Public Helps Fight Against Conker Tree Plight

The Moth Versus the Crowd: Tracking an Alien Invader of Conker Trees Using People Power

Jan. 22, 2014 — An army of citizen scientists has helped the professionals understand how a tiny ‘alien’ moth is attacking the UK’s conker (horse-chestnut) trees, and showed that naturally-occurring pest controlling wasps are not able to restrict the moth’s impact. The study’s conclusions are published this week in the open access scientific journal PLOS ONE.

No bigger than a grain of rice, the horse-chestnut leaf-mining moth has spread rapidly through England and Wales since its arrival in London in 2002. The caterpillars of the moth ‘tunnel’ through the leaves of conker trees, causing them to turn brown and autumnal in appearance, even in the height of summer.

In 2010 thousands of ‘citizen scientists’ were asked by two professional ecologists to collect records of leaf damage from across the country as part of a project called ‘Conker Tree Science’. The results show that over the last decade the moth has spread from London to reach almost all of England and Wales. Investigating the data further the scientific team concluded that it takes just three years from the first sighting of the moth in a particular location to maximum levels of damage to the horse-chestnut trees being recorded.

In a follow-up experiment, many of the citizen scientists, including hundreds of school children, followed instructions to [MJOP1] rear the moth by sealing the infested leaves in plastic bags and waiting for the insects to emerge. The results reveal that the tiny pest controllers (‘parasitiod’ wasps) that prey upon the caterpillars are not present in high enough numbers to control the moths.

Dr Michael Pocock, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and lead author of the research paper said, “This is the sort of science that anyone can do. By taking part the public are doing real science — and the publication of this scientific paper is a demonstration of how seriously citizen science is now taken by the community of professional scientists.” Co-author Dr Darren Evans, a conservation biologist at the University of Hull said, “This work could have been done by paying research assistants to travel the country and collect records, but by inviting thousands of people to get involved we, together, were able to pull this off much more cost-effectively[MJOP2] .”

Dr Pocock added, “It seems almost like magic for children and other people to put a damaged leaf in a plastic bag, wait two weeks and then see insects — the adult moths or their pest controllers — emerge, but making these discoveries was a valuable contribution to understanding why some animals become so invasive.”

Dr Evans added, “We have been challenged by other professional scientists as to whether ‘ordinary people’ can make accurate observations, suitable for real science. Of course they can — and we tested this in our study. So thank you to the thousands of participants because together we were able to do this science.”

Unlike some other citizen science projects that use biological records submitted by members of the public for long-term monitoring, the Conker Tree Science project set out to test two specific hypotheses over the course of a year. The authors suggest that this approach can be developed to examine a range of environmental problems.

Conker Tree Science was run with funding from the Natural Environment Research Council and begun when the two authors were at the University of Bristol.

Animal Antics!


1)  Received a call from a visitor to Chailey Common (Red House Common), who reported the following account of when a woman returned to her car.  I’ll explain…  A dead hedge was constructed around the perimeter of the car park specifically to prevent ponies being attracted to parked cars by the presence of road salt on them, thereby preventing the possibility of ponies causing damage to the cars.  To allow access out of the car park area, there are six gaps through the dead hedge with lift-up, drop-down wooden bars to stop ponies.  The gentleman watched the woman open walk through and then close one of these barriers, only for a pony that was following her, to then lift the barrier up and stroll into the car park!

2)  I watched our three-legged cat in the garden, being taunted by a very cheeky magpie.  The bird, ‘dressed in his boldly-contrasting black and white attire’ firstly sat and hopped along the tall garden fence and then, flew across to the apple trees at the end of garden, hopping about amongst the branches.  Our cat was watching and following intently – taunted, he even attempting to climb the tree at one stage.  Whilst on the ground, his bushy tail thrashed furiously from side to side but to no avail, the frustration being palpable from the house!  (He rarely manages to climb adventurously, or catch birds, the reason we gave him a home).


Centre of pic, our cat attempting to climb up an apple tree.

Where To Holiday? Why, Britain! (In 10 Years Time…)

Atlantic current changes could bring drier summers to the UK by Damian Carrington

Monday 20 January 2014 12.45 GMT

The UK’s run of rain-drenched summers could be ended by a slow-down in major Atlantic currents which bring warm, wet air to Europe, according to research. The currents were known to have weakened since 2004 but the new work suggests the trend began in the 1990s and shows no sign of ending.

However, the scientists said the changes to summer weather would take a decade or more to unfold. Professor Rowan Sutton, at the University of Reading and part of the research team, said: “Those of us that spend our summer holidays in Britain would welcome a move away from a recent succession of soggy summers. But this research certainly isn’t a forecast for summer 2014, or any other year.” He said the changes to UK climate would be in addition to the longer-term global warming trend driven by carbon emissions, which is most likely to bring an increase in heatwaves and extreme storms.

The system of surface and deep water currents that govern the north Atlantic circulation is called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). One component of AMOC is the better-known Gulf Stream, which brings warm water northwards and keeps the UK’s climate milder than it would otherwise be. Previous ocean measurements showed AMOC has declined by 10-15% since 2004. But new data from the Labrador sea, a significant part of the AMOC system, and new computer climate modelling, led the researchers to conclude that the “measured decline is not merely a short-term fluctuation, but is part of a substantial reduction in [AMOC] occurring on a decadal timescale.”

Jon Robson, who led the research at the University of Reading, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, said: “Our findings suggest there could be a relative cooling of the North Atlantic sooner rather than later, perhaps over the next decade or so. In Britain we could see a return to drier summers, although it could also lead to more droughts in parts of Europe and Africa. However, there’s quite a bit of uncertainty about how fast changes might happen, and other influences – such as sea ice and greenhouse gase emissions – are also important.” He said the weakening of AMOC could also lead to fewer Atlantic hurricanes.

Sutton added: “A weakening of the AMOC could also mean a decline in the Gulf Stream, although there is currently no evidence that this is happening yet.”

The UK’s run of six wet summers is too short to indicate clearly changes on climate, which evolves over decades, but scientists are following the changes closely as they unfold. The most likely cause of the wet summers are long-term climate cycles in the Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation. Other factors that may be affecting the complex climate system are a shift in the jet stream, a high level wind that channels weather towards the UK, and the fast-retreating sea ice in the Arctic. On top of all these, is the warming effect of the continuing emission of carbon dioxide.

Reasons for Optimism on Climate Action

Abstract from:

Posted: January 8 2014

Climate champions, think how bad things were this time three years ago. Copenhagen’s failure in 2009 still stung. The U.S. Senate hadn’t even mustered a vote on its version of Waxman Markey. Numerous leadership states were moving backward on climate after the November 2010 midterms. The Obama Administration seemed poised to permit the Keystone XL Pipeline. And worst of all, after the failures of 2009-10 and the phony East Anglia climate-gate brouhaha, mere mention of climate change had become toxic politically. With no one naming it, climate had all but vaporized as an issue in the U.S.

Fast forward to today and the picture has changed considerably. First off, U.S., greenhouse gas emissions are declining. They are 12 percent below 2005 levels, and national emissions have fallen every year since 2008. As a result, the U.S. is within striking distance of President Obama’s 2009 pledge to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels. The downturn in emissions means there is a decent chance that the U.S. will arrive in Paris for the next major international climate conference at the end of 2015 on track to fulfilling its reductions commitment, a pole position that should give Obama considerable leadership chops with other heads of state. Some of the reduction in emissions has been the result of the downturn in the economy, but it’s the other reasons that are especially interesting.

Coal. The single biggest drop in U.S. emissions has come from the decline in coal fired electricity generation, which has gone from 50 to 39 percent in the last four years — a nearly 25 percent decline. This has resulted in part from a remarkable display of grassroots muscle-flexing by the Sierra Club and tens of other regional and local groups, who have successfully argued that 180 planned coal plants should not be built, and that 158 existing plants (a third of the coal fleet in 2010) should be shut down. By 2020, experts predict, coal based electricity will decline further to about a quarter of the U.S. electricity fuel mix.

Low cost natural gas has been a critical ally in all of this. With additional costs on coal-based power generation coming in the form of new EPA regulations, utilities have made business decisions all across the country that gas plants will be less risky and cheaper to run for base load power. Gas plants emit about half what coal plants do. Assuming that methane from fracking and leaks can be kept under control (still unclear), this can be a major benefit to the atmosphere.

Buildings. Less well known, but potentially even more important, buildings in the U.S. are becoming much more energy efficient, and future trends look promising. The Energy Information Agency, which tracks U.S. emissions, has revised downward its curve of anticipated energy use by U.S. buildings every year since 2005. The EIA calculates that anticipated energy use in 2030 could be 40 percent lower in the U.S. than was anticipated in 2005.

This is a big deal. What’s going on? There is a joke that when economists walking down the street see $100 bills lying around, they won’t pick them up because if they were real, someone would have already picked them up. It turns out that the private sector has been figuring out that there really are a lot of $100 bills lying around and many of the more enlightened are busy collecting them. Manufacturers, for instance, have learned they can save money by building cleaner assembly lines and by retrofitting old plants. This makes their products more economically competitive. More commercial building owners are also learning to save money by being energy efficient. And developers, and architects around the country are adopting advanced designs for cleaner buildings that their clients are seeking out more frequently.

The change rippling through the building sector is nothing short of remarkable and it is a largely untold story. A lot of this is the result of decades of federal, state, and local policies on energy efficiency that have begun to kick in. As a result, the gigantic U.S. fleet of millions of buildings is collectively beginning to alter course and become cleaner.

On the horizon of this movement is a new class of net zero energy buildings that generate at least as much energy as they consume. Within a few more years, many thousands of these buildings will be coming on line. California is requiring that all new residential buildings be net zero emissions by 2020 and that all commercial buildings be net zero by 2030. Net zero buildings will surely catalyze another wave of revolution in building efficiency. A group called Architecture 2030 has just released an online catalogue of materials that builders will need to construct these buildings. Inevitably more and more buildings in other parts of the country will begin incorporating these materials as well.

States other than California are enacting tax credits to create incentives for net zero buildings. Just think what this could mean in 10 years if more states adopt these rules and standards. It is easy to think automatically that a net zero home is some kind of distant futuristic and expensive fantasy, but these building are being built now and developers like KB Homes say there is only about a small cost increment. Tax and other incentives could easily close that gap.

States and cities are also learning how to finance energy retrofits of existing buildings, a key need if demand for retrofits is to increase. State and local officials are doing this by encouraging policies that allow energy retrofit financing through property and utility bills. By the end of 2013 $56 million in funded projects will have run through Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) finance systems to upgrade windows, appliances, lights and insulation in commercial and residential buildings, and another $215 million in PACE project applications have been filed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a program backed by federal dollars that helps rural households and businesses finance energy efficiency upgrades through their local Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) electricity bills. Rural homes and buildings are some of the least efficient buildings in the country. These are typically also lower income communities where these savings can make an enormous difference. As these programs proliferate across the country through the REC community, there is no good reason why larger investor owned utilities can’t develop on-bill finance programs as well.

What’s also striking about the building retrofit marketplace is that it is truly bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats both see the value of using energy more efficiently, saving money, and generating jobs to get the work done. Enlightened bankers are eager to see this industry scale so they can more easily finance it. The only real opponents are the Koch Brothers and their ilk who want to sell more not less energy to customers no matter the consequences to the planet or peoples’ pocket books.

Vehicles. A remarkable, long awaited technological evolution is also powering energy saving opportunities in the vehicle sector. Obama Administration rules enacted during the President’s first term mean that average fleet fuel efficiency in passenger cars is increasing from 29.7 miles per gallon to 54.5 mpg. This is a near doubling that will almost halve average energy use in passenger vehicles, saving consumers billions in fuel costs. To meet these requirements, eight automobile companies have 14 electric vehicles available in the U.S. market. Sales of these vehicles doubled in 2013. Market share is still tiny relative to overall purchases, but there is growing excitement about these vehicles, and all levels of government are working to ease their way onto the roads.

Renewable energy use is also on the upswing in the U.S. Wind power development reached a new record in 2012 with 13,000 megawatts added in the U.S. and $25 billion invested. In 2013, a massive bipartisan coalition of business and political leaders successfully drove renewal of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) in Washington, D.C., but project development took a hit because of the uncertainty over the renewal process. The PTC will be up for renewal again in 2014. Hopefully federal lawmakers see the downside of stop and start policy, and will create a stable long term policy framework for the future.

Solar also has had two breakout years in a row in the U.S. Installed solar more than doubled in the U.S. in 2012 to 7,000 megawatts, and will grow by its largest margin ever in 2013 to nearly 11,000 megawatts despite the low cost of natural gas for electricity. This is the kind of growth curve solar companies have been predicting for years. Driving the upsurge is a combination of cost reductions and new financing tools.

The cost of panels has declined by 60 percent since the beginning of 2011. The cost of installing solar (getting it from a manufacturer to a roof) is also coming down as the market grows, though we still trail countries like Germany and Japan, who install solar much faster and more cheaply than we do here. The good news is that as installation costs decline, as they surely will, overall costs to the consumer will decline further as well, making solar even more competitive.

Utility 2.0. Seeing the onrush of new wind and solar onto the energy grid, forward looking utility companies are exploring new revenue models for the American electricity system that will keep them solvent, fund maintenance of the grid, and continue to encourage rapid growth in renewable generation. This conversation is conflicted, with a great many voices in the utility sector arguing that renewables will destabilize the U.S. electricity system. Change is always scary, but with more utility leaders now constructively engaging in how best to modify the system rather than just fighting the oncoming changes, there is a glimmer of hope that a rapid transition can be effected more easily. This so-called Utility 2.0 conversation bears watching closely.

States and Cities. Governors and Mayors are also taking action. At the end of June, the Governors of California, Oregon, and Washington and the Premier of British Columbia announced that they intend to get the ball rolling on a Pacific Coast Collaborative clean energy market development program that will bring a million new jobs to the region and also reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 percent or more. At their October announcement, these leaders detailed a suite of market creation initiatives in the building, vehicle, and electricity sectors that will make the pacific coastal region increasingly competitive economically over coming decades. They are actively recruiting other states to join them in these efforts.

In the wake of Super Storm Sandy, a growing chorus of mayors is also actively urging that cities prepare for oncoming climate change by making their cities more resilient to things like storms and sea level rise. Scores have developed “resiliency” plans. Seeing the extraordinary costs of preparing for climate, more mayors are also taking action to reduce emissions. New York City has helped lead this effort with a remarkable plan for protecting its infrastructure and communities, and it has also commissioned a study to examine how best to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the level of commitment scientists say we must reach for. New York City is especially vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge as it learned when Sandy walloped the city in October 2012. It knows it needs to set an achievable example for others to follow if the city is to survive. Other American and international cities are now working with the C40 Climate Leadership Group, which Mayor Bloomberg has helped support, to actively explore how they can achieve 80 percent, or better, levels of emissions reductions.

Science. Super Storm Sandy has super charged the credibility of climate science. The science debate is in much better shape. The trumped up attacks of 2009 on the credibility of the science will not be possible during the next two years. Media is smarter and an array of groups is ready to counterpunch this time. The fifth IPCC report, due out in final this year, is expected to be more definitive on the human contribution to climate change, and the analysis of coming impacts will be even starker. We may finally have gotten past the point where a handful of deniers can muck up the global climate discussion.

Public Opinion in the U.S., influenced by Super Storm Sandy and other extreme weather events, has also crystalized. A Gallup poll in March 2013 found that solar and wind power were the two top choices for domestic energy production, with 76 percent of respondents wanting more emphasis on solar and 71 percent wanting more wind energy.

Obama Climate Plan. The really big news in the U.S. on climate change, though, is President Obama’s climate plan, announced last June at Georgetown University. In it the President promised a menu of actions he and his agencies can implement using executive authority. Most commented on in the sprawling Obama climate plan is the President’s decision to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to finish rules for allowable carbon pollution from new power plants, and for allowable carbon emissions from existing power plants. These rules, long anticipated, will force utilities to either capture and store carbon emissions from their dirtiest power plants or shutter these facilities altogether. Of all the measures in the plan, these are the ones with the greatest impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Not surprisingly, they are also the most contentious, particularly the rule for existing plants. A massive fight will unfold over the next three years over these rules.

The Obama climate plan also lays out several other big ticket actions in the U.S., including plans to increase energy efficiency in large trucks and trailers, complete a string of appliance efficiency standards that have been languishing at OMB, and reduce emissions of methane, which is an especially powerful greenhouse gas.

The Obama climate plan also outlines a set of very ambitious international moves designed to reduce emissions globally. Most significant is the President’s call for a virtual end to U.S. financial support for World Bank financed coal fired power plants. In the months since release of the plan, the Administration has backed up its intention by gathering a coalition of other nations, including the Nordic countries and the United Kingdom, who are each critical funders and board members of the World Bank. The European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the U.S. Export-Import Bank have each subsequently signaled that they too intend to join the effort to end coal finance. The U.S. and its European allies are now collectively reaching out to other nations including Germany and Japan and other multilateral and bilateral finance institutions to join this effort. A global coalition of environmental and development groups, who have been calling for just this kind of leadership, are rapidly mobilizing to support Obama’s proposal with national level organizing in target countries.

It is interesting to see that a parallel coal divestment effort in the non-governmental realm is also taking off. A recent Oxford University study found that a campaign to get investors to take their money out of the fossil fuel sector–which has had 41 institutions join since 2010–is the fastest-growing divestment drive ever.

The Obama White House and State Department are also actively working with China and India to negotiate an agreement to prevent use of hydro fluorocarbons, known as HFCs. An HFC molecule is 1,000 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. President Obama and the new Chinese President Xi Jinping have had two constructive conversations on this topic, and the Obama Administration has also reached out to India, which is the other major manufacturer of these gases.

At Copenhagen in 2009, one of the major impediments to success was the very public and highly contentious discussion between the U.S. and China on how best to reduce emissions. Signs are growing that the U.S. and China, who together emit 40 percent of all greenhouse gases, have developed a much improved working relationship. Intervention by the President and Secretary of State John Kerry, have made a big difference here. This relationship has to be robust if the globe is to achieve a serious result in Paris in 2015.

China. In China, air pollution from coal fired power plants has become a political vulnerability for the leadership and is driving a broad scale call for change. Coal plant emissions kill 1.2 million people a year in China, and are making millions more ill. As a result, Chinese leaders are actively seeking ways to clean the air. As recently as five years ago, Chinese officials regularly said Chinese carbon emissions would not peak until 2030. Recent health and political developments have led analysts at Citibank to conclude that Chinese coal emissions are likely to peak this decade. This is not fast enough to rescue the climate, but growing political urgency about public health impacts (along with faster than anticipated penetration of solar, wind, and energy efficiency) is clearly having an impact on the Chinese leadership. Given this new openness to a more rapid shift away from coal, many are hoping there are ways to cut coal use even faster in China.

The pace of renewables development in China is one example of a faster than anticipated Chinese response. China built 10 thousand megawatts of new solar in 2013, and 12,000 megawatts are expected in 2014, much larger amounts than industry insiders anticipated even a year ago. Not only is China now the largest manufacturer and exporter of solar and wind equipment, it is now installing these technologies at home much faster than anyone else. China is also likely to be the fastest adopter of electric vehicles and it has clearly signaled that it is accelerating new and existing building efficiency measures as well.

Global Renewables. The global renewables picture is also much more bullish than commonly recognized. The International Energy Agency in Paris reports that power generation from renewables will exceed natural gas and be twice what nuclear will be by 2016. It also says renewable energy is the fastest growing sector of the global power market and that it will be 25 percent of all energy generation worldwide by 2018. Wind and solar are powering this jump, the IEA says, doubling between 2011 and 2018.

Saudi Arabia. One surprising example of the global renewables upsurge is happening in Saudi Arabia. The nation most synonymous with oil has decided to build 54,000 megawatts of new renewables for domestic energy consumption. The Saudis are losing massive amounts of potential revenue by using subsidized oil for domestic electricity. They’d much prefer selling that oil internationally at prevailing market prices of $100 a barrel or more. As a result, it’s a no brainer for them to install solar and wind at a large scale to power their electricity grid.

Germany aims to be at least 80 percent renewable by 2050. Already 25 percent of its electricity grid is renewable and despite warnings from many in the utility industry, its electricity system remains among the globes most reliable. Despite warnings that renewables would cause price spikes, wholesale energy prices in Germany are 50 percent lower than they were in 2008. This is because Germany’s solar and wind power are eliminating peak prices during the day when the sun shines and at night when the wind blows. The savings for the country are enormous. As a result, Germany’s competitiveness as a nation, as measured by the World Economic Forum, has climbed sixth to fourth globally in 2013. Retail prices for electricity in Germany are high, largely because of taxes added to the electricity bill, but they have remained stable (at about 2 percent) relative to household income for more than twenty years. The most recent coalition agreement between Chancellor Merkel and the Social Democrats calls for rebalancing electricity costs between industry and householders, but it is in no way a step back from the aggressive pro-renewables policy of the past ten years.

In an interesting twist, rural areas of Germany have been a primary beneficiary of the country’s aggressive renewable energy policy, and as a result, farmers and rural communities are the most passionate supporters of Germany’s rapid march towards a renewable future. Half of all German renewables are in rural areas and these communities have realized significant economic rewards in the form of investment, income, and jobs.

Germany’s renewable energy law has also become a model for governments around the world. Nearly a hundred governments, including 20 European nations, China, India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and a large number of regional and local governments worldwide, have enacted some version of what the German’s call a Feed-in Tariff, which guarantees a long term price for renewable energy production as well as an automatic interconnect with the grid. With these two things in hand, project developers are able to secure a bank loan to finance equipment purchases. The law and these provisions have proven that a rapid shift to renewables is feasible and can be economically beneficial. There are lessons here for the U.S.

Investment Climate. In part thanks to a vibrant policy environment globally on renewables, vehicles and buildings, the clean energy investment picture is positive. Despite a small dip in clean energy investment last year, Pew notes that clean energy investment in 2012 was five times what it was in 2004. Bloomberg New Energy Finance says investment needs to double from these levels if we want to start reducing global emissions by 2020. With governments strapped, private investment is going to need to cover the costs of the massive clean energy transition necessary to mitigate climate change. With multilateral finance institutions like the Word Bank looking as if they are about to become more serious about renewables, and with the declining price of solar, and a growing sense of urgency about climate change, the clean energy investment picture will improve, but will it be fast enough, and what else can we do to grow investment faster? If policymakers need to do one thing to assure potent climate change policy moving forward, it is assuring that the investment climate for clean energy stays strong globally. Perhaps nothing else is as important.

What Now? Building, vehicle, and electricity sectors are getting cleaner. Financial mechanisms and policy incentives are beginning to work in new and hopeful ways. Coal is showing signs of vulnerability at least in several important market places. Renewables are emergent globally and in multiple jurisdictions. Gas is much less of a drag on renewables than we expected. A citizen movement is coming to life in the U.S. on tar sands and divestment. For the first time, there is an American administration with a stated and proactive climate change policy. And China shows signs of being on a path to reducing its air pollution and related carbon emissions. It is an important moment. We are a long way from solving the climate problem, but threads of success seem to be coming together into something that resembles an opportunity that we need to find a way to seize and run with during the next two years.

