Thursday, 20 June 2013

New habitats, old habitats

Sidmouth is facing the problem of 'where to put wildlife': 
the proposals at Knowle 
12/1847/MOUT | Outline application (1010342 Arboriculturalist Report; 1010392&3 Protected Species Report); East Devon District Council - Moving and ImprovingVision Group for Sidmouth - Objections to the Knowle plans 
and those at Sidford 
http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/1967-fordscontextlogic-josephmarchant-6_133ddesignandaccessstatement.pdf (9.0: Woodland Planting);www.eastdevon.gov.uk/3743-naturalengland.pdf; Futures Forum: Sidford business park: latest plans 
would both involve 'mitigation'. 

The wider context has been addressed in recent publications.

This week's issue of New Scientist looks at 'New habitats for old':

Does habitat replacement let developers off the hook?

<i>(Image: Andrzej Krauze)</i>
24 June 2013 by Fred Pearce

Eco-offsetting – creating habitats to replace ones lost to development – can save wildlife, but may instead help business trump nature

AT THE far eastern end of the Thames estuary, amid a scruffy sprawl of London satellite towns, is a spot known as Lodge Hill.  It is a military junkyard, littered with abandoned munitions stores, sentry boxes and an anti-aircraft gun emplacement from the first world war. Trainees from the Royal School of Military Engineers once practised driving bulldozers here. But amid the detritus are patches of scrubby woodland that are home to nightingales, one of the UK's favourite birds. Ninety pairs sing their hearts out here.
With the soldiers gone, there is a plan to blanket the hill with 5000 badly needed new homes. Now the UK government's advisory body Natural England, which has a duty to protect important wildlife, has stepped in. It cannot stop the development, but will do what might be the next best thing: consider proposals for "habitat creation" to "offset the impacts". In other words, it wants the developer to find another bit of land where it can create woodland for the nightingales to move to. The developer has identified several potential sites, and the local council backs the idea. Nobody has asked the nightingales what they want.
This kind of ecological offsetting is becoming popular, with more and more governments seeing it as a way of pleasing both developers and conservationists. The idea is even leading to the creation of offset markets in which different kinds of habitats are traded. Provided there is "no net loss" to biodiversity, the argument goes, everybody wins.
Where there are markets, banks follow, and ecological offsetting is no exception. In many places "habitat banks" are being set up to allow conservationists and financiers to invest in protecting areas, earning "offset credits" that can be banked for future sale to developers wanting to exploit some other habitat. In the US, laws protecting wetlands have given rise to a billion-dollar industry involving 400 such habitats.
Australia does it too, and the European Union is about to publish recommendations for habitat banking as part of its strategy to halt species loss. The UK government is piloting offsetting in six areas, brokered by a private firm called The Environment Bank.
Many conservationists are keen. Fed up with losing battles, they think offsets could deliver some wins while earning badly needed finance for conservation. And offsets can work. Back in the 1990s, to make way for a housing estate, Europe's largest population of great crested newts was moved from clay pits near Peterborough, UK, to an expensive bespoke habitat down the road. Many criticised the move, but today the new site has some 30,000 newts, about as many as the old one did.
The obvious parallel is with carbon offsets. When investors plant trees that soak up carbon dioxide, they receive credits that can be sold to companies seeking to offset their carbon emissions.
There is a big difference between the two kinds of offsetting, however. Greenhouse gases act globally. How and where you keep them out of the atmosphere makes no difference to the climate, so long as you do it.
Wildlife habitats are not like that. They are specific and local. That makes exchanging one for another problematic. Even if you are trying to replace like with like, it is far from clear if, for instance, the nightingales of Lodge Hill will, upon returning from overwintering in Africa, find their way to any new habitat created for them, still less whether they will find it to their liking.
And what might work in the wide open spaces of the US or Australia may not do the job in the densely populated and far more fragmented habitats of Europe. Piecemeal offsets will often result in eco-islands in alien terrain – poor substitutes for habitats that blend into a wider landscape. The problem is made greater by climate change, which means the best way for us to help wildlife survive is probably to maintain corridors of habitat so species can migrate.
So far, the evidence that eco-offsetting works is not exactly overwhelming. In the biggest and longest-running offset market, the US, auditing of outcomes has been paltry, says Hannah Mowat of FERN, a non-profit European environmental policy think tank. One study that was carried out in Ohio found that two-thirds of wetland offsets did not deliver what they promised.
The emerging consensus among legislators and conservationists is that offsetting should be a last resort. Developers must first try to avoid damage altogether, and then minimise it. Only then, as the EU puts it, should "unavoidable residual impacts" be offset.
But the reality is that offsetting can become a first resort. In the case of Lodge Hill, I found no evidence that the developer or the council had done anything other than go straight to the offset option. Perhaps there was no other choice.
The Environment Bank's report on prospects for offsetting the loss of the Lodge Hill nightingale site does mention that, in keeping with the rules, "avoidance, minimisation and on-site rehabilitation measures" should be explored. But then it admits that development will cause "the loss of all suitable nightingale habitat". In other words, avoidance and minimisation have been written off.

We should not be too precious. Nature is resilient: many areas we like to think of as wild are far from it, and nature often has a liking for the weird and temporary niches we create. Lodge Hill is no pristine woodland; great crested newts live happily in clay pits.
But it is equally true that nature does not play by rules regulating development. Species won't necessarily relocate for the convenience of developers. The danger is that, in a crowded landscape, ecological offsetting becomes another way for finance to get the better of nature.

