Truss and the Attack on Nature

How long ago it seems when I was writing my last blog considering what impact a Liz Truss prime ministerial reign might look like.

Now, just a few weeks later we have a clearer idea – and the vision is an apocalyptic one for the environment.

The Truss plan is radical, and, as a number of commentators have noted, it’s come straight out of the “Tufton Street” Neoliberal libertarian think tanks, about which I have written many times over the last ten years of blogging (12 if you include my Grasslands Trust blogs). I don’t particularly want to go over that ground again, suffice to say the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute and the Taxpayer’s Alliance, to name but a few from that stable, are now very much embedded in Number 10 and ruling the roost.

We had already seen inklings of what was to come with the proposals for Freeports which had been trailed for some time. Now we can add Investment Zones, to Freeports – and these will essentially be regulation free zones, where planning rules are ignored – as well as low tax regimes. It’s not at all clear how big or small these Investment Zones will be. Our local MP the ignorant and arrogant Chris Loder, has suggested that one may cover parts of Weymouth and Portland. Note these are not Charter Cities, which are not being created in the UK, whatever conspiracy theorists believe. There is no need to creat Charter Cities, when Freeports and Investment Zones will do the job.

As long predicted, Truss’ plan includes sweeping away all EU laws. And many of these are about environmental protection and enhancement. The Bill now known as REULS – Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) will excise all UK laws which are derived from EU law – these are the ones that were rolled over more or less unchanged during the chaos of the May Government. Now Jacob Rees-Mogg plans to get rid of them all, by December 2023. This is the Sunset Clause. Ministers will have to come up with a really really good argument as to why an EU law is retained after that date. Even then they will most likely disappear in time for Brexit’s 10th Birthday – June 2026.

Aside from the sheer vandalism of wrenching 40+ years of established law from our statute book, without any consideration that these things might be doing good, it’s also just infantile behaviour. Firstly that all EU law has to be slashed, simply because it came from the EU. And secondly this obsession with symbols – who cares if it’s the 10th anniversary since the Referendum – what has that got to do with the law?

There’s a further point about REULS – it drives a cart and horses through the devolution settlement. The Environment has been a devolved matter since the devolved Parliaments were created and each country has gone their own way since then. But REULS will sweep away those devolved laws too. The Welsh Parliament response has so far been measured, but in Scotland ministers are incandescent. I honestly have never seen such a letter as this one, from the Scottish Government to Westminster.

This was in part a response to the plans set out in the “fiscal event” aka the mini budget: Kwasi Kwarteng’s blitzkrieg attack on some of the foundations of society. The mini budget report known as “The Growth Plan”, included the REULS proposals already published, plus some other pointers towards a broader deregulation agenda, including for Agriculture. The Growth Plan includes proposals for infrastructure projects: to “reduce the burden of environmental assessments; reduce the bureaucracy in the consultation process; reform the habitats regulations.”

What exactly is happening with Agriculture policy is still pretty unclear, but the Growth Plan included pointers towards less regulation, and more productivity – and included the announcement of a “rapid review” of the new post-Brexit agricultural reform process (called ELMS), which is supposed to be replacing the old CAP-based area payments with “public money for public goods. This is a concept I am sure everyone reading this will already be familiar with. Accusations that the NFU has persuaded Defra to return to area subsidies – or even worse, production subsidies, have been flying around this week. I think this is partly the fog of war. Defra has since been desperately trying to reassure everyone that ELMS is not being abandoned. Many are not reassured, not least because new farm minister Mark Spencer is so close to the NFU; and new Defra secretary of State Ranil Jayawardena seems to have no clue what is going on.

One good thing that has come from all this frenzy is a united front being presented by the environment NGOs, with RSPB and the National Trust pushing back very hard. The Attack on Nature campaign is already making a lot of waves – and the fact that the Scottish Government has effectively joined it, by using the slogan in their letter, speaks volumes. While RSPB’s million members (and highly effective Parliamentary lobbying team) will have created some worry in Defra and more broadly, The National Trust, with its Five Million members is another dimension of pain for the Government. If the NT can mobilise its members to cajole and pressure their MPs, or even start attending actions, this spells disaster for the Govt. I don’t know whether the NT has this level of detail on its membership, but I would expect a majority of them normally vote Conservative. So it’s not so surprising that the Govt and its outriders are actively attacking the NT and RSPB in its MP’s responses to campaign letters. This is going to get pretty nasty pretty quickly.

Of course all of this has been overshadowed by the other consequences of KamiKwasi’s mini budget. The pound has taken a pounding, Stock markets have crashed, Government borrowing costs have ballooned, and now Mortgage interest rates are skyrocketing. Just a perfect storm for Truss and Kwarteng to head off to the Tory party conference. I predict blood on the floor, possibly actual blood.

Now we have to wait for more detail on exactly what is being planned for the Freeports and Investment Zones.

[ Things move so quickly at the moment that a blog written at lunchtime can be out of date by teatime on the same day. My good friend Guy Shrubsole has just posted this on twitter, from today’s published Government guidance for Local Authorities submitting Expressions of Interest for Investments Zones]

We are also told that there will be a new Planning Reform plan coming out soon (remember the radical Jenrick Plan was thrown out by Michael Gove).

Plus there’s the ELMS Rapid Review.

Towering over all of these are planned spending cuts – perhaps as much as £40Bn worth. This sort of money means whole sections of the public sector will be axed. It will make the deregulatory turmoil and “bonfire of the quangos” of 2010 and 2011 look like a picnic.

