Green Crap Redux

David Cameron’s “green crap” moment was deeply depressing. Not just because of the policy change it indicated, but because it suggested the electorate didn’t care about it. The environment had never been a vote winner, and here in 2013 was proof the Conservatives realised it still wasn’t. Now it looks as if green crap is coming back, with a vengeance.

Green Crap
Thanks for everything, Dave.

Michael Gove’s startling speech on farm subsidies post Brexit was met with a cautious but universal welcome from the environmental lobby. Today we had the government’s 25 year environmental plan. There’s lots in it which is bang on in terms of aspiration, but as the Conservative chair of  the Environment Committee commented, desperately short on detail.

It begs far more questions than it answers, and its credibility, given the government’s track record in funding the Environment Agency, energy, pollution, etc. etc., is – well, let’s just say the jury is out. Theresa May’s own voting record is hardly suggestive of hidden eco-credentials. In fact, it’s a shocker.

There’s no joined up thinking in the plan either. Plastic waste in our oceans is a secondary threat after acidification and climate change – an area where UK policy has disintegrated.

In future times, if genuine, I suspect the government’s Damascene conversion will seem absurdly modest and overdue. On the other hand, it may just be political opportunism. Whichever, it is, however, a watershed moment.

It’s important because senior ministers suddenly seem to think the environment is a vote winner.* Let’s connect with millennials in an area where Labour, too, have been weak. Let’s convert all those millions of young Blue Planet watchers into turquoise Tories. Hugging a husky in 2006 looked like naive, off-script green wash. I have canvassed on environmental issues on the Somerset Levels. Even there – perhaps amazingly – issues like climate change didn’t seem to matter very much.

Today’s plan may or may not be green wash, but it’s calculated and very much on script. That’s what’s exciting about it.

*Credit for this seems to go to Conservative think tank Bright Blue.

Habitat Restoration

“Make it so”, booms Jean-Luc Picard. And snick snack snorum, it is made so. jean-luc picard If only life were as simple as it is aboard the USS Enterprise. And if only we had Patrick Stewart to guide us calmly* through everything the universe had to throw at us. The universe, it turns out, is fantastically complicated and – well – difficult. Even for Patrick Stewart. And nowhere is this clearer than on our own planet.

Here’s a good – and ultimately uplifting – example. This little video is about the efforts being made to reverse deforestation in Iceland. Habitat restoration is a real palaver! With my Habitat Aid hat on I was pleased to see the emphasis on local provenance and plant genetics… And all this caused by a few Viking sheep and the odd pig.

There are lots of obvious morals to this story, of course. For example, the government here has announced the creation of  a northern forest (largely funded by charities).  There will be 50 million trees planted  to cover a vast area. Potentially very exciting.  It will, however, take many years before it can provide the same kind of biodiversity as the ancient woodland under threat from HS2 and fracking.

Habitat restoration is very difficult, expensive, imperfect and slow. Far better to avoid destroying this stuff in the first place.

*or should that be “to calmly guide us”?

Farmland – Does It Really Matter and What Should We Do With It?

Much interest in Michael Gove’s prognostications on farmland subsidies today. This is a really important issue for environmentalists – perhaps more important than you might think.

Oddly, most people in the UK think that the country is largely concreted over. How much of the UK’s land area do you think is densely* built on? According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll, the average estimate is 47%. The actual number is… 0.1%. The younger people are, the more land they think is concrete. 47% is a vast over-estimation of the proportion of land built on at all, which is below 6%

UK farmlandAs the BBC’s Mark Easton pointed out in his excellent blog, this misconception has disastrous implications for debate about land use.

Oddly, folk living in rural locations had the same level of misconception as those in towns and cities. In other words, this is received rather than observed wisdom.

There’s a powerful historical narrative at work here which we need to unravel, and which has a direct bearing on what we do with our farmland. Although it takes up much more of our land than people think, farmland is far from the rural utopia that the same narrative suggests. It’s not the green and pleasant land threatened by the looming giants of the industrial revolution and – today – housing sprawl. Most farmers have to work their land very hard to make ends meet.

Farmland is very important for the natural environment. We must concentrate on getting the policies shaping it right. What happens on farmland is much, much more important for biodiversity than what happens in urban areas. It’s well over 50% of our land mass, massively more than natural land, and much of it is now very degraded.

The Common Agricultural Policy has done little to halt this degradation. It has probably made it worse. Mr Gove doesn’t like the CAP, and has perhaps been surprised to find allies in the environmental lobby. It’s expensive, inefficient and politically sensitive. Paying subsidies on the basis of land ownership – with no cap – is inevitably going to produce poor outcomes and promote grotesque income inequalities.

What Mr Gove proposes is a kind of expansion of countryside stewardship and agri-environmental schemes. We will pay farmers for the “public goods” they create rather than the acreage they farm. Mr. Gove mentioned planting woodland, creating new habitats for wildlife, helping improve water quality and recreating wildflower meadows. Potentially good news for Habitat Aid, incidentally, although I wonder where all the seed and plants for this will come from! I hope they will have the right provenance…

This dramatic and potentially really exciting switch in policy begs more questions than it answers. Presumably cost cutting is a rationale for doing it – how big would any new pot be? In order to be meaningful they will have to be landscape wide and administered by an expensive and well informed bureaucracy.

What would be the impact on food prices and how would the electorate react to that? We still produce 60% of the food we eat – what happens as that falls when intensive farming becomes less attractive? What would happen to activities like hill farming, which are fundamentally uneconomic?

I don’t see how we can end up with cheap food produced to today’s standards or better, an improved environment, and a saving to the public purse. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

  • i.e. over 80%+ covered by artificial surfaces like buildings and roads.


Neonicotinoids in Rivers

The neonicotinoids fiasco has so many familiar elements it’s turning into a classic of its kind. Widespread use of a largely untested pesticide has had consequences no-one in authority apparently anticipated.

Today’s news that our rivers are polluted with neonicotinoids is I suppose as unsurprising as it is depressing. These wonder pesticides were supposed to have no residual effect – that was the point of them. Instead, they will be present in our ecosystem for many years after they have been banned.

Please don’t use this product
They are turning up everywhere, even in remote mountain burns. Why? The best guess is that dogs dosed with neonicotinoid flea treatments brought them there. It’s a typical unintended consequence. Everything is connected. You can’t just use a chemical in a limited way.

Did those dogs have owners who would have thought for a second they might be damaging the environment? Of course not. They would be appalled. As appalled as the gardeners who recently discovered they have been buying neonicotinoid treated “bee friendly” plants. Many will still unknowingly be using neonicotinoids in their greenhouses.

Consumers have very little idea about the products they buy. The government is supposed to protect them and the environment by making sure they don’t contain anything problematic. But governments are slow to react, and in many cases just ignorant of the threats posed by new products. This is why they are supposed to follow the precautionary principle:

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

At the very least, consumers should expect accurate and explicit labelling about what they are buying.

By the way, as a footnote to this sorry tale, the only reason we know about it at all is because of the EU Water Framework Directive “watch list” initiative. The EU required the UK to undertake this monitoring. As yet, the environment agency is yet to comment.

Listen To The Sound Of Pond Life

Noisy ponds
Someone turn the volume down!

Who knew pond life was noisy? I just love ponds and can happily spend hours sitting by ours watching the extraordinary drama played out by a vast cast of often bizarre looking animals. It had never occurred to me that under the water these characters were making the most extraordinary racket.

I stumbled across this recording from hydrophones dropped into a little Welsh pond last summer. It is absolutely astonishing.

I would love to know what was making which noise – it’s all very mysterious. Among the cacophany are apparently oxygenating plants, newts and all manner of invertebrates. Who knows? Fantastic. Forget the Big Blue – listen to the little one!

There are other fascinating underwater recordings from the British Library in this programme – do listen. They’re mainly not from exotic locations – they’re from the UK. This is exactly the sort of thing we need to engage people in the mysteries of our own natural world, just beyond their back doorsteps.


Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson was the jokey boy at school. He kept you amused by taking the piss out of teachers and less popular kids. He wasn’t the sort of bloke who got caught doing anything really naughty though because…well… he didn’t actually do anything very much, come to think of it.

And he still trades on the same talent. He’s hilarious on all sorts of topics, particularly variations on the “it’s political correctness gone mad”, “snowflake” and “treehugger” themes. He makes tonnes of money, lives on the Isle of Man, has a good time and does…well… not very much else.

Clarkson has written an odd column in the Sunday Times in treehugger attack mode complaining about something in Blue Planet 2 . I’m still not sure what it was about other than to wind people like me up. It worked a treat. It was the usual b****cks, I assume written after lunch. Am I surprised that a bloke who makes a living out of messing about in cars knows not very much about nature?

Treehuggers can be eccentric, self absorbed and over-earnest. They can be humourless, patronising and sanctimonious. They’re also an obvious target in the playground, rich in comic potential. It’s a well worn genre – AbFab, The Young Ones, The Good Life, and, before TV, noted newt fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle.

The point is though, Jeremy, that this doesn’t necessarily make them idiots or – more importantly – wrong. Because they’re concerned about the environment doesn’t necessarily make them mad or threatening.

And why should I bother with what you have to say about nature conservation? Why should I bother listening to Nigel Lawson on climate change? Why should you listen to what I have to say about Wankel rotary engines? Contrary to popular belief, the world really does need experts. Or at least people who know what they’re talking about and don’t spout – as you would put it – complete cock.

Because you’re funny you have a column in a national newspaper.  You reinforce a set of casual stereotypes from fifties suburbia to a particular audience. They are at once entertained but also comforted by your rubbishing alarmist and outlandish theories about the state of nature.

Sadly I don’t think their children will find you as amusing.




Green Thursday Good, Black Friday Bad

Green 50A very jolly green outing yesterday threw today – Black Friday – into even sharper perspective. Habitat Aid made it into the top 50 green businesses in the West and I toddled up to Bristol for a prize giving event.

It’s always nice to meet the kind of enthusiastic people who were there, even though it makes me feel like I’m a very weary 150. There was a tremendous range of businesses represented.  You can be doing all sorts of things and be “green”. There were sandwich makers, printers, water companies, PR companies, banks.  These were companies in traditional areas doing things in a more sustainable way or promoting/servicing “green” companies. By the end of the evening I wasn’t even sure what “green” meant.

At the other end of the spectrum were businesses firmly entrenched in recycling, alternative energy – you can imagine the kind of thing. I think my favourite firm was Geneco, quite rightly one of the winners.  Oddly – which gave me pause for thought – we were the only people doing anything directly related to the natural environment.  There’s money in all this other stuff but not in plants. *Sigh*.

Anyway, it was a genuinely inspiring evening, and in sharp contrast to Black Friday today. Where did this wretched nonsense come from? It leaves me with the same kind of unpleasant taste as the Sunday Times Rich List. Are we come to this? It would be nice to think it will die a death.

I’m pretty confident that millenials will lead a move away from price driven consumerism and value ethical businesses more and more. As one such, it’s our challenge to provide them with choice and reasonable prices. We simply can’t provide the same slick level of service that Amazon does, but it’s my hope that customers increasingly value the quality of our products and how we source them.

Peaky Blinders

I’ve just watched the first in the new series of the brilliant Peaky Blinders. If you’re not a fan, it’s a sort of historical drama set in the Black Country in the 1920s. “Sort of” because it does bend credibility in the service of a good yarn, but it’s a cracking piece of TV drama. The cast is fab and the production terrific; it has a real period feel to it.

The opening episode of Peaky Blinders series 4 finished with a cliffhanger. A bunch of Italian hitmen gun down two of the leading characters outside a farmhouse, seemingly fatally. It was a dramatic scene. Gunsmoke drifted over the bodies. The climbing rose on the farmhouse wall was in full flower. The hedges and trees were that bright green of midsummer.

Slightly confusingly, the hoods hid in a cart carrying hay bales. A bit early in the season, to be honest. No matter. Utterly bizarrely, though, was that the scene was specifically set on Christmas morning. And, apart from me, no-one seems to have noticed how strange that was. I guess the producers just didn’t realise. Or they thought viewers wouldn’t notice that Christmas in 1925 fell in June. Or there was some weird local climate change thing going on around 1920s Birmingham.

It’s another small but telling example of something I’ve been rattling on about for years. From the 2.3 million people who watched it there seems to have been nobody who noticed this bizarre lapse. Does this make me a sad freak? I can only guess the producers gambled that most of the folk who watched it don’t know what nature in England looks like in late December.  They can’t have a clear mental image of what nature in England looks like at all.

How depressing that everyone is so disconnected from their natural environment.

Back From The Brink (“BftB”)

I popped up to Windsor Great Park yesterday for the launch of a project called “Back From The Brink“, or BftB. What a fascinating time I had.

Back from the Brink
Daisy and me and Stan the stag beetle

BftB is aiming to save 20 of our most threatened species from extinction. It’s going to run 19 projects across England and involves seven of the country’s leading wildlife conservation charities. This in itself is great news –  this number of specialist NGOs working together is fantastic. Natural England are also involved, and the government seem keen too (it’s free!). I was there with my Bumblebee Conservation Trust hat on. Daisy from the Trust is running a project to help the Shrill Carder Bee, which by a happy accident can be found – if you’re very lucky – a few miles down the road from us in Somerset.

Back from the Brink planting
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow…

The day itself was very good fun. There were some excellent speeches, particularly by Sir Peter Luff, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who are the main funders of the project. The presentations and then tree planting in the Park with schoolchildren reinforced two key elements of what programmes like Back From The Brink have to do. They have to connect and engage. David Lindo, the urban birder, was very good on this. We must demystify nature and use social media more effectively to get people to understand it’s not something that just happens “in the country”. It’s all around them, and it’s fascinating.

The kids loved the planting. It was hard not to wonder whether any of the oak whips they were planting would live as long as the magnificent Signing Oak overseeing us like an ancient guardian.  This wonderful tree, with all its social history, seemed to represent the kind of legacy we must not lose.

Back from the Brink
Violet Click Beetle home?

After lunch on the hoof we adjourned to the forest, where in a section of ancient beech the Violet Click Beetle is hanging on. It’s only found in three places in the UK, so “rare” would be an understatement. The Crown Estate is running a project to try to save it. It’s a classic illustration of how tricky some of BftB’s work is going to be. Violet click beetle larvae live inside the base of veteran beech and ash trees, of which there are very few left. Windsor forest has some lovely ancient beech, but there is a 50-100 year break in the continuity of trees. After the veterans then nothing until young, non-decaying trees. No decay, no Violet click beetle. What to do? Sarah Henshall explained two approaches – making an artificial decaying tree trunk, and for the longer term, fungal inoculation of younger trees to accelerate decay.

Back From The Brink’s work is going to be as difficult as it is important. I hope too that it will serve as a template for conservation NGOs to work together under the same umbrella. It’s so important that we don’t just save some of our flora and fauna from extinction, but that we tell their stories too.



Green Back Garden Blue Planet?

Like 10.3 million other people I have been stunned by Blue Planet 2. In terms of ratings it has knocked the socks off Strictly and the ailing X Factor. It is just superb. Gorgeous, dramatic, authoritative. All our millennial children and their friends watch it. They have Blue Planet parties to watch it.

blue planetThe sainted David Attenborough*, now an extraordinary 91, dodgy knees and all, has absolutely connected with this generation via the wonders of BBC production quality. It is an extraordinary feat. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

At a time when the under 30s seem so disconnected with the natural world, Blue Planet is a really important chink of light. There IS real interest in our environment and what is going wrong with it. We need to communicate this much, much more effectively and urgently.

Everywhere I look in the conservation world I find earnest middle aged (ok – late middle aged!) white men like me. We have a lot of good things to offer, but we don’t get that spark. Programmes like Springwatch don’t get it either. The lobbying organisations that ARE good at communication with under 30s are usually badly informed and/or crass. Everyone is under-financed.

How do we make green back gardens as sexy as the blue planet?

*without wanting to sound a major suck up, I met Sir David once at a Butterfly Conservation do. He was an absolute sweetie and despite me being rather star struck wrote me a very kind letter. This is pinned up in the office and we quote it shamelessly on the website.