Attack of the Armchair Conservationists

Just who are the Armchair Conservationists?

It’s a fair question. But whoever they are, the British Association for Shooting and (ahem) Conservation have taken a particularly asinine swipe at them this week.

First and foremost, lets get this straight: I have no clear convictions either way on grouse shoots (as usual, I try and sit on the fence and see both sides. The end result of which is usually a backside full of barbed wire). I feel that setting yourself in such antagonistic opposition to the people who own and manage large areas of the countryside is always going to achieve the sum total of diddly squat of your aims. But Christ almighty the hunting community, and in particular BASC make it damn hard for the neutral to take very much of what they say seriously.

‘Armchair Conservationist’ is such a warblingly dismissive phrase and so vague. What is it and where can I find one? Time to get a Samuel Johnson on it. Time to combine my entymological and etymological skills and define it before I dissect and dismember it.

A MA from Cambridge, a PhD in Bats from Aberdeen, and a research fellowship at Oxford (but these is book learnin’, obviously. And that doesn’t count). Then there’s also 25 years with the RSPB, 13 as head of Conservation as well as many, many hours in the field. As armchairs go, that’s a pretty lofty one. But for some people, all the transferable skills, experience and knowledge in the world won’t count. There’s an argument that seems to run ‘unless you manage a 2,000 acre grouse shoot, you have no place commenting or having an opinion on grouse shooting.’

I mean, it’s a shite argument, but it’s a hill that some people seem particularly keen to die on.

Now I may have mentioned before that I’m a keen cricketer. And it occurred to me that exactly the type of person who might chuck out this lazy phrase would be that doyen of ecology, Ian Botham. Now good old beefy has already proven that when it comes to things like conservation, birds and the environment that he doesn’t really have the foggiest what he’s talking about. He’s just happy to repeat some mindless guff his chums in the shooting community have been feeding him. Whatever helps to justify the continued running of his expensive shoot and peculiar ambition to return the countryside to some sort of feudal state. But I don’t really expect him to know much about the environment.

Cricket however…well, you’d expect Beefy to know a thing or two, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, outside of the Channel 9 commentary team, you would struggle to find a more myopic and ill-considered commentator. However, Botham has one great fall back, and it’s a stunner. You question Beefy on anything cricket and he trots out the unarguable ‘but how many test wickets do you have?‘ This is what the phrase ‘Armchair Conservationist’, with all its inherent condescension, amounts to.

But what does it actually mean, and realistically, just how much conservation can you do from an armchair? Actually, quite a lot it turns out. I mean, I do about 50-60% of my actual day job from a desk, there’s no armchair but I’m sure if I cooked up some chronic back-pain I could convince HR that it was necessary.

Perhaps this all comes down to some kind of mental division that has manifested over at BASC between ‘thinkers’ and ‘do-ers’. Now, you aren’t an idiot. You know that no such division exists. People are fully capable of thinking and doing. Although it may appear that some are not quite capable of doing and thinking.

By bandying around the phrase ‘armchair conservationists’ to dismiss everyone they disagree with, BASC have effectively sided with the imaginary ‘do-ers’. Their members get out and get stuff done and don’t sit around all day reading. We’ve had enough of experts after all, and over here at BASC, we don’t need to sit around and think about things, we just do them. If I was a BASC member and I was of a particularly introspective nature, I might find this pigeon-holing a little insulting.

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What Fresh Trickery is This?

Nothing that interesting has been happening at work this fortnight, which means I’m forced to mine the ‘current political climate’ for material. And no one wants that.

But needs must, and if I have to stick my head back down the rabbit hole in order to provide content, then don’t be surprised if I come out a little bit grubby and depressed.

We got a first look at the Great Repeal Bill in the last week and of course it is an absolute boon for the environmental sector and all of our job prospects, just as we knew this whole Brexit shebang would be…

A joke. I know. But I had to try something to lighten the tone before things take a turn.

Actually, I haven’t read it (shocker, I know). And what I have read about it, I don’t understand. I mean, I know the individual words, but when they are put together in sentences, it all looks Greek to me (which, obviously, is probably the EU’s fault).

PobIt does seem, for now, as though many of the EU environmental regs and policies are coming over, as is, but without a great deal of protection. In fact, it seems that there are a few medieval legal loopholes that can be used to render pretty much any part redundant (and they complain about EU bureaucracy!). Something to do with Henry VIII. Again, I don’t really understand. One of the big blind spots appears to be the lack of any public body to actually enforce/govern/monitor.

Anyway, so far, so bland. Nothing much to get worked up about. But it’s still very early days.

The suspicion (mine at least) is that farmers (traditionally a strong Tory base), who voted on mass for Brexit despite the NFU’s position, will basically be handed a blank slate post-Brexit. All those lovely EU subsidies that supply above 50% of some farm incomes will be shorn of the those tricksy environmental provisos, Higher Level Stewardship and the like will be neutered, watered down or replaced, etc. etc. etc.

Basically, I’ve been pretty certain for a year now that Brexit was going to jigger my career prospects (particularly any aspirations to eventually move out of London). Coupled with falling revenue for the charity sector in response to lower real-terms income and a local council budget cut of nearly 30% (and Parks, as ‘non-urgent’, suffering), it ain’t looking great for me and other fellow environmentalists in most of our ‘traditional’ areas of employment.

And then…and then Gove goes and spoils my whole theory by being nice about the environment in a speech to the WWF.

What fresh trickery is this?

Among other things Gove mentioned was the need for farmers to earn their subsidies

leatherface

Gove, slashing red tape, maybe. Look, I’m struggling for suitable images, OK.

through responsible practises and lamenting Trump’s imbecilic withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Now, colour me sceptical, but this is the same chap who has been making clarion calls to the Brexiteers about slashing red tape to free up production and who also tried to remove the teaching of climate change from the curriculum.

Gove also spoke out against the potential conditions brought in as part of any UK/US trade deal (and as we know, according to Donald, this will be ‘very big, very powerful’ and happen ‘very, very quickly’. And when has that guy ever failed to keep his word?). If you want to know more about the hellish food production standards we may be forced to accept, pg 121 onwards here is a sneak preview. Again, all well and good, but as Trump’s main cheerleader in the UK (sorry Nige, I’m talking about ones with actual power, you know, the kind who don’t lose seven consecutive elections for a seat) I’m not sure I believe a word he says.

Could it perhaps be that Gove just says what he thinks will make his current audience happy? Do we suspect that he may be saying something completely different (along the lines of ‘what do you want to keep you onside?’) to the NFU? Could it be that Gove doesn’t think he will be in post long enough to have to act on his words (keep dreaming big, Mikey).

I would say Gove appears slippery than a bucket of greased eels, but that suggests some kind of innate Machiavellian cunning that I just don’t believe he possesses. From his ham-fisted attempts at moving against May in the last month (Theresa, a clue, if you want to stop the leaks, stick a plug in Gove), it’s obvious the man has all the subtlety of half-a-brick in a sock.

Still, as long as he keeps his mind on lining up various knives with the centre of colleagues backs, he isn’t actually getting involved in trying to do anything to the environment.

We can hope, I suppose. Maybe Gove really has turned over a sparklingly green new leaf, but personally, I think the guy just says and does whatever is expedient for his own furtherment.

Dog Bite!

‘It’s OK, he’s friendly.’

If ever there were words more likely to drive a reserve manager to distraction, I’ve yet to hear them.

This week I was mildly chewed by an arthritic looking Rottweiler as its owner stood about blithly unaware that his charge had developed a taste for man-flesh in its dotage.

Dog bites – like falling in streams, being impaled by blackthorn, having the public inform you that ‘they pay their taxes’, and discovering dead bodies, are something of an occupational hazard.

As I bravely shunned medical attention for my moderately painful graze, I pondered, not for the first time, ‘what’s to be done about the clear incompatibility of irresponsible dog owners and nature reserves?’

