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Glass half empty

These days press releases on nature and the environment are expected to come with gloomy headlines. So to be told that “Half of British butterfly species on new Red List” was not a surprise. The Red List in this instance is a list of endangered species. The list is split between different categories:

  • Regionally Extinct
  • Critically Endangered
  • Endangered
  • Vulnerable
  • Near Threatened

The reason for the press release was the release of a 2021 assessment of the conservation status of British butterflies. Scientists from Butterfly Conservation put together the new Red List and compared it with the last list from 2011. The new Red List is published today (25 May) in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity.

Clearly there is a lot to be concerned about. No-one can be complacent about the numbers and distribution of butterflies around the country. But a closer look at the new Red List shows that the headline message is grossly misleading.

The first thing that leaps out is that the number of regionally extinct species hasn’t changed. Four species are identified: Large Copper, Large Tortoiseshell, Black Veined White and Mazarine Blue. The truth is the Large Copper, Mazarine Blue and Black Veined White haven’t been seen on these shores for a century. The Large Tortoiseshell has been extinct for fifty years at least. So there’s no surprises here and no changes either. Actually there is much to be grateful for that no species have become permanently extinct in the last 50 years.

The next category down is “Critically Endangered”. The two butterflies in this bracket in 2011 were the High Brown Fritillary and the Large Blue. The status of both has significantly improved. The Large Blue has benefited from a successful breeding program, largely in Somerset. Reserves such as Collards Hill and Green Down have played a leading role in bringing the Large Blue back from the brink.

The High Brown Fritillary has been moved to “Endangered” also an improvement on a decade ago.

Then there is the small matter of the number of species that are not categorised on the Red List. There are actually more (29) species not endangered than there were 10 years ago (28).

Other species have seen their lot improve too. The Pearl Bordered Fritillary, White Letter Hairstreak and Duke of Burgundy Fritillary (pictured below) have all moved from Endangered to Vulnerable. An improvement in their conservation status.

Of course it is not all roses. There are plenty of butterflies that have become rarer and more threatened. For instance all four British butterflies with northerly distributions, adapted to cooler or damper climates, are now listed as threatened (Large Heath, Scotch Argus, Northern Brown Argus) or Near Threatened (Mountain Ringlet). But overall it is a mixed picture. And although alarmist headlines are attention grabbing, they rarely paint the whole picture. Take a look at the table below and you’ll see what we mean.

Comparison with previous Red List

Red List threat categoryNumber of species qualifying in new Red List 2021Number of species qualifying in 2011 Red List
Regionally Extinct44
Critically Endangered02
Endangered88
Vulnerable169
Near Threatened511
Least Concern2928
Total6262

It is perhaps appropriate to pay tribute to some of the excellent conservation work that has kept British butterflies going. There may be some that are struggling, but overall the picture is not as bad as the headlines would have us believe.

A358 consultation opens today

Another consultation on aspects of the new plans for the A358 opens today. Ever since local people protested that the initial consultation only offered one option, National Highways have been learning lessons. Much more consultation has followed. Starting with a revised consultation on the route looking at 3 potential options. That has now been whittled down to one.

Today’s consultation is asking opinions on the latest refinements to the details plans.

The current consultation will look at plans for:

  • Nexus 25 junction – this is the junction between the A358 and the Nexus 25 business park next to Junction 25 of the M5. The plans will change from a roundabout to a junction controlled by traffic signals. This will allow a “signalised” pedestrianised crossing and facilitate management of traffic in conjunction with M5 junction 25
  • Mattocks Tree Green junction
    • New connection at the eastern roundabout – for direct access to Village Road and onward travel to Hatch Beauchamp
    • Realignment of Ash Road connection – removing the direct link between Ash Road and Mattocks Tree Green junction to discourage rat-running
    • West Hatch Lane extension – providing a new public road alongside the A358 to allow more direct access to Mattocks Tree Green junction
  • Bridge at Bickenhall Lane – moved to place it further from Bickenhall Wood ancient woodland and access for walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and disabled users and private farm access
  • Capland Link – confirming that the link road is our chosen option and the route of the link road adjacent to the A358
  • Jordans bridge – a new link and bridge over the A358 between Ashill junction and Southfields roundabout for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders and disabled users and private farm access.

The map below should help to explain the locations of the proposed changes:

Katherine Liddington, Senior Project Manager for the A358 scheme, said: “We plan to upgrade approximately 8.5 miles of the A358 to a new high-quality and high-performing dual carriageway, which will reduce congestion, enhance safety and improve connectivity for road users and local communities, while unlocking economic growth in Somerset and beyond.

