Welcome to the March 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 the impact of climate change on European forests, the loss of variation, studying relationships between mammals with camera trapping, the management of invasive species, falling insects as food for fish, mapping undiscovered life, agricultural biodiversity, compulsory nature lessons, red tape, competition encoded, risk of extinction to small amphibians, Abidjan bats, troubled honeyeaters, optimising habitats for great crested newts to flourish, new species of screech owl, bat fatalities and wind power, economic benefits to ecological restoration, UK renewables, marine protected areas, heather and grass burning, and the Environment Bill.

Ecology News in March

Climate change threatens European forests: Windthrow, forest fires, and insect attacks threaten over half of Europe's forests, which cover a third of Europe's landmass. Vulnerability to disturbance has been studied using satellite data and artificial intelligence between 1979 and 2018. Forest structure and prevailing climate determine how vulnerable forests are. It was found that old trees are particularly vulnerable to drought due to the effort of moving water from their roots to their high-up canopy. They are also the preferred hosts for harmful insects. Source.

Rapid loss of variation within species - the biodiversity crisis: Eric Palkovacs, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz stated that "Biodiversity means more than the number of species, and when we focus on species-level extinctions we are missing part of the story,... Intraspecific variation is a neglected aspect of biodiversity." Simone Des Roches noted that "Our coevolutionary history with hundreds of domesticated species is characterized by our continued selection for unusual and beneficial variants within species," On reviewing the species evaluated by the IUCN it was found that 1% have been evaluated below the species level. Source.

Camera trapping reveals an unknown relationship between mammal biodiversity and tropical rainforests: Researchers linked the productivity of the habitat to the presence of species with unique characteristics. Higher productivity environments were linked to the presence of these species. The species that are considered unique vary by site. Source.

Manage invasive species don't eliminate them: It has been found that it is easier to limit invasive species to a level at which they are not damaging or likely to create major changes. Resources put into this effort can then be managed more effectively across many projects, rather than focussing on the eradication of one species. Source.

Food source for fish includes falling insects: Insects falling into streams are a good source of food for fish. Lengthening the period within which these insects fall can influence food webs and ecosystem functions and may act as a predictor of how climate change will sculpt environments. Source.

Map of undiscovered life: Extinction of species may come about before they are even discovered. A new map of undiscovered species was published online. Unknown species are left out of conservation planning, management, and decision-making - identifying gaps will make for better planning. Current estimates are that 10-20% of all species have been described. Researchers have created a map detailing the most likely places to find new species. Source.

Agricultural biodiversity: Biodiversity friendly management is vital to minimise the negative impacts of agriculture. Research has shown that a scientist's perception of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and management is very different to that of the farmer. In terms of making agricultural decisions, scientists were found to value scientific information, while farmers valued government and agricultural sector information sources. There is clearly a gap between agricultural research and practice. Source.

Government considers compulsary nature lessons: The idea is backed by David Attenborough and was a key recommendation of the Dasgupta review. Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta stated education “should introduce nature studies from the earliest stages of our lives, and revisit them in the years we spend in secondary and tertiary education”. Source.

The red tape that stops progress: Scientists who work with foreign biological specimens face an array of permits. There are numerous logistical barriers that make working abroad difficult. Permits are required for each country so that studies on species that cross borders can be undertaken. Source.

Competition encoded in the songbird brain: In a study that created a short period of competition, researchers found that gene expression changed with genes related to cellular maintenance was down-regulated whilst those related to energy mobilisation were up-regulated. Competition seems to have a lasting effect and acts to socially prime individuals. Source.

Small amphibians have increased extinction risk: Small amphibians tend to have fewer babies than larger species. The extinction of amphibians, such as frogs, toads, salamanders and newts exceed those of any other group. Over 40% of amphibians currently face extinction risk. This risk increases towards species that produce fewer offspring. Source.

Troubled future for Abidjan bats: It is said that the city's bat population was around a million a year ago, but this number has fallen due to poaching and urbanisation. Up to half of the population of bats have migrated elsewhere. The bats play an important ecological role, fertilising plants and disseminating seeds and pollen. Source.

