Badgers in the mainframe? Defra’s monumental TB data errors

Back in January I wrote about Defra’s revelation that the vet agency AHVLA’s new computer had been spewing out fictitious reports overstating the number of Herd’s which had suffered a bovine TB breakdown. In retrospect it’s amazing that Owen Paterson lasted as long as he did at Defra, given the number of stupendous gaffes that happened under his watch.

This year Defra has decided to continue with its Badger Cull, but without those pesky independent scientists taking a critical overview of its scientific merit, methodology and effectiveness. The Badger Trust are in the courts challenging the legality of this decision.

Meanwhile, and with no fanfare at all, Defra has released the latest data on Bovine TB herd breakdowns. Again they have found more errors and again they have altered the numbers for previous months and years.

The first figures for September 2013 showed 5,961 herds had a TB reactor, out of 79,501 herds in Great Britain. After two revisions to remove bad data, the figures now show only 4,123 herds had a reactor. The first number is a whopping 45% overestimate of the (current) real figure.

The first month where things went wrong was January 2012, according to Defra. I imagine that’s roughly when the new IT system was brought on line. Initial figures for that month were 4372, this has now been revised down twice, to 4292. That is a much smaller error, overstating by only 2%.

The largest number of herds with TB breakdowns reported was April 13 with 6132. This had been revised down to 4958, and then again recently to 4816. That’s over 27% overestimated.

What is clear is that the error had been getting bigger, much bigger, as the months went on. Why did nobody spot this? Did they want to believe that herd breakdowns were really going up so quickly, as this was convenient justification for the badger cull?

These are GB figures and will hide even larger errors at the country or regional level. Scotland is officially TB free. Imagine the alarm Scottish beef and dairy farmers felt, to see TB breakdowns increasing to 42 in September 13. This figure has now been revised to 18, less than half. That figure has apparently climbed up to 42 in September 2014 – or has it? Can we expect that figure to be revised again?

It beggars belief that there could even be a 233% margin of error for such a small sample.

In England, where most of the TB reactors are found, the highest initial figure was 4,821 herds in April 13. That has so far been reduced to 3750. That’s an overestimate of 29%. That month is when the number of reactors peaked. The figure is 3383 for May 2014.

June 2014 shows a further reduction (at GB level) to 4041 herds, from 4266 in May.

Only 256 new incidents were recorded across GB in June this year and only 150 herds where TB-free status has been withdrawn. Now for those 150 farmers, this is disastrous news and I do not wish to downplay their sorry and anguish.

But Defra has been very misleading in the way that it has portrayed the data errors in its official statistical reports.

defra TB graph jpeg

This new Defra graph purports to show what a small difference there has been between previously published herd breakdown data and the current corrections.


They have compared the data after the initial correction, with the data from the current correction. This graph ignores the first correction.

Here’s the graph they produced first time round (Feb 14):

Defra TB 1st revision jpeg

See what they’ve done here? Changed the time scale on the graph. First graph shows a large error but only for a short time, relative to the whole time scale. Second graph shows a much smaller error (because they have ignored the first much larger error) but over a longer part of the x axis. Nifty, but not that nifty.

Two things come to mind:

  1. We obviously cannot believe anything Defra stats say about the extent of Bovine TB breakdowns, or the trend in breakdowns.
  2. Defra are trying to cover up their monumental statistical cock-up.
  3. The very data used to justify the Badger Cull is so badly flawed that Natural England must reconsider whether the Cull can be allowed, given the rules that determine its legality.

No doubt if Owen Paterson was still Secretary of State at Defra, he would be blaming the badgers for uploading viruses into the AVHLA computer system. What will the new SoS Liz Truss say? So far, all she has done is peddle the NFU line. Reported in the Guardian

The environment secretary, Liz Truss, insisted the cull was crucial. “We are pursuing a comprehensive strategy supported by leading vets, which includes cattle movement controls, vaccinating badgers in edge areas and culling badgers where the disease is rife. This is vital for the future of our beef and dairy industries, and our nation’s food security.

“At present, we have the highest rates of bovine TB in Europe. Doing nothing is not an option and that is why we are taking a responsible approach to dealing with bovine TB.”

She clearly hasn’t been told by her officials that the data on which they are basing their decisions is completely untrustworthy.

Posted in badgers, bovine TB, Defra | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

A Recipe for Disaster? Take two nature directives, add Malta and Boil until weak and tender.

I was going to write a post about the new European Commission and then I read Martin Harper’s blog and decided it more or less said everything I was going to say. So I’m just reblogging it.

The only thing I would add it this: The Environment in the new Commission has been made a third class topic. Not content with merging the Environment with Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, thus diluting the environmental resource by a third, the new President has also placed it as a subsidiary of one of the new Vice President Commissioners. I kid you not.

It sounds like a parody of a 19th century bureaucracy from Ruritania – “I award you the title of European Commissioner 3rd Class (non Vice President)”.

Why would the European Commission merge Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, and then place them directly under the management of the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness? The President has made clear that the new Commissioner’s first task is to merge and simplify the Birds and Habitats Directives. As Martin explains below, this creates a very severe threat to European wildlife.

I think this is a straightforward attempt to assuage the anti-European right and far-right, by offering up Europe’s environmental protections as a sacrifice of “de-regulation”. It is also a way of appeasing corporate interests and reassuring business that Growth is top of the agenda, Growth at any cost, without the perceived shackles of regulation, regulation which of course provides society (that’s you and me) with benefits, as opposed to big business profits (that just go to shareholders).  And as for the notion of nature having intrinsic value? Sorry, that doesn’t generate jobs or GDP in the mind of the EC President.

To make matters worse, the Commissioner designate is Karmenu Vella, from Malta.

Now I am sure is a lovely country and I have heard that the Maltese people are also lovely. But Malta is not at the beating heart of Europe. Malta actually has a smaller population than Luxembourg, where President Juncker originates. Malta has 5 MEPs out of 736.

Malta also has a very strong hunting lobby. The EC took action against Malta in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 for blatant infringement of the Birds Directive by allowing hunters and trappers to kill European Protected Birds such as Turtle Dove, Quail, Golden Plover and Song Thrush. This spat has been rumbling on for a number of years now and Malta seems not to care a hoot for what the Commission says or does.

Given that Mr Vella was a senior member of the Maltese Government it does make you wonder whether he was given the job specifically in order to eviscerate the nature directives with zeal.

I always wondered why the Maltese trap and kill so many small birds. Now I know. It’s called ambelopoulia. it’s basically boiled, pickled or grilled songbirds and it’s a popular delicacy across the Med, but particularly in Cyprus. Having just returned from a few days in Hong Kong, where I saw shark fins openly displayed for sale, it’s salutary to remind ourselves that eating threatened wildlife is also a European past-time.

Martin’s excellent piece starts here

Why European President Juncker has chosen the wrong path

Being an environmentalist can, at times, feel like being a boxer on the ropes trying to evade punches flying your way.   In recent years, we’ve ducked a few punches (such as the first draft National Planning Policy Framework, the review of the Habitats Regulations and Thames Estuary Airport), but some have landed squarely on our jaw (Lodge Hill being the latest example where local socio-economic development needs threatens to trump nationally important nature).

Yesterday was another tough day and another punch seems to be coming our way.

President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker announced his new team and set out his priorities for the next five years.  If you care about anything other than economic growth, his agenda makes miserable reading. You can read it here.

He compounds this misery by setting his sights on the two most important pieces of legislation for nature and birds across the EU – the Birds and Habitats Directives.

President Juncker made his intentions clear in a letter addressed to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner (here), in which he calls on the new Commissioner (Karmenu Vella from Malta) to focus on assessing the potential for merging the Birds and Habitats Directives into a “more modern piece of legislation.”  Be under no illusion, this is code for weakening the powers of the directives.  Some just hate the idea that legislation might force developers to think about alternatives or that they might have to compensate for any damage caused.

As I have written previously (see here), the directives were not only designed to protect internationally important wildlife, but they were also born out of a sensible desire to prevent any one Member State gain competitive advantage by trashing the environment.

The directives have served us well.  And we have evidence to back this up.

In a ground-breaking paper published in Science (here), my colleague Paul Donald (et al) showed that the Birds Directive has successfully protected those species considered to be at most risk and in need of most urgent protection across the European Union and has made a significant difference in protecting many of Europe’s birds from further decline.

Andy Hay’s iconic image of a bittern – just one of the species that have benefited from protection thanks to the Birds Directive

Any nation that has signed up to halting the loss of biodiversity and beginning its recovery by 2020 should celebrate the role the Directives can play.  It is deeply unhelpful that the European President seems to have forgotten that the EU (as well its Member States) signed up to this commitment.

There is also growing evidence of the benefits to humans that protected nature provides. The EU Nature Directives are responsible for the UK’s modern SSSI system – 80% of which underpin and are essential to the effective management of Natura 2000 sites.  Evidence suggests that SSSIs generates benefits 8 times the investment in maintaining them.  Such sites makes an immense contribution to the wellbeing of the millions of people who visit them each year.

There is, however, no evidence that they place a “ridiculous cost on business” as George Osborne infamously said in 2011 and no evidence that economic prosperity has been damaged by the Directives.  The fact that some companies have failed to respect the Directives but then failed to get what they want is no reason to unpick them.

RSPB’s experience on the ground is that businesses that take the time to respect and understand environmental legislation experience little or no impact on their activities. Indeed CEMEX, a global leader in the building materials industry, has publicly stated (see here) “The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide an appropriate and effective legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and an appropriate framework for the development of extractive activities in harmony with nature.”

The Birds and Habitats Directives together represent perhaps the best tests of genuinely sustainable development. They are effective at protecting Europe’s threatened wildlife, they are flexible, they have public support, and smart businesses have learnt to respect them. Yet it seems that Jean-Claude Juncker wishes to ignore this by attempting to merge the Directives.

We fear that, in the current economic climate, a merger would result in lesser protection and the time it takes to negotiate new laws would be a terrible distraction from implementing the existing laws so that nature begins to recover to favourable conservation status – the original aim of the legislation.

Our challenge to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner is not to play around with a merger. Instead, he should obsess about meeting the 2020 target, recognise that the Nature Directives offer the best legislative tool to achieving that and use his voice for nature across the Commission.

There is a lot at stake.

Get it wrong and the EU’s credibility on the global stage as a world leader in environmental protection would suffer.

Get it wrong and public support for the EU itself could also erode. Recent polls show that 95% of Europeans feel the environment is important to them, and 77% agree that EU legislation is necessary to protect the environment. Public reaction to scrapping effective protection for nature is likely to be extremely negative.

And, get it wrong and Europe’s prosperity could be at stake.  We know that a healthy natural environment underpins our economy – a degraded environment would diminish the quality of life for Europe citizens and would be a betrayal of our children’s future.

The good news is that the environment sector intends to behave like Mohammed Ali in his rumble in the jungle with George Foreman.  We might take the odd punch, but we will not be floored and we will come out fighting.

That fight-back started yesterday when the ten large European NGOs (including Birdlife International) shared their anger in a letter to President Juncker (see here).  He would be wise to heed our words, or he could have civil society on his back for years to come.
Posted in European Commission, Malta, Nature Directives | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

55 Tory MPs believe human-induced climate change is “environmentalist propaganda”

NCDC MAATand3yrAverage Global NormalisedFor1979-1988

what’s happening to global temperatures?

Sometimes you read a news article and you think “that can’t be right” and it is. Yesterday was a case in point.

We now know  that CO2 levels have increased at their fastest rate for 30 years this year, with speculation among climate scientists that the biosphere may no longer be able to absorb as much CO2 as it has been doing. Radiative forcing, that is the combined effect of all the greenhouse gases, increased by by over a third between 1990 and 2013. And while the oceans are able to mitigate the impact of all these extra greenhouse gases, reducing the temperature increase, the cost is acidification and that means losing coral reefs and everything that goes with them.

