Welcome to the January Parliament activity report

Note this is a summary of some of the points - read the full set of Hansard on https://hansard.parliament.uk/ - This blog is to inform rather than to express affiliations with a certain point of view. Feel free to scroll through to the headline that interests you - the House of Lords Hansard summary is in indigo and the House of Commons in green. Links to relevant information have been added.

This months blog includes information on conservation hot spots, bird-friendly wind farms, cultural diversity, green homes grant, eDNA, wildlife crime, micro-climates, fire and bees, the Galapagos, neonicotinoids, an 'extinct' mouse, species vulnerability and extinction, white-nose syndrome, flooding, fish-friendly detection, butterflies clap, G7 and the Environment Bill.

5th January 2021 - Identifying key conservation hot spots

Mitchell et al (2020) recently published research about how to identify key locations that have the capacity to supply a range of ecosystem services. They developed methods to identify areas that have these ecosystem services: carbon storage, freshwater, and nature-based recreation, in relation to current protected areas and resource development tenures.

"Overlapping hotspots of provision for multiple ecosystem services are also extremely limited across Canada; only 1.2% (~56 000 km2) of the total ecosystem service hotspot area in Canada consists of overlap between all three ecosystem services."

It was also found that current or future resource extraction plans are in ecosystem service hotspots, and thus highlights key areas that should receive conservation efforts, in order to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystem services. More information can be found here.

6th January 2021 - Bird-friendly wind farms

A tool has been created to enable an evidence-based decision on wind turbine placement, which will minimise collision risks for the Verreaux Eagle. A turbine blade can spin at 290km/hour with collision being fatal. The Fitzpatrick Institute of Ornithology, Hawkwatch International and the University of Amsterdam have developed VERA - Verreaux's Eagle Risk Assessment. This new computer model uses GPS data from Verreaux Eagles to define an area, based on habitat use and flying height, that will minimise the likelihood of collisions.

6th January 2021 - More diverse than previously thought

Researchers have known for some time that the equator is the point at which diversity reaches its peak. A group of Santa Fe Institute collaborators has developed a novel method to explore biodiversity and found that human cultural diversity matches this pattern. The group found a link between mammal diversity and human linguistic diversity - they theorised that richer environments are more interactive, more niche-rich.

6th January 2021 - Green Homes Grant

The green homes grant voucher scheme that opened in September 2020, has received 58,000 applications so far. Lord Oates pointed out that the scheme had achieved less than 10% of its original target, and requested the consideration of a long-term sustained scheme over a number of years, allowing the provision of the required skills needed to deliver a project such as this. Lord Mann raised concerns about the low number of contractors that are actually engaged with the scheme, and the need to incentivise their engagement. There were further concerns about a delay in issuing vouchers. The scheme has been extended to March 2022.

Further information is available on the Hansard

12th January 2021 - eDNA can be used for so much more

Researchers have used eDNA to find evidence of the elusive round goby fish, an invasive species, which is currently impacting fisheries in the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes. Their study entitled 'Nuclear eDNA Estimates Population Allele Frequencies and Abundance in Experimental Mesocosms and Field Samples' was published in Molecular Ecology and demonstrates how to use eDNA to identify the presence of a species as well as the number of individuals and the origin of these individuals.

12th January 2021 - Animal Welfare and Wildlife Crime Offences

Baroness Hayman of Ullock raised the topic of plans around the improved enforcement rates for animal welfare, and wildlife crime offences. Defra currently commits £300,000 a year to the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and legislation gives enforcement agencies the power to bring offenders to justice. It was noted that the Animal Welfare (sentencing) Bill going to move forward to the Committee stage.

Baroness Fookes was concerned about the enforcement of international law in relation to wild animals. The UK has committed over £26 million to 85 global projects, as part of the UK's Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. One project is the detection of pangolins in shipments and their protection from being traded in any form.

Baroness Parminter wanted to know if wildlife crime will be a recordable offence. Lord Goldsmith stated that recordable offences are 'set outside Defra' but they do work with relevant authorities. Wildlife crimes carry the risk of unlimited fines and custodial sentences of six months. There are more than 500 wildlife crime officers across England and Wales.

Further information is available on the Hansard

14th January 2021 - The ecosystem is shaped by the micro-climate

Animals and plants are shaped by climate - and so are food webs. Tuomas Kankaanpää, from the University of Helsinki, researched insect community assemblages in the Northeast Greenland mountains. The food web was found to consist of:

Mountain avens > moth larvae > parasitic wasps and flies

The micro-climate had an impact on parasitoid communities, species abundance, and interspecific interactions. Kankaanpää said it was important to consider clusters of species rather than look at how climate change impacts one species alone. It is also important to consider how climate can create a mismatch between species, throwing the balance of the food web out and creating a problem with the right mixture of resource availability that sustains each species.

14th January 2021 - Female bees and fire

Researchers recently found that fire events correlate with the percentage of female bees in an area. They found that bee production could act as a 'measuring stick' of habitat health. Canopy-reducing fires can cause an increase in flowering plants and therefore resources.

"Adjusting offspring production toward the more expensive offspring sex shows a functional response to changes in habitat quality via an increased density of flowering plants."

14th January 2021 - The secret of the Galápagos

The archipelago receives cool, nutrient-rich water which sustains phytoplankton - the foundation for this biological hotspot. Researchers modeled the regional ocean circulation around the islands and found that northward winds create turbulence that pushes life-sustaining deepwater upwards. It was found that this 'upwelling' is controlled by highly localised atmosphere-ocean interactions, and informs the management of the Galápagos. More information can be found here.

14th January 2021 - Biodiversity: Impact of Neonicotinoids

Lord Randall raised the recent decision to grant authorisation to use neonicotinoid containing product, Cruiser SB, to treat sugar beet. It was decided by Government that the impact on biodiversity is outweighed by the benefits, according to Lord Goldsmith. Strict conditions would be attached to any emergency authorisations. The Government are not lifting the restrictions that were put in place in 2018. The application of the product has been approved for "a very limited period" for sugar beet, a plant that doesn't get the opportunity to flower, which is only grown in the east of England. The use will amount to 6% of the quantity applied in the years prior to the ban. The use will be for one season, giving the industry time to develop alternatives.

Lord Randall was concerned about the entry of the product into watercourses and the harm that it would cause to wildlife. He called for the publication of the NFU 2020 application and any detailed advice from the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides and English Nature. Lord Wigley asked if the neonicotinoids will leach into the soil and the water at the base of the plant, and lead to the contamination of flowering weeds, and how will a restriction of planting flowering crops in the fields previously occupied by the sugar beet be enforced? Lord Goldsmith confirmed that "a 22-month prohibition on any flowering crop being planted after a treated sugar beet crop" is required" and for oilseed rape, which is highly attractive to pollinators this will extend to 32 months.

Viscount Ridley suggested that innovative breeding technology could be the way forward with a reduction in pesticide use. Lord Goldsmith agreed that the Government is interested in the minimised use of pesticides, which is discussed in the 25-year environment plan. There is an interest in integrated pest management, supporting the use of non-chemical control techniques.

Lord Cameron, chair of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, raised that neonicotinoids reduce overwintering and reproduction success of bee species. Lord Forsyth added to this stating that neonics are toxic to bees - 5,000 to 10,000 times more toxic than DDT - and asked if it is sensible to open the door to the use of these products. Lord Goldsmith replied by stating that the HSE, Defra and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides considered that conditions in place were sufficient to remove the threat of the use. He added that the Government has a National Pollinator Strategy.

Baroness Parminter asked, "how is this decision compliant with the Aarhus convention on environmental justice?"- She suggested that the application has not been made public, and the NFU lobbied in private. Baroness Jones called for transparency on how the decision had been made. A request for the application to be made public will be lodged.

Further information is available on the Hansard

18th January 2021 - Rediscovery of 'extinct' mouse

Mount Pinatubo, Luzon, erupted in 1991. The landscape changed considerably. Twenty years later researchers surveyed the mammal species on the mountain. Vegetation was made up of sparse native and non-natives, a few trees, and dense areas of grass, shrubs, and vines. The researchers didn't expect to find many animal species, and so were surprised to find eight bat species, seven rodents, and wild pig and deer. Most surprising of all was the discovery of the Pinatubo volcano mouse which was thought to be extinct due to the eruption and its small geographic range - instead it is thriving!

18th January 2021 - Avoiding species vulnerability and extinction

3,000 animal species are considered endangered and hundreds as vulnerable. A new Nature Ecology and Evolution paper entitled "Management implications of long transients in ecological systems" discusses management practices in relation to the transient nature of species, and the use of predictive modeling. Researchers discovered that a species can become vulnerable without a visible reason and that interactions between species or ecosystem dynamics can provide a 'heads-up' before a species or system collapse happens. Factors affecting species may include decay rate, migration, holding capacity, and disturbances, with their effects being transient. Adaptive management of systems is required to help the recovery of a species or system.

19th January 2021 - Bat disease

North American bats are currently in a state of crisis, due to white-nose syndrome, a fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which has been decimating bat numbers since 2006. The fungus grows on the bats noses and wings and causes them to awaken from hibernation earlier than normal. Researchers have predicted the survival outcomes for each species of bat by comparing hibernation energy consumption for a healthy bat versus an infected bat. They did this for 946 bats, nine species, across eight sites. They looked at energetic measurements in relation to environmental conditions.

