What does Christmas mean to you? John Lewis adverts? An excuse for some retail therapy? Religion? Or Pantomimes?
It’s a long time since I went to a Christmas pantomime, but they seem to continue to be very popular. This year, Pantomime season has come early – and the big new favourite is Unicorns in Brexitland. This is the story of the deal which was so good everybody hated it: Michael Gove is Jack with his five magic Brexit beans. Out of the beans grows a beanstalk – Jack climbs up it, into the sunlit Brexit uplands, where Unicorns prance. There’s a magic cake which you can have and eat. And of course there’s a mysterious Irish Border solution – a border which is both open to trade and closed to smugglers and immigrants – all at the same time! This comes with a pot of “no surrender” gold for the DUP.
I jest of course. There is no pantomime, except the one we are being invited to watch unfold with each new day. As I write this on Friday morning, Schrodingers Gove may still both be Environment Secretary and have resigned; Prime Minister May’s best possible deal may already have been rejected by everyone, except herself. And Labour may finally have agreed what it’s position on Brexit really is.
But don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, more important things unfold. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has published its latest (in a long line of them) report on how we are going to have to change the way land is used in the UK if we are going to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate chaos. It’s pretty stark, but also realistic. Diets will have to change, because allocating so much land to the production of livestock is unsustainable on any number of levels.
For starters, the CCC is calling for peatlands (our largest carbon store) to be restored – including calls for a move away from Driven Grouse Shooting. And large areas of what are currently grasslands, to be converted to woodland, as a way to store carbon. They call for 1.5Mha of new woodland and another 1.2Mha of short rotation coppice or Miscanthus grass, grown to produce feedstock for biomass power stations. (I’m glad they have discounted biogas from maize as an option, because it is not.)
Naturally, the National Sheep Association has attacked the proposal – claiming that sheep are the best way to solve the problem of climate chaos. You could call this ovine thinking, but that may be being unfair on sheep, which contrary to popular views, can be surprisingly intelligent. But when you consider that sheep grazing occupies perhaps a quarter of the UK’s entire land area, contributes £1.2Bn to the economy and employs perhaps 100,000 people, it’s not difficult to see that something has to give; that and the fact that fewer and fewer people are even eating lamb, let alone mutton.
Who, you might ask, would be responsible for achieving this massive change in the way land is used, how would farmers be supported in that transition, and what would we all be eating? Could it possibly be the Department for the Environment, Food, Farming and so on. Yes – this all sits squarely in Defra’s lap. But they are far too busy to be worrying about such trifles. Defra is preparing for the increasingly likely prospect that the UK will crash out of the EU next March. As a result, like some vast black hole operating within Whitehall, they have been sucking (400 so far) staff from wherever they can be drawn, to work on the Big Brexit Panic.
Natural England has already lost so many staff that it is struggling to continue with its own work. And now we hear that the Environment Agency is also succumbing to the gravitational pull of that Brexit black hole. Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, lambasted Defra recently for undermining Natural England’s work: “Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife.” Well quite.
But Natural England has other problems. It’s Chief Executive James Cross walked out of his job on the 9th November, to be replaced by Plantlife’s Chief Exec Marian Spain, at least initially on an interim basis. Marian joined Natural England’s Board just seven months ago, as a non-executive Director. I can’t help thinking that it’s extremely unusual for a non-exec, whose role is to scrutinise the performance of an organisation and ensure that it’s working to achieve its objectives, jumps across to run the organisation; especially after such a short time in that role. To me it smacks a bit of panic.
And what will happen to Plantlife? That organisation just lost its boss. Meanwhile Defra continues the process of recruiting the new chair of the board of Natural England, as Andrew Sells prepares to step down in January. My understanding is that interviews were held last week and a decision may have been made on the preferred candidate this week. Then again, Michael Gove might have been a bit busy. (My money’s still on Lord Blencathra.)
Defra will also be mulling over the future of a couple of England’s most loved mammals – one currently extinct, the other heading that way. For this week the Defra-commissioned report into the future of their Bovine TB eradication strategy was published. Unsurprisingly, the report concluded that far more action by farmers was needed, and less scapegoating of badgers. This report had apparently been sat on for quite a while – cynics might conclude that publishing it in the same week as the Brexit meltdown may have been a deliberate move but I couldn’t possibly comment …
Meanwhile more Beavers are being released – this time in Essex. Mr Gove is very keen on bringing Beavers back – though perhaps his hollowing out of Natural England to feed the Brexit monster inside Defra is having unintended consequences. It’s been brought to my attention that Natural England has released some guidance on where to get your Beavers from, if you want to introduce them in to the UK. The guidance lists some EU countries where wild Beavers can be captured for translocation – and includes Finland, Ireland, Norway and Malta. Now, neither Ireland nor Malta have supported Beavers for centuries. And at least half of the Beavers in Finland are Canadian Beavers, which are invasive and outcompete the Eurasian native Beavers. They are also very difficult to tell apart.
If it does turn out that he leaves as a result of the’ Best Brexit Deal Ever,’ Michael Gove’s tenure at Defra has been unique: He has pushed through an agriculture bill which just might (will have) lay (laid) the foundations for the sort of radical land use changes the Climate Change Committee, and others, are saying are so desperately needed. Gove’s also been at the front pushing for Beavers to be re-introduced widely across the UK – in the first tangible example of rewilding to be seen, at least in the lowlands. But his Brexit (and it’s his fingerprints that are all over this particular crime scene) has also created the chaos that may not only undermine all the good work he has done, but make things significantly worse for the Environment – and for us.
Photo: Martin Putzlocher [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons