I write about politics, nature + the environment. Some posts are serious, some not. These are my views, I don't do any promotional stuff and these views are not being expressed for anyone who employs me.
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.
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 )
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Have a nice catch up with colleagues from Woodland Trust – they are experts in schmoozing MPs; I have public affairs envy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s been an awful lot of media attention focussed on the idea that the Government’s Trade Deal with Australia will lead to the UK being swamped with sub standard Australian Beef, pushing plucky British Beef farmers out of business. I’m afraid that there is more than a touch of the old colonial attitudes coming through in some of the commentary I’ve seen, plus a large dollop of British exceptionalism.
I have to start by declaring an interest. I’m half Australian and my mum grew up on a New South Wales dairy farm (milking the cows before going to school in the morning). That farm now produces Beef cattle by my uncle Ben. And my other (late) uncle Ted was also in Beef, as are some of my cousins (though more as a hobby than a business). I have been to the farm several times. It’s a pretty low key way of farming, at the very extensive range of the spectrum, though not officially organic. My mum was telling me the other day that my uncle buys calves, grows them on (on grass) and finishes them on grass plus some supplements (molasses was mentioned).
Beef is a huge industry in Australia, but also extremely varied. There has been a focus on the intensive feedlot system, where store cattle are finished in massive yards, fed on grains to reach the right weight (and conformity) before being slaughtered. About a million cattle are finished in feedlots in Australia, out of a total cattle population of around 20 million (though that includes breeding cows, heifers/bullocks and calves). So it’s not a massive part of the total system. But of course everyone focusses on that.
Also, some producers use growth hormones to speed up production – this has been banned in Europe for a very long time, though is common practice in the USA and other countries. A very long running trade dispute between the EU and the USA eventually saw the World Trade Organisation agree with the USA that the blanket ban on US Beef exports into the EU as illegal and now the US exports hormone-free Beef into the EU (and UK.) Interestingly China – Australia’s biggest export market for Beef (until last year) bans imports of hormone-fed Beef so Australia already operates a twin track producing hormone-free and hormone-grown Beef. Beef is a massive export industry in Australia – exports peaked at 1.23MT in 2019, falling back to 1.04MT in 2020. Most of this goes to Japan, the US, China and South Korea. A tiny 8500T went to the whole EU last year, though that was down on 2019’s 14000 Tonnes.
I have a fair bit of experience exploring the UK Beef industry, in particular its environmental impact – from 35 years working in nature conservation across the UK. I don’t think we have any right to criticise Australia for the environmental impact of their Beef industry. Most Beef in the UK is grown on a single species of grass – Perennial rye-grass. If you’re lucky there might be a bit of white clover in there too, but nothing else. The animals which are grown on grass during their first couple of years life, are then finished on a mix of silage, maize and grain – similar to Australia. The difference is that they aren’t housed in enormous feedlots – though feedlots are here . That grain and maize is grown on arable land across the UK. That’s millions of hectares of arable farmland, growing grain and maize to feed cows (most of the rest of the arable harvest that isn’t good enough for flour, goes to pigs and chickens.)
There is a movement, by organisations such as Pasture for Life, to increase the proportion of grass fed to cows here, and even to finish them on grass (and even other flowers!), with no grains. This has been going on in Australia for a long time. But both the grass-fed and organic Beef markets are tiny in the UK – in 2019 organic meat had a 1.5% market share in the UK. It’s actually pretty difficult to find out how big the UK organic Beef sector is, which I find surprising. If anyone can help me with some figures (without paying £100 for a Soil Association report) I’ll gladly put them in here. It’s clear that demand for organic Beef increased substantially during lockdown last year, but from what to what? I suspect it’s still a small segment of the overall market and certainly smaller than the Australian organic (and grass-fed) Beef sector.
update: figures released by Defra on 27th May reveal 2.8% of the total farmed area is organic – about a third as much as in Australia. Also 2.8% of the UK cattle population is reared organically – that’s 274000 animals. 80,000 organic beef animals were slaughtered for meat in 2020 out of 2.04M. that’s 4% of the total. Total consumer spend on Beef and Veal in the UK was £2.3Bn in 2019, with 75% of that coming from the UK – so the UK portion is worth £1.725Bn. 4% of that is £69M. Obviously organic beef is more expensive than conventional beef, so it may be worth £100M on the shelves (this assumes that no UK grown organic beef is exported). This compares with a £300M Australian Organic Beef retail value (domestic consumption and exports).
But anyway a section of the media has leapt on this vaunted Trade Deal to paint the Australian Beef sector as cheap and nasty and looking to undercut UK Beef producers and push them out of business. The NFU has also waded in waving the flag for UK Beef (perhaps no coincidence as President Minette Batters has a pretty extensive Beef farm).
Projections that as much as 2% of total UK Beef consumption could be provided by Australian imports, have led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth and evidence of a further nail in the coffin of the UK farming sector.
I think there are bigger factors already here that are driving multiple nails into that coffin. Firstly of course leaving the EU means that we have left the Common Agricultural Policy. This means that the money (£3.2Bn a year) funnelled to farmers via the EU is coming to an end. It is going to be partly replaced by Public Money for Public Goods – paying farmers for things the market does not pay for – and this may include support for the organic sector. But what’s clear is that there will be less money available for farmers in the way of public funding support. It should be noted at this point that the Australian Beef industry gets no subsidies (though it does get generous tax breaks just as the UK Beef industry does).
It seems unlikely, to say the least, that the Treasury will stump up £3Bn a year from the UK’s own resources, after the final payments linked to the old EU system stop in 2027. Less money in the sector, without it being replaced by any other source of income, means farmers will go out of business. That’s economics 101. The Beef sector of UK farming has been dependent on subsidies to continue for many years. Last year was a bit exceptional because of the weather (more on that in a bit), but as this graph shows, livestock farming income was substantially negative both in the lowlands and the uplands, with basic payments and agri-environment schemes keeping these farms going. They’d have been more profitable if they had no animals. While we would all love to see the basic payments and AE scheme payments replaced in entirety with Public Money for Public Goods payments, this seems unlikely at the moment.
The second point is that, having left the EU under almost the hardest Brexit imaginable (one stop short of a no-deal Brexit), the Government has terminally damaged the UK agricultural export trade. By refusing to sign up to the EU’s SPS rules, it is now much harder for UK farmers to export their Beef to the EU (down 75% compared with pre-Brexit trade). And it will remain so, until we do sign up to the SPS rules, which won’t happen.
The idea that the UK Australia Trade deal is some sort of stalking horse for the UK joining the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership, which would then replace our EU exports, is laughable – although joining the CPTPP could lead to other problems. Are the Australians really going to do anything which might threaten their enormous Beef Trade with other CPTPP partners? Of course not.
Another nail in that coffin is the climate. As well as our climate becoming more volatile, which always causes problems for farmers, we need to take drastic urgent action to mitigate the unimaginable climate chaos which is coming down the road towards us – and of course towards Australia. Arguably it’s already arrived in Australia. Taking drastic action could well mean eating less red meat – and dietary shifts are already happening. The market for Beef is going to shrink and with that there will be fewer Beef farmers. Methane from ruminants is a complicated story, and I’m not going to go into the detail of that here, but there will be a push to reduce Methane from Cattle, not least because it can have a rapid beneficial effect on the speed of climate change. Plus of course where are all these new trees going to be planted? Likely a lot of them will end up on pastures formerly grazed by Cattle.
So that projected 2% share of the UK Beef market in 15 years time seems smaller than the margin of error on all of the above factors – and assumes the Australian Beef industry hasn’t already rapidly contracted in the face of their own climate disasters.
I think the main reason why it’s become such a big story is because the NFU are very good at using the media to push their own particular (bucolic) view of UK farming and its importance to the country. The other reason is that the Government is now desperate to find anything which might conceivably be spun as a benefit of Brexit, as Chris Grey wrote, on “The desperate search for Brexit benefits” so eloquently, last Friday.
When the dust has settled, we will see that the UK Australia Trade Deal and the phantom Beef Menace, was just another of these Brexit fantasies, given a bit of a push by the NFU.
Although what it does illustrate is that the Johnson Government will happily throw any industry under a bus, in pursuit of these fantasies – and that applies as much to our Arts and Creative Industries, or our Financial Sector, as it does to Agriculture.
It’s been a while since I wrote anything and I have a bit of time while I’m waiting for some people to get back to me with answers (or even some funding), and there are other reasons for the quiet period since I last posted anything.
My father in law died four weeks ago – he had a big heart attack and that was it. I’m not going to say anything else much at this point, because obituaries will be appearing and I will post links to them (or screenshot them on here). Other than he was an absolutely lovely, generous man and a fantastic grandpa to our girls. We are all very sad as you can imagine. The funeral is in 10 days time and covid restrictions have relaxed a little, but it will still be a small ceremony.
But it has got me thinking about losing my own dad, and then my brother, in a relatively short space of time – just three years between them, both from cancer.
And that of course is now put in the context of 150,000 people who have died in one year in the UK, from Covid19 (and not forgetting the Duke of Edinburgh).
I wrote about my dad’s death – or rather I wrote about what happened to his ashes, in this piece from two years ago – and I wrote about losing my brother Simon in this post from just after I started this blog. Simon’s very good friend and fishing buddy Bob Hornegold also died just a few months ago.
It’s at times like these that things like belief in an after life – or in my case not having a belief in an after life, in the Christian sense, come to the surface. And I also ponder on whether we have some sort of visceral need to create physical memorials that help us remember those we have lost, outside of Christianity or other religions?
In an age when more and more people are not following the established customs of funerals or interments in churchyards, I wonder whether something is being lost. For those who do reside within the Church of England (or indeed opt for municipal burials), it is very clear that they value that capability to visit their lost loved ones and remember them – and in doing so benefit from the nature that is not just present, but thriving in churchyards and cemeteries.
This is something I explored with Mark Betson (now National Rural Officer for the C of E) in our 2013 project “The Nature of God’s Acre“.
I have also been thinking about memorials in relation to Covid19 and bouncing around some ideas for how memorials could be created in a way that specifically provides solace through nature. I hope to talk more about these soon, but you’ll have seen the National Trust’s Blossom Circles idea, which is not unrelated. I was interested to find out about a movement creating new long barrows, where ceremonies and interments are happening outside of any recognised religion, such as this one at Soulton Hall.
And purely by chance last Spring, I found a new wildlife site within a few hundred metres of where we live, in a local Town Council managed municipal churchyard. I think there must have been a slight interruption in the regular mowing regime caused by the first lockdown, coupled with the incredible Spring weather we had last year (very different from this cold one) which enabled a flush of chalk downland flowers to appear, just when I was really getting to know my local patch on incessant lockdown walks.
Death and nature (that is non-human nature) are intimately intertwined, but that relationship is not often articulated, at least not in Britain. This is partly because we don’t talk about death nearly enough, and I think this is a particularly British (or perhaps English) problem. I am old enough to remember when people didn’t use the word “cancer”, instead referring to “the c word”. Yes that phrase now means something else (or is that just the “c bomb”.)
Now we talk about cancer but even so conversations about death are problematical. And this year of all years, with so many families struggling to come to terms with untimely deaths in tragic circumstances, should be a massive kick up the backside for everyone to talk more about it. After all, it is the one inevitable thing everyone faces (yes taxes too). I speak from experience here, not having dealt with my father’s death, and having that come back and knock me down two years later.
I suppose nature and death are so closely linked, because death is one of the most natural things that happen to modern humans, living as we do, our very unnatural lives. We might have believed we’ve escaped the restrictions of the Nitrogen and Carbon cycle (no of course we haven’t) to produce more food than we can eat and create more energy than we know what to do with; beaten off formerly common diseases with vaccines and antibiotics (spoiler – new ones appear) but we haven’t escaped death.
Evidence for burials with flowers goes back to about 50,000 years – in our close cousins the Neanderthals, though this evidence may not be conclusive. Regardless, we know that flowers have played a fundamental role in ceremonies around death for millennia and continue to do so today. Those cut flowers sent to the grief-stricken may have been grown in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, but they symbolise a deep relationship between nature and death.
It’s become a bit of a cliche that people have found a new appreciation of, and value in nature in their lives, during this past Pandemic year. I wonder whether that appreciation and value will continue now we appear (I know it’s early days) to be emerging from the darkness, in both senses.
Perhaps strengthening that relationship between death, and the consolation and reassurance that nature brings, is something that we can hold on to.
You will remember the fiasco I wrote about last Autumn, of Berrier End Farm in Cumbria. This was about 100 acres of valuable wildlife habitat, including large areas of peat bog and wildlife-rich grassland, which was damaged by tree-planting, that had been approved and paid for by the state environmental body, The Forestry Commission.
Following the outrage about this case the Forestry Commission finally admitted it had made a mistake and claimed (in the letters page of Private Eye, no less) that it was working with the landowner to restore 8ha of priority habitat. The fact that there was 17 or 18ha of priority habitat on the site which had been damaged, not 8ha, seemed to have passed the FC by.
So you might think that the restoration work has proceeded, and the damage, particularly to the large area of deep peat bog in the centre of the site had been rectified.
I’ve just been sent some photos of the site from a local resident.
I honestly can’t say I can see any significant restoration work having been done. The peat plough lines are still there, bleeding the bog dry. The trees are still there. The evidence of tree pits is clear.
It seems that despite the FC’s claims before Christmas, the site is as it was.
No restoration has taken place. Perhaps they are waiting for the ground to dry out.