Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A flood of interest

Following hard on the heels of the previous record-breaking year, the close of 2016 marks the end of another warmest-year-on-record.  A warming climate is associated with greater frequency of intense storm events and flooding in the UK.  Climate change research back in the 1980s highlighted this association, and warned of rising sea levels and increasing frequency of flood events across much of the world. 

Thirty years ago, the UN's 1987 Brundtland Report brought the results of that research more fully into the public domain.  It highlighted the need for mitigation to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and for adaptation to inevitable short-term change. Following two decades of limited activity, the UK's Stern Report back in 2006 provided evidence that the benefits to the UK of strong, early action would considerably outweigh the costs involved.  The earlier effective action is taken, the less costly it will be.

Sediment-laden flood water in a central section of the Eye Brook tributary of the river Welland in 2016

Flooding across the UK since then is consistent with climate change researchers' projections, and the UK Committee on Climate Change identifies flooding as currently the greatest risk associated with climate change. Insurance companies are taking the issue seriously as some properties become uninsurable and the risk associated with others becomes uncertain.  'Building resilience' is an increasing refrain from insurers, while the Bank of England expresses concern about financial instability associated with climate change.

Within our Water Friendly Farming project, we are investigating options for adapting to current flood risk trends by introducing permeable dams and supporting farmers in their efforts to improve soil management to attenuate flood peaks.  As well as potentially reducing flood risk downstream, better soil management can also reduce the effects on crop performance of water-logging, compaction and grass weed competition associated with a combination of heavy machinery and intense rainfall. 

Our continuing monitoring of flow at the base of each of the three study catchments will enable us to document actual change in due course.  We will be modeling the implications of our management on downstream water quality, sedimentation and flood risk under a range of rainfall scenarios.  Initial modeling results suggest that the management we are adopting may be better able to reduce the impacts of regular storm events than some of the more extreme ones that we are starting to experience more frequently than in the past.

The danger is that, as we focus on our response to immediate problems, we continue to neglect the increasingly urgent need for mitigation of longer term climate change.  In 2016, the UK government announced new targets for carbon emissions reduction by 2030 and became the 111th country to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, signalling new national policy for climate change mitigation. This is one to watch as we enter 2017.

Within the Allerton Project, we contribute towards mitigation by adopting renewable energy and effective insulation, home-working and teleconferences, minimising flying and supporting local food producers.  But we need to do much more, as a society and as individuals, to mitigate climate change rather than just adapting to the consequences of it.  Recent American research suggests that the next thirty years may not be as kind to us as the previous thirty have been.  Our New Year's resolutions seem obvious enough.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Robin reliance

It's the time of year when we bring bits of tree into the house and send each other pictures of robins. Robins have featured on Christmas cards since Victorian times and have become as integrated into our mid-winter festivities as holly and mistletoe.  Even the technological advances of recent decades have not totally eclipsed our long evolutionary psychological integration with nature.

Robins are one of our most widespread and abundant species, occuring in woodland, on farms, and in urban gardens.  As a confiding and adaptable bird, the robin is a species which is much loved by a large proportion of people.  This is a species which has a strong cultural value.

Robin territory numbers at Loddington
Robins have fared well at Loddington.  Breeding numbers doubled between 1992 and 2001 during which time we carried out a combination of habitat improvement, legal predator control and winter feeding.  Numbers were 24% lower in 2006 in the absence of predator control.  In this, robins follow the trend set by species such as blackbird and spotted flycatcher whose nesting success and breeding numbers are influenced by the control of nest predators.  

Robin numbers were 56% lower in 2010 in the absence of winter feeding as well as predator control.  Robins are regular visitors to garden bird tables, and have also frequently been recorded using gamebird feed hoppers on the farm at Loddington.  Our Trailcam records even document robins feeding from hoppers at night.  Those big eyes which are no doubt part of the robin's popular appeal, are put to good use.  With predator control and winter feeding restored at Loddington in recent years, robin numbers are now at their highest level since 1992.

This sort of conservation management system has a cost, and this is met by a combination of private funding and government payments through initiatives such as the Countryside Stewardship scheme.  At times of political and economic uncertainty, searching questions are inevitably asked about expenditure at all levels, from government to individual farms and households.  The moral imperative for wildlife conservation aside, the case for public and private investment in wildlife is strong.

Each Christmas we demonstrate the cultural value we attach to robins, but the importance of this species, and countless others, extends much further.  The evidence for important benefits of wildife to human psychological wellbeing continues to mount.  Wildlife can reduce stress and anxiety, and increase positive mood, self-esteem and resilience, helping to reduce mental health problems which are an enormous and persistent social and economic national burden.  The robin is a seasonal reminder that, at times of political and economic uncertainty, arguably above all others, our wildlife is an asset which we need to recognise and support for our mutual benefit.