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.

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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

When to Stop Feeding the Kites?

I’ve been involved in a line of discussion this week that has provoked a few questions. Questions to which I don’t really have any answers. Feel free to offer up your thoughts, I suspect there’s no ‘right’ answer.

When does an initiative stop being conservation and start being interference? (Yes, I know by its very definition, conservation is interfering. Even the trendy George Monbiot brand of conservation). But my thoughts in this instance are mainly in relation to Red Kites. Marvellous things, aren’t they? I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of watching them soar overhead on stilly wings and forked tail. The novelty may never wear off. As an example of rapid species recovery through conservation efforts, they’re about as good a poster-bird as you could want.

red kite

‘Quick, fetch in the linen!’

So what am I getting in a huff about? Well if you want to see a large congregation of the birds, there are a few places you can be certain to spot them. Feeding stations have been set up, such as Gigrin Farm and Llanddeusant in Wales. Here, great volumes of carrion are served up on a daily basis attracting kites in the hundreds.

These feeding stations have undoubtedly helped with the recovery of the Red Kite and should be congratulated for this. They also provide a spectacle for nature-lovers everywhere, and anything that captures the attention and informs the public about issues such as species decline should be encouraged. But could feeding kites like this be having knock on ecological effects? Does this mass feeding artificially prop-up the local red kite (and buzzard) populations, and would this likely have an impact on other species? Do they reduce the natural dispersal of individuals, therefore impacting on the robustness of the national population? Most of all, can this still be classed as conservation?

The existence of feeding stations mean that the handbrake has not been removed. The Red Kite population should continue to thrive as long as the feeding stations exist, but is it ‘natural’? And who cares if it isn’t?

Do We Need to Sell Nature?

It’s the 21st century and it’s high time that environmental organisations (and those out there scrabbling around in the muck like myself) stopped behaving like Luddites and get media savvy. The PR war is one of the areas in which we can truly make inroads into the public conscious. With the amount of time we all spend in front of screens now, we have so many avenues (twitter, ‘viral’ campaigns, targeted advertising etc.) to inveigle ourselves into the nether regions of our audience’s minds. But just because we can, does it mean that we should? Do we risk losing sight of what our ultimate objectives are?

Marketing is playing an ever-increasing part in conservation. Not only for disseminating environmental arguments to layman audiences and gaining support for them, but also for the all important role of bringing in funds. With a shrinking pot of potential resources to draw from and an increasingly competitive green charity market, it is not surprising an obsession with ‘selling’ nature has developed recently.

Gone are the quiet, polite request for funds and the discrete membership links on websites. Pick an environmental charity and you can probably see the subtle hand of PR and marketing departments behind many of their activities.

#VoteBob#VoteBob

Some are savvier, or more cynical if you would prefer. The ‘Vote Bob’ campaign has appeared recently, dressing itself up as an independent red squirrel intent on saving our natural world by gaining twitter followers, facebook ‘likes’ and selling fluffy toys. Cute. There’s no big message behind it beyond ‘nature is great, vote for nature’ and no particular issue or project it is supporting. Harmless and well intentioned you might say, but it only takes a little digging to find out that Bob is not such an independent little underdog, he has the whole might of the RSPB behind him. Though they are described as ‘Bob’s biggest supporter’, if you want to buy that fluffy ‘Bob’ toy, then it’s the RSPB shop you link through to.

But yet Bob and the RSPB have kept each other at one remove, though not quite arms length, and it is this dishonesty that one might find unbecoming and perhaps unnecessary. It’s a sign of subtle and stealthy High Street sales tactics seeping into our charities. And the question has to be, do we really want this? Is it beneficial for what we are trying to achieve? Yes, we cannot possibly achieve anything without a solid financial strategy, but we also cannot achieve anything without the support and goodwill of the public and our local communities. Some of the tactics that environmental charities have used risk alienating our traditional supporters. These are likely to provoke questions over just where membership fees and donations are going.

You Forgot the Birds

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

Take the recent You Forgot the Birds’ furore. If you have not been keeping track, this has been a hatchet job on the RSPB perpetrated by a cabal of hunting and shooting types fronted, bizarrely, by Ian Botham. The campaign is inaccurate, snide and misguided and you could therefore easily dismiss it, as just about everyone connected with the RSPB has. However, it attempts, in a hamfisted fashion, to raise some relevant points about the exactly how donations are spent. It would be wrong to dismiss these concerns just because of the wrapping they are presented in, and one only has to look at a number of the responses from RSPB members on Twitter and in comments sections to see that this has struck a chord.

This speaks of the concern that many within the industry have about the future direction of our environmental charities (and the very use of the word ‘industry’ here rather highlights my point about how we are coming to view ourselves). Is a more business-like model always desirable and what we should be aiming for?

My opinions come mainly from the perspective of one working within environmental charities. There can be real concerns that marketing and PR departments are outgrowing (and usually out earning) the coalface staff that undertake the important activities charities are actually known for. The primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine. There is something about campaigns like #VoteBob that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. Like the otherwise admirable Project Wild Thing, there is the distasteful notion that we need to set about commodifying our wildlife.

It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire. Some of the marketing techniques we use now are focused around the sole purpose of getting people to part with their cash, rather than educating and informing. We are involved in campaigns that have revenue generation at their heart and not much in the way of an environmental message. We risk monetising the process of enjoying and discovering wildlife, and for me that can only be a bad thing.

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.

Management structures in Environmental Organisations – where they fail

The proliferation of environmental NGOs has seen a breadth of diversification and specification that is impressive, if in many ways counter-productive to the movement as a whole, with the appearance of a range of niche charities and organisations over the last 10 years. The overall result, compounded by recession, has been a diminishing of the pool of potential funding for each organisation. A quick search reveals over 100 charities and NGOs with an environmental focus with such specialised organisations as the Christian Ecology Link (formed 1981) and Surfers Against Sewage (1990). If you add into this the number of voluntary groups and friends groups, the number of people involved in the sector rises exponentially. Any increase in the people employed or engaged voluntarily working towards the improvement of the environment should be encouraged wholeheartedly, but the danger exists of too many interests pulling too few resources in too many directions, spreading funding even more thinly.

How then, does an environmental organisation stand out? How does it make the most of its slice of the pie? Against this backdrop of scarce resources but increased public awareness of issues it is a disappointment that no organisation, new or old, big or small, has taken the opportunity to develop a new way of working. Surely it is an ideal time to think about ways to fully utilise their most valuable commodities – the front facing staff. A real opportunity exists to reorganise the way we work in the environmental sector and focus our resources where they are most effective. To develop more streamlined and inclusive ways of working with what we have rather than expending energy and enthusiasm railing against what we cannot control. One of the main drains on financial resources and also a huge limiting factor for the pace and efficacy of any project, and one that is unsurprisingly rarely addressed, is the management structure that most organisations have adopted.

Is it time to cut down on the managers and celebrate the people on the front line?

How we work now

capybara

I needed an image to break-up the text and inject a little levity – so here’s a Capybara.

The majority of environmental organisation continues to ape a more corporate, hierarchical staff structure. This continued adherence to a system copied from sectors not directly comparable is holding back the possibility of a real, progressive realignment of working practises.

Currently career progression is dependant on such pre-existing systems. A standard industry sees a senior management position as the apex of career progression, a position to aspire to and the natural order of things dictates that this is accompanied by an equivalent monetary reward. Many workers will therefore be striving towards this, even though they may not have considered this or even desired this to be their ultimate destination. But why is this so? Why is management valued as a higher commodity than other, more specialised, roles? And why does this happen in a sector where more specialised roles are often the defining characteristic and chief driving force behind actual visual and reportable progress?

Many environmental professionals will reach a ceiling at some point during their career. Be it an ecologist, an environmental educator, outreach worker, etc. no matter the skill level or amount of experience, there will be a choice to continue with the same roles at in or around the same salary or take on project/staff management to move to the next pay grade. Some who choose the former may even find themselves being given greater responsibilities without the equivalent pay increase to compensate, often dressed up as a development opportunity.

Therefore most of the organisations we as environmental professionals will work with or for, consist of an upper management level which is often ill-suited or unmotivated, working in a role that they did not envisage or choose, or more often than not shipped in from other sectors with limited practical understanding of the on-the-ground issues faced by front-facing practitioners.

Who works for an environmental charity?

The value of any organisation in the environmental sector lies in its staff and particularly its specialists and front-facing staff. But what differentiates them from staff in most other sectors? It is a fair assumption that the majority of conservation practitioners did not consider financial concerns as a primary motivator when entering the sector. Most people have to start as a volunteer, earning nothing but keen to learn, and there are huge numbers of volunteers who take part in conservation activities of all kinds across the country every day.

This is perhaps fortunate given the limited funds and resources currently in circulation. Like few other industries, environmental charities generally consist of a passionate and intelligent workforce motivated by shared interests and beliefs. It would be an overly broad generalisation to suggest people working for environmental organisations (particularly charities) are degree educated, subject-passionate, proactive, altruistic and left-leaning, but it wouldn’t be that far from the mark. It is certainly fair to suggest that environmental practitioners view their area of work as a vocation rather than a job with most people getting into the sector to ‘get their hands dirty’, not to sit behind a desk and manage other people.

Opportunity for Change – alternatives

With such a workforce, the opportunity to self-regulate and direct could be endless. If a clear ethos or manifesto is in place there is the potential to eliminate the drag on impetus and resources that can result from an over-bureaucratised and hierarchical structure by adopting a more egalitarian modus operandi.

Removing unnecessary management positions and adopting a flatter organisational structure would allow a nimbler, more fleet of foot, and more adaptable workforce. Middle management and even senior management and executives could be dispensed with.

A quick look at the staff structures and pay grades in a standard environmental charity such as a Wildlife Trust or the RSPB would reveal the huge percentage of salary that is expended in this area. Anecdotal evidence suggests that rewards in the way of pay increases or bonuses are also frequently distributed amongst the higher managers whilst precious little is filtered done to project officer level staff. The reason for this may be the short-term nature of the majority of such contracts and the over-abundance of people trying to get in to the sector, willing to work at low wages and in many cases to actually do parts or the whole of normally paid roles as a volunteer.

How could a flat, more anarchic structure work? The process could, with great difficulty, be retrofitted to existing, large organisations but would perhaps be more relevant to relatively new and small companies. There is no reason why it cannot function at a larger scale however. Recruitment would be the primary way of producing an effective organisation, with greater consideration given to ensure new employees buy-in to a collaborative and collective culture. With such a set up it would also be prudent to recruit personnel for their area of experience and knowledge without necessarily having a role in mind, rather than recruiting directly for a post. This would produce a much wider ranging base-level of knowledge.

All project officers would be afforded a greater degree of latitude and would be able to develop their own skills and experience in a chosen area to a much greater extent. Project delivery would become a more communal undertaking, with different officers contributing where their skill-set is most relevant. Decision-making would become a more democratic process, with different areas assigned to different teams and sections of officers. A more collective decision making process would ensure much, much greater ownership of the organisation and foster greater loyalty, a primary driver of low morale being a lack of consultation with ground level staff by SMT on important operational matters.

Self-managing staff would be appraised and financial rewards allocated on a peer-review basis. This may have the potential to cause schisms and the development of internal cliques, so great care would need to be taken to ensure this remained impartial and transparent. Through this process, staff appreciation would be greater and expertise, knowledge and input would be valued over position and stature.

A comparison can be made with some technology sector industries, particularly software. With highly skilled and motivated personnel, some companies develop a much flatter organisational structure with a more fluid approach to task assignment. Increasing technical skills are rewarded financially and sideways moves with increased opportunity for personal development and salary increases are more common, allowing skilled staff to remain in and continue to contribute in their area of interest and ability. Staff remain motivated, more involved and able to progress their own development as they see fit and would not rely on managers to progress opportunities. In the environmental sector this could also equate to an increase in cross-discipline and departmental communication with high levels of experience directed into educating and developing other staff and volunteers.

A flat organisational structure would obviously include associated risks and potential problems. Extra care would need to be taken during recruitment and staff ‘not up to scratch’ or unmotivated could represent a severe drag on resources. Disciplinary measures would need to be taken collectively, with the greater potential to cause staff divisions. To some extent it may be better for staff to have a direction for their ire above their own pay grade. Areas such as finance and Human resources may still require some level of hierarchy in order to attract suitable staff, as these areas are much more likely to be filled by individuals who are not cause motivated. Short-term contracts are likely to be an important motivational tool in the initial employment stage with increases over time. This, however, would not be a new concept to anyone currently working in the sector.

Dilution and diversification of roles

kitty2

Well done, you made it to the end – here’s a kitten

One possible outcome of adopting a flatter organisational structure could be a dilution of roles. Though staff would be afforded greater latitude to diversify and expand their skill sets, areas such as reporting, stakeholder liaison, budget managing, funding applications, and a likely increase in meetings could dilute officer roles. A careful balance would need to be struck, and in some cases (such as funding applications) specialist staff would need to be employed. Many officers would also welcome the opportunity to develop experience in these areas. There also remains a danger that an increase in communication and inclusion on decision making could lead to organisational inertia and in fact have the opposite of the intended affect of further reducing decision making time.

