Miliband and Truss combine to declare EU best for climate action. #EUreferendum

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lowland heathland supports a wide variety of threatened wildlife.

 

 

 

 

 

Ed Miliband surfaced from the political ocean depths today, to join forces with Liz Truss. There’s a sentence I never expected to write. With Caroline Lucas and former LibDem energy minister Ed Davey, they have signed a joint declaration on why the UK needs to stay in the EU, for climate action and nature protection.

I can’t find the declaration, which has apparently been published as a pamphlet, which is a bit frustrating. According to press reports, the pamphlet is big on concerted EU action on climate change, logging and whaling, but also pushes a natural capital approach to nature, stating:

“If Britain leaves Europe, our environment, our wildlife and our global habitat will be starved of investment, bereft of protections and denied the leadership it needs.”

The press coverage doesnt mention nature that much (when does it ever?), for example the good done for nature in the UK by things like the Habitats and Birds Directive. That’s a pity because when it comes to the few things the Brexiteers have said about the environment, this is a weak spot which should be exploited.

In his first speech after announcing he was going to lead the Brexit campaign, Justice secretary Michael Gove made a cynical and sarcastic attack on the Birds Directive. This is what he said:

“This growing EU bureaucracy holds us back in every area. EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres). Individually these rules may be comical. Collectively, and there are tens of thousands of them, they are inimical to creativity, growth and progress.”

I happen to know quite a bit about this issue as I was working for English Nature and Natural England on heathland SSSIs when it first came up; and more recently at Footprint Ecology who have done a great deal of research on the issue.

Threatened heathland birds such as nightjars, wood larks and Dartford warblers, and rare reptiles such as sand lizards and smooth snakes, are killed by domestic cats – and this has led to the introduction of a 400m zone around heathlands, where additional residential housing has been stopped. Residential care facilities and other types of housing where there are no cats anyway, is allowed.

But the 5km zone around heathland sites protected under the Birds Directive is nothing to do with cats – it’s about managing visitor pressure on heathlands, especially visitors with dogs. And in any case there is new housing happening within the 5km zone, with the European law ensuring that a payment is made for each new house. Those payments support the costs of project to educate the public about the value of heathland nature and what they can do to help it, but also the provision of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANGs), where dogs can be exercised without disturbing the ground-nesting birds.

So the original piece of European legislation, has not only supported more sustainable growth and progress, but has also created the conditions for developers to think creatively, and provide more greenspace within new developments, that they would otherwise have done. And of course, that new greenspace will not only help reduce the impact of visitors on the heathlands, but also provide all the other benefits to communities that we know about, such as increasing mental wellbeing, and even increasing house values.

Now I would be the first person to say that the 400m cordon, the 5km heathland mitigation schemes and SANGs approach is not perfect, but it is making a positive difference to nature on lowland heathlands, thanks to a law that would not have been implemented in the UK, had we been outside the EU. And if the UK does leave the EU, it is almost impossible to imagine this protection being maintained.

Given the pressures that our nationally protected SSSIs are facing at the moment, removal of European protection for sites like heathlands, could lead to housing developments being proposed, and pushed through planning, on sites that have been protected from such development pressures for the past 20 years. Remember what happened to Canford Heath.

 

Posted in Birds Directive, dogs, EU referendum, greenspace, housing, Liz Truss, lowland heathland | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Getting of Natural History: Guest blog by Mark Fisher

It’s a pleasure to post a guest blog written by Dr. Mark Fisher, Honorary Research Fellow at the Wildland Research Institute, University of Leeds.

Mark writes a fascinating blog called Self Willed Land. 

The post, which was first published on the People Need Nature website,  arises from a discussion between Mark and I, over a number of months and emails.

The Getting of Natural History

“Freighted with Dogma”. New Forest heathland and Ponies. Photo By Troxx – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=829480

Though not usually given to philosophic analyses, I have found the work of some philosophers immensely helpful in understanding the joys I find in wild nature, and how I understand my emotional reaction to it. Thus, as Iris Murdoch would have it, giving deliberate attention to nature can unself us by being a distraction that clears our minds of selfish care. American philosopher Holmes Roltson considers that aesthetic experience of nature can be as motivational in safeguarding wild nature as moral and ethical considerations if it is founded on natural history, with us emplacing ourselves fittingly within wild nature to observe it. But how do you found that aesthetic on natural history? When I discussed this with Miles, his question was whether an interest in natural history is a pre-requisite to developing a deeper aesthetic appreciation of nature? Would needing to know the names of things actually get in the way of a deeper aesthetic appreciation, as if the cognitive urge for knowledge masks our emotional (even spiritual) relationship with nature? This is how I set out to answer Miles.

When I was thinking about that getting of natural history, I had visions of a schoolboy aged Chris Packham or George Peterken in mind, both of whom had the backdrop of the New Forest for their naturalist enthusiasm and project space. To me, the New Forest was for family outings, avoiding the flies and horses, and then later for Boy Scout and Duke of Edinburgh scheme hikes, as well as drunken teenage camping weekends. Now I view the New Forest with deep suspicion as a cultural model of land use that is too freighted with dogma.

With hindsight, I look back at my biology master at secondary school as being a classic 1960s example of the nature conservation dogma that prevails today, of killing wild nature. I don’t think he ever got used to teaching “Nuffield biology” at O level. He took great delight in de-fleshing cat heads to get a clean skull. The random bit of voluntary conservation work I undertook with him (it could have been on Butser Hill) was cutting down scrub (perhaps laurel) drilling the stumps and then pouring in poison. You can still see this done more crudely today on nearby Old Winchester Hill where dogwood is just sprayed with herbicide.

So, no, I didn’t learn the names of things when growing up, nor catalogue or classify, measure, stick pins in or tear off wings. But I did know what wood was the best for campfires (ash, and then beech) the years as a Wolf Cub and then a scout spent in local woodland campsites learning woodcraft. Learning plant names and identification came much later after a failed career in science. Walking was our pleasure, and why we moved up to Yorkshire to get better walking, and then walking became the means to find wildflowers (Diana is a lapsed botanist). I can happily read a guide to wild flowers last thing at night in bed. That it became woodland walking, and thus turning full circle, was because of wildflower walking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001, and where I did use a notebook. It was the wildflower walking there that within a few short years got me into walking North American wilderness.

I don’t think I ever suffered anything like “nature-deficit disorder” until the penny dropped about the pathology underlying land use here. Apparently, the “eco-anxiety” it engenders in me is a “psycho-terratic syndrome” attributable to the degraded state of my physical surroundings, or at least that it is what “ecopsychologists” may say. My “ecotherapy” is thus to seek out and walk the wilder places where ever I am, tapping into my “ecological unconscious”. OK – the last bit is tongue in cheek, as a parody of the “wilderness” schools/therapy that you may find in Scotland, but the first bit is correct. The lack of wildness in Britain is my “nature-deficit disorder”. I am moved by the spirit of wildland, but I don’t think that’s about a spirituality in me, it’s more about the freedoms I feel in wildland.

I guess what I have been doing in the preceding paragraphs is storytelling, another form of “ecotherapy” perhaps, and something I probably have an over capacity in. I can give quick examples of the benefit of knowing plant names, other than for our own personal satisfaction: a harebell in the Colorado Front Range was called a bluebell by a local, the confusion being solved by us both knowing what its Latin name was (Campanula rotundifolia); and yes I have been walking woodland with a Swede in the Lesser Caucasus mountains in Georgia and being able to talk about wildflowers by using the Latin names when common names were useless between us. We started talking to a couple of women out from Denver for a day’s walk in Eagles Nest wilderness and, when they expressed amazement at how a couple of Brits had ended up there, we explained that we were making our way through a book of wildflower walks that we had picked up at Denver botanical garden. They walked with us as we pointed out the flowers that we saw. They turned back before us, but when we got back to the trailhead, we found that they had left a note on our windscreen saying how much they had appreciated learning from us. It was a similar story on an organised levada walk on Madeira, the mountain and ridge walks that follow alongside micro-canals that bring water down from the hills. Diana and I would be very quick to point out though that group size is critical in these situations. You can miss so much in a crowd because your attention is taken away, and you certainly won’t see any critters.

I think we will always want to know the name of a wildflower, but we are certainly not driven to know the names of all the other things we find in wild nature, such as the fungi and lichens in our local ancient woodlands, and where we have trouble differentiating ferns. We have only just found out that what looks like a beautiful pink coral or aquatic lichen that we see in shallow pools on exposed rock ledges at low tide on the N. Yorkshire coast is actually a rock encrusting seaweed. The undersides of large boulders on these rock platforms have colonies of bright yellow and pale green breadcrumb sponges. The spreading mass of sponge is punctuated with pores, small holes through which sea water enters into inner cavities where food particles are filtered out, making these an unlikely invertebrate animal, in the same way that the encrusting corallines are unlikely aquatic plants. I guess it’s more a process of absorption now than study when we walk wild places like these wave-cut platforms, but the joy and fun is in seeing it, the colours of the rock, the seaweeds and the other forms of life.

Miles and I know that we have taken different paths to nature; that we have different notions of what nature can be; but our perceptions of nature must be based on some sort of commonality, or it would not have the emotional or spiritual traction that it does have on us. Can that commonality be transferred; is it a universal property? It is these and other like tasks that Miles has set himself with People Need Nature, and which are very much of their time.

 

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Pythagoras, Bean Counters and Natural Capital

“have nothing to do with the bean.”

We are all familar with Pythagoras who discovered that, for a triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of tte opposite sides. What we may not realise is that hey was also, arguably, the founder of mathematics and created a highly influential religious sect which worshipped numbers.

Pythagoras was also said to have cryptically stated

“have nothing to do with the bean.”

What did he mean? Pythagoras had founded a mystical sect which worshipped numbers and believed that numbers held the secrets of the cosmos and nature. The Pythagorean Sect was vegetarian so it seems unlikely that he was saying that beans should not be eaten. There are various theories as to why he should have urged his followers to stay away from Fabacae in general and Broad Beans in particular. Some suggest physiological reasons (there is a genetic disease which causes bleeding in some people who eat Broad Beans), others prefer to believe the proscription to be for symbolic or spiritual reasons – ancient Greeks believed the reincarnated souls of people were to be found in beans.

But perhaps Pythagoras was referring to the role of Beans in Politics.

The ancient Greeks had voted using beans (psephos – the root of the modern term for election analysis, psephology) by placing them into a pot to signify their support for one person or another. It was not secret and therefore open to abuse.

voting with psephoi

Ancient Greeks voting with psephoi (beans or pebbles). (c) Getty Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

To such avoid corrupt practices and the continuation of oligarchies, ancient Athens developed a system (possibly the first type of Democracy) called Demarchy, which used bean machines to choose politicians. The machine (the kleroterion) would be filled up with black beans, except for a number of white beans corresponding to the number of people being chosen for office. If your name (inscribed on bronze name tags called pinakion) popped out of the machine when it served up a black bean, you were rejected. So if 20 people wanted one job, the machine would be filled with 19 black and one white bean.I’m simplifying what was actually quite a complicated process – which you can read about here.

kleroterion

part of a Kleroterion allotment machine

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether Pythagoras rejected this approach because he regarded it as a vulgar use of what he believed to be divine mathematics or not is debatable. But to this day, the phrase “bean counters” is considered rather derogatory  – signifying a narrow approach to numbers, with an excessive interest in controlling expenditure or budgets.

