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.

The Menace of Pokemon Go

As someone who works in the sunny, frabjous world of urban greenspace, there is something that causes me even more consternation than swans or geese. People. They’re always there, with their stupid faces and their stupid big feet encroaching, eroding, trampling. People ruin everything. This seems to have increased recently, particularly in the ‘youth’ demographic*, and I think I know whose fault it is.

Nintendo. I blame Nintendo. I do not fully understand Pokemon Go, but from what I have gathered so far it is a menace and a danger to the very fabric of our society and should be banned forthwith. It’s possible I exaggerate. I know, I know, I’ve been promoting youth engagement for as long as this blog has been rumbling along unnoticed, but anyone who lives long enough, has an opinions and is foolish enough to express them will inevitably get called out for a hypocrite sooner or later. The thing is to brazen it out.

On the surface, there’s a lot to be positive about Pokemon Go. It’s getting kids out and about, exercising, walking, discovering new areas and new greenspace. Trouble is, when they are there they spend most of their time staring at their phones. But more seriously, as far as I can work out, the location of your ‘Pokemons’ has been pretty randomly generated – result being that I’ve had kids wandering around sensitive areas of reserves, trampling and eroding as they go, ignorant or unconcerned about any signs there might be. I now need to check all of my reserves for traces of Pokemon (no, I’m not just looking for an excuse to play games in work hours). I particularly need to check some protected and ‘off-limits’ areas, as there does not seem to be any filter to stop these things from appearing in these places. I’m not even sure if there is any bar to them appearing on private property. Although here I feel I should clarify that I have no idea how Pokemon Go works.

squirtle

Ecologists are still trying to work out what affect Squirtle will have on our delicate waterway ecosystems

I remember Geocache – harmless, responsible Geocache. Bless ’em. Most I could ever accuse that lot of was furtively rustling in the bushes with a lunch-box and scaring off the squirrels. But at least they had solid rules written in about where Geocaches could be placed and specified that the land owner’s permission was sought. I suppose Geocache may now be dead in the water.

Maybe I’m just annoyed because it is exactly the kind of ‘app’ I’ve been crying out for (except, y’know, with ‘real’ animals and stuff in it). In short, I wish I’d thought of it. But then perhaps a Pomarine Skua is just not as interesting to the Kids as a Pikachu. Once again, I think it’s worth clarifying that I do not understand what Pokemon Go is all about.

I’m sorry, it’s been a difficult week and it’s possible my brain has melted a little.

*yes, that’s right, ‘youth’

Green Elephants

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a ‘brilliant idea’ must be in want of a fortune. And with that rather laboured introduction, I think it’s only right that I get straight to the point: The Garden Bridge. Or rather, the Garden Bridge and its ilk.

green elephants

I’ll admit, for once I am feeling quite smug about this week’s title

Everyone’s got a ‘brilliant idea’. Take me, I have about five a day (although admittedly nutella-bacon sandwiches might not have been the product of a Spike operating at the peak of his mental powers). Problem is, these days an idea can very rapidly go from ‘in here’¹ to ‘out there’ thanks to Bloody Twitter, bypassing the much neglected ‘actually thinking it through logically’-stage. If you’re a famous person, a person with a lot of pull or some influential friends, or just a ruddy loud mouth narcissist, these ‘brilliant ideas’ can very quickly develop into a bit of a bandwagon.

It’s true there is now a generation that ‘like’² things. Wildlife charities are desperately (and occasionally embarrassingly) trying to make hay out of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and to an extent projects like the Garden Bridge or London National Park City³ feed on them, like bloated, green, trunked pachyderms. Or something.

Green-y, fluffy-on-the-surface projects tend to do quite well out of this click button, armchair conservationist demographic. There’s a definite sense of ‘It’s Green, yeah, let’s do it!’ – and kudos to them for taking that groundswell of ‘likes’ and turning it into something more solid. My concern is that the why is all too often subservient to the what. There’s a line about could we and should we in here somewhere.

Take the blasted Garden Bridge (no, please…), with its £60M of public money and £3.5M of annual maintenance costs in perpetuity (and just for comparison here, the London Wildlife Trust with their 400+ odd hectares of nature reserves and an annual expenditure of around £2.5M…but let’s not get lost down a Garden Bridge cul-de-sac). It sounded like a great idea when you first heard it, but then you scratched beneath the surface, you realised that they’re closing libraries in Lambeth, and you started to wonder…what is this adding? What are we actually getting for our money here?

Particularly as we are now in the age of the Kickstarter, these projects can quickly crop up and before long a few people have slung a tenner at it and it has gathered some momentum. Green walls at bus-stops? Sure, that’ll work. No problem. I mean, you might want to avoid putting them on any night bus routes… Or a milk-float-potting-shed? Why not? Or, rather, why?