These are all scientific statements – not my personal point of view. It’s just scientists developing hypotheses, collecting data, writing peer-reviewed papers and getting them published. All straightforward stuff.  This process has produced many thousands of scientific papers on climate science, of which 97%  concluded that Climate Change is human-induced.

A recent YouGov poll found that of the general public 80% agreed the climate was changing, and 60% thought this was due to human activity. But when a similar poll was conducted of our parliamentarians, a very different picture emerged. The poll found that just 51% agreed that the science conclusively showed Climate Change was human-induced.

Looking more closely at the figures, of Labour MPs nearly 3/4 agreed about the human impact on Climate Change and over 2/3 of LibDems. This is interesting in itself, that the “greener” Libdems have more doubters.

The most shocking figures are for the Tory party. Just 30% believed that the case had been made for human-induced climate change. That’s 91 of the 304 Tory MPs believe that the science is now irrefutable. 53% or 161 Tory MPs believe the science is inconclusive. Even a quarter of Labour MPs believe this, and a third of Lib Dems.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly – 18%, that’s 55 Tory MPs, believe that GLobal Warming is “environmentalist propaganda”. And 5 Labour MPs share this view. I imagine many of these will be on UKIP’s defection hit list.

Now if, as some might think, our MPs are in Parliament to represent their constituents views, then quite a large number have views on Climate Change well at odds with their constituents. And the 60 deniers are particularly vulnerable to this criticism.

The interesting PR Week special article on Climate Change seeks to identify why there is so much scepticism and denial amongst MPs and places some of the responsibility with the PR industry. The key section for me is here:

According to an analysis of climate change rep­orting in six countries by the Reuters Institute of Journalism and Birkbeck College, ‘deniers’ are almost exclusively represented in the US and the UK. This may explain why in Ipsos Mori’s Global Trends, a survey across 20 countries, the US, UK and Australia are at the top of the list for the percentage of people doubting global warming is man-made.

The analysis also found that in these countries a particularly high proportion of climate coverage consists of opinion pieces rather than news content. This creates the impression that the scientific community is divided. It also transforms science into politics, a PR tactic used in the past against regulations on smoking, acid rain and the ozone layer, argue Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt.

Concern about the ability of deniers to confuse the debate has become so acute that over the summer the US-based Climate Investigations Center decided to research the role of PR agencies in climate policies. Of 25 PR agencies contacted, fewer than half (Weber Shandwick, Waggener Edstrom, Text100 Corporation, Finn Partners, Qorvis Communications, Ogilvy Public Relations and the ent­ire WPP group, and later Edelman) said they would not take campaigns that deny man-made climate change or hinder regulations to limit carbon pollution. These campaigns would breach the codes of conduct of business associations such as the International Public Relations Association or, in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

In part this merely reflects the weakness of industry codes – since there is no enforcement, they can be ignored, and frequently are.

While the article rightly identifies the denier locus in the UK, US and Australia,  I think also the article misses a crucial factor – Think Tanks. Think Tanks of the Right are also peculiar phenomenon of these three countries. In the UK, Think Tanks (or Astroturf outfits) like the IEA the CPS and obviously the Global Warming Policy Foundation are overtly denialist. These are helped along/work in concert with high profile journalists such as Christopher Booker, Simon Heffer, Richard North and James Delingpole, who are all given inordinately large quantities of airtime by the BBC and other mass media outlets.  The Think Tanks and journalists of the right also have very strong links to the Right of the Tory Party. It is therefore no real surprise that so many Tories are sceptical or paranoid about Climate Change – as they are being drip fed toxic anti-environmental rhetoric on a daily basis.

What can be done? Well, there’s a general election coming up. If the 60% of the electorate who accept the Climate Science were to ask their MPs what their views on Climate Change were, and vote accordingly, we could get rid of these people from their positions of power within the Parliament. It’s just a pity the same cannot be done for the Lords, where Lord Lawson sits and wields considerable influence along with other denialist Peers, such as Viscount Matt Ridley.




Posted in climate change, the far right, Think Tanks, UKIP | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mark Reckless MP: destroying Lodge Hill will undermine national SSSI protection across the country

Lodge Hill Newry Road

Part of Lodge Hill’s military past: a fictitious Newry Road with Iraqi posters (c) Miles King


Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless is nobody’s fool. You may remember that earlier this year I wrote about his tirade against coastal vegetated shingle in a parliamentary debate in March 2013. He strongly argued that Local Authorities should be given the freedom to over-rule national bodies such as Natural England, and ignore national or international wildlife designations. The then planning minister Nick Boles, agreed with him and implied that Natural England would be “taken care of” mob-style.

After Medway Council planning committee unanimously agreed to approve the planning application which would destroy Lodge Hill SSSI and all the military and cultural history the site encompasses, I was interested to see if Mark Reckless had made any congratulatory statements. I had an inkling that his position had changed, and this was confirmed when he made a statement on his website. This is what he says:

“I am appalled that Medway Council’s planning committee chose to ignore the clear message from local residents and their elected representatives that this development should not proceed, particularly following the very welcome decision earlier in the week ruling out a Thames Estuary Airport. Having reviewed the environmental evidence following the independent inspector’s findings in relation to Lodge Hill, and further considered the impact which this would have on our local infrastructure, I am bewildered by the committee’s decision to give Lodge Hill the go ahead.

I shall be consulting with local residents in coming weeks as to how best to stop this development and to ensure that the residents whom I was elected to represent have a voice on this issue, which many feel they currently do not.”

Reckless had indeed campaigned tirelessly against “Boris Island”, the Airport which would have destroyed many hundreds of hectares of European protected wildlife in the Thames Estuary. He said, in a letter to David Cameron that Boris Island would “devastate an area of global environmental significance.”

