Sunday, 14 October 2007

BANC AGM & Great Bustard Visit, 13th October 2007

Photos 1-4 & 6 by Mathew Frith. Photo 5 by Rick Minter.

The Bustard Inn
The Bustard Inn, near Shrewton, Wiltshire, venue of BANC's AGM 2007.

Stuffed great bustard in the bar of the Bustard Inn.

We spotted three young bustards, recent releases, on the far side of the release pen.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Also, He Loved A Tree

In ECOS 28 (1) Martin Spray, the assistant editor and sometime editor, mused at length on what it means to love Nature and the implications for its conservation, in his article 'Also he loved a tree'. You can read it here. This piece prompted an exchange with another of BANC's original thinkers, Barry Larking, which correspondence is reproduced here ...

Dear Martin,

In making the subject of your latest essay in ECOS (1) 'love' you have advanced a characteristically contrarian viewpoint. The essay has several strands of thought but they come together over the 'soul' of conservation. Many of us are concerned that, in concentrating on 'materialist' aims and outcomes, conservation is forgetting why - what is it for? This concern is made particularly clear in the last two paragraphs of your essay, which are in marked contrast to what went before. I note that the penultimate paragraph turns away completely from philosophical musings and towards utilitarian ideas: "we might be more successful". What does success mean here?

What use is love? Or is that the point ... that it has no use? Like a cloud outside my window as I write this, it just is. Obviously I realise that cloud is a product of scientifically understood processes, but its cultural impact on me is greater or stronger - and this came first. However, can anyone blame a conservationist or planner from taking the view that what works is pragmatism and having a plan, not thinking about what words mean? I think I have been there ...

Years ago, in a bad tempered team meeting of professional conservationists, I misquoted (from memory) a line from 'Lapis Lazuli' by W.B. Yeats. Put shortly, in this poem Yeats thinks about futility and human endurance.

"Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce."

I fear it had no effect on our conversation except to confirm the other people around the table that I had 'lost it'. At the time it summed up for me the dilemma at the heart of our dispute. What does it matter what we do, in the grand scheme of things?

And yet, what to do? Without love or something like it ("My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird"(2)) conservation is dead meat on a slab ... maybe just the slab. Without policies, bureaucrats and planning, the land goes to ruin, species die out. What would conservation be like if it were left to poets?

Best Wishes,

(1) 'Also he loved a tree', ECOS Vol. 28, No. 1, pp 27-40.
(2) From 'The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

Dear Barry,

You’ve not only read it, but think that the threads come together ... I’m still not sure about that! You’re right, though, about the ending. I struggled with several versions and the words published are the ones I was least dissatisfied with.

Don’t look for insights into what actually to do to achieve conservation. I am merely trying to encourage people to take a wider view, to keep checking that they are still in touch with base, and to walk on both legs. One is the rational leg, the other is the emotional leg. Both are normally needed for balance ... and action. I certainly don’t think either by itself is sufficient for supporting conservation. The latter tends to be the one neglected and I’m afraid that we still think of conservation predominantly in terms of the former: “a philosophy directed at the manner and timing of resource use”, as someone called it.

I don’t know what ‘success’ means. I mean that I couldn’t say with great confidence in which direction we should head, though I’m extremely uncomfortable where we are now. I probably shouldn’t have used that word. I’ll say, though, that it depends on who asks the question. You say “land goes to ruin, species die out”. Well, it’s in the nature of species to disappear, one way or another, and although the land may be ruined from our viewpoint and for our purposes, I’d hesitate to speak for any other being, let alone for all ‘Nature’!

Taking a resourcist rationale as a basis for action – whether arrogantly, paternalistically or as a duty – takes us (i.e. all beings) towards a danger. Its selectivity denies ‘Nature’ some of the freedom to, as it were, do its own thing in the way it wants ... or, you might say, as the gods intended. It’s a bit much to assume that we know better than Nature how Nature works, yet we persist in acting as though we do.

Taking what I shall call a loving attitude is (isn’t it?) understanding and accepting that we don’t know. By ’we’, I mean people generally but also conservationists collectively. In a way, conservation, or being green, or whatever label you want, is simply acting in that understanding.

Heaven forfend that poets (I’ll assume a wide meaning for that word) should run the job one-leggedly. That would be no improvement on BAPists and sloganizers. Is that a bit harsh to both sides? Misquoting my pragmatic alter ego, perhaps we should try to link these divergent approaches into a genuine partnership, an inclusive forum for sharing views and knowledge, as that might result in a powerful voice for conservation. But Martin must be more optimistic than me: I think he hears one voice and I hear several.

Certainly, a better dialogue is needed urgently. I’d love [sic] to know what other readers made of that issue of ECOS. Should we change its name to EROS - A review of conservation?

Meanwhile ... may poets continue a long history of telling us important things. Back in the Middle Ages, for instance, Anon wrote that A man may a while / Nature beguile / By doctrine and lore * / And yet in the end / Will Nature have wend / There she was before. We should wend that way too, as Spenser warns us in the ‘Faerie Queene’: For he, that once hath missèd the right way, / The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.

Odd that, if we see ourselves as part of ‘Nature’... but they are only poets’ words! Have I confused you some more?

Best wishes

* We might say ‘theory and acquired knowledge’. Or should that be ’targets and transferable skills’?

Dear Martin,

At once let me say that your suggestion that ECOS be re-named EROS is a winner. BANC might, however, find that they are attracting an odd sort of audience. (But any audience would do ... really? Titles must mean something).

To return to the subject under discussion. There are various examples floating about of the concept of 'love' applied to conservation as outlined in your essay. I feel they come together around the question of sensibility. Sensibility, in an eighteenth century meaning, invokes the concept of holding several motives at once in some kind of balance, reverently. Love is perhaps a close example of this, a complex of emotions and actual effects which, unbridled, cause these same emotions to overpower even rational people. Of course, speaking of the unbridled, the eighteenth century also gave us the Romantics.

The problem is - and the last two paragraphs of your essay seem to say this - the bureaucratic and managerial has pushed these constructs out of sight ... for a reason. Conservation has become, in its daily operation, a matter of policy implementation and organisation, rather than waiting to be swept off one's feet by a contrast or contradiction ("... and he loved a tree"). Managers need to deliver results which can be demonstrated. (Delivery, targets, inputs and outcomes ... Oh! A whole beastly lexicon of terms floats into view!). But could it be any different for practical purposes? One speculates.

Jonathan Miller, doctor of medicine, opera director, writer and sculptor, described how - once upon a time - doctors were encouraged to 'read' their patients by studying their movements and characteristic expressions of speech and gesture, the better to understand them and their reported condition: the physical mediated by the psychological presentation of disorder. This, he lamented, seemed not to occur any more in the training of physicians. Patients are 'things' which might be mended or not. Is a lack of sympathy – or empathy – something which might also apply to professional conservationists in their daily tasks?

Ought we ask budding environmentalists to write about the landscapes of Ruysdael (1), or Thomson's "The Seasons" (2), in the light of current and present questions relating to the environment? (It occurs to me that your students may indeed have been asked to do so - no matter). Maybe an insight into the mainsprings of the music of George Butterworth (3) or Stanford (4)? Is it desirable to produce 'managers' of landscapes for whom landscapes represent more than a set of functional objectives? I think we can agree that it would be.

But again I must ask if we have the right to demand this. Recent floods have underlined how fragile our state is. Without those things we take for granted – electricity, clean water, access – brute old Mother Nature makes life difficult if not unpleasant and, for too many, desperate. Someone has to get their hands dirty for us to have the space to dream. George Gissing in "The Private Papers Of Henry Ryecroft" (5) reminds us, watching women and men weeding a crop field in the rain with old sacks over them to keep the weather off, that only the materially secure have the time and space to wonder at the beauty of Nature. We (as in "I mean people generally but also conservationists collectively"), the inclusive majority, want more or less similar things in our lives, some material, some not. But is the alternative to planned environment a free market in conservation? ("... ‘Nature’ some of the freedom to, as it were, do its own thing in the way it wants"). What would that be like? Let everything do its own thing and just accept the consequences?

In the region where I live Red Squirrels are not uncommon, however, Greys are increasingly sighted and, in the fullness of time if no action is taken, the strong likelihood is that Reds will be replaced across the whole of Great Britain by Grey Squirrels. Will a video record - or a poem - do for coming generations to know these creatures?

Best Wishes,

(1) Salomon van Ruysdael, Dutch landscape artist, (ca.1600 – 1670)
(2) James Thomson, Scottish playwright and poet (1700 – 1748)
(3) George Butterworth, English composer (1885 – 1916)
(4) Charles Villiers Stanford, Irish composer (1852 –1924)
(5) George Gissing, English writer, (1857 – 1903). "The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft" was published in 1903.

Dear Barry,

You ask “Is it desirable to produce 'managers' of landscapes for whom landscapes represent more than a set of functional objectives?” Well, yes, surely it would be ... but can you say how?

Trying to take a wide view of things, I keep seeing a large part of the situation about which we’re both concerned being associated with the colonising of ‘conservation’ - and much else - by a brand of professionalism. I’m no fan of muddling-through as an approach to action, but equally I have not much faith in progress reports and evaluation criteria and other bits of your ‘beastly lexicon’ as a means of saving the world.

Nor have I a great faith in what we call ‘education’. Gaining of information and training in technique, which is commonly mistaken for education, might make us professionally accredited; it might make us skilled, practical conservers too, but it wouldn’t itself make us conservationists. Isn’t that a matter of why you do what you do? Although one can profess them, surely one can’t ‘professionalize’ beliefs and attitudes and emotions. (Sorry about the sanctimonious tone edging in here.) The institutionalizing of conservation into an accredited community is accompanied by a discrediting of the rest of us. In particular, in the present context, it gives no credit to why many conservationists count themselves as conservationists: because of respect, friendship, love, compassion, awe, fellowship, at-one-ness, belief or gut feeling.

My gut feeling at this moment is that I’m becoming disillusioned (again). Should I be? Am I beginning to describe yet another dichotomy in our society: on the one hand, let’s call them the managers, on the other, let’s call them the lovers? My gut goes on to tell me that that’s how the conservation scene looks - BANC and ECOS included - but that the different parties have as yet hardly begun to consider the possible benefits of coming together to present their points of view for open discussion (BANC and ECOS probably included).

I doubt if there would be two ‘poles’ and a void between. Could we hope that there would be a significant move - to steal your words - towards holding several motives at once in some kind of balance?

However, it’s necessary first to start the discussion.


Monday, 30 July 2007

A Few More Water Thoughts ... And Some History

By Martin Spray

Whether down in the water or up on the hill, we’ll all have to pay for whatever comes after the floods. I hope it will be assumed that this summer is not a one-off event and that we act accordingly. Some actions are relatively simple. Water butts built in as a matter of routine is a good example – and not just to collect water for the garden. Thought needs to be given to grey-water storage as well. There are plenty of ideas around at this small scale – some, for instance, came under the heading of permaculture. Not that all could easily be translated into a city context. And this still leaves the big question: what to do about global warming, whatever might be the cause?

Yes, water is quite heavy ... but surprisingly cheap. I can’t remember how much I pay for water. We have a piped supply in, but soakaways, storage tanks and a septic tank, and so a small bill. It would still be small if I constructed a waterfall in the garden and ran tapwater over it all day and every day of the year. As a society, we have a very basic and huge problem here: the change we need to make to our attitudes to, and the way we value, such ‘resources’ as water is a revolutionary one. Conservationists are as reluctant as anyone to face that. Mea culpa. And mea culpa is what most worries me and leads to thoughts about catastrophe theory.

I suppose age is making me a bit impatient. I want new forests, with big herbivores and a few top carnivores, and I want them now. I can see that there are lots of positive things happening out there (including the start of new forests) but, in conformity with human nature, we really aren’t yet facing the big issues. Of course things take time ... but I am persistently and increasingly aware of saying, and of hearing, the same things as thirty, forty years ago. It’s as if (as they say) only the names have been changed.

And finally ...

I am not sure that one can take heart from them, but here are a few fairly random historical comparisons with the recent weather in Britain. They are dippings into J.M. Stratton’s Agricultural Records A.D. 220 – 1977.

Between June 29th and August 15th rain fell on 47 days, and every day but one in July was wet. Only once in the summer did the temperature rise to 76F.

Almost continuous rain fell from the beginning of April to early July. “All low meadows in the kingdom floated ... The damage done almost incredible. In three days five inches of rain fell”.

An excessively wet summer, with almost continuous rain from mid-summer to Christmas. Serious floods followed, and much of the harvest was not gathered. The Black Death caused very heavy mortality.

On June 24th a tremendous storm caused flooding and much damage to cornfields in the west of England ... Owing to almost continuous rains, the harvest was very late, some of it not being gathered until November 1st. Many people in England died of famine this year.

A year of storm and rain, with much consequent disease. This began a series of famine years which lasted until 1066.


Sunday, 29 July 2007

Bowsers, butts, buckets & bottles

By Rick Minter

Martin suggests the gentleman (actually my dad) might be filling his watering can for the garden. Sorry to appear defensive, but all our buckets and containers were already pressed into action catching water alongside the water butts. I'm puzzled at the lack of water butts among my neighbours - why not harness the bountiful precipitation gushing over your roof? Water butts are cheap, effective, low-tech devices and perhaps should come as standard with new homes, as a condition of planning.

Without mains water, it's things like the washing-up that are the challenge: grey water isn't up to it and the bottled stuff seems too precious for the dishes, so hair-washing and the crockery are the main candidates for bowser water in my household. Oh, and like most of the water-deprived Gloucestershire residents, I smell of wet wipes at present. They're a neat way of washing with no, or minimal, water and I feel less guilty having found a supply of biodegradable wipes in Waitrose.

Incidentally, a week ago I'd not heard the word bowser and assumed it was a breed of dog when it was first mentioned. Now it's in common daily use across Gloucestershire and in the media.

There are two lessons I've learnt with the water management this week. Both are simple and obvious, but sink in only at the moment they become real. First, water is heavy stuff. It's tiring to cart water around in buckets and bottles, and I'm glad I don't have that many stairs to negotiate or a baby in the household to magnify the water needs. Of course, carrying water is a daily routine for millions of people elsewhere in the world - aren't we a bunch of softies? The second lesson is how time consuming it all is. I reckon it adds a couple of hours to the daily chores to use water from bowsers, butts, buckets and bottles. Washing up - we do it once at the end of the day to be frugal - takes an age, as do most other mundane functions of rinsing and washing.

Finally, to continue nit-picking Martin's comments, the New Midlands Forest certainly did happen, as the New National Forest (we obviously haven't given it sufficient attention in ECOS), and as for those "puny pumas" we get in Gloucestershire, well, they'll have moved to higher ground as the water rose, meaning even more big cats will be at your door in the Forest, Martin (they prefer deer, rabbits and the odd pet anyway).

Back to the buckets ...

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Thoughts on the Floods

By Martin Spray.

Is the gentleman by the bowser about to fill a watering-can? But his garden’s awash! (Of course I’m smug. I’m only a few miles away, but have a 650-feet advantage over the Plaindwellers.)

It may not be PC to say so, but the events of the past few weeks (aka summer) confirm my fear that catastrophe theory is valid. Only by facing extreme conditions do we begin to accept that the views of "weirdoes" and "extremists" might have some validity. Only when peering into the Abyss do we agree that it was silly to rush towards it. Flood-plains are flood-plains are flood-plains. If you live on one, expect floods.

If water can’t go where it wants to go, it will go somewhere else ... or somewhere else. Maybe that should be in the National Curriculum. We shall soon see that ‘natural hazard’ control is like the NHS: there are many great things we can do - but we can’t afford to do them all - and some things we can't (as yet) do. It seems highly unlikely that we can stop it (or start it) raining, or stop the rivers rising. Cnut demonstrated something similar. It’s said that, in 2205 BC, the great waterway engineer Yu reported: “O Sovereign, the Earth has been reduced to order ... and the treasuries of Nature ... are all truly regulated, and may be depended on for ten thousand generations". He was wrong.

What we humans can do - and are quite good at - is live ‘with’ this thing we call Nature. But it involves backing off a bit. We can live on flood-plains, but it might need houses to be built on stilts, or with easily-evacuated basements, or, indeed, to be floatable (but not necessarily houseboats). It would certainly require the acceptance of greater diversity rather than driving for uniformity – in housing, farming, transport, lifestyle. Easy to say, of course, but if you don’t think much of the status quo then it seems reasonable to say it.

Continuing the (apparent) silliness: I remember being taken by the idea of a ‘New Midlands Forest’. I still think it would be a good idea. We should have gone ahead with it. But I wondered why we weren’t also hearing, for instance, about the New Midlands Bog. Or the New Severn Swamp ... perhaps more enticingly named the Severn Everglades (the Severnglades, even)? It would relieve us of the need to deny geography. It would allow whole communities and economies to develop with a wetland ecology. At the shallower end of 'Ecology', it would offer tremendous recreation opportunities. At the Deep End ... well, what a chance for re-wilding! And with global warming, forget puny pumas. Think alligators!

The Pludds (it means something like 'muddy patch'), Forest of Dean

Friday, 27 July 2007

Business As Usual for ECOS Printer, Severnprint

Loss of power and water in Gloucester on Monday 23rd July, caused by the exceptional flooding in the city, forced ECOS's printer, Severnprint, to close for the day, but a combination of technical innovation, improvised plumbing and the Dunkirk spirit enabled the company quickly to open its doors for business again on the following day, despite the ongoing crisis.

For BANC members and ECOS subscribers, this means that the publication of the upcoming ECOS issue, Vol. 28, No. 2, will proceed on schedule during August.

David Pealing of Severnprint explained to Rick Minter, ECOS editor:

"We recently switched to 'processless plates'. This eliminated our previously largest use of water and so we are working normally, illustrating the benefit of using as few resources as possible. However, without electricity we couldn't work on Monday.

"Our lavatories are working with water that we ship in from outside in our cars and vans. We have rigged up a 12-volt caravan pump which pressurises the cold water system, so we can use the lavatories and cold water sparingly, which is legal!

"So if you have the next ECOS ready, please bring it on!".

For more info and pictures, see

July 2007 Floods in Gloucestershire

Photos and comments by Rick Minter

Residents using a water bowser just yards away from the ECOS office in Gloucestershire in July 2007. The River Severn floodwater contaminated a water treatment plant, affecting water supplies in and around Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester, with residents and businesses relying on the distribution of bottled water and bowsers. Many water bowsers in Gloucestershire have been subject to irresponsible use, but residents at this one photographed have remarked how it's like having a village pump meeting place.

One of the benefits of the floods and water crisis has been the emergence of a strong community spirit, and one of the challenges will be to cope with the mass use of plastic bottles, with over one million due to be disposed of in coming days and weeks. People are already debating how they can be re-used and recycled, and pressing the authorities for direction on this.
The night the rains came to Gloucestershire. The Hatherley Brook spills its banks and floods the neighbouring golf course.

This photo was taken at 6:30pm. It is unenhanced, to give an impression of the darkness of an early evening in July!

The River Avon in spectacular flood at the Gloucestershire-Worcestershire border.

The following photos were taken just a mile from the ECOS office, a few days after the main event when the water level had subsided!

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Wildland Access and Preservation

By Barry Larking

Ed: The following polemic is simply too enjoyable to remain only as a comment on the blog entry by Stanley Owen. It is only slightly edited. Barry, please contact me if you are unhappy with this.

I have just returned from walking in the 'wildland' of Sutherland and Caithness. On one long trek in the sunshine the rest of the UK was not getting I noticed an old friend: the innocent, fragrant Myrica gale, or Bog Asphodel. It brought back memories ...

One afternoon sitting at my desk at the Scottish HQ of the old NCC, minding my own business, I was interrupted by a colleague anxiously seeking help. The problem was urgent, or as urgent as anything at the NCC could be. Tax Dodge Foresters were circling around a prize piece of Highland property, threatening decapitation by furrow and Sitka. How to 'sell' this piece of rain-swept, apparently lifeless, hunk of rock and vegetable waste-ground to the 'Big Public'? 'Bog' did not sound like a good place to begin.

Belatedly the NCC had discovered that science alone cannot turn on the Big Public's juices. Descriptions of oligotrophic processes, infertile build-ups of plant matter and specialised micro-climate strategies (the total absence of anything resembling a life-form, as it is generally understood, was not mentioned, obviously): none of this could swing a reprieve. Even now an official would be standing over a politician, pen in hand, telling him to sign away the future of (putative) eagles and falcons for the good of the country's timber supply (allegedly). What to do? Think up a name that would elicit the Big Public's sympathy.

For some reason Myrica gale got the gig. Could I think of another way to describe this plant in such a way as to grab the Big Public's imagination? Drop 'Bog' for starters, obviously. Too many unpleasant connotations ... or not enough, anyway. Could I re-invent this harmless little plant in the spotlight? I think I was too abashed at being asked such a question. I could not.

My colleague left the room, deep in travail. Eventually, the NCC's hand was forced and Creag Meghaidh was purchased for the people. Problem solved. My little friend grows on in humble innocence of its near moment of greatness. But what has this to do with 'wildland' and access?

Forty years ago British conservation met its Waterloo at Cow Green, Upper Teesdale (1). The failure to secure this site for its great significance to natural history created a deep and lasting shock wave within conservation circles. It was concluded that lessons had to be learned. Now history is full of examples of wrong lessons being learnt from such traumatic events and losses ... and the fall-out from Cow Green, I suggest, was among them.

The conclusion drawn at the time was that the presentation of the case against the reservoir by the objectors – scientists to the fore – was flawed. Lawyers for the scheme's promoters were able to demonstrate that the expert witnesses were either ill-informed or simply unable convincingly to prove a case. What was required then, by future conservationists, was data: solid, verifiable, statistically valid fact. This eventually gave me a job behind a desk in Edinburgh, so I should not be too harsh. But it was clear to me then - and is now - that the case for defending 'wildlands' does not rest with science. It is a political question.

Nearly all professional conservationists I have encountered are apolitical and distrust the political process. One can hardly blame them. Politicians are by training and experience 'hedgers and trimmers' - they must be to survive and prosper. The 'ecology' of politics is for only the most adaptable of creatures. But politicians have power and must be studied. Their Achilles' Heel is their love of winning – elections, votes, arguments – and wrapping themselves in the warm glow of public adulation. So threaten their votes.

'Wildlands' are the least inviting places to the Telly Generation it is possible to conceive. I hardly exaggerate - most normal people would not regard a windswept, wet, steep, soggy, potentially dangerous stretch of upland country as anything but 'uninviting'. Unless a road goes through it, it remains attractive to a few ... and then intermittently. To some - and I am one - the remoteness is attractive. But we are not many and political strength is weighed, not counted. The route to enlarging understanding of, and protection for, 'wildlands' lies through political action.

Foremost, the Big Public must be made to care about places few would wish to visit, leave alone walk over. This will be best achieved by cultural forces. One outstanding example of this was the recent programme made by Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, about Orfordness, where a combination of histories – national, individual, private, ecological and spiritual - were woven together. Orfordness is a woebegone place in many ways, but a beautifully crafted film and a superb script did a masterful job of convincing us just why such places are important. It made a point and it stuck.

Sucking up to landowners is meat and drink to conservation bodies ... it always was and it remains the case. We are none of us permanent features and landownership does not confer anything. It is just a consequence, not a constant. In the few places where the feeling of 'wildland' can be plausibly summoned up, ownership is as much a liability as anything. Few can offer more than shooting wildlife for sport as an opportunity for income. Forestry ought to be a busted flush by now (does anyone work out how much it costs to go and get this fifth-rate junk?) and tourism would need to be for fatalists or masochists.

Where is the tax payer in all this? Can we afford to finance the lifestyle of these people for much longer? The Arts Council exists to encourage the arts, to create opportunities for performance and endeavour, to create a space of the arts in everyone's life. The Sports Council, ditto, for sport; and also the Crafts Council. The Nature Conservancy Council existed to discourage anyone going anywhere near wildlife unless it was in their own backyard. It pinned its colours to the masthead of the landowners and perished. The broken remnants continue, but I expect the policies are similar, the results equally dim.

In fact, conservationists have realised that the easiest way to deal with this 'wildland' access issue is to ignore it. Remote places will protect themselves. That - and a certain snottiness on the part of one's hirelings - will deter the 'Mob of the Unwashed' or, pace Owens, merely envious, from venturing far from the lay-by. So it is with the creatives that the task of cherishing, celebrating and, finally, preserving wildlands, must rest.

(1) 16 June 2007 16:32

Monday, 11 June 2007

Home Counties Wildland ... another view

Stanley Owen responds to Dave Bangs (see blog of Thursday, 29 March 2007) ...

Dave Bangs' outlook on access to land and to wild places appears pretty depressing. Maybe he should change the tint of his spectacles. It just looks like a rant against somebody wealthier than he is.

Even if we agree with his political view of capital and wealth, it cannot be productive for people pushing the case for more wild land and wild nature to take socialist revolution or socialist reform on to our agenda. Though an admirable cause, it would represent a massive distraction from our already challenging aims, and we would be unlikely to achieve very much.

We should be promoting public access as a social benefit of wild land, in support of the principle of public investment in wild land. However, I would resist reversing that logic: it is not true that privately owned wildland needs to be tied to open public access. Says who? And how would it be enforced? We are going to see many forms of wild land, in different types of ownership. We should welcome any case where natural ecological processes are allowed to dominate. Access is a separate issue.

I think a philosophy of encouraging private landowners, without wanting to dictate how they manage their affairs, is correct. Peter Taylor is right in his answer to Bangs that public and NGO land managers are still not getting it with wild land. I believe that this will change and that these will be where we see more public "ownership" and better access. I think there is better potential for larger areas with these. And less of an issue of making a business.

Stanley Owen

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Water vole survival and the role of mink control
Lessons from the River Chess

In ECOS 28 (1), Catherine Shellswell and Allan Beechey reported on work along the River Chess in the Chilterns to provide habitat management advice and mink control for riparian landowners, in order to counteract a decline in the water vole population.

Here, in unabridged form, Trevor Lawson, author of an earlier article on the same subject*, challenges the authors (in black text below), and Shellswell and Beechey reply (in blue text).

1. Trevor Lawson:
The authors comment on their provision of fencing to provide "buffer zones" for water voles and other wildlife, yet the linear extent of these buffer zones is not quantified. They are very limited. Criticisms about the wholly inadequate depth of the buffer zones are not addressed. Further, the authors make no attempt to distinguish between the contribution that the alleged buffer zones made to water vole recovery, compared to the benefits delivered by mink culling. It is, of course, impossible to distinguish between the benefits of habitat and culling using the methodology adopted in this study (and adopted in other Environment Agency-supported projects). The Chilterns Conservation Board was warned of this weakness in the methodology prior to initiating culling and strongly advised to address it, but ignored the advice.

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
Whilst in an ideal world the desirable buffer zone width would be 6m, in practice a pragmatic approach must be taken to negotiate a buffer zone. In the majority of cases the landowner will be unwilling to lose a 6m deep section of his/her land. In this instance a fence was erected along a 500m stretch of river 1m away from the edge of the watercourse. The adjacent field downstream had already been fenced by the landowner. The first two metres are the most important for water voles and the fence has stopped horses and cattle entering the river enabling lush marginal vegetation to develop. The decreased disturbance has also benefited the water voles. Placement of this fencing has clearly enabled the water vole population to increase and it is hoped that the area of bank fenced from the field could be extended in the future. Currently there is a project being undertaken by WildCRU investigating water vole population growth and individual vole growth compared to amount of bankside habitat. This type of project has not been undertaken before and hopefully it will provide weight to the provision of more bankside habitat for water voles.

2. Trevor Lawson:
One landowner allegedly trapped nine mink in 2003-4, prior to the culling scheme. None were made available to WildCRU and no records are available viz the age, sex or health of this sample. Yet a trout fishery less than two miles downstream trapped no mink. Polecats have returned to the Chilterns since 1997. What attempt was made to validate this sample?

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
The eight mink trapped by the landowner were caught in a trap that he had been running for a number of years. We know that they were a female and young. Unfortunately we do not have any other information on the mink as they were caught prior to the start of the trapping scheme organised by BBOWT and the Chiltern Chalk Streams Project, and therefore did not fall under the remit of providing them to WildCRU. At the time when the first mink was caught (September 2003) the young mink would have just started to disperse away from their mother, but would still stay fairly close to the natal territory (which is approximately 3km in length). This would have restricted the range of the juvenile mink and they may not have ventured downstream to the fishery. There is also the possibility that the mink dispersed across land rather than along the watercourse (males tend to live away from the watercourse for the majority of the year and come back to breed with females in autumn, winter and early spring). The ninth mink was killed on a nearby road in March 2004 and it is believed that this was the last mink to be caught from this group. It was very difficult to determine the gender of this individual once it had been flattened and it was also considered unsuitable for WildCRU to autopsy. The two mink sent to WildCRU were incorporated into their mink and polecat project which has been running since 2003.

3. Trevor Lawson:
A 2003 water vole survey found that the voles had "dramatically" declined since 2001. Yet their disappearance was reported from sites where I continued to observe them.

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
Unfortunately, it is very hard to prove a negative survey as there is always an element of observer error. For example, surveys carried out from the bankside may miss signs close to the water edge (this is only undertaken where the watercourse is too deep, and once the vegetation has grown field signs may have been missed. This is stated in the survey results. BBOWT collects sighting reports from people who have seen water voles, and if these occur along stretches of watercourse which haven’t been surveyed every effort is made to survey these areas to confirm the presence of water voles. Water voles can also live at low population densities, and this reduces the number of field signs that they leave. Might I suggest that Mr Lawson sends in his water vole sighting to the Water Vole Recovery Project (please see the online record form at for details) as we would be interested in any information that he could provide.

4. Trevor Lawson:
The subsequent mink culling scheme initiated in February 2004 along virtually the entire catchment, only removed two mink, even though the project had concluded that mink had dispersed along the river and were breeding.

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
Mink were breeding along the catchment at the time of survey (August-September 2003) near to Bois Mill where eight mink were caught and one killed on the road (as mentioned earlier). The placement of mink rafts allowed the watercourse to be monitored for mink (using a footprint tracking pad) and once footprints were identified a live capture trap was placed on the raft and the mink removed accordingly (these were the two caught in march 2004). In actual fact without any form of mink control eleven mink would have been able to disperse along the river. The mink rafts are primarily a monitoring device that can be used as a trap once mink have been identified in the vicinity.

5. Trevor Lawson:
Mink signs have only been found since at the site where nine mink were allegedly trapped in 2003-4. The authors make no attempt to assess why this site, which is not at the confluence with any other water course or dry valley, and where the Chess is particularly canalised adjacent to a busy road, should be the focal point for mink arrival and dispersal.

Catharine Shellswell and Allan Beechey reply:
The site where the mink were caught is in farmland and is not canalised. It is also fairly wooded at the location where large and small mink footprints were found. It is also near a stocked lake and the confluence of two channels. It is an ideal den site as it is undisturbed.

6. Trevor Lawson:
Water vole signs increased five-fold by 2005 and this improvement is attributed to mink culling. Yet no other variables – in particular the impact of winter flooding - have been factored into this analysis. Much of the river Chess has no suitable banks for water voles to burrow in and where those banks do exist there is a risk of flooding due to the rapid run-off from intensively managed land. Flooding is a known major cause of water vole mortality.

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
Generally the land alongside the River Chess is not intensively managed. Very little is cultivated and most of the pasture is remnant water meadows. The water meadows are grazed, but on the whole stocking levels remain low as the land does not support a high proportion of animals. Where stocking densities are slightly higher fences have been erected to protect the banks. Therefore, flooding due to runoff from intensively managed farmland along the River Chess is not an issue. Between 2001 and 2003 there were no large flood events that affected the entire valley which would have caused the demise of the water vole population by 98%. There were also no local flood events which would have had a greater impact than normal. Water vole populations can reduce by up to 70% during the winter period and flooding is a cause of death. The lack of flood events in this time period and the extent of the decline points to other factors affecting water voles such as the dispersal of American mink along the river rather than a large flood event.

7. Trevor Lawson:
The authors should have considered other possibilities before drawing their conclusions. For example, that before the 2001 baseline survey, water voles had expanded their range to less optimal parts of the river. Subsequent flooding or another factor (mink are a possibility, of course) then reduced the population to those optimum parts of the river identified in the 2003 study. It is surely no coincidence that these sites also have the very best vegetative habitat and structural diversity.

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
Water voles follow a metapopulation structure and do experience population rises, where they disperse along the river corridor, and falls, where their range contracts. The water vole population along the River Chess decreased by 98% according to the surveys. The surveys were both carried out at the same time of year; this avoids seasonal population density variation when comparing the two surveys and also points to the decline being extreme between 2001 and 2003. All three surveys were carried out using the standard methodology for surveying water voles (described in the water vole conservation handbook). It would be beneficial if we had information about the water vole population prior to this date to assess whether the water vole population in 2001 was unusually high, unfortunately this is not the case. As stated earlier, flooding had already been discounted as a cause of the decline.

The mink trapped in March 2004 were caught between the two remaining colonies of water voles, and if the female had stayed in this area (which is a high possibility as mink were seen entering a good den site under a nearby barn, and the river at this location is fairly undisturbed), both colonies were within an average territory size of a female. Furthermore, not all the water vole field signs were located along the optimal habitat. Some were located in back gardens which had close mowing regimes. BBOWT and the Chiltern Chalk Streams Project have been providing advice to landowners to help them encourage water voles through sympathetic management of the bankside. This includes leaving areas of uncut vegetation along the river which provides cover from predators.

8. Trevor Lawson:
The authors state: "Mink control should always be implemented where habitat advice is also provided to landowners." Many landowners receive habitat advice but it is clearly impractical for mink control to be implemented in every instance. Perhaps the authors actually mean: "Mink control should only be implemented if habitat advice is also provided to landowners." This, too, is unwise. Habitat advice is quite different from actual habitat creation or restoration. Advice alone will not contribute to water vole recovery.

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
We stand corrected in that mink control should always be implemented (where practical) where water voles are found to be present and habitat advice should always be provided to landowners. Mink control is not always practical for example in areas with high human activity as they tend to disturb mink traps and rafts. However, the rafts are placed at 1km intervals (optimum density according to the Game Conservancy Trust) and usually these areas can be avoided. Mink were found to be present during the 2003 water vole survey and are considered the larger threat to water voles in Berks, Bucks and Oxon. The water vole colonies have shrunk to such a degree that there is a great amount of habitat available for inhabitation by water voles, but their population is controlled by mink. This means that in most cases a monitoring scheme to investigate the presence of mink is implemented at the same time that habitat advice is provided and mink are removed (resources and landowners allowing) once their presence has been found. Where areas of unsuitable habitat provide a barrier to dispersal (such as heavily scrubbed sections of watercourse over 1-2km in length or artificial banks) habitat advice is provided and where funding allows habitat enhancement or restoration is undertaken. Farmers are encouraged into agri-environment schemes, homeowners are encouraged to leave uncut strips and mitigation is provided as part of planning applications. Habitat management is carried out to create a mosaic of habitats along a watercourse which would benefit a range of species rather then just one, and it is not suitable to make every stretch of watercourse ideally suited to water voles, otherwise you would be destroying the optimum habitat for otters. There is no legislation to enforce provision of habitat for water voles, only to protect water vole burrows, and therefore we provide advice to landowners where they can be persuaded to carry forward action. This may be provided through agri-environment schemes or other local grant bodies interested in water vole conservation. As there is a large amount of habitat available along the River Chess, it was felt that habitat was not the influencing factor in the water vole decline and since mink were found during the water vole survey it was determined that resources were best placed in a monitoring and trapping programme along the watercourse.

9. Trevor Lawson:
Loss and fragmentation of habitat is the primary cause of water vole decline and impacts on a wider range of species, too. Had this project been planned strategically, with rigorous scientific methodology, with the needs of other wildlife in mind and for the long term, the authors would state: "Mink control should only be considered when habitat restoration has been successfully implemented but has failed to reverse the decline in water voles."

Catharine Shellswell & Allan Beechey reply:
The statement ‘loss and fragmentation of habitat is the primary cause of water vole decline’ can not be verified scientifically. It is currently considered that habitat loss and the dispersal of American Mink throughout the countryside are jointly considered to have caused the decline (see the Water Vole UK BAP). Habitat loss has caused the decline over the greater part of the 20th Century, but the decline was particularly severe after the Second World War when the government encouraged increased agricultural production and during the 1970s-80s due to increased urbanisation and installation of flood defences. During the 1980s it was realized that American mink were spreading throughout Britain (as well as Europe where they threaten the European mink) and the water vole population appeared to be declining in their wake. There are numerous examples of mink predating water voles to extinction through radio-telemetry studies and mink scat analysis. It is unlikely that we would still be losing water voles without mink as habitat is not sufficiently poor in many areas to explain their more recent demise. The biggest single barrier to their recovery would seem to be a non-native predator which has an almost unique ability to exploit this species. Concentrating on habitat to the exclusion of mink will unfortunately not stop the decline of the water vole. Implementation of mink control is not taken lightly and all factors are considered prior to any mink rafts and traps being deployed. Certainly in regard to the River Chess the mink control has stopped the demise of the water vole. If the two mink were not caught in March between the remaining water vole colonies, it would probably be another sad story where water voles have become extinct. The mink rafts now provide a valuable monitoring tool for both ad hoc water vole presence and also to provide an early warning system of any mink that may disperse back to the river. The increase in the water vole population between 2003 and 2005 shows that mink control and habitat enhancement has been successful at the moment and we hope that the water vole population will continue to increase. The survey will be repeated next year (with the landowners permission) to assess the range of the water vole population.

* Lawson. T (2005) 'Seen a mink? Unleash the dogma!', ECOS 26 (3/4) pp81-85.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Home Counties Wildland: new nature, old continuities?

(An abridged version of this exchange appears in ECOS 28 (1))

David Bangs responds to Peter Taylor’s article in ECOS 27 (3/4) on the wilding project at the Knepp Estate ...

Peter Taylor’s eulogy on the re-wilding experiment at the Knepp Estate intrigued me. I have known that countryside intimately for over 40 years. So we rushed to return there to look at some of these changes. What we saw depressed us at least as much as it excited us. To be sure, we, like Peter, had ‘The Tamworth Pig Experience’. We came across them in a park woodland where they nuzzled us and let us scratch them and won our hearts. Their welcome, though, was not replicated by the park’s human inhabitants. We were challenged by two separate people for straying from the footpath, though we were in the open park on improved pasture in full view, where we could not possibly have been up to harm. The Exmoor ponies did not seem to mind our presence. We left with a vivid impression of kilometres of high deer fencing around the boundaries and within the woodlands.

Just four miles to the west of this estate another square kilometer of attractive Low Wealden oak-and-pasture countryside has been recently enclosed and a new stately home built to grace a new deer park. And four miles to the east the most intact relic of the old healthy wood pasture of St Leonard’s Forest is surrounded by similar excluding deer fencing, though it was a candidate open access site. You have to pay proper money to visit that place unless you are prepared to do risky fence climbing. To the south east you cannot now enjoy the ordinary woods-and-hedgerows countryside round Glyndebourne because the same two meter excluding fences keep us out and exotic llamas and alpacas in.

I share Peter Taylor’s passion for ending our alienation from nature. I think, though, that his piece misses a whole other dimension of our alienation. That is, our social and economic alienation from access to resources which should be our ‘common treasury’. And unless that alienation, too, is addressed squarely by us wildlifers, then the crisis of the countryside and of nature’s survival will be resolved – yet again – at the expense of ordinary working people and the poor. The countryside and nature will continue to be re-made in the image of capital’s needs, not of the needs of capital’s servants.

Knepp’s core business – wildlife or property?

The example of the Knepp Estate shows this plainly. The loss of farming’s profitability was resolved by the sacking of existing farm staff. Like any other capitalist enterprise this estate solves its problems by sacking the ordinary foot soldiers, not the generals. The estate had previously laid the groundwork for this straightforward solution by widespread conversion of its tenanted farms to in-hand management. The estate has taken full advantage of the Countryside Stewardship scheme and Single Farm Payments. They are, after all, not means tested, though every poor pensioner or benefits claimant has their paltry earnings and savings means tested and monitored up to the hilt. Charlie Burrell is entitled to state support to staunch the failing profitability of his landed property on a scale that no ordinary poor family could dream of, except by a lottery win.

And, in any case, as Peter himself puts it, “the estate’s core business is now property management”. Indeed so. Its website advertises a three bedroom village cottage for rent for £3,500 per calendar month (for god’s sake!), and a lovely old farmhouse with dressage square, 37 acres of paddocks and all posh mod cons for a rental to be revealed, modestly, on application.

Playground for the rich

Peter on his visit will have seen what is happening to this wider local countryside. It is a landscape which is being transformed into a playground for the rich. Mostly you cannot live there unless you are already well-off or (for a minority) servicing the needs of the well-off. Public housing has largely disappeared, though it was always inadequate. And those attractive cottages, villas and farmhouses smell far more of money than they do of woodsmoke and chickens.

Most of the folk of London, Crawley and Brighton who are Knepp Estate’s real neighbours do not visit this countryside, would mostly not imagine that such visits were a rewarding option, and would not have the cultural or financial resources to enjoy it if they did. That is the real alienation from nature that we must address.

This estate’s choices are traditional ones. They choose to continue shooting and polo-ing (sorry about the hunting!) and enjoying nature as their pleasure ground as their forebears did. Whilst this land – low-grade though it may be – could still make a significant contribution to local food needs and provide honourable work in its production, we are invited, instead, to collude (and dig into our pockets to do so) in the re-wilding fantasies of its owners, though we get precious little public benefit from it. (We did not even bother to visit the few acres licensed for public access around the paltry remains of the Norman castle – the noise pollution from the A24 made that anything but a tranquil piece of re-wilded wilderness).

Meanwhile, Peter’s way forward suggests no real challenge to the main motors which drive the profit or loss of our countryside – the shifting fortunes of different capitalist blocs and sectors, currently dominated by the madness of global free trade and the yawning inequalities between rich and poor countries. His article is about a very tame re-wilding indeed – one that offers no fight against the existing global madness of GATT and our very own EU.

Sadly, though, there is no way round these big tasks that history dumps on us all. If Peter is to see the revolutionary ending of our alienation from wild nature that he so plainly yearns for then we will all have to help get that revolutionary inversion of the present relationship between the excluded majority (both locally and globally) and the owners of capital in land and elsewhere. Without that we will all just have to put up with the horrible dawning global reality - one in which a major part of the world’s population will be living in gigantic slum cities, in a sea of ecological desolation, whilst the rich live in their fortresses of relatively-preserved nature.

Our best allies in the preservation of nature are not those same rich folk. Our best allies are those who have little or nothing, and thus have nothing to lose in the task of re-working our damaged world.

David Bangs

An active example of positive change - Peter Taylor replies …

I find myself in a paradoxical position responding to Dave Bangs – having been further left than Mao Tse Tung as a young man, determined to bring some political as well as environmental enlightenment to the ordinary working people (and the poor) he also wishes to enfranchise, yet I also support Charlie Burrell’s private initiative, including the deer fences.

It is not that I have given up revolutionary yearnings, more that I have seen how change can come from unlikely quarters. Like the corporate executives I met in the power generation industry who were diverting profits to sequestrate carbon and regenerate degraded ecosystems in South America long before the public had heard of such schemes. The other side of the coin was my beloved RSPB becoming rich enough from its burgeoning mass membership to buy up the gem of mystery and isolation that was Leighton Moss and turn it into a visitor centre with hides and boardwalks through the reed beds – the birds did not mind, but the intimate contact with nature, including the teenage thrill of dodging the old gamekeepers, was lost.

Landowners are ahead of the game

I understand the unease with respect to wealthy landowners leading the dreams of rewilding – whether, as at Knepp, entirely for its own sake, or as in Paul Lister’s Alladale safari-enterprise with its equally high fences, but I do not see anyone else taking these steps. The National Trust and its alliance with the Forestry Commission and United Utilities in Ennerdale have chosen a fence-less middle road with tame herbivores and continued low-intensity farming, and the John Muir Trust, despite its wild image and wide-ranging popular support has no dreams of restoring ecological health to the degraded wildernesses it purchases, mainly in Scotland and Wales. Somehow, the more support an organisation gets from a broader public base, the less innovative it can become. It then falls to private individuals with some power to make decisions to engage in innovation. The introduction of beavers to Lower Mill Estate in Gloucestershire is a recent example.

It is one thing to be involved in mass access as a political issue – quite another to work for innovation on a rewilding that includes the human heart and imagination. Sadly, the masses and their representative organisations are not taking the lead and it is falling to private landowners who at least are spurning the diversification opportunities of mega-golf or the subsidised lure of GMO bio-fuels.

I agree entirely that a great madness faces us – with Third World city slums coupled with globalised food production continuing the process of alienation with the land and nature. And I am no advocate of a depopulated unproductive countryside in this country as a result, however many wolves and lynxes it might support, but when it comes to allies in the process of rewilding, where are the urban or rural activists that advocate organic production, wildlife corridors, eco-tourism, and a healing contact with the land? And how many farmers think beyond their role as another industrial concern in the general business economy? At least in these respects, Charlie Burrell offers an active example of change.

Peter Taylor

David Bangs’ follow-up response …

I’m sorry Peter is so despairing about the possibility of working people being the social agents of change to protect nature and end exploitation.

Yes, we are, indeed, in a period of deep defeat.

This period, though, is one of continuing possibility as well as continuing disaster. The Russian and Chinese revolutions blossomed out of the wreckage of two consecutive world wars. Venezuela may see a Chavez-inspired revolution flowering in this present neo-liberal desert.

I feel more than “unease with respect to wealthy landowners leading rewilding”, for they are part of the problem, not the solution. It is the irrationalities of capitalism (of competitive production for profit, of massive waste and duplication, of cyclical collapse, and of profound global and local inequalities) which power the destruction of nature and natural systems, create unsustainable consumerism, and foment wars.

Of course, there is an ongoing debate in the owning class between those that value nature as a locus of consumption of profit (such as, perhaps, Paul Lister of Alladale and all those rich folk who value preserved nature for their lifestyle) and those who emphasise nature as a locus for the production of profit (such as agribusinesses, other extractive industries and developers).

The problem with allying with the former is that it is so easy to forget that they, too, only enjoy their ownership of nature with profits gained from its exploitation and damage elsewhere.

Peter’s strategy will only blind him to those forces that do exist and which need leadership and victories to give them the confidence to rebuild a project for a world free of exploitation of both nature and humans.

He would do better to remember the model of the Green Bans movement in New South Wales, where building labourers’ unions led a huge movement against environmentally and socially destructive developments in alliance with middle class groups and inner city communities. For half of the 1970s they had the developers pinned to the wall. He is old enough, too, to remember the Lucas Aerospace trade unions ‘Combine Plan’ of the same period, which united a 14,000 strong national workforce in a plan for converting weapons production into socially useful products from kidney machines to low pollution cars and energy saving household goods.

Judi Bari the American socialist Earth First! activist fighting to preserve west coast old growth forests is a better model than a thousand landowner wildlife hobbyists. She did the hard slog of making the links with hostile logging communities, not wasting her time courting rich patrons.

Of course, most owning class people do not wish to commit collective ecocide (though there will always be Dr Strangelove’s and George Bush’s). They will make what environmental reforms are necessary to preserve their way of life and they will preserve sufficient of wild nature to enable their continued enjoyment of it.

But that will not be a world most of us can enjoy. It will be a world vastly reduced in biodiversity and wilderness.

Peter needs to choose some different friends if he wants to help us avoid that eventuality.

Dave Bangs


Is Sustainable Development an Oxymoron?

by Ralph Underhill

The ‘exciting’ world of planning can be incredibly frustrating, even when you discount the ridiculous management speak, lack of humour and excessive use of acronyms. The frustration I am talking about is that which comes from knowing that, each time there is a significant step forward for the environment, the balance will be redressed quicker than you can say ‘sandal-wearing hippy’ … and economic considerations will once again prevail.

The balance is likely to see another dramatic shift towards the interests of the economy in the forthcoming planning White Paper. This White Paper is likely to be heavily influenced by two key reports: the Eddington Transport Study and the Barker Review of Land Use Planning. The recommendations of Eddington and Barker are definitely causes for concern for environmentalists. The environmental agenda has not simply taken a step backwards, it has been kicked in the privates, pushed over, stamped on a few times and then had its wallet/handbag stolen (which would probably be empty anyway).

Throughout her review of the planning system, Barker views environmental legislation, such as Environmental Impact Assessment, as time consuming and overly restrictive. Barker also feels that uncertainty should lead to a presumption in favour of development. She suggests that if local planning policy is unclear or out of date then a development should be given the go ahead … so in other words if you haven’t planned for something it must be good and should be given permission. This leap of logic manages to turn the planning system completely on its head and undermine one of the central tenets of the planning system, which is that development should be planned (I suppose the clue is in the title).

“So what qualifications do these two authors have?” I hear you cry (or at least mumble … come on, stick with it! I know planning is boring, but it has important implications for conservation), making them so well suited to reviewing the plan-led system? Barker is an economist, while Eddington is the former head of British Airways (therefore a great advocate for sustainable, reduced-carbon transport). It is reassuring to see that such experts in planning and sustainable development get to decide how the planning system should be reformed. It is hard not to view this as a laughable double standard – just imagine if the government had announced that the planning system was going to be reviewed by an environmentalist, perhaps George Monbiot, Jonathan Porritt, or even Swampy of Newbury bypass fame (Note to self: find more easily recognisable environmental role models). Of course it would never happen. The mere suggestion would cause a huge outcry, but why is it so unthinkable?

Most definitions of sustainable development state that economics and the environment must be given equal weight. Giving an environmentalist control could, if the right candidate was chosen, mean a strict regard to environmental limits and better assessments of what is really needed. It is unlikely that any environmental candidate would be so radical as to deny the need for any development at all (OK, maybe Swampy would), but they would be likely to demand that such development must be carried out with a long-term view. Until someone who understands the environment is given decision-making power, sustainable development will never happen. The real problem is that economic considerations are often very short-term and unsustainable. When markets change, the developments associated with them also change. The simple truth – from my heavily-biased perspective – is that twenty years’ worth of employment will always trump millions of years of evolution.

With the recent changes in understanding of our impact on the planet, it is possible that environmental and social justice will finally be seen as being as important as the economy. This challenge has become increasingly difficult as money has become the only way we have of valuing anything, to the extent that we put approximate values on individual species. Even if something is not quantifiable in economic terms, we are still forced to put a monetary value on it. How many jobs is a great crested newt worth? How much money does a national park designation bring to the local economy? Conservationists must use these monetary values if they are be taken seriously and have their voices heard, and I am certain that adopting this stance has been an important advocacy tool. However, I think it is fair to say that by doing so we may end up paying a much higher price in the long term. We have been forced to play a game that was not created with conservation and wildlife in mind. It is possible that we will come to a point where there is nothing left that can be considered to have its own intrinsic worth.

If all Barker’s and Eddington’s changes where adopted, it would certainly call for a restructuring of the Government’s definition of sustainability. Currently the Government’s sustainable development strategy states that social justice, environmental limits, wise use of resources and economics are all supposed to be equal supporting pillars of sustainable development. It seems that economics is, like Orwell’s pigs, more equal than the others. One thing is for sure: if sustainability is a table, the dinner plates are sliding rapidly towards the floor. Quick, someone shove the fork of long-term sustainable economic goals under that plate! Okay, so it’s not a great analogy, but you get what I mean.

With the other, less fundamental changes proposed for the planning system, the worry is that it will be hard to tell how damaging they will be until they are actually implemented. The Catch-22 here is that, once these measures are implemented, the chance to influence them will already have slipped away. Many of the recommendations could be positive if implemented by a government that truly considered each component of sustainable development equally … doh!!!

I am off to listen to some Joni Mitchell … paradise, parking lot? No? Oh, well never mind …

Useful links ...

CLG News Release 21May07:

Barker Review of Land Use Planning:

Eddington Transport Study:

NGO response to proposals:

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Warming or Cooling?

by Peter Taylor

An almighty battle is about to be engaged between proponents of solar theories of climate change and adherents to the supposedly standard carbon dioxide model. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about to issue its fourth scientific assessment - a summary was published in February - and this argues that solar effects are minimal. Meanwhile solar scientist Henrik Svensmark, funded by the European Space Agency, has demonstrated a mechanism that will explain the thinning clouds phenomenon picked up by satellite data, but not as a feedback to carbon’s increasing concentration, rather as a primary driver which leaves little over for carbon. In other words, the human influence on climate has been seriously over-estimated. If Svensmark’s theory is accepted, less than 30% of the changes we see are due to human activity (and only 15% due to fossil fuel burning). If the sun’s magnetic field drops, as some scientists expect, it could dramatically cool the planet.

Surely, two thousand of the world’s top scientists cannot be wrong? Would that this were so. Not so long ago, select UN committees were locked in an argument over the effects of low-level radiation and a stolid defence of the widespread practice of X-raying pregnant women. They - and all of the top scientific institutions - were wrong, but it took Alice Stewart, a ‘maverick’ scientist, ten years to persuade them. In the end, it was steadily-accumulated, contradicting evidence (leukaemia in the children) that won the day, along with Stewart's dogged determination against funding cuts and mud-slinging from people who should have been the first to support her. She saved hundreds of thousands of lives, yet received no honours, while her chief detractor was knighted.

Something similar is afoot with global warming. The standard model may be flawed. It relies on assumed water vapour feedbacks that have not been validated. It was pointed out at the first IPCC meeting by Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at MIT, that if the water vapour turned to cloud, the feedback could be negative. He later resigned when he failed to get this caveat written in to the first IPCC report. The real rise in global temperatures has been taken as validation of the model, but Svensmark’s work suggests that this rise is due to another factor: an increased solar electromagnetic field thinning the cloud over the oceans, which then receive more sunlight and so heat up. Satellite data analysed in 2004 support this theory. Moreover, following a dip in the sun’s field, global ocean temperatures have been falling after the El Niño peak in 1998, something which is difficult to explain with the standard model. In fact, during the two years 2003 to 2005, the oceans lost one-fifth of all the heat accumulated in the previous fifty years.

Over 75% of the planet’s surface is ocean. The defensive response to this ocean cooling has been to refer to it as a ‘blip in the general trend’ and ‘we have seen such blips before’. Yes, but only after major volcanic eruptions ... and there were none in the period 2003 to 2005.

The oceans are cooling and, according to oceanographers (who, along with solar scientists, are being ignored by the IPCC), it is due to changes in low-level cloud formations that correlate with solar cycles. There is a time-lag as the oceans release their heat and it is that heat that is melting the Arctic rather than any greenhouse effect.

But what about all these sophisticated computer models? Well, they have had their critics - always ignored by the scientists seeking ever greater funding for their models - and the main criticism has been that they are unable to model cloud responses. Now, the new science cannot be ignored. Henrik Svensmark, after beavering away quietly since 1991 on his theories of solar influence, has discovered the mechanism (published on 22 February 2007 as The Chilling Stars), namely a modulation of cloud seeding over the oceans by the electromagnetic field. As the sun’s field builds up, cosmic radiation is deflected and less clouds form because the ionising radiation field controls cloud seeding. The sun began to ramp down in 1990 and, although there is an oceanic time lag, the globe is cooling, more so where the currents disperse the heat rapidly, as in the southern hemisphere, less quickly in the northern hemisphere.

We will know the full extent of the cooling this year. If El Niño fails - the US specialists think it will, whereas British commentators think it won’t - the oceans will cool further and, if the next solar peak (on an eleven-year cycle) is lower than the last, even more cooling will follow in five years time.

So, we can relax? No more need for ugly wind turbines on blue-remembered hills and no more excuse for revamping nuclear power? Yes and no. Even the most optimistic emission controls will have virtually no effect this century on atmospheric carbon levels anyway ... and the only proven mechanism for reducing demand for fossil fuels was always price, so the oil ‘peak’ expected in 2015 will see to that. But the real challenge is going to be feeding the extra one billion people who will be born in the next thirteen years, most of them into food-deficit countries, which currently cannot compete in a globalised food market and are very vulnerable to climate swings in either direction. Global cooling will compromise the productive northern grain belts upon which a world food surplus relies - and probably more so than continued warming. The paradigm is shifting rapidly. If Svensmark is right, food and water will be the big issue in five years' time and nobody will talk then of global warming.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Climate Change, Scientific Consensus & the Media

by Peter Taylor

Ed. - Peter was prompted to respond to a slide from an internal presentation by a UK agency which presents and compares the following statistics: (1) of 928 peer-reviewed articles appearing in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, none were "in doubt as to the cause of global warming"; and (2) of 636 articles in the US popular press between 1988 and 2002, 53% were "in doubt as to the cause of global warming". The original sources of these data are (1) The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, by Naomi Oreskes of the University of California at San Diego - see; and (2) Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias: Creating controversy where science finds consensus by Jules Boykoff and Maxwell Boykoff - see

Of course, it depends upon what is meant by 'in doubt as to the cause of global warming'. Anyone who gets to write a peer-reviewed article knows full well that 'global warming' is caused by BOTH natural and human factors and that the key question is 'how much of each'? Almost all accept that warming prior to 1950 (about half the rise) must have been caused by mainly natural factors, that is to say, cycles of solar activity. The crucial question relates to the post-1980 warming (there was a worldwide drop between 1945 and 1978 that is not explainable by aerosols or volcanoes, but correlates to a downturn in the solar cycle). Computer modellers believe that the post-1980 rise cannot be explained by natural factors and is the signature of human emissions, but there are many in the oceanographic, solar-terrestrial physics and paleontology community who have published their doubts about the strength of that signature, as well as the scale of 'warming' compared to previous warm periods. The problem is: scientific papers use very diplomatic language and for good reason.

If someone would like to fund me a very small amount, say £1,500, I will go down to the British Library (BL) and look at every one of those 928 peer-reviewed papers, extract the conclusions and analyse them for the following:
  • the number that do not question the consensus, but suggest that solar factors can produce a signal as great as carbon dioxide (I know of at least three), thus implying, but not stating, that carbon dioxide is not the main driver;

  • the number dealing with satellite data on SW (short-wave? ed.) flux to the oceans and land surfaces that show significant cloud thinning and give data on the size of the effect, which implies, but does not state, that this mechanism must be the main driver (another three);

  • the number that question whether the current warming is unusual on a longer timescale of 10,000 years, representing the natural cycle of an inter-glacial, that is, the Holocene post-glacial optimum, the Roman warm period and the medieval warm period (another five at least);

  • the number that state that 'the cause' is BOTH natural and possibly human but that the ratio is still unclear (another three);

  • the number that show correlations of solar cycles and sea surface temperatures, as well as other oceanographic phenomena that cannot be explained by the current CO2 model (perhaps ten or so).

I know of these papers: I read them in the BL last spring. There are, I would estimate, at least another twenty that I have not seen.

Of course, it may be that the researchers who wrote the '928' assessment did not include these papers, or if they did, did not understand them. But if you search for a phrase, 'we disagree with the current model', you are unlikely to find it: science papers in these political times are seldom so bold (there are a few).

There is one paper in the BL - I can't recall immediately in what journal - that analyses the sudden surge in peer-reviewed 'climate' papers in relation to the sudden surge in money spent on computer modelling. I would guess computer-modelling papers outnumber other climatology papers by 10-to-1.

The most telling of Svensmark's* non-computer-model papers produces a watt/sq. metre estimate of the solar cloud effect at 1.4 and comments: 'this is a significant finding, comparable to that claimed for carbon dioxide'. Now that sentence might not be construed as doubt as to the cause of global warming - it depends upon the intelligence of the reader.

If you want an explanation of why Svensmark should be so careful in not overtly criticising the consensus, read his book, The Chilling Stars, and you will see how much trouble he had funding the research, even with his head well down below the parapet.

It's cheap propaganda - the sort that Al Gore is using - and it does not become the debate in our circles. Let's talk instead of the quality of cosmic ray data, the flux over the last century, oceanic time lags, the cloud cover data, NASA's GISS files and their failure to update them after the "instrument error" that detected a massive LW (long-wave? ed.) pulse to the upper atmosphere at the same time as oceanographers were logging the one-fifth loss of all the heat accumulated in the past fifty years of ocean monitoring, and the albedo readings for the year 2003-2004 that also shot off the scale, indicating massive cloud changes, and which are also now claimed as instrument error ... all of which cannot be explained by the CO2 model, but which are predicted by solar models.

Let's, for science's sake, get scientific about this and devote some resources to thinking, reading, listening to the scientific debate, instead of dutifully accepting authority from above like little boys at school. The RSPB, the Environment Agency, Greenpeace, WWF and FOE all have the resources critically to review the science - and I mean critically review it - but that attitude seems to have died out in the late 1980s. Now it is more convenient to jump on the climate-modellers' gravy train and chant the scary mantras about melting ice-caps and dying puffins, whilst coining it with specially adapted credit cards that tie-in to renewable energy companies - I call it 'corporate creep'.

Having bought into the mitigation nonsense that is peddled by governments who have absolutely no intention of significantly reducing demand and who, in time-honoured fashion, go for 'supply options' because that is where business can profit and government can be seen to be doing something - check out the stats for Spain, the world-leader in renewable supplies, with a doubling of CO2 emissions - the environmental groups are now reaping the fruits of their Faustian bargain. The monsters of supply will consume not just sea eagles and the incredible scenery of Skye and the Hebrides, geese and tranquility on Romney Marsh, and sustainable community in the Mendips, but eventually the whole Severn estuary with a tidal barrage ... and add another ten nuclear reactors to churn out their wastes and dangers. And that is just in the UK, because we will also extend our decarbonised ecological footprint to the forests of Borneo, the Amazon and Latvia in search of biofuels and woodchips.

I am sorry to get steamed up - particularly since I have just carbonised my dinner in the process ... can I put in a claim for sequestration credits under the Kyoto protocol?


*Ed. - For more on Professor Svensmark's work, see, for example,, and, for the more inquisitive,