Friday, 17 February 2017

Beavers prove a winner for Greens

Nice little bit of good news.

The Green Party have won a seat on a local council in the Forest of Dean from UKIP with a pledge to support the reintroduction of beavers to prevent flooding. I can't say if it was the main reason they won, but I'd like to think so.


Anyway, I didn't know it, but it turns out there is an official discussion underway about beaver reintroduction in the area - involving the local wildlife trusts and some charities. Combined with other reintroductions in Devon, Wales and Scotland and escapee populations in Kent, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and elsewhere, its just more momentum to the growing spread of the wild beaver across Britain, which will be a boost for fish, for flood prevention, for birds and every other thing that creepeth along the river bank.

It could also be a relief for the Forest of Dean's wild boar population as UKIP councillors have in the past been among those calling for them to suffer a major cull.








Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Bristol should have a 'hotel tax' to fund low carbon transition

I think it's time that Bristol seriously considered having a 'city tax'. This would be a small amount of money levied on tourists staying in hotels in the city, raising funds for important projects. In my view there is a strong case that this money should be used to aid the transition to a low-carbon economy, and specifically targeted at lower-income households.


The point is that Bristol needs money. Like other authorities around the country Bristol City Council is in trouble, with a £92 million hole in its next five year budget. At the same time the city itself is booming, with population, construction and tourism expanding rapidly. We also know that the transition to a low carbon, environmentally friendly economy is both the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity of the coming decades. It is also essential. We simply cannot carry on as normal.

A tourist tax would help with both, and would also be a fair tax. Tourism is a high-carbon and relatively high-income business, and a little tax on it is justified.

Bristol receives around 526,000 international tourists a year. If each spends on average six nights in the city, then there is the potential to raise millions of pounds. There are also around 1.5 million domestic tourists, each spending around 2 nights in the city (they should also pay the hotel tax). Of course the tourism industry also brings over a billion pounds to the local economy, so there would be no advantage in making the tax punitive, but a small amount would be justified.

Lots of cities have these taxes - from Amsterdam to Cologne, Paris to Singapore - and Bristol's close neighbour Bath is also considering it. No doubt parts of the hotel industry will cry foul, but there is no reason to worry. A tax of £2 per night per person on a hotel room might earn the city £12 million a year. That would be less than 0.1% of the total tourism spend on the local economy, so would be unlikely to harm the industry, and would give money directly to the Council.

£12 million is not vast, but it is not nothing either. And it would be a start. It is one of the few taxes a city can have which is not a tax on the electorate, making it politically viable. Finally if the tax was publicly and visibly advertised as helping the environment many tourists would welcome it, and it would boost Bristol's 'green credentials' which are an important part of its overall 'brand' (itself something which draws tourism).

So what would we do with this small windfall? It could be targeted at specific functions - such as deploying solar power on low-income housing. The returns (small though they currently are, around 3%-4%) could accrue to the Council, while residents would get lower electricity bills.

Other good options would include home insulation to make a contribution to fuel poverty, biodiversity projects in the city (here a few million could make a very big difference), affordable zero-carbon housing, or public transport.

At the very least it is worth a try. It would be a bold move, and a fair one. Give it five or ten years, and then see who wants to get rid of it.




Monday, 16 January 2017

Is Bristol in danger of losing its trees?

Is Bristol in danger of losing its trees? Its a genuine question, and one I don't yet have the full answer to. But I've done some digging and I'm concerned. Let me explain.

Trees are one of the nicest things about Bristol. Particularly the old ones. But in recent months I've noticed quite a few little white signs seeking permission to cut them down - for development, for rebuilding, for health and safety, for disease. A lot of renovations seem to involve removing mature trees. One in particular caught my eye from a developer in Clifton who wanted to remove two huge oak trees because they were decaying. The planning office was unable to insist on their replacement.

Individually these applications could be reasonable, but what of the cumulative effect? How many established trees are being lost, and are they being replaced? The trouble with trees is that they take a long time to get old, and unless there has been continuous replanting, there will be big gaps. That's bad for wildlife, air quality and the character of the area, and it's just not as nice.

From a Freedom of Information request I got a list of all the times permission has been sought to fell trees. This only covers trees in conservation areas, so I have no idea how many are being lost elsewhere, but its a start.

From this data we can see that around 3800-4000 trees have been lost in the last 5 years (a conservative estimate from the number of trees mentioned in each application). That might not sound too bad, but these are only the ones in conservation areas which required permission. That excludes much of the city.

Plotting the location of the trees removed on google maps give the spread below.


And what of replacements? Looking at the entries in the FOI data, only a small minority of applications indicate that new trees will replace those being removed, about 130 trees replanted in all.

In addition, very few applications were refused or had tree preservation orders imposed - around 70 out of 2343 applications.

Of course Bristol has planted lots of new trees in that time - about 39,000 by the Council as part of Tree Bristol and the One Tree Per Child scheme, including at least 129 street trees. But where are they? I've been trying to get a comprehensive map, but have not yet managed to find one.

We can however get a clue from the Council's adopt a tree policy, which allows individuals to adopt trees that have already been planted. Looking at the adopt a tree map from Bristol City Council you can see that almost all of the trees that have been planted by the city are in the same few parks, and open areas, quite separate from the old garden and street trees being lost in conservation areas, and perhaps, the rest of the city (we don't know).



Individuals too have likely planted thousands of trees - no permissions are needed - but again, as far as I can tell, we simply don't know.

The point of all this is that I have a concern. Without some way of accounting for the cumulative impact of losing old trees, and without being able to ensure that on average they are replaced, there is a risk that the ancient garden and street trees which give large parts of Bristol its character will be hollowed out and lost.

There is a threat too that as trees mature, take up more space and become more difficult to handle then the easiest thing will be to simply remove them and either not replace them or replace them with different species, such as the ubiquitous plane trees which blanket all new developments - a danger that seems more likely than ever given the financial crisis facing our councils. Indeed this may already be happening. There have been stories that Bristol City Council cannot afford to replace trees that it is removing, while in Sheffield the city council is removing trees on roads to cut down on maintenance costs.

This is not to say that this is all the fault of the Council, or that they are not aware of the problem. Far from it - the Tree Bristol and One Tree Per Child schemes look very worthwhile, and planting community forests is a great idea - but we must also take care of the every day urban trees that are essential to the character and ecosystem of a city.

I have tried to contact the council to chat through some of these points, but so far, no joy. I'll keep you posted. Do let me know in the comments if you have any insights or corrections. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Few initial camera trap pictures of wildlife

I was down at the field again this weekend, checking on my camera trap. It seems to have failed after just a few days, but in the meantime it recorded a lots of activity. Check these little clips out.

video



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I've obviously seen lots of bird and insect life down there already, but its great to know there are a few larger animals and flocks of starlings moving around. The location of the camera wasn't great and looking through the clips there was clearly a lot of activity just out of sight (animals that had triggered it and were audibly close, but out of view). Next time I'll find somewhere better!











Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Rewilding a wetland - update!

Hi folks. What a difference some rain makes! Was down at my field for the first time in a wee while and it was wet. Very wet indeed. Obviously you expect and to some degree hope for that when you are doing a wetland project, but it was still exciting to see.

Anyway, it was a beautiful sight. Herons, goldfinches, flocks of lapwings and starlings, snipe, kestrel and buzzards were all there, both in my field and my neighbours land. With a few more trees and little diversity of plantlife, who knows what might come along?

So that's the next step - to source some local trees to scatter in a couple of areas. Alder and downy birch to begin with, as I see plenty of them growing in similar areas a couple of miles away. Perhaps the odd oak on firmer ground, or if I have leftover soil from digging a scrape. Hawthorn and willow may be able to seed themselves.

I also installed a trail-cam to get an idea of what larger creatures may be passing through. Not only is this fun, but it might be important for trees planting. No point leaving little trees exposed if the deer are just going to eat them. :)





Friday, 25 November 2016

Wild boar are native too, and we should recognise that


Yesterday the Scottish Government officially recognised what we have long known and asked for - that beavers are a native species in Scotland and that those which have been reintroduced - whether intentionally or not - should be allowed to stay.

This is the right decision and a huge victory for all those - particularly those in the Tay Valley - who have campaigned for so long or worked on reintroduction projects. It means that these animals can be protected, and if necessary, managed for the long term. It is also good for the semi-legal populations of beavers elsewhere in the UK (such as those in Devon) as it should strengthen the argument that they are a fully native and protected species.

But its implications should go wider. Currently there are hundreds of wild boar living, half legally, in the UK. Like the beavers these are a native species which were wiped out for a few hundred years but which are now back in the wild. The UK (and Scottish) governments, should grant them full native status.

Critics will argue that as they have not been reintroduced in a formal programme they can not be considered native. This is nonsense, something the Scottish government has tacitly accepted by extending 'native' status to descendants of beavers which escaped in the Perthshire, as well as those of the 'official' reintroduction project in Agryll.

More importantly, at a time of biological crisis, when species and populations are falling at a catastrophic rate, we should look to our rules to help wildlife, not use them to throw up arbitrary barriers. Wild boar are native to most of the UK. After an absence of a few hundred years they have returned to several areas. How they came to do that seems, in the grander scheme of things, largely irrelevant. They are the right species in the right place and they are living and breeding and spreading. We should be happy about that and give the protection and the respect they deserve.

Here are some screen-shots I have made of a family near the Forest of Dean in England, from footage we shot a few years back (courtesy of Hand-Crafted Films).






  

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Scottish government recognises beavers as a native species

Woohoo! Finally after months and months of prevarication, the Scottish Government has formally recognised that beavers are a native Scottish species, and so will receive protection under European and Scottish law.

This is big news, as it means that not only the 'official' beaver reintroduction programme in Argyll, but also the much larger unofficial beaver population in Tayside can now stay permanently, and will be protected. Up until now they have occupied a sort of twilight area, where they have been vulnerable to killing and extermination.

While this is obviously of huge benefit to the beavers in Scotland, it could also be good news for similar 'semi-legal' populations in England, which I had a hand in helping be left in the wild. Currently the only beavers officially recognised in England is the group which escaped and established themselves on the River Otter in Devon, which is now being allowed to remain as a 'trial' managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust. Even these are not totally protected and could in theory be removed at the end of the process.

At the same time there are several other unofficial populations in England which, like their counterparts in the Tay river system, have been breeding unofficially and which are vulnerable.

So far the UK government has been loath to recognise that beavers are a native species in England, with all the legal safeguards that might entail. They even went so far as to introduce a clause in the infrastructure bill which could help to separate populations of the same species into lawful and unlawful ones. Nonetheless, the fact that the Scottish government has done so must put pressure on the UK government to follow suit, and may even have legal consequences all on its own. Watch this space. Regardless of the law, there really is no excuse not to protect them. At a time when the loss of wildlife is almost routine, we should fight tooth and nail for any chance to see a lost species return and spread.

In the meantime, it is a good thing in the midst of lots of bad things. So let's be happy.