Pythagoras believed that mathematics helped people understand the beauty and divinity of nature. He rejected the “bean counting” approach.

There are clear parallels with Natural Capital Accounting. Natural Capital accounting adopts a linear, reductionist approach to valuing nature. The different aspects of nature (which are also characterised as ecosystem services) are dealt with separately, broken apart so their inter-relationships are ignored. Aspects such as spiritual value or nature as a source of inspiration, are ignored because they are not amenable to being monetised – given a monetary value. I suspect most people would be revulsed at the thought of placing a monetary value on a spitirual belief in the value of anything, including nature.

In this respect I am with Pythagoras, though I love Broad Beans!

Thanks to Professor Sian Sullivan at Bath Spa University, for planting the seed of an idea for this post.

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Rampisham Down: British Solar Renewables have a digital spring clean

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With only a little over 4 months to go before the Rampisham Down Public Inquiry gets underway, British Solar Renewables has been having a digital clear out, getting rid of information that might not put it in the best light at the Inquiry. The public relations/spin website they created at http://www.rampishamdown.com has been taken down and its predecessor http://www.communityheatandpower.com has also been wiped. And the twitter account @CH&PLtd has been taken off line.

For those who are  worried that there will be no information online about the proposed solar farm at Rampisham – fear not! I will be keeping all my posts about Rampisham online and available free for anyone who wants to read them.

BSR, working through their front organisation Community Heat and Power, had put all sorts of propaganda out about the Rampisham Down Solar Farm. They had also promised to publish reports on the “experiment” they are conducting into the effects of shading by solar panels on nationally important wildlife-rich grasslands at Rampisham. It was then reported in the press that a groundbreaking report had been published showing that the panels would do no damage. I asked BSR and CHP for the report but received no reply. I spent days searching for the report online without any luck. If the report was ever published, I’d like to know who received copies. Publication usually means that a report is available to the public (there’s a clue in the name).

Subsequently a notice went up on the Rampishamdown website stating

“We’ve had a number of enquiries from individuals asking for the survey reports; as stated on our project website, reports are only released to the project working party. Whilst we have in the past released interim results to the public, due to the nature of the Public Inquiry we are unable to publish any data until the inquiry is over.”

To which I say large steaming piles of male-cattle ordure.

One thing I do know about Public Inquiries is that any information presented to the Inspector has to have been made available to all parties with an interest in the Inquiry, including your opponents – well in advance of the Inquiry.. Otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a Public Inquiry (there’s a clue in that name too.)

One of the more embarrassing aspects of the tripe that has been emanating from BSR and their minions are the outbursts from Hannah Lovegrove. Lovegrove is a yoga teacher and one would think that as such she would be a calm, collected individual who would think carefully before writing in public places, especially with a Public Inquiry coming up. As I have mentioned previously, she is the partner of BSR Director Giles Frampton and was, until a couple of weeks ago, also a Director of BSR front, Community Heat and Power.

Lovegrove wrote some truly bizarre attacks on Dorset Wildlife Trust in particular, on the CHP website. These have now been taken down from their website, but fortunately they are still available elsewhere – you can read them on http://www.dorseteye.com here and here.

Here’s one of Lovegrove’s most bizarre claims – that photos taken by Natural England during the notification of Rampisham are fakes!

hannah lovegrove 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BSR is currently applying for another Solar Farm at Rampisham – but it’s across the road on farmland adjacent to their own land, and crucially it’s not on the SSSI. Recently they have reduced the size of this farm from its original 15.5MW to only 5 MW, compared with the planned 25MW array on Rampisham Down.  It’s difficult to know exactly what they are up to. If they had withdrawn the Rampisham proposal and just gone ahead with the 15 MW farm across the road, I think they probably would have got it through (though it is still in the AONB so there is the visual impact to consider, as well as the impact on the setting of a nearby Scheduled Ancient Monument.)

It’s possible that they think they can win the Inquiry, and if they got permission for a 5MW farm across the road now, they could then resubmit the 15MW proposal and end up with a massive 40MW farm on both sides of the road.

Whatever they are planning, it’s clear that BSR is preparing the ground and we can expect a full PR onslaught in the lead up to the Inquiry.

 

 

 

 

Posted in British Solar Renewables, community heat and power, Rampisham Down, renewable energy, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Floodplain Meadows: Beauty and Utility

FMP cover

“In Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fifth, there is a scene, after the battle of Agincourt, where the captured Duke of Burgundy is lamenting the cost of war. He does this by conjuring up before our eyes a picture of what happens to a meadow when men have gone off to battle and the fields lie neglected with no-one to mow them:

 

 

The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth

The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,

Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,

Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems

But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,

losing both beauty and utility.”

This begins the preface written by Professor John Rodwell, to a new handbook called “Floodplain Meadows – Beauty and Utility”. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seems appropriate, just after the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, to quote the Bard describing a meadow scene with which he would have been familiar.  It was a scene which would also have been so much part of  his audience’s everyday lives that they would have immediately understood the metaphor Shakespeare was drawing, between a well-managed flood meadow and a prospering nation in peace-time.

I first encountered floodplain meadows, with snake’s-head fritillaries, in 1990 when I started work at the Berkshire Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalist’s Trust, or BBONT as it was then known. I walked around Iffley Meadows, a stone’s throw from Oxford, and marvelled at their beauty.

frit

A year later, I was able to arrange for Plantlife to buy, with money from Timotei shampoo, an extension to Long Herdon Meadows, in the River Ray, part of the upper Thames tributaries. The extension nearly doubled the size of the reserve at the time, from a teeny 12 acres, to around 20. Long Herdon and Grange did not have fritillaries, but did have many other plants typical of floodplain meadows, including the rather lovely great burnet.

It’s extraordinary to see how things have changed in these last 25 years: large areas of damaged or surviving floodplain meadows have been purchased by BBOWT since then; and there was an Upper Thames Tributaries Environmentally Sensitive Area, for 10 years, which encouraged landowners to manage their land less intensively, including recreating wet grasslands. RSPB also acquired a large area at Otmoor (nearby) which they are restoring to wet grassland for waders.

Dyers Greenweed

Flood meadow with Dyer’s greenweed near Otmoor, Oxfordshire (c) Miles King

Some of the surviving meadows at Otmoor are a mosaic of flood meadow and drier meadow plant communities.

 

 

 

 

 

Floodplain meadows are one of the most threatened wildlife habitats in the UK and are also recognised as being internationally under threat; they are listed on the EU Habitats Directive as requiring protection and while most are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, a small number have been protected as Special Areas of Conservation. There are around 1000ha left, mostly in lowland England. Many had been lost to intensive farming, while others had disappeared as floodplains were worked for gravels. Even protected sites were threatened by changes to their hydrology, which plays a critical role in creating the unique plant and animal communities found in these meadows.

About 10 years ago, David Gowing, Professor of Ecohydrology  at the Open University, had the idea of creating a partnership group which would focus on the plight of the Floodplain meadows of Britain, in order to identify what was needed to ensure they had a long term future and to co-ordinate action across a range of organisations to achieve that future.

The Floodplain Meadows Partnership has now been running for nearly 10 years and has just produced the Floodplain Meadows technical handbook. I have been a member of the partnership for most of that time, first representing The Grasslands Trust, and latterly for People Need Nature. I can honestly say that the Floodplain Meadows Partnership is one of the best conservation projects it has been my privilege to have been involved with, over my now 30 years in conservation. Its success is partly down to the excellent team at the Open University, especially Emma Rothero, who keeps everyone focused on working towards the aims of the partnership.

The partnership is special in a number of ways – firstly that it is a genuine partnership, with organisations working together for a common purpose. Secondly because it is run by a University this gives it a great deal of credibility, so its findings and  recommendations are more likely to be taken seriously by decision makers. The Partnership has also been able to operate over a relatively long period of time, thanks to funders such as Esmee Fairbairn and John Ellerman Foundation, as well as support from statutory bodies like the Environment Agency and Natural England.  And this funding has enabled it to expand its remit beyond the great burnet floodplain meadows, to include a wider range of wet grasslands, previously described as king-cup meadows. It has an excellent website where you can find all sorts of useful information about the meadows.

I would recommend anyone with an interest in managing wet grasslands to get this handbook. In fact, I would recommend anyone with an interest in wildlife habitats to take a look, as the thorough approach that the partnership has taken to investigating floodplain meadows could be applied much more widely.

It is free to download as a pdf here, but why not splash out and buy a hard copy?

 

 

Posted in floodplain meadows partnership, snake's-head fritillaries | 3 Comments

Support the NFU as they campaign for Britain to stay in the EU

Champ_de_blé_Côte-d'Or_Bourgogne_avril_2014

Is this the most significant moment in the EU referendum campaign so far?

The National Farmers Union, representing 50,000 of the largest and wealthiest farming landowners in England (and Wales), who receive the lion’s share of all subsidies provided to the UK by the EU,  have voted to support the Remain campaign.

It’s not rocket science, is it? If you were in an industry where over half your income came from subsidies, would you choose to walk away from the system providing those subsidies? Would you bite the Brussels hand that feeds you?

You might be surprised though, how many farmers are in favour of, or thinking hard about Brexit. Farmers for Britain aims to represent their views and campaign for more farmers to support Brexit. Listening to a piece about farming and Brexit on the World This Weekend on sunday, a couple of farmers were interviewed, and neither were particularly keen on the UK staying in the EU, despite the massive subsidies they receive. This was followed by a fairly unedifying pair of interviews with pro Brexit farm minister George Eustice, and UK EU Commissioner and Cameroon Lord Hill.

Hill read from the project fear “farming chapter” script – but for me the key point was this

” The Government are having to make big cuts in expenditure….why wouldn’t you want to look extremely hard in the area of farming?”

Now of course whether you believe that the Government do have to make big cuts or not depends on whether you buy into the austerity world view. I don’t. But the Treasury does and will continue to do so while Osborne or one of his acolytes is at Number 11.

But the Government are playing a double game here.

In a letter from Cameron to the Country Landowners Association last week, in relation to subsidies continuing in a post Brexit Britain, Cameron sought to soothe the furrowed brows of his very important landowning clientele and constituency. “As long as I am Prime Minister, I would make sure that an agricultural support system would be properly maintained.” But the Cameron goes on to claim that under a Corbyn government, it all might fall apart. “Previous Labour Governments have either been in favour of reducing key agricultural subsidies or abolishing them altogether. ”

So Cameron’s man in Brussels is playing the bad cop Treasury might grab the farm subsidies to help austerity, while Cameron plays good cop to Corbyn’s bad cop.

The old “bad cop good cop bad cop” tactic.

Meanwhile in the Brexit camp, farm minister George Eustice was trying to persuade farmers that the Treasury would not only continue to provide generous farm subsidies “without strings” from domestic sources, and possibly increase them. This is entirely at odds with what Eustice was saying four years ago, where he proposed abolition of direct payments to be replaced by a market in tradeable biodiversity obligations.

In this morasse of political swerving and manoeuvring for position, the NFU has at least maintained consistency. It knows that many farms are in a very difficult position at the moment, and the subsidies they receive from the EU are guaranteed until 2021 and almost certain to continue after that. Nobody knows what would happen if the UK voted to leave the EU. There is no guarantee farmers would receive support from the Treasury, and if they did, how much they would receive.

NFU’s analysis (summary here) estimates the average farm would lose €24000 subsidy a year if no UK-sourced replacement was provided and the UK had a free trade agreement with the EU.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I am no fan of the CAP – far from it. It has been responsible for widespread devastation of Britain’s wildlife and historic landscapes, and has helped destroy rural communities.  But it’s also true that the process started long before the UK joined the Common Market – farm subsidies during the Second World War had already started this transformation, which accelerated through the 50s, 60s and 70s.  Farmers continuing to receive CAP payments is, as far as I am concerned, a necessary evil – the cost if you like, for all the other reasons for staying in the EU.

And it’s also fair to say that, thanks to the tireless efforts of environmental campaigners and enlightened politicians, over the past 25 years, the CAP we have now does much less damage to nature than it did back in the days of wine mountains and butter lakes.

Where to now? If we do stay in the EU, we need to continue to press for reform, so that farm payments are entirely aligned with the delivery of public benefits, as I had said ad nauseam. And we need to continue to challenge the vested interests in the NFU and elsewhere. We also need to continue to challenge mindless deregulation and other emanations of neoliberal ideology.

But for now, its Pax Europa, where the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Go to it, NFU – and fight the good fight to keep Britain in the EU.

Posted in agriculture, Common Agricultural Policy, EU referendum, NFU | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

It’s new moon: a goat must be sacrificed

Tethered_goat_-_geograph.org.uk_-_696033

Some random musings on natural capital.

Sacrifice may have been a way for societies to avoid creating ecological debt.

Ecological debt is another way of describing the damage to nature inflicted by human activity. Arguably ecological debt starts when modern humans appear and start to kill off megafauna, so it goes back over 20,000 years. Perhaps it goes back even further to the time when ancient humans discovered how to control fire.

Every economic transaction creates ecological debt. This started when the first human killed an extra mammoth, to place in cold storage for the winter. It speeded up considerably when neolithic proto farmers collected seed of individual grasses that held onto their seeds longer than others, and cereal farming was born. And when gold and silver started to be extracted from the ground to create “money” things ramped up another magnitude.

Now money is created electronically – by central banks or through the creation of commercial debt. Ecological debt is created every time an extra pound Euro or dollar is created.

Sacrifice was a way for people to repay ecological debt, or at least give them the feeling that it was being repaid. In some cases, there could be a real reduction in debt.

Sacrificing an animal to bury under a newly planted fruit tree would provide real fertility for that tree. And sacrificing a domestic animal to provide meat for a large wild predator (such as a Tiger) would enable the Tiger to survive and at the same time reduce the chances of it eating other stock, or indeed people.

Human sacrifice may have been used to quell angry gods who would otherwise wreak vengeance on people, in the form of plagues, crop pests, drought or flood. Those angry gods may actually have been the consequences of an unsustainable accumulation of ecological debt – deforestation, soil exhaustion, mono-cropping.

Our ecological debt has grown out of all proportion and is now threatening the future survival of people on earth.

Now we need to reintroduce the notion of sacrifice, but without the ritual killing of animals (or people). We need to sacrifice money. Burning piles of cash won’t really address the problem – most money in circulation is electronic. In any case, simply reducing the amount of money in the system will not address the ecological debt, though it may help reduce the ecological deficit.

The sacrificed money has to be spent on reducing the ecological debt.

For instance, 10 million pounds could buy you a luxury yacht. This would generate an ecological debt, comprised of the ecological footprint of the materials used in the manufacture, plus the energy costs of running the yacht, and ultimately the cost of its disposal when it was no longer wanted.

Alternatively that same £10M could be spent buying a chunk of rainforest and supporting a local community there to protect it and make sustainable use of its resources. Or it could be spent paying to create a sustainable fishing project involving the creation of no-take zones, and the resources need to protect them. Or it could be spent on a campaign to change the way people behave, such as reducing the amount of plastic entering the sea.

But whoever has the £10M decides whether to buy the yacht of the rainforest. They may well choose the yacht. There is a discussion around philanthropy here, but that’s for another day.

So the decision needs to be taken out of the hands of the person with the money. This is, after all, the basis for things like regulation and taxation.

Going back to the point that ecological debt is created every time new money is created, the sacrifice needs to operate at the source of the problem.

Let’s argue that for every £100M of money created by central or commercial banks, £10M is also created as the money sacrifice and deposited in an ecological account. You could call it a tithe, which is another form of sacrifice.

Whereas in the past the tithe was paid to the church and used by the church as it saw fit (which may have included helping the poor and disabled, or even commissioning works of art, but did not generally redeem ecological debt), this modern tithe would be allocated to spend reducing the ecological debt, according to the greatest need.

Who would actually incur the debt? Would it be the bank that created the money in the first place, or the debtor who asked for the loan?

If the bank was a central bank, then the ecological debt would be incurred by that country, and its currency would be slightly devalued, with a small contribution to inflation each time it happened.

As inflation (beyond a small amount) is generally seen as a bad thing, this might serve to introduce some serious thinking about the benefits, or otherwise, of creating new money (currently happening through quantitative easing.) Rules might be introduced to ensure that ecological debt was not incurred through the creation of new money – using a “polluter pays” principle, ecological destructive projects looking for loans would be rejected.

In the spirit of looking for the solutions to problems at their source, commercial banks should pay the tithe on every commercial loan they create. Again, they would then impose conditions on the loans to their debtors to ensure that the ecological debt was repaid by them, or that the activities the loan funded not only did not incur additional ecological debt, but actively repaid it.

Of course this would lead to possibly endless discussions around priorities, but it would do two things which I think would be beneficial. Firstly, it would make a direct connection between money and its impact on nature – it would incorporate the notion of natural capital into the notion of capital, at source. Every time money was created,  natural capital would be on the agenda. This should serve to affect behaviour and decisions.

Secondly, and less importantly, it would create a significant fund to help reduce the human impact on nature.

Obviously I’m not an economist and there may be very good reasons why this wouldn’t work and is nonsense. Please let me know what you think.

Photo by Ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The title is taken from Numbers 28:15

Posted in ecological debt, economics, Natural Capital, sacrifice | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Sheep Farmers fire dud in Lynx reintroduction battle

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Peter Smith of the Wildwood Trust with one of their Lynx. photo: Miles King

The National Sheep Association (NSA) is a charity, originally founded in 1892 as the National Sheep Breeders Association (stop sniggering at the back). It has just over 6000 members, and as such is a very small charity, if measured by those terms. However they are also relatively wealthy, having recently received a generous £300k+ bequest and have plenty of money in the bank. Whether the NSA’s members feel that their money is being spent well, will be considered later in this post.

The NSA’s charitable purpose is

“To encourage and improve breeding, management and promotion of sheep as a species and as an activity in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in pursuit of advancing education, health, heritage, science, environmental protection and improvement and animal welfare for the public benefit.”

Whether this charitable purpose would make it through the Charity Commission application process these days, is certainly a question worth asking. Can promoting sheep – a species that originated in central Asia, really be considered to be in the public benefit? If I wanted to start a charity promoting, say, the Lentil (which also originated in Central Asia) would it get through the CC maze? I doubt it.

Never mind, the NSA is a charity and does charitable work. Their front man is the appropriately named Phil Stocker, and I will resist the temptation to call him Phil “over” Stocker. Or I may not.

Mr Stocker and the NSA like the idea of returning the extinct native wild cat the Lynx to Britain, about as much as the Angling Trust like the idea of the vegetarian non-fish-eating Beaver returning to rivers. Stocker has previously made various hysterical pronouncements about the threat that introducing a handful of Lynx in a few places in Britain  would have to the mighty sheep growing industry.

Worried that the Lynx reintroduction campaign is continuing to gain momentum, the NSA decided to do what is regarded as fairly standard practice these days, to produce a “scientific report” entitled the Wider Consequences of the Introduction of Lynx to the UK. This is not a good start though, as the report fails to address any consequences of Lynx reintroduction, except those which might affect sheep.

The report includes some case studies to back up its claims, including, bizarrely, the damage inflicted on the sheep industry by Ravens.

Yes, Ravens.

Ravens are attacking sheep here in Dorset. A Dorset sheep farm has gained a licence from Natural England to kill up to four Ravens a year. It is not clear how many sheep have been killed by the Ravens.

What has that got to with Lynx? Ravens were until relatively recently a very rare sight across most of Britain. Ravens are now thankfully increasing in numbers, partly because they are not being killed by landowners. Is the NSA suggesting they should be eradicated again, because a few sheep have been attacked? We are not told, but the implication is clear. Ravens attack sheep, so they should be killed; Lynx attack sheep and should not be reintroduced.

Another case study looks at sheep attacks by dogs, though mainly focusses on how little compensation sheep farmers receive following dog attacks.   Unhelpfully, the case study gives not indication of how many sheep are attacked by dogs in Britain annually. This is especially odd, given that this is one of the NSA’s main campaigns, and they have produced reports about it previously. In 2013, they reported 739 dog attacks cost an estimated £1m to the industry. The NFU estimated 18000 livestock (that will be mostly sheep) were killed by dogs last year.

To cap all this obfuscation and diversion, the NSA finishes off with the frankly ridiculous claim that

“sheep grazing, at appropriate stocking densities, allows for a species-rich environment, clean water and carbon storage.”

Who would make such a claim? Is it a quote from a paper in the Journal of Ecology? No, the source of the claim is another NSA report entitled “Environmental Benefits: Complementary Role of Sheep in Less Favoured Areas”.

Stocker has also produced various quotes to go along with the report, including the priceless

“Sheep play an important part of maintaining the biodiversity of the current, perfectly functioning ecosystem, which would be disrupted by the introduction of an unnecessary predator.”

and this

“Around 75% of biodiversity in the UK has a relationship with agriculture and, as a country, we have invested heavily in agri-environment schemes to enhance this. Grassland environments, which are considered to be an attractive and desirable part of our countryside, are largely managed by sheep farming.”

What Stocker and the NSA conveniently ignore is that the low-intensity agriculture which British wildlife used to have a relationship with, has by and large disappeared, replaced by intensive farming, for which there is no place for wildlife. This is as true on the overgrazed fells of Cumbria as it is on the Maize-filled fields of the south-west.

Stocker also ignores the fact that 17000 sheep and lambs a year are killed by domestic dogs, with many more maimed and traumatised. How many sheep would really be taken  by a few dozen Lynx? Unlike dogs, Lynx only kill what they will eat. I would suggest that it would be around 1000 times more likely for a sheep farmer in Britain to lose an animal to a domestic dog than a Lynx if they were reintroduced.

If sheep farmers invested in sheep dogs (the original ones that guarded sheep flocks against predators, rather than the ones that round them up) they would prevent dog attacks as well as Lynx attacks. The NSA report does mention them, though strangely calls them “Guardian dogs”. It notes that in the USA 40% of sheep farms have such Sheep Dogs, but then claims that it wouldn’t work in Britain, because neighbours would complain about the dogs barking. Having lived in rural England, I can assure the NSA that there are already plenty of dogs barking in the countryside.

This report is riddled with fatuous claims, errors and anecdote. It ignores or downplays all the scientific evidence for the benefits of reintroducing predators such as the Lynx; and places the sheep on an altar where its needs must be met, above all else. Perhaps that is to be expected from the NSA, but still. What particularly surprised me was that the BBC should give free publicity, uncritically, to such a poor piece of work.

It comes down to what Society wants.

In 2013 there were nearly 15 million sheep in England alone. We subsidise the sheep industry very heavily, especially in the hills. And every sheep farmer who lost a sheep taken by a Lynx would be compensated.

The Lynx Trust claim that reintroducing Lynx would add £60 or £70m a year to the economy. I think this is entirely the wrong argument to use. It’s really not about the money; it’s about what sort of a country we want to live in.

Do we really want 15 million sheep and no Lynx, or 14,999,900 sheep and a few Lynx?

Posted in lynx, National Sheep Association | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Overlooked urban nature: the surprising history of some early Spring flowers

We’ve been away for a Spring break in Paris, which was lovely.

Here’s a piece I write a few weeks ago, which was published on the excellent Nearby Wild blog…..

 

Early spring is possibly my favourite time of year.

Day by day, Nature comes back to life in front of us. For me, it lifts my spirits. Even in this most bizarre winter, when the winter didn’t look like it was going to arrive at all, but finally did so in early March. But of course as the sun gets ever stronger, the cold nights quickly disappear and beautiful warm sunshine greets me as I let the chickens out first thing in the morning.

Nature survives at the margins

Today I found a particularly pleasing, though very small, sign of spring – Whitlow grass (Erophila verna) flowering here in Dorchester. It pops up in scrappy places around the town – at the base on horse-chestnuts along the “walks”, the paths that mark out where the Roman walls used to stand; and in cracks at the edge of the pavement, such as in the photo below. It is a truly diminutive plant, but very appealing in its own way. The tiny white flowers positively glow in the early spring sunshine. The blooms last only a couple of days and the whole flowering is over in a matter of a few weeks. I imagine people do wonder what I am taking photographs of, as I bend down by the side of the pavement with my iphone. Perhaps they think I’m from the council recording deteriorating pavements.

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Whitlow grass Erophila verna, growing on the edge of the pavement, Dorchester. © Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another flower, which lives in the same sort of place, is the Rue-leaved saxifrage (Saxifraga tridactylites). This one came out quite a full six weeks earlier than the Whitlow grass, before the coldish weather arrived. I photographed this plant growing by the side of the car park in the middle of town. It’s supposed to have been developed into a new shopping centre, but for the fourth time in as many decades, the development has stalled. Eventually the development will happen, but I expect the Saxifrage will, in time, take up its place growing in the spaces in between.

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Rue-leaved saxifrage (Saxifraga tridactylites) ©Miles King

 

 

Pretty and resilient though both these tiny flowers are, they also have their own history, a history where in the past they were greatly valued for their medicinal properties.

 

Flowers and Fingers – an ancient medical mystery

 

The Whitlow grass and Rue-leaved saxifrage were both also formerly known as nailwort – and it’s easy to imagine that they were thought to be the same plant; indeed I have made that mistake. At first sight it’s not entirely obvious why they should be called nailwort, as neither look anything like a nail. The clue is in the word Whitlow, which means an abscess formed near a finger-nail or toe-nail, as a result of a herpes virus infection. So, I imagine, people in the past believed that the Whitlow grass and Rue-leaved saxifrage were an effective remedy against what sounds like quite a nasty health problem.

 

According to Wikipedia, Whitlow derives from the Scandinavian Whickflaw, which means “quick” “flaw”. This makes sense when one thinks of the quick of the nail (technically called the hyponychium). This is the bit where your nail meets your finger at the “free” end. This is where a Whitlow would develop. Another word for the condition is Paronychia.

 

All this reminds us that before the advent of science and modern medicine, it was left to remedies such the use of Whitlow grass or Nailwort, to remedy infections. I have no idea whether the remedy worked or not. It’s worth noting that the root of the Whitlow grass was used by The Blackfoot tribe of native Americans, to bring on abortion.

 

A Confusion of Plants

 

The term paronychia apparently goes back as far as Dioscorides, the ancient Greek botanist and pharmacist whose five volume work de Materia medica was so influential on Renaissance scientists, having been translated from Greek to Latin and Arabic. The text was still influential in herbalism and pharmacy even into the 19th century. 2000 years ago Dioscorides named a plant Paronychia on account of it being a remedy for Whitlows. An early 19th century encyclopedia by Abraham Rees considered which plant it might be. Rees says that Dioscorides describes it thus:

 

“A diminutive shrub growing in stony places, and resembling purslane, but of more humble growth, though the leaves are larger.”

 

He names Erophila verna and Saxifrage tridactylides, as well as the now rather rare (in the UK) Coral necklace as possible candidates for Paronychia, and mentions others who have pointed the finger at Wall rue and the very rare (in the UK) Four-leaved allseed.

 

It’s interesting that both the “nailworts” Rees identified are growing together to this day in the centre of what was Roman Dorchester. Is it remotely possible that they have survived together here for 2000 years, having escaped from a Roman military herbalist’s garden (or mediaeval monastery garden)?

 

Famine Flowers

 

The Dutch and Germans have a different name for Whitlow grass- for the Dutch name it Vroegeling which means “the early one”, while the Germans name it Fruhlings-hungerblumchen, or spring hunger-flower. This would suggest the plant was eaten in times of famine; a variety of other local German names included Our Lord’s spoon, goosegrass, screeflower and worry.

 

Spray-free Streets

One of the reasons that I can enjoy the spectacle of a tiny flower like Whitlow grass growing on the pavements and car parks of Dorchester is because the Town Council do not spray the pavements with herbicides, such as Round-up. This is apparently a very common practice in urban areas of England.

Campaigner Brigit Strawbridge, who lives in the north Dorset town of Shaftesbury has, along with others, persuaded the Town Council there to stop spraying the municipal areas of town (including pavements) with herbicide. This is fantastic news and I hope this will encourage more towns to stop spraying. The Pesticide Action Network is keeping tabs of places where herbicide is being phased out – as of December 2015 these places had stopped using it. Quite apart from it being pointless and a waste of money, spraying with herbicide deprives all of us of the pleasures of seeing wildlife, however common, in the places where we live. There is also increasing concern about the impacts on human health of herbicides such as Round-up.

 

 

Posted in flowers, urban nature | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Farm Minister Eustice speaks on Farmers for Britain platform.

Eustice FFB

Yesterday Farm minister George Eustice spoke again about what a UK farming policy might look like, post-Brexit – at the launch of Farmers for Britain. One has to assume that Eustice is right behind FFB, if he is willing to speak at their launch.

His speech gives us a few more glimpses of his vision, compared with his previous utterances.

He announced that he has asked farming unions and environmental NGOs to come up with suggestions for what a post-brexit farm policy should be.

“I want them to be ready for change and to be part of it” he said, somewhat patronisingly. We’re all going to be part of the change whether we like it or not! Whether anyone will be ready for it is another matter.

Eustice reiterated that he wanted UK farms plc to be based on “science and technology” and specifically name-checked GMOs, or “gene editing” as he put it euphemistically. I suspect this is because there is a fair chunk of the Brexit vote who are suspicious of GM crops. He also alluded to the ban on neonics imposed on the UK by the EU, stating that a new regulatory regime would be based on ahem “science and evidence” not politics. This is code for “we will follow NFU’s guidance even more than we have until now, ignoring the science and evidence about the impact of neonics on the environment, and allowing them to be freely used everywhere”.

Eustice also repeated his desire to do away with Cross Compliance and annual subsidy applications, replacing the whole lot with a simpler scheme. This time he went into a bit more detail, suggesting farmers would receive their farm payment if they sign up to a “privately operated” accreditation scheme such as Red Tractor. Red Tractor currently depends, at least in part, on Cross Compliance monitoring to show that farms are complying with its rules. Take away Cross Compliance and you either have an unmonitored Assurance Scheme (which would probably concern UKAS) or Red Tractor would have to introduce its own compliance monitoring, paid for by the farmers. I’d like to see a lot more detail about how a Red Tractor only compliance system worked. It’s also fair to say that Red Tractor does not monitor things which Cross Compliance does, and vice versa.

Eustice returned to the idea of a UK agri-environment scheme which would be “simpler and broader” than the current EU one, and included animal welfare. To my mind simpler and broader, means a return to the Entry Level approach, free for all to enter, untargeted, unmonitored, delivering very little public benefit for a great deal of taxpayers money. This is something that UKIP has already stated it would do.

Eustice’s speech was published on the website of Farmers for Britain, which is in turn linked to the website of Vote Leave. The Vote Leave Brexit campaign is led by  Dominic “Colonel Kurtz” Cummings, who did so much damage to our Education system as Michael Gove’s personal guru. Vote Leave Director is Matthew Elliott, a key player in the corporate-libertarian nexus, former Director of the so-called “Taxpayers Alliance” and founder of Politics and Economics Research Trust, a charity which is currently being investigated by the Charities Commission for illegal political activity.

I thought it would be useful to have a look at what Farmers for Britain want to do, after Brexit: these are the things they want done (I have summarised them) with my comments in italics

  • Increase food production. This would take us back to the bad old days of overproduction when the UK contributed to Grain Mountain, Milk lakes and Butter Seas. 
  • Increase subsidies for Dairy farmers. If we want a Dairy industry in the UK, do we want intensive super dairies with their large environmental impact, or small low intensity farms producing high quality milk?
  • Get rid of Red Tape. These are Regulations which protect the environment, animal welfare, human health etc from the serious impacts of modern intensive farming.
  • Pay farmers more per hectare than they currently get. What are we getting for our current subsidy, let alone an increased public subsidy?
  • Protect the environment by spending more money on flood defences. Nothing to do with the Environment: Code for more dredging.

I suggest you ignore Eustice’s claims about what a post-Brexit farm policy might look like, and focus on Farmers for Britain’s proposals. They will be much closer to what the NFU want, and the NFU will be in an even stronger position to influence Defra post-Brexit than they are now.

 

Posted in Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, EU referendum, Farmers for Britain, George Eustice | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments