Why Scottish Independence is bad news for English rivers

The environment has been conspicuous by its absence from the frenzy of debate and speculation in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum on Thursday.   That’s easy to explain: responsibility for the environment has already been devolved so there should be no additional implications from a “Yes” vote in the referendum. I’m not, however, fully convinced that there will be no implications north or south of the border in the event of Scottish independence.   Here’s my reasoning:

Although responsibility for the environment has already been devolved to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, the UK still presents a united front in Brussels, and a lot of co-ordination takes place behind the scenes to ensure consistency of policy.   There is a measure of pragmatism here: the politicians might think that the environment is a nice, neat package that can be managed equally well from London or Edinburgh but we traditionally use rivers as borders.   If you want to manage a river such as the Tweed, you really need the regulators on both the English and Scottish sides to agree on basic principles.   The UK and, indeed, many other federally-organised countries (Germany, for example) manage this.   The notable exception is Belgium where Flanders and Wallonia send separate delegates to meetings.

If Scotland votes “Yes”, then the newly independent state will have to apply for membership of the EU; the politics of this are complicated but let us assume that, at worst, Scotland becomes an Accession State within a few years and continues to apply EU Environmental legislation. The situation between England and Scotland will then be akin to that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where there is a long tradition of healthy collaboration between environmental bodies on both sides of the border. The details of implementation, however, differ between UK and Ireland and it is possible that a river deemed to be of an acceptable standard in Northern Ireland may feed into a river in the Republic, subject to more stringent standards (I know, for example, that standards for acceptable nutrient concentrations are tighter in the Republic than in the UK).   However, as there are relatively few catchments straddling boundaries between UK and neighbouring states (including Scotland, for the sake of this post), few diplomatic feathers will be ruffled as a result.

My nagging fear concerns the rump UK, rather than Scotland.   Staff working for environmental agencies tend to be either pragmatists, schooled in the “art of the possible”, or idealists.   Most of the ecologists I deal with in the UK’s agencies probably fall into the latter category, though I know that there are many non-ecologists involved in regulation who question the high standards that these ecologists call for.   And, indeed, the pragmatists have a great track record of reducing pollution levels in our rivers from previously high values. The problem is that the lower levels of pollutants that are now common in our rivers are still often too high to permit healthy rivers to thrive.   The problems are widespread but are most acute in lowland England where, in my experience, much of the water industry is sceptical about whether more investment (and associated price rises) will yield tangible benefits. Because Scotland has so much relatively high quality habitat to manage, and tourist economies that thrive upon this, there is less of a mismatch between the pragmatist and idealist viewpoints.   It is still there, believe me, but it is not quite so pronounced.   So now we extract the Scottish influence from the UK co-ordination meetings and, I fear, the balance of power will shift just a little way further away from a vision of babbling brooks supporting healthy ecosystems and towards grudging compliance but no more.

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‘Speed dating’ with diatoms …

The day after the meeting about RAPPER, I was supposed to lead an informal workshop on rapid ecological assessment using algae.  However, heavy rain earlier in the week and especially on the night before meant that the streams were turbid and swollen, making it impossible to see what was growing on the river bed.  The few stones that we did manage to pull out from the stream margins suggested that most of the algae had been scoured away by the spate.

Instead, we retreated to the classroom after lunch for an alternative exercise that I had thought up.  The idea was this: Maria and I had diatom slides from seven sites which we circulated around the group.   Each person had five minutes to look at a slide, make some notes on its composition and then to guess the quality of the stream that the sample came from.   When I explained this in the pub the night before, a colleague said “ah … .like speed dating, but with diatoms.”

RAPPER_workshop_Penrith

“Speed dating” with diatoms: rapid assessment of ecological status, Penrith, October 2013.

The dozen or so participants varied in experience; some of those with experience came from outside UK or had previously worked on lakes rather than rivers, and I gave them very little background information about the type of streams each sample came from.  Nonetheless, we found 60% of these “speed dating” analyses gave the same result as the detailed analyses that Maria and I had already performed.  People tended to make lists of the most common genera, occasionally picking out the more distinct species, and based their judgements on these.   Even fairly basic knowledge of diatom ecology allowed them to recognise that a sample with lots of Nitzschia was likely to come from a polluted stream whilst one with Tabellaria and Achnanthidium was more likely to come from a clean one.

I told Rick Battarbee about this exercise in the bar later in the evening and he recalled a similar experience in the early days of his research on acidification.  Asked whether a forest in Scotland was responsible for acidifying a water course, he had taken a field microscope and walked up through the catchment, taking samples from the stream at intervals and checking their composition.   He said that it was easy to see to pick out key indicators and whether or not there were marked changes in composition.  In this case, the composition of diatoms from reaches in and below the forest were the same as those in the moorland stretches above the forest, quickly ruling out the original suspicion.

Like RAPPER, which I mentioned in the previous post, approaches such as this have the potential to make biologists much more flexible and reactive.   We need to adjust techniques, for sure, but more important, perhaps, we need to adjust attitudes, both of the biologists themselves and of their managers.   Quick “look-sees” performed in the field with a portable microscope could quickly rule out some hypotheses whilst focus attention on areas within catchments where more detailed investigations are needed.   We are already in a good position to adopt this approach as many biologists already have the basic diatom identification skills plus some ability to differentiate the larger algae.  We just need that attitude shift.  As is so often the case, better science is not always the answer; better use of existing knowledge could yield just as much sooner and at a lower cost.