The world in 2130 – a short story by Jane Wilkinson

Continuing the series of fiction contributions, this one is from Jane Wilkinson (@bikerjaney)

Not sure if you know, Miles, but I have a time machine.

I travelled to 2130 last week and it was a surprising place. The climate had changed… various coastlines had altered, and the weather extremes had caused some awful disasters – especially the terrible Tsunami of 2097 off the Spanish coast.

But it wasn’t so bad, living in that era… there were still sneep, and horses, cows, pigs… but these were not eaten anymore – a World Council agreement in 2078 had meant that the population of the world was now vegetarian (yes, all 3 billion of them) – so the animals are now used as beasts of burden and delivery, due to vehicles being banned except ones used by the emergency service charities.

But most countries operate quite peacefully, since the Great Registration of 2100, which led to the Affiliations and Peaceful Settlements Act .

And then there is the UK, and the DSA.

In 2053 the UK had finally split, and the warring nations had agreed to go their separate ways. Unfortunately their proximity to each other and the isolation caused by the 100 mile wide Sea of Europe, had affected the chances of the 7 individual nations being able to cope with the Great Famine, and the follow-on Terrible Blockade.

Excluded from the European, African and Chinese Bloc, there really was no hope. The nations re-joined and the total population (34 million) now scrape an existence among the dry plains, nuclear reprocessing plants, and barren coastlines.

But even that existence is preferable to living in the Divided States of America. Little news gets out of there, but what does escape is terrifying. The various (numbers of States change regularly) Religious States try to maintain the borders peacefully, but with starvation, homelessness and profanity now outlawed; and the numbers of criminals rising, the expense of termination is almost bankrupting some States, so criminal-dumping is rife at the borders.

I was glad to get back to 2019, and the minor matter of a Brexit where I know what happens!

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The Web – a short story by Vicki Hird

continuing in the same vein as my “Forest of Brexeat” story earlier this week, Vicki Hird

has written this piece…

Swallowtail ©Tim Rice

 

The web was both delicate and strong. And as large as a lake. Spreading out as a silk cloak over the scrub and ground it was hard to imagine how such a small animal as a moth caterpillar – could create such a large structure. Grandfather talked about the scene underneath – how a billion mouths would be chomping at the plants underneath…

Bees hovered overhead and the old man and boy watched as one was caught in a real spiders web in a tree behind them. Little silk coffins lined this web showing what a killer had made this lair – waiting hidden at the edge to catch one of the thousands of flying insects in the air.

Was a time you heard little in countryside. Now it’s always buzzin” the old man mumbled..

The Boy had already been reminded to keep his mouth shut as he walked. Butterflies, wasps, flies and beetles would soon be fluttering in your mouth otherwise. He thought he’d learnt his lesson when the mosquito bit him in the lip some weeks back – lucky not one with malaria. But the going was fast and he was breathing hard. He was thirsty.

The sun beat down as they walked away from the web lake and small moths fluttered up as they disturbed new ground.

Once this was all wheat growing as high as ye lad“. “It were sprayed with chemicals so the wee beasts would not steal the crop….tis odd to think we kept on and on and the beast just developed ways round and more came we’d not seen before.”

 “What happened to the chemicals grandpa” the boy had not heard of this before. Grandpa was miles away in his memories.

and all along we was killin the bugs that would keep the pests in check… seems mad now…We’d even cover them sneep I talked of in a terrible chemical to stop a fly laying its eggs under the sneep’s skin… nerve killing stuff it was but the sneep suffered terrible…maybe they was too many or the wrong breed..I dunno. “

A rumbling noise checked his chatter and he pushed the boy back against a tree trunk as a herd of wild cattle rumbled by. Insects flew up and filled the air as the pack of dogs flew past in pursuit aiming to catch a weaker animal. The old man quickly pulled the boy off the track in case they returned.

Safe havens were hard to find. Where they were now stumbling seem to be full of biting insects. The couple pulled thick sacks over their faces with eye holes, and pushed on towards the river to catch a fish for supper in the cave. At least the rivers were bountiful. Clean rivers full of invertebrates – everything fish needed.

We’ll have a small fish feast tonight mark my words lad. Maybe some groundnuts and dandys leaves to pull up along the way hey…”

In the distance yet another woodland clearing was draped with the caterpillars cloth and they skirted round it to head toward the sound of water rushing over rocks.

If we’re lucky lad we can find some large beetle grubs to eat with the fish – real tasty fat sausagy when fried with a bit of welsh sea salt… I know just the spot and they get bigger every year seems to me”.

He thought of the huge stag beetle antlers and shivered. He knew those were harmless but with the climate so different and new creatures every year it was hard to say what beasts they were going to have to deal with. The huge butterflies and new birds were beauties. But giant hornet nests were common and tarantulas and nasty ticks with diseases were everywhere now. The oaks can cope but us and our crops and orchards?

Thanks grandpa that would be great. I love those crunchy on outside and squigy inside. Don’t know how you know where to find them though.”

Folk talked of ‘insectageddon’ years ago. He remembered that. And there were mass extinctions from habitats lost, chemical use and climate change. Yet now some beasts were taking over it seemed to him… he didn’t want to scare the boy though so kept quiet as they walked to the river.

“Wisdom of years my boy …wisdom of years.”

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The Forest of Brexeat – a short story

April was upon them and shelter was their goal.

The sun beat down upon their heads, sweat pouring off them as the boy took a small swig of water from his grandfather’s water bottle.

“Just small sips lad, we don’t have that much.”

Grandfather was all too aware that their well had nearly run dry the previous year. Rains were only intermittent now until the next wet season came in July. They sought the shade of the forest.

“the old stories tell of a time when these hills were bare, grazed by a furry animal that people used to eat on sundays.” The grandfather recounted the stories he had been told  – the boy immediately distracted from the hunger in his own stomach by the familiar tale.

“Did people really eat animals back then grandad?” the boy’s eyes widened.

“So they say, yes.”

“Farmers used to have flocks of these animals called sneep, and they grazed on trees until all the trees had gone, then they ate grass.”

They sat and savoured the shade of a large spreading Oak – a cork Oak, whose bark was useful in providing all manner of things – but most valuable of all was its insulating properties, keeping their roof cool under the unremitting Summer sun.

“Why is this called the Forest of Brexeat grandad?” the boy was nearly 10 and his curiosity knew no bounds.

“Back a long time ago before I was born at the time of the Empire of Eyuu the sneep were grown here but eaten a long way away. But then King  Boris decided that Briton wanted to be free of that Empire and his army of Brexites fought for our freedom, boy. Then there was nowhere for the sneep to go and they were all burnt in a big fire to celebrate freedom – and that’s why we burn a pumpkin at the festival of St. Boris on the 1st November.”

Grandfather paused, thoughtfully – pumpkins never burn that well and it did seem like a waste of food, but it was a tradition which had to be upheld. The relentless buzz of Cicadas, normally tuned out, briefly entered his consciousness.

