wildlife protection

Why we should all love vultures

When most people think of vultures, they envisage giant, feathered, dirty scavengers, the characters from the Lion King hanging around on the branch without really contributing much, and big scary birds to be afraid of. But vultures are in fact hugely important to a healthy ecosystem, and keep everything in balance in the natural world. Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, which is a day to understand and share the plight of these ancient creatures that frankly, the world would be a very different place without.

What actually are vultures?

Vultures are birds of prey that can actually be split up into a total of 23 different species, and each have their own unique role to play within an ecosystem, which they are specially adapted for. In fact, at least one type of vulture can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Primarily, they can be split into two types, the New World vultures, which include the Andean condors and are found in the Americas and Caribbean, and the Old World vultures, which are those that can be seen around carcasses in Africa. For this article, we are going to focus mainly on the Old World vultures.

Known as ‘nature’s garbage collectors’, these birds are classed as scavengers because they often eat the leftover parts of carcasses that have been discarded after the initial predators have eaten the main parts of meat, or the parts that other animals are unable to digest.

Why do they get a bad name?

Due to their scavenging nature, vultures have been given a bad name, both when seen by tourists in the wild, by the media and in fiction films. People have the perception of scavengers scrounging from others who have made huge efforts to get their kill, instead of finding their own food. But the truth is, vultures often indulge in the parts of the carcass that would otherwise be left to rot, meaning that diseases would be spread, and frankly, the wild would be a very messy place. According to the IVAD website, studies have shown that in areas that contain no vultures, carcasses can take up to four times longer to decompose, which means a much higher spread of diseases in wild and domestic animals, which can be further spread to humans.

Another reason why they get a bad name is because it has been commonly said that vultures circle above a dying animal, waiting to feed. This is a myth. Whilst it is true that vultures can be seen circling in the sky, what they are actually doing is catching thermals which helps them to stay in the air whilst they look for food using their incredible sense of sight or smell.

Why are they so important?

Although vultures prefer to eat fresh meat, they are still able to consume rotting carcasses due to their strong stomach acid which kills any bacteria from the carcass that would be toxic to other animals. In this way, they are crucial to an ecosystem because they prevent the spread of diseases to many other animals.

When you look at vultures, you will also notice that despite their huge feathers, their head and neck is completely clear of any feathers at all. This is a special adaptation which means that any bacteria or parasites from the rotting carcass cannot latch on to the vultures, which therefore stops any infections.

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How are they under threat?

Perhaps lesser known than the plight of rhinos, tigers and elephants, vultures are also severely under threat for many different reasons. Out of the 23 species of vulture, 14 of those are currently considered to be either threatened or endangered.

One of the factors that aid hugely in their decline is the act of poacher poisoning. This is done in a few different ways depending on the desired outcome. One way is not targeted directly to vultures at all, but can result in a huge number of bird deaths. This involves poachers poisoning an elephant with a dart, for example, which will eventually kill it. Not only is this devastating due to the loss of an elephant, but it also means the death of any other animal that feeds on that carcass, which is now poisoned throughout. Just one elephant that has been killed by dart poisoning could then unintentionally cause the death of a large number of lions, hyenas, leopards and vultures. Furthermore, as many species of vultures work on a single carcass together, this one elephant poisoning could cause the death of hundreds of vultures.

Another way that vultures are poisoned is one that is specifically targeted at killing them. Due to the huge illegal wildlife trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory, there are many carcasses for the vultures to feed on. However, as the vultures are seen locating the carcass in the sky before swooping down to have their meal, these sights of huge numbers of vultures above a carcass are a key signal for the authorities to find the carcass quickly, and be on the tracks of the poachers. As poachers do not want an increased chance of being caught, they purposely poison the carcasses, causing vulture populations to severely decline.

A further factor that causes the decline of vulture populations is ancient traditions in certain cultures that use various parts of a vulture for medicines, of which 29% of vulture deaths are attributed to. In some cases, individuals will use the eyes of a vulture, as they believe that this helps them see into the future due to the impeccable eyesight of the birds, whilst in other cases they will smoke the vulture brains, as they believe this will bring them good luck.

What can you do?

As always, the best thing that you can do is spread awareness on the issues surrounding the drastic declines in vulture populations around the world. The majority of people will not know about their decline, or about why it is so important for us to protect them. The main reason why the drastic decline of vultures is so devastating is because the loss of vultures will also lead to the loss of many other species.

In addition, you can support and donate to organisations that work to protect vultures in the wild, including monitoring their numbers and reducing their threats. These include VulPro, 4Vultures, Tusk, and BirdLife.

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Nothing sacred: oil drilling on Leith Hill

There are 46 recognised Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty spread across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These sites, considered to be some of the finest landscapes in the country, are protected under the 1949 National Parks and Access to Countryside Act, as well as the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act. The apparent purpose of this designation and protection scheme is to ensure that the fragile natural beauty of these areas is conserved and enhanced. In addition, the AONB designation aims to meet the need for quiet enjoyment of the countryside, whilst simultaneously having regard for the interests of those who live and work there.

