"The BES supported my pilot work in East Asia, it's invaluable for many young research ecologists."

Rob Francis Grant recipient

Cleaning up the act with the Scottish Marine Litter Strategy

Last week Scottish government published a Marine Litter Strategy outlining their commitment to reducing the amount of litter entering the marine and coastal environment. The Scottish government made a commitment to produce this strategy in 2009. The draft was consulted July to September 2013, and the voices of organisations such as Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Keep Scotland Beautiful, who played a large role in the consultation process, can be heard throughout this final report.

The Marine Litter Strategy will work in conjunction with the National Litter Strategy and implementation will be led by Marine Scotland with a review of implementation progress in 2015-2016 and 2018. Five strategic directions are outlined:

Strategic Direction 1 – Improve public and business attitudes and behaviours around marine and coastal litter, in co-ordination with the national litter strategy.

Strategic Direction 2 – Reduce marine and coastal based sources of litter, in co-ordination with land sourced litter being reduced by the national litter strategy.

Strategic Direction 3 – Contribute to a low carbon economy by treating ‘waste as a resource’ and seizing the economic and environmental opportunities associated with the Zero Waste Plan.

Strategic Direction 4 – Improve monitoring at a Scottish scale and develop measures for strategy evaluation.

Strategic Direction 5 – Maintain and strengthen stakeholder co- ordination at the UK, EU and international scales.

Details of about 40 further actions needed to achieve these aims are outlined which focus on education, behaviour change initiatives and development of more intensive monitoring programmes. As well as providing ecological and social gains, a reduction in marine litter could also save £16.8million every year. The Environment Minister Richard Lochhead highlighted the importance of this strategy: “Marine litter is a threat to our precious marine environment that needs to be addressed to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy our environment and use our seas sustainably.”

Whilst there is already extensive legislation which incorporates marine litter control, for example the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, and the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, this more targeted approach will fill in the gaps to ensure a more successful and cohesive implementation. The government hope that this strategy will help contribute to aim of achieving Good Environmental Status by 2020 as required in the MSFD.

To date Scottish government have already increased fines to crack down on littering and fly tipping as part of the National Litter Strategy as well introducing the compulsory 5p charge. In this new strategy they aim to improve education on impacts of marine litter and to encourage producers to change their product design to remove things like micro plastics and plastic cotton bud sticks. They also hope to better police and regulate marine waste dumped by ships at sea and incorporate environmental responsibilities into training of ship owners and crews. A national steering group on marine litter, led by Marine Scotland, will co-ordinate the approach and share best practice amongst Scottish Government Directorates.

Although no commitment to funding is made, the need to develop innovative clean technologies for recycling and monitoring is acknowledged. Lots of the clean-up and monitoring programmes currently running rely on the work of volunteers, for example MCSs big beach clean-up, which also monitored the volumes and types of plastics recovered from UK beaches. Another initiative from KIMO, called Fishing For Litter, is a simple and effective approach of clearing up marine litter that has been operating in Scotland since 2005.

Recently, marine pollution seems to have been receiving the attention that will be required to combat this issue. A similar strategy was published by Northern Ireland June 2013. In the 2013 Science and Technology Report on Water Quality they highlighted the need to consider the impact of micro plastics in water bodies and suggested the government encourage the phase out of micro plastics in UK companies and internationally. It was just last month that Scotland announced 30 new Marine Protected Areas, and next year Defra will begin consultation on proposed sites for the next tranche of Marine Conservation Zones.

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Natural Capital Initiative – Valuing our Life Support Systems, 6 & 7 November 2014

Following on from their 2009 summit, the Natural Capital Initiative will be leading the natural capital dialogue once again at their two-day summit on 6 & 7 November 2014 in London. Bringing together 250 delegates from across government, business, and the third sector, the summit will consider developments over the past five years in natural capital research and leadership, and will look to improvements that could be made over the next five years.