The Airports Commission report into Boris Island concluded that the environmental costs were so great as to make the proposal untenable – specifically:

the scheme’s very significant impacts on protected habitats which, as well as  being a substantial disbenefit in themselves, would present, under Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive, a high legal hurdle to be overcome;

the scale of provision of new habitat required to compensate for the scheme’s impacts on protected sites, which would be unprecedented in the UK and in Europe and whose deliverability remains uncertain.

It  is difficult to resist relishing the irony of a campaign at least in part led by a fiercely Eurosceptic MP which has used the Habitats (and Birds) Directive to counter a development proposal in his constituency. Reckless seems to be near the top of a list of Tory MPs UKIP is trying to persuade to defect.

Reckless used the wildlife argument against Boris Island, while railing against the power of Natural England (and presumably the European Commission) to protect Lodge Hill as a SSSI, and of course the European protection afforded Dungeness, on account of if coastal vegetated shingle.

If you look at the letter Reckless wrote to Rodney Chambers, leader of Medway Council, about Lodge Hill, things become a little clearer. Reckless chides Chambers on a number of matters:

His first concern is that Medway are setting housing build targets above the level set in the local plan and by other neighbouring administrations. He particularly criticises their population size assumptions, which he slates them for assuming “unrestricted EU immigration”, despite his firm belief that we will be out of Europe after a 2017 referendum.

Secondly he criticises Medway for incorporating an assumption of 25% affordable housing in each large development – he states that Conservative members (presumably of Medway) had agreed that this should be cut to “10-25%” of each development for affordable housing. His language is interesting here – likening the 25% commitment to affordable housing as “the owner gives away at least a quarter of their site.”

Thirdly he attacks Medway for not promoting the development properly – criticising them for not including it in the 2003 Local Plan.

Finally he chides Medway for failing to “challenge the legality of Natural England including it in an SSSI.”

To be fair to Medway they and the developer’s ecological consultants did try to challenge the legality of the designation. But Lodge Hill was so obviously a nationally important wildlife site, Natural England had no choice but to designate it.

On his website he states that development of Lodge Hill SSSI will “have serious repercussions not just for residents living in Strood and on the Hoo Peninsula but also in terms of potentially undermining SSSI protected sites across the country and the government’s own National Planning Policy Framework.”

Does he believe, as he said so eloquently in the house in 2013, that the quangocracy has too much power, as he urged the minister to end the ‘absurd situation” where Natural England can dictate to local councils “how to run things.” Or does he believe that the SSSI protected site series is needed and development cannot ride rough shod over it?

It is possible that Reckless has had a Damascene conversion and now understands why places like Lodge Hill are so important to Society and for their own sake, and why organisations such as Natural England and the statutory protection afforded to wildlife sites that they implement through legislation, are so vital for protecting those values.

Does it matter? Reckless is evidently a highly effective advocate (as a trained barrister) and he will be able to bring a significant degree of clout to the campaign against Lodge Hill. In these circumstances, Amicus meus, inimicus inimici mei definitely applies.

Welcome on board Mr Reckless.

Posted in biodiversity, grasslands, Habitats Directive, housing, Lodge Hill, Mark Reckless, SSSis | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A Story of dispossession and emigration: The Clearance of Bourblaige


The Highland Clearances Memorial

We have recently returned from an amazing trip to Australia. It’s strange that I had to travel half way around the world to find out some things about my Scottish ancestors. On my mum’s side, although they all ended up in Australia, her four grandparents were descended from two English families (one transported to Australia for a crime he was later pardoned for, the other who went as part of a family who chose to go, when one of their cousins was transported), a Welsh family (who went of their own accord) and a Scottish family.

My Scottish ancestors were Stuarts, but not royal ones! They were crofters, eking out a  living on the Ardnamurchan peninsula overlooking the Sound of Mull in a place called Bourblaige. Bourblaige was “oppressed with too many tenants” according to an 1806 Estate survey. The owner of the Estate, James Riddell, decided in 1828 to evict the residents of Bourblaige, combine its land with other adjacent settlements and create a large, very large, sheep ranch.

Yes, this is the Highland Clearances. Reminiscences at the time attest to the brutality meted out on the hapless crofters.

1 bourblaige photo

Bourblaige as it is now, deserted and ruined.

Photo by Jon Haylett, used with thanks and permission under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike Licence v3.0 . From the Kilchoan Diary blog

This description comes from the excellent Kilchoan Diary website entry for Bourblaige:

The evictions were carried out with considerable cruelty. There is a story that one crippled old woman who barricaded herself into her cottage had her front door walled up by a stonemason, imprisoning her until she agreed to leave. Looking at the buildings, few of their drystone walls stand above a metre high, suggesting that those who carried out the evictions went to some lengths to knock them down.

I found another description of the clearance:

To clear Bourblaig, the laird’s men ‘shot the dogs, and they shot the goats, and they drove away the cows. And Then They Took the roofs off. It Was in the wintertime That They Did it. Plows were pulled through the potato pits so That They Would spoil in the frost. And the people Walked to Swordle (on the north coast) through showers of snow. A wee girl was carrying the riddle (for separating the winnowed oats). A girl aged six weeks was carried out of Bourblaig, and it did her no harm being carried, as she bore eight children, all who reached maturity. ‘

It’s worth noting that in Clachans such as Blourblaige the farmland was farmed communally in a similar way to the mediaeval Open Field system in England. On more fertile land, fields known as Runrigs were cultivated in strips and the strips were allocated randomly each year, so one family could end up with a good strip or a less productive one. On more infertile land, small plots known as Lazybeds were cultivated. Bracken and Seaweed were both used as soil improvers and fertiliser.  For centuries barley and oats were grown in the fields, and cattle were the main livestock animal. The introduction of the potato to the Highlands in 1755 saw the population grow significantly.  Transhumance was common, with stock taken to summer grazings on high ground.

