotter than the previous record for the month, the largest jump seen between records for a particular month. A combination of global warming and the start of the El Niño climate pattern in the Pacific have caused the high temperatures.

Pacific ocean
The El Niño climate phenomenon occurs every few years in the Pacific Ocean

The Southern Hemisphere has seen unusually high early spring temperatures. September highs reached 40˚C in Central and Northern Brazil and wildfires are raging in multiple regions, including Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay. By early October, more than one hundred freshwater dolphins of two species and 1,000s of fish had died in the Amazon as a result of high water temperatures and ongoing drought.

Meanwhile, a study published this month has estimated that the damage caused by extreme weather events attributed to human-related climate change have cost $16 million (£12 million) per hour over the last 20 years. The researchers say this figure is likely to be an underestimate as there is a lack of data, particularly from developing countries. The human cost of climate change was reiterated by Greta Thunberg later in the month. Joining a protest outside a meeting of fossil fuel executives and government ministers in London, the Swedish activist said people around the world suffered while industry and government continued to bankroll oil and gas. Thunberg was later arrested at the event, along with around 20 other protestors.

Green Energy Round-up

There were various developments surrounding green energy in October. Dogger Bank, the world’s largest offshore windfarm provided its first power to the National Grid. Although the windfarm, off the northeast coast of England, is still under construction, the first of its 277 turbines are in place. Each turbine is 260 metres tall and has blades 107 metres long. When complete, the project should provide approximately 5% of the country’s energy.

Solar farm
Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss oppose large solar farms

Despite hailing the event as important in the UK’s move to net zero, Rishi Sunak faced criticism for plans to restrict another form of green energy, namely solar farms. Large installations on farmland have been a point of conflict within the Conservative Party for a while, with many rural MPs against them. Sunak looks set to revive Liz Truss’ policy of restricting them, claiming they reduce food production. Campaigners, however, say that they are vital if we are to achieve net zero and also improve the country’s energy security.

Wind turbines
The majority of Americans would be happy to live near a wind farm

In the US, meanwhile, recent research has revealed that a high proportion of Americans, both Democrat and Republican, would be happy to have either solar farms or wind turbines installed near them. Approximately 75% of respondents said they would be happy to live near a solar farm, with around two thirds saying the same about wind turbines. The results were also consistent between rural and urban inhabitants. In European news, Sweden has said it will ban all petrol and diesel cars from Stockholm city centre by 2025.

Northern HS2 Section Cancelled

Rishi Sunak confirmed at the Conservative Party conference this month that the Birmingham to Manchester section of controversial rail link HS2 will not go ahead. Although rumours had been rife for some time that the link would be axed, the Prime Minster had refused to confirm or deny it until now. There were mixed reactions to the announcement. Although public transport is a greener option than car use and investment in the UK’s rail system is overdue, many campaigners felt that HS2 was not the correct option due to the environmental destruction its construction is causing.

Research carried out by the Wildlife Trusts, for example, found that the project was overestimating the ecological value of replacement habitats and underestimating how much existing habitat was being destroyed, including areas of ancient woodland. Those in the north, meanwhile, say that of all the plans for HS2, the northern link was most needed and feel let down by the government’s decision. The project has already cost billions of pounds, including that spent on buying land that will no longer be needed.

Ireland to Designate New National Park

Ireland is to get its first new national park for 25 years following the state purchase of an estate in County Meath. The Dowth Hall demesne acquisition amounts to an area of approximately 500 acres and will become the Boyne Valley (Brú na Bóinne) National Park. The Boyne River running through the estate already has a number of environmental designations due to the range of wildlife it supports. This includes Red-listed birds such as grey partridge and woodcock. The wider area is also rich in cultural history with the important Neolithic sites of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in the valley. As a result, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, Office of Public Works and the National Monuments Service will spend the next two years formulating a plan for the site to enhance and protect its natural and cultural heritage.