NCI’s mission is to support decision-making that results in the sustainable management of our natural capital based on sound science. NCI’s work is steered by its partner organisations – BES, Society of Biology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the James Hutton Institute – as well as external experts in environmental science, health, and economics.

Since NCI’s launch summit in 2009, a growing number of influential activities have emerged across all sectors within the natural capital space. This is testament to the traction the natural capital concept has gained with a variety of audiences. The 2014 NCI summit presents an excellent opportunity for all to engage with natural capital.

NCI’s summit aims to:

  1. Derive a common understanding of what natural capital really means
  2. Understand in plain language the natural and social science behind it
  3. Find and demonstrate ways in which sectors and initiatives can work, and are working, together to apply it
  4. Identify ways of ensuring that practical responses have scientific rigour
  5. Communicate recommendations for ways forward across the sectors.

With over 20 working sessions, there will be something for everyone. If not, we strongly encourage individuals to set up their own informal sessions! Attendees will also be able to hear from natural capital leaders across academia, business and government, such as Georgina Mace (UCL) and Peter Young (Aldersgate Group).

Early bird registration is available until 1 September. Individuals from registered charities also receive a discount.

For more information, including an outline of the programme so far, visit the NCI’s website.

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Is it possible for the UK to ensure agricultural intensification is sustainable?

In an article published in the Guardian yesterday, the NFU called for more action to increase self-sufficiency in food production. Whilst they claimed that lack of support to UK farmers was a failure that should raise concerns about British food security and could even increase world poverty, this argument was heavily criticised by other groups. Charles Godfray, the director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food says “self-sufficiency is a poor measure of key agricultural policies” and does not necessarily have much to do with food security, as was implied by the NFU president, Meurig Raymond.

In Karl Mathiesen’s live review of the evidence, in reaction to the statements from the NFU he concluded that “self-sufficiency measure is a dangerous one when used out of context to create the impression of a crisis”. Without disregarding the important points made about the need to eat more seasonally and locally, it should be acknowledged that in the UK we are oversupplied (with 33% of UK’s <18s overweight or obese, can we really claim to be short of food?) and food prices are stable – we would not have run out of food this week without imports.

The policy issues surrounding UK agriculture are contentious. Farmers would claim that they do more than any other group in the country to protect the environment but face continual challenges of extreme weather conditions and restrictions on pesticide use, for example. Others would say that intensification of agriculture has led to the demise of our countryside and wildlife. The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), from which the basic structure of agricultural subsidies is created, is implemented across the EU, with each member state taking a different approach. The objectives of recent 2013 reforms have been to ensure farmer income stability, lower food prices and increase environmental gains. There has been intense debate about “greening” measures which would make the direct payments received by farmers more dependent on their ability to meet environmental criteria. Here in the UK, Defra have fought to limit CAP greening regulations.

Agri-environment schemes became compulsory in 1999, but they do not fit in well with the agricultural models of all member states. There is not total rigidity in CAP protocol, implementation and the amount of funding allocated to Pillar 2, which supports Rural Development Programs (as opposed to Pillar 1 which covers direct support payments to farmers) is decided my individual member states.

How is CAP implemented in other countries?

To see how our implementation of CAP regulations fair, let’s compare agricultural practices in the UK with that of the Netherlands, Although it’s a small country, the Netherlands is the world’s second biggest exporter of agricultural products in monetary terms. A UN report explains how this was achieved through governmental policy, innovation and technological research and arguably unsustainable intensification. Inputs including mineral fertilizer, manure, pesticides and energy, which rank among the highest in the world were increased from 1950-1980. It supplies a quarter of the vegetables that are exported from Europe. The main environmental problems that began to present themselves in the late sixties included increased ammonia concentrations in soils affecting acid depositions in forests, eutrophication of ground and surface waters air and pollution of air and water with agrochemicals such as pesticides. When the environmental implications were realised, restrictions were put in place. These restrictions were hard to implement due to high initial costs to farmers, and the Dutch government recognise they would have been much more effective if implemented earlier. The Netherlands will struggle to restore ecosystem functions that have been deteriorated; “Environmental guidelines have to be incorporated in farm policies and operations at a very early stage.” The Dutch government has now put efforts into agri-tech solutions to build more sustainability into its agricultural practices, as well as supporting the development of organic farming methods.

