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.

video
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.

NOTE:

The amendment says:

“PART IB
ANIMALS NO LONGER NORMALLY PRESENT

  
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.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Why are big NGOs so rubbish on rewilding?

Why are big NGOs in Britain so rubbish on rewilding? On some of the thorniest issues of the day – the reintroduction of native species, management of land and National Parks, less intrusive conservation measures, culls of wild animals – the major campaign groups appear to be almost silent.
It’s not that the NGOs do nothing. There has been a strong campaign to protect bees. The RSPCA famously intervened on the badger cull, RSPB is good on its birds and target species (and seems to give tacit approval for boar on its land), while the Wildlife Trusts are active on a host of local issues, including the beaver and badger culls. For their part the big international campaign groups are happier to raise money for tigers than pine martens, and seem incapable of taking the government here to task, but at least they keep the flag flying. No, what I really mean is that there is a real lack of a grander vision. Huge sections of the public are so obviously ready for rewilding, why have none of the big NGOs embraced it?   
Part of the reason I think is a history of protecting small areas, or single-species campaigning – groups like to raise money for iconic animals and then spend this on general work. This makes sense. Sadly the UK has few iconic species left, and the NGOs do not yet seem to have adapted their thinking to the idea that we can create the conditions to bring them back and make things better – at least not in Britain. Plans to bring tigers back to Cambodia will receive widespread interest, but the wildcat in England is still perceived as too controversial.  
Inertia plays a role too. Big NGOs have existing projects and take time to plan new ones and turn around old ones. Again, this is natural. They cannot go chasing every topic that comes along, as that is best left to more nimble informal groups. But rewilding is not that new anymore, and the time when this was a valid excuse is fast running out.  
A third reason is the desire to be scientific. This is on the whole good. Decisions in environmentalism and conservation should be based, as far as possible, on solid foundations. But sometimes this is taken too far. In the desire to appear cold, and to shake off the image of 'bunny-huggers', conservationists sometimes forget that we cannot explain everything we do in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. At the end of the day this is about the kind of world we want to live in, not just a cost-benefit-analysis of species.
But even aside from these barriers, I think there is something else at work. A loss of confidence perhaps. I once asked the Policy Director of a major UK Trust if they ever used the world ‘wild’ in their communications. They paused and said ‘no’, because to them wild conjured up an image of somewhere nobody went.
I was horrified. To me, this was, and always would be the reason I was interested in wildlife and the environment – the wild aspect. It is not that I do not see the crucial value of bringing wildlife into everyday life – I do – but I also see a place for the big, the aspirational and the free.
I have found this sort of 'defeatist' attitude to nature on display in other places too. Some groups frequently build elaborate and hugely expensive visitor centres, complete with hides and paths and facilities. Only by generating footfall, by creating tourist attractions, can they justify their actions. There seem to be any number of the ‘wildlife in your back garden’ type campaigns. We appear to be trapped in the mind-set that real wildlife is what happens in the rest of the world, and the best we can do here is install a few bat boxes or build wood piles for insects.
None of this is to say that these small measures are not important. They are. We live in a hugely crowded and increasingly urbanised country. We need, as a priority, to bring wildlife into everyday life, redesigning our cities to make them more bio-friendly and reconnect ourselves with nature. That must happen. But at the same time we need to build a vision of something much larger and more hopeful. Just as we cannot tackle climate change by swapping our light bulbs or buying slightly more fuel efficient cars, neither can we bring about the relationship with nature we need to see with a few visitors centres and school ponds.
If we want to get people on board with a wilder vision of the future we need to offer them something which makes their hearts beat a little faster, and not just more of the same. We must not be afraid to say that this is about something more than 'saving the planet', or the loss of gene banks. The world will always go on. It will just be darker and bleaker and lonelier. Rewilding is, as much as anything, about saving the soul of our society, and of ourselves.