Bird 'hotspots' at risk as pressure for new homes and industry grows, RSPB warns

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The Independent Online

Ten major UK sites of national and international importance for their bird populations face major dangers from development, according to a survey from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The survey illustrates in a broader national picture the situation revealed by The Independent last week on the Thames Basin Heaths, where wildlife-rich tracts of heathland west of London holding three rare bird species - and protected by EU wildlife law - are increasingly at risk from housing development.

Setting up nature reserves and passing legislation is no guarantee of safety for wildlife in a small island with an ever-expanding economy, the survey vividly reveals.

The sites at risk range from the Flow Country, the unique peatland landscape of Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland, to the Thames Estuary on the very borders of London.

The threats include industrial development, especially of ports, new transport infrastructure, new housing, and military training. Some are threatened by intensive agriculture; others by a sea-level rise as a consequence of global warming.

There is also a growing perception by the RSPB, which - in general - backs renewal energy sources such as wind, wave and solar power, that large-scale wind farms in some areas may pose great danger to bird populations. Besides pointing to the 10 sites, the society is also drawing attention to an 11th site: the increasing threats to the marine world. "The seas around our extensive coastline are perhaps our last great wilderness, home to a spectacular array of wildlife and underwater habitats," it says.

"The UK marine environment is internationally important for its breeding and wintering seabirds -including manx shearwaters, gannets, great skuas, red-throated divers, common scoters, razorbills, cormorants and shags.

"But our seas are under constant pressure from a diverse range of activities: overfishing, oil and gas extraction, offshore wind farms, oil spills as well as pollution from land. Without proper safeguards in place, these pressures are leading to a degradation of our marine environment."

The Government must provide adequate resources to survey our marine environment so we can identify and protect the most important areas for marine wildlife, the RSPB says.

It says a comprehensive network of international and national marine protected areas is essential.

"The pressure on wildlife is unrelenting," said the RSPB's director of conservation, Dr Mark Avery. He added: "Some sites are threatened every few years. In such a crowded country we have to protect the wildlife hotspots. The Government must do much more to recreate lost habitats. It is falling down on the promises it made to restore habitats on a grand scale."

The RSPB would also like to see ministers work harder to stop Europe from watering down site protection laws and to implement properly EU and domestic legislation designed to help and protect wildlife.

1 FLOW COUNTRY, CAITHNESS AND SUTHERLAND

One of the largest and most intact expanses of blanket bog in the world, an important site for red-throated divers, hen harriers, golden eagle, merlin, golden plover, greenshanks and arctic skuas.

Nature of threat: Previously, widespread planting of conifer forests. Today it is increasingly threatened by large numbers of wind-farm proposals around the Caithness & Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area (SPA).

Solutions: Increased removal of conifer plantations to restore the peatland habitats. Proper strategic planning for location of wind farms.

2 ISLE OF LEWIS PEATLANDS

Area of bog hosting scarce breeding birds such as red-throated and black-throated divers, golden eagles, merlins, golden plover and dunlins.

Nature of threat: Proposals for a 234-turbine wind farm. Roads, power lines and pylons would stretch across the area.

Solutions: The RSPB believes the Scottish Executive should reject the plan.

3 FIRTH OF FORTH

A vast estuary with a range of habitats. Wildfowl and waders rely on it for winter survival, including bar-tailed godwit, golden plover, knot, pink-footed goose, redshank, Slavonian grebe and shelduck.

Nature of threat: Pressure from a range of development.

Solutions: Scottish Executive and others must assess development proposals, so growth is not at the expense of wildlife heritage.

4 LOUGH NEAGH

The largest freshwater lake in the UK, in the centre of Northern Ireland. Home to wintering water birds, including goldeneye, pochard, tufted duck and breeding seabirds.

Nature of threat: Agricultural run-off and sewage have led to high nutrient levels in the lake, giving low oxygen levels and less food for birds.

Solutions: Improvements to sewage treatment and more efficient use of fertilisers.

5 OUSE WASHES

This area of wet grassland was created in the 17th century to drain wetlands and extend agricultural land. It hosts swans, ducks and waders such as snipe.

Nature of threat: More frequent flooding is reducing populations of breeding birds.

Solutions: The Government has promised a large new wetland adjacent to the Ouse Washes to provide homes for birds displaced by flooding.

6 COASTAL WETLANDS IN SOUTH-EAST ENGLAND

A vast complex of habitats is home to hundreds of thousands of wintering wildfowl and waders, as well as a range of rare breeding birds, including bitterns.

Nature of threat: Climate change and the sinking of the land are causing sea levels to rise, threatening habitats such as saltmarsh.

Solutions: Careful planning of coastal flood defences.

7 SEVERN ESTUARY

The estuary has a wealth of intertidal mudflats attracting waders and wildfowl, including dunlin and redshank.

Nature of threat: Proposed barrage crossing the estuary would lead to knock-on industrial and commercial expansion. Also continuing pressure for port expansion.

Solutions: Carbon-free electricity generated by a barrage could be delivered more cheaply in other ways.

8 LOWLAND HEATHLANDS IN SOUTHERN ENGLAND

Remnants of once extensive lowland heathlands support internationally important populations of rare breeding birds such as nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers.

Nature of threat: Previously, heathland was lost to afforestation and agriculture. Today, demand for new houses is leading to more recreational use and pressure on breeding birds.

Solutions: A way needs to be found to plan for housing growth and wildlife. Alternative open space for recreation is needed to relieve pressure on fragile heathland wildlife.

9 SALISBURY PLAIN

The largest remaining area of chalk grassland in north-west Europe and one of the most important areas for the rare stone curlew in the UK.

Nature of threat: Widespread intensive agriculture, intensification of military training on the plain, and potential new bypass through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

Solutions: A bored tunnel for the A303 at Stonehenge. A strategic, planned approach to any intensification of military training is needed to ensure the impact on stone curlews is minimised. Potential to revert large areas of agricultural land back to chalk grassland.

10 THAMES ESTUARY

A wealth of intertidal mudflats, sandbanks and marshes along the north Kent and south Essex coasts supportsa similar wealth of wintering wildfowl and waders including avocets.

Nature of threat: The Government's Thames Gateway initiative is increasing pressure on estuarine habitats from industrial, commercial and residential development and associated transport infrastructure.

Solutions: Strategic planning for the Thames Gateway to ensure that it conserves the natural environment, both for the wildlife it supports and its role in creating a better quality of life for local people.

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