“And after that the great heating came and there was no food and no grass, most people went away, and those that were left planted Cork Oaks and called it the Forest of Brexeat.”

“Will it be an really big celebration this year grandad – for 100 years since we gained our Freedom?”

“Yes boy, we’ll have a big party.” Grandfather suddenly felt very tired and closed his eyes briefly, passing into a half-dream of furry white animals running across green hillsides. The boy idly picked up a stick and toyed with a scorpion which had emerged from its hole.

The sun had descended a little int the late afternoon, and it was time to return home, to their Welsh village.

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The Cork Pot Story

I’m thinking about Turtles. Turtles which died because they had swallowed a plastic bag, a bag that once carried some shopping. Discarded, it fell into a river; the river flowed to the sea, the sea joined the ocean. The Turtle died.

We know about Ocean Plastic. We know that the packaging used for retail products makes it easy to handle consumer products; easy to transport, easy to stack on shop shelves. It’s that packaging which is, among other things, causing the problems of Ocean Plastic.

Lush is also worried about Ocean Plastic. Lush perfumer and head of ethical buying, Simon Constantine, wants to start making packaging from Ocean Plastic, (although long term, he has an even bigger aspiration explaining: “The point of intervention is to stop all new plastic production.” Which is an ambitious goal, for sure).

One way to cut out plastic packaging is to sell consumer products without any. Lush calls its unpackaged range its ‘Naked’ line of products. But how do buyers get their naked soap bars home without making their pockets or bags soapy and fragrant? This was the challenge that Simon set his buying and sourcing team back in 2017.

Nick Gumery, creative buyer for packaging at Lush, wondered if Cork might be the answer. Cork is a natural product, made from the inner layer under the bark of the Cork Oak tree (​Quercus suber).​ Traditionally used to make corks (as in stoppers for wine bottles) Cork is actually a remarkable material – anti-bacterial, fire-retardant, water-resistant, flexible, strong, easy to work; and at the end of its life, it can be composted.

Harvested from a living tree, it also has an exceptional ability to sequester carbon, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change chaos. Lush is currently waiting for confirmation from the Carbon Trust that the company has produced the first ever accredited Carbon Positive Packaging. The team’s calculations suggest that each cork pot sequesters over one kilo of carbon dioxide gas (and this is a very conservative estimate). This compares with an aluminium pot which releases 9kg of CO2 for every kg of Aluminium created.

Regenerative Packaging Is Born

Could Cork be used to make a reusable pot in which Lush “Naked’ (unpackaged) products could be taken home, leaving the pocket un-soaped, and those wonderful fragrances retained, in the pot? The dream of a reusable – not just sustainable but regenerative – piece of packaging was born.

The Cork Oak only occurs around the Western Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula. It is unique in that it produces cork partly as a defence against drought and partly to protect from the regular forest fires that are naturally part of that region’s ecology. Most Cork oak forest is found in Portugal and Spain, with Portugal producing about half of the world’s total (around 340,000 tonnes) Cork harvest.

Cork is harvested from each tree every 10 years or so which allows it enough time to grow back after it has been taken. Unlike most forestry operations, the tree lives on after harvest so the process of harvesting the cork can be compared with tapping sugar maples for maple syrup, or pollarding a willow to make baskets since these trees do the same. The trees that are harvested grow in the open (in savannah landscapes) rather than in a dense forest and this characteristic has created a magical landscape known as the Montado in Portugal and the Dehesa in Spain.

The patchwork of Cork oaks, other trees, shrubs and open areas of grassland, is immensely rich in wildlife, as well as forming the basis of that area‘s food culture. Jamon iberico – the legendary Black Pig of Spain – grazes under the Cork oaks. And the Cork oak savannah supports one of Europe’s rarest mammals – the Iberian Lynx, as well as birds such as the Imperial and Booted Eagles. These savannahs are also important for migratory birds, stopping to feed on their way to or from their northern breeding areas which include the UK.

But in recent decades the Cork forests have been threatened – with abandonment, damage and conversion to other land uses. Cork forest owners have taken to cultivating the soil under the Cork oaks in the mistaken belief that this makes them grow faster (whereas, sadly, it actually hastens their death by repeatedly damaging their roots) and in the belief that it reduces fire risk.

Some Cork oak forests have been destroyed and replaced with fast growing trees like Eucalypts from Australia. Others have been converted to cereal fields or pastures. One environmental group, Eco-interventions has been working since 2013 to restore an area of Portugal’s Cork Oak forests and so when the Lush team decided to explore the possibility of replacing Aluminium packaging with cork, they turned to this organisation to ask whether it could provide the Cork Pots Lush wanted. Eco-interventions realised that a new market for Cork products could help provide an economic reason for managing Cork oak forests. Starting with Cork from a 400ha area called ​Vale Bacias​ , Cork Connections will be moving on to buying from five other Portuguese landowners . Lush pays €5 to eco-interventions for each cork pot, and this money is used to support the ecological restoration of the Cork oak forest and savannah.

Lush is now buying around 35,000 pots a year from Cork Connections (an Eco-Interventions offshoot), but plans to increase this to 500,000 pots in a year’s time. But Lush isn’t just interested in the pots; it wants to ensure that the pots it buys are produced from Forest which is also being restored. So it buys at a high enough price to cover the cost of a forest restoration and regeneration programme.

Eco Interventions, via its Cork Connections offshoot business, provides Portuguese Cork Forest owners with native shrubs to replant where they have been lost through cultivation, but only on the condition that the growers stop cultivating and desist from using artificial fertilisers or pesticides. And to date, income from Lush buying Cork pots has already led to 20,000 shrubs being planted over the last 12 months, back into degraded Cork forest.

Lush recognises that transport has a big impact on its product’s credibility as being truly regenerative and so the final leg of this story is a journey by sailboat. Instead of trucking the Cork pots from Portugal to the UK, Lush has just received its first consignment of 6,000 pots via a sailing freighter. The SV Gallant docked in Poole Harbour on July 4t​ h​, bringing Cork pots, salt from Portuguese Salinas, Irish moss seaweed; and signs made from Eucalyptus and invasive pine wood produced from another Lush-supported project,​ ​Veredgaia​, which is restoring forestry plantations back to native wildlife-rich habitat.

I spoke to project instigator Nick Gumery on board the SV Gallant, as we made our way sedately past Brownsea Island. (He had just spent the morning with the local BBC TV news, who covered the story as did local paper the ​Bournemouth Echo​).

Nick knew that the press might be cynical and take the view that the sailing voyage was no more than a publicity gimmick. But they would be wrong. He wants to test the waters and see if it really is feasible to move freight by sail and not least because Lush needs to move a lot of raw materials​ ​around and is looking for, and committed to finding, more sustainable methods of doing it.

“It’s a serious test of logistics and whether it makes business sense,” he tells me.

Nick is also keen for people to get away from thinking that Lush does everything for charitable reasons, especially if it is going to influence how other businesses operate: “Business won’t change if it’s solely done charitably. Lush is interested in its impact but wants to show, as an ethical business, it can still make a profit.”

