EU rules on dirty beaches target British resorts

Coastal areas enjoying renaissance threatened by tough regulations, and endangered birds suffer drop in numbers
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Dozens of Britain's favourite coastal resorts could lose their coveted status as official bathing spots in a crackdown on dirty beaches being led by the European Union.

Dozens of Britain's favourite coastal resorts could lose their coveted status as official bathing spots in a crackdown on dirty beaches being led by the European Union.

The new rules are most likely to hit beaches in rural areas such as East Anglia and south-west Scotland, but resorts such as Blackpool, which have struggled to pass existing tests, are also at risk.

The tougher rules are expected to be agreed by senior EU ministers meeting in Strasbourg later this month, just as many British families prepare to flock to the coast for their annual holidays.

The UK's beaches have recently been enjoying a renaissance, luring holidaymakers away from foreign resorts. Last year, 483 British beaches - a record number - were given official bathing-water status under the existing regulations.

But environment officials say this high level shows that the current rules are too lax and need tightening - a move that could mean that as many as 40 or 50 beaches will be knocked off the official lists. Others could also lose their hard-won titles as official Blue Flag beaches once the Government starts introducing the new rules in 2008.

The Environment Agency, which oversees water quality in England and Wales, argues the new scheme will enhance the reputation of the country's best resorts and reassure swimmers that the water is safer than ever.

Under the new proposals, every beach will also have to set up an "early warning" system to alert bathers and swimmers about expected pollution incidents over the internet, on TV or with flags and electronic noticeboards by the beach.

Dr Simon Gardner, a senior agency official, said: "It's a better directive for the general public in terms of health protection. The new parameters are more focused, more modern, tighter and more relevant."

However, coastal towns and resorts that face being "de-listed" will be furious - claiming they will lose valuable income as holiday-makers stay away.

Beaches will be tested using a far simpler regime, which is intended to cut the risk of getting stomach bugs and skin infections from polluted water by half. Recent official estimates suggested that more than one million people could be getting mild stomach upsets after swimming in the sea each year.

Instead of the current tests for 17 pollutants, including sewage and heavy metals, only two measurements will be needed to detect two types of bacteria that feed on faeces - E coli and intestinal enterococci.

Unfortunately for resorts in rural areas such as Norfolk, north-west England and Ayrshire, these new measurements are much more likely to detect effluent from cattle, pigs and sheep that is washed into the sea from surrounding farms.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs originally estimated that more than 100 beaches in England and Wales would be hit by the new directive, but the commission's original proposals have been weakened by EU ministers.

Observers estimate that as many as 40 sites will be affected, but British officials argue this number could be even lower when other EU environmental initiatives take effect - further cutting the amount of sewage reaching the sea. That would also allow new beaches to be added to the list.

Bird numbers fall despite expensive plans

Endangered British birds such as the turtle dove, bullfinch and willow tit have suffered a dramatic drop in numbers because their plight has been overlooked, admit leading conservationists.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has found that over the past 10 years, numbers of these birds have fallen by as much as 72 per cent, even though millions of pounds have been spent on conservation programmes.

Five of the species that are suffering the most have been on the "red list" of most-threatened birds in Britain for up to eight years, and three of them are on the Government's priority list for action.

Since 1994, turtle dove, corn bunting and spotted flycatcher populations have declined by more than 40 per cent, with the bullfinch dropping by 26 per cent and the willow tit by an alarming 72 per cent.

Wildlife experts admit this fall is largely because the UK has focused on saving those species closest to extinction and those that are easier to help, such as the corncrake, avocet and stone curlew.

But the BTO was alarmed to discover that across Britain this concentration has meant as many as 15 species on conservation lists are now in even worse straits than before. In parts of the British Isles, kestrel numbers have slumped by nearly a third, and grey partridge numbers by a quarter.

Humphrey Crick, a senior BTO researcher, said: "It's worrying that these species are still declining despite all the efforts that have gone into their conservation. These species need targeted action to get their populations to turn around."

Ornithologists are now pinning their hopes on new farming subsidies that ministers plan to introduce early next year, which will pay farmers between £30 and £60 a hectare to create bird-friendly fields, crops, hedgerows and woods at a cost of £75m a year.

Phil Grice, a senior ornithologist with English Nature and co-author of Birds in England, said that conservationists had struggled to discover why some of these species were suffering so badly. In a lot of cases, these birds used many different habitats, making them less easy to study. In others, they believed collapses in food sources such as seeds and insects had had a severe impact.

The problem, Mr Grice added, outstripped the funds they had. "It's beyond our resources to be able to make an impact on every species," he said. "It's our tens of millions of pounds against the Common Agricultural Policy, which spends £3bn a year in the UK."


Corn bunting

Status: Red list and "biodiversity action plan" species

Current numbers: Fallen by 41 per cent to fewer than 9,000 pairs

The problem: It needs a rich supply of insects and caterpillars, which suffer from crop spraying and a shift to winter cereals.

Spotted flycatcher

Status: Red list and "biodiversity action plan" species

Current numbers: Fallen by 42 per cent to 78,000 pairs

The problem: Experts admit their decline is unexplained, but believe a dramatic fall in insect numbers could be the cause.

Turtle dove

Status: Red list

Current numbers: Down by 42 per cent to 48,500 pairs

The problem: Its scrub and woodland edge habitats, and supplies of summer seeds, are disappearing. Needs unsprayed, weedy areas beside crops.

Willow tit

Status: Red list

Current numbers: Slumped by 72 per cent to fewer than 8,000 pairs

The problem: Its sudden drop could be blamed on blue tits stealing their nest holes. It needs more nesting sites, and its plight is now being investigated.