Tuesday, 2 December 2014

In the face of the infrastructure bill, Paddington wouldn't have a chance.

A lot of people are asking how Paddington Bear would be accepted by the UK's immigration system. I see what they are getting at, but there is one big problem. Paddington is a bear. As such he doesn't get to immigrate, and is governed by a whole different set of bureaucracy.

First of all, Paddington appears to be a spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) from Peru, or at least some sort of being which shares a common ancestor with that animal. He may be able to walk and wear raincoats, but a bear is still a bear in wildlife law. Furthermore he a member of an endangered species listed on CITES Appendix I. That makes it illegal to transport or possess him without a license. I suspect that the Brown family have no such permission.

Okay, purists may quibble that CITES didn't exist in 1958 when the original books came out, but as far as the remake goes, they're in trouble, as are the airlines and boats which took him to Britain.

Of course CITES is often not enforced (that's why there is still a huge illegal wildlife trade) and does not apply to species which spread themselves naturally. So might he sneak in? The trouble is at some point he will be seen, and come to the attention of the authorities. The question then will be - is Paddington's arrival in Britain merely the result of changes in the species natural range?

Currently natural range is poorly defined, but the new infrastructure bill going through Parliament would see it fall somewhere into two categories - the historic range of a species, and a species which arrives by itself naturally, with no human help.

The wild boar which live in the UK are in their former natural range (they were once found right across Britain until a few hundred years ago), but because the government judges them to be here by unnatural means (they likely escaped from breeding centres), they are not considered to be native. The chances of a bear from South America which arrived by boat and train, carrying a suitcase and being fed sandwiches being judged to be within its natural range are slim at best.

Sadly, it seems likely that as a non-native and potentially invasive species, Paddington would be more likely to have a 'species control order' placed on him. At best he would be trapped and placed in the zoo, at worst hired marksmen would be able to force their way into the Brown property and shoot him.

The truth is that our government takes such a narrow view of wildlife that even native species which have lived in this country for decades, which bring many benefits and which form an essential and historical part of our natural fauna, have a hard time being left alone. A bear from Peru wouldn't have a chance.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Camden, Islington - sort it out!!!

Parochial blog today. York Way is looking its usual disgusting self. No big surprise this, and at least there were no big piles of dumped rubbish today, but still, the fact that this is just normal background to my daily walk is not good. Please - Camden, Islington - sort it out. Camden take the West side, Islington the East. London is getting dirtier and dirtier all the time, to the point that people no longer expect large parts of it to be clean, and stop caring.

If you need money, fine some people chucking litter. You have the powers. You could make thousands in a day just wandering around the borough. Or fine the Nightclub up the road. And provide some bins.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Boar Wars - how the infrastructure bill is specifically targeting wild boar.

Moving away from beavers for a while to one of my other favourite animals - the wild boar. As you know there are wild populations living and breeding in several parts of Britain, escapees who have become established and are doing well. Like the beaver they are a native animal doing what they do best - boosting biodiversity and bringing a little life back to the forest.

So far the government has left the management of these animals up to local authorities and landowners, and while there are lots of problems in how we are dealing with our new neighbours (no proper population estimates or official recognition for starters), there is not at present a policy of eradication, and this is to DEFRA's credit. So it is with great concern that I have been watching the amendments to the Infrastructure Bill that is making its way through the commons.

This Bill contains provisions, weirdly, for removing endangered species. Back in July George Monbiot flagged up the general negative impact these could have on reintroductions, in that they could lead to any animal not currently listed as living in Britain being classed as non-native. I am still hopeful that this general issue can be over come, but I am also dismayed at the obvious targeting of wild boar.

The point is that the infrastructure bill allows for Species Control Orders on invasive species, and potentially those which are not ordinarily resident. These orders make it legal for the government to force its way  onto someones land to kill a species

In recent amendments tabled to the Bill by the government (stay with me) they proposed creating a class of animals called 'not normally present'. This included some criteria, and a list. There was just one animal on the list - the wild boar. Despite the fact that they are native, and that they have been living and breeding in Britain for over 20 years, they want to make sure that they are not officially 'here'. It is biological bureaucracy of the oddest kind. There can only be one reason for this - they want the option of going after them.

Of course there is no guarantee this will be the final language, and I suppose its inclusion could just be a precaution. Perhaps the government has no intention of trying to wipe out boar populations, but in playing its hand so obviously, we get a useful insight into DEFRAs thinking.


The amendment says:


Common name

Scientific name

Boar, Wild

Sus Scrofa.””

Friday, 24 October 2014

No thank you, I'm a vegetarian.

Of all the myths about beavers, the one that causes the most harm is the idea that they eat fish. They don't.

Thanks to @yasmeenmay for the picture!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Secret documents blow DEFRA's case for capturing Devon beavers out of the water

Hi everyone - I recently put in a whole bunch of Freedom of Information requests on the Devon beavers. After a lot of back and forth I have my answers. And its a treasure trove. We have the government admitting that the animals are native, and may not be a significant threat to public health.

Then there is the bit where they explain that there is no excuse for capturing the kits born in the wild, as they could not possibly be carrying disease. And the part where they say they will need a good excuse to explain why the situation in England is so different to that in Scotland where wild beaver exist.

Finally there is a document where DEFRA explains that they are worried that any fuss over the beavers could get in the way of legislation to allow them to force their way onto people's land to control 'invasive' species.

I'll be going through these for some time - but if you want to look yourselves, they are here.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Scottish independence will create division amongst people who have not known it for centuries

The Scottish independence referendum is in less than two weeks, and the polls are too close to call. Amidst all the back and forth, the miserable campaigning and the lies, I have noticed something which really worries me. 
Ok - there are many on the Yes side who will always vote that way, because they believe with all their being that Scotland should be independent, regardless. I can understand that, and nothing I say will affect it. But what concerns me is that there is a group of intelligent people who I do not feel have fully grasped that this is not just another election. I don't mean this in a patronising way, but simply that their own view of things insulates them from the potential repercussions.
I work with many people who would describe themselves as of the 'left'. Opinions are divided, but amongst those who support independence the language they use is more often that of  'day to day' politics, of sticking it to the Tories, of avoiding spending cuts, of 'shaking things up', and so on. It is a view partly espoused in an article by George Monbiot in which he looks at the current politics of the coalition and extrapolates that no one would ever want to be part of the UK.
I understand what people like this are saying, but I cannot agree. Perhaps if you believe that Scotland and rUK are already fundamentally different countries and peoples united only by political expediency then this may make sense. On the other hand if you feel that however it may have begun the UK has grown into something much more than the sum of its parts, then this referendum is far larger than the provision of public services or the fringes of economics. It is about creating division in a place that has not known it for a long time, a unity which has produced, for all of its flaws, one of the most successful economies and countries on earth, of which Scotland has been, and continues to be a huge beneficiary - economically, culturally, politically.
Indeed, for me, this referendum is not about banking arrangements or how we run public services for a parliament or two. It is not about what happens in the next couple of years, and if border guards appear straight away. If we vote yes we are not creating a new governing arrangement, but two entirely new and separate entities, two new nationalities in fact. (I say new because the last time Britain found itself divided in this way, the concept of the nation-state was scarcely formed). In place of the unity we currently take for granted we may see the creation of oil-fuelled competition between neighbours, and the retreat on all sides to nationalist myth. 
In fact I would suggest this is already happening - with the conceptual creation of a noble economic Scotland - despite its biggest industries being finance and oil. With the myth that Scotland never votes conservative, despite the fact that it did for much of the last century, and recently elected a UKIP MEP. Or the idea that Westminster is eternally backward, when it has just legalised gay marriage, or that London is a rapacious rent-seeking villain, despite being everything the nationalists say they want to be - open, international, confident and fantastically creative. Most of all though we may see the hardening of the eternal division of Scots/English and the ‘other’.

Once separated each country will need to pander to the needs of its population, and slowly but surely we may drift apart. Not in a year, but sooner than people think. A few arguments, a bitter negotiation, and it could all go wrong.
For people like me, born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in England, Ireland and Scotland this last point has a particular resonance. In the last twelve months I have been asked ‘what I am’ in relation to Scotland more often than in the previous five years. Suddenly my nationality is in question again. 
In any case – the vote is soon, and the result looks too close to call. I could go on about economic arguments and reasons to vote this or that, but I won't. All I will say is that this is not just about the Tories, or the NHS, or the EU, but about the next twenty, fifty, one hundred years. It is about dividing a people who have been united so long they have forgotten what it means to be  able to belong anywhere on this little island, and have taken it for granted.
A final rambling thought - when the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall, they did it not to keep two separate tribes apart, but to divide a single people in two. It is astonishing the things which can last through the ages.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Why are big NGOs so rubbish on rewilding?

Why are big NGOs in Britain so rubbish on rewilding? On some of the thorniest issues of the day – the reintroduction of native species, management of land and National Parks, less intrusive conservation measures, culls of wild animals – the major campaign groups appear to be almost silent.
It’s not that the NGOs do nothing. There has been a strong campaign to protect bees. The RSPCA famously intervened on the badger cull, RSPB is good on its birds and target species (and seems to give tacit approval for boar on its land), while the Wildlife Trusts are active on a host of local issues, including the beaver and badger culls. For their part the big international campaign groups are happier to raise money for tigers than pine martens, and seem incapable of taking the government here to task, but at least they keep the flag flying. No, what I really mean is that there is a real lack of a grander vision. Huge sections of the public are so obviously ready for rewilding, why have none of the big NGOs embraced it?   
Part of the reason I think is a history of protecting small areas, or single-species campaigning – groups like to raise money for iconic animals and then spend this on general work. This makes sense. Sadly the UK has few iconic species left, and the NGOs do not yet seem to have adapted their thinking to the idea that we can create the conditions to bring them back and make things better – at least not in Britain. Plans to bring tigers back to Cambodia will receive widespread interest, but the wildcat in England is still perceived as too controversial.  
Inertia plays a role too. Big NGOs have existing projects and take time to plan new ones and turn around old ones. Again, this is natural. They cannot go chasing every topic that comes along, as that is best left to more nimble informal groups. But rewilding is not that new anymore, and the time when this was a valid excuse is fast running out.  
A third reason is the desire to be scientific. This is on the whole good. Decisions in environmentalism and conservation should be based, as far as possible, on solid foundations. But sometimes this is taken too far. In the desire to appear cold, and to shake off the image of 'bunny-huggers', conservationists sometimes forget that we cannot explain everything we do in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. At the end of the day this is about the kind of world we want to live in, not just a cost-benefit-analysis of species.
But even aside from these barriers, I think there is something else at work. A loss of confidence perhaps. I once asked the Policy Director of a major UK Trust if they ever used the word ‘wild’ in their communications. They paused and said ‘no’, because to them wild conjured up an image of somewhere nobody went.
I was horrified. To me, this was, and always would be the reason I was interested in wildlife and the environment – the wild aspect. It is not that I do not see the crucial value of bringing wildlife into everyday life – I do – but I also see a place for the big, the aspirational and the free.
I have found this sort of 'defeatist' attitude to nature on display in other places too. Some groups frequently build elaborate and hugely expensive visitor centres, complete with hides and paths and facilities. Only by generating footfall, by creating tourist attractions, can they justify their actions. There seem to be any number of the ‘wildlife in your back garden’ type campaigns. We appear to be trapped in the mind-set that real wildlife is what happens in the rest of the world, and the best we can do here is install a few bat boxes or build wood piles for insects.
None of this is to say that these small measures are not important. They are. We live in a hugely crowded and increasingly urbanised country. We need, as a priority, to bring wildlife into everyday life, redesigning our cities to make them more bio-friendly and reconnect ourselves with nature. That must happen. But at the same time we need to build a vision of something much larger and more hopeful. Just as we cannot tackle climate change by swapping our light bulbs or buying slightly more fuel efficient cars, neither can we bring about the relationship with nature we need to see with a few visitors centres and school ponds.
If we want to get people on board with a wilder vision of the future we need to offer them something which makes their hearts beat a little faster, and not just more of the same. We must not be afraid to say that this is about something more than 'saving the planet', or the loss of gene banks. The world will always go on. It will just be darker and bleaker and lonelier. Rewilding is, as much as anything, about saving the soul of our society, and of ourselves.  

Friday, 4 July 2014

Freedom of information requests on beavers

About a month ago, when I first heard rumblings about the beaver cull in Devon, I put in FOIs to the government, asking for any communications between the Department, the National Farmers Union and the Angling Trust. Well - things have been somewhat overtaken by events but, today I got the results. Two letters, one from the Angling Trust to the Minister urging him to get rid of the beavers, and raising the spectre of disease, and another from the Minister to the Angling Trust saying that the best action would be to catch the beavers (Gov have kindly posted them - here).

This tells us a few things. One, there are no letters from the NFU. This does not mean the NFU support the beavers, and I would be astonished if they did, but it does confirm that the main enemy, bizarrely, is the Angling Trust.

Two, the Minister has confirmed the total absurdity of their position. Scotland has already introduced beavers - officially at Knapdale, and unofficially in the Tay River. The first of these is a trial which is due to end in 2015. It is inconceivable that the Scottish government will then try and get rid of the beavers. This means, that in 2015, the beavers will be officially established in Great Britain, and therefore be entitled to legal protection under the Habitats and Species Directive. They are trying to get rid of the animals now, because next year they will officially be a native species. This is a degree of biological bureaucracy that's hard to fathom.

Thirdly, and crucially, much of the argument is being hung on the potential for these beavers to have diseases. Given that the animals escaped from captive bred populations which had already been quarantined this is not credible, and can be easily checked and dismissed.

The bottom line of course is that none of these arguments has anything to do with the real issue, which is that the government does not like things it does not control, and is pandering to a special interest group that does not seem to understand science and essentially does not like change. We should ignore the Angling Trust. Their views over how to manage the countryside are selfish and short sighted. They do not own the rivers and they do not speak for wildlife. Their comments should carry no more weight than yours or mine.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Save the Devon beavers

UPDATED. SIGN THE PETITION FROM SAVE THE FREE BEAVERS HERE https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-the-free-beavers-of-england

Terrible news. It seems as though DEFRA's 'eye of Mordor' has finally turned on the wild beavers living in Devon. In a recent question to Parliament a junior Minister said it was their intention to capture and re-home the beavers. That can mean only one thing. Captivity, or possibly death. When the Scottish government tried something similar with wild beavers there, the first captured animals died in the zoo.

Beavers were once found right across Britain until they were hunted to extinction for fur. Now, thankfully, they are making a return - helping to increase biodiversity, prevent flooding and bring joy back to a denuded landscape. Some have been introduced 'officially', others have escaped from wildlife parks.The origins of the Devon beavers are unclear, but we do know that they are European beavers, they are a native species, and for the last few years they have been quietly raising their families and chewing leaves and bark in the streams of England. They should be left alone to get on with it. The local people see that, why not the government? 

Sadly, the fact that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has turned its attention on the beavers is unsurprising. They have form. From the unscientific and pointless badger cull and the aborted privatisation of forests, to its desperate attempts to preserve the use of toxic bee killing pesticides, rarely has their been a department more in thrall to special interest groups and industrial lobbies. It is an organisation totally unfit to manage wildlife.

We need to stop the removal of these animals. Whether we believe that we need to create a wilder, greener and more biodiverse world, or whether we just like beavers, this is an important fight. DEFRA is bruised and battle hardened. They have no reputation to lose. But they have backed down on the badgercull, and they will do it again. We can win. 

UPDATE! - The first of the obligatory PETITIONS is now up - PLEASE SIGN.


Watch this space - and let's save the Free Beavers of Devon.  

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

We haven't talked for a while....

Dear Canada and Australia. What happened? You used to be so cool. I used to look at you and think -- those guys are awesome, how can I be more like them? Lately though I feel we've been growing apart... I think it started when you found all that money buried in the back garden... and started hanging out with dodgy people. Ok ok.. we've all done it from time to time.. but I thought we were older and wiser now. Anyway... just saying hi.. let me know if you still want to hang some time..


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

England is super crowded. We must accept that and move on.

I don't know if anyone has noticed but England is crowded. Really crowded. From the air it looks like one of those flowcharts you use to explain a complicated subject, all lines and blobs and colours. It has a population density of about 411 people per square kilometre, and rising. In fact if it were a country of its own, England would be the fourth most crowded in the world, behind only Bangladesh, South Korea and Taiwan (and a couple of city states, but I don't think it's fair to count them).

Ok, the UK as a whole is not quite so bad, but that is largely down to some of the emptier bits of Scotland and Wales, and they may be going their own ways. In any case, regardless of what happens in September - and I still hope Scotland will vote no to independence - England is already a separate territory in terms of planning and infrastructure and many other things beside. Put simply there are a lot of people, and we need to address that.

When I first really understood this it was important to me. We all know England is small, but because of its language and history it feels larger. The fact that North Americans and Australians speak English means that these vast countries form part of the greater cultural mind set. This has caused the adoption many of the urban practices of those countries, particularly expectations of houses, car ownership and a suburban model of development. However while England's population is large, it is still a very small place. To put it into perspective, the county of West Yorkshire has a higher population than 17 US states and territories, including places as vast as New Mexico and Alaska, each one many, many times larger.

None of this is to say that England is unimportant. Whether alone or part of the UK it is one of the world's largest and most creative economies. Culturally its reach is enormous. What is does mean is that it needs new ways of doing things. In fact, once you accept it as the fourth most crowded country on earth several things suddenly make a lot of sense.

First of all there is a great need for more devolution of power to local regions and cities. I am far from alone in saying this, but politics is too concentrated in Westminster. Having more elected Mayors, and possibly regional governance, would inject life into areas outside the capital. (It is telling that regions of the US with fewer people have many more layers of government). This must be done properly however. The half-baked devolution which has left us with Scotland vs. Westminster must not be repeated, and it should not be restricted to those areas which have historically thought themselves a little different (like Cornwall).

Secondly, there is a need for a rapid reappraisal of our urban spaces. Look at a list of Europe's most densely populated cities. There are no British towns in the top thirty. Not even London, which can feel so packed that you might expect a black hole to open up. The reason is that while the centre may be crowded, the 'burbs are empty. This clearly needs to change. As the population continues to expand, new models of urbanisation need to be found. Sprawl must be reduced, cities more tightly packed and cars curbed. This will have many benefits. Denser cities provide more economic opportunity, and easier access to the countryside (there is less sprawl to get through). At the same time they mean much less building on the green belt and more space for wildlife (anyone who reads this knows I am passionate about rewilding). But it must be done well. Apartments must be designed with people in mind. Public transport must be improved and extended to second and third tier cities. We need to bring nature and public space into our new denser, cleaner cities, or alienation will be the only result.

This will of course require a change of mindset. People in England are still too interested in the idea of a two story-box with a garden and a car. Suburban America is the dream. However, I do think this is already changing. Better-designed flats and high rises, the declining popularity of the car and environmental concerns are making communal living a little more acceptable, as is the example of Asia, where high-density towns are the norm.

Indeed, that may be the biggest change that must take place. Rather than looking West for our urban ideas, we must increasingly look East. Our natural peers are not in Los Angeles but in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. This is not about abandoning the past, or destroying the England of old, but of simply accepting where we are, and trying to build a better future.   

Friday, 25 April 2014

I miss the Great Auk

Reposted in celebration of World Penguin Day....

I think it was Jeremy Clarkson (funny and clever, but an ass) who wrote a piece a while back asking if anyone missed extinct species, and why should we care. Well, I do. I miss them badly. Not the ones which died out a million years ago, but the ones I just slightly missed, whose time on earth almost overlapped with mine but not quite. The Great Auk is a classic example.

Once found throughout the North Atlantic, including Britain, the Great Auk was the original penguin. The latin for the Great Auk was Pinguinus, and the very word Penguin may derive from the Welsh Pen-Gwyn, or white head. When sailors from Europe sailed to the south seas and encountered flightless birds, they named them after what they already knew. That the thing we now call penguins are seen as exotic, while the creature they were named after is extinct is as good an example of baseline shift as I can think.

Biologically, the Great Auk was basically a fat razorbill that had lost the power of flight, and their similarity to what we now know as penguins is a wonderful example of convergent evolution - a process by  which animals evolve similar forms to fill the same ecological niche in a different part of the world. Like hedgehogs and porcupines or tenrecs.  

Sadly the Great Auks were hunted to extinction, with the last two killed on Iceland in the 1800s. 
The thing is I love penguins, but think of them as something far away and exotic. It saddens me to think that we had our own unique version just a few lifetimes ago, but I missed it.  I saw one stuffed in the Natural History Museum, and it made me feel sad. 

So anyway. I do care if animals go extinct. I can and do give scientific explanations for this in my work all the time, but I don't think I need to. The death of any species diminishes all of us.

Updated in April 2014

Monday, 7 April 2014

The end of the badger cull could be a turning point

Last week the Environment Minister Owen Paterson – O-Patz to his friends – announced that he would not now be rolling out badger culls across England, after the two pilot culls mounted in Gloucester and Somerset failed on every single level. Of course he did not admit the last part, and still clings doggedly to the idea that killing badgers is essential to tackling TB (it’s not, according to all the scientific experts) but this was a u-turn nonetheless.

In fact it was more than that. It was a crucial moment in our battle to alter the relationship people in this country have with the natural world. All around us our wildlife is beset with difficulties. Habitats are being destroyed. Subsidized agriculture strips the soils. Birds of prey in Scotland are being shot. Wild boar in the South West are facing calls for heavy culling or eradication. The oceans are being dredged for fish.
Yet in the midst of all this, there has been a  small victory. Not just a victory for science or for common sense, but a victory for the ability of people to face down the government. 
If we had simply let the badgercull go ahead, if we had resigned ourselves and moved on, it would still be getting rolled out. It would have told the government, and governments to come, that they can do what they like. That they can continue to carve up control of the countryside between developers and farming interests. But we did not. People wrote letters and blogs and took to social media. They talked to their friends. They organised rallies, and followed the hunt, documenting evidence of its failure. The fact that marches were held for badgers all over England is astonishing. That people were willing to stay up through the night to patrol the cull zones is heroic.
Common political thinking says that issues like wildlife do not matter much to the public. We are all supposed to be too interested in the economy and our own material well-being to care. But the point is that people do care, very, very deeply. For many of us this became something of a line in the sand, and just for once, it has partially held.
This is not to say that everything is now okay. It is not. None other than Princess Anne has called for gassing and there is still a danger the culls will rear their ugly head again. At the same time all of the other problems I describe remain. But we have made progress. The NFU has been humiliated for its hubris. Politicians now know that this is a dangerous subject. Hundreds of people have been motivated, perhaps as never before. With any luck we will be able to use some of that energy and momentum to push the wildlife agenda, to save the boar, to protect the otters and the beavers and bring back the lynx. To get our marine conservation zones, and expand the forests.

Because at the end of the day, it matters.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Beavers and boar are back - its time to talk protection

Beavers are back in England. Just last week one washed up under a car in Kent. A few days later a family were filmed doing their thing in Devon. This is terrific news. They are beautiful native animals. They boost biodiversity, benefit fish and create exciting micro-habitats. The evidence that they can help reduce flooding by slowing the flow of rivers is extensive. They make me happy by their presence.

Aside from the handful of animals in England, there are large populations spreading throughout Scotland, and even occasional reports from south Wales. Most of these animals are 'unofficial'. They have escaped from private collections, or been released by persons unknown. Who knows, perhaps they even swam here? The point is that they are European beavers, and they are here. Yes, one day we may need to control their actions in specific locations, but the fact that they have reintroduced themselves will little fuss and expense should be cause for celebration.

Okay I am not suggesting this is the best way to introduce other animals (beavers are relatively benign compared to other species that might be considered) but I can't pretend I am not thrilled. The thing is now to protect them. Like the wild boar (another native species which has re-established itself throughout southern Britain) the beavers are likely to have detractors. There will be those who fear them, or the changes they bring. Many will be shot, or run over, or poisoned, or captured by collectors. None of this will be unique to the beaver however, or invalidate their presence. Sadly all wild animals in Britain suffer the same hurdles. The point is that the sooner we can get the beaver, and the boar, listed formally as native species breeding in these islands, the sooner we can get them protected and managed as a population, rather than by reactive local authorities. Without this there is a real danger that they could vanish once again and I for one am not happy to wait another 500 years for a chance to see them returned.

The first step to this must surely be to get these animals, and a few others, listed in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. When it was drawn up they didn't exist, and extinct native species are not included. It should be no practical trouble - it is just a case of adding them to the Annex.

So far the mainstream campaign groups have been very quiet on the subject. Like DEFRA they have been keeping their heads down and hoping it would go away. We need to change that. While there may be arguments over how best to support / manage / control our newly reappeared neighbours, we can surely get them to agree that they are here and that they should stay.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A few non-economic reasons why I will be voting no to Scottish independence.

There is going to be a referendum on Scottish independence in September, and there is a chance that the nationalists could win. They are still trailing in the polls, but a lot could happen. Part of the problem for the pro-UK camp, I think, is that people are embarrassed to talk about why they support Britain. Some are afraid of online attacks, but more than that I think we have become so used to avoiding issues of national politics and conviction that we are actually uncomfortable to speak up. Instead we mumble about economic risks and cost-benefit analyses. Well, as someone who will be voting 'no', I am going to lay out a few of my reasons, none of which has much to do with money. 

Firstly, I don't want Scotland to be an oil-state. If independent, oil would account for 10%-20% of its economy. That is not healthy. Resource economies have a terrible environmental and social track record. For every Norway (and even it has one of the highest environmental footprints on earth) there is a Nigeria. Even formerly progressive states like Canada and Australia are now being turned into backwards looking resource economies thanks to their oil and coal.  

Second, an independent Scotland risks being a small society. Out of the UK, Scotland will be a little country. That can have its advantages, but it can also sometimes lead to a very small society and parochial viewpoint. I grew up in Ireland, and while that is a wonderful country in many ways, it can have a narrowness of view and experience that I would not wish to see Scotland adopt.    

Third, I think all of us gain through the freedom of belonging we can enjoy as part of the UK. I don't want any of us to be made foreigners in any part of this little island. I claim as much ownership over Bristol as I do Edinburgh, Devon or Mull. Right now of course I can hear the nationalists shouting that none of this would change. 'What about Ireland??!' they say. 'There are no borders there. We will still be able to go anywhere.' Well I lived there and can remember when there was rather a hard border there. Just because it is easy to move around now does not mean it will stay that way. There is a bigger point though. Being allowed to move somewhere, is not the same as feeling you have a stake in being there. I could happily move to Venice or Hamburg, but I would not feel as though as I could belong there. If the UK splits, Scots will still be able to move to Manchester or Newcastle, but they will be going abroad to do so, with all that that might eventually entail.

Fourth, there is something nice in being part of a country that is not purely based on historic ethnic boundaries. Born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in Ireland, Scotland and England I can feel 'British' far more easily than Scottish or English. My Chinese-Indian-Irish partner has said she feels the same. She can assimilate into a broad 'British' identity far more easily than Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, English, Orcadian or whatever. At the same time I think there is such a thing as British culture which transcends its components. It is impossible to define (isn't all culture - what is Scottish or French culture for example), but it is real, and it at the heart of the modern world. It is the result of shared stories and experiences and is not based around the desperate desire to project Scottishness or Englishness in an anglophone world. Scotland is not a colony. Its culture is not suppressed, it can simply express it as part of something larger.   

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think that the UK is greater than the sum of its parts. It gains something by binding historic nations and units into something more encompassing and cohesive. Scotland and Wales gain by being part of a larger unit, giving them a voice on the world stage and a less parochial politics and society than they might otherwise have, while England gains by being taken out of itself, given a broader world view and made slightly less subservient to the needs of London and the South East.

Anyway, that will do for now. No doubt the nationalists will dismiss all of this as romantic drivel, but I think they are wrong. Whatever it may have been to begin with, the UK is more than just a collection of rump states. It has become something unique, and I will be voting to keep it together. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The problem with fracking is trust

Let me start my saying I quite like Greg Barker. From what I can tell, he and Ed Davey are doing a good job at DECC in the face of a hostile government. I also like Lord Deben. He is something of climate hero on twitter. But I'm afraid I can't follow them in their enthusiasm for fracking in the UK.

There are several reasons why I oppose large-scale fracking, which I'll go in to briefly, but the most important is that I simply do not trust our institutions to be able to get it right. 

For example, Lord Deben says that fracking is okay so long as we have a robust carbon budget which will ensure overall emissions are reduced. Well with people like George Osborne and Boris Johnson waiting in the wings of the Tory party, and with an eye on what has happened in Canada and Australia, I fear for the future of these budgets. I hope they will survive, but I would not bet the climate on it. Without those targets, which can be removed with a couple of votes, fracking will simply lead to more fossil fuels, and no cap. In fact its worse than that, because fracking will increase the incentive to abandon these budgets. It's like putting a pile of chocolate next to a dieter and saying its okay, so long as they control their calorie intake. 

This brings me to a second problem. Once fracking is up and running it will become a vested interest. People's jobs will be based on it. Billions of pounds will be invested in it. Local councils, cities and governments will take tax from it. Politicians will be elected by it. It will become one more entrenched fossil fuel industry which will fight for its own existence long after we should be getting rid of it. Just like coal, just like oil. It is only natural. Well what about carbon capture? With that, fossil fuels are fine, no? Well, it is not running yet, and it may never be on the scale required. If it gets there maybe we can talk. Renewables and nuclear, however imperfect, do work, and the costs of renewables at least are falling all the time. Massive investment in new fossil fuel resources will only delay that transition.

Thirdly, we are told that gas is green. Well, compared to coal it is, but fracked gas is less green than conventional gas, and it is still a fossil fuel. Even if we keep to our carbon targets, presumably we will just sell our gas (and coal) elsewhere, increasing the sum total of carbon on the market. Similarly the LNG we will no longer import will just be sold elsewhere. Since the world has no carbon pricing mechanism capable of accounting for the true costs of these fuels, additional supplies will just hold down prices and make it harder for alternatives to compete.

It is also worth highlighting that these estimates of the 'greenness' of fracked gas are based on low fugitive emissions of methane, a powerful global warming agent. Done properly these can be as low as 2%. When are industrial processes like this ever done flawlessly? Deepwater anyone? Exxon Valdez? There will be accidents and leaks and sloppy practices. There always are. In fact there is already a great deal of controversy as the extent of these secondary emissions, with some suggesting that they have been significantly underestimated.1 And who will monitor them? The Environment Agency is being gutted, shedding hundreds of jobs, just when we need them most. Perhaps the industry will be allowed to police itself?

Finally, we are told we will avoid some of the local pollution seen in the US because we will have stronger regulations. Maybe. But fracking will still be using huge amounts of water, still pumping toxic chemicals into the ground, still increasing pressure on land and still building thousands of wells and access roads in a densely populated country. That does not seem overly green to me. We are asked to believe that the industry will be so well regulated that this will not be a problem, yet even during the height of the fracking controversy, when Cuadrilla was drilling test rigs in full glare of the media, they could not get it right. The company is alleged to have  trespassed on land and being forced to pay out to landowners.2 If they cannot get it right then, imagine what it will be like in the future?

So that's it. We need some gas, but we are not likely to run out of conventional sources any time soon. As for the rest, I would rather see our efforts go into a truly low carbon future than in simply propping up another entrenched industry that will damage our environment and fight all future attempts to remove it. If new information comes along I will be happy to look again, but from what I know at the moment, large scale fracking seems like a mistake. 

1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/11/20/1314392110.abstract
2. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/aug/02/fracking-cuadrilla-trespassed-private-land

Thursday, 23 January 2014

British wild boar under threat again

The last few weeks have seen a new, and predictable, outbreak of anti-boar hysteria in and around the Forest of Dean. One local Councillor has suggested that humans could be driven from the forest in no time. Another has complained that the damage caused by the boars is so extensive that the grass is now too soft to park your car on. Rooting by the animals has turned over grass verges and lawns from Coleford to Cinderford and beyond. It happens every winter.

The response in many quarters to the return of the boar has been equally predictable. Cull cull cull. They damage property, they are dangerous, they have to go. Never mind that this is a native species which enriches biodiversity in the forest by breaking up bracken, moving soil and seeds around and providing micro-habitats for other plants and animals. Never mind that attacks on humans are very rare and have not yet occurred in the UK, or that every year in England alone there are 210,000 recorded attacks on humans by dogs.1 In fact, since 2007, at least 9 people, including 6 children have been killed in the UK by domestic dogs. A further 427 were killed across Gloucestershire by cars over a ten year period from 1997-2008. No, the real issue is muddy lawns and verges.

The Forestry Commission, the body responsible for managing the forest, has openly said it would like to call for a far larger cull, perhaps as many as four hundred animals, of an estimated five hundred (this figure is disputed by many). The only thing holding it back is public opinion, a good deal of whom support the boar and worry about the effect this will have on the population's survival. Indeed the Commission is already struggling to fulfill its existing cull quota. Of 129 it has set itself to shoot in the 2013-2014 season, only around 76 had been killed by the end of December. Furthermore there are no good estimates of the numbers being killed illegally or in accidents. Without some idea of the scale of pressure on the boar, such high cull targets would risk exterminating the species once again, or driving it to dangerously low levels, by the back door. 

Of course, extermination is exactly what some people want. My conversations with locals in the area make it clear there is a small minority who are vociferously opposed to any wild animals beyond their control. As far as they are concerned there is no place for the boar in 21st century Britain. Now, three local UKIP Councillors have written to the government to request funding for a local referendum on what to do with the boar. It seems likely they are hoping for a mandate for a large-scale cull, or possibly an extermination.

This is not an argument against control. With no natural predators in the UK wild boar will naturally increase to the point where food and space becomes unavailable. The point is that we need to have a sensible policy which treats these animals with respect, recognizes their right to exist in this country and offers them legal protection from poaching and cruelty. Any culling must be based on sound, independent science, and with a view to the overall status of the species in the British Isles. By contrast the UKIP councillors and others want this to be a purely local issue. Outsiders should have no say in what happens to the boar in the forest. I can see why some would support this. Yet this argument is about so much more than the mix of species in a local woodland. The Forest of Dean is the first real stronghold of the wild boar in hundreds of years. What happens there reflects on our ability to accept change, to accept the wild and to accept the return of the native species which our landscape and our culture needs to be healthy. The wild boar need our help.

Here is a petition from the UK Wild Boar Trust, calling for them to have legal protection. I am not affiliated to the UKWBT, it just seems like a good idea.  

1. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmenvfru/95/95.pdf