Ten Years of Blogging

Ten years feels a bit like a significant anniversary – and a long time. Perhaps the last ten years feels longer than many decades have, given what has happened (and is about to happen) over that period.

Ten years ago I was working at The Grasslands Trust, a charity that was created in 2002 to champion UK wildlife-rich grasslands – and was folded in 2012. So it lasted ten years as well. I enjoyed working at TGT and had been there in various guises for nearly four years before I started the blog. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had been vaguely aware of the blogosphere but was more interested in it as an outlet where I could write relatively freely about topics that were relevant to grassland conservation.

Looking back at what I was writing about – unbelievably – the first topic was all about food, politics and the environment. Friends of the Earth had a Private Members Bill going through Parliament – or rather not going through Parliament. So my first topic ever on a blog was writing about where your food comes from, the impact it has on the environment and allied things like animal welfare; and why it’s important. Funnily enough Vicki Hird, who has been so influential on the current Agriculture Bill, was working for FoE on that Bill back in 2010.

Exactly ten years later, to the day, what is the hot topic of the day in Parliament? Where your food comes from, and who decides what standards it is produced to. Only instead of a Private Members’ Bill, it’s a Government Bill, the Agriculture Bill. The Agriculture Bill is the first significant reform in UK agriculture since before we joined the Common Market, and arguably the most significant since 1947. It holds great promise, in the form of “public money for public goods”: changing the way society makes direct payments to farmers – so that they are no longer paid just for owning the land, or paid to produce more food whether it’s wanted or not & regardless of any consequences. Public money for public goods means paying farmers to farm in ways which support the environment and support other social needs.

However today’s uproar, which has led to the likes of Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith (despite supporting Brexit) calling for UK farmers to be protected, does not relate to public money for public goods, but rather it’s about amendments introduced into the Bill in the Lords, which would require the Government to give Parliament a say in future trade deals. Deals with for example the USA, which could mean allowing food into the UK that is produced to lower standards; standards that UK farmers are not allowed to apply.

The Government has decided that the House of Commons cannot have a debate on that amendment, applying some arcane Parliamentary rules. Whereas 10 years ago the Sustainable Livestock Bill, as a Private Members Bill, was just talked out (yes, you guessed it, by Christopher ‘upskirting’ Chope) – as is so often the case. Of course back then UK agriculture policy was dictated by what was agreed in the EU. The big reforms of 2003 meant farmers were being paid according to how much land they owned or managed – and environmental payments were mostly heading to a very simple environmental scheme (ELS), which mostly paid farmers to continue what they had been doing anyway.

So obviously the big difference between now and then is that the route to effecting change in something fundamental like how our food is produced and its impact on the environment, was via the EU. Back then …. there were various routes of influence eg via MEPs, via Defra or direct to Brussels. I tried all of these with the scant resources available at the time. But the Common Agricultural Policy is a juggernaut with its own momentum and inertia. Back then they couldn’t even cope with the fact that a great deal of land used for agriculture had a lot of trees on it – this was codified in the 50 trees rule. But actually perhaps our lobbying in 2010 did have some effect, as five years later the rule was amended – to 100 trees/ha.

And now…. it’s via Parliament. Except of course that with the current Government, they are actively working to take away any role for Parliament, when it comes to food and trade deals, for ideological reasons.

Ideology. I’d already had a taste of that earlier in 2010. I’d been writing a report on grasslands conservation, with funding from the Government nature agency Natural England. We’d agreed the report would include some advocacy – what policy changes are needed to give wildlife-rich grasslands a chance of a future. When the Coalition Government took power one of the first things they did was to tell, in no uncertain terms, every Government-funded Agency, that they could no longer fund any advocacy or policy development work. This obviously caused a big headache for us, but we went ahead anyway (I think there was some editing to tone down some of the recommendations). The result was Nature’s Tapestry.

Austerity was also ideological. My third TGT blog was about “Spending Cuts Week” with Defra having its budget cut savagely and threats of a sell-off of National Nature Reserves – and of course the infamous plans to sell off the Forestry Commission.

Little did we know back then just how far the ideological revolution would reach, although the Cameron Government already had regulation in its sights from the outset. They were even trying to crowdsource deregulation ideas in early 2011 – and by May that year it was starting to become clear just how radical that Government wanted to be. This was the time when the plans started to be put in place for the EU referendum. Some of the key players in Vote Leave cut their teeth on the “No 2 AV” campaign against proportional representation in 2011. How things might have changed if that campaign had swung the other way. The rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back, my time blogging for TGT was relatively brief, but I picked up the baton again with this no longer new, nor even particularly about nature, blog in May 2013; and also occasional ones on the People Need Nature website, a charity I set up in 2015. And I would certainly credit this blog with having led to my writing so much for Lush Times between 2016 and 2019 (also now ceased publication). I’m now also writing for West Country Bylines and perhaps the occasional article in British Wildlife.

Regular readers will have noticed I’m not writing anywhere near as much as I used to. This year of all years has been difficult, not for lack of topics to consider – quite the opposite in fact. Some days/weeks/months, there is just too much to write about and I get stuck, dithering between different subjects. And the relentlessly bad news can also be very demotivating. Perhaps I’ve written enough – or even too much!

Anyway, as I always I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on my ramblings over these past ten years.

 

Posted in blogging, grasslands | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Six visitors for you, Thirty grouse shooters for me. Counting the iniquity of the new covid laws

The figures for positive covid-19 tests have been climbing inexorably since a lull in the summer. Figures of 3000 new cases a day, despite the shambolic breakdown in testing carried out by the private sector (Pillar 2), look very much like the beginning of the second wave and have coincided with the return of schools and universities with all the attendant risks that entails.

In yet another knee jerk reaction, the Government has decided to restrict gatherings in England, indoors and outdoors, to six people (albeit these could be from six different households) as of 14 September. There is apparently no scientific justification for the ‘rule of six’, and it doesn’t apply in the same way elsewhere in the UK.

I play cello in our local community orchestra and was very much looking forward to returning to rehearsals this coming Sunday after we had to shut down last March. The committee had put in a massive amount of work organising us into two groups and working out how we could play while meeting the legal requirements of the old system. Now they are having to reassess everything for five days’ time. We may not be able to play.

We’ve become inured to Government announcements being sneaked out on a Friday evening, but in this case the new regulations came out late on the Sunday night, just hours before they came into law. They have not been seen by Parliament and therefore have bypassed any measure of democratic scrutiny.

Now we know why – there was a last minute change to allow hunting and shooting to be exempt from the rule of six.  Paul Waugh at Huffpost reported that the Government had arranged a Cabinet Office covid-19 committee meeting for Saturday, 12 September, only for it be cancelled. Changes allowing the euphemistically described ‘field sports’ were added in the following day, without any cabinet discussion.