National Highways will host three public consultation events:

  • Thursday 26 May from 11am to 8pm: Monks Yard (Conference Room), Horton Cross Farm, Horton Cross, Ilminster, Somerset, TA19 9PT
  • Wednesday 8 June from 11am to 8pm: Somerset County Cricket Club, The Cooper Associates County Ground, St. James Street, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 1JT
  • Saturday 11 June from 11am to 6pm: Taunton Racecourse, Orchard Portman, Taunton, Somerset, TA3 7BL

The consultation runs from 24 May to 26 June 2022.

Feedback is via a questionnaire which you can find here:

Completed feedback questionnaires can be sent to:  FREEPOST A358 TAUNTON TO SOUTHFIELDS. Note the address must be written in capital letters and you do not need a stamp.  

South Somerset cover up continues

In the May edition of The Leveller®, we ran a story titled “it’s not a cover up – honest.” This relates to the lack of disclosure by South Somerset District Council (SSDC) in relation to their corruption scandal. If you are not familiar with the story, here is a brief update. Allegations emerged in April 2021 of council property being used by staff to work at a local vineyard. A vineyard run by one of the council’s directors. In addition allegations were made that council staff also did work for others, including council executives and elected councillors. Subsequently two members of staff left the council.

We say that SSDC has been withholding important disclosures in relation to this scandal. Not so say SSDC and they pointed us to an Audit Committee meeting in May. Then apparently we would learn more (see below). This is a summary of events to date:

  • Two separate reports (by auditors SWAP and Richard Penn) have been commissioned by SSDC to look into wrongdoing at the council.
  • Both reports were instructed to focus on two individuals. The would be Chief Executive, Care Pestell and the former Lufton Depot manager, Chris Cooper. Both have since left the authority.
  • Both reports indicated that a number of other staff and councillors may also have been involved in wrong doing.
  • A Police investigation established that none of the activities at the council met the criteria to merit a criminal prosecution. That included Pestell and Cooper.

The point we have made repeatedly to SSDC, and they decline to answer, is this. The Police investigation looked at criminality. In terms of a lesser degree of wrongdoing, breaking council rules and the abuse of council assets, only two people have been investigated. Others have been implicated. Have they been investigated? If so by whom? And what was the outcome? We simply don’t know and SSDC won’t tell us.

May meeting – nothing new

The promised May Audit Committee meeting is now upon us (it will be on 26 May). So we have been reading through the papers that are to be presented. The item we have been waiting for is number 13 on the agenda and titled (without irony) “Improving Environmental Services and Corporate Governance – Achievements to date and planned further action”.

Despite the promise that we would learn more, we haven’t. Details of any investigations into other members of staff and councillors have been omitted. There is no mention of them. Did they not take place? Or are they simply not to be reported?

So what brand new disclosure do we have? Firstly the recommendations by the special investigator, Richard Penn. These are not new disclosures. We printed them in full in the January edition of The Leveller®. And SSDC know that.

The recommendations made by the SWAP have also been published. These broadly follow the recommendations by Richard Penn. There is more detail but nothing new. Both reports paint a picture of significant breakdowns in the system of internal control. What do we mean by internal controls? These are the policies put in place to ensure that council assets are protected, staff cannot abuse their position and accounting records are likely to be accurate.

New controls

The council have now indicated how they will move forward with new and stronger controls in place. These will no doubt address the issues identified. This much we can be thankful for. But the scale of failure, of control breakdown can be grasped from the following:

  • Richard Penn identified 8 major areas for improvement in his report.
  • SWAP identified a further 18 areas where specific control failures need to be addressed.
  • SSDC have now put in place an action plan with 30 actions included. These are required to correct failed internal controls.

But questions remain. The various issues appear to have taken place between 2019 (and possibly earlier) and 2021. How was it possible for such an extensive breakdown of internal control to happen? And to go undetected. Remember, had it not been for a letter from a whistleblower, these things may well be still undetected today.

Who is responsible for this?

In most organisations the system of internal control is the responsibility of the Finance Director or equivalent. So at SSDC, that presumably means the s151 officer in post at the time and the Executive portfolio holder for Finance and Legal Services at that time. Should taxpayers not receive an apology for the failings on their watch?

We might also ask why these issues were not picked up by either the auditors or internal auditors?

And there is no longer any excuse for not publishing, in full, the SWAP report and the Richard Penn Report.

Arrests following Wiveliscombe death

At about 8.45pm on Tuesday (17 May) Police Officers were called to a house at Stockers Close, Wiveliscombe. Ambulance crews also attended. They found a man in his 50s badly injured, he was taken to hospital where, sadly, he later died. While identification is yet to be formally confirmed, next of kin are being supported by family liaison

Witnesses were reporting that a man had been assaulted. The cause of death is due to be established by a post mortem examination, however two men and a woman have been arrested on suspicion of murder and remain in police custody at this time.

Officers are keen to hear from anyone who saw what happened. They would like to hear from anyone with any CCTV, doorbell or dashcam footage which could help their enquiries. If you can help please call 101 and give the reference 5222117042.

Stoke sub Hamdon to get £120,000

Good news today for the Hamdon Community Arts Project (HCAP) in Stoke sub Hamdon. The Department for Levelling Up announced they had been awarded £120,000. The money is from the Community Ownership Fund.

For the past 4 years HCAP have been looking for funds to purchase the ex United Reformed Church (URC) in the village. If they could get the funding in place they would turn the building into a centre for Music, Arts and Crafts. A number of groups in the village would be included in the project:
• Stoke Performing Arts Group (SPAG) – a group that produces and performs plays, and requires
permanent storage space for props, costumes, scenery and other equipment and an eventual all
year venue for rehearsals, staging, and lighting for future shows.
• Local artists – to display their work (this happened in September 2019, as a part of Somerset Arts
Week exhibitions).
• An Arts and Crafts exhibition centre – for local arts and crafts,

The problem for the community was that the Church Synod stated that it intended to sell the property on
the open market. South Somerset District Council helped out with an initial grant of £12,500. But HCAP still needed to find the rest, estimated at over £100,000. Todays grant from the Department of Levelling Up, should mean it can all go ahead.

Speaking to The Leveller, Minister for Levelling Up, the Union and Constitution, Neil O’Brien MP said: “From taking ownership of a church in South Somerset to restoring a city farm in the centre of Bristol, the Community Ownership Fund enables local people to take ownership of projects that benefit their communities for future growth. Projects like these demonstrate our commitment to helping empower local people, restore their pride in the places they live and level up communities across the region.”

“New” super reserve for Somerset

England’s second ‘super’ National Nature Reserve (NNR) has been declared in Somerset by Natural England. The creation of the reserve coincides with the 70th anniversary of the creation of national nature reserves. NNRs were established on 19 May 1952. To mark the anniversary, the Festival of National Nature Reserves is launching today celebrating NNRs past, present, and future.  

The first of this new breed of “super” reserves was created in Purbeck Heaths in Dorset in March 2020. The new Somerset reserve is actually a combination of six existing NNRs of Bridgwater Bay, Ham Wall, Huntspill River, Shapwick Heath, Somerset Levels and Westhay Moor.  The ambition is to effect landscape-level changes to tackle the climate, nature and wellbeing crises through partnership working. As well as helping create a wonderful wildlife destination for visitors and residents, which benefits the local economy. 

The designation of an NNR is a legal device and ensures legal protections within the area of the reserve. It ensures nature and the environment will be protected. Today they are also places for nature recovery and nature-based solutions to climate change. As Dr James Robinson, Director of Conservation at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), points out: “The beautiful, shore-side wetlands at WWT Steart Marshes not only support an incredibly rich array of wildlife, but are also a highly effective carbon sink which research shows store 10,000 tonnes of carbon each year.

The new super reserve will contain a lot of rare species. A third of the UK’s bittern population can be found in the new reserve. As can avocets, black-and-white waders which bred in Somerset in 2012 for the first time in more than 150 years. You’ll also find the great white egret, which bred for the first time in Somerset ten years ago. And of course the cranes released in the Somerset Levels in an effort to re-establish a British population. And let’s not forget the marsh harrier either.

But it is not just about rare birds. The murmurations, great flypasts of millions of starlings can be seen in the wetlands in October.

At the other end of the spectrum the new reserve will host butterflies such as the once extinct large blue. The purple hairstreak and white admiral butterflies can also be found here.

And there are cultural sites of great significance too. The Sweet Track from around 3.500BC is generally reckoned to be the oldest trackway in Britain. It crosses stretches of Shapwick Heath. Sections of kit can be seen in the British Museum’s Stonehenge exhibition.

The Somerset Wetlands NNR at some 6,140ha will be the third largest in England. the largest two are The Wash (8,777.50ha) and Moor House-Upper Teesdale (8,669.74ha). 

There’ll be a much bigger article addressing some of the issues the creation of the reserve raises in the next edition of The Leveller.