I’m not really sure where I’m leading with all this, except that I’ll shortly be announcing the launch of my new pop-up nutella and bacon sandwich bar. Donations welcome.

 

¹ *Taps head thoughtfully* – Sorry, the blog now appears to come with added stage directions. It’s a multisensory experience. Sort of.

² And, by the way, feel free to ‘like’ the blog. If only for the positive affirmation it will give me. It absolutely, definitely will not achieve anything. Although the key difference between Adventures in Conservation and the National Park City, say, is that I’ll carry on regardless of whether people ‘like’ it or not. So there.

³ About which I was briefly positive before reverting to type. I’m still largely confused about just what this will achieve and how.

Ecomodernism – Widening the Great Divide

He may have his occasional porcine peccadilloes, but our spam-faced overlord might have been onto something. Looming down on us proles from those giant posters, declaring ‘We can’t go on like this’, he may as well have been talking about the gaping void between agriculture and environmentalists.

Owen Patterson is back and he’s brought a new trick with him – Ecomodernism. It’s the latest shot fired in an escalating war that guarantees only a pyrrhic victory. Oh Owen. There’s something about his face. He has the look of a cat that not only got the cream but has also, against all logic and reason, found himself running the dairy. Smug doesn’t come close to describing him.

Cameron v Patterson: Let the 'smug-off' begin

Cameron v Patterson: Let the ‘smug-off’ begin

But my new resolution is to take a more measured view of an idea or statement, regardless of its provenance. Yes, we all know Owen is a stooge, but even stopped clocks, and all that. The general notion of Ecomodernism isthat the more technology human beings adopt, the more they can decouple from dependence on the natural environment and live lives that are prosperous but green’, that only through economic growth can the environment be saved. It is basically…erm…rampant capitalism. This will result in a ‘decoupling’ of production and the environment which will have huge benefits for wildlife. Indeed, it is, apparently, improvements in business and industry that has led to the recent boom we have seen in many species…wait, what?

I’m not going to pick apart the errors in Patterson’s assumptions in his latest barely-disguised rant against the sector (we could be here a while, and people keep shouting the word ‘brevity’ at me in the street). There’s a bit of everything in his Telegraph sulkathon – thinly veiled climate change denial, confusion over the term ‘non-renewable’, ludicrous statements like ‘Europe and North America, are now teeming with far richer wildlife populations than for many centuries’ – but what there is mostly is a sense of injustice for poor old Owen.

By trumpeting ecomodernism, Owen is once again putting himself forward as defender of the natural environment. This is clearly codswallop, and I should know, I’ve walloped a lot of cod in my time. If he was serious about the environment, he wouldn’t continue to blame the ‘Green Blob’ for his demise, he’d try and build some ruddy bridges. Instead he continues to wear his persecution complex like a badge of honour. He has the bearing of someone who obviously believes that if it weren’t for a malevolent conspiracy against him, conducted by his own supervillains – a hyper intelligent cotterie of badgers with a 70’s Scottish Football fans penchant for mucking about with football furniture and their sidekick, an amorphous Green Blob – he’d be King of the Countryside by now. But don’t cry for Owen, he seems to be doing alright for himself.

They'll be the death of me

They’re coming for you, Owen…(I’m getting a lot of use out of this stock image)

Now, I think there’s actually something to be said for the underlying message here – I’m not a complete luddite. Improved technology will reduce so many of the outputs that can be detrimental to the environment, there’s even a case for ‘letting go’ some areas to more intense agricultural practises – let’s be realistic here, peoples gotta eat. But as an argument, I find this ‘the future will save us’ line as weak as my Gran’s tea. It’s the same kind of argument that has delayed any serious action on climate change, this idea that ‘technology will develop’ so we don’t need to act now.

The problem with ecomodernism (the Patterson redux) – well, one of them – is that the onus is entirely on the environmental sector to adapt and fit themselves in somewhere (as it has always been). Even worse is Patterson’s apparent assertion that environmental benefits will just happen somehow, irrespective of the ‘Green Blob’.

Ecomodernism takes the agriculture/environment antipathetic relationship to it’s logical conclusion – a ‘decoupling’ of the two. You just can’t decouple nature from agriculture (and visa-versa), and that’s something that both sectors just need to grow up and accept. It benefits the ‘ecomodernists’ and the agricultural sector as little to claim they can carry on with no consideration for their environmental impact as it does for the environmental sector to continually exist in a head-butting relationship with farmers and landowners. A common feeling in the environmental sector was expressed to me recently:

‘This whole ethos of having to work with the landowners to be effective, has really been a millstone around the neck for British conservation NGOs.’

For me, this argument that we can produce positive outcomes for the environment without working with the people who actually own the land is as pointless as a midday firework, all sound, no show. It just can’t happen.