It’s not just the bleeding puncture wound with potential long-term nerve damage that I could do without. It’s the poop-bag trees, the eutrophication from unbagged poop, the dogs loose on ground nesting bird sites, the dogs frolicking in ponds, the bark stripping, the tree-branch hanging. The squirrel chasing I can live with however.

I recently surveyed one of my sites and found that, despite clear signage about the bylaws, 75% of dog walkers had their dogs off leads. Not surprising, and in reality it is a completely unenforceable bylaw and everyone knows it. I tend to restrict myself to raising the issue only if the dog is ‘out of control’ (Professional dog walkers, I’m looking at you guys).

Savaged

Not that this would have stopped the brutal ravaging of my forearm, which though I am yet to see a Doctor, I am pretty sure may need to be amputated.

My geriatric canine assailant was on a lead and did look, to all intents and purposes, to be completely harmless, nosing forward and snuffling at me, lulling me into a false sense of amiability before virtually dismembering me and attempting to drag my bloodied bones back to the gates of Hades to gnaw on for all eternity.

Basically, I’ve typed this whole missive with my one remaining finger-stub.

I don’t actually have any answers for you. From experience, telling people to put their dog on a lead generally makes them argumentative – because their dog is different. Their dog is special and is part of the family and so what if some people actually have a pathological fear of dogs? That’s their problem. And if they don’t like a dog snuffling at their crotch or barking furiously at them, well, they need to just grow a pair and get over it. Everyone loves dogs, right?

They really don’t. I could digress into my theory about the low diversity of visitors to urban greenspace here, but that seems like an entirely different topic.

All I can really do is put up clear signage (or, given the fact my arm is sure to drop off any day now, direct someone else to put up signs) and flag people up when their dogs are out of control (which, with the hook-hand and all, should at least be a bit more effective from now on). Other than that, I’m open to suggestions.

Gove? Urgh. How Bad Can it Get?

Pob.jpg

Pob

So we get Gove. I don’t quite know what to make of this just yet. The man is clearly a venal little weasel, but then that doesn’t necessarily put him top (or bottom if you prefer) in my arbitrary list of awful choices for Secretary for (the environment), Food, and Rural Affairs. But then he has some pretty stiff competition.

The last seven years have seen some absolute corkers thrown up to plug the role of NFU yes-man (or woman). Although more recently the position appears to have become some form of purgatory for those who dare challenge the Maybot.

So here, in descending order, is my own personal league table of those who for the course of the now slowly dying Tory government have sullied the position by wilfully ignoring the whole ‘environment’ part of their job description.

Leadsom:

Ah, bless her. She didn’t really have a chance to demonstrate her skills. For the past year she has been about as visible as Hen Harriers on a grouse moor, probably discerning that it might be for the best to keep her head down and her face out of May’s eyeline. As a mother, and therefore with a vested interest in the future, you could have been mistaken for thinking that she would actually care about things like climate change and biodiversity. Instead her only contribution appears to have been washing up at the NFU conference and telling them they could have the moon on a stick after Brexit.

Spelman:

I must confess that Spelman is a bit of a blank spot in my mind, from which I deduce that she was a bit of a non-entity. However, from reading her wiki-bio it appears that in a rare example of someone actually being appointed to a government post they have real-life experience for, she worked for the NFU for 3 years. Admittedly that might have made her ever-so-slightly biased in her outlook. Apparently she also owns a lobbying firm for the food industry, so…swings and roundabouts, eh? Although, it’s clearly mainly swings, isn’t it?

Truss:

Comedy gold, if nothing else. And honestly, she wasn’t a lot else. Appears to be going from strength to strength post-post, which I can only assume is another example of May attempting to surround herself with people who can in no way show her up with their competence. During her tenure, Defra attempted to close the wildlife crime unit, funding was withdrawn from local environmental records centres and Pre-Referendum, Natural England tried to row back on some of the EPS license outlines. Used to work for Shell. But does at least acknowledge climate change.