It is clear from speaking to Nick, Lush’s Cork Pot encapsulates, in the palm of one hand, the challenges that face retailers and consumers, who want to change their business practises and consumption habits.

And it could even start a global packaging revolution.

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National Meadows Day

Dyer's greenweed growing in a wildflower meadow ©Miles King

It’s national meadows day and I thought this would be a good point to write something about them.

Meadows  – the word is deep within our collective memory – it crops up on branded packaging for fake supermarket farms, decaying council estates from the 50s, and even beyond these shores. Meadow Lane is the location where some of the darkest action in the classic David Lynch neo-noir Blue Velvet take place.  It’s the one place you did not want to end up.

The word is old – from the proto-germanic medwo – “land covered in grass which is grown for hay”, though interestingly while we follow that root, in German the word is now Wiese. I suspect that grass is used here to describe a sward composed of grasses and other wildflowers, because it would never have just been grass let alone one kind of grass. A typical wildflower meadow might contain 20 different species of grass.

I realise, writing this, that I must have written a hundred thousand words about meadows during my career. Typing it feels like I’ve picked an old book off the shelf, a much loved one with dog-eared cover and perhaps a few notes in the margin. Have I got anything new to say?

Meadows are both natural and a human artefact. Nature didn’t invent the scythe or mower – before the Romans did that, nature had its own way of preventing trees from growing and allowing herbaceous (ie not woody) plants to flourish – grazing, flooding, frost, fire – and the combinations of these created conditions we cannot even conceive. But 2000 years ago someone invented the scythe and Meadows were born – to create hay – a food which can be stored over winter. For nearly two thousand years horses, and before them Oxen, powered civilisation – before the revelation that dense energy was to be found underground, to be exploited. Horses and Oxen are powered by vegetation – and that means lots of pasture and meadows.

Being so essential, Meadows were revered, treasured, closely guarded. Woe betide anyone thinking about taking a short cut through a growing meadow. Some meadows were common land – the famous Lammas meadows of (mostly) English floodplains. Commoners chose which strip they would get to mow each year by drawing balls from a bag – some strips yielded more than others, so it was fair for the allocation to be random.

A rich culture grew up around meadows – Shakespeare often incorporated them and their need for care into his work – which, when you think about how much of Warwickshire was covered in meadows, is not that surprising…. Shakespeare drew an analogy between the need to mow a meadow lest it be taken over by weeds, and the anarchy in France after Agincourt – and places these words on the Duke of Burgundy’s lips…

The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover, Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank, Conceives by idleness and nothing teems But hateful docks, rough thistle, kecksies, burs, Losing both beauty and utility ….

Things started to change with the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century, as farmers realised they could gather grass seed and sow it to create leys. These had fewer wildflowers and more grass, so produced a great volume of hay. Artificial fertilisers came in by the 1840s and by the late 19th century chemicals were being applied to both meadows and pastures in an effort to rid them of unwanted plants. What we now call Dyer’s greenweed (also known as Wood Wax) was troublesome in a meadow, because it is quite woody, catches the mower blade (blunting it?) and produces poor hay. Sulphuric acid (presumably a common byproduct of industrial chemical processes) was applied to it in an attempt to rid meadows of this plant. Even as industrialisation proceeded apace, horses were still central to society and culture, and they needed hay.  Through the First World War, hay meadows were being mown to supply fodder to Flanders – food shortages and the challenges of getting a bulky material across the Channel to France were mentioned in Cabinet, as the space was needed for both soldiers and hay.

Imagine what Dominic Raab would have done… “I had no idea so much hay was needed to feed horses….”

But things were already changing. Motorised transport took a leap forward in that decade and the fate of the hay meadow was sealed, it just didn’t know it. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the terrible agricultural depression which ran from 1922 to 1939, hay meadows would have disappeared more quickly. Either way, many were ploughed during the “Great Harvests” of 1941 and 1942. And the rest gradually disappeared as tractor replaced horse over the following three decades, and ryegrass/clover swards replaced wildflowers. Until today when there are perhaps 5000 hectares of wildflower meadows left.Whether it’s a 95% loss or a 97% loss is really just academic. The fact is that once they had lost their economic reason for existence, they disappeared. Cultural value was not sufficient a justification for their survival in most cases.

About half are protected by the designation of Site of Special Scientific Interest, and about half are not. Many of those that do survive are tiny, just an acre or two. They are very vulnerable to being destroyed, often by accident – especially during a change of ownership, when their value is not appreciated.

But there has been a movement now, for nearly 30 years of creating new wildflower meadows. Techniques for creating them have improved hugely even during my career and the best new ones look quite similar to those old meadows which have been around for two hundred, five hundred, or even more than a thousand years. No, they don’t have that peculiar and difficult to describe spirit of place – the genius loci, of the ancient meadows. But it will come – it’s only a question of time and use. But I wonder whether they will last long enough… how long will they last? Meadows created under a 10 year agri-environment scheme, are liable to be ploughed up and returned to a more conventional farming practice, once that scheme ends. Perhaps their future lies in urban landscapes.

Which brings me to pictorial meadows and semantics. Pictorial Meadows is a neologism – it was invented to describe a mixture of attractive flowers – mainly non-native but often including former arable weeds (that’s another story) like common poppy, cornflower and corn marigold. These mixes are sown usually in urban areas to create an attractive floral display, and also provide some limited support for local pollinators. They have a country cousin called pollinator mixes which are sown along the edges of arable fields, and have a more direct aim to benefit pollinators, which is reflected in the species which are included in the mix. Neither are meadows in the sense I describe earlier in this piece.

I wrote about pictorial meadows back in 2012 – and it created a bit of debate at the time, which you can read here . With the demise of The Grasslands Trust, much of its former web footprint has gone – but the blog survives! I was a bit harsh on Pictorial Meadows back then. I suppose my whole attitude towards conservation has changed over the past 7 years, as rewilding has forced everyone to reconsider prior assumptions, and the broader issue of why we value nature has come to the fore.

But regardless of what I think, the phrase pictorial meadows has been taken up  – and in the last couple of years the media has also adopted it. This has led to some interesting confusion. Now pictorial meadow mix sown along roads has also started to be confused with wildflower-rich road verges, for example in this recent BBC story.

And, to celebrate national meadows day (today) the guardian asks its readers to send in photos of “wildflower or planted meadows or verges.”

wildflower meadows can be planted, or they can have developed from wild plants. Verges are not wildflower meadows, but they are mown so have some of the same plants – and in places they are the last refuges of wild flowers which have been evicted from their meadow homes. But I think the Guardian is using planted verges to describe the type of Pictorial Meadow that Rotherham Council planted to such great effect.

Does it matter that ancient wildflower meadows and pictorial mixes planted in the central reservation of urban dual carriageways are mentioned in the same breath, or regarded as interchangeable? After all, it’s all nature. Well, yes and no.

