Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The need for a 'green base' in politics

Anyone who says it doesn't matter who we elect is wrong. Okay, it may not matter as much as some would like, and in some areas it may make much difference not at all, but overall it still matters. If we did not have our current government the green political landscape would look very different. There may still have been changes to green levies, but there would be less bile. The consensus on tackling climate change might still be intact. We would not have a badger cull. We might well have a decarbonisation target. These are not small differences. No one can give you all you want, but they can take things in the right direction.

So if politics matter, it follows that elections also matter. Not just national, but local, regional and municipal. In Bristol for example, a pro-environment Mayor is pushing solar across the city. Of course he is far from perfect, but he is still advancing a green agenda. Whatever you think of UKIP, their European successes have influenced policy. Who wins makes a difference.

Getting involved in elections and party politics is something that traditional NGOs are very reluctant to do, and with good reason. They need to build a broad base of supporters. They need to work with whoever wins. It might also be harder for them with the new gagging bill.

Despite this, someone needs to get involved. We need an organisation which helps voters identify green(er) politicians, from whatever party, and at whatever level. We need a place for environmentally minded voters to turn to find out about the green background of prospective candidates. We need to turn green intentions into a powerful political lobby.

Now, I must be honest that this makes me uneasy. I dislike the idea of pressure groups drawing up US-style hitlists of politicians, interfering in selection processes and dragging up perceived opinions from the past. It is division politics and the other side may well be better at it. But there still needs to be a way to mobilize environmental voters to become a more effective force, and encourage politicians to think seriously about their green intentions. After all it is often one of the things they can do most about at a local level, but about which they are challenged on least often. Many elections, particularly at local level, are decided by an embarrassingly small number of votes. A few hundred either way. It may well be possible to swing those with green voters. If councils go green it affects the MPs that will be selected for an area, and the tone of local politics. We need a Green Base to help get this vote out.

What exactly this organisation might look like is unclear, but I'm working on it! Advice welcome.

Friday, 15 November 2013

There is something wrong in conservation when the budget to save the Scottish wildcat is the same as for one visitor centre.

Okay, this is not exactly hot button news, but I have been doing research recently on wildcats and beavers and all kinds of reintroduction projects in the UK, and one thing which keeps coming up is the disparity between the budgets available for serious conservation work, and the money available for what I would politely call 'bumph'. Specifically visitors' centres. Okay, now anyone who knows me knows I have a fundamental problem with visitors' centres attached to wildlife. Not because a nice cafe/bookshop/notice board is not a nice thing, but because I think they should be separate from nature reserves. They should not act as gateways, dividing the 'real' world from the wildlife museum you are about to see. They should just be cafes.

Actually, it is fair to say my heart always sinks when I find a reserve or beauty spot marred by a huge carpark and visitor centre, and maybe this blog is nothing more than a reflection of that prejudice, but there is also the issue of money. One visitor centre, at Minsmere in Suffolk was renovated at a cost of £2 million. That is equal to the hoped for budget of the 'official' new plan to save the Scottish wild cat, Britain's last native felid and medium sized predator. It is more than the official beaver reintroduction programme in Knapdale. It is probably many times more than all the money spent researching the impacts of wild boar in the Forest of Dean and on public awareness around them. And it is for a visitor centre at a nature reserve. It is not alone. A quick look online reveals many such cases. £600,000 for Bempton Cliffs, £400,000 for Great Barr. Etc etc.

Now, the NGO that is building these (RSPB) is entitled to spend its members' money however it, and they, think is best. These centres are no doubt a small part of its overall budget. I also appreciate that community engagement is vital. At the same time though I cannot help but feel that this lays bare the strange priorities in current wildlife protection and conservation. There seem to be endless millions to build commercialised museums and consumer interpretations of wildlife, but so much less to encourage, protect and restore the wildlife - in the wild - itself. Perhaps our bias towards consumption is so strong that we feel happier about spending money on a physical object, than on what the object is supposed to be about?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Return of the Great Bustard?

In a stubbly yellow field in Wiltshire there is a rectangular enclosure, perhaps five hundred metres long and one hundred metres deep. Inside the fence are a series of strips, some of flowers, some of crops, others of bare, rough earth. All round the fence the dull ochre of the Salisbury Plains stretches away, an endless swaying sea of grass. Scanning the boundaries through my binoculars, I see them, their long grey-brown necks rising up through from the undergrowth, topped with small heads and pointed beaks. They remind me a little of miniature versions of the ostriches I saw on my friend's farm in Ireland. They have the same sparse feathers and slightly prehistoric throats. As I look around the field I spot other birds, my eye honing in. There are several males out in the open, stretching their vast wings, orange flecked with white and even blue. These may weigh up to 40 lbs, making them among the heaviest flying birds in the world. On the roof of the little hide I am in is a wooden cut out of a Great Bustard in flight. It must be an inspiring spectacle. The females are a little smaller and duller in colour, like great brown geese.

Great Bustards, like so many other animals, were once common right across Europe and where found throughout southern Britain, as far north as Yorkshire. Famed for their size, late medieval cookbooks include them in recipes for birds-stuffed-within-birds, the grandest of which begins with a bustard. While many were killed for food or feathers, changes in farming practice also took their toll. Bustards are birds of steppe and farmland, and had probably greatly increased in numbers as the forest had been cleared over the centuries. However just as it had encouraged their expansion, so new technology contributed to their collapse. The introduction of horse-drawn ploughs meant that eggs were no longer safe in the fields where they were laid, and as agriculture became ever more mechanised and intensive their numbers dwindled. As with the Great Auk, the flightless penguin of the North Atlantic, the mania for specimens in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sealed their fate, as egg collectors descended on the last few populations. The final records of Great Bustards in Britain were in the 1840s and the species likely went locally extinct shortly afterwards.

Fortunately populations have persisted elsewhere, particularly in Spain and Russia, and beginning in the late 1970s plans were made to try and return the species to Salisbury Plain, a large area of grassland and rolling hills in the south of England. Covering an area of around 800 square kilometres, much of land is owned by the Ministry of Defence and used for military training exercises. On live firing days the sounds of gunfire and artillery can be heard for miles around, while cycling through country lanes one is met with comically lopsided signs warning of 'tanks crossing'. As a result, the Plain is partially out of bounds to the public, and there are relatively few roads or villages in the area. Combined with the large areas arable farming around its fringes this makes the plain a good candidate for Great Bustard reintroduction.

Initial attempts at reintroduction focused on captive breeding of birds from eggs, but these were unsuccessful. Young birds borne in captivity were unable to survive in the wild, and quickly died. It was during these initial attempts in the 1970s that Dave Waters, the driving force behind current reintroduction efforts, was to first encounter the birds, during a visit to Porton Down with his father. Later, when the project was being cancelled, he asked for permission to continue it. He was told he was welcome to do so as long as he understood there was no money, no land an no birds. Mortgaging his house and selling his collection of vintage motorbikes, Dave founded the Great Bustard Project in 1998. While the situation was difficult, one thing had changed since the earlier attempts. The Cold War was over, and suddenly the prospect of introducing birds from Russia seemed like a realistic option. At that time the Eastern birds were thought to be the genetically closest population to Britain's extinct population and from 2004 to 2011, about 140 chicks were brought in from the Volga Basin, quarantined and then released into a fox-proof enclosure in Salisbury from there they were free to go where they wished.

Predictably, the majority of the birds have died or disappeared, but the staff at the project estimate that around 20 still live on Salisbury Plain, although good numbers are hard to come by. The Bustards have spread widely too, with individuals cropping up in Somerset, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and even across the Channel in France. While this is encouraging, politics is preventing further imports from Russia, as relationships with the UK have cooled. To keep the project going, it is hoped that more chicks might be brought in from Spain, which maintains the largest populations in Western Europe. In fact more up-to-date genetics tests suggest that the Spanish birds might be a closer match to Britain's ancestral populations, although any differences are likely to be minor.

Looking back through my binoculars it is hard not to share the enthusiasm of the Bustard Project. To have such large birds strutting about the fields is a thrilling prospect. So too is the manner in which it has been done – no trials or exit strategies have been devised, no satellite monitoring devices weigh the animals down. The birds have simply been returned, given a safe place to acclimatise and then largely left alone. One concession which has been made are the large wing tags they sport, colour coded to show their year of release. Even these are not certain though, and many birds have managed to slip them off, becoming the first truly wild members of their family in these wheat fields for nearly two hundred years. The real challenge for the project will be in finding sufficient habitat for these birds. While well adapted to farmland, they need to be left alone to nest and raise their young. In England's intensively managed south, it remains to be seen if there is sufficient room for the true return of the Bustard, or if they will, at most, find refuge in a few little pockets and reserves, forever strangers in their former domains.

