I have been back in the UK for nearly two months now. Leaving Thailand was tough, English rain every day, no elephants and less independence were things I slowly learnt to deal with when I became a graduate living with her parents again!
I’m keeping busy with a waitressing/housekeeping job in a local seaside village, trying to earn as much money as possible because in September I will be starting my masters degree.
It’s something I definitely was not keen on doing when I got towards the end of my undergraduate degree. While my friends were applying for masters last year, I sat back and relaxed in the knowledge that I didn’t want to do one so didn’t have to stress about any of the things they were worried about whilst filling out their applications.
Turns out, I actually just wanted to make it a whole lot harder for myself. I made the decision to apply while I was in Thailand, and started looking at courses around Christmas time. I applied to the University of Exeter in mid February. After many emails back and forth to my mum, I eventually had to get her to upload copies of my transcript and other documents because the internet was so poor in Huay Pakoot! I got my offer the day before my birthday- what a great birthday present.
So in September I will be moving down to Falmouth for the year to study for a masters in Conservation and Biodiversity, with a trip to Kenya thrown in somewhere in the middle!
Having the time away from education has made me now become so excited to go back. I miss the student lifestyle (I know it can’t last forever but if I can stretch it out then why not) and the freedom of living away from home (but I do love my parents to bits and will miss them billions).
In the mean time I get to enjoy my time at home, with a dog on my lap every time I sit down and horses relaxing just outside my window. As an exchange for Thailand it couldn’t really be much better.
Firstly I must apologise for the considerable length of time it has been since my last blog post. March, April and May were extremely busy months, with me completing my dissertation and revising for and sitting my final exams at university. It is now June and there are just 3 months until I leave for Thailand!
But now, on to a topic that has rocked the UK today: the European Referendum.
Most people will know by now that the UK voted to leave the European Union yesterday, with millions of Britons waking up to the news this morning. There are both pros and cons resulting from this decision. Factors such as the economy, trade and immigration were most widely focussed on in the media and political discussions. One of my main concerns, however, was the environment, and with many of our environmental targets set by the EU I am worried about the consequences for the environment with this referendum result.
Indications are that environmental protection will now become weaker. The most immediate impact of leaving the EU was clear this morning, with the financial markets crashing. Becoming “green” does not come for free, money is required to develop technology and investments are needed to put methods into practise.
One of the European Union’s greatest, yet somewhat understated, achievements have been the environmental issues it has tackled. These include controlling air and water pollution and protecting endangered species. The EU also sets targets for renewable energy, not only allowing this industry to grow, but helping reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Other initiatives include cleaning up sewage on beaches; the water of many was deemed too dirty to swim in, in the 1980s. After legal action from the EU, 99% of the UK’s beaches are now deemed safe for swimming.
The EU Renewable Energy Directive set a target for 20% of the EU’s energy to be renewable by 2020. The UK already showed signs of being reluctant to commit to this, resulting in an individual target for the UK of 15% of energy being renewable. Additionally, the UK consistently falls short of other targets set by the EU. For example, 40,000 people die prematurely in the UK from air pollution and dozens of cities in Britain are failing to meet air pollution targets. The government admitted that London, Leeds and Birmingham will not meet the set targets by at least 2030, which is 20 years later than the original target set by the EU.
The EU places quotas on fishing catch and bycatch. Without these quotas, the seas around the UK could be fished in an uncontrolled manner until there is nothing left. The short term vision is that a lift of these quotas will allow fishermen to sell a higher quantity of fish, and more valuable fish such as tuna, therefore increasing their income and boosting the industry. In the long run, however, fish stocks will collapse, so the benefit will be short lived. Take a look at my blog “Overfished and Underloved” for more information on overfishing.
The laws passed through the EU will still apply to the UK once we leave, however our parliament now has the power to change them. It would also depend on whether we remain in the Europe
an Economic Area (EEA). If we remain within the EEA, most environmental laws, other than the Bathing Water Directive, would still apply. Whether laws will be changed is yet to be seen, however cutting funding for environmental protection may be seen as an easy way for the future government to save money.
