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.  

Friday, 4 July 2014

Freedom of information requests on beavers

About a month ago, when I first heard rumblings about the beaver cull in Devon, I put in FOIs to the government, asking for any communications between the Department, the National Farmers Union and the Angling Trust. Well - things have been somewhat overtaken by events but, today I got the results. Two letters, one from the Angling Trust to the Minister urging him to get rid of the beavers, and raising the spectre of disease, and another from the Minister to the Angling Trust saying that the best action would be to catch the beavers (Gov have kindly posted them - here).

This tells us a few things. One, there are no letters from the NFU. This does not mean the NFU support the beavers, and I would be astonished if they did, but it does confirm that the main enemy, bizarrely, is the Angling Trust.

Two, the Minister has confirmed the total absurdity of their position. Scotland has already introduced beavers - officially at Knapdale, and unofficially in the Tay River. The first of these is a trial which is due to end in 2015. It is inconceivable that the Scottish government will then try and get rid of the beavers. This means, that in 2015, the beavers will be officially established in Great Britain, and therefore be entitled to legal protection under the Habitats and Species Directive. They are trying to get rid of the animals now, because next year they will officially be a native species. This is a degree of biological bureaucracy that's hard to fathom.

Thirdly, and crucially, much of the argument is being hung on the potential for these beavers to have diseases. Given that the animals escaped from captive bred populations which had already been quarantined this is not credible, and can be easily checked and dismissed.

The bottom line of course is that none of these arguments has anything to do with the real issue, which is that the government does not like things it does not control, and is pandering to a special interest group that does not seem to understand science and essentially does not like change. We should ignore the Angling Trust. Their views over how to manage the countryside are selfish and short sighted. They do not own the rivers and they do not speak for wildlife. Their comments should carry no more weight than yours or mine.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Save the Devon beavers


Terrible news. It seems as though DEFRA's 'eye of Mordor' has finally turned on the wild beavers living in Devon. In a recent question to Parliament a junior Minister said it was their intention to capture and re-home the beavers. That can mean only one thing. Captivity, or possibly death. When the Scottish government tried something similar with wild beavers there, the first captured animals died in the zoo.

Beavers were once found right across Britain until they were hunted to extinction for fur. Now, thankfully, they are making a return - helping to increase biodiversity, prevent flooding and bring joy back to a denuded landscape. Some have been introduced 'officially', others have escaped from wildlife parks.The origins of the Devon beavers are unclear, but we do know that they are European beavers, they are a native species, and for the last few years they have been quietly raising their families and chewing leaves and bark in the streams of England. They should be left alone to get on with it. The local people see that, why not the government? 

Sadly, the fact that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has turned its attention on the beavers is unsurprising. They have form. From the unscientific and pointless badger cull and the aborted privatisation of forests, to its desperate attempts to preserve the use of toxic bee killing pesticides, rarely has their been a department more in thrall to special interest groups and industrial lobbies. It is an organisation totally unfit to manage wildlife.

We need to stop the removal of these animals. Whether we believe that we need to create a wilder, greener and more biodiverse world, or whether we just like beavers, this is an important fight. DEFRA is bruised and battle hardened. They have no reputation to lose. But they have backed down on the badgercull, and they will do it again. We can win. 

UPDATE! - The first of the obligatory PETITIONS is now up - PLEASE SIGN.

Watch this space - and let's save the Free Beavers of Devon.  

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

We haven't talked for a while....

Dear Canada and Australia. What happened? You used to be so cool. I used to look at you and think -- those guys are awesome, how can I be more like them? Lately though I feel we've been growing apart... I think it started when you found all that money buried in the back garden... and started hanging out with dodgy people. Ok ok.. we've all done it from time to time.. but I thought we were older and wiser now. Anyway... just saying hi.. let me know if you still want to hang some time..

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

England is super crowded. We must accept that and move on.

I don't know if anyone has noticed but England is crowded. Really crowded. From the air it looks like one of those flowcharts you use to explain a complicated subject, all lines and blobs and colours. It has a population density of about 411 people per square kilometre, and rising. In fact if it were a country of its own, England would be the fourth most crowded in the world, behind only Bangladesh, South Korea and Taiwan (and a couple of city states, but I don't think it's fair to count them).

Ok, the UK as a whole is not quite so bad, but that is largely down to some of the emptier bits of Scotland and Wales, and they may be going their own ways. In any case, regardless of what happens in September - and I still hope Scotland will vote no to independence - England is already a separate territory in terms of planning and infrastructure and many other things beside. Put simply there are a lot of people, and we need to address that.

When I first really understood this it was important to me. We all know England is small, but because of its language and history it feels larger. The fact that North Americans and Australians speak English means that these vast countries form part of the greater cultural mind set. This has caused the adoption many of the urban practices of those countries, particularly expectations of houses, car ownership and a suburban model of development. However while England's population is large, it is still a very small place. To put it into perspective, the county of West Yorkshire has a higher population than 17 US states and territories, including places as vast as New Mexico and Alaska, each one many, many times larger.

None of this is to say that England is unimportant. Whether alone or part of the UK it is one of the world's largest and most creative economies. Culturally its reach is enormous. What is does mean is that it needs new ways of doing things. In fact, once you accept it as the fourth most crowded country on earth several things suddenly make a lot of sense.

First of all there is a great need for more devolution of power to local regions and cities. I am far from alone in saying this, but politics is too concentrated in Westminster. Having more elected Mayors, and possibly regional governance, would inject life into areas outside the capital. (It is telling that regions of the US with fewer people have many more layers of government). This must be done properly however. The half-baked devolution which has left us with Scotland vs. Westminster must not be repeated, and it should not be restricted to those areas which have historically thought themselves a little different (like Cornwall).

Secondly, there is a need for a rapid reappraisal of our urban spaces. Look at a list of Europe's most densely populated cities. There are no British towns in the top thirty. Not even London, which can feel so packed that you might expect a black hole to open up. The reason is that while the centre may be crowded, the 'burbs are empty. This clearly needs to change. As the population continues to expand, new models of urbanisation need to be found. Sprawl must be reduced, cities more tightly packed and cars curbed. This will have many benefits. Denser cities provide more economic opportunity, and easier access to the countryside (there is less sprawl to get through). At the same time they mean much less building on the green belt and more space for wildlife (anyone who reads this knows I am passionate about rewilding). But it must be done well. Apartments must be designed with people in mind. Public transport must be improved and extended to second and third tier cities. We need to bring nature and public space into our new denser, cleaner cities, or alienation will be the only result.

This will of course require a change of mindset. People in England are still too interested in the idea of a two story-box with a garden and a car. Suburban America is the dream. However, I do think this is already changing. Better-designed flats and high rises, the declining popularity of the car and environmental concerns are making communal living a little more acceptable, as is the example of Asia, where high-density towns are the norm.

Indeed, that may be the biggest change that must take place. Rather than looking West for our urban ideas, we must increasingly look East. Our natural peers are not in Los Angeles but in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. This is not about abandoning the past, or destroying the England of old, but of simply accepting where we are, and trying to build a better future.   

Friday, 25 April 2014

I miss the Great Auk

Reposted in celebration of World Penguin Day....

I think it was Jeremy Clarkson (funny and clever, but an ass) who wrote a piece a while back asking if anyone missed extinct species, and why should we care. Well, I do. I miss them badly. Not the ones which died out a million years ago, but the ones I just slightly missed, whose time on earth almost overlapped with mine but not quite. The Great Auk is a classic example.

Once found throughout the North Atlantic, including Britain, the Great Auk was the original penguin. The latin for the Great Auk was Pinguinus, and the very word Penguin may derive from the Welsh Pen-Gwyn, or white head. When sailors from Europe sailed to the south seas and encountered flightless birds, they named them after what they already knew. That the thing we now call penguins are seen as exotic, while the creature they were named after is extinct is as good an example of baseline shift as I can think.

Biologically, the Great Auk was basically a fat razorbill that had lost the power of flight, and their similarity to what we now know as penguins is a wonderful example of convergent evolution - a process by  which animals evolve similar forms to fill the same ecological niche in a different part of the world. Like hedgehogs and porcupines or tenrecs.  

Sadly the Great Auks were hunted to extinction, with the last two killed on Iceland in the 1800s. 
The thing is I love penguins, but think of them as something far away and exotic. It saddens me to think that we had our own unique version just a few lifetimes ago, but I missed it.  I saw one stuffed in the Natural History Museum, and it made me feel sad. 

So anyway. I do care if animals go extinct. I can and do give scientific explanations for this in my work all the time, but I don't think I need to. The death of any species diminishes all of us.

Updated in April 2014

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.