Wanted - adult mentors for male songbirds: When male songbirds do not have role models their singing ability suffers and they are less successful at attracting a mate. Researchers found that a lot of male honeyeaters are learning tunes from other species. Source.

Identifying habitats for great crested newts to thrive: Developers make a payment under Nature England's district level licencing (DLL), based on the impact of their activity, and this money is used to create or restore habitats that are monitored for 25 years. Cranfield University's Land Information System, wider geospatial information, ecological knowledge, and surveys will help Natural England create a map of Strategic Opportunity Areas. Dr. Ben Payne at Natural England, said: "Understanding the soil properties, as well as terrestrial habitat and pondscape characteristics, contribute to predicting suitable habitat for great crested newts." Source.

New screech owl species found: John Bates, curator of birds at the Field Museum in Chicago stated that new species of screech owl may be surprising because these birds are considered to be well studied. When you stop and listen things can be quite different. The newly discovered species are "cute, 5-6 inches long, and have feathery tufts on their heads". Source.

Wind energy and bat fatalities: Assessing fatality is commonly undertaken by recording bat activity within the operating range of the rotor blades by attaching detectors to the nacelles of the mast top. Researchers have found doesn't predict risk reliably, due to a lack of coverage, and that further detectors need to be used at other locations, alongside radar or thermal imaging cameras. Source.

Economic benefits of the ecological restoration of agricultural land: By restoring land ecologically you can increase the provision of ecosystem services. Researchers looked at this using InVEST models, proxy values for various land cover types, and an economic input-output model. They found that the economic contribution that rural land provides is greater than the contribution made by agricultural production alone. Source.

15th Mar - UK Renewables: Critical Minerals

Alexander Stafford raised the importance of knowing where our critical minerals come from. These minerals are vital to the UK's renewables and low-carbon future and will be important post-covid and post-Brexit. Each electric car uses 100kg of these minerals, and a solar panel has 16 different minerals and metals. Wind power is set to increase from 10 GW to 40 GW by 2030, which requires 26,000 tonnes of rare earths and more than 4 tonnes of copper. Part of the Government's 10-point plan for green recovery is dependent on a secure green supply of critical minerals. We currently rely on The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the People's Republic of China. The Government is looking at meeting their social objective of being less damaging to the environment.

More information can be found on Hansard

17th Mar - Marine Protected Areas

Marine protected areas are globally important - for example, the oceans absorb 25% of the carbon gases that are produced by humans. This can lead to acidification. 1% of oceans are protected which falls short of the 30% that have been identified as needing protection, in order to aid the recovery of the oceans. Overfishing, the use of bottom trawlers, the presence of antibiotics, and plastic pollution all contribute to the degradation of the marine environment. Carbon capture and biodiversity are of importance.

5% of the UK’s seas and 40% of our inshore seas are in some form of marine protected area, but only four of the 11 indicators of good environmental status are met across our local seas. In 2019 supertrawlers with bottom dredges engaged in 3,000 hours of fishing in our offshore marine protected areas. It is estimated that in the first half of 2020, the level of overfishing had already doubled.

“We are looking at the protection not just of individual species, but of the total biodiversity of an area.”

Tony Lloyd on talking about Lyme Bay

Rebecca Pow commented that there are three types of MPA protections: marine conservation zones, special protection areas, and special areas of conservation. We now have 371 MPAs, which covers 38% of the area. In England, there are 178 MPAs, covering 40% of English waters. Inshore (6 nautical miles from the coast) over 90 areas are now protected from damaging fishing activities. In many areas, we have been able to permanently stop bottom towed fishing from taking place, in places such as Poole harbour, The Needles, Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, Lyme Bay and Torbay. Offshore, is different. Introducing management measures for offshore MPAs has been hard to achieve because of the need for EU agreement, however, this will be easier post-Brexit. There are proposals for four of our most sensitive offshore sites—the Canyons, Dogger Bank, Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge, and south Dorset. A whole programme is being developed to improve the remainder of offshore areas.

More information can be found on Hansard

18th Mar - Heather and Grass Burning (England) Regulations 2021

Questioning the regulations

Baroness Jones stated that the regulations "do not provide a basis for significantly reducing the amount of peatland burning that occurs in England, in part because the restrictions extend only to certain areas of deep peat". The UK has 13% of the world's blanket bog. Less than 12% of the UK's peatland is near a natural state, and much of it is degraded by habitat destruction, artificial drainage, excavation and, burning to create grouse breeding grounds.

The protection of peatland is important for:

  • Providing a haven for wildlife, such as golden plovers, sundew plants, and sphagnum moss species.
  • Acting as a store for 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, and offsetting out carbon emissions. Burning releases 260,000 tonnes of carbon annually.
  • Preventing flooding and wildfires

The ban on burning will only affect 30% of the total upland peat. Exemptions will impact these areas where burning can continue due to management decisions. There is a call to investigate this further, with research into management practices being conducted.

“Overall, the evidence shows that the burning on the blanket bog is detrimental as it moves the bog away from its original wet state and risks vulnerable peat bogs being converted to drier heathland habitat.”—[Official Report, 14/10/20; col. 1087.]

Baroness Sheehan added "why make an SI to protect peatlands that leaves 60% unprotected?"

The Duke of Montrose agreed in general, however pointed out that in high rainfall areas, burning is site-specific and dependent on factors such as wind and weather. He also reflected that if the burning is undertaken correctly then the surface should be the only thing that is affected.

Lord Knight wanted to know

  • How Defra is going to measure the impact of regulations in correcting the problem of 86% of upland peat being classed as being in a poor condition?
  • How will burning heather help and will the reduction of burning as a result of the regulations be measured?
  • Does the minister agree with the RSPB that long-term reduction of wildfires relies on the re-wetting and restoration of peat?

Points in response to the above

The Earl of Caithness stated that "Nobody is talking about burning peat; they are talking only about the vegetation on top of the peat". The idea that the peatland should be a wildlife haven can only be achieved with correct management. Cool burns produce 1% to 5% of the carbon emissions from peatlands - 95% of carbon emissions come from lowland peat which aren't covered by regulations. His concerns were around minimising the spread of fire, especially with climate change.

Baroness Mallalieu pointed out that swaling, or rotational peat burning, has been done since medieval times to encourage growth of young heather and grasses to benefit animal grazing. Heather needs to cleared every 20 years or so. Without management mature plants would take over, such as Molinia grass, bracken, gorse, and scrub, and heather and mosses would decline.

Viscount Ridley stated that burning heather locks carbon up as charcoal, and prevents the shading out of sphagnum mosses, which sequestrator carbon in blanket bogs. Furthermore, grouse moor managers have already delivered 25% of the Government’s 2025 peatland restoration target for the whole of England, by blocking drains and restoring bare peat.

The Earl of Shrewsbury remarked that "Burning benefits many rare species. The mosaic of high and low vegetation that it creates, with mosses, grasses, rushes, and flowers thriving alongside heather, is a much richer habitat than wall-to-wall heather. Curlew, golden plover, and red grouse benefit especially from this form of habitat management."

Further information:

The Uplands Partnership has produced Peatland Protection the Science: four key reports, a dossier which concludes that the science that is used for policy making is out of date and that further trials of management practices should be undertaken. Burning can be viewed as a positive if it is done correctly with cool burning being the method of choice.

Defra is developing an ‘England Peat Strategy’, linked to the 25-Year Environment Plan. Meanwhile, the UK Peatland Strategy establishes a route for peatland conservation and management.

More information can be found on Hansard

Environment Bill

The Environment Bill is moving through the House of Commons, and is on the Report Stage. It needs to go through a Third Reading before it can move through the House of Lords and then finally undergo Consideration of Amendments and Royal Assent.

For further information review the UK Parliament Parliamentary Bills update page