Posted in deregulation, Liz Truss | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Will Prime Minister Truss abandon Johnson’s Green Legacy

It’s a long time since I’ve written anything remotely long form – as opposed to the extremely short form of a tweet, occasionally extending to a thread, which might add up to 3000 characters, perhaps 300 words. This has been in large part down to my ongoing health problems, which I wrote about, coming up to a year ago now. Since that formal diagnosis of chronic vestibular migraine, I’ve been on a fairly powerful medication amitriptyline. I went up to the maximum daily dose recommended by my neurologist, of 100mg a day. Then I gradually came off it. And all the familiar symptoms flooded back. So I went back on it again back up to 100mg a day, which is what I’m now taking for the foreseeable future. More recently I’ve seen a cranial osteopath, as recommended by several people. She pointed out some very interesting things which I hadn’t really noticed before but made perfect sense. And she’s recommended I give the 4 7 8 breathing exercise a go.

I realised that one of the things the Amitriptyline was doing was making me binge eat, so I have tried to be conscious of that. Also since giving up caffeine I’ve really noticed that having dark chocolate in the evening is a bad idea. Avoiding doing that also helps minimise the risk of me binge eating chocolate while watching tv. I do have a sweet tooth though, so I’m now partial to a piece of baklava instead. Telling you all about my eating habits isn’t exactly why I thought I would write something today, but there you go. It’s a thing. I do get out for a reasonably long walk every afternoon (though I did miss a few during the exceptionally hot days), so I burn off what I eat.

Another reason for me writing today is because I want to know how long I can write for before my symptoms appear. I’ve done a couple of pieces of writing over the last few months, including quite a large report (15000 words) and reading through a 80,000 word manuscript. The report was a struggle, I have to be honest. Reading through the manuscript was easier, as I could do it in chunks of an hour or an hour and a half. Both made me realise that although the medication helps, it hasn’t resolved the problem, just put a lid on it.

What I had intended to write about today was the impending demise of Boris Johnson and his replacement with, we must reasonably assume, Liz Truss. There will be a very remote chance that all the polls are wildly wrong and Rishi Sunak will get in, but it seems unlikely now.

What might a Liz Truss era mean for the environment?

We’ve already seen that both contenders have committed to wiping away all of the retained EU legislation, that was, for the most part, left unchanged during that era of chaos after the Referendum. This includes UK laws that transposed EU Directives for application in the UK (and often transposed these laws differently for each UK country).

I mean things like the Bathing Waters Directive, the Urban Waste Water Directive, the Water Framework Directive, the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive, The Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, or rather multiple EIA Directives. I’m sure there are many more, because the EU created an opportunity for laws to be written to protect the environment that transcended national borders, just as the environment transcends borders.

And just because we have now left the EU, the environment will continue to transcend borders.

As these laws are wiped from the UK statute book – or rather the four UK country statute books, there’s is a further serious implication for the environment, which is that EU Case Law, which has built up around all these environmental directives during the last nearly 50 years, will also no long apply.

Liz Truss recently announced that she would abandon “nutrient neutrality” rules that affect housing building. These rules arise from the damage caused by excess nutrients – Nitrogen and Phosphates, to European Sites (SACs or SPAs) designated as a result of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive. This meant that any new housing development, where the “nutrients” flowing from that development (sewage) entered a European Site, would have to show that there were no additional nutrients being deposited in that site, compared to when the housing development didn’t exist.

Thanks to a series of European Court judgements, this nutrient neutrality approach is being adopted right across the EU. And in the UK that has meant that housing developments that were not able to show that they were nutrient neutral, were not allowed to proceed. This has caused a great deal of anger and consternation, not least from house builders and conservative politicians, wondering why we are still following the EU rule book.

Recently Natural England announced that it had come up with a bespoke England-only alternative solution to nutrient neutrality, whereby housing developers could buy nutrient credits from landowners who would be paid to reduce the amount of nitrogen (or phosphate) leaving their land, to counterbalance the additional stuff coming from the housing developments.

Now Truss has been reported as saying she would just do away with this “red tape” altogether. At which point, as you can imagine, the eutrophication levels, which had been damaging all these top wildlife sites, would return to where it was before.

It’s an indication of Truss’ intention to “get rid of all the green crap” as a previous Prime Minister once said. She’s also expressed her intention to stop solar farms being built on farmland.

“Our fields should be filled of our fantastic produce – whether it’s the great livestock, the great arable farms. It shouldn’t be full of solar panels and I will change the rules…. to make sure we use our high value agricultural land for farming.”

Actually Liz Truss has disliked solar farms for a very long time. I wrote about her dislike for them, while being silent about the much much larger area of farmland used to grow crops for biogas, back in 2014. It’s interesting (well it is for me) to note that in 2014 only 29000ha of farmland was used for biogas crops, although the NFU had a target to get 100,000ha under biogas crops by 2020.

Guess what? As of 2022 something like 120,000ha of England is now under biogas crops. Well done NFU!

Liz Truss remains silent about all that farmland not being used for great livestock or great arable crops. Unless biogas crops are great arable crops.

Leaving aside her desire for a Great British Nature Survey perhaps the great threat of her deliberate pivot to the extreme right of the Tory party, is that she will abandon the 2050 Net Zero target, and open the doors for fracking. She’s already committed to abandoning the Green Levy on electricity bills.

In her speech to the Conservative Environment Network she went further:

“In these tough economic times, I will put the interests of people and businesses at the heart of our Net Zero agenda and harness the full power of free enterprise as a clean, green jobs-creating machine.

We can only succeed by taking bold action to get our economy and our country back on track. That is why I will act swiftly to tackle the cost of living. Suspending green energy levies, in line with the Conservative Environment Network’s recommendation, will save families an average of £153 a year.

During this time, we would conduct a review of our policies to ensure we are meeting our climate commitments in the most economically efficient way, which does not pile unnecessary costs onto consumers.”

It sounds to me as if what she’s saying is that we will only be able to take climate action if the economy is growing sufficiently quickly, and that would certainly tie in with her economic ideology. It’s economy before environment – and environmental action only if we can afford it.

I think I’ve probably written as much as I can now, other than one last point.

Boris Johnson’s rule, chaotic and corrupt as it was, will be seen as an era when there was a considerable amount of attention applied to “green” issues. Johnson was influenced by his wife Carrie and close friend Zac Goldsmith – and there may have even been some tiny vestige of his own interest in environmental matters, not least resulting from his father’s career. Michael Gove’s time at Defra was also characterised by a flurry of new policy announcements and plans – although now it appears he set many hares running, but how many actually came to anything? Reforming farm support, replacing area payments with payments for public goods will probably be his greatest legacy – if it can survive.

That Johnson failed to achieve anything of note from an environmental perspective, while waving goodbye to the environmental protections that being in the EU afforded, is only one part of that legacy. I fear the other one is that, once Johnson is prised out of Number 10, Green issues (in the broadest sense) will be soft targets vulnerable to attack and derision – especially from the contrarian right ( eg the Net Zero Scrutiny Group), because they will be associated with his time in office.

I hope I’m wrong.

Posted in Liz Truss, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

Book Review – Wild Fell by Lee Schofield

This review has been rather long in gestation. Lee originally sent me a copy in early February. I started reading it in March, then had to stop half way through. My Migraines (which I wrote about here) were returning as I started to reduce the medication I’ve been on. After a few weeks I was able to return to it and finished off the book quite quickly. So apologies if this review is a bit disjointed! I think I am now realising that the medication, while helpful, has also affected my capacity to write. Whereas before the creative juices would flow freely, now it feels much more like an effort. More apologies needed.

I enjoyed reading Lee’s book. He brings to life the work he and his colleagues have been doing in the Haweswater valley, in the Lake District. This is the upland equivalent of Hope Farm – the farm RSPB bought to illustrate (and experiment with) how a lowland farm can be run in a way that both produces food and also benefits nature. The difference is that the RSPB did not buy Haweswater but rather leased it from United Utilities, the water company serving the north-west of England.

The book is split into three sections – basically the first section illustrates the problems that wildlife faces in the uplands of Britain, using the Lake District as a specific example. Then Lee explores his own personal experiences of searching for and finding inspiration for how the Lake District fells and valleys could become, under different circumstances – and with a particular focus on one circumstance – the enormous numbers of sheep which occupy the Lake District. Finally Lee looks at a variety of examples of how the RSPB is making changes to the way they are managing the 1000 odd hectares of enclosed land in the valley, plus a stake in three much larger unenclosed Commons covering 3000ha.

Achieving any sort of change on these Commons is immensely difficult because of the commoners associations and their tendency towards inertia – and indeed believing that what has been the case for the past 70 years (loads of sheep all year round) is what has always been there. However, it is extraordinary to read about the achievements on Mardale Common, where there has been a real success, reducing Sheep numbers, while increasing Cattle and Pony numbers, to reflect how these Commons actually were managed for thousands of years up until 1946 (when the Hill Farming Act was made law).

Some readers will recall I wrote about the impact of sheep on the Lake District back in 2017 and these issues have been well rehearsed over the years. Almost everyone (dare I say even James Rebanks?) now accepts that there are too many sheep in the Lake District, and that has been the case for many decades. So it’s very inspiring to read about a large scale project where reducing the sheep numbers (and also changing the times they are out on the commons) is actually happening – and how quickly the land and its nature is responding..

One big surprise – and a very pleasant one – for me was that so much of Lee’s book is about the flowers (and even the “lower” plants) of the Lake District and the wider Uplands. I suppose I had a preconception that the main focus would be on birds, as it’s an RSPB project and Lee works for the RSPB. I was delighted to have those preconceptions shattered, joining Lee on his expeditions to Norway to discover proper Montane Scrub; and to the Alps, their magical meadows and bejewelled mountain tops. I was lucky enough to go along on a couple of Mike Scott’s mountain flowers courses about 20 years ago and it was sufficient to spark an interest which I have occasionally followed up on family holidays in the mountains. When you see how flowery uplands can be, and then look at how flowerless most of our own uplands are, it’s a terrible shock. We join Lee in the company of local botanists searching the most remote crags of Haweswater in search of these Arctic/Alpine plants, and find them hanging on by their fingertips in the most inaccessible spots where sheep cannot safely graze.

Naturally a fair amount of the book focusses on Birds and the story is the same. Particularly poignant is the story of the Golden Eagles that hung on in Haweswater long after agrochemicals and persecution had driven them from the rest of England, but finally lost the struggle in 2015. But this was the way that RSPB got a toe-hold in Haweswater and led to the creation of this inspirational project, so some good has come from this desperately sad story.

Lee has a great skill in storytelling. He has a gentle writing style which draws the reader in, and is unafraid of using his own personal experiences (including some comic ones) to bring excitement and a sense of wonder and joy, to what could otherwise be a depressing litany of declines and extinctions. When he encounters some (I would like to believe atypical) anti-conservation upland farmers who express their views in blunt and sometimes very unpleasant ways, the contrast with his own evidently gentle, friendly and non-combative nature is stark, even shocking.

There is also a great deal of information in the book, which is interweaved between his personal story, the projects he’s involved with, and his adventures exploring what might still be hanging on in Haweswater, and what Haweswater, the Lakes and indeed the British Uplands could become, if we change the way they are managed. If I had one suggestion it would be to include references for that information. It’s a lot of extra work, but it does neutralise the critics who will say “that’s not right” or “I’ve never seen that happen” because it doesn’t fit with their own experience or world view.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the natural history of the Lake District, the challenges of nature conservation (and the overlap with rewilding) and also anyone who perhaps, like me, is a little jaded and wondering what conservation has achieved over the past 40 years. Lee’s book is showing us that things really are changing, that it’s hard work and can take a long time, but to believe that there will be a future where wildlife thrives alongside farming.

Posted in books, Common Agricultural Policy, Lake District, rewilding, RSPB | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging

As I have mentioned recently, I’ve had a long standing health problem which has stopped me from doing much work, and even less writing. Reading became difficult to the point where I had to stop after about half an hour. I’m still having some of the symptoms, but I am glad to say that things have gradually been improving (thanks Amitryptyline) and I felt well enough to read a book from cover to cover. It has taken me a while but I was glad to have done it.

The book is On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester, published last October by Chelsea Green publishing. The subtitle has changed since the proof copy, to “Place, protest and belonging”. It’s a deeply personal book, a nature memoir, recounting Nicola’s own history and relationship with the nature around her.

Nicola’s patch is relatively small; West Berkshire, including Newbury and Greenham Common, then Inkpen and the eponymous Gallows Down. She recounts a deeply rural life, of tied cottages on large estates, horse-riding and nature-watching. But of course the places her personal story travels through are resonant with other larger events. Greenham Common – where the cruise missiles were based during the latter years of the cold war – and the famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) Greenham Womens’ Peace Camps. The nearby town of Newbury – a pretty market town, but also the place of famous battles – two in the English Civil War, and more recently the conflict over the Newbury Bypass. Nicola recounts some amusing, and uncomfortable, experiences as a teenager curious and not a little frightened by the armed troops defending the base and its missiles – and later took part in that campaign to resist the bulldozers and tree-choppers in the late 90s.

Her story continues to marriage and children, as well as her growing love of nature and her evident talent for writing about nature. She starts writing a regular column for RSPB magazine, and then writes a also writes a book for them – though of course this isn’t enough to live on and she becomes a school librarian. The latter part of the book explores her brave attempts to work with the estate gamekeeper, to improve the lot of the very rich and diverse wildlife the estate supports, but finally her desperation when she realises she has been misled, perhaps betrayed.

The book is suffused with her profound love of nature and place. There is plenty of really interesting local history too and she often returns to the work of the peasant poet John Clare, as a touchstone. I think Nicola identifies very much with Clare’s experience, watching the nature and the places he loved being destroyed by Enclosure, while Nicola has watched a similar thing happen in her life-time, the expulsion of nature – and people – from the modern industrial countryside.

I found myself reflecting on similar experiences in my own life, and there was a particular moment when I realised it was quite possible that I had been standing next to Nicola, 25 years ago, when she was flattened by a galloping Police horse during the Newbury Bypass protests. I still haven’t found the photo I took, but I will try and find it.

Nicola has written a remarkable book, very personal but also addressing all the larger themes of rural life in late 20th and early 21st century England. Land ownership: as Guy Shrubsole has noted, half of West Berkshire is owned by just 30 families. The largely hidden but massively influential role of the field sports industry, on both our human experience of the countryside; and the wildlife that survives there. Poverty and the very poor quality of housing in rural England. The relationship between farm tenants and the estates on which they live. Bringing up children in rural England and the challenges of getting them to school many miles away, but also the fantastic opportunities they have to grow up within a landscape where nature can still flourish (in places). It may come as a surprise to some that West Berkshire can still be so deeply rural.

If I had one suggestion it would be that the text would benefit from some photos or drawings of the places Nicola writes about, in addition to her hand-drawn map.

Posted in nature writing, road protests | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Eat wilder meat for the climate

White Park Cattle, Dinefwr Park ©Miles King

Meat is on the agenda at the Glasgow Climate Conference. Meat and its climate impact is now at the forefront of public debate about how we the people can do our bit to Stop Climate Chaos. Naturally everybody is claiming that their answer is the right one. The Sheep lobby is putting up a stout defence for lamb – claiming it’s the most climate friendly food. The Beef and Dairy industry are doing the same, in the teeth of claims from the vegetarian and vegan lobby that meat is climate enemy Number One.

Claims and counterclaims fly around like the flies that land on your nose, but are too fast to be swatted. Spoiler alert: I am not going to be able to resolve all of these contradictory standpoints and claims, in 800 words today. As someone who has been immersed in conservation, grazing, agricultural policy, their effect on wildlife and the climate for over 30 years, I do not claim to have any answers. All I can offer are a few thoughts.

Most of the meat that we consume in this country is not produced sustainably and yes it does have an impact on the climate. Agriculture in the UK contributes about 10% of our overall climate impact (depending on how you define both). The fact that around 60% of the food we consume (and 75% of indigenous foods is produced in the UK, means that 40% is produced elsewhere, and we are importing a climate footprint from somewhere else with that food. For meat, most of what we consume is produced domestically – and the more intensively it’s produced, the larger the footprint, based on things like the amount of artificial fertiliser used to produce the feed, that constitutes a large part of the food used at the intensive end of the meat industry. Surprisingly therefore Chickens and Pigs, which are mainly fed concentrates, produced from arable fields here – and elsewhere in the world, have a significant climate footprint, even though they are not belching out Methane. Methane, the incredibly powerful but short-lived climate forcing gas – produced by ruminants like cattle and sheep.

In case you weren’t aware, there’s an almighty row going on over Methane, and in particular Methane that’s produced from natural sources (biogenic Methane) as opposed to fossil Methane, which for some unknown reason we still call “Natural Gas”. Researchers have concluded that Methane from biogenic sources – specifically ruminants, should be treated differently from fossil methane. This is because of the fact that Methane breaks down quickly in the atmosphere, so effectively the Methane produced from one cow only replaces the Methane produced from its grandmother – so there is no net additional climate forcing, as long as the herd stays at the same size. Inevitably the industry has leapt on these findings and championed them as supporting their claims that Beef and Dairy are the most climate-friendly foods.

Given how quickly Methane breaks down – the counter argument is that if we reduce our ruminant meat intake, we can have a significant and quick impact on the climate – much quicker than, say, watching trees grow for 50 years. Other factors come into play, such as how much carbon is locked up in grazing pastures – if we stopped eating Beef and cheese, or drinking milk what would happen to all those pastures? Would they get ploughed up – releasing all their carbon? Would they become intensive conifer plantations, perhaps storing a tiny bit of carbon? Would they be rewarded, covered in pheasants, or new houses? These questions are unanswerable.

Leaving climate to one side for a moment, how would our decisions on what we eat affect wild nature. Many, arguably most, of our wildlife depends on some kind of grazing to maintain the ecosystems we value, cherish and love. What would happen to them if all the grazing animals disappeared. Almost all of the formerly common habitats of wildlife-rich grassland, heathland and wood pasture have already gone from the UK. Together they add up to perhaps a few percent of the country. They depend on grazing animals to exist. Some are also incredibly important carbon stores – mires and wet heaths with their peaty soils, long-established grasslands with mineral soils storing over 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Eating meat from animals that roam across these cherished habitats is perhaps the best approach if you want to help nature and the climate. At the moment farmers offering this are few and far between – often only available direct from the farm. If we all started asking our butchers, or even supermarkets, to stock wildlife-friendly meat, we could create the market to encourage other producers to join in. Much less would be available nationally and that means we all eat much less meat. But that would be no bad thing, as much for our health as for the planet.

Realistically of course, shifting our diet to one with much less meat, and only from truly sustainable sources, is only going to make a small difference to our overall climate impact. Far and away the most important thing we can all do, is continue to press our politicians to take the really big decisions.

(A slightly edited version of this blog appeared on the Green Alliance website )

PS Here’s the first blog I wrote about meat and wildlife, from October 2010

Posted in climate action, climate change, COP26, grasslands, grazing, Green Alliance | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Poetry for Climate Action at COP26

Poet Louisa Adjoa Parker in the climate poetry workshop at Damers School ©Damers School

I’ve mentioned before about People Need Nature’s work with The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network. We’ve been working together for five years now, getting poets to write challenges that inspire young poets (across the world) to write about different aspects of nature and what it means to them in their own lives. You can see the challenges and read the winning and commended poems on the PNN website.

This year, in the run up to COP26, the big climate conference, we set a challenge written by Devon poet Louisa Adjoa Parker. At the same time we bid to the COP26 organisers, to take the winning poets to Glasgow so they could perform their poems and show how young people are feeling about the climate, and the lack of climate action. I’ve already written about those poems and how powerful they are – you can see or hear some of the winning poets performing their poems on the Poetry Society website.

The COP26 organisers liked our proposal and have given us an hour to showcase the poets and their work – and that’s happening tomorrow at 12pm.

You can watch the performances live on Youtube using this link .

Just in case it doesn’t work, search for COP26 Green Zone Tower Base North, which is the name of the venue.

This year, I’ve also been working with Damers First School in Poundbury (Prince Charles’ new urbanism experiment), which uses the Harmony Curriculum, placing nature at the heart of the children’s learning. The first project was to collect wildflower seeds from local places, propagate the seeds in school and plant them out on Poundbury’s Great Field, where I’ve been working with the Duchy of Cornwall to create new areas of Wildflower Meadow and other wildflower habitats. This has been immensely rewarding for me, and the children (and teachers) really enjoy it. Taking some of the classes out to collect seed, I was told that it was the first visit beyond the school gates for well over a year – and the children revelled in being outside in nature.

Following on from this project, I was talking to the school about the climate poet challenge, and we thought it would be great to bring a poet into the school to work with small groups of children to inspire them to write about nature and the climate. This has come to fruition and Louisa Adjoa Parker has come into the school and run four half day workshops in October and November. I’ve played a supporting role and encouraged the children to think about how nature, people and climate are linked together. We made use of the School’s small but excellent wildlife garden, to inspire the children to think about nature and the climate, and Louisa led a short mindfulness exercise, where the children focus their attention on a flower, or a seedhead. In the workshop earlier this week a couple of the boys were looking at a reedmace spike and decided it looked like a poo on a stick, which was accurate and poetic!

Louisa working with the children in Damers wildlife garden ©Damers School

I mentioned to the school that it would be amazing if we could somehow link the school climate poetry workshops with the Glasgow event and wondered if we could make a film of the children in their workshops, and a few of them reciting their poems. By amazing coincidence, the school IT officer is a trained tv producer, and she spent the day filming the children at their workshops, then organised filming of the children performing their poems, and edited it all together, all in time to get it over to the COP26 people.

me talking to the children about a flower ©Damers School

So tomorrow as well as the winners of the challenge, we will show the film of the Damers Children being inspired and performing their poems about nature and the climate. Remember these are years 3 and 4 – seven to nine year olds. I was really struck by how aware they were (and I think most of that is down to Damers School and the way they encourage their students to be curious and enquiring) and how powerful their poems are.

If you aren’t able to watch it live (and I realise that it clashes with tomorrow’s big climate action event), I imagine that there will be an opportunity to watch it on catch up and I’ll let you know the link to that once I know it myself.

Posted in climate action, People Need Nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Out of Balance

screens of one kind of another dominate our lives

It’s been a while since I wrote anything – and this time it isn’t writers block. On occasions it has felt like there were so many things to write about – political developments, pieces of interesting news, the continuing slow motion car crash of Brexit – and the inevitable developments of the pandemic – that it was impossible to choose a topic. The real underlying reason that I haven’t been writing – or doing much in the way of paid work, has been a chronic health problem. I haven’t written about it before, for various reasons which will become clear. I should say from the outset I am not looking for sympathy, nor am I seeking to use it as an excuse for work projects not completed, but perhaps recounting my experience might help others in a similar position.

It started about 13 years ago. Work had given me a blackberry mobile phone (remember them?) which was for a miracle device as I could get and reply to emails while travelling. The job I had at the time involved lots of travelling – train trips up to Hampshire and London several times a week, and driving long distances often to remote places. At that time my eyesight was good but the inevitability of age meant I was wearing reading glasses. The screen on the blackberry was small and the font size even smaller. I spent a lot of time looking at this screen and using the funny little blackberry keyboard. There was also a rather addictive game involving a little ball (an updated version of pong, really). Anyway I spent a lot of time squinting at this keyboard – and my glasses were designed for reading paperwork and books not little screens. I started to find I was getting dizzy spells, feeling a bit sick and headaches, and my eyesight would go blurry, or even start to see odd bright lights and shapes. But most of the time I was ok. I went to see my GP. I think at this time I was put on beta blockers but they just zonked me out and I stopped them pretty quickly. Anyway the symptoms came and went.

The following year was very difficult as my dad became very ill with leukaemia and almost died, I was travelling up and down to London a lot and very stressed both at work and home. In 2010 the leukaemia returned with pneumonia and dad died. I didn’t deal with that at all well, just bottling up all that emotion. Looking back it’s pretty obvious I was depressed. I think I ignored the fact that the symptoms were getting worse until we went on a family holiday to the south of France which involved lots of winding roads. I was just feeling car sick the whole time and it didn’t go away even if I wasn’t in the car. Shortly after we returned home, I had the most bizarre experience. I had a bad dream and on waking my vision had completely gone – it was like an old celluloid film when the film falls off the sprockets and you get the frames moving rapidly upwards – or downwards in my case. I staggered downstairs and felt the whole of my right hand side go numb then pins and needles. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t read. I thought I was having a stroke. So I went to A and E and I don’t remember much apart from a cardiologist reassuring me I hadn’t had a stroke and him saying it was probably a panic attack. Anyway the hospital arranged a series of tests all of which came back normal and about 3 months later I saw a neurologist who stated “there are features… which raise the possibility of a migrainous phenomenon” but he wasn’t prepared to make a full diagnosis, but also “stress may be a possible contributory cause.”

Subsequently I remember periods when I was clear of symptoms, but slowly the periods of clarity decreased while the periods of dizziness, feeling off balance and variety of other sometimes quite weird symptoms, increased. I was finding in particular that scrolling through a document online (pdfs usually) would trigger my symptoms which could then last for weeks or months. As reading through long documents was a key part of my work, this was affecting my ability to work. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to be a passenger in a car, and buses were pretty much off limits.

After a particularly nasty infection (which I wrote about here) I remember the symptoms returned again – especially a feeling of fullness in my ear and tinnitus. My GP organised a referral and I had my hearing and balance tested in great detail and this found no evidence of any organic neurological problem. The consultant neurologist concluded that “there may be an element of vestibular migraine though I suspect his anxiety is not helping.” This really annoyed me. I thought anyone who had lived with these symptoms for that long would be anxious – it’s a natural response. I became quite disillusioned by then.

A couple of years passed and the symptoms were there, sometimes in the background, but most of the time. I can’t remember exactly how, but one day I came across a description of a relatively newly described condition – Persistent Perceptual Postural Dizziness or PPPD for short. It seemed to fit my symptoms pretty well and there was a recommendation that vestibular physiotherapy could help to get rid of it – effectively retraining the brain. So I went to a couple of vestibular physiotherapists and they both set me a slightly different set of exercises which involved a combination of head movements, watching videos of ripples on water, even watching water flow under a bridge. The idea was that slowly by building up a tolerance it would be possible to retrain my balance organs and brain circuits. The trouble was I would never get past the first set of exercises because they immediately triggered the symptoms. So that was another dead end.

Then came lockdown and the pandemic. I found myself spending more time in front of the computer and the symptoms would come on ever more quickly – to the point where I couldn’t do much aside from write pithy tweets. Reading (on or off screen) was possible but only for very short periods. I couldn’t join in with zoom world as the movement on screen would very quickly trigger my symptoms.

I was getting out and walking more and more, as much to get away from the computer as anything. This year we went on a brief holiday and I was only able to drive on the motorway for about an hour before my vision would start to go and we’d have to stop so my long suffering wife would take over. I was taking stugeron to get me through car journeys but it just sent me into a semi conscious state and left me with a bad hangover feeling the next day. I thought I had found out what was ailing me (the PPPD) but I thought I should get a proper diagnosis and see if anything else could be suggested. Back to the GP, and my third referral to a neurologist.

Following a brief chat about my history and leafing through what is now quite a sizeable sheaf of letters and test results, he discounted my self-diagnosis of PPPD and started talking about migrainous vertigo, then chronic migraine. Thankfully he didn’t mention anxiety or stress – it’s not that I am free of either, but I also know the difference between them and a neurological problem. After another brain MRI which was clear, he’s happy that that is what I have, and have had, all along. I’m now on medication – amitriptyline – which is an old class of anti-depressant but has been found to be effective against migraine. I’m still increasing the dose up to the point where my symptoms disappear. It has been working, but interestingly my symptoms reappeared quite acutely yesterday – after some lengthy reading of pdfs. I also have to give up caffeine, which I have not yet managed to do, but it’s a common trigger for migraine. I have a made a big step towards that by shifting over to decaff coffee. Tea is next.