The agri-tech revolution: A UK strategy for agricultural technologies

After a consultation period in 2012, the government released this strategy aimed at “integrating [the UK’s] world class science base with agriculture.” They hope that Agricultural technology could halt the decline in the UK agriculture’s productivity by commercialising research so that farmers can benefit. The technology referred to is largely in the fields of genetics, agri-engineering (sensors, autonomous vehicles, robotics, precision agriculture) and crop/livestock health.

In their response to the 2012 Consultation, RSPB expressed concern that although safeguarding biodiversity is mentioned, it is not incorporated in many of the report’s aims. The word ‘sustainable’ is squeezed in – just before the word ‘intensification’ – early on in the 2013 report. There is, however, not much indication of how sustainability will be guaranteed. “Unsustainable systems of food production are themselves a long-term threat to food security” say the RSPB, “Intensification is unlikely to address the challenges of long term environmental sustainability in terms of reducing total direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, reactive nitrogen pollution or halting local and global biodiversity losses.” Furthermore, it is crucial that the impact of new technologies on biodiversity, for example biotechnologies,  are rigorously tested before wide scale implementation, to avoid the repeats of the neonicotinoid disaster. However, new research and technological advancements will be a key step in progressing from outdated farming methods that require large amounts of unnatural fertilisers and pesticides.

In the 2009 Making Space for Nature Report  states that “Agriculture has changed large areas of our landscape by ploughing, draining and fertilising what were semi-natural heaths, chalk grasslands and lowland wet grasslands.” In 2008, for instance 78% of Biodiversity Action Plan Habitats were degraded due to agriculture. Yet an EU survey found that over 85% of respondents across the EU are supportive of the new objectives for agriculture and rural development, including preserving the countryside and facing the consequences of climate change. Several organisations have collaborated on a report of what they think sustainable food security should look like.

The UK government seems all too tempted by the prospect of intensification and sensational remarks about the state of our food security won’t do much to help. There is a need to keep up with demands of the growing population. However if the issue of sustainability is not taken seriously, then, as the Dutch government have discovered, cleaning up the environmental mess further down the line would present a much bigger task.

Posted in Agri-Environment Scheme, Agriculture, Common Agricultural Policy, Defra, Environment, EU, Food Security, Government, Green Technology, Land Use, Pesticides | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

New protection for Scottish seas

A victory for the Scottish marine environment came in the form of 30 Marine Protected Areas on 24 July, as the Scottish government accepted recommendations of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Sottish Natural Heritage (SNH) The consultation considered species, habitat and geology in selecting the final areas. Amongst the 30 MPAs is the North-east Faroe Shetland Channel MPA, which at 26,807 sq. km is thought to be the largest in the EU.

Of the 30 designated  areas, 17 were recommended by SNH for inshore waters and 13 by the JNCC  for offshore waters. The areas have been designated to protect  habitats and fauna such as deep sea sponges, sand eels and quahogs.

The news was welcomed by marine ecologists, although RSPB said more needed to be done to protect seabirds by including them in the MPAs and extending areas to cover the feeding grounds of birds such as kittiwakes, Arctic terns and Arctic skuas. In the hope of achieving this, draft proposals for new special protected areas have been put forward for consideration – 14 for seabirds and an additional 4 for basking shark and certain whale and dolphin species.

To create a coherent network of SPAs for seabirds and waterfowl across the UK the JNCC has been working over the past decade on behalf of all the country Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies (SNCBs). Provided with data from the JNCC on possible sites Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and the Department of Environment Northern Ireland (DoENI) are considering several possible marine SPAs in English, Welsh and Northern Irish inshore waters, including extensions to existing seabird colony SPAs and entirely marine SPAs.

Fishing won’t necessarily be prohibited in these protected areas. Each area will be managed with different priorities, depending what it was designated for. Making sure that sound management plans and proper enforcement is in place will be the next challenge. Licensed activities at sea will be subject to the new nature conservation MPA designation orders that come into force on August 7th. Fisheries management measures for all of the sites will be developed during an intensive two years process.

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive was put in place in 2008, with the aim of stopping degradation of the marine habitats and achieving a Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020. Member states are supposed to have a monitoring programme to measure progress in place by July 2014.

In November 2013, Defra announced the creation of 27 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs, a type of MPA) in English waters. Many were disappointed that this fell so short of the 127 areas that were recommended, but there was a promise that there would be further MCZs allocations. The next round of areas will be discussed in a consultation in early 2015.

The recommended areas in Scottish seas went through a five stage selection process to asses their suitability. Priority Marine Features were considered and some locations changed in size and shape as they have progressed through the assessment process. The network of areas  in the Scottish seas will add to the 194 special sites designated for the protection of seals earlier this month , and a Marine Planning consultation has been drafted. So it seems Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead is living up to his claim of putting that “Scotland’s seas are fundamental to our way of life.”

Evidence drawn from marine scientists has shown that something must be done to change the management of seas if we want to halt degradation. “By setting up these MPAs the government has wisely placed its confidence in that verdict,” said Callum Duncan of Marine Conservation Society. “The work does not stop here – for the time-being these MPAs are just lines on maps, so careful management will be needed to ensure they actively help recover our sealife.”

Posted in Birds, Ecology, Environment, Habitat Loss, Marine, Marine Act, Scotland, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Improving Defra’s National Pollinator Strategy

It’s been over a year since EU member states were embroiled in a row over the use of neonicotinoids and the risks these pose to bees and other pollinators. In short succession, bans on two categories of pesticide were imposed after reports from the European Food Safety Authority (EFRA) highlighted potential risks. An increased focus on pollinators led to Defra developing its own proposals for a National Pollinator Strategy in March this year. Although a welcome step in the right direction, the Environmental Audit Committee highlight a number of potential improvements in their latest report, released yesterday. Most notable is a change in attitude of the government.

The stance of the UK government during the voting rounds banning neonicotinoids in the EU last year was memorable – voting ‘no’ in the final round, despite a recommendation from the Environmental Audit Committee to follow the precautionary principle and support a ban while the full effects of the pesticides were not clear. In response to the Committee’s 2013 Pollinators and Pesticides report, the government stated that both economic and environmental considerations were included in their assessment of risk, highlighting that a neonicotinoid ban could have an economic impact. The Committee disagree, and in their latest report, ask for the government to publish figures demonstrating economic costs/benefits for various approaches to neonicotinoids.

In their response to the Committee’s earlier report, the government committed to assessing the available evidence on pollinator declines. This review formed the basis of the National Pollinator Strategy, which aims to safeguard the health of England’s pollinators. Within the strategy, steps to set up a monitoring framework for pollinators are welcomed by the Committee. Less welcome are voluntary approaches towards schemes, and a reliance on industry for funding.

Although the majority of research outlined in the strategy will be delivered by Defra, several projects will be entirely funded by pesticide manufacturers. The Committee echo the concern of many witnesses at their inquiry – that the results of these commercially funded studies may appear biased. The Committee also comment that Defra’s reliance on industry funding ‘is symptomatic of a loss of Defra’s capacity to deliver its environmental protection obligations’. To guard against bias, the Committee urges that Defra must ensure independent controls remain in place, and the completed results are peer-reviewed and published in full.

Indications that the funded research will be published have already been made, and the department will want to avoid a repeat of last year. Insisting the EFRA risk assessments did not show that neonicotinoids are linked to a decline in bee populations, the department commissioned their own research at FERA. The final report concluded there was no link between bee health and exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides, but was not peer-reviewed and the design of the experiment was criticised by many researchers.