Long suffering readers of this blog will recall just how many times I have droned on about the importance of language in effectively communicating to a wider public why nature is important and should be valued. I have banged the drum against phrases like ecosystem services or natural capital, so it’s pretty obvious that I care, perhaps slightly obsessively, about the way we talk or write about nature. And this is no exception.

The debate about meadows reminded me of Owen Paterson, our former Secretary of State against the Environment. He had been to Australia and looked at some “very old trees” or VOTs as the Aussies described them. Some VOTs needed to be felled to make way for a new road (I think) but it was ok because thousands of new ones were going to be planted elsewhere. To OPatz, this type of offsetting was fine because the overall number of beans to be counted (biodiversity units or whatever) was greater at the end of the project than the beginning. OPatz was fine with ancient woodlands being destroyed eg by HS2 because many more new trees could be planted  – I wonder now whether he genuinely believes that new trees are better than old ones, like a new car is better than an old one.

And now we have a new meadow – a pictorial meadow. It’s straightforward to create, is dazzlingly beautiful, it’s low maintenance. No need to move animals in or out of it, or worry about the weather for hay making. People are now just accepting that it’s a meadow.

The old meadow has more or less been forgotten – it’s gone out of people’s lives, long ago. Best to move on. Progress.

Is that, collectively, what we want to do? Even if a few of us don’t, is there really anything we can do about it?

Here’s a film that People Need Nature put together (thanks to Chris Tizzard and Keith Datchler) to accompany our meadow soundscape from 2017.

 

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Farmland Tax Breaks revealed

Today the charity I work for, People Need Nature, publishes its latest report, investigating the tax system and how it affects farmland. “Where there’s muck there’s brass: revealing the billions hidden in farmland tax shelters” lays out the many, varied, and some frankly bizarre tax breaks available to farmers and landowners. And we argue that these are providing no benefit to society, and in some cases are operating against things society might want.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the fact that farmers and landowners across the UK receive between £3 and £4 billion a year in subsidies from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. This equates to about £2.5 billion a year in England. Most of that is paid in the form of an area-based payment, while a small proportion pays for agri-environment schemes supporting farming practices, which are more amenable to things like farmland wildlife. Anyone interested in England’s should be interested in what happens on farmland, because farmland covers about three quarters of England. So most of the money, which is paid to farmers, is paid because they own or manage the land, and there are really very few strings attached to that money. That’s not the farmers fault of course, it’s the way the EU and the UK Government decide to disburse those funds.

As a result of the EU referendum back in 2016, the UK will have to come up with a new way of supporting farmers, as we will leave the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s likely that there will be different approaches in each of the UK countries, and I’m really only talking about England from now on. Michael Gove, when he took over Defra, immediately starting talking up the opportunity to create a new way of supporting farmers, to provide what are known technically as public goods. This is not particularly helpful language, but it’s economics-ese for things that society benefits from, which cannot be provided by the market. These might include more farmland wildlife, better water quality in our rivers, reduced downstream flooding in our towns, more pollinators for our crops – and even somewhat elusive things like “rural vitality”, which is some complex measure of the health of rural communities.

The Agriculture Bill, which is now stuck somewhere in Parliament, has taken this thinking forward, and it looks like there is still a good chance that at the end of all this farmers will only be paid for public goods, and the old system of receiving a subsidy for owning the land, will be gone. There are still many problems with the Agriculture Bill, but the central premise of “public money for public goods” still stands. But what about the tax system? Is it working to support provision of public goods, or not. And if not, should it also be reformed? This was something that had been bothering me (and others who know far more about this than me) for a while.

When Chris Packham asked me to be his Minister of Agriculture and write a chapter in last year’s People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, I thought this would be a good opportunity to raise the issue of farmland and tax, which I duly did. I was surprised that this was picked out for particular criticism, so I thought I had better get on and find out what the situation actually is.

What I found was surprising – that the total tax breaks available on farmland in England are as great as the total subsidy paid under the Common Agricultural Policy. And there are even fewer conditions placed on those tax breaks than on the subsidies, conditions that could mean the tax regime provides benefits to society. The main tax breaks are Red Diesel, Business Rates exemption and Inheritance Tax exemption.

The first two operate day in day out on every farm in the land, though of course the more Diesel you use, the bigger the tax break you benefit from. So this particular tax break, worth around a billion pounds a year across the UK, and £550M a year in England, will mostly go into the pockets of big arable farms, where most of the diesel is used.

I was surprised by how much Red Diesel is used on arable farms – one 220ha potato farm in Essex gets through 200,000 litres of diesel in every growing season. That works out at 909 litres of diesel per hectare. Although this particular farm grows potatoes one year in six on a rotation, the red diesel used growing those potatoes (roughly speaking) adds around 10g per packet of CO2 to their carbon footprint.

Farmland and farm buildings are entirely exempt from Business Rates. This is worth about £1Bn a year in lost rates – rates that increasingly flow directly to cash-strapped Local Authorities. Again, as rates are based on the value of the land, the larger the area of land owned, the bigger the saving. So this exemption is worth most to the largest landowners. There are no conditions attached to this exemption. Indeed this exemption is so deeply buried that the Government don’t even make an assessment of how much it costs the Exchequer.

The third doesn’t really show up in the annual accounts of farms, because Inheritance Tax exemption (Agricultural Property Relief or APR) on farmland only applies on the death of the owner. Tax Justice UK recently published a report showing that 62% of APR in a recent year benefited just 261 families in England. It’s difficult to put a precise figure on the tax benefit and it varies considerably from year to year, but APR and the related Business Property Relief are likely to cost the exchequer around £700 to £800M a year.

There are then a whole plethora of other tax breaks available to farmers – from VAT exemptions, exemption for road tax and MOTs on farm vehicles, to “roll-over” relief from Capital Gains Tax. If some farmland is sold for development, when land suddenly becomes worth perhaps a hundred times as much as it was, that can lead to a hefty capital gain tax bill. Roll-over relief allows that profit to be re-invested in farmland and no tax is payable. That pushes up the price of farmland for everyone else and encourages wealthy investors in, who may well see the land is nothing but a means of sheltering their wealth and generating a guaranteed income.

Together these tax breaks create a rich and complex landscape, which has led to the creation of a mini-industry of tax accountants, land agents and consultants. Worse still it, has created the ideal conditions for investors looking for a place to shelter their wealth from taxation, quite legally, without having to move to the Caribbean. Even without considering the effect of the farmland tax regime attracting in those seeking tax shelters, it’s salient to note that, as Guy Shrubsole’s recent book “Who Owns England” revealed, 50% of England is owned by 25,000 landowners, who are the beneficiaries of this very generous tax regime.

Guy has found from Land Registry data, that between 2004 and 2015, 280,000 acres of land was purchased by offshore entities. I worked out that, just for this land £50M a year in farm subsidies and tax breaks is flowing offshore, to who knows where. The total farmland owned offshore is likely to be far higher though.

It’s also worth considering how these tax breaks fit in with proposals for things like pesticide or fertiliser tax. There would be little point in introducing such things, without looking at the existing tax regime. a 25% fertiliser tax would raise £250M a year, which sounds like a lot and may help to reeduce fertiliser use. But when compared with the £550M a year tax break on red diesel, it’s not so big, and any climate benefits from a fertiliser tax would be counteracted by the red diesel subsidy.

Likewise with pesticides – UK farmers spent £900M on pesticides in 2016/17 – although this research suggests they have collectively overpaid by £200M – equivalent to £44/ha. And this illustrates quite well where these tax breaks are flowing. They are not, to any great extent, flowing to the small struggling family farm. They are benefitting the big landowners and large arable farmers. But they are also being priced in, by the agricultural suppliers (of chemicals, machinery) and by the retail buyers. I suspect that a fair chunk of that £2.4Bn a year is going to the likes of Bayer and Tesco.

None of this provides the sort of public benefit that the new Agricultural Policy Michael Gove has established, is seeking to create. While Brexit might be a nightmare for all sorts of other reasons, this is a great opportunity to open up the tax maze to scrutiny and explore how it could be reformed. Reforms that could mean this substantial amount of money is channelled towards farmers who manage their land sympathetically for wildlife, adopt the principles of agro-ecology, and produce the food we desperately need more of in our diet, like pulses, fruit and vegetables.

Posted in agriculture, Chris Packham, People Need Nature, peoples manifesto for wildlife, public goods, tax reform | Tagged , | 8 Comments

A New Hope?

 

There have been very few days recently when politics have provided good news of a morning, but this morning is definitely one of them. The EU elections – which were always going to be a proxy for another go at working out what kind of a relationship the UK (specifically England) wants with the rest of Europe – have delivered that news.

 

And the news is…that with the strongly pro-EU Scotland and Northern Ireland still to declare, England and Wales voted  in favour of pro-EU parties, with a vocal minority supporting pro Hard Brexit parties, UKIP and The Brexit Party. In reality of course the strong turn-out for UKIP in 2014 was ported across the the Brexit Party, as UKIP disappeared off into Nazi territory. And a smallish percentage of Tories (and an even smaller percentage of Labour voters) joined them.

The big winners (again this is just England and Wales) were the Lib Dems and Greens. I have to say I was delighted to see Molly Scott-Cato returned in the South-West. But for them to be joined by so many others, in the most surprising of places (East of England and West Midlands being perhaps the greatest surprises) is particularly uplifting (and even more so when you look at how well they did across the EU). As expected the Lib Dems did particularly well, soaking up many votes from pro-remain Labour voters.

Yes The Brexit Party won most MEPs, though with only a modest increase on UKIP’s outing last time. But as I wrote previously this election was not really about MEPs going to the European Parliament and being politicians there. I mean, seriously. Is multi-millionaire property developer Richard Tice going to spend his year shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg, sitting in frankly tedious meetings arguing over arcane policy questions? Of course he isn’t. I predict that very few of the Brexit Party MEPs will turn up in Brussels more than a handful of times. James Glancy will I hope prove to be an exception there. Hopefully the Living Marxism/Spiked online’s faux Libertarian Claire Fox will never turn up.

But either way, the Brexit Party was not formed to act as a serious political party in the European Parliament. It was formed to create pressure – mainly on the Tory party. And, now that Theresa May has finally been forced out, the pressure for a Crash-Out Brexit is going to be applied, in a very focused manner, on each of the prospective party leader candidates. This, coupled with the likelihood that at least some of those who have returned from the UKIP camp to be Tory party members again, will have done so in time to be able to vote in that leadership election (I believe 6 months is the cut-off), means that the Brexit Party/LeaveEU/LeaveMeansLeave and all the other fronts they have created, will have a big influence over who the next Tory party leader is. You could argue that the sole purpose of TBP was to drag the Tory party further to the right.

Assuming the Tories do indeed appoint a pro Crash-Out Brexit leader  – and I really don’t want to think too hard about who it might be as I’m still feeling quite upbeat – their first test will be to form a Government. The DUP will no doubt feel happy to take another £billion to form some sort of coalition or support deal. But this is where it gets very messy for the Tories. Because there is already a significant caucus forming around some senior figures (who will be on the backbenches) like former chancellor Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd, who have already stated very clearly that they will oppose a Crash-Out No Deal Brexit. I have a seen a figure of 60 Tory MPs who have already committed to opposing this course of action. Which makes it highly debatable as to whether a pro Crash-Out Brexit Tory leader could even form a Government. So a General Election seems increasingly likely.

In such an election, as the Tories move further and further to the right to stop The Brexit Party, the centre ground is left open. And it needs no crystal ball to see the Lib Dems, fresh from their successes in both the Local and Euro Elections, rushing in to fill it – who knows some of the more reasonable Tory MPs might have already joined them, as well as Change UK. It’s difficult to see the Greens capitalising on their successes in either the Local or Euro Elections, with our ridiculous first past the post system, but in a few key constituencies they might do well.

Which leaves the big unresolved question: Labour. Labour has suffered horribly as a result of its ambiguity over Europe. Nobody believed their claim that they could get a better deal out of the EU – and of course the overwhelming majority of both Labour MPs and its constituency, voted for remain. Senior Labour leaders are now breaking cover. Both Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell have come out this morning and last night in support of a second referendum. But this would be unnecessary if a General Election is coming. It’s what goes in Labour’s manifesto which counts. Labour can put forward as many radical and exciting ideas on tax justice, on land reform, on a green new deal, as they like. But unless they have a clear position on our future relationship with the EU, they will be toast.

Personally I think their position should be this:

1. To honour the result of the referendum, while recognising that it was fundamentally flawed, both in the plan and the execution.

2. To leave the EU but stay in the single market and customs union.

3. To launch a high level independent judicial inquiry (equivalent to the Mueller Inquiry) into the cheating that happened during the 2016 Referendum.

4. To immediately commence negotiations with the EU with a view to rejoining within five years, subject to significant reform. Reform would have to include the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and a severe clamp down on the power of corporate lobbying within the EU, but the list would be much longer.

I would love for us to just be able to say “you know what, let’s just forget the past 3 years and pretend it never happened.” and somehow magically we would be back in the EU. That is not going to happen. The country is still more or less split 50/50 and the longer that continues, the greater opportunity it provides for populists like Farage to take advantage.

 

 

Posted in 2019 Euro elections | Tagged | 5 Comments

Euro Elections provide yet another opportunity to give Government a kicking

Brexit seems to throw up one crazy thing after another.

After having been told repeatedly by Prime Minister May that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, we now find ourselves in a position where not only has no deal been rejected by Parliament, but May’s own deal (which I’ll leave to you to decide whether it’s a bad or good deal) has also been rejected. Parliament appears to have collectively decided that no deal is just as bad as the only deal on the table, and rejected both.