So I feel very slightly optimistic about the future and getting back to having a clear mind, getting rid of the “brain fog”; the feeling like I’m walking on the moon, the way everything rocks back and forward as if I’m on a boat, losing my visual acuity and just seeing things incredibly bright with strange lines where they don’t exist, and all the other weird symptoms that come and go. Oddly I don’t get migraine headaches. But it turns out that my dad suffered from very bad headaches when he was younger – and his mum had “do’s” as she described them – when she would suddenly lose her balance, become nauseous with vomiting and then be in bed for a day – which is a classic set of migraine symptoms. Neither were diagnosed.

I don’t blame the medical profession, though I think there is a tendency to discount odd undefined symptoms to anxiety or stress, which isn’t especially helpful. Then again there is so much that is unknown about migraine and the physical or biochemical basis for it. I’m glad to have finally had a proper diagnosis after all these years. Given the tentative suggestions that previous neurologists had made, it’s a pity that they weren’t followed through at the time – but that’s partly down to me. Amitriptyline was suggested by the neurologist I saw in 2017 but I remember talking to my GP about it and he noted that the side effects were quite significant, and for a tentative diagnosis it didn’t seem worth putting up with them. I can confirm the side effects are quite significant, but I am prepared to work through them because I want to get better. Of course better 13 years later will be a very different better now than it would have been then. It’s not that I’ve lost those years, but certainly my quality of life has gone a long way downhill. And that has had a big effect on my family and friends.

I do wonder how much of it is related to our modern lifestyle where so much time is spent in front of screens of one kind or another. Sight seems to have taken over and now dominates the other senses, for so many people.

There’s no particular moral to this story. I just felt I needed to write it. Thanks for reading. Hopefully I will feel sufficiently better to be able to return to writing this blog before too long.

Posted in mental health, migraine, Uncategorized | Tagged | 38 Comments

Tory Party Conference: Ten Years On

Ten Years ago to the day I was, for the one and only time, at the Tory Party Conference. In fact this was the only party conference I’ve ever attended. I had applied for and won a bursary to cover the conference cost, hotel food and travel expenses, from NCVO. The only requirement was to write a blog about my experience. The blog was on the NCVO website for many years but has recently been taken down. Thanks to the magic of the wayback machine I have found it again and reproduce it here for posterity.

NCVO bursary winners meet Nick Hurd Nick Hurd.

I should add that only a few weeks before this I’d had my first vestibular migraine attack, though I didn’t know it at the time. I still remember that Pendolino journey. Ugh.

MONDAY: 

5.30am

An early start today to get up to Manchester for mid-morning. Mercifully the tube is a bit cooler than of late and running smoothly. First time on a Pendolino – it’s fast and furious (leaning into the corners like a motorbike). I feel a bit sick. 

10am

I wander up to the main conference centre to soak up the atmosphere – it is strangely muted. I was expecting more of a protest outside but it’s calm. The main conference centre’s a large space and feels a bit like a hangar. I head off to check out a fringe event but the room is so hot I dip out and meet up with the NCVO staff and the other NCVO bursary winners. 

12pm

Straight off to The Palace Hotel for a fringe event on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), organised by the planners body the Royal Town Planning Institute. Chatting to two people sitting next to me, who agree the NPPF is ill-thought through – turns out they’re both developers. Bob Neill the planning minister is resilient on the NPPF, but accepts the need for a transition period to the new system. Neill claims most criticism of the NPPF is “well wide of the mark”.  

2.30pm

Off again for the NCVO roundtable with Nick Hurd and NCVO chair Martyn Lewis. The minister is friendly and agrees charities should be campaigning, give governments a hard time and irritate them – this is all part of a democracy. I suggest Francis Maude doesn’t agree, judging by his language in the Inpendent on Sunday. Bigger charities like Cancer Research UK and Keep Britain Tidy also attend and question the minister. It’s good natured but gets quite lively.

7pm

NFU event ostensibly about sustainable farming. It has no surprises, though I have an entertaining conversation with a couple of farmers who are at the core of Eric Pickles’ local party in Basildon. Jim Paice suggests badgers and bats have far too much protection and a long-term wildlife management strategy is needed to get away from the species by species approach. There is a small anti-badger cull demonstration. 

TUESDAY:

10am

Miss out on the 8am fringe events but spot that Boris Johnson is talking in the main arena at 10am. How could I miss that? The arena is pretty full (though we are encouraged to fill up the seats at the front for the cameras –  I demur). Jeremy Paxman slips in at the last minute and sits next to me. Boris is typical – buffooning, ebullient, declamatory, extolling his version of one nation Toryism (but the nation is London, not the UK). He verges on demagoguery and plays the audience effortlessly, even giving a roll call to places around the country that have provided things for the Olympics (he calls for a snap Olympics – to get it over and done with), including rhubarb used to stain some decking. He slightly loses his thread as he doesn’t know where the rhubarb came from (the rhubarb triangle presumably) or who the rhubarb rubbers are. Paxman snorts quietly – he may be laughing or snorting derisively – it’s hard to tell. I suggest to him afterwards the whole speech was a lot of rhubarb and he chuckles. 

11am

Have a nice catch up with colleagues from Woodland Trust  – they are experts in schmoozing MPs; I have public affairs envy. 

12.30pm

The next fringe event is in Manchester Town Hall. This event is a water All Party Parliamentary Group event on the water white paper. The main point, though, is to catch Richard Benyon MP afterwards so I can ask him some grassland questions. 

Unexpectedly it turns out to be an excellent fringe event. I asked my first conference question about water companies paying farmers to manage their land more extensively, and how this squared with sustainable intensification (ie it doesn’t). All the water company chief execs agreed payment for catchment management should be universal, upland and lowland. Benyon agreed but didn’t answer the sustainable intensification question. 

I wandered back to the main conference area with Benyon but he had to dash off for another meeting so we then suggested to meet later to talk through my questions. 

2.30pm

I bump into my old mate Ruth Davis from Greenpeace. We meet Benyon at 3.45pm as agreed and I put my points to him. He’s receptive and asks me to send more detail by email. Ruth also gets her point across about Spanish crime families and illegal fishing. Benyon dashes off and Ruth is off to meet Greg Barker, the climate change minister. I say hello to him and remind him of his meeting with my chief exec next week about carbon storage in meadow soils.

5.30pm 

The last fringe event for me is the Daily Telegraph/National Trust event on the NPPF. This could be the high point of the conference. Fiona Reynolds (NT) and Shaun Spiers (Campaign to Protect Rural England) vs Oliver Letwin and Charles Moore. Turns out Moore and Letwin were at Trinity Cambridge together and are a couple of heavyweight intellects. Geoffrey Lean is an allegedly neutral chair. Just as the debate gets going I have to leave to get my train. 

Overall I found the whole experience very rewarding. The biggest benefit is having the opportunity to talk to ministers without the intervention of civil servants – that was extremely valuable. Also, fringe events can encourage vibrant and open debate within a small group with key players and experts and even with ministers who are listening. 

photo credits NCVO London – NCVO Bursary Winners Roundtable – CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82193662

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Guest Blog: Is Rebugging the Planet possible? by Vicki Hird

A guest blog today from Vicki Hird, whose new book Rebugging the Planet: The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More has just been published.


My new book, Rebugging the Planet presents a proposition that we need to, and can, reverse the declines in invertebrates because they matter in so many critical ways.By ‘Rebugging’ I mean understanding and accepting and enhancing the role that bugs play. And it is not only about insects (or the true bugs – entomologists be kind) but the rest of the critical populations of worms, zooplankton, snails, rotifers, spiders and so on that make our planet liveable in. The book explores what they do for us, what we can learn from them and from rebugging and why we need to. The huge threats they face from pollution, climate change, habitat loss and new threats of light and noise pollution and even phone signals. 

Yes, some bugs can be a nuisance and worse, and we need to control them sometimes. But we’ve spent so many decades investing in science that is about how to eliminate or kill the few that cause problems that we’ve forgotten to ensure the good ones – ie most of them, can survive and thrive. Studies looking at local and regional abundance and diversity are suggesting some dramatic declines. Some suggest that we are seeing a major loss of numbers and diversity globally as well as local losses. More research is essential as too much is local and regional and there are huge gaps in the data, but we also need more people to care. This will drive the demand for research and ensure more action is taken by governments and businesses.

Vapourer Moth ©Vicki Hird


I have always loved bugs, from the ants in my garden to the huge rhinoceros beetles I encountered in Ecuador. I wanted to share that love, and what we can all do to reverse the alarming signs of their decline. This is a call to citizen action as well as citizen science and citizen sharing. The more people who understand how amazing these creatures are and what they do – from pollination and seed dispersal services to soils health and being a critical part of the natural food web to creating clean water and dealing with vast qualities of plant and animal waste. We are also learning so much from their design, activities and skills. I had too many examples to put in the book of how we can learn from bugs – not just in terms of materials design (like super strength spider silk, drone technology and so on… ) but from the way they communicate, organise and manage themselves, their fellow creatures and their environment.

Holly blue ©Vicki Hird

 
Conservation, restoration of nature and landscapes involve the complex interaction of many species. Invertebrates are a critical part of the puzzle but in the rush to rewild, they can be overlooked in favour of the bigger beasts. Often they provide a major surprise factor, causing a boom or bust in wild populations or proving to be a keystone species. Critically I argue that rewilding can take place at a personal and community level helping provide refuges and corridors for the invertebrates – something we know is needed. Studies are showing increasingly that urban environments can be a vital space for insects no longer able to thrive in rural areas. 

Southern Oak Bush Cricket ©Vicki Hird


Pesticides and intensive farming, loss of wildflowers, hedgerows shrubs, trees and forests, accelerating climate change, pollution of water and soils, plastic micro-particles, light pollution and so much more are causing problems. But we can all play a part in tackling these. Throughout my book I share tips and tools on rebugging – from things that take little or no time to those that need more and which start you campaigning. What we buy (and don’t buy), how we manage our homes and gardens and community spaces, and, as critically, how we interact with the politicians making decisions critical to the survival of bugs here and globally. We need policies that help farmers transition towards agroecological systems – building in the role of above and below ground invertebrates to successful, more diverse food production. We need to control far better the way in which the major agri-tech and mega food corporations activities result in homogenous, harmful food production practices. 

Bumble bee ©Vicki Hird


Readers of this blog will know much of this. But I hope you will find it valuable to promote this book, and the tips in it to the public, to gain better understanding, acceptance and action to support what you do. See my website www.rebuggingtheplanet.org for more info. 

Rebugging the Planet: The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More now available in most good bookshops and online  (Chelsea  Green Publishing). You can get it from Waterstones via this link

Posted in bugs, guest blogs, Uncategorized, Vicki Hird | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

National Meadows Day 2021

today’s National Meadows Day blog is over on the People Need Nature website – here. Please head over there and take a look.

Thanks

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