Date Published: 15 October 2016
Fracking could threaten richest wildlife habitats in Britain according to Univ Research
Research that used the biggest ever mapping study of UK biodiversity has led to increasing concerns about much-loved wildlife. Many of the areas of Britain that the UK government has in the last few years made available for potential shale gas extraction are home to wildlife species crucial to the functioning of whole ecosystems
A detailed study about strategic environmental assessment (pub. Journal of Applied Ecology1, Oct'16) states that although environmental impact assessments are important for predicting the effects of human activity that can dramatically affect land areas e.g. by development or change of use, such assessments often consider only a small subset of the species and habitats involved. Even then, detailed species assessment is usually extremely expensive and only possible over a relatively small area. In many cases even that (limited species-specific environmental impact assessment) is only carried out after considerable financial investment has already been committed to the proposed development of a site, a sequence which some people think makes the reversal of a decision to proceed less likely.
Analysis of records of 5,553 species incl. bees, birds, bryophates e.g. mosses hornworts and liverworts, butterflies, carabids i.e. ground beetles, hoverflies, isopods e.g. woodlice, ladybirds, macromoths, grasshoppers, crickets and native British vascular plants (from 1970-2013) revealed that 65% of the areas of Britain deemed suitable for fracking have above-average biodiversity.
New technique for identifying important areas of biodiversity
Scientists based at Reading University and several environmental and wildlife conservation groups (see below) have proposed a method for assessing biodiversity that considers the diversity of species across wider areas than those typically used for environmental impact assessments.
They have defined a new parameter called the ecological status indicator.
The process involved the following steps:
- A map of the island of Great Britain was divided into 2,799 grid squares, each measuring 10kmx10km - which is approx. 6.214 miles x 6.214 miles (UK road distances are stated in miles).
- Use was made of 10,000,000s (tens of millions) of records of observations of wildlife. These records were analysed using a mathematical technique that takes into consideration the variation in the effort spent recording each 6.214 mile square.
- Each area was also classified into one of 45 "Environmental Zones" according to its abiotic conditions, incl. climate and geology. This enabled more meaningful comparisons to be made between areas whose conditions are similar.
- A 'quality rating' was then calculated for each grid square such that the rating reflected the relative biodiversity of that grid square within its category.
The researchers compared the efficacy of the new biodiversity-based indicator with another system that only took into account effects on threatened species. In some cases the ecological status of areas indicated by the predicted effects on threatened species only was not consistent with the ecological status of the same areas when wider biodiversity was also taken into account.
It is also interesting to note that when researchers compared data from 1970-1990 with data for 2000-2013 they found that many areas in which there had been a 'decrease in endangered species', i.e. a change that the researchers suggested might result in those areas seeming (to some authorities such as government decision-makers) to be 'good areas for fracking' 2 according to current assessment methods, had also experienced an increase in wider biodiversity, making them more important to the UK's wider ecosystem than is implied by data considering only threatened or endangered species.
Dr Tom Oliver of Reading University2 explained that:
" Our results are an important step in assessing potential impacts of fracking on species and will help protect much-loved British wildlife that could be a risk such as wetland birds.
_ The protected status of species such as the Great Crested Newt have been vital in protecting wildlife from unregulated development, but our research shows trends in wider biodiversity can also readily be incorporated into environmental impact assessments.
_ We have more than 45,000 species in the UK and many of them perform important services for humans, such as pollination, decomposition and control of pests. Our new method of analysing biological records collected by volunteers allows us, for the first time, to map this wider biodiversity."
Overall, this study indicates that many locations in Britain at which shale gas extraction might take place are home to species crucial to the functioning of whole ecosystems. Despite such environmental concerns, the UK government has recently reversed a North Yorkshire County Council decision against fracking at an existing well in Ryedale and has overruled Lancashire County council's decision against fracking at a site in the village of Little Plumpton, between Preston and Blackpool.
In summary, in the past the predicted impact of large infrastructure projects on rare and threatened species (only) have been used as indicators of ecological status when making decisions about such projects. The authors of this recent study have drawn attention to the danger of not giving enough consideration to the success of relatively widespread - i.e. 'common' rather than 'rare' - species of wildlife and the likely effect on those species when considering the possibility and placement of large-scale national infrastructure projects.
This research was a collaborative project involving experts based at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (Oxfordshire), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Norfolk England, the UK charity Butterfly Conservation based in Wareham Dorset and Reading University in Berkshire, England.
Sources include 1onlinelibrary.wiley.com (Journal of Applied Ecology) and 2reading.ac.uk