One might assume, therefore, that carrying out exploratory drilling for oil might not be permitted in such areas, yet this is exactly what is being proposed – and is on the verge of being successfully pushed through – at Leith Hill in Surrey.

Not just an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but also an Area of Great Landscape Value, Leith Hill is seen by many as the jewel of the Surrey Hills. A great place to hike, cycle or just enjoy some family time together, Leith Hill is an area synonymous with tranquillity, rich in wildlife and boasting some stunning views of the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, it is also an area which has caught the attention of Europa Oil and Gas (Ltd), who since 2009 have been seeking permission to explore the area for hydrocarbons, with a view to extracting oil. Despite Europa’s own claim that there is only a 30% chance of detecting hydrocarbons, the company has continued to file a series of planning applications and legal appeals.

Naturally, local citizens have fought hard to stop Europa, alongside the Surrey Hills AONB Board, the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. In the early stages of proceedings it looked as if Europa’s hopes would be dashed as Surrey County Council refused the initial application. However, in a crushing blow to local democracy and in the apparent “national interest” this was overturned by appeal to the High Courts.

So what now? Sadly, after years of back and forth it seems that Europa may have finally secured the right to carry out the exploratory drilling, pending some final application approvals. What this means for the area could be devastating. Not only does the drilling jeopardise the safety of the local water supply, it could also have permanent damaging effects on the surrounding countryside and the wildlife that inhabits it.

It has been estimated that the project will involve over 1000 heavy goods vehicles having to make their way up the hill to the drilling site which is located near the picturesque village of Coldharbour. Not only is this likely to cause severe congestion and risk road safety, but will also likely cause significant damage to the delicate sandstone banks of the sunken lanes, which are home to a number of highly endangered species such as dormice. In addition, the banks themselves are not only incredibly delicate, but also unique, historic and – most importantly – irreplaceable. Even one collision between an HGV and the high banks could have a devastating effect, not only to the bank but also to the trees whose roots hold the sandstone together in many places. Despite Europa’s claims that their HGVs will be able to pass along the sunken lanes, their simulations are flawed and it is naive to think that not one collision will occur with over 1000 vehicles using the roads.

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As well as a sudden increase to road traffic, a combination of gas flaring and bore hole venting during the proposed drilling will also cause significant air pollution which can have a range of negative effects on local residents and wildlife. As well as badgers, foxes and deer, Leith Hill is also home to a number of bird species, some of which are on the RSPB Red List, meaning that they are globally endangered and that their numbers are in rapid decline. And it’s not just pollution that threatens the wildlife on Leith Hill, as areas of land will also need to be clear felled to accommodate the operation, leading to wildlife habitat loss.

Perhaps most concerning of all are the plans to erect a 35 metre high oil rig, which will stand at twice the height of Leith Tower, making it one of the highest points in the area. Not only will the rig require an aircraft warning light due to its height, it will also be fully illuminated at night, with the surrounding compound being floodlit for security and safety measures. This is very likely to cause havoc for the number of owl and bat species who rely on the natural darkness of the area to carry out their nocturnal hunts. Such a disturbance could drive these creatures away. Not only would that be a great shame for the area, but could also have implications upon the local ecosystem.

With so much at stake you have to wonder, how and why can this project be allowed to continue? The answer, as always, is money. Prior to Leith Hill being selected by Europa Oil and Gas, five other sites were also assessed yet deemed unsuitable. The reasons given by Europa for not choosing either of these alternative sites were wide ranging but in some cases included highway capacity issues and historical and ecological importance. As it transpires, all the reasons given for not selecting the other sites also apply to the site at Leith Hill. The only difference being an existing track-way of compacted hard-standing at Leith Hill which will reduce primary set-up costs for Europa. It seems the historical and ecological importance is secondary to Europa’s bottom line.

In 1945, as the Second World War came to an end, architect-planner John Dower delivered a report to the Government suggesting that certain natural areas required legal protection. As our country moved forwards into an era of optimism and confidence, he recognised the importance of our natural environment, and the joy it could provide for generations to come. John Dower’s report eventually led to the The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which in turn brought with it the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation. These terms were more than just labels though, they meant something. They were a message to future generations that the land we live upon is sacred, beautiful and worthy of protection. It seems that this message goes unheard these days however, as commercialisation and capitalism tear through national parks, metropolitan greenbelts and areas of outstanding natural beauty, with little regard for what gets left in their wake.

What can I do?

The campaign that has been fought tirelessly at Leith Hill is far from over. The ball may be somewhat in Europa’s court at present, but they have still yet to secure all necessary permissions to begin drilling. Thankfully a group of hardworking activists at Leith Hill Action Group continue to scrutinise every planning application that Europa submit, and have been working non-stop raising funds for appeals and inquiries for several years. If you wish to help the cause by making a donation, then please click here.

A Voice for Leith Hill are a community group of local artists, musicians and environmentalists who aim to raise awareness concerning the proposed drilling, and peacefully protest against it via a range of local events. If you wish to get involved with their movement, then please visit their Facebook page.

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Plastic pollution: what is it doing to our oceans?

As I settled down to watch the new Netflix documentary ‘Chasing Coral’, the follow up to ‘Chasing Ice’ I was feeling a little apprehensive about what I would learn. I knew one thing for sure, I was very excited to see the acclaimed camera skills, stunning colours of the ocean, and fascinating sea creatures, but what I would discover underneath all that was the very visual realisation of what is happening beneath the ocean, a place that not many of us fully understand.

Whilst the main reason behind the dramatic devastation of the corals in the documentary was due to coral bleaching caused by climate change, another key influence that is destroying our oceans is plastic. And I believe that reducing our plastic consumption is something that each of us can do very easily, which can make a huge impact. So that is what I am going to discuss today.

Like most people, I knew that plastic is rapidly damaging our planet, I knew that we do not use the planet’s natural resources sustainably enough, and I knew that there are many alternatives to plastic that we are not utilising. But until recently I did not fully understand the full extent of the damage that using so much plastic is doing to our planet. And the major factor that makes plastic pollution so damaging is the fact that it simply does not break down, and actually takes thousands of years for the smallest plastic product to decay.

What is plastic pollution?

When many of us think about the word ‘pollution’ we often envisage gas, fumes and smoke; the type of things that are caused by air pollution from excessive use of fossil fuels. But in fact, pollution is officially defined as “the introduction of harmful substances or products into the environment.” This leads us to understand that not only can an accumulation of any given product become pollution, but also that volumes of plastic have become so high on our planet that they are severely damaging our planet.

The recent news that an estimated 38 million pieces of plastic were discovered on an island almost entirely untouched by humans was a serious wake up call. Henderson Island is a tiny, uninhabited island located in the eastern South Pacific, and despite being one of the world’s most remote places, it was recently found to contain 99.8% pollution plastic, which equals to almost 18 tonnes.

Whilst scientists thought that the fact that this island is located in such a remote part of the world would safeguard it from plastic pollution, sadly this was not the case. Although no people live on the island, it is home to many creatures that are essential to the ecosystem, but are seriously affected by the plastic that has washed up in their home. Hundreds of crabs were found to be living in discarded plastic items such as bottle caps, and even a doll’s head.

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What is plastic doing to our wildlife?

Currently, plastic pollution statistics state that one rubbish truck full of plastic is being dumped into the ocean every single minute. On top of this, when plastic is taken to rubbish dumps and landfill sites, the pollutants that are in the plastics eventually get released into the surrounding earth, which over time affects both wildlife and ground water leading to the ocean for many years.

While we have all seen photos of various fish in the ocean being tangled in plastic rubbish, what we don’t often realise is that every single life in the ocean is affected by plastic pollution. Tiny organisms such as plankton are ingesting plastic, which poisons their system. This then results in a knock-on effect for all of the sea-life that rely on plankton for their own source of food, and so forth down the food chain, even up to the fish that we are consuming each day.

How does this affect us?

Each one of us is dependent on the health of the sea. Our oceans control the weather, climate, and are a source of life in itself. The huge body of water that covers 71% of our planet is what makes our planet unique within the universe. On top of this, our oceans contain 97% of the Earth’s water that is crucial for our survival, as well as being the main source of food for millions of people around the world.  On our planet, just our reefs alone are a source of income for over 500 million people.

What can we do about it?

Many people are under the illusion that because plastic is everywhere, we cannot avoid using it. And whilst there are currently no alternatives to some essential products that we use, there are many small and simple changes that we can all put in place to make a huge difference. Some examples of these are:

  • Use foldable cloth bags when you go shopping instead of disposable plastic ones
  • Don’t purchase items that come with lots of unnecessary plastic packaging
  • Ditch the disposable water bottles and instead purchase a refillable one
  • Be smart, and think ahead. When you decide to get lunch out, ask yourself whether you really need the plastic knife, fork and spoon that they hand out to you. Instead, can you use cutlery from your work canteen or bring in your own?
  • Recycle everything that you can. Look up the type of plastics that your local council allow you to recycle and make sure you stick to it
  • Purchase biodegradable products whenever you can. There are currently many every day items with these sustainable alternatives on the market, from cutlery to toothbrushes.

It is essential that we urgently reduce our plastic consumption, because as Underwater Photographer and founder of The Ocean Agency, Richard Vevers, stated in Chasing Coral, “Without a healthy ocean we do not have a healthy planet”.

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