On the other hand, leaving the EU gives us more control over the environmental protection laws passed. This may mean that we can fine-tune them to be more specific for the UK’s individual requirements and could allow us to spend allocated money more effectively. The EU has also passed a moratorium on the use of genetically modified crops. This is a whole debate in itself, however the restriction of use may be leaving us vulnerable to crop diseases which may otherwise be prevented.
I have my doubts over whether effective laws will be passed to protect the environment and whether the UK will continue its efforts to reach current targets in the wake of this decision.
Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers- they alter their environment and manage the biodiversity and biomass found within it. This can have many positive impacts: creation of fertile soils- perfect for a range of riverbank plants, fish stock recovery, reduced water flow- useful particularly during heavy rain and flood periods, and creation of new, complex underwater habitat between the river and the bank. Dams also help purify water and trap silt, reducing turbidity and sedimentation of water courses.
Concerns about reintroducing beavers into the UK range from disease introduction, such as beaver fluke and beaver beetle, reduction in agricultural land due to wetland creation and the impact to fish. The beaver beetle is a parasite to beavers alone, and with proper screening, disease introductions can be managed. Beaver dams only flood small amounts of land, and compared to the large scale flooding they can control, the economic impact is minimal. Fish migrations have been studied in Scotland to understand the barrier effect of dams. Initial studies suggest that dams do impede movement upstream in salmon and trout, but due to increased habitat diversity, the impact on abundance and productivity is positive. These are only preliminary results and the issue needs further research.
Eurasian beavers are native to the UK, but have been extinct here since the 16th century, when they were hunted for their pelts, meat and scent glands. Schemes are now starting to bring this native animal back. Beavers have been reintroduced into Scotland- the Scottish Beaver Trail started in 2009, introducing 4 beaver families into Knapdale Forest. These beavers have been thriving, with 2 new beaver kits spotted this year.
In Devon, the Wildlife Trusts have set up an enclosed 3 hectare area containing 2 beavers, with the aim of researching the effects that beavers have on wetlands and to help inform future reintroductions. The original small stream has been transformed into an amazing network of waterways.
Now there is another project in Devon. In 2014, beavers were found on the river Otter, their origin unknown, but suspected to be the result of an escape or unauthorised release. Initially, Defra planned to place them into captivity after fears of disease (E. multilocularis forms liver cysts, it cannot be transferred between beavers, but it can be transferred to other mammals). After the animals were found to be disease free, the Devon Wildlife Trust were granted permission to start the River Otter Beaver Trial. You can follow their story here.
There are now an estimated 12 individuals in 4 parts of the river. Recently there have been concerns that the beavers have disappeared, but the Wildlife Trusts have assured us that there is no need to worry. In fact, you can head down to the river to spot them for yourself.
Many of you may have seen in the news recently that a Blue Whale, the world’s largest animal, was spotted in UK waters this week. Have a look here at the Guardian’s report. This fantastic news suggests the blue whale’s numbers may be increasing and therefore its range expanding. The sighting coincides with the amazing footage filmed by the Big Blue Live team in California, however you don’t have to travel to America to see some fantastic large marine life. Admittedly, the UK blue whale was seen 250 miles off the south coast, but there are many other large marine animals that you can see closer to shore that may surprise you.
The minke whale can be found worldwide. In the UK they are most commonly seen around Scotland and Northern England, but can occasionally be seen in waters around Wales and South West England. Adults range from 7 to 11m long, with females being larger. They are believed to be able to live for 50 years. They have a wide diet, ranging from herring to plankton and krill. Minke are seasonal, and so your chances of seeing one are greatest around August, during the feeding season.
There are an estimated 8,000 minke whales in UK waters and anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million worldwide. Populations are considered to be stable, however they do face several threats.
Whaling: Historically, minke were commercially hunted by several countries. Recently, whaling bans have been put in place, however a few countries (Greenland, Japan, Norway) still capture whales for food and scientific research.
Accidental Capture: Purse seine nets are indiscriminate and large and therefore any animal that swims within their reach in at risk of being captured. Other fishing methods such as trawling and line fishing have reported accidental minke whale catches.
Sightings of minke whale have declined in recent years, creating some concern about their numbers falling. Fishermen have reported whales with plastic, litter and the resulting scars on their bodies.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the minke though! Classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, minke whale numbers have not been reported to be declining at a threatening rate. Further research is needed to keep an eye on minke numbers, and interventions put in place if anything threatening does happen.
This cetacean may look like a dolphin, but it’s triangular dorsal fin and small mouth containing spade shaped teeth distinguish it from its distant relative. Their most common UK distribution stretches further south than the minke whale, being sighted regularly along the north coasts of Devon and Cornwall as well as Scotland and both the east and west coasts of Northern England. They are the smallest cetacean in European waters, reaching around 1.8m.
An estimated 230,000 harbour porpoise inhabit the North Sea and Channel waters. Despite being the most common cetacean in UK waters, numbers are believed to have declined, particularly in the south.
Threats facing this animal include accidental capture, much like the minke whale. The threat is greater for the porpoise due to its smaller size. To help reduce the numbers of bycatch, the UK Bycatch Monitoring Programme was set up by the JNCC in 2005.
Anthropogenic disturbance also threatens harbour porpoises. Like most cetaceans, harbour porpoises use sound as a means of communication and to glean information from the environment. Anthropogenic background noise and pulses can interfere with the porpoise, ultimately altering its behaviour. Most notable is the movement away from loud noises, which may mean moving away from breeding grounds and feeding sites.
The conservation status of the harbour porpoise has been assessed as favourable. It is an offence to kill, injure or disturb any cetaceans in England and Wales, and similar legislation exists for Scotland and Ireland. Conservation efforts and surveillance are ongoing to ensure the species’ future.
Basking sharks, the second largest living fish, are found in most temperate waters. In the UK, you are most likely to see one between May and October in the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, Malin Head and around the Southwest of England. Although a daunting looking creature at first sight, the basking shark is relatively harmless. Its massive mouth is used for filter feeding on plankton- it does not have the carnivorous diet of some of the more charismatic sharks. They can grow to 11m long, with a mouth span of 1m.
Only a few hundred basking sharks now return to UK waters in the summer months, after increased hunting pressure in the late 1900s killed over 80,000 in the North-east Atlantic alone. Sharks are valued for their liver oil, which was previously used as a lubricant and lamp oil, but now is used in cosmetics. Estimates suggest that the basking shark population in the NE Atlantic is at numbers lower than 5% of historic levels. Globally, the basking shark is categorised as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but in the NE Atlantic its status has dropped further to Endangered.
Although the basking shark has been protected since 1999, many individuals are believed to be killed from injuries after collisions with vessels when feeding at the surface.
The value of shark fins saw a 333% rise in the late 20th century, fuelling the continuation of fisheries to provide for the demand, particularly from South East Asia. The last UK fishery closed in 1995, however many still exist around the world. The proportion of fins from basking sharks is unknown due to a lack of monitoring, but the market is expanding.
All is not lost for the basking shark. Last year, the number of basking sharks in the south west increased, to the delight of conservationists. With effective protection measures put in place, and awareness raised about the problems facing all sharks, populations can recover.
What You Can Do to Help
I’ve written about 3 species that are found in the UK, but there are so many more, and all of them need a little bit of help. The Wildlife Trusts have set up a petition, campaigning for 17 protected areas in megafauna hotspots around the UK. The petition will be taken to the UK Government in the hope of setting up these areas to protect the UK’s whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks. You can sign it here. It only takes a few seconds.