A round up of the top countryside, conservation, wildlife and forestry stories as chosen by the CJS Team.
River flow is reduced in areas where forests have been planted and does not recover over time, a new study has shown. Rivers in some regions can completely disappear within a decade. This highlights the need to consider the impact on regional water availability, as well as the wider climate benefit, of tree-planting plans.
“Reforestation is an important part of tackling climate change, but we need to carefully consider the best places for it. In some places, changes to water availability will completely change the local cost-benefits of tree-planting programmes,” said Laura Bentley, a plant scientist in the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and first author of the report.
Planting large areas of trees has been suggested as one of the best ways of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, since trees absorb and store this greenhouse gas as they grow. While it has long been known that planting trees reduces the amount of water flowing into nearby rivers, there has previously been no understanding of how this effect changes as forests age.
The study looked at 43 sites across the world where forests have been established, and used river flow as a measure of water availability in the region. It found that within five years of planting trees, river flow had reduced by an average of 25%. By 25 years, rivers had gone down by an average of 40% and in a few cases had dried up entirely. The biggest percentage reductions in water availability were in regions in Australia and South Africa.
The Woodland Trust today publishes its Emergency Tree Plan – the first of its kind and a challenge to governments. It sets out how the UK can rapidly increase tree cover to help reach net zero carbon emissions and tackle the declines in wildlife.
Key points include:
Dr Darren Moorcroft, CEO of the Woodland Trust said: “As the chief executive of the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity I’m acutely aware that we start 2020 with more woods under threat from destruction than any other time in history. Tree planting rates are the lowest in decades, and 1 in 10 wildlife and plant species is under threat from extinction. Disease and pests have taken hold and risk wiping out millions of our native trees. Never has the picture appeared bleaker. We’ve seen a lot of talk about trees and that is welcome but we’ve yet to see the action that is required. We’ve left ourselves a phenomenal amount to do in a very short space of time. The moment of crisis has come and action needs to be taken this year. Today we launch our Emergency Tree Plan, which outlines what needs to be done to increase our tree cover to help tackle the climate and nature emergencies and to help the UK reach its targets for net zero carbon emissions. Government needs bold policies and local authorities and landowners need the support to act swiftly and of a scale to expand tree cover across the UK. I can’t stress enough that we can’t be here, in the same position next year for all our sakes.”
Predators, especially small invertebrates like spiders and ladybirds, are the most likely to be lost when natural habitats are converted to agricultural land or towns and cities, finds a new UCL-led study.
The first of its kind, global study on the impacts of human land use on different groups of animals is published in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology.
“Normally when we think of predators, we think of big animals like lions or tigers. These large predators did not decline as much as we expected with habitat loss, which we think may be because they have already declined because of human actions in the past (such as hunting)” said lead author Dr Tim Newbold (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment)
“We find small predators – such as spiders and ladybirds – to show the biggest declines.”
Small ectotherms (cold blooded animals such as invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians), large endotherms (mammals and birds) and fungivores (animals that eat fungi) were also disproportionally affected, with reductions in abundance of 25-50% compared to natural habitats.
The researchers analysed over one million records of animal abundance at sites ranging from primary forest to intensively managed farmland and cities. The data represented over 25,000 species across 80 countries. Species were grouped by size, whether they were warm or cold blooded and by what they eat. Species ranged from the oribatid mite weighing only 2x10-6 g, to an African elephant weighing 3,825 kg.
The results indicate that the world’s ecosystems are being restructured with disproportionate losses at the highest trophic levels (top of the food chain). Knowing how different animal groups are impacted by changing land-use could help us better understand how these ecosystems function and the consequences of biodiversity change.
A new taskforce has been created which is dedicated to tackling serious and organised waste crime, such as dumping hazardous materials on private land and falsely labelling waste so it can be exported abroad to unsuspecting countries.
The Joint Unit for Waste Crime (JUWC) will bring together law enforcement agencies, environmental regulators, HMRC and the National Crime Agency.
Serious and organised waste crime is estimated to cost the UK economy at least £600 million a year and a 2018 Home Office review found that perpetrators are often involved in other serious criminal activity, including large scale fraud and in some cases modern slavery.
Meanwhile, the last fly-tipping statistics for the year 2018/19 revealed that local authorities in England dealt with just over one million incidents, an increase of 8% from the 998,000 incidents reported in 2017/18.
Information collected by British Trust for Ornithology volunteer bird ringers and nest recorders provides an insight into how some of our resident and migratory birds fared during the 2019 breeding season.
Results show that 2019 was an early breeding season, with many species laying eggs significantly earlier than average, possibly thanks to record-breaking February temperatures; research has shown that many birds produce eggs earlier during warmer springs to ensure that their young hatch when the insects on which they are fed are most abundant.
The biggest winners were the tits. Numbers of Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits at the start of the breeding season were higher than average; the most likely explanation for this increase is the very successful breeding season of 2018, as many of the birds encountered by ringers in 2019 were juveniles nesting for the first time. Not only were more birds present, but evidence from BTO volunteers monitoring nests shows that each pair that bred also produced a higher-than-average number of chicks. Whether this results in another bumper year in 2020 remains to be seen – the weather over winter has been relatively mild, which bodes well, but it has also been wet and this can be a challenge, especially for younger, less experienced birds.
Conversely, 2019 was a poor year for several of our other common garden visitors. Numbers of Blackbirds and Dunnocks encountered by ringers were the lowest since the use of ringing to monitor abundance began nearly 40 years ago, and Robins were also less numerous than in recent years. The contrasting fortunes of these birds relative to the tits is likely to result from a much less successful breeding season in the previous year as the proportion of adult birds surviving the winter seemed fairly typical.
Police Scotland has today (Monday 20 January) launched a new wildlife crime investigators course to enhance capability in this complex area of local policing.
Wildlife crime covers a wide range of offending from badger baiting, to raptor persecution, freshwater pearl mussel theft, to hare coursing and salmon poaching.
Reports of wildlife crime are increasing and also include cruelty to wild animals, crimes involving deer and hunting with dogs.
While wildlife crime poses significant harm to the species targeted by criminals, it also impacts on the communities who rely on wildlife for employment and tourism.
Every division across Scotland is represented on the inaugural course, which was launched by Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, at the Scottish Police College.
Assistant Chief Constable Duncan Sloan, Major Crime and Public Protection, said: “Investigating wildlife crime can be demanding, difficult and complex. Scotland’s wildlife habitats cover vast tracts of land, often in remote areas, where the discovery of a suspected offence can be made days or weeks after the event. This new course is designed to build on our current capability, to enhance the skills and knowledge of our officers in what is a specialist area of criminal investigation. We want to ensure that we have officers who are experts in the investigation of the wildlife crime in all of its forms. Scotland’s wildlife is one of its greatest attractions. Our officers will be trained to the highest level to ensure thorough investigation of wildlife crime. We will continue to work with our partners to prevent crime and to ensure that Scotland’s wildlife is protected.”
The Museum has declared a planetary emergency, in recognition of humanity's failure to combat our destructive impact on the planet's survival systems.
Climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, pollution and deforestation are just some of the crises caused by unsustainable human activity. These add up to an emergency on a planetary scale.
Prof Andy Purvis, a Research Leader at the Museum on the effects of the biodiversity crisis, says, 'All the warning lights are flashing: hottest years on record, coral bleaching, rising sea levels, loss of tropical forests, wild populations declining, and a million species threatened with extinction. We would be failing in our duty to society if we didn't pass these warnings on.'
Earth's natural systems are groaning under the weight of climate change and biodiversity loss.
The world is already 1.1°C above pre-industrial temperatures. This rise is driven by greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, which trap heat in the atmosphere. We produce greenhouse gasses when we burn oil, coal and gas, and through meat and dairy production.
It is generally agreed that the world needs to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
We are not on track to reach that target. There is still a 2% annual growth in emissions, and they are not expected to peak until after 2030, even if we do everything we can to clean up our act right now. To reverse the damage, action needs to be taken immediately to get global emissions down to zero.
Researchers including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been warning us for years that humanity is heading towards a tipping point. Soon, we will have affected nature so much that it will be too late to control the consequences, no matter what we do, and climate change will continue to spiral.
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