It’s clear the Committee feel that Defra could have managed the neonicotinoid discussions in 2013 much better, and recommend a new approach to the management of pesticide use in the UK. They urge:

Defra should also use the final [National Pollinator] Strategy to draw a line under the neonicotinoid ban by making it clear that the UK accepts the European risk assessments underpinning the ban, that it supports the ban and will not seek to end it when a European review is possible in 2015, or otherwise to circumvent it.

Overall, the EAC’s report provides a collection of very strong recommendations for the department to work on. In addition to this report, Defra are currently assessing the responses to the National Pollinator Strategy consultation and a final version is due to be published in the autumn.

Posted in Biodiversity, Defra, Government, Parliament, Pesticides, Pollinators, Select Committee | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A-levels … are they fit for purpose?

On Tuesday 15 July, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee held a discussion meeting to consider the poignant question ‘A-levels – Are they fit for purpose?’ If the last 10 months are anything to go by, it is fair to say that most stakeholders from the education, scientific and industrial community would unanimously agree, no. The majority would also cite the structure and curriculum content of A-levels as two key reasons why. However, it is evident from the widespread response to the science A-level reforms, which are to be implemented in 2015 that opinions remain divided on what should be done about this.

The Committee received three addresses from Ofqual, UK Deans of Science and CasE, who also attended the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee in May, to consider ‘How practical are the new science A-level reforms? Other Committee members included representatives from schools, Further and Higher Education (HE), as well as other learned societies.

Contrary to the issues which have dominated education policy this year, Dr Michelle Meadows, the new Director of Research and Evaluation at Ofqual, reported that in the past ten years there has been a steady and growing confidence in A-level performance. In 2012, Ofqual found 80% of surveyed stakeholders, which include parents, schools, HE representatives and employers, had confidence in A-levels. Nonetheless, this was not without serious discourse about the curriculum content and structure of A-levels.

Following the ‘modularisation’ of A-levels in 2000, there were concerns they had become less demanding as universities reported the majority of students were performing well. This resulted in another review in 2008 and a ‘de-modularisation’ of A-levels from 6 to 4 units. Open ended questions and greater synopticity was introduced to help make A-levels more challenging. However, HE representatives and employers continue to report that students lack real in-depth understanding of subject knowledge, independent inquiry and critical thinking skills, all of which can also be associated with the re-sitting culture which has developed over recent years. On average, 43% A-level students have re-sat at least 1 unit, and 25% have re-sat 2 or more units.

As a result, Ofqual are confident that the new reforms including the removal of January exams this year, is a step in the right direction towards the linear A-level qualifications in 2015. With all assessments to be sat in the summer term, more time will be available for teaching. Although Ofqual’s remit does not cover approving the curriculum of A-levels, Dr Meadows reported HE representatives are now more involved than ever before. Every A-level has 60% core content of which there is standardised Maths content for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; 10%, 20% and 40% respectively.

Controversially, the separation of the practical skills component from the theoretical content for Biology A-level remains open to debate. Dr Meadows reported that the separate endorsement will help resolve problems like predictable assessments, lack of evidence and marks not truly reflecting a student’s ability. As students are expected to complete a minimum of 12 practicals, Ofqual are working with the awarding bodies to develop a series of evidence gathering tools such as student logbooks. Dr Meadows concluded stating Ofqual is committed to its ongoing research on the impact of teaching on learning. This will prove detrimental to measuring the impact of these reforms on educational outcomes.

Professor Ian Haines, the Executive Secretary of the UK Deans of Science then looked toward the success of Ireland and Scotland which offer a broader education system and generally produce more able students in comparison to England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Professor Haines made several recommendations which he believed would help make A-levels more fit for purpose. This included having a broader education system for 18 year olds, such as the Scottish International Baccalaureate, introducing compulsory STEM subjects up to the age of 18 and teaching students about the overlap between traditional disciplines.

Upon considering the new science A-level reforms, Professor Haines went onto recommend that having one awarding body and making vocational qualifications as acceptable as academic qualifications, would help make science A-levels fit for purpose. Decoupling the theoretical content from the practical skills, which will be assessed separately from 2015 onwards, sends the wrong message to schools. A ‘pass or fail’ connotes a devaluing of the practicals and is likely to have serious implications on the educational outcomes of students in schools particularly where resources and funding are limited.

The concerns raised by Professor Haines were echoed by Dr Sarah Main, Chief Executive Officer at CaSE, which is the leading independent advocate for science and engineering in the UK. Industry is seeking to employ people who are competent in their knowledge and understanding, as well as their practical ability. Research shows that the UK needs to double the number of engineers by 2020 to keep abreast of the skills shortage gap, which it is currently falling short of.

Dr Main stressed that the recent reforms will hinder efforts to maintain curiosity in  STEM. This includes the national network of Science Learning Centres, a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust and the Department for Education, and the more recent YourLife Campaign launched by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Students need to have rich practical experience throughout school to university to meet the needs of academia and industry. Taking practical assessments is more than just about producing reliable results, but should be valid and must take place in a relevant setting too. Dr Main concluded that the science A-level reforms were not fit for purpose and recommended stability in education policy, compulsory STEM up to the age of 18 and a stronger, better connected community of teachers, scientists and engineers as the best way forward.

 

Posted in BIS, Education, Education Policy, Parliament, Science and Technology Committee, UK | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Breaking down the ballast water problem

Last month at the Biodiversity APPG  we heard from Dr Tom Vance of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, where he has been working on solutions to the problems of ballast water with Tim Fileman. The topic generated a lot of discussion, so what are the problems with ballast water? Or perhaps the first question is ‘what is ballast water?’ Though clearly important, the issue seems to have snuck out of the limelight, as many marine environmental issues do. In this post we’ll give you an overview of the ballast water contamination and explain what the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) are trying to do about it.

When ships dock their cargo at a port, they have to take on vast amounts of sea water to maintain their stability, which is then dumped at the next destination. Historically, ships used to take on ballast in the form of sand, but this is likely to have transported many non-native plants over here in the past. The potential of sea water ballast to carry non-native organisms from far away countries poses a very real threat and the control measures that have been put in place to date just aren’t enough, Tom informed us.

Apparently a container can carry 100,000 m2 ballast water, which can contain a shocking 10, 000 species, from bacteria and viruses to crabs and fish. This was responsible for an outbreak of cholera in Peru in the 1990s. Known invasive non-native species carried by ballast water include the carpet sea squirt, forming a physical barrier on the sea floor to native grazing fish, and the comb jelly, a voracious predator. With new ports and trade routes being created, this is becoming an increasing problem not just for its capacity to spread invasives but also for the effect it can have on the gene pool and adaptability of populations.

Current methods of ballast water control are treatment, by killing all organisms with chlorine, UV treatment, mechanical filtration and offshore exchange. Offshore exchange is thought to reduce the risk of species transfer as the deeper waters are usually less rich in biodiversity than the coastal water. However, Tom points out, it’s still quite possible that a ship could take in millions of detrimental bacteria from an offshore algal bloom. Solid ballast can be used and there are plans for a global network of ‘ballast containers’, however as cargo ships are currently well equipped for pumping ballast water, this is the most economical mechanism.

In the UK,  the political responsibility for addressing this problem falls not with Defra (responsible for the UK invasive non-native strategy) but with the Maritime and Coastguard  Agency. There is no target species list for marine invasives,  In the recent non-natives strategy review, ballast water control was dropped from regulation. So is the UK taking this problem seriously?

40 countries have joined the IMO Ballast Water Management (BWM)Convention) which has laid out guidelines for the treatment of ballast water. However these guidelines are not currently enforced, as the IMO BWM Convention has not yet been ratified. Although enough countries have joined more countries with large shipping tonnage are needed to ratify the Convention; 30 countries and 35% of world gross tonnage are needed in total. It’s countries with really large tonnage, like Singapore that will be needed to reach 35%. The UK is one of the countries that have not joined the Convention, because the government does not believe that the methods are there that will allow them to police the regulations, Tim Fileman explained. However the IMO have provided a feasible policing procedure, Tim added: Port State Officials would check paper work and and the BWM system is in place and only as a last resort would need to take a water sample.