Letter to Westminster, Concerning Recent Flooding

In response to the recent flooding and clamour from some quarters to dredge and straighten more of our watercourses, I have today written to a number of local MP’s and chairs of Select Committees to instead, take a more pragmatic environment-friendly approach.


January 12th 2014.

House of Commons [etc],                                                                                                                                   London, SW1A 0AA.

Dear ****

Land Management to Prevent Flooding.

Following repeated bouts of serious flooding over the past two decades in the south-east and elsewhere, I am aware of the clamour from a number of quarters for more flood defences and dredging of rivers and watercourses, as a means of containing and speeding up the flow of water to reduce flooding of land and properties.

I am also aware that the experts, employed by the Environment Agency, and charged to provide ministers with independent advice, largely disagree that more river-dredging will be the solution. Past river dredging has been one of the problems leading to run-off ending up in rivers more quickly and causing further flooding; indeed some of us remember the days not that long ago, when the agency’s predecessors (water authorities, subsequently the National Rivers Authority), encouraged landowners to drain every bit of wet ground in sight, which is now having consequences in villages and towns across Britain.

I am concerned that not all politicians are seriously listening to the Environment Agency. For this reason I am writing to key politicians like you, who are dealing with flooding in their constituencies, to urge you to consider some underlying factors and some relatively cost-effective approaches that can be used to hold back floodwater and that will have other benefits for both people and nature.

My main thrust is that an ecological approach should be taken to restoring a more robust and resilient English landscapes. Many of the low lying areas that regularly flood, always did, or, during the past 50 years have been either under-drained in order to intensify agriculture or, have been reclaimed from the sea. Over the years I have seen some unwise things done in such low lying areas, such as pump draining and embanking land to produce cereal crops and for intensive pasture management, eg. Pevensey Levels. (There is of course, also the question of development on floodplains…). All this has come at considerable cost, including increasing flood risk to other land as water is shifted faster to elsewhere, reduction in river water quality and acute loss of semi-natural grasslands and their associated flora and fauna. In all cases, this has only been possible through agricultural subsidies that have encouraged intensification, while the full costs of these activities in social and environmental terms were not accounted for and for which we are only now realising the costs.

The good news is, that since the introduction of agri-environment schemes between Government and farmers/land managers, some of these bad actions have been put into reverse. In addition, the Environment Agency in its support for river restoration projects, has in some areas achieved a lot in partnership with landowners, although many rivers still bear the legacy of over straightening and deepening. However, nowhere near enough has yet been done.

Unfortunately, much of our river catchments in south-east England are now under pasture based upon a single species of pasture grass replacing floristically diverse grasslands with a single short-rooted plant species – perennial rye grass (sometimes with white clover). This often involves high inputs of energy – fertilisers, chemicals and importation of feedstuffs. This scenario also involves land drainage, hedgerow loss and bad management of most remaining hedges (e.g. annual cutting to low, narrow and ‘neat bundles of sticks’). Many areas of land unsuitable for arable are now ploughed to grow maize, leaving land haemorrhaging water and soil between late-autumn and spring. Soil erosion from arable land is largely to blame for the quantities of silt and nutrients now in our rivers.

Water runs off the land far more quickly today, because our lansdcape lacks resilience – short-rooted grass, poor hedgerows, loss of woodland thus lacking vegetative structures to intercept run-off before it gets to the river, are all contributing to flooding and also to the poor quality of rivers that receive run-off from land. Many of the south-east’s rivers will fail to reach the required Ecological Quality Objectives set by the European Union owing to high levels of phosphate and sediment, with agriculture being a very significant contributor to this state of affairs. My request to politicians is therefore, do not call for a return to river dredging etc. without first seeking to address the problem at source, this means taking action to retain water upstream and stop soil, fertilizer and slurry from washing into our rivers.

Please, consider a more robust approach that will work to restore resilience to our English landscape. I am not suggesting that there is any quick fix that can be made, nor, that it will be forever possible to hold back rising tides and floods, especially given the likely scenarios associated with a 3.2mm sea level rise per year and the increasingly violent weather that climate change is likely to bring. However, people – politicians, farmers, ecologists,  communities, flood defence engineers and hydrologists, could do a lot worse than working together to improve the resilience of landscapes in river catchments and so deliver multiple benefits for people and the environment.

Therefore, I urge you to look at the range of measures that could be implemented for farmland and landscapes that would involve supporting farmers and landowners to:

1. Diversify their intensive grasslands with more plant species, not only more grass species but at least half a dozen robust native wild flowers that have deep roots, some which will fix nitrogen and will also promote healthier animals. Diversifying grassland could help to make land less liable to waterlogging and damage.

