Thursday, 6 July 2017

Penguins in the Hebrides

It is the year 02013 and in a corner of the Science Museum in London is a clock that will chime once every thousand years. Past bright galleries filled with echoing voices and hung with antique spacecraft, it sits, almost overlooked in a large glass case, a curious mix of brass and silver cogs and twisted bands of metal.

It was only a Tuesday when I visited the museum but the crowds were still intense. Hordes of children ran between the shops and the exhibits, while teenagers sat around the edges looking bored. I fought my way through, arriving dazed in front of the ancient looking machine. Eight or nine feet tall, it towered over me, the silver face marked with characters I did not understand. I stood, staring at the clock for several minutes. Nothing changed. I could see no movement in the mechanism. Perhaps it simply moved too slowly, or it was not working. Either seemed possible. Beside the case was a plaque explaining that this was a prototype model of the 'Clock of the Long Now', a project to build a timepiece capable of running for ten thousand years, roughly the same length of time, its designers suggested, as human civilization has existed for. It was not what I had expected. For all its futurism there was something old fashioned about its wheels and heavy engineering. The plan was to build a number of scaled-up versions and mount them in caves in Nevada or Texas. Full-size it would be an industrial giant, a steam-punk theme park, keeping time while human civilization whirls by outside. In one version it will be wound by visitors, producing a different musical sequence each day, ringing out until it is forgotten.

I had come to the museum because I was researching extinction, or more accurately de-extinction, the process of bringing dead species back to life using genetic technology. One of the key scientists involved was being supported by the same people behind the clock, a San Francisco based charity named the 'Long Now Foundation'. By chance I had only recently returned from California and was cursing my bad luck in not having visited them while there. Separated by an ocean and a continent, the clock was the nearest tangible evidence of their existence available to me, and so I took the underground to South Kensington to see it.

Founded in the late nineties by a group of artists and technologists the 'Long Now Foundation' says its mission is to encourage longer-term thinking. Too much human effort, it believes, is focused on ever shorter time frames – the 'short now' as opposed to the 'long now' – with harmful effects. Its board is stellar cast of tycoons and visionaries. Its President, Stuart Brand, founded the 'Whole Earth Catalogue', an early attempt to list all the products and services required by an environmental pioneer and is a legend in the Bay Area. A one time member of a counter-culture group called the Merry Pranksters he had journeyed across the United States in 1964 handing out LSD to anyone willing to try it in order to see what would happen when they collided with staid American society. There is Jeff Bezos who set up Amazon, and on whose land the Long Now clock may be constructed. Then there is Esther Dyson, investor in start-ups like Flickr and an aspiring astronaut; and Brian Eno, the musician and producer from whose lyrics the organisation gets its name. In an essay on the Long Now Foundation's website Eno explained that the concept arose from his feelings that the modern world left little time for forward thinking, leading to irresponsible and selfish actions. The Foundation seeks to challenge this. The result has been a number of unusual projects, like the ten thousand year clocks, and its policy of placing an extra zero in front of the year. Making 2012 into 02012, or 1900 into 01900. Putting human time in a greater context.

Alongside these artistic projects however, is something altogether more hard edged. In a laboratory at the University of California in Santa Cruz a researcher called Ben Novak is working with an expert on ancient DNA, Professor Beth Shapiro, to try and bring one of the earliest icons of modern conservation back from the dead. Supported by 'Revive and Restore', a spin-off project of the Foundation, Ben and his colleagues are trying to become the one of the first teams in the world to successfully resurrect an extinct species.

One of the earliest icons of conservation, the Passenger Pigeon has become almost as familiar as the Dodo as a cautionary tale of extinction. Two hundred years ago it was probably the most common bird on earth. A small, delicate dove with a grey back and orange chest, there were perhaps five billion of them when European settlers first arrived in North America, spread across the continent from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. As they migrated across the plains, they gathered together in enormous flocks, so common that only locusts were said to be more abundant. One flock, seen in Southern Ontario in 1866 was said to be more than 300 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. It took fourteen hours to pass overhead. Yet despite their incredible numbers, by 1914 they were extinct, the archetypal example of the human ability to decimate even the most ubiquitous wildlife. The last individual, a bird named Martha, died in captivity at Cincinnati Zoo.

The reasons for the disappearance of the Passenger Pigeon are familiar. Habitat loss accounted for a gradual reduction, as European settlers cleared forests for homes and farms. But it was hunting and trapping on an epic scale was its real downfall. The  Passenger Pigeon's habit of gathering in congregations, right to the end, meant that it was vulnerable to professional hunters. Nets were thrown over trees. Birds were gassed with sulphur. Children killed them with stones or knocked them out of the air with poles. Hundreds of millions were shot. One hunter claimed to have personally killed as many as three million in his career. In the late nineteenth century they were sold for a penny each on the streets of New York City, a cheap food for the metropolis's rapily growing population. In the south they were fed to slaves and later to agricultural labourers, ensuring that the cotton mills and the sugar factories were kept supplied. 

Such was the slaughter that even the trigger happy Victorians were moved to concern, but the early pioneers of conservation failed to pursuade others that protection was needed. A bill introduced to Ohio State Legislature in 1857 was defeated. A Select Committee of the State Senate filed a report stating that: 'The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced'. Fifty-seven years later the animal was extinct. As with so many others it was assumed that the great expanse of its habitat would be protection enough. 

Yet now, almost exactly one hundred years later, this unassuming little bird might be one of the first species to be resurrected through genetic technology. Ben and his colleagues are working to build a complete strand of Passenger Pigeon DNA, using tissues extracted from museum specimens across America. If they are successful this could be the first step on the long road to its resurrection, opening the door for a whole cast of recently extinct species to return. It is a concept which appals and thrills in equal measure, and one which offers the chance to change something we are all told is irreversible.


Just around the corner from the ten thousand year clock, in the Natural History Museum of London, is a stuffed Great Auk, an animal which has not been seen alive for one hundred and seventy years. About three feet high, with a white chest and black back, the Auk stands upright, its short stubby wings held out at its side, its broad bill pointing forwards. It looks, essentially, like a penguin. And it is. The original penguin in fact. The name of the Great Auk in Latin, Pinguinnis impennis, informs of the great irony of its extinction. The flightless birds of the southern hemisphere are named after their now extinct namesake in the North. In fact the word 'penguin' might well come from the Welsh phrase 'Pen-Gwyn', meaning 'white head', a possible reference to the light patches above the bill of the Auk.[1] When European sailors, already familiar with the Great Auk, first encountered similar looking birds on their voyages south they simply named them after what they knew. While not closely related biologically, penguins and Great Auks are a beautiful example of convergent evolution, a process in which relatively unrelated creatures appear to adopt similar forms in response to similar environmental or ecological pressures. The hedgehog and the porcupine are two others, as are the shark and the dolphin.

The bird in the Natural History Museum was one of the last of its kind. Almost certainly from Iceland, likely the Auk's final breeding site, it was killed around 1837 and bought by Walter Rothschild, later passing to the Natural History Museum in the 1930s. As the Great Auk became rarer and rarer – the result of hunting by sailors and fowlers – demand for specimens from collectors and museums soared, sealing the fate of the last known individuals. By the end of the 1850s they were probably extinct.

When I first learned about the existence of the Great Auk, I was excited but also saddened. It seemed tragic to have missed such an astonishing creature, one which so perfectly illustrated the wonders of nature and evolution, and by such a small margin of time. It was made worse by the fact that I had always loved penguins. As a child they represented voyages of discovery, the South Seas, Coral Island and Cape Horn. To find that the very thing they were named after was now extinct was slightly haunting, and also frustrating. We had come so close. I began to research everything I could about the species. Like a person who sees an accident and feels that if only they can get there fast enough they can stop it from happening, I felt that if I could find out enough about the Auk I could some how bring it back to life. I read its biology and ecology, where it had lived and when it was last seen. I read books and papers and searched the internet for some indication that there might still be a few left alive, hiding in the vast expanse of the North Atlantic. I took comfort from a birdwatching book published in 1927 which rather optimistically kept them on its list. That at least dragged the Auk into my own century, bringing it closer into view. I stayed hopeful, if not expectant. It would not be the only species kept alive by rumour. There are some who think that Thylacine, the marsupial wolf of Tasmanian, still roams to wilds of that island, nearly eight decades after the last one died in captivity. I looked for stories like this, some vague chance, something which might give me hope. Of course there were none. There were April Fools' jokes in newspapers and cartoons showing tourists looking at bare rocks while squadrons of the birds jumped through the waters behind them, but nothing real. The Great Auk was definitely gone.

What I did come across were references to cloning. There were comments on message boards and occasional articles in magazines. Science fiction fans and students talked blithely about the possibility of using genetics to reintroduce Auks to islands off Canada or Iceland. Initially I paid little attention. This was was surely just idle speculation by interested people. Over the years however things began to change. I started to hear the phrase de-extinction. Articles began to appear in newspapers talking about teams of scientist researching the DNA of woolly mammoths and Spanish Ibex. A group in Canada was reported to have extracted some genetic material from a Great Auk specimen, and sequenced a few thousand base-pairs. Almost in spite of myself I was excited. If successful, de-extinction would surely rank as one of the most astonishing achievements of modern science, one which could alter our entire perception of ecology and extinction. I  looked again and searched for anything which might connect these new developments to the Great Auk. Some of the first results were a series of recent TED Talks – lectures on science and technology – and the names of 'Revive and Restore' and the 'Long Now Foundation'.


Bringing an extinct species back from the dead is not easy, and in fact no one has successfully done it yet. I wrote to Ben Novak asking him to explain what they were trying to do, and the pathway they had laid out in front of them.

The first step involves sequencing and reproducing the complete DNA of the extinct animal using tissue from preserved specimens. Getting complete strands of genetic material is difficult, and there are a number of variables. Taxidermy tends to lead to better samples than bones, and the more sources of material that are available, the more likely it will be that good quality DNA can be obtained, and that any gaps can be reliably filled in. Another problem is that DNA degrades over time, breaking into smaller and smaller fragments, and causing distortions as chemical processes cause false mutations in the codes. It is this degradation which means that long extinct animals, such as dinosaurs, are unlikely ever to return, even if organic matter could be found. Genetic material simply cannot survive that long. Obtaining DNA from more recent species however, is possible. For some animals like the Great Auk and Passenger Pigeon, museum specimens will be the primary source, for others frozen bones and tissues from the permafrost. Woolly Mammoth remains turn up regularly in Russia, so often in fact that they can support a thriving trade in mammoth ivory in the Far East. Even extinct humans could be sequenced, should we choose to do so. Our own species, Homo sapiens, is simply the last surviving member of its genus, but there were many others. Already our closest relative is being unlocked. Neanderthal teeth and bones have been found across Europe and recent research is helping to unravel their genetic code as part of efforts to understand our own evolution. In early 2013 it was reported that a draft of the entire Neanderthal genome was published, using material taken from one hundred and thirty thousand year old toe bone found in the Altai mountains.[i] While any thought of resurrecting another species of human would be an ethical nightmare, it shows what might, just, be possible.

Assuming that a complete DNA sequence is obtainable, the next step will be to reproduce it. Using new technology which allows the DNA to be manipulated at anything from one to thousands of base-pairs at a time, it should be possible to recreate the DNA of an extinct animal using a closely related species as a template. For the Passenger Pigeon, for example, the closely related Banded Pigeon could be used and its genome engineered into that of the Passenger Pigeon. Essentially the Banded Pigeon genome would be 'evolved' into that of the Passenger. Using this DNA, an embryo needs to be produced. One method would involve transplanting the genetic material into the eggs or other cells of a close relative. In this case the genetic material could be introduced directly into the egg while it is developing, standard practice in modern cloning. Another possibility would be to engineer an adult organism to lay an egg containing the DNA of the desired species. Researchers in Edinburgh have already managed to create a duck that produces the germ cells (sex cells) of a chicken. If two of these ducks were to mate, they would theoretically lay an egg with a chicken embryo inside it. In essence the ducks would be acting as a genetic surrogate for the chicken.

The necessity of having a suitable surrogate creates another of the criteria for de-extinction. For both mammals and birds, this animal must be capable of bearing the de-extinct animal safely. Ducks and chickens, or similar species of pigeons, lay eggs of comparable size, but a cat could not give birth to a tiger, nor a pigeon to an ostrich.

Taken together, these formidable hurdles create a sort of genetic hierarchy for de-extinction. The best options, from a biological perspective, are animals with close living relatives of a comparable size, with lots of specimens held in museums or freezers. Birds, reptiles and fish – animals with less parental involvement – are ideal, reducing the need for the young animals to be taught how to survive. A cuckoo, for instance, never meets its parents.

From a genetic perspective at least it seems the Great Auk is a good candidate for de-extinction. There are over seventy specimens in museums, along with several eggs, each of which could provide part of the DNA sequence needed. In the razorbill it has a close living relative, and potential surrogate. While the razorbill would be too small to carry a Great Auk egg to full development there are possible solutions. In experiments, the embryos of turkey eggs have been replaced with those of chickens, and have hatched with a high rate of success. For the Great Auk, the embryo could conceivably be initially incubated in a razorbill egg and then transferred into a suitable surrogate in order to hatch. In the long term it may even be possible to create synthetic eggs. Once established of course, the hope would be that the revived species would breed and lay eggs in the normal way.   

If de-extinction is to be a real possibility, the sequencing and extinct animal's genetic code must be only the first stage. In some ways in fact it seems to be the easiest part. One animal is no use. A whole population will need to be created. For some this seems to be an insurmountable hurdle, a fatal flaw in the entire process. There will simply not be enough genetic variation to create a viable population, they say. Any creatures brought back will simply be curiosities, freak shows for the circus. I am not so sure. Ben Novak too was emphatic. If we could create one breeding pair of animals, we can create more. If we can engineer a living genome into the code of an extinct genome, we can further engineer it to have variability, and avoid interbreeding.
While Ben may be skimming over some of the difficulties they may face, it is hard to argue with the basic premise. Technology is advancing so fast that it is impossible to say for certain what will and will not be possible, or when. If a viable captive population can be produced, it is only a relatively short theoretical step to a reintroduction. Indeed from the moment they are born, a de-extinct animal would be classed as 'extinct in the wild', the same category as other animals which exist only in captivity. Providing a suitable habitat exists, its release may then be little more than a standard reintroduction.

And de-extincting a complete animal is no longer simply pure science fiction. In 2013 a team at the University of New South Wales announced that it had managed to create embryos of the gastric-brooding frog, a native of the rainforests of Queensland which had gone extinct in 1983. Tissues from the curious little amphibian, which swallowed fertilised eggs before 'hatching' them through its mouth, had been kept frozen since it died out, and the scientists had managed to substitute the DNA for that in the eggs of a closely related species. While none of the frog embryos survived for very long, the researchers believe they have taken the first step toward creating a viable individual. Others have gone further still. As I watched the Ted Talks of the Revive and Restore seminar, one of the speakers described how his team in Spain had managed to clone the first extinct mammal, the Pyrenean Ibex. Using tissues from the last living individual which had died just a few years earlier they were able to create embryos which survived the full length of the pregnancy. Sadly the new ibex died shortly after birth. It has a malformed lung and was unable to breath properly. As with the frogs however, the researchers believe that the problems they face are technical, and not due to some inherent flaw in biology. De-extinction they feel, while difficult, may not be impossible. Those who dismiss it as science fiction, might do well to remember that what was once on the fringes of possibility is now routine. DNA fingerprinting and genetic testing has become such a familiar idea that it is easy to forget that the structure of DNA itself was only discovered in 1953, and it was not until 1977 that the first genome was decoded. It belonged to a virus and was tiny, just over five thousand base-pairs long. A quarter of a century later the entire human genome had been mapped, all three billion base-pairs of it. Twenty five years from now is only 2040.


The Great Auk was once found right across the North Atlantic. While never common like the Passenger Pigeon, it was widespread. In the East, remains show that its range stretched from Italy and Portugal to Norway, and in the West from from Greenland down to New England and even Florida. Clumsy and awkward on land they must have made easy prey for our ancestors. Bone fragments from caves in Norway and Brittany attest to their place in the European stone age diet. Native Americans also found them appealing, with a 4000 year old burial site in Newfoundland yielding two hundred of their beaks. As well as their meat, their feathers too were popular and were prized in medieval Europe for making the finest pillows. Despite the fact that several countries outlawed their exploitation in the 1500s, it was too late. By the mid-sixteenth century they were already gone from most of the Eastern Atlantic, confined to a few offshore rocks, out of reach of all but the most daring and adventurous fowlers. For the next few hundred years they hung on in isolated communities, from Cornwall and Ireland to Iceland and the Faroes. Although uncommon they were well known to coastal communities, their unusual nature ensuring they would stay in the collective memory. Nonetheless, their decline continued and by the 18th century they had become very rare indeed in the East. Purged of their prime nesting sites they were restricted to rocks and stacks too small to support large colonies. Collectors and museums then moved in, hoovering up the remaining individuals.

In these final centuries, by far the largest remaining populations were in North America, around Newfoundland and the Labrador coast, and particularly on Funk Island. Here European fishermen were awed by the abundance of wildlife and began a slaughter that it is scarcely possible to imagine. Cod were so plentiful in the bays that a crew of two were said to be able to haul in over three thousand in a working day, from water just seven or eight feet deep. Great Auks were also  common, receiving a mention in the 'English Pilot', a sort of guide book for ships heading to the Americas. On his search for the North West passage, Joseph Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook to the South Seas and who scandalised British society with his tales of sex and botany in Tahiti, reported seeing many 'penguins', swimming around the Grand Banks, and even captured one for study. They were not to last. Beginning with their rediscovery by Europeans in 1497, each year 300-400 boats from across the continent would make the voyage to the Americas, sending out raiding parties to scour the nearby islands, killing hundreds of thousands of birds and eggs, both as food, and as bait for their hooks. Sailors loaded them on to ships by the thousand, catching them in sails or walking them up gangplanks to be killed later. A single boat could take three or four tonnes, salting them in barrels to last the journey. Others set up camp on the bird islands to harvest them for feathers. The slaughter was not lost on contemporary observers, and some, like George Cartwright who moved to Labrador in 1770, warned that the birds would soon vanish, writing: 'the destruction which they have made is incredible ... if a stop is not put to that practice the whole breed will be diminished to almost nothing, particularly the penguins'. Sadly there was nothing that could be done to stop it.   

Relatively little is known about the ecology of the Great Auk, but something can be pieced together from the accounts of sailors and travellers and from the few naturalists who saw it alive. Like the penguin it was largely a fish eater, taking herring, lumpfish and scorpion fish from waters up to eighteen metres deep. Ungainly while ashore, it was extremely fast in the water, and was said to be easily capable of outrunning a six-oared rowing boat. Like its cousins the puffins and the razorbills, it spent a good deal of time floating on the surface in groups, its head held up, diving at the first sign of danger. It laid a single egg sometime in June, and since both sexes possessed a bald brood patch on their front with which they kept their eggs and chicks warm, it is assumed that both took turns to look after it, just as many penguins do.

The very end of the species is surprisingly well documented. On 3 July 1844 three men stepped onto the small island of Eldey, a dark North Atlantic rock which rises like a broken tooth from the water just off the coast of Iceland. Moving up from the landing platform through crowds of guillemots, they saw their quarry perched on the edge of a precipice high above the water. Approaching slowly they closed in on the two birds. One backed into a corner where it was caught by Jon Brandsson. The other was captured as it attempted to jump off the cliff into the water. Sigurour Isleifson seized it by the neck. It made no noise but flapped its wings as he strangled it. In some versions, a third man, Ketil Ketilsson, picked up the couple's egg, but finding it broken left it on the rock. With that the last known pair of Great Auks in the world were killed.

Around the same time five men from the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda caught and killed the last Great Auk ever seen in the British Isles. Spotting it on a remote sea stack where they were collecting gannets they captured and tied it up, no doubt aware of its potential value as a curiosity. Shortly afterwards a great storm blew up, forcing the men to seek shelter in one of their temporary refuges on the rock. Paranoid and afraid, and huddled together in a turf covered hut with a shrieking auk, they began to suspect that their capture of the bird was responsible for the weather. Fearing it was a witch, they stoned it to death, beating it with rocks until it died. The next day the storm passed.

While the traditional date given for this bizarre witch-stoning is sometime in the early 1840s, there there are strange inconsistencies. The island's resident clergyman at the time, Reverend Neil McKenzie, as well as two other travellers to the island in 1840 and 1841 fail to mention it in their notes, despite all making extensive inquiries about the birds. Perhaps the men who killed the bird where ashamed of it, particularly given their unchristian fears of witchcraft. But there is another explanation. During an interview in 1885 one of the survivors, then an old man, said that the event had happened forty years ago. Reverend McKenzie left in 1844, meaning that a date of 1845 would explain his failure to mention it. If true, this could make St. Kilda the last place on the earth where the Great Auk was seen alive.


On the Southernmost tip of the Isle of Harris, the town of Leverburgh is little more than a long string of white houses wrapped around a series of deep green bays and inlets, backing onto dark hills which rise in the background. Arriving by ferry from the south, we wound our way through the rocks and islands of the Sound, a fractured mirror where the sky and sea merge in a dazzling confusion. Even in the mist and the rain, the clear northern light seeped into my brain and lifted my spirits. The journey to get there had been long, and my back was aching. I had left Edinburgh before dawn, taking buses and ferries through glens and islands and ever wilder seas. I was right on the edge of Europe now, on that arc of islands which hangs like a veil across the face of the British Isles. The next day I would be making the final journey, another forty miles over the open sea to the towering peaks of St. Kilda, the one time home of witches and penguins.

That evening I went to the local pub, a low building down near the harbour. Restaurants and pubs in the Hebrides tend to fall into two categories. The more upmarket ones sell fresh seafood or organic cakes, with polished bars and big windows. The others are dark, cosy spaces, filled with crofters and workers from the oil terminals. Here the food is defrosted chips and ready salted crisps and the locals eye you with mild suspicion. This one fell into the first category, a bland open expanse of pine which could have been found just as easily in Leeds or Ipswich. I half expected a sign telling me that it had a Thai menu on Wednesdays and Fridays. The guy behind the bar was from England too. He had come up to stay with his parents after losing his job in Essex. He was a landscape gardener. Looking at the bare sheep hills around the town and the small windswept yards it was hard to imagine he would get much work, but I was wrong. Times were good, he said. To make up the gaps he worked at the bar and went diving for scallops with a friend, scooping them off the sandy seabed and selling them to fancy restaurants for three pounds each. He spoke loudly and excitedly about trying to arrange a trip. He needed to get away for the winter. They were long and dark in the Western Isles.

The next morning I stood on the harbour pier, wrapped up against the early morning mist. The boat that was to take us the islands lay bobbing just offshore, orange and blue. It would be a long trip, first the main islands of St. Kilda and then on to sea bird rocks, a few miles away. We milled about, holding the packed lunches provided by our guest houses, looking nervously to the horizon. The sea in the harbour was calm, and there was little wind, but as we headed out into the Sound the swell began to build. Spray pounded against the hull in icy sheets, and, as we left the remains of shelter behind us, we began to heave and roll in great circles. The sky was grey, the sea a foamy green. At first I stood on deck, my eyes fixed on the distance, but soon the rocking became too much and I was forced to sit, head bowed, eyes closed, breathing in the cool salty air. Rain fell gently on my head. I comforted myself by remembering that sea-sickness has long been a hazard of visits to St. Kilda. Many of the early chroniclers of its people and wildlife complained bitterly of the pains they endured on their voyages over. Martin Martin, a Reverend who travelled to the islands in 1695 and the earliest chronicler of the Auk on St. Kilda, wrote of his 'most grievous affliction'. I thought too of the story I had recently heard about the captain of a fishing boat who suffered from terrible nausea for several hours every time he went to sea. It made me feel a little better.

As the swell continued to increase the crew handed out large paper cups and bags to passengers. I sat, green and pale in the middle, unable even to protest as I saw the crew throwing the cups overboard, and prayed that they were biodegradable. At one point a pod of dolphins appeared. I heard weak cheers and gasps from the crowd and managed to open my eyes long enough to see ten or fifteen of the sleek grey animals leaping alongside the boat, riding the surf, revelling in the misery of these sad land creatures. Finally, after several hours I felt the engine quiet and the boat slow. I blinked and looked around. The sea was gone, replaced by low brown cliffs topped with short green grass. The water was glassy now and as the engine cut we glided silently into a foggy bay.

St. Kilda is not one place but a small archipelago, the fragmented remains of a great extinct volcano. Our first port of call was the main island, Hirta. High and wet it is arranged like a semi-circle around the rim of the collapsed crater. Here can be found Village Bay and a small pier, the only protection from the open sea. From a white sandy beach the shore rises steeply up a grassy slope in a huge green amphitheatre flanked by brown cliffs. This is where the people of St. Kilda lived until they chose to be evacuated to the mainland, eking out a living by keeping animals and hunting for sea birds on the vertiginous cliffs nearby, dazzling visitors with their daring. Like the Great Auk they were never very numerous, and by the nineteenth and twentieth century the population was in serious decline. In 1852, thirty-six emigrated to Australia, while outbreaks of influenza in 1913 further reduced their numbers. In 1930, the last permanent residents left, and the islands passed over into the hands of the National Trust for Scotland.

I got off the boat and walked up the pier. The village itself was abandoned save for a couple of huts used by volunteers and a gift shop. Strung out, low and grey and mossy around the rim of the bay, it was partially obscured by a series of green prefabricated buildings. This was a small air-force base, which tracked missiles out over the ocean. Rain formed thin sheets. The ground was sodden. Water gurgled in the gutters. Walking up through the old buildings it seemed a sad, slightly pointless place. Without the people these were simply stone houses, kept on life support by teams of volunteers from the Trust. A ruin would seem more fitting and evocative. Further up the slope and around the village were hundreds of small stone sided circles topped with grass. These are where the St. Kildans stored the gannets, fulmars and puffins they caught, drying them out to see them through the winter and using them as rent to pay their distant landowners.

The grass on the island was still short, the result of thousands of small brown sheep. These were being used by students in Edinburgh to study the rates of speciation in isolated populations. There are sheep on the other islands too, abandoned by the islanders as they left. Those on nearby island of Soay live without any human interference, so difficult is it to land there. The Hirta sheep on the other hand are tagged and cared for. The local warden explained were a rare-breed kept by the Trust. I asked if it would not be better to simply remove the sheep to somewhere else to help the vegetation and wildlife of the island return to a more natural state. Would that not be a more valuable and interesting project that artificially maintaining an environmental pressure? It is rare for humans to voluntarily leave a place, and even rarer to have the opportunity to give it back to nature. The warden replied that it was their job to keep the island as they found it, and since they had inherited it with sheep, they had to maintain them. They were preserving a human landscape, long after the humans had left.

As I stood watching the waves crash on the sand, I tried to imagine just how remote a place this must have been just a few hundred years ago. Boats would come just once or twice a year, and visitors once a decade. One story tells of how a St. Kildan man, upon being taken to Glasgow, said he had not believed there were as many people in the world as in that one city. Yet as with so many isolated populations the people were vulnerable. Regular bouts of disease and a terrible infant mortality rate (possibly as a result of post-natal tetanus) took their toll. One one occasion a group of men out fowling on the nearby sea stacks returned after several weeks to find almost all of their fellow islanders dead from small pox. Over the centuries they regularly had to recruit new islanders from Harris to keep their numbers up, genetic reinforcements in biological terms. If nothing else, this surely puts lie to the persistent rumour that the islanders had webbed feet. Regular infusions of new blood would render that kind of evolution impossible.

In many ways the absence of the St Kildans is a tragedy. If they had hung on just another thirty or forty years life would have become much easier. Certainly they formed a remarkable culture and maintained a unique way of life well into the twentieth century. That they managed to do so in Britain seems all the more remarkable. Yet the loss of the the St. Kildans could provide an opportunity to create something new and equally wonderful, a true place for nature in the British Isles, and perhaps it could just even be a test bed for a daring experiment.

I turned my back to the bay and climbed up the steep hill behind it. On clear days this forms one side of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, but I could see only mist. A few hundred metres up the ground levelled off into a broad ridge, with a path going left and right, into the gloom. The land was boggy, short grass and heather and waterlogged moss. I followed the path, climbing slowly to a metal tower and a low building capped with a huge white golf ball like those I had come to know on Ascension. I had heard rumours that submarine tracking stations in the Hebrides picked up the voices of blue whales as they migrated through the deep channels out beyond St. Kilda. There was nothing to see, so I turned back and went down the hill to sit on the beach, waiting until it was time to get back on the boat and head out to the bird islands.


The stacks rose out of the sea, vast skyscrapers of black and green topped with cloud. Even on a relatively calm day the ocean pounded at their bases, throwing spray high into the air. The boat rocked violently from side to side, sending the photographers among us dashing for the railings as they fought to keep steady. From shining dark ledges high up thousands of gannets launched themselves into the air, wheeling and shrieking, their droppings raining down on the deck. The sheer height of the cliffs seemed to push down on top of the boat, compressing on the air around us. I looked up and felt my head spin. Far, far above, the rock face retreated out of view, while in front of me it fell sheer into the water, plunging down into the depths. At the base of one of the pinnacles, Stac Armin, I could see the shallow ledge onto which the St. Kildans had once made their landfall, leaping from their wooden boats and clinging to the slippery green rock. Once disembarked they faced a difficult ascent. The wall rises high and smooth, lined with just enough cracks and footholds for only the most skilled to navigate. Once safely up the lead climber would lower ropes for his companions and they would follow, fanning out across the ledges in search of gannets and their eggs. Sometimes they used other tricks to catch the great birds. By placing a fish on top of a plank of wood floating on the water they could induce the birds to dive for it. So strong is the impact of a diving gannet that its beak would be driven right through the wood, lodging it there for collection. On other cliffs they took fulmar, puffin and kittiwakes. When surprised or threatened the fulmar will spit a thick, foul-smelling oil at its attacker. This was highly prized by the islanders and was a valuable export. Fashionable apothecaries in London and Edinburgh stocked it as a remedy for arthritis and rheumatism, while the St. Kildans used it for lighting their lamps and binding wounds. In order to get the oil it was necessary for the fowlers to sneak up on the birds unawares and grab hold of their throats, ensuring the oil stayed in their gullets, and not on the clothes and face of the hunter. Each bird was said to yield about a pint.

It was on these wild rocks that the Great Auks were seen. Too steep to provide many nesting sites, they probably never supported a large population. Nonetheless the birds were almost certainly annual visitors in the 17th and 18th centuries. Martin Martin gave perhaps the best description: 'Gairfowl [Great Auk], being the stateliest, as well as the largest of all the fowls here, and above the size of a [gannet], of a black colour, red about the eyes, a large white spot under each eye, a long broad bill, stands stately, its whole body erected its wings short, it flieth not at all, lays its eggs upon the bare rock, which if taken away, it lays no more for that year; it is palmypes, or whe footed, and has the hatching spot on its breast from which the feathers have fallen off with the heat of hatching'. Certainly if he did not see it himself, he spoke to those who did. It also provides pretty firm evidence that at least some Auks were still breeding, and feeding, on the islands around the time of his visit. Sadly these are the last confirmed mention of the birds actually laying eggs on St. Kilda. Thereafter reports are confined to resting pairs and individuals. This does not mean that they did not continue to breed of course, and some must have, but it does mark the slow decline of the population. When the Reverend Kenneth MacAulay landed in 1758 he was unable to find them. By the 1840s, when the last were being killed, they had already become mythical enough to be credited with potential witchcraft. The same pattern was repeating itself all over Europe so that by the middle of the 18th century the Eastern Atlantic populations were probably confined to a few small colonies in Iceland and the Faroes, and scattered individuals on remote islands. The last confirmed breeding pair in the British Isles was probably on the Orkneys in 1813, although interestingly there is also a possible mention from the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel in the early 1800s. In the 1830s a local man presented the visiting Reverand with an egg he said came from the 'King and Queen Murr', a large flightless bird which used to nest there. According the man's story, he collected it sometime around 1808.[ii] There is just a chance that they hung on a little longer.


Even existing species face a mountain of challenges to overcome in reintroductions. Wolves returning to the Alps have been shot. In Britain, there are great controversies around the wild boar and beavers and even Golden Eagles are still persecuted in some numbers. The challenges facing a recently extinct species may be insurmountable. Yet despite this there are several factors in the Auk's favour, should a captive population ever be produced by genetic means. Firstly, unlike the lynx it is no danger to livestock. Second, it has not really been gone for very long. One hundred and fifty years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. By comparison the wolf disappeared from Britain in the 1700s, the lynx and beaver centuries before that. Compared to that species like the Passenger Pigeon the Great Auk may find their seat still warm. Even the white sailed sea eagle, one of the British Isles most successfully reintroduced species, was absent for nearly one hundred years before it returned. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, its habitat still exists. Despite all the threats it faces, the ocean is still the largest wilderness on the planet. That there would be space for the Great Auk at least seems possible.

Nonetheless big problems would remain. Any new species would be hugely vulnerable. Entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes and marine pollution could take their toll. Illegal killing by poachers and egg collectors too could be a threat, while climate change may have rendered some former parts of its range uninhabitable. This last at least may not be an immediate concern. Indeed, according to some studies it may have been the falling temperatures in the Middle Ages which helped lead to their decline. This period, the so called Little Ice Age in which temperatures in the northern Atlantic region fell below their historical average would have decreased the number of nesting sites available to the species, locking many of its northern strongholds in ice. As the earth has warmed, it may be that its range will have extended slightly. 

There would also be the logistical task of reintroducing and monitoring a population of flightless birds in such a hostile place. Certainly to do so on the offshore rocks of St. Kilda would be very difficult. Landing on the stacks is dangerous in good weather, and almost impossible in bad. Fortunately it may not be necessary. Remote and inaccessible pinnacles and wave-swept skerries were probably never the Auk's favourite nesting spots. The fact that these are the final places they were ever recorded may owe more to the persecution the species suffered, rather than a preference for nesting in such spaces. Funk Island off Newfoundland, is wide and flat, covered in grass and ringed with cliffs, with gently sloping beaches. In the South Atlantic, penguins often seek out sandy beaches or bays with easier access on which to nest.

So what of the main islands of St. Kilda? Devoid of predators and with easy access, Village Bay and its surrounds would seem perfect. At the same time the waters of the archipelago are rich in the kind of prey species the Great Auk is thought to have hunted, albeit in deeper water than is generally considered optimal. Nonetheless the historical presence of the auk in the area, combined with the hundreds of thousands of sea birds which the islands currently support, suggests a small population at least might be sustainable.

Sadly there is no evidence that the Great Auk ever lived on Hirta or Dun, of any of the more accessible islands of St. Kilda. Yet this does not mean that they never did. The soils of the island are not conducive to the preservation of bones, and any ground dwelling birds would likely have been wiped out shortly after the arrival of humans, long before records were kept.[iii] In fact archaeologists have no evidence for any pre-human bird life on the island at all, despite the fact that birds must have nested on the island in some numbers. In the absence of hard data for or against we can look at other places where the Auks lived, and draw parallels. Two former nesting sites, Papa Westray in Orkney and the Magdalen Islands off Canada are, like Funk Island, fairly flat topped and rocky, with grassy interiors and sandy beaches backing onto cliffs. So while most of the last individuals were seen nesting on bare rocks, it is unlikely that this would have been their only habitat. Many species of penguins will nest in long grass and even forests should they be available. Thanks to its isolation, and the care taken by the National Trust, St. Kilda remains free of rats, and its mice are not yet carnivorous like those of the South Atlantic. Even the year-round presence of a small human population, could, if handled properly, be a benefit, affording the animals protection and attention as they re-established themselves. While Hirta is the most obvious candidate, there is another possible site. Just offshore is a small island called Dun. Combined with the main island it forms an arm of the semi-circle which  marks out the ancient volcano. Free from sheep and rarely visited by people it could be easily reached and offers easy access to the sheltered waters of the bay and the open ocean beyond. Yet it is Village Bay that seems most appropriate. Sitting at the harbour and looking up at the sloping crescent and the craggy rocks all around, it is not hard to imagine the little lines of black and white birds making their way down from their nests to the water, scrambling over the rocks as their low cries fill the air. As they reached the surf they would speed up, dashing through waves and porpoising out into the deep. 

As I write these words I sit back at my computer, elated. It suddenly seems so possible, almost a certainty. All it would need is time and money. Yet the return of the Great Auk is still just a fantasy, and one which may never come true. It might even be dangerous.


While the genetic technologies get the most attention, perhaps a bigger question is if an extinct species should be brought back to life. After all, we know what happened in Jurassic Park. In that story, a hugely improbable list of animals were released onto an island orders of magnitudes too small to support them. Once free they began to mutate and escape, causing a trail of death and devastation. Why then are we even considering this? Have we not heard the warnings?

Fortunately, a Jurassic Park scenario at least is unlikely with the species currently being considered for de-extinction. In most cases they are relatively slow breeding animals which were hunted to extinction by humankind. The idea of the Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk or Stellars' Sea Cow engaging in an uncontrolled rampage seems even more far fetched that their creation. Should any species prove to be a major threat however, I suspect they could easily be removed. Even woolly mammoths or Aurochs (a sort of ancient European wildebeest), while no doubt dangerous on a one-on-one basis would not pose much of a practical challenge in an age of advanced weapons and swift transport. Elephants are unfortunately being exterminated with few difficulties in Africa. Furthermore any animals reintroduced would almost certainly be tagged and closely monitored and it would be many years before they were around in sufficient numbers to pose a significant problem to people, at least in the physical sense.

More difficult will be predicting the impacts on the current ecosystems of reintroducing animals which have died out. Again however this is not a unique problem for de-extinction. Many reintroductions of living species seek to return them to areas from which they have been gone for decades or even centuries, or to boost populations so low that they are already ecologically extinct. Indeed for species like the Passenger Pigeon their absence is less than a heartbeat in evolutionary terms. No one can predict what the exact effects of de-extinction might be, but we can make a few guesses. For the Great Auk we can predict that they would consume some fish, perhaps 400 kg per bird per year, a negligible amount in terms of the overall ecosystem. By comparison humans extract some two and a half million tonnes from the North Sea alone every year. Nor, as far as is it known, would the Auk prey selectively on other threatened species, but instead on a wide variety of fish and crustaceans, many of which are also taken by its cousins, the puffins, little auks, guillemots and razorbills, all of which are still found in abundance throughout its northern range. In turn they might occasionally be preyed upon by the few remaining orca in the North Atlantic, or perhaps by the odd shark. Their chicks would undoubtedly provide food for hungry skua and gulls, just as those of puffins and razorbills do, and their guano might provide fertiliser for the plants of the islands on which they nest. All of this is speculation though. There is no real way of knowing exactly what will happen. It seems foolish to assume that the changes will be negative. Reintroducing a native species to its former range will simply change the balance a little. Some other populations may be affected, but the Great Auk will have returned.

Other de-extinct species would have more dramatic impacts. Woolly mammoths would greatly impact the ecology of the tundras and forests in which they live, changing the order of succession of plants and creating openings in woodland, just as elephants do in Africa and Asia. The return of a predator like the Thylacine to Tasmania would mean changes to sheep farming practices and would affect the populations of other prey species. Yet none of these problems seems insurmountable or unique. They will simply be changes. In the same way that the return of the beaver to Scotland is altering waterways and requiring new work to mitigate local flooding, so too would the return of new animals simply provide additional adaptations to be made.    

Some have argued that it would not be right to reintroduce an animal only to see it controlled or exterminated should something go wrong. Yet again this issue is not unique to de-extinction. Reintroductions of living species regularly have to tackle this question. Wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone Park in the United States are now in danger of being culled as their number have swollen. Justified or not, such activities do not invalidate the return of these species, but instead highlight their success. Were the Great Auk ever to become common enough to warrant a call for control by fishing or conservation interests, this might be viewed as a sign that it had truly returned.  Rather than these practical problems, the really serious objections to de-extinction it seems, are more political and philosophical.

Money plays a part, and there are suspicions that de-extinction will draw funds away from front-line conservation. This is a real worry. The existing biodiversity of the world is critically endangered, and it is easy to understand the concerns of those who feel that any distraction should be avoided. Perhaps the strongest concern however is that the very process would devalue to concept of extinction and lead to the loss of more and more species. It will be harder to protect existing plants and animals if there is an impression that we can simply bring them back. In this view de-extinction is a mirage, a kind of Deus-ex-machina in which scientists work miracles and absolve us of our responsibilities. It is a powerful argument, made forcefully by Professor Stuart Pimm of Duke University. Writing in the National Geographic Magazine he described it as a fantasy, with none of the subtlety of the real world. Even worse he feels it may actively lead to the devastation of existing species, on the assumption that there is a get-out clause which can bring them back:

'When I testify before Congress on endangered species, I'm always asked, "Can't we safely reduce the spotted owl to small numbers, keeping some in captivity as insurance?" The meaning is clear: "Let's log out almost all of western North America's old-growth forests because, if we can save species with high-tech solutions, the forest doesn't matter"'.

It is a situation I can recognise. Clearly, there are powerful interests that would stand to benefit greatly from anything which might undermine concern for wildlife and endangered species. I wrote to Ben Novak to get his response and he replied, saying: 'De-extinction will surely change people's views of extinction, but it will never cause the extinction of another species. I can say this with such certainty because de-extinction is not an entirely foreign tool for conservation, and when fully understood it emphasizes the need to prevent extinction. Not every species can be revived once it goes extinct; the criteria that are needed to do de-extinction are so particular that there are many endangered species that it would not work for. If we lose them, they are completely lost. De-extinction is not meant to be a back up or even a last resort fail safe, it is the ability to reach into the past and bring into the picture methods and ideas of conservation that we have not been able to do. 

'In truth, the idea of engineering extinct species is merely the next step in the continuum of conservation de-extinction. De-extinction is something we already do - when a population goes extinct locally we bring in animals from another population. We also reintroduce animals that have gone extinct in the wild, through captive breeding. We introduce extinct genetics into dwindling populations via translocation. Our work is a means to translocate extinct genes from the museum collection drawer, from history. It's a way to change the definition of extinction - so that if we have a DNA molecule and just the right criteria, even a dead species can still be repopulated.
'I don't feel this change in the definition of extinction is a downgrade, but a more scientific realization of technology. A downgrade to the definition of extinction, even when framed that way, is an upgrade to the prospects of hope.'

I find both of these arguments persuasive, but also incomplete. Those who suggest that to spend resources on de-extinction is wasteful or dangerous are recycling arguments which have been used against rewilding and reintroductions too, claiming that to spend time and energy creating new habitats and reintroducing species when there are others threatened elsewhere is perverse. In one sense they are right, but I feel they misunderstand the importance of providing a hopeful message, and also the nature of the resources available. By offering something spectacular and dramatic, and something which can be built through participation, rewilding fires the imagination and can raise money in ways that standard conservation cannot, and de-extinction may be the same. The amounts of money spent on wildlife protection are relatively tiny, and instead of competing it is just possible that projects like this will inspire a public desensitized to tales of destruction and extinction into far greater acts of philanthropy.

On the other hand, it is probably foolish to believe that this technology will be used just by those with the best of intentions, and I think in this respect the supporters of de-extinction are probably being a little naive. Already a new craze known as 'biodiversity offsetting' threatens to overturn environmental protections in favour of 'recreating' habitats and ecosystems elsewhere, however impossible that may be. A look at some of those who support de-extinction sets alarm bells ringing. A recent conference in Newcastle was organised by Matt Ridley – the former Northern Rock banker and columnist, arch climate contrarian and coal baron – a man who has done as much as many to stop action to protect the natural world.

And the groundwork for problems is already laid. In the UK the government has mooted plans to allow developers to destroy old growth forests if they plant new trees elsewhere, in complete ignorance of the biological importance of mature ecosystems. In India a push for 'smart green infrastructure' may allow development in areas where it would formerly have been illegal, like National Parks, as long as a bit of mitigation is tacked on alongside. It is the evil twin of rewilding, twisting the concept of creating new habitats over time, and turning it into a commodity. In a climate of ever dwindling space and conflict over resources, it is not hard to imagine that 'species offsetting', relying on genetic technology, could become equally misused. Governments or corporations might assemble a vault in which to bank biodiversity for the future, trading off current extinctions for future life.

Even worse, rich individuals or corporations might decide to become involved in the process itself, funding the creation of private menageries of extinct creatures. Indeed, exotic species have long been the preserve of oligarchs and Mafia dons. In 2011 police raids on the boss of a Mexican drug cartel uncovered a huge private collection of more than two hundred animals. In fact seizures of exotic pets have become so common in Mexico they are putting a strain on the country's zoos where they are sent for rehousing.[iv]

There is potential too for those with the resources to create new, never before seen, animals for their amusement. A reclusive Doctor Moreau creating monsters, or a new species of Starbucks whale or a Huaiwei panda do not seem so far fetched. Indeed, just as in Jurassic Park, there are already questions emerging over the authenticity of these new creatures. Will they really be Passenger Pigeons, or will they just look a bit like them? Some have proposed that we will need to use the term 'analogue' to make the distinction clear. Other question whether that even matters. For their part many of the proponents of de-extinction argue that this technology is coming anyway. Perhaps not in ten or twenty years, but possibly in forty or fifty. The question now is if we choose to ignore it, or if we try to counter these excesses before they begin. Even if the de-extinction of a functioning species is impossible, by discussing the issue we may at least prevent the worst outcomes. 

It is traditional to end stories about the Great Auk with the anecdote about the time a number of their eggs were put up for sale in Edinburgh in 1880. After the auction one observer was said to remark sadly, 'but the eggs are of no use; they will never hatch'. For the first time since their extinction, that sentence no longer seems quite so certain, and perhaps this is the real story. Working in wildlife conservation is so often about being the undertaker, about dealing with inevitable decline and loss. Against that backdrop it is unsurprising that increasing numbers of people will turn to de-extinction as a reservoir of hope. I am no different, and in spite of myself I cannot fail to find it exciting. If I close my eyes and let my imagination run I can see a diversity and abundance of life we can scarcely understand returned. Yet like rewilding, de-extinction is a reflection of despair as much as positivity. It is our Eldey, our St. Kilda. The last and final refuge.

[1]    It may also come from a Portuguese phrase.

[iii]  Pers Comms. With Susan Haig, Chief Archeologist of St. Kilda for National Trust for Scotland.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Field in summer

Was down at the field the other day, and it's looking super summery. Here are a few pictures from the field and its surrounds in late June. In terms of animals - the mammals were lying low when I was there, but there were finches, skylarks, pheasants, wrens, herons, buzzards and a huge number of dragonflies, butterflies and of course, horseflies.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

'Mon the fox

Its easy to forget how great foxes are. So common and suburban, so much abused in agricultural folklore and the media, this perfect little predator is rarely given its due.

Their orange-red fur is the match of any dhole or jackal, particularly in winter when they have their thickest coats. I once saw one tracking down geese at first light on Dartmoor, and it struck me that this was the equal of any small hunter I had seen on the plains of India. 

Anyway - here are a few pieces of footage of a fox which appears to frequent my field, taken over a couple of weeks just after Christmas. Hunting, calling, running from the rain. I'm glad I can help provide a refuge.

As a final aside fox hunting back in the news with the soon to be PM Theresa May saying she will have a free vote on the issue. I don't want to get into the issue over whether predators need 'control' but two things are clear. 

If we eat less meat then fewer predators will need controlled. 

Fox hunting is wrong. Yes, animals get killed violently all the time, and that's just the way it is, but why would we wish to inflict that horror on another living thing for no reason? Those - like Jacob Rees-Mogg - who have tried to claim that hunting with dogs is more humane than say, being shot with a rifle, are lying to themselves to justify their support of hunting. We should ask them whether they personally would rather be shot with a high powered rifle, or chased by a mob and torn apart by dogs. Didn't think so. 

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Tactical voting around Bristol

For the progressive in Britain, these are dark times. Theresa May has called an election to win herself a big mandate. For what exactly we don't know, but she is banking on the short turnaround, dislike of the Labour leader and general confusion to win her the vote. And she is probably right. Let's be clear that the Conservatives will almost certainly win this general election. The question is by how much, and if there will be interesting upsets along the way.

The job for those of us who disagree with her politics, and who want a more pro-Europe, pro-environment and generally less xenophobic and authoritarian future, is to try and blunt her victory and hope that something unexpected happens. Given that she is looking forward to a huge win, anything less will be a big blow.

So we need to swallow our concerns over parties that will probably not be in government anyway. We need the Parties to make deals too. They need to grow up, and we need to stop worrying about what happened with tuition fees or Iraq. Neither matters in this election.

Where I live in Bristol this means tactical voting, and pushing the Parties to talk to each other. Here are the constituencies near me, and voting suggestions.

Bristol West - Suggest Green
In Bristol West we are lucky to have a three way fight between the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Labour. Both Greens and LDs are pro-Europe and have offered a ratification referendum on whatever deal is agreed. The sitting Labour MP is pro-Europe, her party less so. They accept Brexit but will likely want a better kind than the government. I will be voting Green (Molly Scot Cato), because they can win, and more Green MPs would be a good thing. Personally I think the LDs should withdraw in exchange for the Greens stepping down in Bath, but that's another story.

Bristol NW - Probably suggest Labour
Like Bristol West this was a remain voting area. But it has a hard Leaver Tory MP called Charlotte Leslie. I would vote to get rid of her. The best bet for that seems to be Labour's Darren Jones. The seat has always been either Conservative or Labour, so while I am not 100% certain, I think its the best bet. He is pro-European and pro-environment. If the Greens step aside he will have a better chance. If I was a pro-European conservative who could not bring myself to vote Labour, I would stay at home or vote Liberal Democrat, assuming they do not pull out, which they probably should.

Bristol East - Suggest Labour
Bristol East has a pro-European Labour MP called Kerry McCarthy. She is also good on the environment. I would vote for her. The Conservatives really want this seat. Greens and Libdems will not win and should step aside.

Bristol South - Suggest Labour
Bristol South has a not very pro-European MP called Karyn Smith. She has quite a big UKIP vote in her seat. The Conservatives could win it. I would reluctantly vote for her, as her Party is more pro-European and pro-Environment than the conservatives. Greens and Libdems would be unlikely to win.

Bath - Suggest Liberal Democrat
Outside Bristol the LDs are the main opposition. I would vote for them in Bath where they topped the recent Metro Mayor polls (albeit on a low turnout) and have a good chance of winning. Greens and Labour will not win here and should step aside this time.

Thornbury and Yate - Suggest Liberal Democrat
Pretty much the same as Bath. Again Greens and Labour should step aside or de-escalate their campaigns.

North East Somerset - not sure, perhaps Lib Dems, perhaps Greens to build long term alternative
Jacob-Rees Mogg's constituency. Yup the Conservative party's own right-wing Kermit the Frog. Just do whatever you can.

North Somerset - Suggest LD or possibly Green/Labour
This is Liam Fox territory, with UKIP, Labour and LDs all on a similar vote. LD were the main challengers before their collapse in 2010 and so would seem the most likely to re-emerge in future.

None however is likely to beat him this time, so vote for which ever you would like to help build a base in the longer term.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Badger and deer

Was down checking on the field at the weekend, and looking at the camera trap pictures. Thought I'd pop these up.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Beavers prove a winner for Greens

Nice little bit of good news.

The Green Party have won a seat on a local council in the Forest of Dean from UKIP with a pledge to support the reintroduction of beavers to prevent flooding. I can't say if it was the main reason they won, but I'd like to think so.

Anyway, I didn't know it, but it turns out there is an official discussion underway about beaver reintroduction in the area - involving the local wildlife trusts and some charities. Combined with other reintroductions in Devon, Wales and Scotland and escapee populations in Kent, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and elsewhere, its just more momentum to the growing spread of the wild beaver across Britain, which will be a boost for fish, for flood prevention, for birds and every other thing that creepeth along the river bank.

It could also be a relief for the Forest of Dean's wild boar population as UKIP councillors have in the past been among those calling for them to suffer a major cull.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Bristol should have a 'hotel tax' to fund low carbon transition

I think it's time that Bristol seriously considered having a 'city tax'. This would be a small amount of money levied on tourists staying in hotels in the city, raising funds for important projects. In my view there is a strong case that this money should be used to aid the transition to a low-carbon economy, and specifically targeted at lower-income households.

The point is that Bristol needs money. Like other authorities around the country Bristol City Council is in trouble, with a £92 million hole in its next five year budget. At the same time the city itself is booming, with population, construction and tourism expanding rapidly. We also know that the transition to a low carbon, environmentally friendly economy is both the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity of the coming decades. It is also essential. We simply cannot carry on as normal.

A tourist tax would help with both, and would also be a fair tax. Tourism is a high-carbon and relatively high-income business, and a little tax on it is justified.

Bristol receives around 526,000 international tourists a year. If each spends on average six nights in the city, then there is the potential to raise millions of pounds. There are also around 1.5 million domestic tourists, each spending around 2 nights in the city (they should also pay the hotel tax). Of course the tourism industry also brings over a billion pounds to the local economy, so there would be no advantage in making the tax punitive, but a small amount would be justified.

Lots of cities have these taxes - from Amsterdam to Cologne, Paris to Singapore - and Bristol's close neighbour Bath is also considering it. No doubt parts of the hotel industry will cry foul, but there is no reason to worry. A tax of £2 per night per person on a hotel room might earn the city £12 million a year. That would be less than 0.1% of the total tourism spend on the local economy, so would be unlikely to harm the industry, and would give money directly to the Council.

£12 million is not vast, but it is not nothing either. And it would be a start. It is one of the few taxes a city can have which is not a tax on the electorate, making it politically viable. Finally if the tax was publicly and visibly advertised as helping the environment many tourists would welcome it, and it would boost Bristol's 'green credentials' which are an important part of its overall 'brand' (itself something which draws tourism).

So what would we do with this small windfall? It could be targeted at specific functions - such as deploying solar power on low-income housing. The returns (small though they currently are, around 3%-4%) could accrue to the Council, while residents would get lower electricity bills.

Other good options would include home insulation to make a contribution to fuel poverty, biodiversity projects in the city (here a few million could make a very big difference), affordable zero-carbon housing, or public transport.

At the very least it is worth a try. It would be a bold move, and a fair one. Give it five or ten years, and then see who wants to get rid of it.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Is Bristol in danger of losing its trees?

Is Bristol in danger of losing its trees? Its a genuine question, and one I don't yet have the full answer to. But I've done some digging and I'm concerned. Let me explain.

Trees are one of the nicest things about Bristol. Particularly the old ones. But in recent months I've noticed quite a few little white signs seeking permission to cut them down - for development, for rebuilding, for health and safety, for disease. A lot of renovations seem to involve removing mature trees. One in particular caught my eye from a developer in Clifton who wanted to remove two huge oak trees because they were decaying. The planning office was unable to insist on their replacement.

Individually these applications could be reasonable, but what of the cumulative effect? How many established trees are being lost, and are they being replaced? The trouble with trees is that they take a long time to get old, and unless there has been continuous replanting, there will be big gaps. That's bad for wildlife, air quality and the character of the area, and it's just not as nice.

From a Freedom of Information request I got a list of all the times permission has been sought to fell trees. This only covers trees in conservation areas, so I have no idea how many are being lost elsewhere, but its a start.

From this data we can see that around 3800-4000 trees have been lost in the last 5 years (a conservative estimate from the number of trees mentioned in each application). That might not sound too bad, but these are only the ones in conservation areas which required permission. That excludes much of the city.

Plotting the location of the trees removed on google maps give the spread below.

And what of replacements? Looking at the entries in the FOI data, only a small minority of applications indicate that new trees will replace those being removed, about 130 trees replanted in all.

In addition, very few applications were refused or had tree preservation orders imposed - around 70 out of 2343 applications.

Of course Bristol has planted lots of new trees in that time - about 39,000 by the Council as part of Tree Bristol and the One Tree Per Child scheme, including at least 129 street trees. But where are they? I've been trying to get a comprehensive map, but have not yet managed to find one.

We can however get a clue from the Council's adopt a tree policy, which allows individuals to adopt trees that have already been planted. Looking at the adopt a tree map from Bristol City Council you can see that almost all of the trees that have been planted by the city are in the same few parks, and open areas, quite separate from the old garden and street trees being lost in conservation areas, and perhaps, the rest of the city (we don't know).

Individuals too have likely planted thousands of trees - no permissions are needed - but again, as far as I can tell, we simply don't know.

The point of all this is that I have a concern. Without some way of accounting for the cumulative impact of losing old trees, and without being able to ensure that on average they are replaced, there is a risk that the ancient garden and street trees which give large parts of Bristol its character will be hollowed out and lost.

There is a threat too that as trees mature, take up more space and become more difficult to handle then the easiest thing will be to simply remove them and either not replace them or replace them with different species, such as the ubiquitous plane trees which blanket all new developments - a danger that seems more likely than ever given the financial crisis facing our councils. Indeed this may already be happening. There have been stories that Bristol City Council cannot afford to replace trees that it is removing, while in Sheffield the city council is removing trees on roads to cut down on maintenance costs.

This is not to say that this is all the fault of the Council, or that they are not aware of the problem. Far from it - the Tree Bristol and One Tree Per Child schemes look very worthwhile, and planting community forests is a great idea - but we must also take care of the every day urban trees that are essential to the character and ecosystem of a city.

I have tried to contact the council to chat through some of these points, but so far, no joy. I'll keep you posted. Do let me know in the comments if you have any insights or corrections.