The study revealed that white-nose syndrome threatens: Myotis ciliolabrum (western small-footed bat); M. evotis (long-eared bat); M. lucifugus (little brown bat); M. thysanodes (fringed myotis); M. volans (long-legged bat); and Perimyotis subflavus (tricolored bat).

Whilst, larger species were less likely to be impacted by the disease: M. velifer (cave bat); Corynorhinus townsendii (Townsend's big-eared bat); and Eptesicus fuscus (big brown bat). This correlated with body mass, body-fat, and hibernaculum relative humidity.

Information about incidences of this disease in Europe and the UK can be found here.

20th January 2021 - Flooding

Lord Rooker enquired about the preparations that have been made to help reduce the chance of flooding this year. Lord Goldsmith noted the current success of the Government's flood defence programme that is yielding results. Baroness Jones noted the impact of flooding and asked if the Government have an urgent national plan. Lord Flight stated that "65% of flood prevention is in poor health since the National Rivers Authority was subsumed into the Environment Agency, and no further checks have taken place on the state of river and sea walls for nearly 30 years". Lord Goldsmith responded that "preparations are being made to operate flood defences and flood storage reservoirs and to put up temporary barriers", and that he disagrees with the comment about the Environment Agency. Lord Krebs raised the point that coastal communities would need to be relocated in the future. Lord Goldsmith said that they are moving towards nature-based solutions for resilience to flooding and coastal erosion. Baroness Rawlings questioned whether flooding could be prevented by improved drainage structures. Lord Goldsmith said that dredging can be used where it doesn't increase flooding downstream.

Further information is available on the Hansard

21st January 2021 - Fish-friendly detection

This is another clap for eDNA which has been found to be less disruptive, more friendly, and more accurate than electrofishing. The species of a stream can be analysed with a sample of the water alone. This method allows scientists to understand species distribution and movements, as well as enable people to define management practices that are sympathetic to the presence of a particular species. One limitation is the detection of low densities of fish, and it is suggested that eDNA should be used as a complementary method alongside electrofishing, due to the usefulness of the latter method in collecting information about fish physiology and health.

21st January 2021 - Butterflies clap

Science News revealed this month that butterflies use a clap technique with their wings, enabling them to rapidly take off in the presence of a predator. The researchers at the Lund University suggest that the shape and flexibility of the butterfly wings could be applied to small drones.

21st January 2021 - G7 Summit

Lord McConnell requested details on outcomes to be achieved at the G7 Summit. Lord True confirmed that climate change and preserving the planet's biodiversity are some of the shared challenges that will be addressed. Lord McConnell expressed his hopes that President Biden is going to sign up to the Paris Agreement (indeed, he did). The Earl of Sandwich wanted to know if the UK were going to encourage G7 countries to progress forward with clean energy and green technology.

Further information is available on the Hansard

26th January 2020 - The Environment Bill

New Clauses:

  • 1: Environmental Principles: Public Authorities - Public authorities will be required to act in accordance with environmental principles when exercising their functions.
  • 5: State of Nature Target - Set and meet the target that will reverse the loss of biodiversity in England by 2030 and align this with the new Convention on Biological Diversity goals to be set this year.
  • 9: Environmental objective and commitments - Sets out that the environmental objective is to achieve and maintain a healthy, resilient, and biodiverse natural environment that supports human health and wellbeing, and allows for the sustainable use of resources.
  • 11: Environmental targets: plastic pollution - Set targets for the reduction of plastic pollution and reduce the volume of non-essential single-use plastic products sold.
  • 14: OEP function to consider housing targets - Have regard to the impacts the housing targets will have on compliance with the UK’s environmental targets.
  • 15: Net-zero carbon target as a condition of planning permission - Any grants of planning permission for residential development in England must be subject to a condition to secure that a net zero-carbon target objective during construction and ongoing occupation of the building is achieved.
  • 17: Strategy for new economic goals to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing - Prepare a strategy for the adoption of new economic goals that are designed to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing.

Some of the amendments:

  • set legally-binding, long-term targets to increase public access to, and enjoyment of the natural environment.
  • ensure that the consent of Senedd Cyrmu would be required before undertaking infrastructure projects in Wales
  • ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as 2005 WHO guidelines.
  • Government to include steps to improve people’s enjoyment of the natural environment in its Environmental Plan.
  • to allow parliamentary scrutiny of exemptions granted to allow plant protection products banned under EU law, where they are likely to impact species covered by an environmental improvement plan.

Further information is available on the Hansard