Though ownership of the Ardnamurchan estate passed through the hands of several prominent Scottish Families (Campbells and Murrays) through the centuries the way the land was utilised had not, and the Stuarts of Bourblaige quietly continued their existence, until the Riddells acquired it in the 1770s.  James Riddell Bt, was superintendent of the Society of British Fishery and a Fellow of the Society of Arts and Sciences. He was clearly an upstanding member of society and I imagine was keen to see his newly acquired estates being put to productive and profitable purposes. Riddell was obviously enthused by the new opportunities afforded by sheep ranching and this led to the crofters, effectively the same as the commoners of pre-enclosure act English parishes, being evicted.

Having been evicted from the land, the Stuarts moved to Acharacle. 10 years later, in 1839, they sailed for Port Jackson, Australia.

Is this anything other than a bit of personal family history? In a way it is just that. But it also means something very important to me personally. It is the story of  a community, living relatively lightly off the land, not taking too much, and taking little if any profit. This long established way of living is then peremptorily discarded by the wealthy landowner, keen to exercise power, implement new ideas of the economy. The new science of economics, created in large part in Scotland, encouraged landowners to take profit from the land, to work it hard and degraded it, regardless of the feelings of either the community, or the nature that lived there.

While subsistence farmers such as Crofters and Commoners may have long gone from the British Countryside, the economic arguments that lead to nature being discarded in as equally callous a manner have not.

Have we come so far, in the intervening 200 years?




Highland Clearances Memorial photo by secretlondon123 [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Posted in Australia, history, Scotland, Stuart, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Save Lodge hill for its Scrub and its Magazines

pill box

military history: a one man concrete pill box at Chattenden (c) Miles King


I am naturally rather depressed that Medway Council unanimously voted in favour of the planning application to build 5000 houses on Lodge Hill and Chattenden Barracks, on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.

Reading the articles on the BBC, in the telegraph and the guardian, hasn’t really helped. At least the Guardian mentioned the grassland. The BBC and Telegraph didnt even bother to mention it. It’s as if somehow magically species like Nightingales can exist without the habitats or landscapes which they depend on. The Telegraph mentions that deer have reduced the density of shrubs they inhabit, as if they lived in the park amongst the Photinias and Cotoneasters.

It’s Scrub! Scrub is why there are so many Nightingales at Lodge Hill – SCRUB! Scrub which if left to its own devices becomes trees and woodland, and Nightingales no longer live in it.

Land Securities own Consultants now recognise 26 ha of valuable grassland at Lodge Hill – I am sure this is an underestimate. I reckon there is over 30ha of unimproved mildly calcareous unimproved grassland there. This would make it one of the largest surviving contiguous areas of unimproved “lowland meadows and pastures” habitat in England. It’s astonishing that such a large area of unimproved grassland lay undiscovered for so long. It makes me wonder what other undiscovered wildlife gems are still out there in the military estate.

The value of Lodge Hill lies not only in its unimproved grassland, or its Nightingales. It partly lies in the dynamic mosaic of different habitats that Lodge Hill’s fascinating military history has created. There are intimate mosaics of scrub (SCRUB not shrubs) and flower-rich grassland that are rich in birds plants and invertebrates.

But its value also lies entirely outside the realms of nature.

Lodge Hill and Chattenden are awash with military history. And military history is social history, especially in an area like the Hoo Peninsula, which has played such a critical role in defending Britain over the past several hundred years.

The Chattenden Magazines alone are extraordinary. Surrounded by a 12 foot wall, still entered through a locked security gate, it houses a series of magazines, or bunkers built into the hillside within a blast proof casemate (is that the right word?).

Built in 1875/6 by convicts living on prison hulks in the Thames Estuary (that’s another story) the bunkers were used to store massive amounts of gunpowder for the guns of battleships; and later, torpedoes. The ordnance was loaded onto a military narrow gauge railway to be delivered down to the ships. Within this walled garden of ordnance, lies more unimproved grassland, of quite a different nature from the areas within Lodge Hill.

The Royal Naval Armament Depot Lodge Hill itself also holds the remains of other Magazines that were used to store cordite and guncotton  – the massive charges that propelled shells up to 18 inches diameter over distances as great as 17 miles. Sadly these magazines are all in a state of advanced disrepair now and will likely demolish themselves if the developers don’t get there first.

As the home of the Royal Engineers training school, Lodge Hill also shows evidence of having been the place where the first attempts at trench warfare were trialled. In this of all years, it is incumbent on us all to remember the sacrifices of the generation that died of suffered during the first world war; and to remember those places which still hold the evidence of that conflict.

It’s not just about the Nightingales, the Dyer’s Greenweed, The Duke of Burgundy, the scrub or the Magazines. It’s not about birds versus houses as some would like it to be seen.

This is about what values are important to us as a society.

Are we prepared to forego the short term economic gain from selling off this public asset for private profit – and a minuscule contribution to the public coffers; or are we prepared to decide that we want to put public resources into protecting our wildlife and our history, recognising these things as vital elements of our common wealth;

Are we prepared to say that sites like Lodge Hill should remain in public hands and not be seen as merely economic assets to be traded on the market like apples or ipads?

Posted in grasslands, Lodge Hill, public goods, public land, SSSis | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Stick to the Knitting


“I think the Knitters have left you a message Minister”

It’s just as well there is less than a year left in this Parliament – and so very little if any time for new legislation or policy development. This is particularly true in the Charity Sector.

Not content with banning Charities from saying anything remotely political in the run up to any Election (the muzzle goes on on the 19th September for next May’s General Election), David Cameron has replaced the thoughtful and helpful former Charities minister, Nick Hurd, with Brooks Newmark MP.

Newmark has been rightly toasted over the media open fire  for his positively Paterson-esque remark that Charities should “stick to the knitting” and stay out of politics. This was at an event organised partly by the Cabinet Office, entitled People Helping People: The Future of Public Services. Newmark later claimed he meant Party politics. But the Lobbying Act has already effectively banned Charities from even commenting on party politics.