The issue of ballast must be looked at jointly with bio-fouling, which accounts for at least as many marine invasive species and could otherwise negate any positive impact. The IMO have produced guidelines  for reducing biofouling, but it is unlikely that these are implemented regularly. Some countries around the world are taking these problems much more seriously, for example Australia will turn ships away if they don’t think appropriate systems are in place.

This issue of ballast water which has been brought up in the recent discussions on invasive species regulations highlights the antiquity of the shipping industry. To implement the big changes that are needed in technological design of ships, that would not only reduce their ecological footprint but would also increase their efficiency, a big behaviour shift is needed. Most ships still burn bunker fuel, a crude and incredibly polluting oil. It’s doubtful that we would allow this sort of practice on land, so why do we allow it at sea? Marine invasive species ought to be taken just as seriously as their terrestrial counterparts, especially amidst concerns that our marine habitats are being significantly degraded.

There are many challenges in treating the water successfully whether they be economical, political or practical, says Tim, however: “This is a risk reduction exercise at the end of the day and, currently, we are doing very little to reduce that risk…very slowly the shipping industry is being dragged into the 21st century and forced to consider its environmental impact.”

Posted in Biodiversity Strategy, Invasive Species, Marine, UK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Policy, biodiversity, and conservation – join us in Edinburgh in October

Together with the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy’s Science and Technical Group and CIEEM, the BES and its Scottish Policy Group will be holding a one-day conference on 3 October 2014 at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The event will be looking at the role of monitoring and data collection in meeting the major technical and scientific challenges that arise from the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.

Questions that will be considered include:

  • How can we better monitor the wide range of species and habitats that we need to protect as well as ecosystem services and natural capital?
  • How do we define success?
  • What new technologies and approaches are available to us?
  • What challenges do new technologies and approaches bring to researchers, policy makers and conservation practitioners?

The conference will begin with a lecture by Professor Bill Sutherland (University of Cambridge; BES president) at the Botanic Garden on the evening of 2 October.

To complement the topic of the conference and allow researchers and practitioners to understand the policy environment in Scotland, we will also be holding an ‘introduction to policy in Scotland’ event on 2 October at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Attendees will be able to learn more about how scientific evidence can feed into policy making through individuals from Scottish Government and agencies, and researchers who are actively engaged in the process.

Booking is now open – students and members of the BES and CIEEM are able to book both days at a discounted price.

All those who register to attend the introduction to policy day will receive a 50% discount on the cost of attending the conference.

More information about both days can be found on our website.

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Is more funding the answer to preventing future flood disasters?

After the severe floods of last winter, flood prevention has been pushed high up the agenda. After a two month period of evidence gathering, a report on the inquiry into the 2013-2014 winter floods was published in June by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The report highlights the need to put policies in place to provide funding and support for homes, farmland and business when they are threatened by floods. However the emphasis is on prevention and the maintenance of flood defence systems, not simply the actions  that must be taken when floods hit peoples’ doorsteps.

In the BES 2013 report on the impact of extreme events, such as flooding, which you can read more about in a past blog post, highlighted the increasing need to invest in natural flood management rather than hard engineering techniques, and sustainable drainage systems in urban areas that can help relieve surface run-off.  In this report from the Committee there is no exploration of the potential of natural flood defences to play a big role in mitigating against flooding. Instead, dredging is still the key focus, despite recognising that this is only one of a portfolio of measures.  They identify cuts in funding, resulting in a lapse in maintenance of dredged watercourses, as one of the major causes of the 2013-2014 floods.  As well as inadequate funding, they say there has been in the past a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the maintenance of certain waterways, whether it be the Environment Agency, Defra, or riparian landowners.