Somerset COVID 19 latest data

With the number of infections slowing down this month we are looking to cease our regular reporting. We hope we have been able to keep you informed with the facts and without the hyperbole throughout the pandemic. The Leveller® will continue monitoring COVID 19 data. If the pandemic looks as if it is taking hold again, we will resume our regular reporting.

In the two weeks to 18 May, 1,116 new cases of COVID were reported. That marks seven consecutive weeks of falling case numbers. The numbers are now at a level last seen in July 2021. The numbers continue to track downwards in line with the warmer weather. We would argue that the case for mask wearing in public settings and enhanced basic hygiene remains.

The table below tracks the overall weekly number of infections in Somerset in recent weeks.

  • 1,116 for the 14 days to May 18
  • 869 for the 8 days to 4 May
  • 1,097 for 6 days to 26 April
  • 1,997 for the week to 20 April
  • 2,730 for the week to 13 April
  • 4,636 for the week to 6 April
  • 6,606 for the week to 30 March
  • 7,677 for the week to 23 March
  • 5.966 for 1 week to 16 March
  • 6,033 for 2 weeks to 9 March

With such low case loads, we no longer receive regional data from around the county. For context, only a few weeks ago the case load in Taunton reported in one week was higher than the caseload for the entire county reported in the last fortnight.

All that said, a number of people have noted that the figures continue to be underreported as increasingly people with COVID 19 are simply taking time off work as they would with any other sickness. The relaxation of reporting and quarantine rules, makes keeping a complete count harder.

Before we go any further however, our usual health warning about the figures.  Unlike NHS data these numbers include care homes and incidences of COVID 19 “at home”. The data is prepared to 18 May for cases (although different dates are used for some of the other figures – for instance deaths are reported to 6 May). The reason for this delay is to keep the numbers accurate – or should we say as accurate as possible. The daily totals published by the NHS are subject to constant revision, as not unreasonably, the data is constantly being updated to improve accuracy. It is also worth noting that the SCC area does not include North Somerset (so Weston hospital) or BANES (So the RUH in Bath) both of which are separate administrative areas.

The declining numbers of infections are not yet reflected in the figures for deaths. This is again, as expected. It is likely to be a couple of weeks more before the number of deaths from COVID 19 falls away altogether. in the week to 6 May, the latest figures we have, there were 6 deaths reported. 5 were in hospital and one in a care home.

The figures for hospitalisations continue started to fall steeply. By 4 May just 100 people were in Yeovil or Musgrove with COVID 19. By 10 May that had fallen to just 52.

The R number remains at 0.7-0.9 this week. That suggests case numbers should be falling and that does reflect the reality on the ground.

As ever here is the full dataset so you can form your own conclusions:

Ilminster man due in court

Matthew Barratt, of Foundry Close, Ilminster, will appear at Yeovil Magistrates’ Court this morning 17 May. 29 year old Barratt is charged with ten offences. Two counts each of burglary, taking a vehicle without consent, driving while disqualified and driving without insurance. In addition to one count each of possessing a Class B drug and assaulting an emergency worker.

The charges relate to two incidents in which vehicles were stolen from a property in Yeovil overnight Sunday 15 May Monday 16 May and driven to Ilminster.

Violent assault in Yeovil

At around 2am on Saturday 7 May on Silver Street in Yeovil a man in his 30s was assaulted. He was attacked by a group of offenders who also robbed him. The victim was struck multiple times to the head and required hospital treatment for his injuries. He is expected to make a full recovery.

The victim described two of the suspects as being one white and one black man, both around 18 years old.

Officers from Avon & Somerset Police are appealing for witnesses to come forward. Did you witness the incident? Do you have CCTV, phone or dash cam footage of the area at that time? Please call 101 and quote reference 5222107569.

Distraction burglary Taunton

Avon & Somerset police are asking the public to be vigilant after a distraction burglary in Taunton on 6 May. The gang perpetrating this crime may well be looking for more vulnerable victims to target. Please look out for elderly neighbours and anyone you know who may be vulnerable.

In this incident three men arrived at the property near Rowan Drive at about 10.30am. They claimed they were there to check the victim’s kitchen appliances. While one of the men was in the property, they discussed other home improvements the house required. The victim was asked to hand over a quantity of cash for work they would arrange for him.

One of the offenders is described as male, mid-40s with dark hair and a West Country accent.

How can you deal with this sort of theft? Police recommend that if you receive a cold caller, ask to see identification. Especially if you were not expecting a visit. If they are genuine, they will not object. They will also be sympathetic to your caution.

The Police are asking anyone else who has experienced something similar, or witnessed this incident, to get in touch. Please call 101 quoting reference 5222108396.

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