While Westminster’s Parliament is in paralysis the other Parliament, the European one, is holding its five yearly elections. These were the elections we weren’t supposed to be taking part in. But thanks to the Government and Parliament being incapable of delivering the Brexit that would have obviated our inclusion, we now find ourselves having to take part.

It seems pretty unlikely that the MEPs elected in the forthcoming Euro elections will be in the European Parliament for their full five-year stint. Equally, it seems very unlikely that Brexit will magically happen before June 30th, thus meaning they don’t take up their seats at all. Those MEPs will be in the European Parliament, for an unknown amount of time. They will probably not be able to take any real part in the work of the Parliament, since no-one will know whether they will be there from one week to the next. Will they be treated as pariahs, or “zombie” MEPs, found wandering the corridors of Brussels, or congregating in local restaurants. It’s difficult to say.

And what no-one can doubt, aside from a few zealots, is this: The fact we are even taking part in these elections, three years after having voted to leave the EU, shows what a mess Brexit has been, right from the very start of this messy path David Cameron laid out for us all in 2015.

Now, the Euro elections are an opportunity for us as voters – to do what? Electing MEPs seems like the least useful aspect of the election, given that we have no idea whether they will even take up their seats. These elections are above all symbolic – and for many they will be either ignored, or used to convey a message – to Government. For Remains parties like the Greens and LibDems they will act as a proxy second referendum. For the Brexit Party, they are an opportunity for the electorate to give a massive kick up the bum of the government towards the hard Brexit.

I spoke to James Glancy, prospective Brexit Party candidate for the South-West of England. Glancy is a decorated war veteran and ardent conservationist, working for Veterans for Wildlife – a charity which trains veterans to help wildlife rangers protect wildlife – projects such as the Loziba wilderness project in South Africa. Glancy is also very involved with promoting the conservation of sharks, including on a Discovery channel TV programme.

I asked Glancy if he was officially the Brexit party’s environment spokesperson, but he explained that TBP only has one policy, which is that the UK leaves the EU now, without a deal. (This was slightly contradicted by Nigel Farage at the weekend when he described briefly what TBP’s immigration policy was. But there is no manifesto.)

Glancy is clearly concerned about the environmental crisis we find ourselves in – he spoke supportively of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK. He also reflected on how bad the EU had been for wildlife, citing the CAP and CFP as examples. I asked him whether he was bothered about Nigel Farage’s deep scepticism of human-induced climate change, but he was keen to emphasise that TBP is a broad church. (That is certainly true!).

Four TPB candidates emanate from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which veered from far-left to hard-right, as it morphed from RCP via Living Marxism, into Spiked Online.  This group is notoriously anti-environmental and contemptuous of concerns about climate change . Spiked’s leading writer and activist Brendan O’Neill even attacked Greta Thunberg’ autism. Glancy shrugged off these concerns, but did note that “Claire (Fox) and I locked horns on the environment” when they first met. Former RCP activist Claire Fox, a regular on the BBC’s Moral Maze programme, is standing as an MEP for the new Brexit party so it sounds like this will make the development of a common Brexit Party manifesto for the environment a challenging project.

Glancy has plans to make a positive contribution to EU politics if he is elected, particularly on shark conservation.  Will he be given the chance though? Farage has used his membership of the Fisheries Committee as a propaganda pulpit. But in one three-year period he only turned up to one out of 42 meetings and still fails to understand how the CFP affects overfishing in UK waters, as opposed to UK policies on selling quota, and its long history of promoting over-fishing.

But more fundamentally what is the purpose of TBP in the European Parliament? To mount an insurrection from within? This doesn’t seem like Glancy’s style or his motivation (even if he was in the Special Forces). His vision is of the UK providing moral leadership to the world in environment and climate action, redirecting a big slug of International Development funding towards the environment and climate action – he is keen to see a new flotilla of Royal Navy ships to tackle overfishing and protecting ocean wildlife.

Glancy is very enthusiastic about rewilding (I spoke to him just days after we had both been at the Knepp Estate) and wants to see far fewer sheep on the hills, to encourage more nature to return there. Ironically a no deal Brexit, which is what TBP is campaigning for, will no doubt help this happen, albeit in a chaotic manner. Crashing out without a deal will mean lamb exports collapse because around a quarter of all lambs produced here are for export, mostly to the EU. At least in the short term, there will be far more animals on the hills. But once they are gone a no-deal Brexit would see the sheep farming industry  contracting to a much smaller scale.

Interestingly Glancy is not in favour of a no-deal Brexit: “I don’t want a no deal Brexit. We need a free trade deal and agreements to cooperate on a range of areas.”

What of the other parties standing in the elections? Both Labour and the Conservatives are going to be punished by the electorate, as they were in the recent local elections, though for different reasons. Many Conservative voters feel they have been betrayed by their party for failing to deliver Brexit and they will vote TBP. Labour continues with its “constructive ambiguity” policy, seeking to appeal to pro-Brexit Labour leave voters in the Midlands, Wales and the North, while simultaneously appearing sympathetic to its mainly pro-remain supporters elsewhere. It may well lose voters to both the TBP on one side and the Libdems/Greens on the other.

UKIP have disappeared off into the realms of the far-right, are definitely not worth mentioning.

Which leaves the Lib Dems, The Greens and the newly-formed Independent group or TIG.

The TIGgers have also given very little away as far as their policies concerned, aside from wanting the UK to remain in the EU. Both the Libdems and Greens are unambiguously pro-remain – and it will be very interesting to see whether they succeed in garnering a significant proportion of the vote between them, but in such a way that they split the vote and end up with fewer MEPs.

But then, as this isn’t really about electing MEPs, that’s not so much of an issue.

There’s been some talk about tactical voting on the remain side, and a campaign set up by Gina Miller is seeking to tell people who they should vote for in each region. Bizarrely they are telling people to vote Libdem everywhere in England. I find this bizarre and unhelpful, especially when the Greens did so well during the Local Elections, and in the 2014 election.

If this election is about sending messages and not MEPs, then the combined vote of TIG, the LibDems and Greens is the important number for those favouring a confirmatory second referendum, for example. And our green MEPs, people like Molly Scott-Cato and Keith Taylor, have been working very hard in the European Parliament on environmental issues.

 

 

Posted in 2019 Euro elections, Brexit, Nigel Farage, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Shooting Birds and Biased Reporting – a tale of two BBC presenters

I can’t honestly remember a time when environmental stories have been so high up the news agenda-  and for such a long period. Perhaps, it’s a reaction to the never-ending and increasingly tedious coverage of Brexit  – which suddenly disappeared as the Easter recess began.

It was certainly excellent timing on the part of the Extinction Rebellion movement to commence its operations (mostly in London but elsewhere too) immediately Parliament had shut down, though I suspect it can only have been a coincidence. For whatever reason, the press jumped on Extinction Rebellion as the story to cover. And as the occupation of iconic landmarks such as Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Oxford Circus continued, day after day, the coverage seemed to increase, broaden and even on occasion start to delve into the underlying issues.

Of course there was a great deal of backlash and anti-environmental sentiment on show particularly from the hard right  – and this reached a climax, almost as though a thunderstorm had built to the point where lightning inevitably struck, as the schoolgirl climate activist, Greta Thunberg, arrived in London for her speech to Parliamentarians, before which she had addressed the assembled crowds at Marble Arch.

Most egregious of those attacks came from author and Spectator columnist Helen Dale – a sort of female Aussie Toby Young if you will. She suggested Thunberg be interviewed by Andrew Neil, and that Neil should seek to use Thunberg’s Aspergers status as a way of attacking her and cause her to “have a meltdown on national telly.” As far as I know (Neil has blocked me on twitter) he has not yet condemned this appalling suggestion. As he wears his deep and very public scepticism of human-induced climate change like a badge of honour, it’s reasonable to assume he would relish the thought.

Acting outside the law

As the Extinction Rebellion melted away, it was replaced, albeit at a lower but still significant level of coverage, by a more “birdy” story. New enviro-legal kids on the block, Wild Justice, had made its first kill. Legal Action by WJ, recently set up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay (all hopefully familiar names to regular readers, viewers and listeners of Lush content) had created a last minute panic inside the headquarters of Natural England and Defra, their boss department.

WJ’s case was that Natural England had been unlawfully applying the General Licences under which landowners, gamekeepers, farmers and even conservation organisations, cull wild birds for a variety of reasons. Without going into the details (which you can read on the Wild Justice website or Mark Avery’s blog) Natural England had been acting outside the law it is required to regulate and enforce, as indeed had some of those who had been killing birds under the Licences, though there is nothing to suggest that they had been doing so deliberately.

Now Wild Justice had expected Natural England to carry out the necessary changes to its procedures such that next year’s General Licences would be issued (or not) in such a way that they met the requirements of the law. Instead, Natural England announced that this years’ Licences, which were already being used, were to be revoked, almost instantaneously.

Naturally there was uproar from the farming and shooting lobby. The National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Countryside Alliance were first out of the starting blocks (as always) and much sturm und drang followed.

Radio Four’s Today programme hosted a discussion between Mark Avery and the Countryside Alliance’s Baroness Mallelieu – a Labour peer who is also a member of the Exmoor hunt and Staghounds. Mallelieu appealed to the soft hearts of R4 listeners by describing how newly born lambs will now have their eyes pecked out by rapacious crows and ravens, because farmers will no longer be able to shoot them. More interestingly, she suggested that NE had been acting unlawfully for years because “some paperwork got lost” in the hand-over from the old team at the Ministry of Agriculture. This is quite an argument coming from a distinguished QC and she didn’t sound as though she had even persuaded herself.

Conspiracy or cock-up?

What is clear though is that Natural England does nothing without it being signed off by Defra, so if the paperwork was lost, it was lost by Defra not NE. Had someone at Defra thought that this would be a good “green Gove” story ahead of what look like disastrous Local Elections for the Tory Party?

Conversely, had someone somewhere thought this would make a truly disastrous start to Tony Juniper’s reign as Natural England chair since he started his new job on the very same day as the story broke?

It’s always more sensible to assume cock-up rather than conspiracy (a corollary to Occam’s Razor) – and it may not be a coincidence that Natural England lost its long-standing and highly effective Legal Director a few weeks ago. That of course hasn’t stopped the pro-hunting press from spotting that Tony Juniper and Wild Justice Director Mark Avery know each other, and concocting a conspiracy from that little-known, but very public, fact.

Natural England is keeping its head down and not doing any press work – but as we know they don’t have a press office anyway, so how could they? Defra released a vague response, ostensibly from Natural England, on the Defra media blog.  After that Defra felt it necessary to publish a further piece, including a hint of mea culpa from the acting chair at the time the decision was made, Lord Blencathra. Given his close links to the Countryside Alliance, you would think he might have anticipated (or even phoned a friend to find out) how this would play out. What is clear is that Natural England is taking the flak, and Defra is using them as cover.

Impartiality at the BBC?

Someone else who is taking the flak for this is Chris Packham. Packham receives constant attention from the shooting lobby which has been running a long campaign trying to get him sacked from his roles at the BBC. Three years ago, in an earlier echo of the Greta Thunberg attack I mentioned above, I wrote about some in the shooting industry who were seeking to exploit Chris’ Aspergers status as part of that campaign, and the support they received from the hunting lobby within Parliament. A change.org petition created by a member of the shooting industry has garnered over 100,000 signatures, demanding the BBC sack Packham for his work with Wild Justice. The Countryside Alliance thinks that Chris’ campaigning outside his BBC work mean he shouldn’t be given a platform by the BBC.

So far, the BBC has rejected these complaints on a number of grounds. Chris is very careful (bar the occasional slip) in keeping his views on wildlife, and campaigns he’s involved with, like Wild Justice or the People’s Manifesto, separate from his work for programmes like Spring or Autumnwatch. Whereas the more unsavoury end of the hunting lobby turn his gate into a gamekeeper’s gibbet.

It got me thinking – is there anyone else, who has a high profile job with the BBC where they are active politically outside their BBC work. And yes, you may have guessed who I was thinking of – the BBC journalist and broadcaster, Andrew Neil.

Neil has a very important role within the BBC’s political output, fronting political and current affairs programmes such as Politics Today. He interviews politicians from across the political spectrum – and in doing so gives them airtime and a platform. Nigel Farage for example has been interviewed by Andrew Neil many times. Neil is renowned for his aggressive questioning technique. It’s interesting to note how many of Neil’s utterances, from his interviews, get picked up and repeated in a glowing manner by the right-wing media – places like the Daily Express or gutter-press website Guido Fawkes.

Some commentators have suggested that Neil expresses a particular political view via his presence on the BBC – Scottish blog Bella Caledonia detailed Neil’s antics in light of his attack on Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who had done so much to reveal the dark story of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Brexit and Trump. And it’s hard to avoid observing Neil’s glee at the prospect that Brexit would seriously damage the EU project, in this piece to camera shortly after the Referendum vote.

Neil chairs the board of the company which owns the right-wing magazine The Spectator and other magazines. The Spectator in particular publishes writers which challenge and attack climate change science (a view Neil supports); who sympathise with islamophobia (Roger Scruton for example, who was sacked from his Government advisory role for his repugnant views); who endorse far-right regimes such as Viktor Orban’s illiberal authoritarian democracy in Hungary, and who support a hard Brexit. Neil was Boris Johnson’s boss when Johnson edited The Spectator. Neil is also a big fan of the dark-funded corporate lobbyist “think tank”, the Adam Smith Institute.

Neil’s work for the BBC apparently sits comfortably within its editorial policy, though this is increasingly criticized even by former insiders, for pandering to the far-right. But he brazenly uses his twitter feed to endorse his hard-right political views, which have not changed since his enthusiastic support for Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and 80s.

As former Newsnight presenter and LBC radio commentator James O’Brien said; “If [Neil], who publishes Nazi apologists, racists, climate change deniers, homophobes, misogynists and disaster capitalists in The Spectator, is considered impartial enough to present BBC political programmes, it’s unsurprising that his pocket fascists frequently appear on them.”

Have there been orchestrated efforts to investigate or challenge Neil’s role as one of the leading political commentators on the BBC; and on the basis of his many outside interests and his very robust views on politics? No: where complaints have been made, they have been unceremoniously batted away – indeed the BBC editors, and even their complaints department,  leap to his defence.

It seems only Chris Packham is subject to this degree of vilification, for what he does, in the name of wildlife, beyond his BBC role.

You can show your support for Chris by signing this petition calling for the BBC to keep him on.

Posted in Andrew Neil, BBC, Chris Packham, countryside alliance, Natural England | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

A Net Loss for Nature

netted hedgerows. ©Stewart Abbott

An extremely unpleasant new craze is sweeping the nation: It involves wrapping up lengths of hedgerow or even mature trees in netting. The idea is that once a hedge or tree has been netted, birds are unable to nest there. Why would anyone want to stop Blackbirds, Robins or Blue Tits from making nests?

Once a bird is sitting on a nest it gains legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. It cannot be moved, nor can the hedge or tree, except under licence, during the nesting season. So, if you want to, say, build a new housing estate on land which is currently criss-crossed by hedgerows, and you don’t want to be delayed by some pesky nesting birds, then wrap the hedges up to keep them bird-free.

Can anyone see any problems with this cunning plan? What about birds that become trapped in the netting. What about Hedgehogs which might stumble into the net and become stranded, unable to move; vulnerable to being eaten by predators, or just starving. What about bats – which are much more strictly protected (under European Law) than most birds. Yes bats do roost in hedgerows and in trees – and when they emerge from hibernation, just around now, they will find themselves trapped on the inside of a large net.

This appears to be a new thing for this year but nets have appeared across the country, as this google map shows. After some fairly widespread coverage on social media, and in the news media (e.g. here and here), a petition was launched on the government petition website. That petition has now garnered over 200,000 signatures (as of 3/4) and local people are taking action by removing netting and saving trapped wildlife, though some birds have been found dead in the nets. The petition calls for the activity to be banned. The RSPB, whose job it is to protect wild birds, had initially taken a meeker position, asking developers (nicely) to think carefully before they put nets over hedges and trees. Subsequently, they and CIEEM brought out a stronger joint statement calling for the use of netting to stop (except under exceptional circumstances).

Vox populi vox dei?

I find I’m unable to watch the BBC TV news any more. Every single time I’ve turned it on (often accidentally) there’s someone being interviewed in a high street, usually near some market stalls. Does every town have market stalls or does the BBC news team scout out towns with them so they know where they must film? Or perhaps the whole thing is a set next to the new Albert Square one. Invariably the vox pops are from people saying “we’re fed up with the politicians …. We just need to Leave the EU NOW!” Or worse, dark accusations of betrayal. How is it that the interviewer never asks “and would that mean staying in the Customs Union, creating a new Customs partnership, do we stay in the Single Market, what about Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement?”  All those knotty questions that nobody ever asked the public before the Referendum vote. Or perhaps the interviewer did ask those questions and received a blank look, or a reply that was not broadcastable.

From the Government all we hear is the tired old cliché “we must respect the Will of the People” and “this was the largest vote this country has ever seen” and dark mutterings about civil unrest, if the Vote is not delivered in the most extreme way possible. But this is simply not true. The Referendum vote was not the largest vote in UK history (General Elections have had larger total turnouts). And while more people voted to leave than remain, the electorate split 37% leave, 35% remain and 28% did not vote. Further, there was significant disenfranchisement, particularly of younger voters (and UK citizens who had lived abroad for more than 15 years), thanks to changes to the way the Electoral Roll is updated, introduced by David Cameron – remember him? And of course the 3 million EU nationals resident in the UK, who had no say at all on their future.

I must admit I have yet to see or hear a Vox Pop with a member of the public from the 28%; perhaps they might say “no I didn’t vote in the Referendum. I found the arguments on both sides very confusing, so I didn’t feel I could make a decision.”  Perhaps they were right, because we now discover, nearly three years later, that the arguments were very confusing – so confusing that the Cabinet itself cannot agree on what the Referendum meant, nor can the Government, nor can Parliament. And certainly not the public. Nobody can agree on what the decision to leave the EU actually meant, nor how it was going to be achieved. Perhaps the electorate weren’t asked the right question.

Pretty much everyone can agree that the negotiations with the EU have been monumentally mishandled from the outset; and most agree that the very real prospect of leaving the EU without any deal would be catastrophic for the country. And yet, despite Sir Oliver Letwin and others’ best efforts to achieve some sort of consensus in Parliament over a way forward, a no deal Brexit is still on the cards. With this threat in mind, nearly 6 million people have signed a petition calling on the Government to revoke Article 50. It’s worth just reflecting for a moment on the sheer scale of this. I’m not saying all of those who signed would vote Labour, but the number of signatures is the equivalent of 46% of the total Labour vote in the 2017 General Election. Hundreds of thousands of people also marched in London last weekend calling for a People’s Vote – a second referendum. And this proposition – or at least a call for a ballot for the people to confirm any agreement that is voted through Parliament – almost achieved a majority in the indicative votes taken on the Match 26th, and may yet do so on the 1st April. By any standards, the scale of concern expressed by the public via the petition and march is very substantial. These are expressions of public sentiment, every bit as valid as the referendum – arguably more so given what we now know about how both Leave (that’s Vote Leave and the Farage/Banks outfit leave dot EU) campaigns cheated and gamed the electoral system.

A cynical ploy

Compare this with Nigel Farage’s March to Leave. This was supposed to be an army marching on London from Sunderland. Farage was going to show the Westminster elite the strength of feeling among the leave-voting public. In truth, turned into a bit of a farce. Some days have seen just 60 people walking, others perhaps 150. Farage has turned up for a photo-opportunity a couple of times, but is mostly absent. He’s abandoned the walkers to their fate. Fortunately, they have had very nice weather after the first couple of days and I respect the members of the public who have turned out to do this walk for what they believe in, however much I may disagree with them.

Respect is in very short supply though. Consider how the Government reacted to the nearly 6 million who signed the Revoke Article 50 petition. I did my own Vox Pops  – this is how the Government’s response was described; “condescending…. mealy-mouthed… they talked down to us like children.”

And how will the Vote Leave demonstration – planned originally as a celebration of us leaving on the 29th, now more likely to be an expression of anger and perceived betrayal –  play out? Hopefully not with any violence. (Update – yes, there was violence.)

It does feel though that our democracy, which we have come to take for granted, is feeling vulnerable. It is a fragile thing. It can easily be damaged or destroyed. Like those birds struggling to escape from the netted hedgerows.

And history may also conclude that Brexit was also a cynical ploy to graft private profit, by ignoring the laws which the rest of us abide by, but which apparently don’t apply to everyone.

This article first appeared on Lush Times

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