Grey partridge
Grey partridge, a Red-listed species, will benefit from greater protections in the area

UK Mammal News

Towards the end of the month, Northern Ireland’s plan to cull badgers was quashed by a judicial review. Wildlife campaign groups Wild Justice and the NI Badger Group had launched a challenge to the province’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) over two years ago. The high court judge ruling on the case agreed with the groups that the original consultation was flawed. The case centred on the fact vital information surrounding aspects of a proposed cull, including whether proposed cull methods were humane, was not given to the public before the consultation. Daera had proposed the cull in order to reduce rates of bovine tuberculosis. Campaigners hope that the review, combined with study results from earlier this year showing cow-to-cow rates of transmission are much higher than those from badgers to cows, will permanently end plans to introduce a cull in the province.

Hedgehog
Hedgehog friendly fences can help the animals move between gardens easily

There was good news for hedgehogs this month, too. Builders’ merchant Jewson announced that it will soon be supplying hedgehog friendly gravel boards. Gravel boards are wooden or concrete boards fitted underneath fences to protect them from ground moisture. Jewson’s new version will come with a ready-made gap, allowing hedgehogs to move between gardens easily. They will be available at selected stores by the New Year. The retailer is launching the product as a result of signing up to campaign group Hedgehog Street’s Hedgehog Friendly Fencing campaign. Hedgehogs have suffered major declines in the UK in recent decades. Habitat fragmentation is partly to blame, but helping hedgehogs to move more freely in urban and suburban environments can help to offset this.

Bird Nest Signage Need Highlighted by New Zealand Case

The need for adequate bird nest signage, especially when it comes to vulnerable species, was highlighted by a case from New Zealand this month. The Waimakariri River near Canterbury supports breeding banded dotterels and wrybills, both declining species. However, a number of nests of both species disappeared following driver training exercises in the area by the New Zealand Defence Force. There are no signs in the region pointing out the birds’ presence and even just a few minutes of disturbance can cause parents to desert a nest. A defence force spokesman said they would now highlight the sensitivity of the area to those training there, but the event highlights the need for adequate signage to prevent nest failure or destruction.

Oystercatcher nest
Nest signage can benefit many ground nesting birds, such as the oystercatchers above

Research Round-up

As autumn migration continues, it seems appropriate to lead this month’s research round-up with the latest studies in this field. First up is news that it’s not just weather on Earth that can disrupt bird migration patterns. University of Michigan researchers found that space weather events such as solar flares disrupt birds’ ability to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. Many birds use this field to help long-distance migration. The study found that not only did periods of space activity stop some birds from attempting to travel, but those that did were more likely to lose their way, especially if conditions meant they couldn’t see the stars. This could help to explain an unprecedented autumn of American birds in the West of Ireland, Wales and Shetland. Although birds were almost certainly blown off course by the tail end of Hurricane Lee, there was also an intense period of solar activity at the same time.

Yellow warbler
This yellow warbler in Shetland was one of a number of displaced American birds this autumn

The effect of terrestrial storms on migration, meanwhile, was revealed by a GPS tagged bar-tailed godwit this month. The bird was tagged in a project supported by the RSPB, Natural England and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. After setting off from the Wash, Norfolk, ornithologists expected it to head to its wintering grounds in Mauretania. However, over a period of four and half days and over two thousand miles, the bird flew to Birmingham, North Wales, Ireland, France, the Bay of Biscay and back to the Wash. Researchers believe it was trying to navigate around an approaching storm and will attempt to head south again after a few days of fattening up.

Bar-tailed godwits
GPS tags are revealing new details about bar-tailed godwit migration

Storms aren’t the only hazard affecting migrating birds, however. The dangers of light pollution and glass buildings was highlighted this month as at least 1,000 birds died in one day after colliding with a single skyscraper. McCormick Place is a largely glass-covered convention centre in Chicago. The birds, a variety of migrating species including American woodcocks, warblers and thrush species, hit the building on 5th October. Migrating birds are often attracted into cities by lit buildings but then struggle to see glass windows. Weather conditions, such as fog, also contribute. Campaigners are calling for more buildings to turn off their lights at night and use patterned glass to deter birds.

Finally, away from bird migration, a new species of pangolin has been identified solely using scales confiscated from illegal trafficking. Prior to the discovery, eight species of pangolin were recognised, split between Asia and Africa. Scientists testing confiscated scales, though, found genetic markers not seen in any of these species. Pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world and all species are threatened with extinction as a result. As well as hunting for meat, they are also killed for their scales which some people believe have medicinal properties despite being made of keratin, the same substance making up our hair and fingernails.