Friday, 16 January 2015

London's got a new tree

Just behind Kings Cross, in the middle of a huge sea of construction, is a special tree. Around it is a bench, so you can sit and stare at it. It looks old, and venerable. Yet it is not some remnant preserved from before the development. Those have long since been removed. This is a new tree, a 63-year old swamp oak imported from Germany. Britain cannot even grow its own oak trees anymore. Where are UKIP on that?

Behind this woody museum stretches a short row of plane trees. But there is no grass between them, or soil at their bases. They drop straight into the tarmac and concrete, kept alive by some underground network of drains. Around them steel and glass soar upwards. There are no birds but pigeons. It is amazing anything can survive at all. I would die in a matter of days if Pret a Manger could not keep me supplied.

Everyone will know I am a huge fan of rewilding. The idea of reintroducing species, of releasing large areas of land to the forces of nature, of letting our own hearts wander is inspiring, enervating.But there is one area where I think the debate needs to progress more rapidly, and that is in rewilding our towns and cities. Yes we need the reforestation, but we must also begin to break down the barriers that surround the places where most of us live, and make wildlife an everyday event.

Old cities are not too bad at this. They are thick with stone and trees, riddled with old lanes and gardens. They provide green holes and quiet spaces. Newer cities are dreadful. They are neat and polished and smooth. The ground is sealed from the soil. They are ringed by roadways more effective than medieval fortifications – ditch, wall, death trap, wall.

We have become used to the idea that wildlife does not belong in a city, and we make little space for it. The huge new developments I pass through in London and Bristol seem okay as far as shops and offices go, but they are a colossal missed opportunity for wildlife. Hedges and trees by Regent’s canal have been grubbed up and replaced with neat grass and pointless shrubs. The animals have gone. Not one of the new buildings that I can see has a garden, or even a green wall. There are no parks. The few plants, like the museum tree, are ornaments.

We must do better. We must make our cities conducive to life, make them ‘biophilic’.

Suburbs and garden cities will not do. Almost nothing is more destructive to the environment, wildlife and human interaction as a satellite town built around the motorcar. They have helped lead us to where we are. Dull lives. Sink estates with no economic activity, isolation and road-kill. At the same time our population keeps on growing. If we build on the greenbelt now, where will the next lot of houses go? No – the cities of the future must be dense and urban, but a new kind of urban which welcomes wildlife.

Lots of things will need to change to make this happen. Planning laws and buildings regulations for a start. Perhaps most of all though we will need to change what we think a city is for, and rethink ourselves. Yet I am convinced it will be worth it. By changing our cities, by insisting that new developments are built with wildlife in mind, it might even help our society. I would bet any money that a host of problems, mental and physical, could be eased with a little more beauty and wildness in our lives. 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

In the face of the infrastructure bill, Paddington wouldn't have a chance.

A lot of people are asking how Paddington Bear would be accepted by the UK's immigration system. I see what they are getting at, but there is one big problem. Paddington is a bear. As such he doesn't get to immigrate, and is governed by a whole different set of bureaucracy.

First of all, Paddington appears to be a spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) from Peru, or at least some sort of being which shares a common ancestor with that animal. He may be able to walk and wear raincoats, but a bear is still a bear in wildlife law. Furthermore he a member of an endangered species listed on CITES Appendix I. That makes it illegal to transport or possess him without a license. I suspect that the Brown family have no such permission.

Okay, purists may quibble that CITES didn't exist in 1958 when the original books came out, but as far as the remake goes, they're in trouble, as are the airlines and boats which took him to Britain.

Of course CITES is often not enforced (that's why there is still a huge illegal wildlife trade) and does not apply to species which spread themselves naturally. So might he sneak in? The trouble is at some point he will be seen, and come to the attention of the authorities. The question then will be - is Paddington's arrival in Britain merely the result of changes in the species natural range?

Currently natural range is poorly defined, but the new infrastructure bill going through Parliament would see it fall somewhere into two categories - the historic range of a species, and a species which arrives by itself naturally, with no human help.

The wild boar which live in the UK are in their former natural range (they were once found right across Britain until a few hundred years ago), but because the government judges them to be here by unnatural means (they likely escaped from breeding centres), they are not considered to be native. The chances of a bear from South America which arrived by boat and train, carrying a suitcase and being fed sandwiches being judged to be within its natural range are slim at best.

Sadly, it seems likely that as a non-native and potentially invasive species, Paddington would be more likely to have a 'species control order' placed on him. At best he would be trapped and placed in the zoo, at worst hired marksmen would be able to force their way into the Brown property and shoot him.

The truth is that our government takes such a narrow view of wildlife that even native species which have lived in this country for decades, which bring many benefits and which form an essential and historical part of our natural fauna, have a hard time being left alone. A bear from Peru wouldn't have a chance.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Camden, Islington - sort it out!!!

Parochial blog today. York Way is looking its usual disgusting self. No big surprise this, and at least there were no big piles of dumped rubbish today, but still, the fact that this is just normal background to my daily walk is not good. Please - Camden, Islington - sort it out. Camden take the West side, Islington the East. London is getting dirtier and dirtier all the time, to the point that people no longer expect large parts of it to be clean, and stop caring.

If you need money, fine some people chucking litter. You have the powers. You could make thousands in a day just wandering around the borough. Or fine the Nightclub up the road. And provide some bins.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Boar Wars - how the infrastructure bill is specifically targeting wild boar.

Moving away from beavers for a while to one of my other favourite animals - the wild boar. As you know there are wild populations living and breeding in several parts of Britain, escapees who have become established and are doing well. Like the beaver they are a native animal doing what they do best - boosting biodiversity and bringing a little life back to the forest.

So far the government has left the management of these animals up to local authorities and landowners, and while there are lots of problems in how we are dealing with our new neighbours (no proper population estimates or official recognition for starters), there is not at present a policy of eradication, and this is to DEFRA's credit. So it is with great concern that I have been watching the amendments to the Infrastructure Bill that is making its way through the commons.

This Bill contains provisions, weirdly, for removing endangered species. Back in July George Monbiot flagged up the general negative impact these could have on reintroductions, in that they could lead to any animal not currently listed as living in Britain being classed as non-native. I am still hopeful that this general issue can be over come, but I am also dismayed at the obvious targeting of wild boar.

The point is that the infrastructure bill allows for Species Control Orders on invasive species, and potentially those which are not ordinarily resident. These orders make it legal for the government to force its way  onto someones land to kill a species

In recent amendments tabled to the Bill by the government (stay with me) they proposed creating a class of animals called 'not normally present'. This included some criteria, and a list. There was just one animal on the list - the wild boar. Despite the fact that they are native, and that they have been living and breeding in Britain for over 20 years, they want to make sure that they are not officially 'here'. It is biological bureaucracy of the oddest kind. There can only be one reason for this - they want the option of going after them.

Of course there is no guarantee this will be the final language, and I suppose its inclusion could just be a precaution. Perhaps the government has no intention of trying to wipe out boar populations, but in playing its hand so obviously, we get a useful insight into DEFRAs thinking.


The amendment says:


Common name

Scientific name

Boar, Wild

Sus Scrofa.””

Friday, 24 October 2014

No thank you, I'm a vegetarian.

Of all the myths about beavers, the one that causes the most harm is the idea that they eat fish. They don't.

Thanks to @yasmeenmay for the picture!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Secret documents blow DEFRA's case for capturing Devon beavers out of the water

Hi everyone - I recently put in a whole bunch of Freedom of Information requests on the Devon beavers. After a lot of back and forth I have my answers. And its a treasure trove. We have the government admitting that the animals are native, and may not be a significant threat to public health.

Then there is the bit where they explain that there is no excuse for capturing the kits born in the wild, as they could not possibly be carrying disease. And the part where they say they will need a good excuse to explain why the situation in England is so different to that in Scotland where wild beaver exist.

Finally there is a document where DEFRA explains that they are worried that any fuss over the beavers could get in the way of legislation to allow them to force their way onto people's land to control 'invasive' species.

I'll be going through these for some time - but if you want to look yourselves, they are here.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Scottish independence will create division amongst people who have not known it for centuries

The Scottish independence referendum is in less than two weeks, and the polls are too close to call. Amidst all the back and forth, the miserable campaigning and the lies, I have noticed something which really worries me. 
Ok - there are many on the Yes side who will always vote that way, because they believe with all their being that Scotland should be independent, regardless. I can understand that, and nothing I say will affect it. But what concerns me is that there is a group of intelligent people who I do not feel have fully grasped that this is not just another election. I don't mean this in a patronising way, but simply that their own view of things insulates them from the potential repercussions.
I work with many people who would describe themselves as of the 'left'. Opinions are divided, but amongst those who support independence the language they use is more often that of  'day to day' politics, of sticking it to the Tories, of avoiding spending cuts, of 'shaking things up', and so on. It is a view partly espoused in an article by George Monbiot in which he looks at the current politics of the coalition and extrapolates that no one would ever want to be part of the UK.
I understand what people like this are saying, but I cannot agree. Perhaps if you believe that Scotland and rUK are already fundamentally different countries and peoples united only by political expediency then this may make sense. On the other hand if you feel that however it may have begun the UK has grown into something much more than the sum of its parts, then this referendum is far larger than the provision of public services or the fringes of economics. It is about creating division in a place that has not known it for a long time, a unity which has produced, for all of its flaws, one of the most successful economies and countries on earth, of which Scotland has been, and continues to be a huge beneficiary - economically, culturally, politically.
Indeed, for me, this referendum is not about banking arrangements or how we run public services for a parliament or two. It is not about what happens in the next couple of years, and if border guards appear straight away. If we vote yes we are not creating a new governing arrangement, but two entirely new and separate entities, two new nationalities in fact. (I say new because the last time Britain found itself divided in this way, the concept of the nation-state was scarcely formed). In place of the unity we currently take for granted we may see the creation of oil-fuelled competition between neighbours, and the retreat on all sides to nationalist myth. 
In fact I would suggest this is already happening - with the conceptual creation of a noble economic Scotland - despite its biggest industries being finance and oil. With the myth that Scotland never votes conservative, despite the fact that it did for much of the last century, and recently elected a UKIP MEP. Or the idea that Westminster is eternally backward, when it has just legalised gay marriage, or that London is a rapacious rent-seeking villain, despite being everything the nationalists say they want to be - open, international, confident and fantastically creative. Most of all though we may see the hardening of the eternal division of Scots/English and the ‘other’.

Once separated each country will need to pander to the needs of its population, and slowly but surely we may drift apart. Not in a year, but sooner than people think. A few arguments, a bitter negotiation, and it could all go wrong.
For people like me, born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in England, Ireland and Scotland this last point has a particular resonance. In the last twelve months I have been asked ‘what I am’ in relation to Scotland more often than in the previous five years. Suddenly my nationality is in question again. 
In any case – the vote is soon, and the result looks too close to call. I could go on about economic arguments and reasons to vote this or that, but I won't. All I will say is that this is not just about the Tories, or the NHS, or the EU, but about the next twenty, fifty, one hundred years. It is about dividing a people who have been united so long they have forgotten what it means to be  able to belong anywhere on this little island, and have taken it for granted.
A final rambling thought - when the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall, they did it not to keep two separate tribes apart, but to divide a single people in two. It is astonishing the things which can last through the ages.