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.

The Green Glossary – A

I’ve long since pondered that what’s needed for the layman to navigate the acronym and buzzword-heavy world of the ‘Green Movement’ is some sort of dictionary; a Glossary if you will. This would help the uninitiated cut through the jargon, the science and the species talk that can make the world of your standard Ecologist sound like so much gobbledegook. Starting – as is the custom of things – with A, here a frequently disgruntled mid-level functionary in the movement (me) sheds light on the words conservationists use and what they really mean; revelations which will surely knock all that Xenu stuff into a cocked hat. So here, for all the non-believers out there – the infidels, if you will – I give you the Green Glossary:

Acorn, (n). A marvel of nature. When planted in the ground, within a mere 300 years a single acorn can become a fully mature oak, replete with a multitude of branches, small and large. Vulnerable to a whole host of injurious potentialities, from disease, wind-sheer, fire and fungus, but more commonly victim to clear-felling where an alternate crop would be more financially beneficial. An allegory for the sector.

Agenda, (n). An item often seen in the possession of your intrepid environmentalist. Frequently observed being dragged up the hill of general apathy.

Agriculture, (n). Potentially the movement’s greatest ally. See Also: THE ENEMY

Alder, (n). A tree readily identifiable by its repeated cock and balls motif.

Alien, (n). Anything with the temerity to be where it is not wanted.

Alkanet, Green, (n). An example of the general perversity of botanists in the matter of labelling.

Green alkanet

Alkanet, Green (n). An example of the general perversity of botanists in the matter of labelling

Amphibian, (n). Able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Despite popular belief that the world is run by an unseen cabal of lizard overlords, it is in actual fact run by a secret sect of amphibian despots. This is yet another example of the general ecological illiteracy of the general populace (i.e. you)

Ancient, (adj). As pertaining to trees, having reached an age of such venerable decrepitude as to be almost, but not entirely, dead and yet paradoxically more alive and of interest to ecologists than ever. As pertaining to ecologists, having reached an age of such venerable decrepitude as to finally be of interest to other ecologists.

Animal, (n). The stock currency of the movement. Cuddlier and more charismatic animals represent higher denomination notes, flora and insect life account for the smaller change.

Ant, (n). An insect worshipped by the movement for 364 days of the year. On the other day – Flying Ant Day – it is roundly abused and cursed. Many followers take part in the annual Flying Ant Day dance, which to the ignorant may appear like so much limp-wristed flailing. It is thought that the annual Flying Ant Day celebrations are performed in order to disabuse ants of the notion that they need not be earth-bound. As such, it has so far been a demonstrable success in forestalling the Rise of the Insects.

Anti- (adj). A prefix often associated with the movement.

Apocalypse, (n). A long-expected (and in some quarters, long hoped for) levelling of the playing field.

Arborist, (n). Lunatics who sit in the crown of trees, throwing chainsaws back and forth, whistling all the while. They perform the same religious function as the bull-leapers of Minoan Crete.

Arctic, (n). An Atlantis for the 26th Century.

Ash, (n). An Elm for the 21st Century

Aster, (n). Probably what that pretty flower that caught your eye was.

Attenborough, David – A major deity of the movement. To be worshipped in 1-hour stretches on Sunday afternoons, not unlike other, more erroneously popular deities.

Autumn, (n). A season. A time of year notable amongst conservationists as the period when they start to think about, maybe, possibly getting out and doing some work. Just as soon as the weather clears.

Avocet, (n). A stilt-walking, long-faced, poster-boy and corporate shill for a major arm of the movement.

Next week: B. Please send in your suggestions

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

Badger Backpeddling

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice, but the badger cull is back. This prompted me into one of my infrequent forays into the murky world of social media ‘engagement’, resulting in a degree of soul-searching on my part. Perhaps soul-searching is over-egging things a tad. I don’t generally go in for much in the way of self-evaluation. I don’t spend countless hours noodling about feeling glum and listening to Exit Music (for a film) on a loop (not for years now, anyway). But sometimes I have to accept some pretty unpalatable truths, the hardest of which is that occasionally, just very occasionally, I might be wrong.

Naughty badgers

Having set this article up in such a way that you are now expecting me to figuratively prostrate myself before you and admit my error, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. This is not so much about me admitting that I was wrong, as admitting to myself that the possibility of me being wrong might actually exist.

Back to the point – There’s a lot of science out there on the Badger cull. Perhaps too much science1. But what there is a shortage of is consensus. What I think we all know and can agree on is that the case for the cull is dicey. There’s little evidence that targeted removal will effectively reduce cases of bTB in cattle. It’s also unarguable that considering the potentially devastating effects of bTB on herds and, scaling up, the farming economy, we should be considering all means at our disposal to reduce cases. If this involves the reduction in numbers of a charismatic, yet abundant, mammal, then so be it. I don’t think conservation does itself any favours by refusing to be realistic and perpetuating an anti-farming rhetoric.

Now if I can be brutally honest, I’m not radically opposed to the badger cull. I do think it is rather a ‘shoot now ask questions later’ approach (which, in my opinion always leaves you without anyone to answer your bloody questions), I think it’s knee-jerk, I think there are other factors involved (does the resurgence of bTB in the last two decades correlate to an increase in badger population or a decrease in regulation?), but if it is proven to be the best method of reducing incidence of bTB in cattle then it should not be dismissed.

Where I’ve recently had my own moment of self-doubt regards the rather more one-sided argument for badger-cattle bTB transmission. I managed to get my knickers in a twist when I saw a statement from a vet that a 50-60% reduction in bTB where badgers were proactively culled was all the proof that was needed of badger to cattle transmission. I objected to the assertion – and despite what follows, I still do. It’s bad science. Correlation not equalling causation and all that. Predictably, I was asked ‘what more proof do you need?’2 Well, science, for one. So they gave me science. Science I had – perhaps due to the media circles I frequent – not seen before.

If you only read the Daily Mail, you can start to see the world in a very Daily Mail-esque way. It’s worth remembering that this works with papers like the Guardian, too. So it was with the environmentalism – because of my own interests, I do tend to only be exposed to papers and studies that make the case for transmission less than conclusive. When it comes to science, I should certainly know better. There’s some pretty strong evidence out there that transmission is not only possible, but likely.

That’s not to say I’ve completely come around to the notion that badger-cattle bTB transmission in the wild has been irrefutably proven – transmission has not been recreated to a decent standard in non-artificial settings. My issue, and it’s an issue with myself as much as anything, is that though I still don’t find this utterly conclusive I suspect there would probably be enough evidence to convince me if the species were reversed. There would probably be an ‘acceptable’ level of probability, given the stakes, had it been a question of saving badgers.

So what’s my point? Read wider, don’t be afraid to discuss what you don’t understand, give as much scrupulous attention to the arguments that match your ethical standpoint as those that don’t – all good advice. Or perhaps it’s that I’m suffering from sun damage this week and have become even more incoherent than is usual.

1Sorry, that’s just a ridiculous statement, I’m not sure what I was thinking. There’s no such thing as too much science

2I was also asked if I had any experience of farming (I do, as it happens) as ‘living with the outcome of your decisions looking after a large herd of animals gives you an insight others don’t have.’ I can’t say that I think much to this ‘unless you’ve farmed cattle, you can’t understand’ argument. It’s the kind of logic that builds closed-shop industries that wither and die through lack of innovative thought, but that’s by the by.

Rewilding Britain – Pie in the Sky Romanticism, or the Future of Conservation?

Rewilding has been making a big splash again recently. With the recent Monbiot book ‘Feral’ and the formation of a brand new organisation – ‘Rewilding Britain’ – encouraging (very tentative) talk of charismatic big beast reintroductions, it is now firmly on the environmental agenda. Broadly, rewilding advocates a removal of altering anthropogenic factors and a ‘hands-off’ management technique, allowing the area in question to develop of its own accord without predefined outcomes. This may involve the reintroduction of flora and fauna previously removed or lost due to human influences. The basis for re-wilding has many appealing facets from a conservation perspective, not least the relaxation of the interventionist approach widely implemented in many natural areas, which serves to reinforce the dependence of endangered species on anthropogenic interference. Re-wilding may also be seen as a measure for ‘redressing the balance’ of destructive human activity over the past few millennia. The enforcement of a re-wilding ethic is not without its negative factors though, including the complexities of removing human needs and influence, uncertainty regarding outcomes and issues over the true nature of ‘wild’.

Though not a new concept, increasing dissociation with the land has brought about a romantic longing for something wilder, something to breathe some life into the mundane and everyday. This has advanced the desire to improve and expand wilderness areas and, though it is oxymoronic, to increase areas of wilderness for public enjoyment. This begs the questions how could the population at large benefit from these new wildernesses without visiting and experiencing them, and therefore sullying their intrinsic wildness? Any rewilding project would ultimately always be judged from an anthropologic perspective and therefore not truly wild. However this, many would argue, is still a vast improvement on the current provisions of nature reserves pegged to one permanent ecological habitat type.