One wonders whether Newmark believes that public services, or indeed people helping other people, are entirely unrelated to politics. Perhaps he does.

Newmark has actually managed to achieve something special in this remark. Not only has he deeply offended the entire voluntary sector with this patronising crassitude; he has also ridiculed those who do knit for charity. Knitters make a massive contribution to charity – they have their own website. There are knitters for all causes – I particularly liked knit a message to your MP. Perhaps Newmark will receive some messages from knitters. I hate to think what those messages might say, but they probably won’t appear in Hansard.

Still – you have to shed a wry smile at Cameron’s choice of  Charities Minister. He clearly has a wicked sense of humour.

Newmark’s background is in investment banking – he was a Vice President at Lehman Brothers – remember them? They were the massive American Investment Bank that cooked up all sorts of clever plans and schemes to make money magically out of nothing. This  led inexorably to the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, which in turn caused that good old global economic recession we’re all still mired in. After he left Lehman he had an, I am sure, very successful career in corporate finance. He’s worth a few million of course.

He’s also written a number of reports for the neoconservative “Think Tank” The Centre for Policy Studies and its website lists him as an Advisory Council member. This one was set up by “the Mad Monk” Keith Joseph in 1974, to create policies for Margaret Thatcher’s neo-conservative revolution of the 80s. The CPS is climate change denying, pro fracking and all the other things you would expect. Bizarrely, or indeed not, the CPS has links with Frank Furedi’s libertarian Living Marxism Network, about which I have written before. Furedi wrote a report for the CPS in 1999, about the growth of litigation culture.

Now it becomes clear why Newmark has been made Charities Minister.

In a 2006 CPS report entitled “Charities: The Spectre of State Dependency” The CPS was alarmed at the level of “lobbying” done by charities and recommended that such lobbying be prohibited (p37). 7 years later the CPS have achieved their stated aim to ban political work by charities and they have their man in at the ministry.

With charities, if you want to know who funds them, you can look up that information on the Charities Commission Website where you will find a reasonable amount of information. For Think Tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies, who are, as you can see, highly influential (influencing in a very political sense) it is much more difficult to see who is funding them, who pays the piper whose tune they dance to.

CPS income in the year to September 2012 is a healthy £573000. The CPS receives funding from a charity, called the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). It has given the CPS £1.8 million between 2005 and 2013. That must be a sizeable chunk of its funding.

One advantage of using a charity in this way is that donations received by them can be substantially boosted through Tax Relief. I explained how this works here.

We know that Lord Vinson of Roddam co-founded the CPS. He is also a major funder of the IPR. Vinson has given the IPR £330,000 between 2005-13. It’s not too difficult to join the dots and see CPS founder (and Tory Peer) Lord Vinson giving significant funding to CPS via the Charity the IPR, who get tax relief at 40% and add it on to the grant to CPS. Note that IPR only gives money to neoliberal or neoconservative causes.

Vinson was very recently revealed as a funder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I’m sure he will be disappointed that the naughty boys and girls at GWPF behaved so badly that the normally comatose Charities Commission actually took action and insisted they split their overtly political and highly negative lobbying away from their charitable activities.

It is also apparent that CPS, like their fellow neoconservative travellers the IEA,  have received funding from the tobacco industry for many years. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that in 2011 a CPS acting director signed a letter attacking Government restrictions on tobacco control.

So there you have it. Our new Tory Minister for Charities made a fortune in investment banking and private equity investment, and has close links to a neoconservative Think Tank funded by Tory millionaires via a charity that only funds neoliberal/conservative Think Tanks.

It would seem that as far as our new Charities minister is concerned, if you’re a politically minded Tory Millionaire, it’s fine to use a charity to channel your money (plus an extra 40% Top Rate Tax Relief paid) to your favourite, highly influential Politically connected Think Tank.  But if you’re a knitter, don’t expect your contribution to be used for anything political.


photo thanks to the excellent website.


Posted in Charities campaigning, Charities Commission, neoliberalism, Think Tanks, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Panic Ploughing

The BBC revealed yesterday that grasslands had been ploughed up, thanks to the European Commission’s Common Agricultural Policy proposals on “greening” – oh, the irony  – to protect grasslands from being ploughed up.The EC had made the fatal mistake of giving a 2 1/2 year advance warning they were thinking about (but in the end didn’t) bringing in stricter rules to protect grasslands.

I raised this story with Defra and the press back in 2011. Defra rejected that there was any problem. Indeed the EFRA Select Committee raised it as a concern with Government nearly 3 years ago and their report was published in June 2012. This from the exec summary

Similarly the requirement to retain permanent pasture is likely to have unintendedand perverse consequences. The

measure would not only fail to deliver environmental benefit but also act as an incentive to remove environmentally important semi-natural grassland“.

At the time NFU was publicly imploring its members not to plough up old meadows. In private on the message boards of farming internet forums all were agreeing ploughing up unwanted grassland was the best thing to do. Indeed, their professional advisers were advising them to do just that. As the Guardian piece mentioned, Strutt and Parker’s advice was “You may want to keep your grassland area to a minimum between now and 2014, or ensure that grassland is rotated before the five-year point, to prevent it becoming permanent pasture and landlords should also give consideration to what their tenants are doing”. No ambivalence there.

Fast Forward 3 years. The Minister, George Eustice, was interviewed by Sarah Montague on the Today programme.  Eustice said “Anecdotally, there were comments in 2012, which maybe sparked a bit of panic ploughing”. He went on to say that only 1% of permanent grassland had been lost per year; and that the Govt were doing really well because half of all surviving wildflower meadows were SSSIs. Finally he reassured Radio 4 listeners that everything was really just fine, as “72000ha of grassland is protected in SSSIs” and 700,000ha of grassland is protected through the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.”

Eustice only says what his officials feed him. Why should he know any better? It’s worth noting that 1% of permanent pasture equates to 39,000ha a year. So we are looking at loss of around 100,000 ha of grassland since the EC announced their intended protection measures.

How many wildflower meadows are left? It’s a difficult one as the definitions are not as easy you might think. But it’s around 7000ha of the very best for wildlife. Half of which are protected by SSSI designation. How many were lost as a result of the panic ploughing? It’s impossible to say, because not all of them are known about, and for those that are, many do not get visited from year to year. it’s only on a return visit that a surveyor might discover the meadow has been ploughed up in the meantime. And this exactly what the Wildlife Trusts found when they investigated what had happened to wildflower meadow wildlife sites over the past 10 years. In Worcestershire, the county of wildflower meadows, 75% of wildflower meadows had been lost between 1975-2000. Another 25% were lost in the last 10 years.

Of course it’s a nonsense to suggest that the CFE protects wildflower meadows. CFE is a voluntary unpaid initiative, set up by the farming industry in a largely successful attempt to see off moves towards a more regulatory approach to farming and wildlife under the previous government (note to CFE – your work is done, no need to worry about anything pro regulatory for now), driven by the ongoing disappearance of Farmland Birds.

Roger Harrabin’s piece for the Beeb mentioned Keresley meadow which had been sprayed off and destroyed by a farmer in Warwickshire. The local community were extremely upset as they regarded it as a community asset. The farmer claimed it was just “a worn out old pasture”. The community tried to get Natural England to apply the EIA regulations for agriculture. I have blogged about this so many times….. needless to say, the meadow did not meet the EIA test – well it wouldnt, because it would have to be SSSI quality to be protected by the EIA Regs.

The NFU have been somewhat stung by the criticism of farmers and have unusually launched a rebuttal. Their main point seemed to be that the Warwickshire farmer was not an NFU member! And presumably was therefore not acting like their members? I think not. He was doing exactly what any NFU member would have done in the circumstances ie following the advice of his agronomist, agent etc. Indeed he did approach NE to check whether the meadow fell within the EIA regulations, presumably confident in the knowledge that it would not.

NFU then trotted out their usual palliatives – the wildflower meadows were all lost long ago (as if it happened in a fairy tale) “since the pre-war period” and it was all different now. They reassured everyone that the EIA Regs are there to protect wildflower meadows and that there was nothing to worry about. In fact the NFU has repeatedly campaigned to have the EIA Regs killed off.

Where does this leave us?

Despite the great work being done by Plantlife (Saving our Magnificent Meadows) and The Prince of Wales (Coronation Meadows) and The Wildlife Trust’s vanishing grasslands campaign, we still have a long way to go. Meanwhile Meadows continue to be lost, year in year out. Why?

It’s worth considering this esoteric fact. During the First World War, Britain shipped nearly 2 1/2 Million Tonnes of hay abroad, mostly to France. The hay was so important, there were fierce debates in the Cabinet, over whether the holds of ships should carry hay or ammunition. The hay won. Hay was the fuel which drove the Imperial Army, indeed it drove all the armies of the War. The First World War was a horse-powered war.

A rough calculation indicates that 600,000 acres of hay meadow were needed just to feed the Army’s horses.

Posted in Common Agricultural Policy, deregulation, George Eustice, grasslands, meadows, NFU, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments


This blog has passed a bit of a milestone today – it has reached 50,000 views. I know it’s not much compared to some of the big bloggers like George Monbiot or Mark Avery, but for me, doing this in my spare time, I’m really pleased to have got here.

So with the heady scent of hubris swirling around me, I thought it would be a good moment to take a look at the most popular posts of the last year.

Number one by quite a long way is last December’s blog about the new Natural England chair Andrew Sells, with 1796 views.

Number 2 is Keeping a Level Head, one of my blogs about last Winter’s flooding on the Somerset Level, with 1587 views.

I’m delighted that Held to Ransom: Solar Farms, green or greed, which I wrote only 6 weeks ago, is already up to number 3 in the blog-charts, with 1460 views. This one is still getting 15 views a week so I expect it will climb the chart before too long.

Lost in the drainage Maize, the previous blog about the Somerset Levels to Keeping a Level Head, is at number 4 with 1320 views.

A political blog that had been gestating for quite a while, the unholy alliance between UKIP and the marxist libertarians, is at number 5 with 1121 views.

At number 6, my most recent blog (of many) on biodiversity offsetting, about the Thaxted wildflower meadow case, proved popular with 1086 views, 954 on the first day.

One of my most personal blogs is number 7, about my late brother Simon, which has received 1023 views. Simon died a year ago last week and is still very much in our thoughts.

A story Simon would have enjoyed (as an angler and wildlife expert), and one that no doubt would have stimulated a long conversation with him, was that of Defra’s plan to evict the Beavers of the River Otter, and the appalling stance taken by the Angling Trust. I blogged about this in June and it is currently number eight with 1018 views. I will return to this story soon.

At 9 is the first blog about the Somerset Levels, On the Level, which I wrote on World Wetlands Day. This has 934 views.

Finally in the top ten is my review of George Monbiot’s book Feral, which I published a year ago tomorrow. This has steadily accrued views over the past year and is up to 835.

So that’s the top ten. I’ve really enjoyed writing these blogs, and it’s become a bit compulsive to be honest. I have really missed writing over the past 6 weeks, but it seemed the right thing to do (to have a proper break).

I will continue writing regularly, as much as I can, fitting in with the day job, volunteering and the family.

So it just leaves me to thank everyone who has read my blog over the past 15 months, and special thanks to the commentators, regular or occasional.

Which were your favourites, and which ones did you think were rubbish? Let me know.




Posted in blogging, Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Cockle of Rebellion



Some of you may have noticed I have not been posting for the past 5 weeks or so. We have been to Australia to catch up with family and have a good holiday. It was an amazing trip and I will be writing about some of the things we saw and did over the coming weeks, possibly months.

It’s good to be back of course, especially as the silly season seems to still be in full swing. Take this story for example, which actually popped up shortly before I left, back in July.