For someone like me who as long been a strong advocate of rewilding - the policy of returning species to their former range, and allowing land to recover to a more wild and natural ecosystem - the Great Bustard is a good example of the need for range of approaches. In many areas rewilding may mean the decline of some farmland species. Allowing sheep-stripped hills to recover to scrub and forest will naturally affect the tiny number of species which depend on short, bare grass, but will of course benefit many others which need trees and cover. All the more reason then that those areas of the country which will always be farmed (we need food after all) to practice the most environmental sound farming we can find. Rewilding is a cascade. It is about making room for wildlife and the species which surround us, whether through reforested hills, no-fishing zones in the oceans, or through providing little spaces around the edges of fields where the largest flying birds in the world can raise their chicks.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Independent Scotland - eco pioneer or oil state?

There has been a bit of chat around recently about whether Scottish independence would be good for the environment. Some people seem to think that it will be, and the Scottish Green party are generally supportive. I am not so sure. Of course, I would say that – I am instinctively opposed to independence for cultural and political reasons – but I hope you will hear me out and think there might be more to it than Scotland good, rUK bad.

In one way the argument that independence would be good for the environment seems intuitive. Scotland has been one of the star regions of the UK. It generates a lot of renewable energy and has the largest resources in terms of wind, wave and water. Scottish governments of every stripe have done their best to encourage this. More broadly it is the greenest, wildest part of the UK, with some of the most spectacular wildlife in Europe. Crucially though it has achieved this while still part of the Union. The question really is what would be the implications of separation?

Those in favour argue that more local decision making would allow Scotland to make more beneficial choices. Yet in most areas which affect the environment, Scotland is already able to make its own decisions. Additional subsidies for renewables along with policies on plastic bags, transport, planning permission, wildlife and countryside laws are all devolved. The areas were it cannot – fishing, farm subsidies, clean water standards, air pollution – are largely controlled by Europe. Out of the UK, Scotland would undoubtedly have a weaker voice. If Scotland were to leave Europe of course that would change, but none of the pro-independence parties is promoting that (nor am I).

Clean energy too might suffer. In order to increase the amount of renewable energy it deploys, Scotland relies on a unified energy market with the rUK. It is too small to absorb its potential otherwise. For the next decade or two at least this means that the direct costs of subsidizing renewable energy are borne by the UK as a whole, regardless of where they are built. It is hard to see this happening under independence, and it would certainly be open to whims of politics. The result could be a rapid decline in renewable energy deployment, potentially on both sides of the border.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that an independent Scotland would effectively be an oil state. Depending on who you listen to Scotland would rely on North Sea oil and gas for as much as 20% of its economy.i That is a huge amount by any standard. That's more than twice as much as the UK relies on financial services and is a much more homogenous industry. The record of oil states is not good. Would a Scotland so reliant on fossil fuels really be willing to blaze a trail in weaning itself off them? It might develop some domestic measures for renewables, but will it back international efforts to end fossil fuels? Unlikely. Would the UK as a whole? Also unlikely, but perhaps a little less so. Furthermore, given the nature of the economy Scotland runs it will be totally reliant on the ups and downs of the oil industry to pay its bills. Again, not a happy place for an environmentalist to be. One need only look at resource states like Canada and Australia to see what can go wrong. Even green and golden Norway is one of Europe's leading polluters.ii

But what of the other stuff? Well we have seen that most local environmental issues are already devolved. Many others would be better handled at the municipal and county level (recycling, community energy, local nature reserves) but this is the case regardless of independence. Cities across the UK are seizing local powers and directly elected Mayors, driving change. Currently those in Scotland do not have this opportunity, tying them to Edinburgh. This could change regardless of Scotland's larger status.

It is important too to dispel the idea that Scotland is a lonely voice in a UK that couldn't care less. This is unfair. Many regions of England are doing pretty well on this front. From cycling to recycling and community energy the South West is a pioneer in many respects, while other areas like the North East and the Humber are world leaders in offshore wind. Lincolnshire will soon be able to supply the entire electrical demands of its one million people from offshore wind. 

This leads to my final little point. What is good for the environment is not just about what is good for the environment in Scotland. There is little doubt in my mind that Scotland acts as a counterbalance to the anti-green crowd in the Home Counties. Without it there is a serious risk that the rUK will lurch further down the wrong path than it already has. I don't see how that will help anyone. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Greens need not feel they must defend solar everywhere

Solar power is fantastic. It works. It provides clean, and increasingly cheap, electricity. In many markets it is approaching grid parity (the point at which it costs less to produce solar from panels than it does to buy electricity), while in others like Italy, California and India it has already reached it. In the future, advances in new materials and manufacturing processes mean that costs are likely to fall even further. The point at which it will no longer require support, even in gloomy countries like Britain, is not so far away. It may in fact turn out to be the key technology of the 21st century.

Despite all this though, it is not without consequence. As I have said before on the blog, renewable energy may be great, but it still has downsides. With solar one of those is land-use. This is not as much of a problem in large nations like China or the USA, where using even a small proportion of the desert lands available could power half the country. Nor is it totally fair to single solar out. On a lifecycle basis it may even use up less land than some forms of fossil power (the 4000 km2 area trashed by coal mining in the Damodar Valley of Central India for example, could probably provide about 50% of the country's electricity if covered by solar).1 Out-of-town malls or concrete works are ugly too, and they don't even produce electricity. Nonetheless, in built-up and crowded countries like Britain, the demand for land is a thorny issue, and not one to be swept under the rug.

Already protests are building against the large ground-mounted solar farms being touted for Cambridgeshire and the South of England. This is okay. We should protest some of these developments. The motives behind them are often the same as for any other development - to make money. One of the great things about solar is that it can be put almost anywhere. There are plenty of rooftops to keep us occupied with solar development for many, many years to come. Once we run out of rooftops we can look at the roadways and train lines to see what we can do there. There is no real need to use farmland, or recovering habitats or wildland for solar in this country.  Indeed, this has been recognized by many in the industry, and guidelines have been published urging developers to restrict their activities to brownfield sites, rooftops and hidden places. They understand that it will not serve them for solar to start attracting the kind of negative publicity which has dogged onshore wind. Of course, whatever guidance is offered, it may often be cheaper and easier for people trying to make some quick cash, or hot targets, to just rent some big flat fields and cover them in solar. This is an industrial use of land, just like any other, and should be controlled as such.

The point is, that while solar is a fantastic technology which should be welcomed, it need not be welcomed everywhere, and environmentalists should not be afraid of saying that there are other greener alternatives; like the roof of that huge grey warehouse, just down the road.

1. 4000 km2 of the Thar Desert (roughly 2% of its area) could theoretically generate around 400 TWh if covered in solar. India's electricity consumption in 2012 was estimated to be around 700 TWh.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Wildflowers for London

Okay, this is just a post to express an idea. More and more I have been trying to think of little things I can do to make London a little greener, a little more wildlife-friendly and a little brighter. Most of the possibilities which have come to mind unfortunately involve hedge-fund like quantities of money, but one little plan seems to have stuck with me.

All around where I live are semi-abandoned verges of dry, sad grass. Little patches of green and brown. Many are probably only temporary and will be subsumed in the next few years by the Kings Cross redevelopment. I assume there are similar little patches all over town. My thought was to sow these areas with wildflowers, and then get the council to agree a sympathetic cutting schedule. The aim is not to garden those tucked away areas which have run riot (like the banks of the canals etc)... those are to be celebrated and left alone. The plan is for those areas which will never be anything more than short scrubby grass and a few hardy species which can survive alongside.

Basically the plan would need:

  • botanical advice
  • some big bags of native wildflower seed
  • goodwill from the council
  • a few volunteers. 
If it worked, then lots of temporary (or permanent) little wildflower meadows might spring up all over London - good for bees, birds and people, and certainly more interesting that grass.

Interested in people's thoughts.... 

Monday, 29 July 2013

The acceptance of wildness

This post originally appeared on Badgergate. 

Flanked by shadowy pine trees and dripping stone cottages, the old Imperial post road runs through the Kiso Valley between the towns of Tsumago and Magome. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was the quickest way through the mountains, linking the principle cities of Kyoto and Edo. Now, it plays host to hikers and dog walkers, while in the villages, small- scale fish farming and forestry mark the landscape. All along the route, small bells are mounted beside the path, along with signs urging passers to ring them loudly to keep the bears away. And bears there are, perhaps more than 10,000 of them across the country, black and brown. Sightings are common. In 2011, a man was attacked and seriously injured by an Asiatic black bear not far from the post road.

Yet this is not some vast wilderness country, or impoverished backwater – this is Japan, perhaps the country in the world most synonymous with modernity and urban living. So how does a country with a human population density a third higher than the UK’s manage to retain and co-exist with such large and sometimes dangerous species? The answer surely, is that on some level society has chosen to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Japan is not some eco-Utopia. In many ways its land is even more scarred and tamed than Britain’s, and certainly not everyone is happy with the presence of bears. Their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and killing, both legal and illegal, but the point still stands. Without some level of acceptance of wildlife, 21st Century Japan would have no bears at all. It is public attitude, which determines perhaps more than anything the species that share our countryside.
Back in Britain, a similar battle is being fought out in front of our eyes, just a couple of notches further down the food chain. The conflict around the proposed badger cull, which is not supported by science and unlikely to significantly reduce TB in cattle, is part of this struggle.
And at the same time as the badger is under threat for the perceived damage it does to the cattle industry, the government is also setting its sights on another animal – the wild boar that have re-established themselves in the Forest of Dean.
Wild boar (Sus scrofa) are native to Britain and were common in England before they were hunted to extinction around the 14th century. Now, after a break (and several failed reintroductions, notably by James I and VI) they are back, recolonising their old habitat. Where they came from remains a bit of mystery, but they have likely escaped from farms or been dumped by individuals who could not maintain them. Either way, over the last 20 years, healthy and self- sustaining populations have established themselves in various parts of the country, from Devon and Somerset to Sussex and perhaps the Scottish Borders. While purists may argue over the exact genetic make-up of these animals, the bottom line is that they look like wild boar, act like wild boar and are the same species as wild boar. They are most likely descended from French, Swedish and German stock and so of a European variety, and anyway, given a few generations many isolated species may well evolve into a local ‘type’.
So should we not welcome the return of the boar, one of our few large, charismatic native species? Their presence enriches the forest ecosystem in other ways too, by repressing bracken growth, churning soil and encouraging plant germination and diversity. They may also act as a draw for tourists and local nature enthusiasts. But most importantly, their continued presence in our countryside would be a wonderful example of our ability to once again co-exist with a large species that belongs here but which we had forgotten.
Of course, not every one is happy with the return of the boar. Some complain of damage to their lawns, others fear they may spread disease. Local newspaper headlines frequently launch blistering attacks on the animals, blaming them for scaring children or frightening horse riders. Some conservationists voice fears that the boars’ rooting behaviour will destroy the beautiful bluebell carpets found in Britain’s forests or even affect ground nesting birds, although to date there is little evidence of this. While it is hard to quantify the damage caused by boar rooting, many stories about safety on the other hand seem overblown. Attacks in mainland Europe (where the boar are counted in millions) do happen but are rare. As far as I am aware there have been no recorded incidents in the UK. By comparison every year in England alone there are 210,000 recorded attacks on humans by dogs.[1] Since 2007, at least 9 people, including 6 children have been killed in the UK by domestic dogs. The toll on livestock and wildlife is greater still, with untold thousands killed by dogs throughout the country. Set against this, the danger posed by wild boar seems quite low.
The government’s response, however, has been predictable and confused. For years they refused to even acknowledge the existence of the boar. Then they labelled them  ‘feral’. More recently, they have announced the largest ever cull of these wonderful animals in the Forest of Dean, the boars’ main stronghold, which may start as soon as September.
I believe it is partly about having control. The idea of a species establishing and spreading itself across the countryside on its own is an uncomfortable concept for some. It is also partly about acceptance. We accept what we know, and we tend to dislike change. The people of Japan continue to tolerate the bears because they accept their place in the landscape. The boar, like the beaver (another recent native returnee to the UK), is yet to be fully accepted. The potential public ‘risk’ that they pose has not yet been factored in rationally. (How many of those who fear for their children’s safety are equally vigorous in calling for cars to be removed from the roads, for example?)  Perhaps in light of this we should be glad that DEFRA is only culling by stealth, and has not simply announced an extermination. But is that really progress?The irony is that under the European Habitats and Species Directive the government is obliged to consider the return of native species driven to extinction in the United Kingdom. The return of the wild boar is exactly what the Directive requires European countries to do. Furthermore, in this case, a formerly extinct species has re-established itself successfully at minimal cost to the government and taxpayers. Wild boar are common across Europe, and regularly in close contact with people with few problems. So why all the fuss about boar in Britain?
So how does all this relate to the badger? The battle to save the badger from irrational scapegoating is ultimately about much more than this one species. It is about our attitudes to wildlife and our willingness to accept ‘wildness’ and things those areas of wildlife that drift, however marginally, from our control. It is about our willingness to make space for nature and to recognize that the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs. If we the public show that we will not accept the pointless persecution of one species, then that, surely, can only benefit others.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Random thoughts...

Environmentalism is a painful mixture of hope, guilt and beauty, but the over-riding driver must be hope, for without that it must quickly turn to self-loathing and despair.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Review of 'Feral: Seeking enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding' by George Monbiot.

When I first heard that George Monbiot was releasing a book on rewilding, my heart sank. Not because he could not do the subject justice, but because he had just scooped my own modest plans to write a book on these very issues. To begin with I tried to reassure myself. Perhaps it wouldn't be very good, perhaps he would look more globally, or take a very different angle. The answer, sadly for me, is that he has written the book I was trying to write, and happily for the movement, I think he has done a good job.

So while I worry about how to recast the rest of my project, and lament how after 10 years of thinking and dreaming about rewilding I have been usurped, I have decided to say a few words about the book.

First and foremost, Feral is a good read. Filled with personal stories and engagingly broad, it communicates the ethos of rewilding while providing enough detail to back up the argument. For those who have taken an interest in this area there is little particularly new, but it is very well presented. The strongest sections are when he focuses on his homeland in Wales, at the damage wrought by sheep grazing, and the madness of local conservationists' obsession with maintaining the artificial, impoverished and rigidly controlled environments they have inherited. As someone who has raged almost all my life against the assumption that farming is essential to 'maintaining the land', or that the purpose of wildlife conservation is to create little gardens surrounded by car parks and visitor centres, his palpable anger at the absurdity is a joy to share. 'A conservation movement which believes that the environment is threatened by a lack of cutting and burning is one that has badly lost his way'. Amen.

The intense hypocrisy of some of our management practices too is laid bare in simple terms, as we are asked to consider why in Britain intensively managed farmland is worthy basis for a National Park, preventing the return of our own Atlantic rainforests, while at the same time we rail against destruction of the Amazon. Nor is the human element ignored. Monbiot's sympathy for the small-scale farmers is obvious, as is his dislike of the large agri-businesses which rule much of our land.

Where the book is less successful in my opinion is when the story turns to tales of the Masai people of Kenya, or the author's early adventures in South America. Though Mr. Monbiot is well aware of the contradictions and realities of these people's lives, I do feel the narrative veered slightly into 'nobel savage' territory from time to time, and reminded me of my own gap-year musings on the lot of the Bedouin in Egypt and the freedom of the apparently simple life. Nonetheless these lapses are rare and should not undermine the overall point – our environment and our society is in crisis and rewilding can help.

In some instances solutions are offered – such as reforming the farm payment system to remove the requirement to keep the land in good agricultural condition (effectively preventing most landowners from allowing native wildlife to recolonise the land), and encouraging the development of large scale marine nature reserves – but these are of less importance, in my opinion, to the message of hope in this book. For that is the essential point. Things can get better. For too long environmentalism has been about fighting-off change, about protecting ever shrinking pockets of beauty and wonder. Rewilding is the antidote to that. It tells us that the future is not fixed, is not resigned to the relentless march of industry and sterility, but is a thing of our own making.

Already some of the species are coming back. The boar and the beaver have found their own way, as have the pine marten, polecat and otter, the last three expanding their range in recent years. Others have already been intentionally reintroduced, such as the sea-eagle and the red kite. More are being planned. The Lynx UK Trust is currently looking for sights in which to release lynx in Scotland, while English Nature is considering locations for the beaver in England. Trees too are coming back in some places, as are saltmarshes and fens. The scale may be modest, but the signs of a shift in attitude are growing stronger.

For a book that occasionally sees Monbiot channelling the spirit of Bruce Chatwin, I thought it might be appropriate to come to an end with a little quote from his story 'A Coup', which, to me, beautifully sums up the yearning for the wild inherent in each of us.

'no matter what the Persians said, Paradise never was a garden, but a waste of white thorns.'

Rewilding is about trying to recapture a fragment of that paradise, and Feral, by George Monbiot, is a good place to start.   

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Risk and wild boar (updated)

Last week I was down in the Forest of Dean, conducting research for a project on rewilding. As part of this I am visiting communities and projects at the frontline of the issue – speaking to those trying to bring wildness back to our landscapes, and also those living near the consequences. Some of these rewildings are intentional, but others, like the wild boar which now roam free in the South West, are accidental.

As I spoke to people in Forest, the gulf in opinions was obvious. To some people there is a spiritual duty to return these animals, for others they represent nature gone wild, and unwelcome intrusion on their peaceful lives. One thing which was highlighted on several occasions though is the potential risk they pose. Both supporters and opponents of the boar where united in their belief that a major accident could galvanise opinion against the boar. To me this is a classic example of our inability to judge risk, and to prioritise new things as riskier than those we know.

According to stats on the BBC, from 1997-2008 there were 427 fatal car crashes in the County of Gloucestershire (where the Forest of Dean is located). None of these appeared to involve wild boar. And yet one of the biggest objections made by opponents of the boar was their potential to cause traffic accidents. So assuming there is an accident involving boar in the coming years, is an eradication or mass cull justified? Does the risk they pose outweigh those caused by speeding, drunk driving, deer, dogs, poor weather etc? I would argue almost certainly not.

But what of the other risks posed? Wild boar, particularly the big males or nursing mothers can be intimidating animals. They are strong and fast, so fast in fact that stories of people being chased by boar are almost certainly reports of mock charges or exaggerations – the chances of outrunning a genuine attack are minimal. Nonetheless they would be capable of doing serious damage. The question is how serious is the risk, and how does this compare to others?

So far there has not been a recorded attack on a person in the UK. Sadly a couple of dogs do appear to hurt, and one killed, but this is still rare. In mainland Europe, where wild boar are counted in millions and are common, incidents have occurred, but are infrequent. So, given time it seems likely that at least one person will be attacked by a wild boar and injured, perhaps seriously. How should we deal with this? Well the first thing is to put it in perspective. Every year in England alone there are 210,000 recorded attacks on humans by dogs.i Since 2007, at least 9 people, including 6 children have been killed in the UK by domestic dogs. The toll on livestock and wildlife is greater still, with untold thousands killed throughout the country. Set against this the danger posed by wild boar seems minimal.

But hang on. There are millions of dogs and only a few wild boar, a straightforward comparison is not necessarily fair. Assuming an even per-capita split, there should be around 6.7 million dogs in England (8.3 million in Britain). With 210,000 thousand incidents annually this means that there are around 0.03 attacks per dog, per year. If boar were as dangerous as dogs you would expect there to be around 30 attacks per year, assuming there are about 1000 in the country. Given that there have been none in the last ten years, and looking at their record on the continent, it seems safe to say boar are probably less dangerous to humans than dogs. 

The point of this is not to say that boar are not potentially dangerous, or that my heart does not beat a little quicker when animals like this are around, but simply that risk is part of every day life, and that boar are a small one. Just as we take a calculated risk every time we get into a car, learning to manage that risk in a sensible manner is essential to developing a healthier attitude to wildlife and our environment. Indeed, it is the very absence of this sense of awe at the power of nature which many of us feel so keenly, and work so hard to try and bring back.

More on these issues to come....

Thursday, 23 May 2013

'Cull of the Wild' continues

New information obtained by the RSPB through the Freedom of Information Act has shown that the government secretly licensed the destruction of buzzard eggs on pheasant shooting estates, after explicitly stating they had to intentions to cull buzzard. This part of the world has a long and inglorious history of persecuting birds of prey and the resumption of such activities - with official blessing - is deeply worrying, as is the tacit assumption that the only real legitimate purpose of the countryside is some form agriculture, even one as pointless and unnecessary as pheasant ranching.

This is not about shooting per se. Hunting for food might be able to play a role in controlling certain populations, and can support conservation by raising income etc., but it should be a secondary activity alongside a healthy and self sustaining ecosystem. Intensively managing land and maintaining deeply unnatural ecosystems (often with public financial support) for shooting purposes is something quite different, and must be challenged at every turn. In some ways the pheasant shoot is really not so different to a canned hunt in Africa (where lions are introduced to a private ranch and hunted).

Of course buzzards are just the tip of the iceberg. Badgers are also under threat, as are wild boar in the south-west. Wild boar, a native species which has successfully re-established itself in the South West, Sussex and the Scottish Border is in danger of being hunted to extinction once again, in part through government inaction and unwillingness to recognize them as a legitimate part of our national fauna.

We need to reappraise our attitude to wildlife and to risk, and also challenge the assumption that the primary purpose of the countryside is to sustain farming. That is one of its uses but only one. To say oterwise is like saying the only purpose of the city is to hold offices.

Anyway, I will be down in the South West tomorrow, meeting with wild boar supporters and detractors, so much more to come on this soon. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Is solar still relevant, and more importantly, is my book? Errr... yes, I think so.

This blog was first published on the Routledge website.

It's a strange thing to write a book and feel yourself suddenly overtaken by events, but that's the situation I found myself in shortly after completing Desert Energy. As my book, exploring the potential and application of large scale solar power generation in the deserts was going through production, the Arab Spring erupted into full force. At the same time the ongoing financial crisis has pushed climate change down the political agenda, while in the US the emerging shale gas revolution is dramatically altering the economics of energy production. The solar industry too is undergoing a massive shake-out. Falling costs and mass production in China has led to global over-capacity, with many well known names going bust or struggling. A looming trade war over Chinese government subsidies to solar producers is on the horizon, making manufacturers and installers jittery.
So with all this in mind, is the book still relevant? I think so, yes. Part of the reason is that the book will hopefully equip the reader to understand the background and context to new developments. As I was writing it, I was aware that rapid change was possible... indeed, I stated that I expected many of the companies and projects mentioned would change hands or go out of business in the coming years, and that political instability could stymie plans for solar in North Africa. Yet despite these changes, the underlying rationale for solar power, including large arrays in desert or sunbelt lands, has not changed. Climate change is not going away, and after a couple of years in the wilderness it may be edging its way back up the agenda again. The recent announcement that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have passed 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years shows we cannot hide from this problem indefinitely. Prices for solar continue to fall rapidly, and new, more efficient technologies are being constantly developed. While this may put pressure on existing solar businesses, in the long run the direction is clear – solar power is becoming more affordable, and it has never been needed more.
Of course, technology and potential can only take you so far. Political will is required too. The entrenched nature of the existing energy infrastructure is a big problem which still needs to be overcome. So too is the diffuse nature of solar power. Concentrated energy sources like fossil fuels, almost by definition, are worth a lot of money to a relatively small number of people. Non-extractive energy sources have a very different set of winners and losers. This provides a tremendous incentive to maintain the status quo. Yet in the long run the elegance of solar power and the benefits it could bring argue strongly in its favour. Despite all the changes Desert Energy remains a useful and readable introduction to what could be one of the most important and exciting technological revolutions of the 21st century.  

The MushyPea is back

Hi all, after a long absence where I have been travelling, I am now back in the UK, writing and researching on a number of new projects. Particularly I will be pursuing and researching my passion for wildlife and the whole 're-wilding' movement, which I have mentioned a few times in the last few years. Essentially this is a process or movement built around the idea that we can make things wilder, less managed, bringing back species and providing space for wildlife. Unfortunately for me (but no doubt fortunately for the movement) Mr. George Monbiot has just written a book on the issue which he is released soon, and I am interested to see what angle he has taken and what examples he has given.

Anyway, I'll put up a blog about my solar book soon, but will then be blogging about my wildlife adventures i the UK, rewilding, books and all the rest.

See you soon! 

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Nice LED-light fountain.

Nothing to do with anything really, but I liked this lovely LED-light fountain at Granary Square near my home in Camden, London.  Proper posts soon, I promise.