Experts talk climate change at meeting of Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty partnership

Climate change was the focus of this year’s annual forum for the north Northumberland coast, which was held virtually for the first time.

Sunday, 11th October 2020, 6:00 am
The speakers at this year’s Northumberland Coast AONB annual forum. Clockwise from top left, Dr Hannah Fluck, Richard Willis, Dr Chris Redfern and Dr Mike Jeffries.

Dozens of people logged on to the remote meeting hosted by the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership to hear four guest speakers speak on a typically diverse range of topics linked to this year’s theme.

In his closing remarks, AONB officer David Feige noted that Covid-19 had been a major preoccupation for the team as it has been for everyone else.

But he added: “I think the talks today have reminded us that we mustn’t be distracted from the even greater and longer-term challenges that we face, least of all climate change.”

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The final speaker, Dr Mike Jeffries, who is associate professor of ecology at Northumbria University’s department of geography and environmental sciences, talked about the role of wetlands in capturing carbon.

In a tongue-in-cheek manner, he pointed out that ponds are a ‘shocking’ omission from the AONB’s management plan.

“Because they are so ubiquitous and so familiar, we kind of take them for granted,” he said. “But the AONB has some absolutely astonishing, beautiful ponds.

“They are things to be treasured, even if they are so familiar and everyday.”

Dr Jeffries explained that a block of mud from a bottom of a pond, a metre square and 20cm deep, holds about 9kg of organic carbon.

“When we talk about things we can do to mitigate climate change, we hear a lot about tree planting. I’m fond of trees, I have trees nearby where I live and I talk to them regularly, but trees are quite slow and you can’t stick them everywhere,” he continued.

“You can stick ponds all over the place. Ponds aren’t going to solve all our gas emissions, but they could be really helpful and they are great biodiversity hotspots as well.”

Following his presentation, Iain Robson, the AONB’s access and natural environment officer, said it was a welcome reminder that ‘peat and trees aren’t the only game in town for carbon capture’.

Another speaker, Dr Hannah Fluck, is head of environmental strategy at Historic England and is responsible for overseeing the organisation’s climate-change work.

In a wide-ranging presentation, entitled Climate Change, Covid and Heritage, she tied it all together into some key points that she wanted those in attendance to consider and take forward.

Her challenge was to embed climate thinking into heritage decision-making, but also to embed heritage in climate-change thinking, to break down the division between nature and culture, and consider how the skills of heritage professionals can be used in future climate action.

“We are all on a really steep learning curve on this and will be for some time, so sharing those experiences and research becomes really, really important,” she added.

One of the changes to Northumberland’s planning system in the past couple of years is the new requirement for developers of schemes within a certain distance of the coast to pay an ecological contribution to the local authority’s coastal mitigation scheme.

And one of the speakers at the Thursday, October 8, event was Richard Willis, who now heads up Space for Shorebirds, Northumberland County Council’s new coastal wildlife ranger service, having previously worked as an ecologist for the authority.

“The Covid crisis isn’t going away and we’ve found out how important it is for people to have access to green space, no more so than our coast, it’s so important for recreation,” he said. “But with that recreation comes disturbance.”

He explained that disturbance means anything that changes the behaviour of the birds, preventing them feeding, roosting, nesting, etc. If it happens once or twice a day, that’s not really a problem, he said, but if it happens often, it can have an impact on the bird populations.

“Dogs play a huge part,” he added. “We are dog lovers and it’s important we don’t villainise dogs in this piece, but we need to acknowledge the science on this and it looks very much as though dogs contribute roughly 50% of bird-disturbance incidents.

“We are calling out to dog owners to join our dog rangers scheme and take the promise to give the birds space and not chase the birds, and in return, we will showcase their dogs on social media.”

The general guidance includes looking out for and being aware of wildlife, giving birds space – 40 to 50 metres, following requests and signage by rangers, and staying on paths when crossing the dunes to avoid spreading the invasive pirri-pirri burr.

Asked if this year had been worse for shorebird disturbance, he said that the full impact was not known yet, but that while there was a period when the coast was much quieter, as the lockdown began to ease there was ‘almost a tidal wave of visitors’.

“We went from a very low disturbance point to a very high disturbance point,” he said. “From a breeding point of view, it did seem to me that there was an impact on ringed plovers this year.”

For more information, visit http://spaceforshorebirds.co.uk/ or find the project on social media.

Remaining on the ornithological track, Dr Chris Redfern, a trustee of the Natural History Society of Northumbria and recently retired from an academic post at Newcastle University, reported on his research into Arctic terns and Antarctic ice.

He said that up until recently there was not a great deal of information on where the birds were when they weren’t on the likes of the Farne Islands, as despite around 100,000 being ringed in the UK, many weren’t recovered.

That has changed with some relatively recent research involving geo-locators, with a study on Northumberland’s terns being launched in 2015.

The data shows that the county’s Arctic terns enter the East Antarctic pack ice in early November, move towards the Antarctic coast with the receding ice as the summer develops and then head west along the Antarctic coastline.

Dr Redfern suggested that the switch to day-night conditions from 24-hour daylight may be a cue to start moulting. The birds are relatively stationary at this point before further westerly movement and then the return migration via the Atlantic back to the Farnes.

AONBs are a statutory designation like a national park and they represent some of the country’s finest landscapes to be protected.

For the Northumberland Coast AONB, which runs from Berwick to the Coquet Estuary, it is the duty of Northumberland County Council and other public bodies to ensure that the natural beauty of the area is conserved and enhanced.

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