Which brings us nicely on to…

Patterson:

The absolute nadir. A nincompoop of the highest order. A self-serving, self-aggrandising, smug, narrow-minded, punchable little shit. He of the badger relocated goalposts.

A Climate Change denier. Let me just repeat that…a climate change denier. As Secretary for the Environment. Refuses to listen to reason and science because he’s just got a gut feeling, y’know?

If you’re house has flooded in the last five years – blame Patterson.

If you’re a badger with a murdered family member – blame Patterson.

If parts of Essex are underwater in fifty years – blame Patterson

Famously referred to the environmental movement as ‘The Green Blob’. Again, let me repeat that, the Secretary for the Environment openly disparaged the environmental movement.

He’s since gone on to talk nonsense about Ecomodernism (how the environment can be saved be even more intensive farming) and, perhaps not surprisingly, to support the Leave campaign.

A jackass.

So go ahead, Gove. Do your worst. I suspect you’re not going to have very long to do it in anyway.

Nefarious and Secretive Goings On

Not for the first time, I found some weird old shit going on in the darker depths of my reserve this week. At least this time I didn’t have to step in and remind people that there were kids about.

I was minding my own business (OK, I was minding some else’s business, but that’s alright, they asked me to) when I practically fell in the below hole:

Hole

It’s about 5 foot cubed and yes, that is a rugby tacklebag in the bottom. At the bottom, there was a platform constructed out of wooden boards nailed together which had been broken through and someone had dug down about another foot beneath. It was all a bit Oak Island.

So what was it? My educated guess is that this is exactly as dodgy as it looks and someone has recently recovered buried treasure (yeah, actual buried treasure!) using the tacklebag as a kneeler. I like to imagine it’s where they stashed the Brink’s-Mat loot because…well, why not?

Just goes to show, it’s a sinister world full of criminal types all out to get you or take you for a ride some how – hang on, no, sorry. I’ve just been reading the Tory Manifesto. Sometimes I get confused.

But how many times do you hear about some particularly nasty goings on and the words ‘a secluded patch of woodland’ come up? Yeah, well, have a little sympathy for us guys who manage those secluded patches of woodland! It’s not all sunshine and bluebells, y’know!

 

A Loss

It’s under sad circumstances that the blog returns from its 6-month baby-induced hiatus. I found out this week that one of my old collegues at the London Wildlife Trust died in a cycling accident in Oxford. Claudia was 31.

We met as volunteers at Camley Street around 2008, a time that anyone who worked there will remember with a great deal of fondness. There was a tight-knit group of graduates all in their early-to-mid twenties and we probably spent just as much time in the pub as we did working on reserves.

I was usually the older, grumpy one but even I couldn’t stay grumpy around Claudia. Her enthusiasm was infectious. Everyone loved Claudia and everyone was inspired by her. I envied her energy for activism, her ‘fuck it’ attitude to just getting out and throwing herself into things.

She was a smart cookie, warm, caring, progressive and generous. In short, she’s exactly what the world needs more of right now. She’s exactly the kind of role model I would have chosen for my daughter.

Claudia was about to complete her PhD when she died. She was working with indigenous tribes in Bolivia (yes, I was stupendously jealous!). I hadn’t seen her for about 5 years. That seems an impossible length of time. Almost as impossible as the idea that I won’t see her ever again.

 

The Green Glossary – ‘E’

This week, the letter ‘E’ is brought to you by a certain half-arsedness and a lack of inspiration. If anyone has any to add, please do:

Early Bumblebee, n. – I’ve seen earlier.

Ecology, n. – Newt counting, in the main.

Eider, n. – The campest of the ducks

eider

OOooooOOOooo

Elder, n. – A lightweight tree, useful mainly for making various types of alcohol with:

Elderflower wine

Elderberry Gin

Or; your betters.

Elm

Elm, n. – Want to confuse a young environmentalist? Stick an elm leaf under their nose an ask them what it is.

Environment Agency – ah, those guys. You know, the ones who aren’t the other lot, or the other lot? They do the flooding don’t they? I can’t keep up.

Environmental Education – Generally speaking, herding pre-schoolers and keeping them from falling into ponds. Once they hit an age where they can be thoroughly tested and hit over the head with largely pointless exams, environmental education mysteriously disappears from the curriculum. Because who needs to know about nature, really?

Ermine, n. – Worn by a stoat when life is at its hardest and the elements at their fiercest, or a politician as he is gently shuffled towards a cushy job in the other place.

The EU – let’s not, shall we?

Evergreen, n – See also Craven, John

Extinction, n. – The inevitable fate of most public sector Ecologists

The State of Nature Report: PANIC!

The State of Nature report is out! Hurrah it is a time for rejoicing and celebration and…wait, no, that’s not right. If I could borrow from H2G2 for a moment, it would perhaps have been best if they’d just plastered PANIC! across the title page to save everyone the trouble of reading it.

And they’d have been right to do so, because if not now then when? When do we actually start to panic?

Well, not yet apparently. Because everything is fine. Everything is absolutely fine. It’ll all be OK. Climate change? Pah! Habitat loss? Nothing to it. Sixth extinction phase? What are you talking about? At least this is what some would have us believe.

The State of Nature report predictably, accurately (although perhaps not very diplomatically and without much of an eye towards future collaboration) laid the blame primarily at the farming sector. So it’s not surprising that a few predictables came out swinging with what amounts to barefaced lies backed up by irrelevant stats.

DEFRA – the Department for Farming – reassured everyone that “our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution – woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century, we have improved water quality in 9,000 miles of rivers since 2010 and in the last five years almost 19,000 miles of hedgerow have been planted.” Let me repeat that: our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution. Clearly poppycock but also the kind of wide ranging claim that it’s virtually impossible to actually disprove (or prove, but who needs to prove anything?).

The NFU, those paragons of restraint who absolutely do not have squatters rights at Westminster, came out with a peculiar statement claiming that it can’t be their fault because they stopped that whole intensive farming stuff back in the 90’s (Yes, seriously. Although the exact wording left just enough wiggle room to question the exact meaning).

patterson

‘Owen, with your face like a bankrupt pug.’

They were happy, like that goon Owen Patterson, to shovel as much blame as possible onto uncontrolled predator numbers (Patterson actually tweeted this statement with a picture of him in front of a GWCT stand. Yes, seriously). There are a lot of my fellow conservationists who will turn a blind eye to the problems caused by increased predators numbers and I am not one of them, but seriously, give over. It’s peanuts in the scale of things. It’s not even peanuts. And it’s a problem the industrialisation of farming caused in the bloody first place.

Then there’s the Daily Mail approach which seems to amount to saying ‘yes, I know I don’t know the first thing about the subject, but I saw some birds outside my house, so everything must be fine. Expert opinion? Who needs experts? I’m a journalist and the farmers told me it’s all lies‘. I know it’s the Mail and we don’t exactly expect high standards of journalism, but this is pushing the envelope for half-arsing it.

It’s a whole new field of denial. I think everyone has just about got the message now that Climate Change denial is not OK and is quite likely to have you pigeon-holed with the flat-earthers, but there’s still plenty of seemingly obvious things you can deny. This is the post-expert age after all (sorry, “expert”). At the moment it is still absolutely OK to argue that the natural world is not in a state of decay or that the intensive management of 75% of the land could possibly have any detrimental impact on it. This will not get you ridiculed. It might even get you appointed Secretary of State for Rural Affairs. In the wake of the referendum, you should probably get used to it. Because house on fire or rising sea, some people are going to keep telling us that everything is just fine.

Hey! That’s Not Knotweed (and other games I’ve been playing this week)

For some confluence of reasons I’ve yet to adequately clarify, the role of inspecting reports of Japanese Knotweed around the whole Borough has now fallen in my lap like an ugly and unwanted child (OK, yes, I need to work on my similes). I’ve spent hours I don’t have to spare over the last few months chasing up reports from the public and on at least 50% of occasions, this has turned out to be a wild goose chase*. So before you do pick up the phone or write a missive to your local greenspace manager, it might be worth playing a little game I’ve devised: Hey! That’s not knotweed!

sunflower“I’ve just spotted some Japanese Knotweed in one of the lovely formal gardens on the Park. You must come and get rid of it immediately before it overtakes the bedding!”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – It’s a Sunflower! Give it a while and it’ll have a nice flower on the top.bindweed

“There’s Knotweed creeping all up the fence on the edge of your reserve and if it gets into my property, I’m going to sue you!”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – It’s a Bindweed! The creeping part being the clue.

dogwood“There’s a band of Knotweed in the hedge along the boundary of the Pavilion. Can you please make sure it is removed immediately.”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – It’s Dogwood! It is the boundary hedge, you berk.dock

“There’s a whole heap of Knotweed growing in with the nettles on the edge of the woodland. It would be a shame if this colonised the rest of the site because of your neglect.”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – That’s a dock. Leave it alone.

sycamore“We’ve got little stems of Knotweed coming up all through the woodland. It’s everywhere!”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – Come on, you’re not even trying now. That’s Sycamore. Which, yes, actually I will still remove that though.knotweed

“I’ve got Japanese Knotweed in my garden, can you please come and remove it or I wont be able to sell my house.”

  • Hey! That’s…actually, that is Knotweed, but it’s your bloody house, why are you calling me?

But yes, Japanese Knotweed is a massive pain and can be a right arse to eradicate. The level of hysteria it causes is beginning to become vastly disproportionate to the amount of damage it can cause though. This is particularly evident in householders (which I am aware is not always the householders fault). Before reporting though, please do take a minute to check that you know what you are looking at and for the love of God, please do not think that threatening me with legal action is actually going to make the stuff disappear any quicker.

*A point of interest – why Wild Geese? Are they particularly hard to chase? Judging by the fat greylags on some of my sites, I can’t imagine they are.

Occupational Hazards – A Morbid Look at Reserve Management

As we slide into the post-referendum, post-EU, post-species protection, agri-centric subsidy future, here’s something to cheer you up: today, the police asked me to search one of my sites for someone at high risk of suicide. Fantastic. But not unexpected. There’s things they don’t tell you about when you settle on (or have settled upon you) a career in conservation. It’s not all larking about counting newts and frolicking in meadows, y’know. There is always the possibility that you might find something deeply unpleasant lurking in the nether regions of your woodlands.

Suicides in woodland, reserves or parks are relatively common. Somewhere I previously worked warned me that if I stayed longer than three years, the odds on me finding a dead body became favourable (I left at two years three months and the only thing I saw die in that time was enthusiasm for community outreach).

I have zero insight into the mind of the suicidal, but I suspect the search for some solace and some calm is what leads people to these places, and as much as it is unpleasant for those of us who do the discovering, it’s hard for me to begrudge them that.

Hemingway

‘Oh Ernest, look at the ruddy mess you’ve made of the walls’ (yes I was struggling to find something suitable in my image library)

It’s not just suicides though. I’ve had colleagues who have told me stories…things I can’t in all good conscience repeat here. Gory things, horrid things. Accidents and incidents with the public. Everyday activities that have gone south at the drop of a hat. And then there’s the other things you might come across – a multitude of dead dogs, cats, badgers and foxes; more couples having sex than you can shake a stick at (and shaking a stick at them is usually a good way to scare them off, for future reference); weapons stashes (I once found a handgun while working with a group of young offenders. That was an interesting day. I do not miss Dagenham); angry dogs; angry dog walkers; people angry with angry dogs and angry dog walkers. The list goes on.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I suppose this post is aimed at two very small subsets of my already small readership. For those thinking of moving into the environmental sector to become a warden, ranger or site manager, this is a forewarning. Because it’s something people rarely tell you about. Predominantly suicides take place at home, but many that take place outdoors are often in quite, secluded, beautiful spots (and no, I am not just trying to scare off future competition). And for any of you out there who were thinking of doing yourselves in at a particularly scenic location, don’t. For one, the admin is a right sod.