How will environmental organisations adapt and change in the future? Will there be a shift in structure to a less top-heavy pay-distribution? It seems unlikely that any existing organisation would so radically abandon or re-organise their staffing arrangement and management (no matter how fond of a re-structure some appear to be) and it might be the opportunity to distinguish itself from the crowd that yet another environmental charity needs. A utopian ideal it maybe, but the sector surely possesses the personal with drive and ideals to push an organisation from the ground level.

Fox Week – Part 1: How to Create a Story Out of Nothing

It seems this week is going to be fox-heavy week. I had a post all set up and ready to go today (and it will appear here later) about the ‘scourge’ of urban foxes, the whys and wherefores. It is such an emotive subject and (for frankly irrelevant reasons) foxes cannot now be discussed without being laced with political context (in other words – if you want to control fox populations in any way, if you say anything negative about foxes at all, you’re a Tory). For an ecologist, this is a little annoying as it can be a legitimate area of concern.

This isn’t really a fox article. Urban foxes are (sorry to burst your bubble) dull, abundant, mid-level generalists that have limited value from a biodiversity perspective (barring that, of course, all nature has its own inherent value, etc and so forth). But at the weekend, a story I was keeping tabs on in a local paper has gone national in the Telegraph. It concerns a larger issue of scientific illiteracy in our media that Monbiot has previously addressed, but also a willingness to misrepresent a subject which incites high passions to push copy.

The story first appeared last week in the Wandsworth Guardian, which picked up on a seemingly innocuous press release on Urban Foxes by Wandsworth Borough Council. The press release, quite sensibly, advises securing your food waste to deter Urban Foxes. From this, Wandsworth Guardian have produced the heading ‘Starving urban foxes would drive numbers down in London’ says Wandsworth Council. Now I challenge you to search that press release and find where any such thing has been said. The truth is it doesn’t. The not unreasonable précis of the advice is that if there is less food available for foxes, then they will go elsewhere. Yet the title is phrased in such a way that it appears as though it is a direct quote. The piece also makes reference to baiting, trapping and shooting (not raised in the press release but discussed in a 2007 committee paper) and phrases it in such a way that it appears as though it is an actual possibility. This is the main entry on the subject:

 16. There are a number of methods of fox control that may be legally used. These include baited cage trapping, shooting and snaring, however fox control is not generally recommended in urban areas. Killing or relocating foxes usually provides only transient relief from the problems they cause, as vacant territories are rapidly reoccupied once the control measures cease.foxes 1

A hoo-ha is being generated here where none exists. Various control measures are discussed, as is only correct in a discussion about issues with urban foxes. The Council is merely undertaking the minimal due diligence on the issue. If it were discussing any other contentious issue (drugs, knife crime etc.) you would expect, demand even, that the council take the time to discuss any potential measures, the most severe and the most sensitive. If it were a rat problem, would we expect the council to fail to discuss such measures? (But then rats don’t appear on Springwatch every bloody year)

The story has now appeared in the Telegraph with a similarly misleading title, and not too subtle mention that the Wandsoworth Council is Conservative. The sub-header runs ‘Wandsworth Council tells residents if a ‘vixen is shot during breeding season, the den has to be traced and the whole family of cubs humanely killed’. This refers to a throwaway line in the original press release (that has since, sensibly, been removed) that attempts only to highlight the many reasons why any such undertaking would not be practical or desirable, and yet the phrasing has again been used to infer otherwise.

This, of course, all links in to previous concerns I have raised about ecological and scientific issues being discussed in political and social context. The main point I have is that this kind of misrepresentation genuinely can have negative repercussions for environmental professionals, for whom culling is often a legitimate and necessary tool. A lot of our work can seem destructive to the layman, and when a council press release stating that shooting urban foxes is absolutely not a practical measure gets twisted to suggest otherwise, it risks creating public aversion to potential measures ecologists may discuss to legitimate environmental problems. This is just one example amongst many, and if you want another, more nefarious, example of this, then check out the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ fiasco, where the RSPB’s refusal to back an unworkable government Hen Harrier action plan now, by some twisted logic, means that the RSPB hate Hen Harriers.

And I know, I’m using an emotive subject to get more people to view my blog. My rank hypocrisy knows no bounds. I’ve already made a point about the idiocy of having a cake and not eating it.