Lynx - Soon coming to a woodland near you...

Lynx – Soon coming to a woodland near you…

This in itself is an issue though. Conservation practitioners are accustomed to an interventionist approach. From working in and alongside conservation organisations and with professionals and volunteers, my experience has been of an underlying desire to meddle, to be seen to be doing something, often to attempt to placate or secure funding or improve visibility of the organisation in what is becoming a crowded market. Can that desire to tweak and interfere by advocating practical approaches just be dismissed? If this is what our professionals are trained to do and have the skills for, can they resist the urge to exercise those skills? I have even heard from some the worry that advocating a ‘hands off’ laissez-faire approach would result in fewer jobs in the sector, particularly for those with a practical background.

Furthermore, the question arises regarding the actual results of re-wilded areas. With pristine wilderness no longer in existence in the UK, the outcomes of re-wilding are no longer the true representation of a natural habitat. With invasive species spreading and anthropogenic changes to nutrient levels, climate and species composition, certain species may come to dominate where they would previously have been negligible or absent. It must be judged whether the prospect of this is preferable to a static-interventionist approach of holding a site in a preferential condition for a few select species. During re-wilding these species may disappear from a site, but should this be discouraged? If the wild state of an area is unsuitable then it is surely not worthwhile maintaining it in an unnatural condition at great expense for ill-adapted species.

So much of conservation writing and rewilding theory is nostalgia. How can one have the right to be nostalgic for something one has never seen? The ideal of wilderness is a profoundly human creation. Where once areas of wilderness were viewed as inhospitable regions fraught with danger, the romanticism of groups like the Sierra Club and John Muir have transformed these in modern day thinking into areas of virtue, untouched by human influence. Industrialisation, accompanied by scientific and cultural advancements in recent human history has served to place the rural idyll on an ideological pedestal

An important question to address when considering re-wilding is what do we want from our environment? What is deemed as a favourable condition is ultimately determined from a human perspective, and ideas of restoration can rest as much on social traditions, such as aesthetic value, as scientific theory. An issue occurs when areas are left to re-wild and then fail to conform to expected anthropogenically defined outcomes, and a desire to once again manage the area to fit these standards is likely. A lack of preconceptions regarding outcomes with respect to species and habitat composition is necessary if re-wilding is to be truly embraced, indeed the prospect of an environment with no ‘outcome’ and a flux of successional stages should be accepted and expected as natural. In the UK, this will be particularly low with a population accustomed to a history of a managed landscape with farming and forestry being prevalent. The timescale for a return to a defined baseline condition may be a matter of decades, in many cases longer than the lifetime of those involved in site management. A need for visually obvious progress and an innate human desire to see achievement may often compromise re-wilding efforts.

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

OK, not quite. But it’s in my image library and I need to break-up this text, so give me a break, yeah?

A main issue with rewilding theory is defining a baseline for restoration. This has and will continue to be an area of debate between proponents as some species are looked on more favourably than others due to such esoteric data as their first appearance in the pollen record of peat bogs or the last recorded sighting. It has been argued that due to the historical pastoral use of land and anthropogenic shaping there is no relevant specific baseline for ecological restoration. My two penneth sits with defining this baseline around the disappearance of the land bridge with Europe, but such issues are minor quibbles. There are much more serious barriers to rewilding within the conservation movement, and that’s before the notion is even brought fully into the mainstream.

The big stumbling block

Much greater, more practical, stumbling blocks stand in the way of the rewilding movement though, especially in the UK. Big questions such as ‘where’ and ‘who pays’ need to be addressed. Logically, this will involve the traditional discordant wrangling between environmentalists and the farming lobby as the only areas now feasible for rewilding are the uplands of Wales and Scotland. Unsurprisingly they are likely to be at loggerheads again as each lays a claim as the defenders of an idyll. For the environmentalist, this idyll is a less tangible desire for a rawer natural experience, for the farming community, this idyll is the quintessential British landscape of pasture and crop.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Sorry. Wrong again.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
― Aldo Leopold