Project promoted by BBC spreads poisonous wild flowers across Britain

It seems the BBC has been trying to poison the bodies of plucky Brits, not just their minds with their lefty propaganda – at least that’s the case if you believe the Mail and the Torygraph (which really should know better.) What’s going on?

The Mail reported a little story back in July that a National Trust warden had found corncockle growing on his patch in Sunderland – and was very pleased to see it “in the wild”.

The Big Lottery Fund has given Kew gardens £10M to encourage people to grow wild flowers. The project is called “Grow Wild“. Now whether this was a good use of gamblers money is moot, but that’s another matter.

Grow Wild thought it would be a good idea to send out seeds of the Corncockle, and encourage people to plant these attractive wild flowers in their gardens, and anywhere else appropriate.

Someone somewhere (a hack no doubt) discovered that – shock horror – corncockle seeds are poisonous. Indeed if you were foolish enough to eat a corncockle stem – perhaps mistaking it for a runner bean, with which it has absolutely no similarity, it would also give you a tummy ache.

The power of social media transformed this innocuous fact into a media-driven whirlwind of hysteria. These vicious and lethal wildflowers that have somehow been released into the wild and now being hunted down and eradicated as I write.

The Telegraph excels itself in this stupidity to the point that I wonder whether there is any dark ironic humour in their piece – for example

In Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, council groundsmen have already been called in to eradicate a patch of corncockles planted in a park by well-meaning Girl Guides.”

Note this is Wootton Bassett – a town resonating culturally now as the sepulchre where the bodies of servicemen lost in wars of the Middle East are received back to the mother country.

The BBC has found itself entangled in this web of confusion and fear by merely reporting on progress with Grow Wild” in their insipid Countryfile strand. It’s a typical Countryfile piece in a way – reporting on a project which is cosy and friendly and all about the community doing something positive for nature, without addressing many of the real issues affecting it. How the Countryfile editors must be wondering where are those “countryside” stories that will upset nobody. Newflash – there aren’t any, get over it.

There is a more interesting story, in the shadows around this piece of silly season nonsense, and it’s about our relationship with plants and nature.

Corncockles are extinct in the wild in the UK – a rather ignominious state, given how common they were until relatively recently. They were originally introduced to Europe from their homelands in the Middle East, around 6000 years ago during the Neolithic. As a species that is pre-adapted to live with arable crops, they did very well in arable fields. They are not strictly climbers, but they are quite good at using a crop to grow up to, or even beyond the height of the crop canopy. They were a very well known arable weed for millennia, often found growing with another very common weed, Cornflower. Because their seeds are a similar size to crop seeds, they were a common (notorious) contaminant of crops, especially Rye, and were resown with the crop. Also, their seeds have a very long life in the seedbank, perhaps over a hundred years. So they can lie undisturbed until some cultivation happens and up they pop. Archaeological evidence indicates they arrived in Britain during the first millennium BC.

Eating Cockle-contaminated bread, especially Rye bread (or porridge), was an everyday occurrence from the Neolithic until the 19th century, as archaeological evidence attests. No doubt some did die from the toxins in the seed, though they those that survived benefitted from the presence of a natural ant-helminth githagenin, which kills intestinal parasites, another ubiquitous health problem of that time.

In Shakespeare’s time Corncockle was one of the most pernicious of weeds – known to such an extent he used it metaphorically: Coriolanus argues with the Senate over their desire to give the people a gift of free corn. Coriolanus likens the gift to a farmer encouraging Corncockle to grow instead of Corn.

In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our senate

The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition

Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sow’d and scattered

By mingling them with us, the honour’d numbers;

Who lack’d not virtue, no, nor power

but that which they have given to beggars”

Coriolanus Act 3 scene 1

Could wearing a Corncockle actually have been used a symbol of rebellion in the 16th century?

19th century advances in agriculture – such as the threshing machine griddle, improved seed cleaning and Corncockle were no longer spread with corn seed. Their long decline to extinction in Britain had begun. WIth the introduction of mechanical and chemical weed killing techniques they rapidly declined, along with many others of our arable weed flora. They have been extinct in the wild for decades, although occasionally pop up after cultivation from that seed bank.

It’s also worth noting Corncockle and it’s arable weed familiars, Poppy and Cornflower, especially this year. The battlefields mimicked arable cultivation such that there were incredible displays of arable weeds during and after the First World War. This gives us our emblem of our lost generation the poppy, while in France it is the Cornflower. It could just as easily have been the Corncockle, which we now wear to signify remembrance.

Instead, we see the media vilify this flower, embody it with notions of poison and threat, forgetting or in ignorance of it’s history. For god’s sake Girl Guides in Wootton Bassett could be poisoned by it! It obviously has to go.

And so, not content with getting rid of this exotic traveller from the Middle East once, we have to do it twice, akin to driving a stake through the heart of the beheaded vampire.

This aversion to nature could be called ecophobia. It is everywhere – having come back from Australia, they have it real bad.

Immunologists now recognise that many allergies suffered are caused because part of our immune system is adapted to tackle intestinal parasites like worms. Now we have rid ourselves of these parasites, our immune system searches around for something similar to tackle, for example certain types of food, or parts of our own bodies.

It occurs to me that the Corncockle story  is something similar – we have an innate fear of some things in nature – for good reasons, such as not being eaten by a predator or bitten by a snake, or eating a poisonous plant. We have now rid ourselves of almost all of those primal risks from nature, but we still retain the psychological apparatus, so we have to invent other things to fill that space. The deadly Corncockle insinuating itself into our public and private spaces fits that bill perfectly. We have to consciously reject this visceral response and replace it with another more positive image of nature.

So let us celebrate our relationship with the Corncockle, sow Corncockles whereever they may prosper, re-wild our stale sterile public spaces with colour and a little bit of danger.

Let Girl Guides across the country sow Corncockles where they may go, and wear your Cockle of Rebellion with pride.

Photo by H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons








Posted in arable weeds, ecophobia | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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