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!