As ever, the answer to a healthy environment and a fed and healthy populace is a complicated one that will involve cooperation and a certain degree of coercion for our landowners. However, Owen has declared that the ‘cure’ for all our environmental ills was there all along, and funnily enough it lay precisely in what we were doing in the first place, only more so. It would be reassuring to think the answers were so simple, but ecomodernism is a comfort blanket, a ‘greenwash’, a smoke and mirrors magic trick conducted with smart words and irrelevant stats. It takes some gumption to argue for the exact opposite of what your opponents are recommending and then telling them it’s actually the magic bullet they’ve been searching for all along. Now that Dr Patterson has proscribed his medicine, we need to take care he doesn’t poison us with it.

Not bored? Want to learn more about just what the heck on ecomodernism is? Interested in productivity, yields per sq metre, and ‘decoupling’? Here’s some links:

Patterson sulking in the Telegraph

Ecomodernism is bad – George Monbiot

George Monbiot doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Ecomodernism is great – The guys behind Ecomodernism

Ecomodernism – home website

Dark thoughts on Ecomodernism – The Dark Mountain Project

Nature’s Got It In For You: What you should be scared of this month

I’ve taken the unwise step of reading the tabloids over the past few weeks and now I’m scared. Everything out there is out to get you in one way or another, didn’t you know? I didn’t know. I’ve managed to stay alive for 30-ermm-something years now and I’m not entirely sure how. It would appear it was more by luck than judgement, especially as I spend so much of my time out and about in the wild. Well, the wilder parts of South London, at least. There’s just so much out there that wants me dead! So here’s a round up of everything I’ve read throughout July that falls into that old staple, the Summer Scare Story:

The two biggest species that have been threatening life and limb around the country this month have definitely been the broad definition ‘gulls’ and of course Giant Hogweed (that’s what kicked this all off, really):

  • Hogweed! There were a full full ten (TEN! Count them, Ten!) articles on Giant Hogweed in the Mail alone since the start of July. It’s nasty stuff, undoubtedly, but people seem to be jumping up and down like this is a new phenomenon.
  • Gulls! Virtually over the last two weeks, gulls seem to have become public enemy number one. I’ll leave it for you to decide just how much danger you are in should you venture down to the seaside, but as always I’d advise reading a little further than the screeching, alarmist headlines to see what the various ‘experts’ actually said:

Seagulls could kill babies!

Yorkshire Terrier killed by Herring Gulls- ‘it could have been a child!’

Aggressive gulls must be culled!

There’s lots more out there, but here’s something a little more sensible on the subject. Now if you’ll excuse me I think I need to go and scrub myself with borax.

The (Anti) Raptor Alliance

It’s happening again. After the nonsense of ‘You Forgot the Birds’ last year, there’s a new joker on the scene – The Raptor Alliance. Don’t let the name fool you – this is neither a collaboration of sparrowhawks angry at social injustice, a scene from Jurassic World or even a group attempting to save the decimated Hen Harrier. Quite the opposite, this is an alliance of pigeon fanciers intent on clearing the skies of any potential threat to the enjoyment of their little hobby.raptor alliance

I’m not going to make any snarky remarks about how anyone could possibly enjoy pigeon racing, but surely the removal of raptors only sanitizes it. Like modern F11 (again, baffled), where’s the excitement in knowing that they’re all going to make it back safely? Surely the addition of a potential sparrowhawk-wildcard adds to the thrill and anticipation. Surely a little thinning by raptors leads to the evolution of quicker, smarter pigeons2.

The recent petition put forward to members of Pigeon Racing unions (who knew, right?) is asking racing pigeons to be designated as livestock. With this designation it will then be legal (the Royal Pigeon Racing Association states) for pigeon racers to shoot birds of prey ‘around their loft’. Now, I’m not entirely comfortable about the idea of any group blasting away into the sky, presumably in a residential area, particularly when I think about the rather woolly concept of ‘around their loft’. How many pigeon lofts are not in the vicinity of another property? Are they sure they can discharge a weapon without firing beyond their premises (as per Firearms Act)? So straight off the bat, I am not convinced by the legality of this unless said loft is in the middle of a field (yes, some of them will be). Might there be the potential for a little stretching of that ‘around the loft’ phrase?

But that’s mere nuts and bolts, protocol, procedure. From the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ debacle, we all know the real fun starts when you dive into the PR and reasoning behind it all. So lets head straight into the world of twitter, where we can rest assured that these types of movement will invariably make a boob and receive the mauling they deserve:

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Ah, here we go. Protection of ‘assets’. A Racing Pigeon owned by someone inherently has more value than a wild falcon. Because someone has paid good, hard cash for it. I’d rather not stroll too far down this path of monetising wildlife, and I’d also rather not turn this into some form of Bird Top Trumps (now there’s an idea), but if we must….