Now, slowly but with gathering pace, the rural community is more willing to see and be told otherwise. Opponents push the notions that rewilding and in many cases the environmental movement is sentimental and unrealistic and it is true that there is a certain sense of collective guilt assuaging associated with rewilding measures. We all, rightly, have drilled in to us the damage our actions have wrought on the natural environment, though environmental education still lags in its position and importance at our secondary schools. But the main opponents to the rewilding ethic are not themselves averse to conjuring up a romantic idyll as a counterpoint. When arguing for the continuation of marginal, heavily subsidised upland farming, the farming community will talk of families owning farms for generations, of hard work and honest toil of salt of the earth types, of man’s intrinsic link to the land and the loss of community. These communities are already failing economically, and in many places are no longer viable with the growth of global free markets. Therefore would these subsidies not be better served supporting environmental practices that may have greater long-term value and support just as many jobs in tourism and conservation? Conservation will only succeed when the owners of land are paid to manage it in the public interest. They will need to be led by the nose, in most cases by waving money under it, and this may be the true issue that consigns rewilding to the dustbin as an exercise in conservation wishful thinking.

Positives for Rewilding

There is a future for rewilding though. Subsidies for marginal farming will undoubtedly become more stringent and many marginal farming communities are likely to disappear as the next generation look elsewhere for a career. And if you are looking for an example of how it can work, even in an urbanised area, I recently visited Zealandia on the outskirts of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Surrounded by an impassable fence, the 225Ha reserve sits in a valley in the suburbs of Wellington and has removed all invasive species from the site and reintroduced some rare flora and fauna. It is heavily geared towards visitors and public engagement, aiming to educate while also providing a reservoir and sanctuary for endangered native species, but retains a wilderness ‘feel’ as the rear two thirds of the reserve have minimal paths and access, ensuring that the public largely remain in the front third, where facilities and hard paths are plentiful. Securing such a large area of land near an urban centre is unlikely in the UK, but perhaps this represents a future ‘shop front’ idea for the rewilding movement, such as we are seeing the start of at Knapdale in Scotland. Future sights for such reserves are plentiful (Snowdonia, Cumbria, Yorkshire etc.), and perhaps this tourism based approach will be the first step towards a wilder Britain.

Botham Takes on the RSPB (and I Can’t Even Think of a Good Cricket Pun)

It’s not often my twin interests of cricket and conservation combine. So, given Ian Botham’s criticism of the RSPB this week, I couldn’t give up the chance to comment.

Given that I have recently criticised the RSPB (well, the Vote Bob campaign, behind which it lurks and skulks like a group of foxes (learn your collective nouns, people)), this is a tricky issue and it’s going to take a bit of unpicking.

Botham is commenting on behalf of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ (YFTB) campaign, and they raise some concerns that I have previously expressed. It raises the issue, and it is one I do keep harping on about, regarding the adoption of a business focus by many of our environmental charities. This has seen them diversify and become more centred on generating money through fundraising than actual conservation work. The figures touted (if to be believed) are a spend of £32M on fundraising against £29M on conservation operations by the RSPB. This is, genuinely, a reason for concern. Not just the disparity between public perception and actual activities, but the huge sums involved. Can charities come under the scrutiny of the Monopolies Commission? But these issues are lost beneath the sheer fug of bone-headed, imbecilic points made by the YFTB, thus losing any semblance of relevance.

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

YFTB Logo – I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Martin Harper has already responded, pretty well, although he has missed some of the key points and relied too heavily on RSPB’s vaunted past as a defence rather than addressing current issues. I could also do without the horrendous crowbarring of god-awful cricket clichés and metaphors into every paragraph. But I think the campaign could do with a much more comprehensive dissection. So lets pick out a few phrases from the website and highlight some of the cretinous asininity behind the campaign:

Firstly, lets look at the three big heads behind the ‘YFTB’ campaign. They are listed as:

Sir Ian Botham
Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England
Sir Johnny Scott, BBC TV presenter

Where to start with that trio? As a contrarion, I think I’ll start in the middle. Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England. Yes, indeed he was. But more relevantly, he is also the current (I have been trying to confirm this, but it is not clear on the website, I only know he was as of July 2014) Chairman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Why is he not described as such? Why is he described by his former role? Anyone with half a brain can probably work out why they are keeping this association quiet.

Sir Johhny Scott. Well, just look at that CV. A man more steeped in the noble pursuits of hunting or blowing the face off game birds bred for the purpose of having their faces blown off you would struggle to find. He is described here as a ‘TV presenter’, and not the centenary patron of the BASC or any of the other patronages he has to hunting organisations. I flagged up the Vote Bob campaign for being an RSPB money-spinner by stealth, but this deliberate subterfuge much greater in its venality. As for Botham, a man who runs his own shoot, he is an irrelevance in this instance, a big, lumbering figurehead for a plodding, old-fashioned movement (insert your own joke about his later England career here). It’s sad to see a man who railed against the tie and blazers of the MCC become such an ingrained part of the same set. He’s an embarrassment.

Now for some of the loaded language used on the website. In reference to the RSPB using certain ‘box-office’ species for advertising, they say:

‘The wrong type of bird includes chickens (too frumpy)…’ – Chickens? Why the hell would the RSPB be using chickens, the most common bird on the planet, to advertise its work in protecting our dwindling bird species? Unless it was with regards to the horrendous condition battery hens endure, but that would involve lobbying, and, well…

‘How much “conservation money” is being spent on political lobbying on climate change?’ “Conservation money”? I’m pretty certain climate change is the main conservation issue at the moment. Unless you are denying it. You’re not denying climate change, are you YFTB? The YFTB campaign takes aim at the RSPB spending money on lobbying, education and research. These are core areas we need to be spending money on if we are to protect our natural environment.

Lobbying seems to be the key target for their displeasure and the message this sends out is clear; The YFTB campaign wants the RSPB and the like to stop sticking their nose into the business of landowners and farmers. It comes across as a call for the RSPB to ‘get back in their box’ and behave.

‘Take the hen harrier. It doesn’t just have bankable movie star looks but also a back story of victimisation. So it is the ultimate nice little earner for the RSPB’ – now, when you note that this is preceded by the sentence ‘Ideally there’s a nasty villain to protect it from’, I think anyone with half a brain can put two and two together and see what’s going on here. The plight of Hen Harriers are exactly the kind of thing the RSPB should be promoting and raising awareness about. How could anyone with an interest in bird conservation complain about this? Unless…hang on, do the people behind this campaign have a vested interest in (or think, through some misguided notion, they have a vested interest in) raptor persecution?

The ‘They Shot Bambi’ section added to the website today is equally hypocritical and idiotic (although I can not work out if they are being deliberately obtuse or genuinely are not aware in the contradictions between their aims and their backers). It gives us plenty more statements to pick apart:

‘Last year the RSPB shot dead 1,129 deer along with 273 “Freddy” foxes.’ The BASC (sorry, YFTB) are complaining about this? Well I admire their balls and sheer hypocritical brass-neckery if nothing else. They also ON THE SAME PAGE end the piece with the quote “Rare birds like Golden Plovers thrive when they have rich habitat and are protected from foxes. The RSPB is doing a lousy job at that” from the esteemed conservationist Botham (a man whose last foray in to the public consciousness was this disturbing image).

Botham - a gratuitous cheap shot

Botham – a gratuitous cheap shot

‘It also deliberately suffocated hundreds of unborn chicks by smearing oil around their shells’ – If you are going to throw this kind of emotionally loaded language around, you have to at least give a hint of the reasoning behind it. Control of some species is a vital, important part of nature conservation, which takes on many forms, and for the BASC to get shitty about this…seriously, this is staggeringly ridiculous.

They also ask ‘why its (RSPB’s) executive team is housed in a mansion. Homes for office workers? Or homes for birds?’ This is really childish, and a second’s research elucidates the background of The Lodge at Sandy. It was purchased in 1961, with generous financial help by Tony Norris. I’m not sure how this is relevant to current spending. I’ve been trying to find any evidence of the RSPB supplying homes for office workers (as opposed to, y’know, a place to work), but can’t. Happy to be corrected though if this is the case.

Despite my issues with the RSPB, and the genuine issues the YFTB campaign raises, I can’t help but think that if the RSPB are annoying the people clearly behind YFTB, then they must be doing something right.

YFTB go on to state ‘we are going to examine the accounts of the RSPB and all the 47 Wildlife Trusts and get you the facts’ and ‘It’s time it (the RSPB) was honest about its own approach…’ Well, in the spirit of honesty, I would like the BASC, a-hem, sorry, sorry, I meant the You Forgot the Birds campaign, to be honest about the ‘conservationists or self-confessed birders…farmers and landowners…’ and ‘volunteers from the cities’ behind this ill-thought out campaign. Just who is behind it? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out.

 

 

Destroy Urban Wildlife Sites to ‘Save Our Countryside’?

This post started life as a post about the value of Brownfield sites for urban wildlife. That was until I stumbled across the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s ‘Save Our Countryside’ charter. I wholeheartedly agree with the charter. Almost every word of it. Almost. Our countryside should be protected from development, of course it should. It’s only right that people start to get a bit jumpy when word gets out that someone is trying to punch a hole through the green belt.

I promise, that after this post I will have a long run of posts that do not lay into, lambast or otherwise pick holes in another environmental organisation’s latest campaign. No, I will heed my own advice and talk about the positives to be found in the environmental movement and how the latest conservation measures or outreach activity offers real hope for a brave new world where all things are possible for all people and our wildlife thrives unmolested by Yahoos with guns or well-meaning lefties with petitions. I promise. But for now, for today, I wanted to address the narrow-minded, ‘make it someone else’s problem’ agenda pushed by one particular line of this charter.

You could easily dismiss the CPRE as NIMBYism writ large and given a voice, albeit a voice that, like some Hitchcokian blackmailer, has tried to distort itself by holding the handkerchief of environmental protection and public interest over the mouthpiece. A handkerchief made up of bits of twig, fur, and carping indignation (Yes, I may have been reading about Simile and Metaphor this week). Well, you could. I’m not saying I would, though. I’m happy go lucky and like everyone. Especially potential future employers. But the ‘Save Our Countryside’ charter is surely a good thing, protecting our environment and wildlife from the rampant developers and profiteering…you know what, I can’t even be bothered to finish that sentence. You can construct your own one using the words ‘Capitalism’ ‘economy’ ‘ecocide’ and ‘libertarianism’ if it makes you feel better. I’m not Naomi Klein. That stuff just bores me (and more to the point I don’t understand it).

Anyway, dragging myself back on topic, I thought this was an issue I was, for once, totally in line with. Then I looked at the CPRE website again, and thought, hang on, just what are they trying to protect here? Is it wildlife? Is it the environment? Or is it farmland and a non-existent rural idyll? Are they really saying that they want to protect farms, those famous hotbeds of biodiversity, from development? Look at the CPRE website and you will see that their interpretation of the countryside is one of rolling farmland and picturesque villages. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is when you scout down the charter a little further that you find my particular bone of contention:

Don’t sacrifice our countryside
‘Our open spaces are being destroyed unnecessarily. Previously developed brownfield sites should be re-used first.’

Cornfield or derelict mill and stream. Hands up which one you think is more biodiverse?

Cornfield or derelict mill and stream. Hands up which one you think is more biodiverse?

I think this the nub of the argument right here. CPRE would rather see new housing crammed in to every space of our cities, to the detriment of some of our most diverse sites for wildlife, than see the urban sprawl encompass surrounding farmland and, possibly, swallow up a few of those picture postcard little villages of an England that once was. Fair enough, but I think targeting Brownfield is a huge mis-step. Why target Brownfield sites? It’s as if they have been asked the not unreasonable question ‘if not here, then where?’ and have plucked an answer out of a hat without really thinking about it. These sites are crucial in our cities as reservoirs of wildlife and as connections between different areas of greenspace. They (and green and open space in general) are also vital for the health and well being of our urban populations. Is the answer to our burgeoning housing crisis to fill-up every remaining square foot in our cities with more housing? That can’t be the only answer. Of course, this all comes under the banner of a larger argument about population control, but I’m not about to touch that one with a barge pole. Not yet. But there must be places of low biodiversity in both rural and urban settings that would be more suitable for sensitively considered development.Brownfield or Greenfield

Now, I must declare my own allegiances and interests here. I grew up in the countryside, and despite my line above about farmland generally being barren wastelands for biodiversity; I generally support farmers against the many slings and arrows many in my sector would throw at them. Farmers, individually, work harder and care more about the environment than many conservationists I know. But collectively, as part of a Union, say, they can be mighty destructive. Add to that external pressures and it is only right they get a bit uppity when anything endangers their livelihood. But market forces and Union machinations in the agricultural sector is yet another post for another day. For the last eight years I have lived in London. I have often felt caged, hemmed in, and greenspace and frequently, Brownfield, has been my outlet. These are the sites I have improved my species ID on or searched for reptiles, not the open spaces of our parks or the farmland I grew up around. Unfortunately, through my education and experience in the sector, I can’t see the rolling fields of farmland as something to be treasured as I once did. Unlike the CPRE, I do not see these as a positive for wildlife and am using this as an excuse to crowbar one of my favourite quotes into this article:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

This is not a call to concrete over the rural heartland of England. It is a call to not underestimate the environmental value of something just because it is in the city and has been labelled as ‘neglected’. That’s why I would like the CPRE to reconsider the wording of their latest campaign to ‘previously developed sites of little or no biodiversity potential (as judged by a specialist in the field) should be re-used first.’ (OK, so they might need to come up with something a little snappier, but marketing was never my strong point.)