There is a big economic impact from flooding; it is reported that the winter storms caused about £135 million worth of damage to flood defences. However, the Committee’s report claims that the flood defense maintenance budget has been pushed to a “bare minimum” which could result in higher costs further down the line if events like last winters recur.

Internal drainage boards exist in many districts where there is a risk of flooding, and the report suggests they should be empowered to undertake maintenance works on main rivers. In order to reflect local circumstances, the report proposes that local people should be given more say in how funding is spent in relation to dredging. But with water catchments that span across multiple districts and counties, should such decisions be made on a local scale, by potentially uninformed individuals? Surely there is a role here for science to play in providing sound evidence from relevant research into the most effective long term mitigation strategy.

The CIWEM produced a report in February during the inquiry in which they commented on dredging: “Dredging can play an important role in flood risk management in some cases, but is not a standalone solution. It should be considered in the context of a range of tools and the origins of different sources of flood water, and comes with significant risks that must be understood at a local and catchment scale.

Whilst the report recognises that there are “risks associated with dredging, including  exacerbating downstream flooding by increasing the water flow and causing significant environmental impacts such as loss and degradation of natural habitats”, disappointingly there is no attempt to identify other more sustainable options.

Posted in Agriculture, Defra, Flooding, Parliament, Select Committee, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The birds and the bees – both suffering from pesticide pollution

The ban of neonicotinoids last December may not have gone far enough to prevent damaging effects to the environment. The pesticides were put under restrictive use for three years whilst research was conducted into their ecological impact. Just 7 months in and the evidence against their use is mounting, to add to the pile, two new studies were published this week.

A paper published in the BES Journal of Functional Ecology has found that the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, impairs foraging behaviour of the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris. Richard Gill and Nigel Raine of Royal Holloway University used Radio-Frequency Identification to track the bees’ movements. Whilst defendants of neonicotinoids insist that that the pesticides are not lethal to pollinators at the levels used, studies like these are important in demonstrating behavioural impacts that can affect the success and survival of bumblebees. Exposure to imidacloprid decreased foraging behaviour efficiency, with bees bringing back smaller pollen loads to the hive, and foraging more frequently in an attempt to compensate for this. Imidacloprid-exposed bees were also unable to exhibit any experience-based improvement in their foraging activity as the control bees did.

Insect pollinators are responsible for the pollination of about 75% of agricultural crops, so the economic importance of the ecosystem service they provide does not go unnoticed. Defra’s consultation for a National Pollinator Strategy  is now closed, but it looked at addressing research gaps in the impacts of pesticides, climate change and invasive species on pollinators.  This new strategy is due to be published this summer. In 2009 nine research projects were jointly funded £10million by the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership as part of the Insect Pollinators Initiative.

Another study, published in Nature from Hans de Kroon in the Netherlands, found pollution of the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, to be the main cause in the decline of farmland birds. Whilst lots of research has focused on the impact on insects, in particular pollinating insects, this study reveals the cascading effects as the toxin moves up the food chain and the impact of pollution in water. At imidacloprid concentrations of more than 20 nanograms per litre, insectivorous bird populations tended to decline by 3.5 per cent on average annually. The potential impacts on other insectivores are implied but yet to be investigated. This study in the Netherlands was conducted over 7 years and so Kroon and colleagues were able to examine the long term changes and look at multiple possible causes in bird population declines. The UK has not collected data on neonicotinoid pollution and so we can only draw assumptions about the whether imidacloprid has impacted our own farmland bird populations similarly. This highlights the importance of funding long-term studies in the UK, which BES has called for in its response to BIS’s recent consultation ‘Creating the Future: a 2020 vision for science and research’.

The current EU regulation only targets three neonicotinoids, and only bans their use on certain crops. Many hope that compelling evidence like this will make Defra reconsider the way these pesticides are used in the UK.

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem Services, Insects, Natural Capital Initiative, Pesticides, Pollinators | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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