And last month, going in completely the opposite direction, George Monbiot brought out a book on 'rewilding' parts of Britain:

George Monbiot – Feral

The Telegraph approves. Wild boar snuffling up the Byes, perhaps...

Feral by George Monbiot, review
Philip Hoare is enchanted by a call for the return of bear, beaver and bison to Britain.
5 out of 5 stars
Hunter-gatherer: George Monbiot, whose paean to re-wilding is 'Feral'
Hunter-gatherer: George Monbiot, whose paean to re-wilding is 'Feral' Photo: Dominick Tyler
By Philip Hoare
28 May 2013
George Monbiot hates sheep. With a passion. He’s not that keen on Welsh farmers, either. After the publication of Feral, I can’t imagine that he’ll be any more welcome in Wales than Anne Robinson.
As a campaigning journalist, Monbiot is renowned for his wit and irony, and both are on full display in his chapter “Sheepwrecked”: “Sheep farming… is a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution. Yet scarcely anyone seems to have noticed.”
There are 8.2 million sheep in Wales, three to every human being; a ruminant plague that has reduced the uplands to a desert where every potential tree is eaten before it has a chance to grow, and which has compromised the ability of the hills to hold water, thereby exacerbating flooding in the valleys and farther afield. The income generated by this subsidised monoculture is far exceeded by the cost of the damage it causes. Its barren wastes are unattractive to visitors of all species. How much better if those EU subsidies were redeployed to recreate a diverse and thriving ecosystem?
Monbiot calls for nothing less than the rewilding of Wales – and much of Europe, too. He wants wolves, beavers, bison and lynx to roam free once more. Such reintroductions would address the out-of-balance deer population, restore wetlands, and create a tourist attraction, providing a more sustainable income than sheep farming or forestry. And they’d reconnect us with nature in a manner which the author unashamedly declares to be good for our souls.
Feral’s “what ifs” are provocative; eccentric, even. It envisions a future Europe in which elephant, rhino and hippopotami could wander as they did in prehistoric times – although Monbiot acknowledges this might be a hard sell to citizens who have yet to come to terms with urban foxes. Yet he points out that in Europe swathes of uneconomic land have already been abandoned. In countries where farms may be far from big conurbations, farmers are drawn to the cities by the lure of an easier life, and thus large expanses of the Continent allow for such rewilding. Indeed, it is already in progress, as wolves cross the Alps, and wild boar roam the suburbs of Hamburg.
Things are much more difficult on this small island. Here farmers do not, generally, feel the same disconnection from urban life, due to smaller holdings. More importantly, any political will for rewilding here is compromised by land ownership. Scotland's new feudal lords attract Monbiot’s ire for running the Highlands as private game reserves rather than for the good of the Scottish people. In Sutherland, three-quarters of one of the largest counties in Britain is owned by 81 families, “or by their secretive trusts in tax havens”. The annual income generated by stalking is £1.6 million – versus £4.7 million spent on deer management.
“In other words, stalking can be sustained there only because the bankers or oil sheikhs or mining magnates who own the land burn money on their expensive pastime. Even the tiny numbers of people employed… are reliant on the irrational spending of absentee landlords, which could be terminated at any time.” Wildlife tourism in Scotland is worth £276 million a year. Rewilding would increase that, exponentially.
Of course, things aren’t that simple. How many of those estates would relish a lupine invasion? Who could persuade farmers that their savaged livestock would be a price worth paying? Feral is a fantasy, a feat of science fiction. But it’s one worth indulging.
The book justifies its subtitle with rhapsodic descriptions of forays into the natural world. Whether kayaking off the British coast or walking the Kenyan bush, Monbiot – who studied zoology at Oxford – focuses our minds on what we have lost, and what we stand to gain. Even more valuable are his comments on the desperate need for Marine Protection Zones around Britain, as championed by The Wildlife Trusts. And in his approval for Charles Clover’s excellent campaign against overfishing, Monbiot also looks to oceanic conservation on a grander scale.
In a brilliant chapter, “Rewilding the Sea”, he points out a surprising “by-product” of the great whales. By stirring the deep waters, they keep plankton at the surface, and fertilise the same organisms with their faeces, thereby increasing absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In pre-whaling days, their vastly bigger populations may have sequestered tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 per year. As if these animals weren’t beautiful enough, they could also do our dirty work for us: “Allowing whale numbers to recover could be seen as a benign form of geo-engineering.”
Meanwhile, Nature herself may pre-empt even our most ambitious plans. A scheme to reintroduce the grey whale to the Irish Sea (where it has been extinct for at least three centuries) by airlifting 50 from California seems to lurch into the realms of the absurd – only for the news to come in, as I write, that a grey whale has been seen off the Atlantic coast of Namibia – an amazing 5,000 miles from its Pacific home.
Many will disagree, perhaps violently, with the basic premise of Feral. But as a passionate polemic, it could not be more rigorously researched, more elegantly delivered, or more timely. We need such big thinking for our own sakes and those of our children. Bring on the wolves and whales, I say, and, in the words of Maurice Sendak, let the wild rumpus start.


No comments: