We Are 10!

Amazingly, Habitat Aid is 10 years old. It started off as what now looks like a lunatic plunge into the unknown. I’d had 30+years in the City and needed another career. I was a keen but strictly amateur naturalist and gardener/smallholder. I think people thought I was having a midlife crisis (probably) or that I’d made so much money it didn’t matter (weak laughter). We downsized dramatically. To the surprise of most the business has kept food on the table and, more importantly, done some good things. Anyway, our tenth anniversary has given me an excellent opportunity to go off on one…

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire
I wish I’d kept tabs on what we’ve given away to charities and community projects, how many acres of wildflower meadows or orchards we’ve had a hand in, or seed packets, or numbers of ponds, or miles of hedges. Wildflower meadows are now particularly dear to my heart. Largely unprotected, almost completely destroyed, our most diverse and attractive habitat. I think the biggest meadow site we’ve seeded is over a hundred acres. Wildly exciting.

Plan Bee seedsMost aspects of what we do have been very satisfying, not least helping our network of suppliers, many of whom have been with us since we started. We have made some modest progress in changing minds, like promoting local provenance meadow seed, for example. People have been very supportive, from David Attenborough to an appreciative pupil from a Primary school in County Durham (thank you for the letter, Lucy). Thanks everyone, not least my long suffering wife!

Wildflower meadow
Meadow Creation Project, North Somerset
This keeps me going; sometimes, as you can imagine, it can be difficult. I do wish we were having a wider impact. The business is still pretty modest, and we find it difficult to be heard. Projects are complicated and can go wrong (don’t tell!). People don’t pay much for plants and seed, and can find them baffling. Selling online seems to
Our social media efforts are improving!
be more and more difficult for small companies who don’t want to use Amazon. Social media audiences follow enthusiastic and luminous personalities. Folk have odd ideas. Things get weird very quickly. TBH I’m hopeless at it. One of the reasons we set up Habitat Aid was to get across sound information on how to try and improve our natural environment. Worthy but dull on Facebook. Hopeless.

Although we know more about what’s happening in our own back garden than we did 10 years ago, it’s still remarkably little. Some of the charities we support are working hard to change that, but we’re still blundering around in – at best – the twilight. Our understanding of what we’re doing to the natural environment here remains depressingly sketchy.

The conservation lobby is often at loggerheads with other interest groups. I’m delighted to see a new activism abroad, like the recent People’s Walk for Wildlife and various online petitions. I’m uncomfortable though about the confrontational element of some of this stuff, and the over-simplification and sensationalising (is that a word?) of complicated real world issues. For example, banning neonicotinoids on its own isn’t going to “save our bees”. Don’t get me wrong. I think banning them is a very good thing and was very overdue – but bees have other problems too. We continue to find out how many. We’re also finding out how many other impacts neonics have too. In the meantime farmers are flooding their oilseed rape fields with pyrethroid based pesticides instead. Specialist evidence based conservation charities really struggle to put across complicated messages without compromising them.”Personalities” or campaigning groups often eclipse them, too.

NGOs are, however, getting better at persuading people that wildlife friendly can also be people friendly. Most are also engaging better with the real world, although there are a couple of ivory towers out there which need to be bazooka-ed. It must be a concern to them, however, that their supporters continue to be overwhelmingly white middle class folk of a certain age, from outside urban areas. It’s a symptom of “nature deficit disorder”, I guess. There’s also shifting baseline syndrome to fight among the younger generation.

Lastly there’s the commercial sector. Retailers sell lots of THINGS to try replace degraded habitat. Bee boxes, bird boxes, hedgehog boxes, bat boxes, dormice boxes, hibernacula, bird feeders, even bumblebee colonies.* This all just widens people’s disconnectedness with nature. Together with the over-simplification of key messages they are encouraged to think that nature is easily and cheaply replaceable. They’re not looking at it either. Our efforts to get people to take pleasure in the small things – a new butterfly in the garden, a new plant in the meadow – generally fall on deaf ears. I still run into far too much greenwash in the corporate sector at large. Perhaps naively I think this is often down to ignorance.

I’ve become increasingly suspicious of government, although encouraged by the Blue Planet effect. This means that – for the first time ever – the environment will win votes. Best of all, it might win votes among the under 25s. This realisation just might drive a good environmental deal post Brexit, although as this will mean short term cost and higher food prices the jury is still firmly out. At the least, we should get improved biosecurity and wave goodbye to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Rainbow over Alfred's TowerThis is apparently my 362nd blog. There does now seem to be a wider understanding that something is needed to reverse what Chris Packham calls an “ecological apocalypse” here. There are more active efforts being made to that end, like rewilding. Much hasn’t changed over the previous 361 blogs, though. We still worry about animals like hedgehogs much more than we do about the drivers behind their decline. These are common to many, many other species. Biodiversity loss is still the Cinderella of the Green movement, which is much more concerned about energy and sustainability. We still spend peanuts on it, least of all on the poor souls slaving away in this area – or in horticulture generally, come to that.

I’m still convinced that the way to improve biodiversity here is by recreating and rejoining (as best we can) destroyed and splintered natural habitats. This not only means huge changes to the way we use and value land here, but also getting people to see the benefits of habitat creation. It can be beautiful and wildly exciting (sorry! – Ed.).

*Plants and seed sellers often pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. “Wildflower seed” in particular could be anything from anywhere and often fails. Retailers seem to sometimes actively encourage people’s confusion; between actual and other sorts of “meadows”, and the provenance of plants, for example.

Things Fall Apart

From time to time I used to suffer from what doctors call “anxiety” – I guess a form of mild depression, which I’ve learnt how to manage over the years. I’m now feeling something rather different and rather more alarming; a sense of foreboding.

We’re in one of our favourite places – Italy – for a few days. I’m writing on a sunny terrace with glorious views of violet hills, against a soundtrack of sparrows. There are clouds of butterflies about and – later this evening – a mob of unruly swifts will close the day.

We have lost all these things at home.

We have the odd swift, the odd sparrow. A hot dry summer will be good for our beleaguered butterflies, and I can hear people saying now that they seem to have turned the corner where they are, etc. etc.. Nature friendly farmers tell me how much they’re doing for wildlife. Enthusiasts click on online campaigns. The numbers remain pretty awful though. Biodiversity has collapsed in the UK and many species numbers are still in sharp decline. The short story is that there is still no concrete strategy in place to reverse this.

I’m sure, too, that many will say that the recent weather – all over the world – is just weather, and nothing to do with global warming. In any event, people still don’t care enough about global warming to even list it in their top 10 concerns at the ballot box. As one who has canvassed with spectacularly poor results around Langport in the Somerset Levels this is something I know at first hand. The U.S. Administration, of course, doesn’t even acknowledge climate change exists.

My concern about these two things – mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change – have, to be honest, marked me out as a bit odd among my friends. Even more bizarre for them has been my trying in a practical way to do something about them in the UK over the last 10 years.

This has been very depressing. It’s not too much of a stretch to see people’s lack of reaction to the rise of populism (is this the right label?) as similar. Right wing extremists are murdering our MPs, elements of the Press are calling the senior judiciary and our Prime Minister “traitors”. Both Left and Right are polarised; it’s a type of politics familiar from the Europe of the interwar years. The current struggle in politics is not between Left and Right; it’s between the Centre and extremists. Our political class is manifestly failing us – not just in the UK, of course – and destroying public confidence in our institutions. Doubly concerning, this is coming at a terrible time to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will fuel extreme political views.

Why do I have to be an eccentric / snowflake if I am doing things about stopping climate change, mass extinctions and neo-fascists/Stalinists?

There are (some, at least!) bright, well meaning people in parliament, of different political persuasions, who need to completely refocus their agendas. We ALL have to get involved. In a hurry.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B.Yeats

Green Brexit Greenwash – and Some More Cheerful News

I have read a great deal about the government’s plans for the environment – a Green Brexit. I have heard Michael Gove speak about it, earlier this year. I read my notes from that Conference over the weekend, to make sure I wasn’t suffering from sudden onset early Alzheimers.

Yes, he did indeed promise  a “global gold standard” in “strengthened environmental protection measures”. He explicitly outlined the need for an environmental regulator “with teeth”, backed by legislation.  This Green Brexit was all somewhat unexpected but, on the face of it, rather exciting.

It turns out that after all these were – well – not promises. I’m not sure what they were. They actually… er… didn’t represent government policy, but were aspirations, whatever on earth that means. The government has announced plans for a new regulatory body for the environment which is purely advisory. It cannot prosecute. What the hell use is this? It’s like having a court which can’t send offenders to jail. Gove has apparently caved in to pressure from the Treasury, who have always seen green regulation as a form of tax on business. Hideously regressive thinking.

Even if this plan is overturned in the Lords – and the signs are encouraging that it might be – I found this news profoundly depressing. Firstly, the Green Brexit landscape Gove has been talking about – aspirationally – will involve significant short term cost, for the tax payer and the consumer (for long term gain). If the Treasury baulks at the first step in this process, what chance does this vision have of coming to fruition?  It has got two hopes, and Bob has just left the building.

Second off, Michael Gove presented his plans for the environment post Brexit as POLICY. It clearly wasn’t, and he is no position to deliver them.

Thirdly, this kind of thing massively undermines public trust in the political process. It seems to happen repeatedly these days. People are fed up with being treated with this sort of contempt. Too many of our politicians don’t seem to understand this, including, it seems, Michael Gove.

*Sigh*

Moving on to more positive news.

One of the reasons I haven’t written much recently is because I’ve been holding down two jobs. One for Habitat Aid, which pays the bills, and the other as a flag waver for the estimable Bumblebee Conservation Trust, for whom I’m a trustee. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bees generally, and I’m a big fan of the Trust for a variety of reasons. I’ve supported them through the business for 10 years now, and watched them do some really good things.

Cheerful News
Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Anyway, I have been organising some events to raise their profile and some money for a new long term investment fund. We’ve been talking about the project to save the Shrill carder bee too. These evenings have gone really well – due to the enthusiasm of the BBCT folk, those involved at the venues, the people who turned up and, most of all, those who signed the cheques.  We’ve had nice fuzzy noises from some great and good who couldn’t make the evenings but want to help. It has been tremendously heart warming and encouraging. Thank you all.

 

 

Blacksmithing

I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

Blacksmithing 2
Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .

 

 

 

Common Ground

Common Ground is a wonderfully slippery fish. It’s a charity founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King, which according to its unique website “seek(s) imaginative ways to engage people with their local environment”. We’ve supported it for many years, and I very much share its philosophy and aims. I guess finding Common Ground was one of the reasons I had my conversion from City bloke to whatever the hell it is I do now.

Common GroundWhat do they do? All sorts. Art installations, practical guides, events… I first bumped into them in the early 2000s, when we set up an Apple Day in an old cider orchard in our village. Everyone gathered and harvested the apples, tea was taken, then the apples pressed and bottled to support the village church and hall.

It was Common Ground who started Apple Day and the idea of community orchards. They also worked hard to revive local varieties of fruit trees, but particularly apple trees. This fell neatly into Sue and Angela’s central objective. They want to get communities to understand and promote “local distinctiveness” through art and custom, landscape and architecture, history and environment.
Common GroundBang on message for Habitat Aid. We promote exactly the same values. I wish I had the imagination to come up with the kind of innovative ways Common Ground have done to promote them.

These days, you might associate this kind of philosophy with a small island mentality. Not at all with Common Ground. Their message is absolutely inclusive, promoting localism within a global community. The two can co-exist. And Common Ground have got things done, rather than just talk about them. Books, projects, artwork, landscape work – over a 35 year history they have produced a really significant and eclectic body of work. You can see their influence across a whole range of apparently unconnected areas, in urban and rural settings.

I heard Sue speak yesterday evening. Although these days they have handed the running of the charity on, her and Angela’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose is undimmed. Thanks both.

The Tragedy of the Commons

To get a break from Donald Trump at Davos I’ve been learning about the “tragedy of the commons”. It’s an idea coined in the 19th century and revived by ecologist Garrett Hardin fifty years ago.

The concept originally referred to the over-grazing of common land. Farmers’ rational self-interest inevitably lead to their putting too much livestock on commons. Which were then trashed. The animals then starved. While society believes in the freedom of the commons, individuals will pursue their own best short term interests. These are contrary to the common good. In the long term, everyone loses.

Depressing stuff, and of course applicable in all sorts of areas.  There’s fossil fuels, deforestation, traffic congestion, antibiotic use in animals, over-fishing, etc etc etc. More recently, social media has, inevitably, faced the same problem.

The interesting thing is that now – for the first time in human history – we are beginning to understand this principle. And when we understand the environmental consequences of our actions we can change our own lifestyles to mitigate or negate them. We can vote for politicians who use stick and carrot to get people and corporates to act for the common good.

By definition, though, it’s a tough ask in a democracy. Mr Trump is living proof of that.

 

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.

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.