Grouse moors cover over half a million acres of the UK’s uplands and are managed to provide a wild bird, red grouse, in sufficient numbers to enable them to be shot by the very wealthy as a hobby. A very expensive hobby, too. One that is only available to an exclusive set of individuals.

Why, you might wonder, would the Government stop four new mums in Red Wall seats from meeting in the park, with their babies, but allow thirty extremely wealthy middle-aged men to blast the bejeesus out of small wild birds and then have a slap up meal in the pub (or hunting lodge) afterwards? Why, indeed. Could it have anything to do with the fact that, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, has  fifteen grouse moors in his constituency, according to countryside campaigner Guy Shrubsole?

 

 

 

 

 

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak meets the grouse-shooting lobby.

Perhaps it might have something to do with the fact that major Conservative party donors, like Duncan Davidson, founder of Persimmon Homes, own grouse moors. Or perhaps the Herrmanns might have had a word in Spaffer-Johnson’s ear. The Herrmanns – Jeremy and Edwina. What? You haven’t heard of them? Jeremy is a hedge fund manager, while Edwina worked with David Cameron at Carlton TV. And yes, the Herrmanns own a 26,000 acre grouse moor charmingly named East Allenheads and Muggleswick. And, according to this Evening Standard diary entry from 2014, Mayor of London Johnson took time out from his arduous ‘technology lessons’ (I mean important job!), to go grouse-shooting on the Herrmann’s estate. The Herrmanns are also generous donors to the Conservative Party, also making a £25,000  coontribution to Johnson’s own Mayoral campaign in 2008.

Finally, although he is no longer quite so powerful as he was, former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, owns a grouse moor. His grouse moor interests are amongst the few we know about. Strangely, for many grouse moors, it is not possible to determine who owns them, because the ownership is held in offshore tax havens.

The Daily Mail, along with other newspapers whose printing was disrupted for one day by Extinction Rebellion protestors seeking to bring to the public attention the climate crisis which is very much now with us, screamed that these protestors be stopped, thrown in jail.  Home Secretary Priti Patel mollified Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch papers (all owned via a complex web of companies based in offshore tax-havens)  with dark mutterings about listing XR as an organised crime outfit, alongside the lines of the Sicilian Mafia or the Sinalunga cartel.

Yet, it is these very grouse moors where real organized crime proliferates. Organized wildlife crime. There is insurmountable evidence that grouse moors are killing zones, not just for red grouse, but for the birds of prey which are naturally drawn to these upland landscapes (to eat the grouse). hen harriers, buzzards, even golden eagles fall prey to the keepers’ use of illegal poisons and traps. Yet the government sits on its hands and does nothing. In a recent debate on grouse moors and crime, Chancellor Sunak stood up and gave an impassioned defence of the ‘sport.’

Grouse moors are upland landscapes of heath and bog. Bogs are peatlands that are far and away our largest carbon stores, storing 300M tonnes in England alone. They are also all protected under European wildlife law. Yet grouse management involves burning this peat on a regular basis. Burning peat releases carbon, as well as damaging the peat and its ability to continue growing and storing carbon. Damaged peat releases the very powerful greenhouse gas Methane. The Government had signalled its intention a year ago to ban peat-burning on grouse moors. But, as a consequence of remarkably effective lobbying according to an article in the Times on Monday(£), that intention appears to have been quietly abandoned.

When it comes to taking action on the urgent crisis of covid-19, and the existential threat of climate change and mass extinction, the Government is at least consistent: consistent in favouring their friends and donors, while ignoring the needs of everyone else.

This article first appeared on West Country Bylines.

Posted in Boris Johnson, climate change, coronavirus, covid-19, grouse shooting, tax havens | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

It’s just not cricket: reactionary forces gather to challenge beavers’ right to stay where they belong.

In a rare piece of good news for the south-west’s environment, the government recently confirmed that beavers would be allowed to stay on the River Otter in Devon.

Beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain about 400 years ago. Hunters sought their pelts and their anal glands, which produce castoreum – a unique natural product which has been used in the perfume industry (and medicine) for millennia. Many species of wildlife become extinct because their habitat disappears but, in the beaver’s case, the habitat (rivers and wetlands) is still there, albeit badly damaged.

The government trumpeted the return of the beaver to the River Otter as its own success, but the truth is very different.

The beavers had found their way into the river by a release which remains a mystery to this day, and they had been quietly living there for several years before anyone noticed. Then, about six years ago, someone spotted a beaver and reported it to Natural England – I wrote about it at the time. The Angling Trust then weighed in, calling for the beavers to be shot, despite the fact that they are vegetarian and actually create very good-quality habitat, in which fish populations can thrive. After all, beavers and fish (including salmon and trout) have co-existed in these islands for millions of years before the beavers were hunted out. Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) also joined the debate with this comment:

Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years. Our landscape and habitats have changed since then and we need to assess the impact they could have.

This sounded remarkably similar to the commentary emanating from another august body -the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) who expressed opposition to species re-introduction programmes.

In 2013 the NFU commented on another proposed Beaver project thus:

There’s a certain amount of evidence that in Europe, in particular, that quite considerable damage has been done but in truth we don’t really know what problems there will be… and I don’t think anyone else does either,” he said.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ll contribute anything to the eco-system.

“The history as far as introducing mammals in particular is not a particularly good one.

“We’ve seen the grey squirrel, rabbits and even mink so in reality there isn’t much evidence to suggest they do any good at all.”

Furthermore, Natural England (NE), whose remit is to advise the government on natural environment was, by 2014, completely under the thumb of its Whitehall department, having lost all its independence in the years following 2010, when the coalition government formed and swept away as many of New Labour’s institutions as possible.

From conversations I have had, it’s pretty clear there were people within Natural England who did not want Beavers to be released into the wild.

Whatever advice NE may have given to Defra about beavers, the Defra minister of state at the time, one George Eustice, said:

“We intend to recapture and rehome the wild beavers in Devon and are currently working out plans for the best way to do so. All decisions will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind. There are no plans to cull beavers.”

So began the long struggle to save the River Otter’s beavers.

That struggle was led by the Devon Wildlife Trust, with stalwart support from Friends of the Earth. Eventually, Defra and NE relented, and agreed to a five-year stay of execution. Evidence was gathered, led by researchers at the University of Exeter, on the benefits of having beavers back in English wetlands and rivers. This confirmed what everyone already knew from studies based on beavers in Europe and also the earlier introductions in Scotland: beavers transform rivers and wetlands by felling trees and building dams. They re-create wetlands which have been destroyed in the past. These wetlands support a myriad of other wildlife; they also store carbon and they clean water that has been polluted by human activity upstream, notably diffuse agricultural pollution. By creating wetlands, beavers also help hold back floodwater in the catchment, reducing the intensity of flooding events – events that will become ever more common as the grip of climate chaos tightens. What’s more, the Otter’s beavers have become a tourist attraction, creating jobs in the local economy. Now the Otter’s beavers can officially stay, and Defra will be consulting this autumn over the next steps in the beaver’s return to England.

But they are still a controversial animal: the Angling Trust continues to mutter darkly about impacts on fisheries. Personally, I think this harks back to another mammal reintroduction project to which the anglers have never become reconciled: the otter. The otter became almost completely extinct from England’s rivers in the 1960s and 1970s, due to the use in agriculture of persistent highly toxic pesticides like DDT. After these had been banned, there was a series of unofficial introductions, akin to what has happened with the beaver. Now otters have returned to every river catchment in the country, and the anglers are not happy, because otters do eat fish. Indeed, an otter will happily take a bite out of a prize carp and leave the rest of the body on the reservoir bank, almost taunting the fishery’s owner. Some anglers would like nothing more than to see the otters gone again. I think some of this visceral hatred has spilled over into their attitude towards the beaver.

Forestry interests are also up in arms – apparently beavers are threatening the future of cricket. One landowner, Charles Dutton, (a keen angler and also chairman of the Frome, Piddle and West Dorset Fisheries Association), fulminated:

Cricket bat willows are a particularly high-value crop grown in wetland areas, making them a likely target of beavers. Who would compensate growers for such losses caused by beavers? The government, Natural England, the Wildlife Trust and the National Trust all seem unlikely candidates to offer compensation.”

The National Farmers’ Union has reacted similarly. It has never wanted the beaver back. Responding to the recent announcement, Phil Jarvis, the NFU representative on the beaver working group, said:

“Beaver activity can undermine riverbanks and impede farmland drainage, making fields too waterlogged for cropping or grazing … This seriously hinders farmers’ ability to produce food for the nation.”

Yes, you read that correctly: according to the NFU, bringing beavers back to rivers across England means we will all go hungry.

Let’s set aside the NFU’s obsession with growing biofuel crops (currently covering a shade under 100,000 hectares (ha) of farmland), or their support for growing that essential food crop, sugar beet – another 100,000ha). We could also ignore the fact that over half of our cereal crop is grown not to feed people, but pigs and chickens; or the fact that we produce only a quarter of the fruit and vegetables that we consume; or the fact that we have the largest sheep flock in Europe, with all the consequent environmental impacts. Or indeed the fact that all of this is propped up by £2.5bn a year in subsidies (from your taxes) plus another £2.5bn a year in tax breaks (money that could be spent on public services.)

No, let’s leave those little inconsistencies to one side, because, as Defra, the Angling Trust, and the NFU have all illustrated, this story of the beaver is all about who has the final say over what happens on the land (and the water) of England. As George Monbiot eloquently expressed it on 19 August: those who control the land are pushing back.

Just as Monbiot says there are moves to criminalise trespass by humans, trespass by beavers is also deemed unacceptable. Beavers cannot lobby parliament, write to their MP, march on Downing Street or do any of the other things that citizens can. They just go about their business felling trees, building dams, making baby beavers (kits) and eating plants.

We need to be their voice, as we must be for all of non-human nature.

Photo Credit: “Beaver” by Bryn Davies is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in angling, Beavers, Natural England, NFU | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ofqual Fiasco and Planning revolution point to where the Vote Leave Government gets its ideas

As I watched the A-level results fiasco unfold over the last week  – the latest in a long line of shambolic Government u-turns  – it got me thinking about how this Government actually decides on what policies it is going to apply. After all, what is a Government without policies? Policies – and specifically policy reform, is what lies at the heart of our crumbling democracy. Elections come along, manifestos are written, people vote and then we have to make do with what we’re given. In this case, we have chosen (collectively) to elect a Vote Leave Government. That probably wasn’t mentioned explicitly in the Conservative Manifesto, but that is very much what we now have. Ministers are chosen according to the loyalty to the cause of Brexit. That nobody is exactly sure what the cause of Brexit, was, is, will be or should have been, is precisely the point. But I am not writing about Brexit today. Other than to note that we do not have a traditional Tory Government, but a very specifically Vote Leave one.

I was going to write something about the Planning Reform proposals that came out last week but that already seems like months ago. Does anyone remember? The plans are to dispense with half the democratic planning process – no that’s not right. The plans are to dispense with the main democratic element of the current two-stage planning process – that being the right to object to planning applications. The People (to capitalise them as the Vote Leave Government would have us do) will now only be able to contribute their thoughts and views during the creation of Local Plans. This bit of the process is usually way beyond the capacity of most people to influence as it’s technical and already bound up by rules set by the national Government (the rules were pulled together into the National Planning Policy Framework in 2011).

These nationally set rules already determine how many houses must be built in each planning authority area, which makes the preparation of Local Plans somewhat less democratic than may be thought.  If, as a citizen or a community group, you feel your local Council has failed to meet the tests set out in the planning system, you can take them to Judicial Review and have the decision overturned by a Judge. Except now the Vote Leave Government is planning to remove that right too.

Where do these ideas come from? Who comes up with these clever policy reforms? In the case of the planning white paper, it’s quite easy to spot the trail of crumbs. They lead back to a familiar place – the small incestuous cabal of neoliberal thinktanks. Policy Exchange leads on this. PE was set up by Michael Gove and his mates while new Labour were in power. These particular planning reforms were incubated at PE; a small offshoot of PE called Localis; and another very small thinktank called Create Streets. Jack Airey moved from Localis to Policy Exchange (for a couple of years), before hopping into 10 Downing Street this February as its planning guru. This is his white paper.

Nicholas Boys-Smith worked at the Tory Government’s favourite outsourcing consultants McKinsey (who infamously wrote the Lansley reforms which did so much damage to the NHS) before setting up Create Streets. Boys-Smith worked with Mrs Thatcher’s darling intellectual of the (far) right Roger Scruton, on his Living with beauty report on planning design. Boys-Smith will also be working with consultants on the creation of a national model design code, which will further constrain Councils when drawing up their Local Plans. These are the new harbingers of public taste.

Changes have already been made to another element of the planning system – use classes. Time was when local authorities were able to decide, through their Local Plans, whether an area should be mixed use, predominantly housing, employment use, retail, industrial, and so on. That’s all been swept away. One consequence of this is the creation of housing from former office blocks – creating new slums. One of last year’s rash of Brexit MEPs – Ben Habib, made a tidy profit through his firm First Property, from these conversions before his brief foray into politics.

Returning to the A-Levels fiasco, it’s unsurprising to see Education Secretary Gavin Williamson blame Ofqual – the regulatory body charged with ensuring exams are marked properly, for the mess. But who was it who instructed Ofqual to make sure that, whatever system they came up with, there was no grade inflation this year? Would Ofqual have included “we must not have any grade inflation” in their algorithm as the first and most important criteria if the Education Department hadn’t stipulated it. As it turned out, in order for the algorithm to ensure no grade inflation, but also for it to take account of the fact that it was simply impossible to determine grades for very small sample sizes, such as are commonly found in private schools, the algorithm was forced to reduce grades for large state schools and especially Sixth Form Colleges, while Private School grades increased. Where might this obsession with grade inflation come from?

Dominic Cummings was Michael Gove’s key advisor at the Department for Education during the time of chaos in 2013, when they sought to push through (by any means necessary) their plans to revamp the National Curriculum, remove continual assessment and place exams at the heart of grading for both GCSEs and A-Levels. Gove and Cummings believed they were in some existential battle for the soul of England’s education with “the Blob”. This was an idea imported wholesale from the states, the idea that educatioal academia and the teaching profession were in cahouts to protect themselves and impose mediocrity on school students. There were probably some communists lurking in the shadows too. Cummings is obsessed with grade inflation. He’s written repeatedly about it in his blog. He believes A-Levels have become too easy, allowing too many students to go to university, devaluing a university education.

These are two illustrations from many, showing how policy is being developed by the Vote Leave Government. One might expect, in a normal world, that Government policies, especially radical ones like fundamentally reshaping the planning or education systems ,would be based on empirical studies: evidence gathering, running some pilots and reviewing their success. But this Government is fuelled by pure belief in its own righteousness, by the personal views of key individuals, and with the help of its friends in the neoliberal thinktank world, thinktanks often opaquely funded and influenced by vested interests.

This piece first appeared on West Country Bylines

 

 

 

Posted in covid19, Cummings, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove, neoliberalism, planning, Policy Exchange, Think Tanks, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Forestry Commission plan tree planting on heathland after barbecue fire

The ground was bone dry and everything was flowering early. I was up at Poundbury (near Dorchester), checking on an area of wildflower meadow that I’d arranged to have sown. After the incessant downpours of the Autumn and Winter, the rain stopped. Then we had just 60mm of rain across two months. It was yet another clear blue day, when I noticed an odd-looking cloud on the eastern horizon.

Then I realized it wasn’t a cloud. It was smoke. A vast pall of smoke, billowing high into the air.

Returning home, I checked the news. The fire was out of control, spreading across hundreds of acres of Wareham Forest. Flames leapt up 20 metres and more, to the canopy of tall mature conifers. It took fire crews and Forestry Commission staff two weeks before the fire was finally extinguished, by which time it had raged across 220 hectares of land.

Smoke from Wareham Forest. © Miles King

The ‘Forest’ isn’t really a forest. It is a 1500-hectare modern conifer plantation planted on one of the fragments of what was once a vast heath stretching across Dorset, from the Hampshire border to Dorchester, immortalised by Thomas Hardy as ‘Egdon Heath’. Over 80 per cent of the former lowland heathland area has been destroyed or damaged, particularly during the 20th century. One of the reasons heathland disappeared was because it was planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission. The Commission acquired the heaths that would become Wareham Forest in 1924 and commenced planting what they regarded as worthless wasteland with fast-growing conifers. The country had almost run out of wood (for pit props) during the First World War and, as land prices crashed during the agricultural depression, the State snapped up land very cheaply, with the aim of securing future national timber supplies.

Wareham Forest comprises land leased by local landowning estates to the Government. The problem was that heathland has extremely poor soils. This is why it is heathland, because only the hardiest wild plants, including heather, can grow there. The heath is also wet – in places it is bog, with several metres of peat. The Forestry Commission set about trying to convert this wild place with poor wet soils (but thriving wildlife) into a suitable place for conifers to grow. They ploughed the soil into ridges so the trees could be a few inches above the water table. They drained the bogs.

During the Second World War, when once again the nation needed to draw on its own timber supplies, “lumberjills” from the Women’s Land Army lived in huts in the Forest, or were billeted in nearby Wareham. The lumberjills continued felling trees, planting trees, clearing drainage ditches and managing the forest, but the soils were so infertile that the trees produced were low quality – and always vulnerable to fires.

Forest ploughlines revealed by the fire.  © Miles King

After an exceptionally dry summer in 1947, Wareham Forest burnt in October. The fire even made it into “Life” magazine. That time it burned for four days, fuelled by the trees and ammunition dumps left over from soldiers training for D-Day. Fire was clearly a problem at Wareham Forest from its earliest days. In 1969 Francis Parsons, Chief Forester for Wareham Forest, was awarded the MBE for “his outstanding work in fire control”.

It was not fully appreciated in the 1920s that lowland heathland is a very important wildlife habitat – and that England has an international responsibility for its conservation. For 30 years now, however, the Forestry Commission has recognised that lowland heathland is valuable for wildlife, and has, commendably, started to remove some of the conifers to restore heathland, but large areas still remain. Cattle grazing has been reintroduced to a small area of the Forest to aid recovery from the damaging effects of planting conifers.

Cattle graze part of Wareham Forest. © Miles King

Fire is no stranger to lowland heathland. Fire contributed to the creation of the lowland heaths that once covered large parts of England – perhaps as long ago as the Mesolithic period, before the advent of farming. By the time farming became established in the Neolithic period, heaths were present, maintained by deliberate burning, and grazing by domestic livestock. This usage, alongside other resources provided by the heaths, ensured they were a valued part of the economy until the 19th century, when they started to be perceived as waste land. Many were commons, and subjected to enclosure and conversion into agricultural land. Fire continued to be used, to create lush new spring growth for livestock to graze.

Fire, when carried out sensitively, does no lasting damage to the heathland wildlife, and small regular fires (combined with grazing) prevent fuel from building up. Forestry management, by contrast, creates dense stands of flammable conifer trees. It also creates brash (what’s left over after the economic trunk of the tree has been harvested) that is left on the ground. Both live trees and brash create large sources of fuel for uncontrolled, devastating fires such as the one in May.

Dense conifer stands fuelled the fire. © Miles King

It’s almost certain that the 20 May fire was caused by a disposable barbecue: several were found by the Fire Service. Dorset Council is now considering a ban on the sale of what are effectively fire-bombs, when lit on tinder-dry heaths. The Government has changed the Countryside Code, such that it now states “Don’t have Barbecues”. The Forestry Commission have erected signs to the same effect.

Forestry Commission ‘No BBQs’ sign. © Miles King

Updating the Countryside Code and installing signs is an obvious reaction, but its success presupposes that those intent on having an enjoyable outdoor experience would take any notice of signs and ‘codes’. Covid-19 has created increased demand for access to the countryside. It seems likely this additional demand will continue through the summer and autumn while other leisure activities are still curtailed. Furthermore, acess continues to rise, as more houses are built in the area.

The Forestry Commission has launched a ‘crowdfunder’ appeal, asking for the public to raise funds for Wareham Forest, including for “restocking.”  Restocking means replanting with conifers, on heathland.

We are now in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency, with our climate shifting to a pattern where droughts are more frequent, increasing the risk of fire. Instead of planting more conifers to replace those destroyed by fire, it would be better to restore the heath through more grazing – even bringing back lost species, as has been done in Kent.  As Dr Lesley Haskins of the Erica Trust, a charity dedicated to heathland conservation, points out:

To be asking the public to fund this restocking of these pines, especially at this time, is nothing short of shocking.”

Covid-19 could provide the opportunity for us to rethink many aspects of our lives. It could also be the catalyst for a different way of thinking about land, especially public land. Restoring ‘Wareham Forest’ to Wareham Heath might be an example for others to follow.

This article was originally posted on West Country Bylines

Posted in climate change, Forestry Commission, lowland heathland, tree planting | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Building Back Greener – Defra’s Eustice announces Govt plans to weaken nature protections

 

George Eustice – hard Brexite and Environment Secretary

I’m not much a zoom enthusiast but the invitation to listen to Defra secretary of state George Eustice give a “major” speech on the environment, via Green Alliance, seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. So, having finally got zoom to work on my computer, I sat and listened to him talk for 15 minutes or so. Gone was the verbal virtuosity, the jokes and the skilled delivery of Gove, replaced by a workaday trudge through a speech no doubt written by someone else, with the occasional stumble and a bizarre prounciation of plover (to rhyme with over).

Hidden amongst the greenwash/rhetoric (interestingly Defra trailed the big story of the speech as the tiny amount of money for Green Prescribing) were some big announcements though. As I didn’t take notes during the talk, I waited for the speech to be published before writing this. You can read it if you really want – here. This I think is the big one

“Later this autumn we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system. If we can front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process, we can protect more of what is precious.”

The EU’s EIA Directive ( from 1985) has been a cornerstone of UK environmental law for well over 30 years. While it has always been weak on things like Agriculture and Forestry, the EIA Directive and the Regulations which implemented it in UK law have shaped the way that built development of all kinds has impacted on the environment, not least through the Mitigation Hierarchy. This is an Environmental Principle akin to the Precautionary Principle. Simply put it says protect what needs to be protected, Minimise the impact of developments that have to happen, and compensate only as a last resort. Offsetting, of the kind being developed at breakneck speed in the “Net Gain” project, has been added onto the bottom of the Hierarchy. Take away 30 years of regulatory evolution and case law, and you blow a very large hole in the side of environmental protections, especially for internationally important species and habitats.

Eustice makes it sound like “Front-loading ecological considerations in the planning development process” is a new and exciting thing we can do once we’ve got rid of these pesky “spirit crushing” EU Directives. But this is what the Local Development Plan process is all about – identifying environmental features that need to be protected, restored or created, instead of having houses, roads of Free Ports built on them.

Far from protecting more of what is precious, stripping away the protections afforded via the EIA mechanisms will do precisely the opposite.

Eustice indulged in some historical revisionism in his speech –

“while the environmental legislation we currently have is often credited to flagship EU directives like the Habitats Directive or the Birds Directive, these directives themselves were often principally about implementing at an EU level things that had already been agreed internationally through other international conventions like the Bern Convention. International conventions that the UK was always part of, will remain part of and where we will continue to drive international consensus for change and progress.”

This is an old canard and used to be wheeled out frequently, so it’s entertaining to see it again after all these years. It’s rubbish. When the UK made this claim as a way of avoiding having to do anything to implement the Habitats Directive in the early 90s, it was taken to the European Court and forced into action. It’s STILL failing to implement the Habitats Directive for some species and habitats 28 years later. The reason the Habitats Directive was created, was precisely because the Bern Convention had failed to arrest the decline of species like the err very well-counted Great Crested Newt.

So the EIA framework is under threat. This has been on the cards since Brexit. What else isn’t new? Eustice also announced that he was overseeing a change in the way environmental data was going to be collected. To be honest I found his explanation in the Q and A very confusing. He talked about gathering better data from per-urban areas, but then got distracted into talking about Cauliflowers and Broccoli (no really).

It sounded like the old systems of Phase One Survey, NVC surveys; and Common Standards Monitoring for SSSIs are going to be abolished. Phase One is already on the way out, to be replaced by some new fangled system – called the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment. If I were to be cynical I would conclude that a new system was going to be based on aggregate metrics, rather than data on individual species or habitats. That is after all where Net Gain has always been heading. Eustice says:

“If we can improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority, then we can make better decisions towards achieving our vision to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”

Which begs the question what does Eustice think has been happening in planning authorities for the last 30 years and more? Or is he aware that thanks to cuts under this and previous Tory Governments, local planning authorities have almost all lost the expertise that held this knowledge, Local Record Centres have been cut to the bone, and nature NGOs which held this information have also been shutting projects through lack of support.

Eustice made mention of other things, not least redefining the Precautionary Principle to say more or less the opposite of what it actually says – so expect this to be incorporated into the new Environment Bill.

In conclusion, we can expect this Govt to continue its attack on all things EU-derived, and Regulation more generally.

 

Posted in Brexit, EIA, George Eustice, regulation | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

A Tale of Two Speeches – Gramsci, Newts and the Instrumentarians

Gove references the Italian marxist Gramsci at the beginning of his speech

As we finally reach the point where the first wave of covid19 has effectively passed (excess deaths in the week to the 19th June were the same as the 5 year average – 65000 dead so far),  it’s clear that the Government (ie Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings) has decided that now is the time to strike, while everyone else is looking forward to the pubs opening on the 4th July.

When I say strike, I mean return to the agenda that they had had all along, going back to the point where they first started working together, in about 2007, after Cummings had spent a couple of years in the bunker he’d built on his dad’s farm (yes without planning permission) reading and plotting.

That agenda has been pretty clear from the  beginning  – and the Gove/Cummings chaos time when they were at the Department for Education, is illustrative of what will come next. Gove/Cummings entered the Education Department with the intention of throwing all the books up in the air, attacking Whitehall inertia; and the education unions to fatally weaken them; destroying the long standing relationships between local authorities and schools; attacking what they perceived as the dominance in educational academia of the intellectual left; reasserting the glories of the British Empire in the curriculum (Gove failed in this, to an extent) and pushing for much greater emphasis on teaching science and maths, not these namby pamby subjects which did nothing to further their own dreams for what Britain could become (remember this is before their double act in the Vote Leave campaign).

They had a plan of destruction and chaos from which they sought to build a new education system which fitted with their combined ideologies. That they only partially succeeded before being removed from the Department was mainly by luck rather than judgement, and Cummings’ inability to control his desires to attack, by almost any means, those he despised or who sought to block his way.

Fast forward 7 years (and skipping over Brexit for now) and here they are again, back in control, only this time, it’s not just a single Whitehall Department, it’s the entire Government. Gove has laid out his plan in a speech last weekend, which clearly has a big input from Cummings. Today Boris Johnson’s speech also has a big wedge of Cummings in it.

Taken together these provide some indication of what Gove/Cummings plan is for the rest of us. They have clearly seen Covid19 as the crisis from which they can take their opportunity to push through radical change to society. Witness the dispatch of the head of the Civil Service, Mark Sedwill, who they clearly saw as a major obstacle on their path.

What kind of society do Gove and Cummings want to create? One where bureaucracy is a dirty word. Whitehall is obviously in their targets, but today we also hear Johnson talk about a “project speed to scythe through red tape” to speed up housing developments, new roads and other infrastructure. This is a very old trope – I’ve been writing about Tory plans for a bonfire of red tape for pretty much 10 years, though its history goes back much further. How much red tape is left, but a few cinders to be swept back into the flames?  Anyway, regulation and red tape and restrictions placed on the “wealth creators” will be swept away so a New Britain, free of the shackles of Europe, free of the dead hand of the man from the ministry, wielding his clipboard, to build faster, bigger, cheaper.

Gove refers repeatedly in his speech to the New Deal – Roosevelt’s plan to spend his way out of the Great Depression. I can’t see a Hoover Dam being built, but perhaps some big infrastructure projects – Boris Island could well make a return, for all those zero-carbon airliners to fly from. Austerity is history (for now) and Gove must have reluctantly accepted that a swing to Keynesian borrowing to spend was in order, if only  to create the conditions for a grand new era of neoliberalism to flourish. But this is I think where Gove and Cummings personal philosophies diverge.

We know Gove is a neoliberal and neoconservative. He will want to set the market free to rebuild the post-covid economy – the Singapore on Thames future that the EU have predicted, warned against and prepared for. We can get a hint of what Gove wants to see with Johnson’s throw away remark (presumably intended as a joke) today:

the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country

There’s a certain irony here, as the Government champions net-gain for biodiversity as a centrepiece of the forthcoming Environment Bill. What is net-gain if not newt counting?

This also references an infamous speech by George Osborne (remember him) in 2011 where he claimed the poor Newts had placed a “ridiculous cost on British Business“.

So much for a Green Recovery. And Cummings has already dismissed retrofitting insulation to the existing national housing stock, possibly the single most important activity needed to reduce domestic greenhouse emissions, as “boring old house insulation.”

Gove is also a bit of a Maoist and gleefully prods his conservative colleagues by quoting from Italian Marxist Gramsci (famous for his call for a long march through the institutions) at the beginning of his speech.

Cummings is much more interested in creating a UK equivalent of DARPA  – the US defence research agency (that in part invented the internet). Cummings is obsessed with technology, the possibilities of AI, using the vast computing power of global giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, to create a new society. A Techno-utopian if you will.

It was the Behaviourial Insight Team which recommended the Government adopt a Herd Immunity approach to covid19 initially, believing that the best approach was to nudge people into making the right decisions. This is behavioural science, which is about predicting and controlling the behaviour of individuals, and societies. If you believe Shushana Zuboff, in her compelling book Surveillance Capitalism, this is the real reason why Facebook, Google and the others want your data.  Not only do they want to create profit from it, but they also want to ensure the certainty of future profit through behavioural control. Subtle control, of the nudge variety. She calls this instrumentarian power.

I suspect Cummings is an instrumentarian. His desire to bring in AI and other tech companies to work within the Cabinet Office, providing solutions to problems that would previously have been developed within the Civil Service, is illustrative of this approach.

Either way, the Gove/Cummings axis is going to push through some major changes to the way we live over the next 12 months. As for Johnson, I’m increasingly of the view that he’s there to provide distraction, but otherwise has no involvement in any of the significant decisions.

Posted in coronavirus, covid19, Dominic Cummings, instrumentarian, Michael Gove, neoliberalism, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Pheasant’s or Pheasant’s-eye? Nature Connection and Conservation

Subterranean clover – diminutive and overlooked on an urban road verge ©Miles King

What’s important about nature? I’m not talking about however many tonnes of Carbon a Sitka spruce tree locks up during its short life, or whether a Beaver stops a town flooding.  I mean what is important to you, as a person. Why do you care about nature?

A recent study by Natural England found that when asked 87% agreed with the statement “Being in nature makes me very happy” with nearly half agreeing strongly.

So perhaps nature is important to people because it makes them feel happy. But what does that mean? Were the respondents asked to describe the nature of the nature that makes them feel very happy? Unlike the previous MENE survey which used face to face interviews (468000 over a 10 year period), this new survey is performed online using the Kantar Profiles Network.The opportunity to explore nuance is limited. Then again the MENE surveys never actually asked people which parts of nature made them happy or sad, aside from some very broad categories.

Some might ask whether it matters what aspects of nature makes people very happy, as long as they are happy, that’s what counts. It’s an important question. If people are made very happy watching Grey Squirrels cavorting in the park, or Pheasants strutting their stuff in the countryside, aren’t we being elitist telling them ‘No, you must not gain any happiness from watching these creatures, they are introduced, they do a lot of damage to our native wildlife. You are doing it wrong!

Then again we are approaching Ragwort Time. Yes it’s that time of year when Council phones ring red hot, as people complain about Ragwort. Even when most of the time it’s not Ragwort. And they don’t own horses. And it isn’t in a hay meadow. Because there aren’t any left.

https://twitter.com/ChrisGPackham/status/1270283326700617728

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the topic of this blog – the fallout from what could be termed Chris Packham’s Roundabout Tweet. Now I can hear the groans – it’s time to move on, we’ve been around this roundabout too many times already and Kevin Walker has explained very clearly why road verges are very important.

What I’m interested in is how this whole sorry episode illustrates why we are failing to make any headway in trying to reverse the general decline in nature across the UK.

The roundabout had lots of pretty flowers on it. OK, so some of them were from elsewhere in the world, and some of them were formerly known as arable weeds, but they were pretty. Oh hold on, no they were there for pollinators – part of a B-line. So their prettiness was actually aimed at bees. But it was really important showing a local council doing something for nature. Hooray!

When I suggested to Chris that this was an expensive wildflower mix, pretty but of limited value for wildlife, and perhaps they should be being encouraged to spend their meagre resources on road verges his response was;

“Let’s just get them started Miles eh ? Maybe deal with the detail when they are on board . . .”

Pheasants and Grey Squirrels.

These are perhaps the most commonly seen bird and mammal in England. Having been on about Pheasants for some time now, I am still surprised to hear people are surprised that not only are they not wild and of this country, but have to be released in their 10s of millions every year. It’s the same with Grey Squirrels. People assume, quite reasonably, that they are an integral part of nature here.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who feel very happy when in nature, would be just as happy in an environment where everything had either arrived at some point from elsewhere on the planet, or was being constantly released into that environment for whatever, but usually economic, reasons. And it would be very easy from this, dare I say populist perspective, to attack anyone who seeks to place native wildlife on a higher level of importance than the introduced or released, as elitist. On my daily lockdown route around an arable field on the outskirts of Dorchester, I meet a variety of people, not all of them walking their dogs. As far as I can tell I am the only one looking at the ground to see what arable weeds have popped up. Others will no doubt be taking pleasure in nature, from the swish of the wind as it moves through the crop of Rye, or the recently planted trees growing on part of the field. Or the clouds in the sky. It’s all nature.

This is confirmed by nature connection research, carried out for example by my namesake Miles Richardson at Derby University. His and other’ work show that for nature connection to work it doesn’t matter whether that nature is a Pheasant of Pheasant’s-eye.

What’s important is engaging through all our senses; reflecting on the positive feelings nature engenders; looking after nature in some way; finding meaning in nature and appreciating the beauty of nature. None of this is predicated on differentiating between native and non-native nature. If joining the Local Wildlife Trust is a way of strengthening the feeling that we are looking after nature, their work conserving native species and habitats would be an incidental benefit of that activity. But its purpose is to make that individual feel happier, more content and have a more meaningful life.

Returning to Chris’s suggestion that the important thing is to encourage councils to get started, by whatever means, and the detail can then follow. For some reason this has stuck in my head and it’s the real reason why I felt the need to write this piece. It reminded me of something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a few days, until I remembered. Its exactly the same argument put forward to promote the natural capital approach. Get the Treasury interested in nature for its economic value, then once they’re hooked, we’ll be able to talk to them about all the other things nature does for us.

I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. The Treasury and the equity industry see nature as just another asset to be valued, bought and sold, commodified. The councils see a pretty flowery roundabout – the seed paid for by someone else – of course they are happy to agree to it. They won’t then magically jump from this to understanding the particular habitat requirements of a rare moss that occurs on some land that they are either planning to sell off, or considering whether to give planning permission for a housing development. But they are more likely to see nature as needing to satisfy aesthetic appeal.

Of course it’s vitally important that people care about nature, in its widest sense. But perhaps they always did. Does that translate into caring for, or taking action to conserve native wildlife? And if it did, why is our native wildlife continuing to decline. Perhaps everyone caring about nature in its broadest sense has little impact on the fate of our native species and habitats.

The two may not be particularly connected after all. Does that matter?

I happen to think it does. It’s hard work advocating for the slightly scruffy, the diminutive and the little brown jobs that lurk in all corners of nature in these islands. It is more difficult to tell the story to Councillors or Council officials, about why a perennial wildflower meadow is better than an annual mix of pretty plants from all over the world.

And it’s challenging to explain why it’s not ok to introduce Hen Harriers to Southern England, while they are being persecuted in the uplands; or why 50 million Pheasants released into the countryside every year isn’t that good an idea.  But it still needs to be done.

 

This post first appeared as a guest blog on Mark Avery’s blog.

Posted in Chris Packham, nature connection, pheasants, pictorlal meadows, road verges | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

New Board members for Natural England: the banker, the mandarin, the natural capitalist and the media exec.

 

 

 

An image speaks a thousand words, doesn’t it. Imagine being the person at Defra who decides which image to use for each story. “Natural England board members appointed.” Natural. England. Something natural perhaps. Hmm – perhaps a picture of a soaring Eagle. Ooh no, bit controversial they’re being shot all over the country. Ok how about a wildflower meadow? We don’t want to upset the farmers. Err dolphins? Oh god, that’ll just remind people that post-Brexit fishing is in a complete mess. Let’s just go with the Defra name plate. Keep it neutral, boring.

Yesterday Defra announced four new members have been chosen to join the Natural England Board. Natural England Board has ten members. The Board sets the strategic direction of Natural England’s work, and is in theory independent from Defra. In reality Natural England lost its independence when the Cameron Govenrment came in in 2010.

The Board members that are retiring are:

Andy Clements – who has had a long and illustrious career in bird conservation, latterly as chief exec of the British Trust for Ornithology – the BTO. The BTO gather the data on bird populations which is then used to influence how the land is managed, at least in theory.

Teresa Dent – chief exec of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. GWCT, or the Game Conservancy as they used to be known, have a foot in two camps, conservation and shooting. In the past they have produced valuable research on birds and other wildlife living on farmland, and how to tweak management for their benefit (mostly in order to shoot it).

Simon Lyster – Simon has worked in nature conservation at national and international levels for well over 30 years. He was a senior director at WWF and at one point Director General of the Wildlife Trusts, but I think it’s fair to say he was too radical for them back then.

Professor Mike Winter from Exeter University is a rural policy academic so has expertise useful for developing Natural England’s countryside stewardship agri-environment scheme.

All four of these have experience, expertise and a wide network of contacts with the environmental and conservation world.

The six that are staying are:

Tony Juniper – chair. Doesn’t really need an introduction.

Lord Blencathra – deputy chair. He’s mad keen on hunting, and I wrote about Lord Blencathra back in August 2018.

Marian Spain – newly appointed Chief Executive after a long period as stand-in. Marian was previously running my old stamping ground at Plantlife.

Catherine Dugmore – a chartered accountant from Price Waterhouse – the firm that ran the “industrial scale” tax avoidance factory.

Prof Sue Hartley – Prof of Ecology at University of York.

Henry Robinson – farmer with 1000 acres of land near Cheltenham; and former President of the CLA.

The four new directors are:

Kerry ten Kate – one of the leading lights globally in the natural capital movement. Kerry developed the ideas behind biodiversity offsetting. Kerry and Tony have worked together a lot over the years.

Rosamund Blomfield-Smith – worked in the city at Morgan Grenfell the blue chip merchant bank, before moving to Rothschilds and ING Baring. A city banker.

Kim Shillinglaw. A TV executive, Shillinglaw commissioned Horrible Histories at the BBC so deserves a lot of credit for that. She went on to head science and natural history commissioning, before a  stint as controller of both BBC2 and BBC4, when 4 lost its own controller. She also commissioned Springwatch and Autumnwatch. In more recent times she’s been in the commercial sector at Endemol.

Peter Unwin. Unwin was a senior Defra mandarin when I spent far too much of my time at meetings with Defra civil servants, back in the day when that was my day job. Unwin left Defra in 2015, having first joined the Department of the Environment (DoE) in 1983. I remember Unwin as a senior figure, who would slip into meetings after they had begun, sit quietly listening and then slip out again, often without saying anything.

There you have it. Four senior figures from the conservation world, replaced by none.

This leaves the board with a hunter (and former Tory politician), two natural capital champions, a banker, an accountant and a former civil servant.

On the plus side, there’s someone who has a real expertise in engaging the public with stories about nature; an ecology academic, and a farmer who is undoubtedly interested in nature.

I understand Natural Capital is the only circus in town now, and that’s just reality, whether I like it or not. But Natural England is supposed to be first and foremost the Regulator, for the natural environment. I don’t get the impression from these new appointments, that regulation is going to be top of the list of priorities when the Board sets its agenda. Not just its agenda, but Natural England’s agenda.

As I discussed yesterday post-pandemic, and post-Brexit for that matter, society is having to deal with The Freeloader Problem, perhaps to a greater extent than it has in many decades. One way of challenging the Freeloaders is Regulation. From what I’m hearing, the Freeloaders are at work in the environmental sector just as much as they are elsewhere.

We need Natural England to be that strong effective regulator, more than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Natural Capital, Natural England, regulation | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Coronavirus diary: the Freeloader Problem

It’s Magic Monday, or Happy Monday or whatever new slogan has been dreamt up by Dom Cummings and his Vote Leave team in Downing Street to distract us.

How quickly things change.

Just last December Cummings and his libertarian band of brothers (and a few sisters but mainly brothers) were celebrating their resounding victory in the General Election. Then Coronavirus came along and swept all their dreams, of smashing the system and letting the free market rip, away. Then Dom himself added cream on the top of that Coronavirus Tsunami, by showing the people that he really didn’t see himself as one of them. It had all been a ruse.

Segueing seamlessly from the iconoclast to the icon, in a single week of revelations. Dom’s political career, or at least the current incarnation, now survives from one day to the next.

So today we are invited to celebrate the end of lockdown. The Shielded Can Walk In the Streets! The Children can Return to School! Everyone Can Go To The Beach!

Except everyone has already gone to the beach. At least down here in uber-sunny Dorset.

Pictures of Bournemouth beach and Durdle Door were widely shared over the weekend on social and traditional media, inviting comments of astonishment and concern. Social distancing might have been possible at Durdle Door until two air ambulance helicopters had to land on the beach, at the same time, forcing the thousands into a pack, almost like penguins in the Antarctic. Three people (they must by definition have been young men) had seriously injured themselves jumping off the Door into the sea. (spoiler: there isn’t enough depth of water and there are rocks.)

Now I’d be the first person to point out that, generally speaking, the chances of catching coronavirus from standing or sitting near another person outside is going to be very low. But what about standing in a queue for an ice cream, or in the car park, or on the single path to the beach. Or after a few cans of beer? I don’t know. I suspect the chances (the R number) starts to go up, the more people there are, the more alcohol consumed.

The rest of us – the locals (yes I know I’m a blow-in, only here for 23 years) but I do feel like a local some of the time, stayed away. We had friends who lived in West Lulworth, and know what’s it like during a normal Summer.

I went for a walk on one of my well-worn local circuits. Down to the river, across the water meadows, back through the town. It was pretty quiet, a few family groups. Quieter than it had been in a long time. Perhaps some locals had gone to the beach. The meadows were all looking parched. Haylage was cut and baled, in May. I can’t remember a year when everything has been this early. I was thinking there won’t be much to see in the countryside aside from a lot of brown fields, in a few weeks time. A Red Kite dipped and curled in the thermals off the river banks, as if it really was on the string of a skilful flyer. A youngish dad had caught a little fish, perhaps a Trout fry, in one of the streams and was trying to interest his little daughter in it, perhaps a little too over enthusiastically. She didn’t seem so keen on leaving the dry of the river bank.

Haylage mown & baled from the Frome water meadows. © Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the depths of lockdown this walk would be preternaturally quiet. Bird song would be so loud as to startle. Yesterday a Cetti’s warbler exploded its song – well not really a song, but a violent expulsion of air, about 3m from me. It was loud, but the noise from the bypass was louder.

It’s a paradox.

Even though there is still much less traffic the normal, it’s as though those on the road are trying to make up for the absent ones. As though there is an aural space that must be filled. There is a physical space, left by the absent traffic, which means that those who wish to can go faster, accelerate faster, achieve yet higher revolutions per second, and that little bit more g-force in the small of the back, or the fingers gripping the handlebars. Can I get it up to 12000 before I have to slow down for the next roundabout?

Did the pressure of lockdown build up such that it needed to be released in a mass exhalation, a mass acceleration, a celebration of noise – and fire? Witness the ever increasing number of fires now being lit – ostensibly by accident as single-use barbecues are lit on tinder dry heathland or moor. Perhaps subconsciously the food is the excuse, the underlying reason is that release of energy – the pent up energy of lockdown.

Fire, is after all, just a release of energy.

I don’t imagine the wildlife killed or made homeless by the 220ha Wareham Forest fire will sympathise.

smoke from the Wareham Forest fire ©Miles King

 

Of course Dom doesn’t care. He may be relishing this outpouring of libertarian behaviour.

Why shouldn’t I have a barbecue on the heath, if that’s what I want. Who’s going to stop me?

Why shouldn’t I go as fast and as loud as I like on the bypass. Who’s going to stop me? (speeding had dramatically increased during lockdown)

Why should I take my rubbish home when I can leave it in the park, the council will come and clear it up.

Why shouldn’t I jump off that cliff if I want to. The NHS will patch me up afterwards.

Why shouldn’t I kill as many raptors as I can find during lockdown. No-one’s going to see me.

Why should I care about climate chaos? it’s sunny. Let’s go to the beach

This is known in economics as the Free Loader or Free Rider problem. It’s people taking advantage of opportunities to benefit themselves, provided by the collective action of society. And it feels like there has been an outpouring of free-rider behaviour since lockdown started to collapse on or around VE day. Once it’s out of the genie’s lamp it can be very difficult to put back in.

I read a report of a survey this morning suggesting 57% of people didn’t want things to go back to the way they were after coronavirus has been tamed or passed through – and that home working would stay, commuting would decrease and even foreign holidays might decline. All I would say is that, based on what’s happening at the moment, there will be a significant section of society who are thinking how can I take advantage of this situation for my own personal benefit, and screw society. We can call them the free-loaders.

Tackling the free-loaders is going to be a significant challenge post-coronavirus. And having libertarians like Dominic Cummings in power is going to make that challenge much much harder.

Posted in coronavirus, Dominic Cummings, free-loaders, libertarians | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments