Monday, 7 April 2014

The end of the badger cull could be a turning point

Last week the Environment Minister Owen Paterson – O-Patz to his friends – announced that he would not now be rolling out badger culls across England, after the two pilot culls mounted in Gloucester and Somerset failed on every single level. Of course he did not admit the last part, and still clings doggedly to the idea that killing badgers is essential to tackling TB (it’s not, according to all the scientific experts) but this was a u-turn nonetheless.

In fact it was more than that. It was a crucial moment in our battle to alter the relationship people in this country have with the natural world. All around us our wildlife is beset with difficulties. Habitats are being destroyed. Subsidized agriculture strips the soils. Birds of prey in Scotland are being shot. Wild boar in the South West are facing calls for heavy culling or eradication. The oceans are being dredged for fish.
Yet in the midst of all this, there has been a  small victory. Not just a victory for science or for common sense, but a victory for the ability of people to face down the government. 
If we had simply let the badgercull go ahead, if we had resigned ourselves and moved on, it would still be getting rolled out. It would have told the government, and governments to come, that they can do what they like. That they can continue to carve up control of the countryside between developers and farming interests. But we did not. People wrote letters and blogs and took to social media. They talked to their friends. They organised rallies, and followed the hunt, documenting evidence of its failure. The fact that marches were held for badgers all over England is astonishing. That people were willing to stay up through the night to patrol the cull zones is heroic.
Common political thinking says that issues like wildlife do not matter much to the public. We are all supposed to be too interested in the economy and our own material well-being to care. But the point is that people do care, very, very deeply. For many of us this became something of a line in the sand, and just for once, it has partially held.
This is not to say that everything is now okay. It is not. None other than Princess Anne has called for gassing and there is still a danger the culls will rear their ugly head again. At the same time all of the other problems I describe remain. But we have made progress. The NFU has been humiliated for its hubris. Politicians now know that this is a dangerous subject. Hundreds of people have been motivated, perhaps as never before. With any luck we will be able to use some of that energy and momentum to push the wildlife agenda, to save the boar, to protect the otters and the beavers and bring back the lynx. To get our marine conservation zones, and expand the forests.

Because at the end of the day, it matters.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Beavers and boar are back - its time to talk protection

Beavers are back in England. Just last week one washed under a car in Kent. A few days later a family were filmed doing their thing in Devon. This is terrific news. They are beautiful native animals. They boost biodiversity, benefit fish and create exciting micro-habitats. The evidence that they can help reduce flooding by slowing the flow of rivers is extensive. They make me happy by their presence.

Aside from the handful of animals in England, there are large populations spreading throughout Scotland, and even occasional reports from south Wales. Most of these animals are 'unofficial'. They have escaped from private collections, or been released by persons unknown. Who knows, perhaps they even swam here? The point is that they are European beavers, and they are here. Yes, one day we may need to control their actions in specific locations, but the fact that they have reintroduced themselves will little fuss and expense should be cause for celebration.

Okay I am not suggesting this is the way to introduce other animals (beavers are relatively benign compared to other species that might be considered) but I can't pretend I am not thrilled. The thing is now to protect them. Like the wild boar (another native species which has re-established itself throughout southern Britain) the beavers are likely to have detractors. There will be those who fear them, or the changes they bring. Many will be shot, or run over, or poisoned, or captured by collectors. None of this will be unique to the beaver however, or invalidate their presence. Sadly all wild animals in Britain suffer the same hurdles. The point is that the sooner we can get the beaver, and the boar, listed formally as native species breeding in these islands, the sooner we can get them protected and managed as a population, rather than by reactive local authorities. Without this there is a real danger that they could vanish once again and I for one am not happy to wait another 500 years for a chance to see them returned.

So far the mainstream campaign groups have been very quiet on the subject. Like DEFRA they have been keeping their heads down and hoping it would go away. We need to change that. While there may be arguments over how best to support / manage / control our newly reappeared neighbours, we can surely get them to agree that they are here and that they should stay.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A few non-economic reasons why I will be voting no to Scottish independence.

There is going to be a referendum on Scottish independence in September, and there is a chance that the nationalists could win. They are still trailing in the polls, but a lot could happen. Part of the problem for the pro-UK camp, I think, is that people are embarrassed to talk about why they support Britain. Some are afraid of online attacks, but more than that I think we have become so used to avoiding issues of national politics and conviction that we are actually uncomfortable to speak up. Instead we mumble about economic risks and cost-benefit analyses. Well, as someone who will be voting 'no', I am going to lay out a few of my reasons, none of which has much to do with money. 

Firstly, I don't want Scotland to be an oil-state. If independent, oil would account for 10%-20% of its economy. That is not healthy. Resource economies have a terrible environmental and social track record. For every Norway (and even it has one of the highest environmental footprints on earth) there is a Nigeria. Even formerly progressive states like Canada and Australia are now being turned into backwards looking resource economies thanks to their oil and coal.  

Second, an independent Scotland risks being a small society. Out of the UK, Scotland will be a little country. That can have its advantages, but it can also sometimes lead to a very small society and parochial viewpoint. I grew up in Ireland, and while that is a wonderful country in many ways, it can have a narrowness of view and experience that I would not wish to see Scotland adopt.    

Third, I think all of us gain through the freedom of belonging we can enjoy as part of the UK. I don't want any of us to be made foreigners in any part of this little island. I claim as much ownership over Bristol as I do Edinburgh, Devon or Mull. Right now of course I can hear the nationalists shouting that none of this would change. 'What about Ireland??!' they say. 'There are no borders there. We will still be able to go anywhere.' Well I lived there and can remember when there was rather a hard border there. Just because it is easy to move around now does not mean it will stay that way. There is a bigger point though. Being allowed to move somewhere, is not the same as feeling you have a stake in being there. I could happily move to Venice or Hamburg, but I would not feel as though as I could belong there. If the UK splits, Scots will still be able to move to Manchester or Newcastle, but they will be going abroad to do so, with all that that might eventually entail.

Fourth, there is something nice in being part of a country that is not purely based on historic ethnic boundaries. Born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in Ireland, Scotland and England I can feel 'British' far more easily than Scottish or English. My Chinese-Indian-Irish partner has said she feels the same. She can assimilate into a broad 'British' identity far more easily than Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, English, Orcadian or whatever. At the same time I think there is such a thing as British culture which transcends its components. It is impossible to define (isn't all culture - what is Scottish or French culture for example), but it is real, and it at the heart of the modern world. It is the result of shared stories and experiences and is not based around the desperate desire to project Scottishness or Englishness in an anglophone world. Scotland is not a colony. Its culture is not suppressed, it can simply express it as part of something larger.   

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think that the UK is greater than the sum of its parts. It gains something by binding historic nations and units into something more encompassing and cohesive. Scotland and Wales gain by being part of a larger unit, giving them a voice on the world stage and a less parochial politics and society than they might otherwise have, while England gains by being taken out of itself, given a broader world view and made slightly less subservient to the needs of London and the South East.

Anyway, that will do for now. No doubt the nationalists will dismiss all of this as romantic drivel, but I think they are wrong. Whatever it may have been to begin with, the UK is more than just a collection of rump states. It has become something unique, and I will be voting to keep it together. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The problem with fracking is trust

Let me start my saying I quite like Greg Barker. From what I can tell, he and Ed Davey are doing a good job at DECC in the face of a hostile government. I also like Lord Deben. He is something of climate hero on twitter. But I'm afraid I can't follow them in their enthusiasm for fracking in the UK.

There are several reasons why I oppose large-scale fracking, which I'll go in to briefly, but the most important is that I simply do not trust our institutions to be able to get it right. 

For example, Lord Deben says that fracking is okay so long as we have a robust carbon budget which will ensure overall emissions are reduced. Well with people like George Osborne and Boris Johnson waiting in the wings of the Tory party, and with an eye on what has happened in Canada and Australia, I fear for the future of these budgets. I hope they will survive, but I would not bet the climate on it. Without those targets, which can be removed with a couple of votes, fracking will simply lead to more fossil fuels, and no cap. In fact its worse than that, because fracking will increase the incentive to abandon these budgets. It's like putting a pile of chocolate next to a dieter and saying its okay, so long as they control their calorie intake. 

This brings me to a second problem. Once fracking is up and running it will become a vested interest. People's jobs will be based on it. Billions of pounds will be invested in it. Local councils, cities and governments will take tax from it. Politicians will be elected by it. It will become one more entrenched fossil fuel industry which will fight for its own existence long after we should be getting rid of it. Just like coal, just like oil. It is only natural. Well what about carbon capture? With that, fossil fuels are fine, no? Well, it is not running yet, and it may never be on the scale required. If it gets there maybe we can talk. Renewables and nuclear, however imperfect, do work, and the costs of renewables at least are falling all the time. Massive investment in new fossil fuel resources will only delay that transition.

Thirdly, we are told that gas is green. Well, compared to coal it is, but fracked gas is less green than conventional gas, and it is still a fossil fuel. Even if we keep to our carbon targets, presumably we will just sell our gas (and coal) elsewhere, increasing the sum total of carbon on the market. Similarly the LNG we will no longer import will just be sold elsewhere. Since the world has no carbon pricing mechanism capable of accounting for the true costs of these fuels, additional supplies will just hold down prices and make it harder for alternatives to compete.

It is also worth highlighting that these estimates of the 'greenness' of fracked gas are based on low fugitive emissions of methane, a powerful global warming agent. Done properly these can be as low as 2%. When are industrial processes like this ever done flawlessly? Deepwater anyone? Exxon Valdez? There will be accidents and leaks and sloppy practices. There always are. In fact there is already a great deal of controversy as the extent of these secondary emissions, with some suggesting that they have been significantly underestimated.1 And who will monitor them? The Environment Agency is being gutted, shedding hundreds of jobs, just when we need them most. Perhaps the industry will be allowed to police itself?

Finally, we are told we will avoid some of the local pollution seen in the US because we will have stronger regulations. Maybe. But fracking will still be using huge amounts of water, still pumping toxic chemicals into the ground, still increasing pressure on land and still building thousands of wells and access roads in a densely populated country. That does not seem overly green to me. We are asked to believe that the industry will be so well regulated that this will not be a problem, yet even during the height of the fracking controversy, when Cuadrilla was drilling test rigs in full glare of the media, they could not get it right. The company is alleged to have  trespassed on land and being forced to pay out to landowners.2 If they cannot get it right then, imagine what it will be like in the future?

So that's it. We need some gas, but we are not likely to run out of conventional sources any time soon. As for the rest, I would rather see our efforts go into a truly low carbon future than in simply propping up another entrenched industry that will damage our environment and fight all future attempts to remove it. If new information comes along I will be happy to look again, but from what I know at the moment, large scale fracking seems like a mistake. 


Thursday, 23 January 2014

British wild boar under threat again

The last few weeks have seen a new, and predictable, outbreak of anti-boar hysteria in and around the Forest of Dean. One local Councillor has suggested that humans could be driven from the forest in no time. Another has complained that the damage caused by the boars is so extensive that the grass is now too soft to park your car on. Rooting by the animals has turned over grass verges and lawns from Coleford to Cinderford and beyond. It happens every winter.

The response in many quarters to the return of the boar has been equally predictable. Cull cull cull. They damage property, they are dangerous, they have to go. Never mind that this is a native species which enriches biodiversity in the forest by breaking up bracken, moving soil and seeds around and providing micro-habitats for other plants and animals. Never mind that attacks on humans are very rare and have not yet occurred in the UK, or that every year in England alone there are 210,000 recorded attacks on humans by dogs.1 In fact, since 2007, at least 9 people, including 6 children have been killed in the UK by domestic dogs. A further 427 were killed across Gloucestershire by cars over a ten year period from 1997-2008. No, the real issue is muddy lawns and verges.

The Forestry Commission, the body responsible for managing the forest, has openly said it would like to call for a far larger cull, perhaps as many as four hundred animals, of an estimated five hundred (this figure is disputed by many). The only thing holding it back is public opinion, a good deal of whom support the boar and worry about the effect this will have on the population's survival. Indeed the Commission is already struggling to fulfill its existing cull quota. Of 129 it has set itself to shoot in the 2013-2014 season, only around 76 had been killed by the end of December. Furthermore there are no good estimates of the numbers being killed illegally or in accidents. Without some idea of the scale of pressure on the boar, such high cull targets would risk exterminating the species once again, or driving it to dangerously low levels, by the back door. 

Of course, extermination is exactly what some people want. My conversations with locals in the area make it clear there is a small minority who are vociferously opposed to any wild animals beyond their control. As far as they are concerned there is no place for the boar in 21st century Britain. Now, three local UKIP Councillors have written to the government to request funding for a local referendum on what to do with the boar. It seems likely they are hoping for a mandate for a large-scale cull, or possibly an extermination.

