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Water: the environmental issue of 2009?

Water is rapidly moving up the agenda as the major environmental issue and 2009 brings unprecedented opportunities for government to make positive changes for society.

Several important policy developments will happen this year: new legislation will address flooding and water, Ofwat will decide how water companies fund environmental improvement and, crucially, government will decide how to deliver the ambitious objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive.

This 2 February the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) marks World Wetlands Day by urging everyone to let the government know we want a sustainable future for water that maximises the benefits that wetlands deliver to society.

Carrie Hume, WWT’s head of conservation policy explains why water is such an important issue for all of us: “Our activities have destroyed many of our natural river systems and waterways, and the functions, such as flood relief, that they provided. The ways in which we have manipulated and managed our water has come at a big cost to us and our wetland wildlife. Over 80% of our water bodies are in poor ecological condition. They are not working as nature intended and for every natural process that is unpicked, we are obliged to replace it with a costly artificial one. The urgent need to restore the balance is gaining more and more support. But we still need to use every opportunity to become a tsunami of opinion for the restoration of our wetlands.”

The EU Water Framework Directive requires governments to set out how they will improve the health of wetlands by the end of 2009. There is an opportunity for every one of us to have our say. Until the 22 June, the Environment Agency is asking for the public’s views on its draft River Basin Management Plans, which outline what action is needed where in order to deliver the Directive.

Carrie Hume explains: “The draft plans do not go far enough at the moment, but we have a window to influence them and a seemingly open ear. It’s vital we give government a strong message that there is support for clean, ecologically rich waterways. Each of us can give the benefit of on-the-ground, local knowledge to inform these plans. WWT has posted its guide to responding to the River Basin Management Plans on its website and we will be providing our own response later in the year.”

We are expecting the draft Floods and Water Bill to build on lessons learnt from the floods of 2007. The Bill will bring together a range of government sponsored reviews and reports. Ofwat, the Water Services Regulation Authority, is due this year to decide how water companies fund environmental improvement.

Rare bird finds home from home at Slimbridge

A glaucous gull has flown several thousand miles from Russia and amazingly set down at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre in a small area within the grounds which is landscaped to replicate the bird’s native Arctic habitat.

The juvenile glaucous gull, more commonly seen alongside polar bears in the Arctic, was first spotted in several parts of the wild reserve yesterday before flying directly into the tundra pen within the grounds of the centre, only metres from watching visitors.

James Lees, reserve warden at WWT Slimbridge, who first spotted the gull a few weeks ago, said: “We normally record glaucous gulls most years at Slimbridge but they tend to be at long range. To see this bird sitting inside the grounds almost oblivious to the general public was amazing, but perhaps not as amazing as the fact that this bird chose the tundra pen out of all the different pens it could have landed in. To see such a wild Arctic bird sitting so close to the visitors was a great sight, it’s also a credit to our horticultural team who have obviously done a great job making this area look like northern tundra.”

Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust remain cautious about Severn feasibility study

The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) has mixed feelings about the government’s announcement on the next stage of the Severn tidal power feasibility study.

A shortlist of five projects has been chosen including the most potentially damaging option, the Cardiff-Weston barrage. The government also announced £500k funding for a parallel study to develop innovation within the tidal energy sector. This could include investigating those options not included on the shortlist. WWT hopes such options could deliver comparable energy generation at much less cost to the ecology of the estuary and to the public purse.

Debbie Pain, WWT director of conservation commented: “We have mixed feelings about today’s announcement. WWT fully supports sustainable, renewable energy. However, we would have felt more comfortable had government excluded the most damaging option and kept in those options that appear more environmentally benign. They would then be subject to the same level of scrutiny as the barrages and lagoons. However, the announcement of £500,000 funding to develop these promising technologies appears to be a real opportunity to find a solution which does the least damage to the unique habitats of the River Severn.

“WWT is optimistic that a solution exists which can help meet government targets on CO2 reductions without destroying the Severn’s unique ecology. And we are fully committed to helping government find that solution. We believe it is imperative that we work together to deliver a secure, low carbon energy future”

Spectacular starlings at Slimbridge

Starlings at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s (WWT) Slimbridge Wetland Centre have been wowing the crowds this week with their fantastic aerial performances each day at dusk.

During the wintertime, both resident and migrant birds form large roosts at the wetland centre, gathering in trees or reed beds. As the day draws to a close the starlings form a large flock of approximately 5,000 birds which darkens the skies as it swirls around like a swarm of insects, making this one of nature’s greatest spectacles.

WWT Reserve Manager, Dave Paynter, said: “We were a little disappointed earlier in the season because they didn’t seem to be roosting here but we’re so glad they’re back. It’s has been especially exciting watching them being hunted by birds of prey which is a regular sight. Only yesterday one of our staff watched as a Peregrine falcon swooped in and made an attack. We expect the starlings to stay until about the end of February so there is really only a limited period to see this spectacle before they migrate.”

Swan lake on ice!

They travel 3,000 km from their arctic Russian breeding grounds to spend the winter in the relative warmth of the UK, but the 35 Bewick’s swans who have flown into WWT Slimbridge since the New Year have received a rather chillier welcome than usual!

With overnight temperatures dipping to -8 degrees and daytimes struggling to get above freezing, Slimbridge’s Swan lake has almost completely frozen over, leaving hundreds of wintering swans, ducks and geese sliding and skating across the ice for their daily feeds at the reserve.

WWT’s Julia Newth said: “The freezing conditions over the past week have encouraged the Bewick’s swans to pile into Slimbridge as they move further west in search of thawed conditions and more food. Swan lake looks absolutely amazing at the moment. Around 80% of it is frozen and so the swans are all sitting or sliding about the ice. It really looks like a winter wonderland! Needless to say, the afternoon feeds have been hugely popular with 160 hungry swans managing to slide across the ice to feed along the lake shore!

“The surrounding fields have remained frozen and so with limited grass on which to graze, the swans have been staying on the lake all day, providing excellent views from the comfort of our heated Peng Observatory! Bewick’s swans are not, of course, unused to such conditions with some arriving on breeding grounds in arctic Russia in late May, before the ice has thawed for the summer, but these current conditions are not what they would have expected to find here.”

Recent news from ornithologists in the Netherlands suggests that the icy weather is encouraging many swans to move to the south of the country so we are likely to see more arriving in the UK over the next few days.