‘60,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations’

Just picking the RSPB as they’re the most relevant environmental charity here: 1 million+ members, a great deal of them probably spending a large amount of money to view and protect birds. Some of the most popular birds to spot are likely to be raptors (and probably not pigeons, if we’re honest)…if we’re going to play ‘my bird’s worth more than your bird’, I know whom my, a-hem, money is on.

Such nice chaps, and therefore we should totally support them. People who give money to charity should always get their way.

I already said I wasn’t going to play ‘which bird is better’, but…oh go on then, if we must judge wildlife by their interaction with man: Falconry wins by a good 1780 years.

I’m never entirely convinced about bravery awards for animals, but this doesn’t make pigeons particularly special: Falcons were also used to bring down these messages.

I know, I know, all rather childish of me to pick out these random tweets, but there is an inherent undercurrent in everything the Raptor Alliance says that racing pigeons in so many ways have more ‘worth’ than raptors. This is even more dispiriting when in previous releases RPRA gave relatively reasonable advice on how to discourage birds of prey around ones pigeon loft.

This leap towards blasting them out of the sky all harks back to the rather perfidious notion I encountered growing up in the countryside that raptors need to be ‘controlled’. This was sold to me as essential for protecting songbird populations, but even then I could not understand the logic. Apex predator control doesn’t work ‘backwards’ like this. The only natural control on their numbers was prey numbers, and I couldn’t see the need for the introduction of a third agency. With this petition, attempting to directly pit raptors against ‘livestock’, it shows exactly where the real conflict lies.

1I am not disparaging recent changes to F1 or the lack of high-speed, potentially fatal crashes. I am completely ambivalent towards F1. Although the crashes were the best part.

2Smart, self-aware pigeons is one of my nightmare scenarios. That and squirrels intent on world domination.

For Duck’s Sake, Save Your Dough*

Today, ahead of the official start of spring and duckling hatching season, the Canal & River Trust is calling on the public to feed ducks and geese responsibly.

This is an issue that certainly makes it onto my (admittedly rather long) list of pet peeves. If you work in the arena of urban green space, chances are it’s one of yours too, and there’s quite a large reason for that – The Canal & River Trust estimate that every year 6 million loaves of bread are being thrown into waterways in England and Wales, that’s 20 Double Decker Buses full of bread thrown into canals every month. Last year more than 15 million people fed the ducks with their family or friends.

The Canal & River Trust are asking the public to exercise a crouton of common sense and consider the ramifications of their actions – ducks, of course, do not naturally eat bread. Just as too much bread is bad for humans, it’s also, obviously, bad for ducks.

I mean, personally I’d be all for banning people feeding ducks and geese altogether – well, maybe just in municipal parks – but the Canal and River Trust are nicer than I am and so they’ve suggested some alternatives for those who are hell-bent on cobbing their unwanted groceries at our waterfowl:

  • Wheat, barley or similar grains
  • Oats
  • Rice, cooked or uncooked (doesn’t make them explode)
  • Milo (I don’t even know who or what that is)
  • Birdseed
  • Frozen peas or corn
  • Chopped lettuce or other greens or salad mixes
  • Vegetable trimmings or peels

I don’t want to get into the psychology of all those duck-feeders out there too much; Maybe I’m a miserabilist, but I’ve always been a little confused by the notion of gaining enjoyment from feeding the birds. What’s the great appeal of being surrounded by ducks? Is it the honking? The quacking? The waddling? (It’s the waddling, isn’t it?). Or are they just profligate in the bakery department?

There are many reasons why loafing around like a loon, chucking bread at ducks is bad news for nature:

canada goose

Canada Geese – after your buns

Pollution: Canada Geese when well fed are capable of defecating every 6 minutes. Imagine that. This, coupled with rotting bread, can cause a build up of nutrients in the water. Eutrophication is probably the major type of pollution in our lakes and ponds; it leads to monoculture water vegetation, impacting on invertebrate populations, which in turn reverberates up the food chain. By feeding rich bread to them, and at common points, we exacerbate the problem.

Pest attraction: All that bread will attract other unwelcome pests such as rats. These pests can also harbour additional diseases that can be dangerous to humans.

Loss of natural behaviour: See Canada Geese (again), which now over-winter in the UK in large numbers, in no small part thanks to our crusty handouts. Accustomed to these handouts, they lose their natural fear of humans and may become aggressive in order to get more food.

Overcrowding: With their populations artificially propped up, waterfowl raise larger broods leading to overcrowding. This increases the incidence of avian aggression and leads to controversial conversations for conservationists (try saying that quickly 10 times) when they’re asked questions like ‘why are you rubbing that goose egg in paraffin?’

To many of you all this wont be news, but I for one toast the Canal and River Trust for once again highlighting this most nefarious of past times. I blame Mary Poppins.

*I’m sorry, for a moment there I thought I was writing for The Sun