2. Maintaining and restoring existing diverse pastures and wetlands and extending them where appropriate.

3. To utilise more robust livestock breeds that do not depend on the industrial high-chemical input grasslands that are now prevalent. Evidence is building that farmers moving out of Holstein-type cattle (the main breed used for dairying) and reduced concentrates, are showing improved profitability.

4. To establish a body of expertise to seriously question and re-evaluate the costs and benefits gained through the Government’s Environmental Stewardship ‘ELS’ scheme. I believe this does not currently deliver value for money; (its sister ‘HLS’ scheme delivers sterling results).

5. Significantly reduce maize-growing involving the cultivation of land that can only be sustainably farmed as grassland.

6. Flail-cut hedgerows less frequently, allowing them to grow to 2m in height and to a greater width; plant many more hedgerow trees. Bigger hedges and more hedgerows trees will help to keep more water in the landscape, for longer. Good hedgerows can thus provide an environmental resource; less frequent cutting will also save on farmers costs and help farm wildlife.

7. To bring back incentives to improve and to plant new small, strategically-placed broadleaved woodlands within the landscape to assist as a regulator of surface water run-off, allowing it to return into watercourses over a longer period; this would also help our beleaguered water supply.

8. Given the expanding deer population across the country, to assist more joined-up collaboration on controlling deer numbers such as the Ashdown Deer Group in Sussex.  Deer in many localities are seriously damaging the value of woodlands financially and for other wildlife and for water retention.

9. Design and install small-scale wetlands to intercept waste from yards and reduce run-off into ditches. Such wetlands could provide additional benefits, e.g. fish, shooting and help diversify farm income. There are increasing case studies demonstrating that wastewater can be an asset, not a problem and that this asset can be realised through effective wetland creation.

10. Consider how to reduce damage to road verges from through-traffic on selected unsuitable country roads, as these are now a significant local source of silt within watercourses.

There are many more fundamental issues that require resolving, but the point of this letter is to ask you to at least consider supporting a range of measures that do not just involved ‘hard engineering’ actions, of which river dredging is. I would like to see the above issues dramatically moved up the agenda and implemented as a means to achieving ‘catchment sensitive farming.’

Thank you for taking the time to read this,

Monty Larkin

CC to:

Sam Gyimah, MP, Surrey East                                                                                          Charles Hendry, MP, Wealden                                                                                                Greg Clark, MP, Tunbridge Wells                                                                                         Michael Fallon, MP, Sevenoaks                                                                                              Mrs. Helen Grant, MP, Maidstone & Weald                                                                       Norman Baker, MP, Lewes                                                                                               Nicholas Soames, MP. Mid-Sussex                                                                                    Francis Maude, MP, Horsham                                                                                                 Nick Herbert, MP, Arundel & South Downs                                                                               Tim Yeo, MP, chair of Energy & Climate Change Select Committee                                      Miss Ann McIntosh, MP, chair of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Select Committee                                                                                                                        Baroness Scott of Needham Market, chair of EU Sub-Committee ‘D’ Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment & Energy

[Drafted with help from Sue Everett]



PRIESTLEY, Sara   Jan 20 at 4:04 PM

Dear Mr Larkin

Many thanks for your informative letter to Anne McIntosh, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee re Land Management to Prevent Flooding. This is very relevant to the work of the Committee at the moment as you may have seen that we are holding a one-off evidence session on the Winter Floods on 22 January (this Wednesday). I will therefore circulate your letter to all of the Members of the Committee as part of the briefing for the session.

 For your further information, below is a link to the EFRA website on the evidence session, which includes a link to the Parliament TV site, on which you could watch the session on Wednesday afternoon if you wish.

 Best regards

Sara Priestley

Environment Specialist

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

House of Commons


RSPB’s Broadwater Warren – Latest News

Abstract from the RSPB’s ‘Wealden Reserves Update, January 6 2014.

Broadwater Warren.  Broadwater is a new reserve being created near Tunbridge Wells by the RSPB on former conifer plantation which in turn, had been established after World War Two on open heathland.  The Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust is playing an important part in this major restoration project.        

“The wet and windy weather has again delayed our clear-up of this year’s felled pines at Broadwater.  This work was actually supposed to have been completed by the end of November, but continuous high water levels have made the ground too soft to work on and now there’s lots more clearing up to do, especially along the roadside of Broadwater Forest Lane.  The good news is that the conifer stumps have now been ground down, leaving a flat surface to help us promote natural regeneration of heathers and grasses.

A bountiful harvest last summer and autumn meant that it was a fantastic year for small mammals, including the dormice at Broadwater. Late warm weather led to second litters late in the season, leaving youngsters little time to put on enough weight to see them through winter. It looked good with mild weather until early December, but with the recent extreme weather, many small mammals face a tough time now. Usually, they go into hibernation over winter to conserve energy, but their nests are on or near the ground. Creatures risk being flooded out of their homes on the ground and freezing to death as they try to escape the deluges.

More of the rare Violet Web Cap mushroom has been discovered at Broadwater. There are less than 200 records of this bright purple species of fungi in Britain!

Another fantastic wildlife discovery came in October when an unusual parasitic wasp was found at Broadwater. It’s now been confirmed by the Natural History Museum as a new species for Britain! Woop!  A formal announcement will be made later in 2014 and a scientific paper is currently being produced for publication.

Broadwater has also started to make its mark on the ornithological atlas. The 2012 Annual Report by the Sussex Ornithological Society reported that Broadwater had the best breeding evidence for Marsh Tit in the county (a successful nest in a dormouse box!) and also the largest flock of Lesser Redpoll (250 birds!).

Now we can begin to look ahead to 2014 and the imminent return of more wildlife. Last year saw the first Woodlarks arrive on the heath at Broadwater Warren on 6th February. The earliest birds are usually males staking out the best territory from which they could seduce the ladies with their dulcet melodies. Climate changes and habitat availability have seriously affected their populations over the past century. Heathland has been built on, turned into pasture and conifer plantation or left unmanaged to become scrub. However, declines are gradually being reversed as a result of clear-felling plantations and better management of heathland sites. Woodlarks build nests on the ground in short vegetation, and are easily frightened away, leaving eggs or chicks vulnerable to the cold and predators. We are helping to give them a home by ensuring breeding birds are not disturbed and heathland nature reserves are well-managed.”

Common Agricultural Policy (‘CAP’) Reform Is Dead

This is BirdLife’s verdict on the CAP reforms. It’s a damning indictment that suggests the initiative has, for the time being at least, been wrested away from the agro-ecological interests by the simplistic economic arguments that are currently favoured by the political elite. Not the best start to the New Year but let’s hope we get some other more positive news in 2014.

December 29 2013, by Ariel Brunner, Head of EU Policy at Birdlife Europe.

“Earlier this month saw the European Council give the final rubberstamp to the reform of the CAP. It is now time to assess what has happened to Commissioner Ciolos’ promise of a green, fair and simple policy. Unfortunately any remotely honest evaluation of the new CAP must acknowledge that the original promise has been betrayed by Member States and the European Parliament.

In terms of the use of public money, we see a CAP where targeted Pillar 2 measures have been disproportionally reduced, while the bulk of the budget remains in completely untargeted, entitlement based payments that are not linked to any real policy objective. Cross compliance has been hollowed out by dropping much needed obligations and weakening controls and sanctions, making it even easier for law breakers and polluters to enjoy public subsidies – you can even be caught killing a bird of prey red-handed and still receive your full payment, even though the Birds Directive still forms part of the cross compliance system.

The much vaunted 30% greening of pillar 1 is mostly a sham. 47% of farmland and 89% of farmers will be completely exempted from the only biodiversity measure (requiring farmers to leave some space for nature on their farm) and those who are not exempt are being offered a smorgasbord of loopholes. Crop diversification and grassland protection have been similarly watered down. Adding insult to injury, Member States will be allowed to siphon away money currently dedicated to targeted measures, including environmental ones, to beef up “old style subsidies”. The combined imagination of Comagri MEPs and agriculture ministers has been allowed to run wild, sprouting a jungle of complex and impenetrable new rules that are designed to kill any environmental delivery behind a thick bureaucratic smokescreen.

The end result is a policy that backtracks on the 2003 Fischler reform. It is even more complex and unintelligible than the current one, it keeps shortcoming both citizens and sustainable farmers, keeps rewarding polluters and lawbreakers and does nothing to address the urgent plight of farmland biodiversity. It also miserably fails to redirect European farming toward an agro-ecological path that is vital for insuring our long term food security and the health of the farm sector itself.

The crisis in our countryside is not going away. BirdLife has long championed support for the farming sector based on the “public money for public goods” principle, but we now must face a harsh new reality of a broken system, defended by a narrow group of all-powerful vested interests that have no intention of changing. Any European decision maker who cares about our collective future must now start asking hard questions about the rationale for showering money on the least sustainable parts of the farming sector and giving them blanket exemptions from most environmental legislation that applies to other sectors.

By the end of the year, Member States will have decided how much funding to transfer between the CAP’s two pillars. Those who make the right decision to boost Pillar 2′s devastated budget will be applauded by the environmental NGO community and by citizens who want their investment in farming spent well, but these good news stories will be few and far between, and will only be making the best of a very bad deal.”