This is not an argument against control. With no natural predators in the UK wild boar will naturally increase to the point where food and space becomes unavailable. The point is that we need to have a sensible policy which treats these animals with respect, recognizes their right to exist in this country and offers them legal protection from poaching and cruelty. Any culling must be based on sound, independent science, and with a view to the overall status of the species in the British Isles. By contrast the UKIP councillors and others want this to be a purely local issue. Outsiders should have no say in what happens to the boar in the forest. I can see why some would support this. Yet this argument is about so much more than the mix of species in a local woodland. The Forest of Dean is the first real stronghold of the wild boar in hundreds of years. What happens there reflects on our ability to accept change, to accept the wild and to accept the return of the native species which our landscape and our culture needs to be healthy. The wild boar need our help.

Here is a petition from the UK Wild Boar Trust, calling for them to have legal protection. I am not affiliated to the UKWBT, it just seems like a good idea.  


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The need for a 'green base' in politics

Anyone who says it doesn't matter who we elect is wrong. Okay, it may not matter as much as some would like, and in some areas it may make much difference not at all, but overall it still matters. If we did not have our current government the green political landscape would look very different. There may still have been changes to green levies, but there would be less bile. The consensus on tackling climate change might still be intact. We would not have a badger cull. We might well have a decarbonisation target. These are not small differences. No one can give you all you want, but they can take things in the right direction.

So if politics matter, it follows that elections also matter. Not just national, but local, regional and municipal. In Bristol for example, a pro-environment Mayor is pushing solar across the city. Of course he is far from perfect, but he is still advancing a green agenda. Whatever you think of UKIP, their European successes have influenced policy. Who wins makes a difference.

Getting involved in elections and party politics is something that traditional NGOs are very reluctant to do, and with good reason. They need to build a broad base of supporters. They need to work with whoever wins. It might also be harder for them with the new gagging bill.

Despite this, someone needs to get involved. We need an organisation which helps voters identify green(er) politicians, from whatever party, and at whatever level. We need a place for environmentally minded voters to turn to find out about the green background of prospective candidates. We need to turn green intentions into a powerful political lobby.

Now, I must be honest that this makes me uneasy. I dislike the idea of pressure groups drawing up US-style hitlists of politicians, interfering in selection processes and dragging up perceived opinions from the past. It is division politics and the other side may well be better at it. But there still needs to be a way to mobilize environmental voters to become a more effective force, and encourage politicians to think seriously about their green intentions. After all it is often one of the things they can do most about at a local level, but about which they are challenged on least often. Many elections, particularly at local level, are decided by an embarrassingly small number of votes. A few hundred either way. It may well be possible to swing those with green voters. If councils go green it affects the MPs that will be selected for an area, and the tone of local politics. We need a Green Base to help get this vote out.

What exactly this organisation might look like is unclear, but I'm working on it! Advice welcome.

Friday, 15 November 2013

There is something wrong in conservation when the budget to save the Scottish wildcat is the same as for one visitor centre.

Okay, this is not exactly hot button news, but I have been doing research recently on wildcats and beavers and all kinds of reintroduction projects in the UK, and one thing which keeps coming up is the disparity between the budgets available for serious conservation work, and the money available for what I would politely call 'bumph'. Specifically visitors' centres. Okay, now anyone who knows me knows I have a fundamental problem with visitors' centres attached to wildlife. Not because a nice cafe/bookshop/notice board is not a nice thing, but because I think they should be separate from nature reserves. They should not act as gateways, dividing the 'real' world from the wildlife museum you are about to see. They should just be cafes.

Actually, it is fair to say my heart always sinks when I find a reserve or beauty spot marred by a huge carpark and visitor centre, and maybe this blog is nothing more than a reflection of that prejudice, but there is also the issue of money. One visitor centre, at Minsmere in Suffolk was renovated at a cost of £2 million. That is equal to the hoped for budget of the 'official' new plan to save the Scottish wild cat, Britain's last native felid and medium sized predator. It is more than the official beaver reintroduction programme in Knapdale. It is probably many times more than all the money spent researching the impacts of wild boar in the Forest of Dean and on public awareness around them. And it is for a visitor centre at a nature reserve. It is not alone. A quick look online reveals many such cases. £600,000 for Bempton Cliffs, £400,000 for Great Barr. Etc etc.

Now, the NGO that is building these (RSPB) is entitled to spend its members' money however it, and they, think is best. These centres are no doubt a small part of its overall budget. I also appreciate that community engagement is vital. At the same time though I cannot help but feel that this lays bare the strange priorities in current wildlife protection and conservation. There seem to be endless millions to build commercialised museums and consumer interpretations of wildlife, but so much less to encourage, protect and restore the wildlife - in the wild - itself. Perhaps our bias towards consumption is so strong that we feel happier about spending money on a physical object, than on what the object is supposed to be about?