Nature Risk – Why this is important to the global economy

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Half a century on and we still mark it, because the need has never been greater.

Our species has an unending appetite for accruing wealth and material goods. In providing many of the products and services that we all buy and consume, many of our businesses depend on what the Earth provides for us.

Earth gives us everything we need. It keeps giving. And we keep taking. More and more of us, all wanting more. It’s not really been a problem until recently. In fact, we’ve not even really thought much about it until recently. But the rate at which we’ve been taking what the Earth gives us is greater than the rate at which everything is replenished. As well as gobbling up its assets, what we call its “natural capital”, we’re also littering it with all the stuff we don’t want and damaging it with the by-products of our industrious activities, the stuff we put onto the land and into the air.

We hear almost daily about deforestation and the collapse of fisheries, about the loss of pollinating insects, freshwater habitats, and the topsoil in which our crops grow. And whilst many of the headlines focus solely on climate change, the loss of nature goes hand in hand.

Natural capital can be thought of as the stocks of natural ecosystems that yield a flow of ecosystem goods or services into the future. Think of a forest. From forests we get a flow of many different goods and services such as timber, foods, water flow regulation, carbon storage, and recreational activities. The forest is natural capital.

Ecosystem goods and services can basically be defined as “the benefits provided to human society by ecosystems”. They flow from stocks of natural capital.

Ecosystem goods are the tangible, material products that are produced by ecosystems, and they have direct market values.

Ecosystem services are the intangible processes and functions of ecosystems that directly and indirectly benefit humans, but don’t have direct, tangible market values.

We basically get 4 types of ecosystem services from nature:

  1. Provisioning services that give us our food, water, medicines, and materials.
  2. Regulating services that make sure we can breathe good clean air, drink safe water, minimise the impact of diseases, pests, erosion, and natural hazards, and that our crops are pollinated.
  3. Supporting services that make sure that all other types of service are possible.
  4. Cultural services that give us all the non-material, less tangible benefits that flow from ecosystems and contribute to human well-being, be they recreational, spiritual, or aesthetic.
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Source: WWF’s Living Planet Report 2016

So, what’s the problem?

Economic growth has come at a heavy cost to the planet’s natural systems. We all rely on natural capital – it’s our atmosphere, our oceans, our ecosystems, rivers, farmland, territorial waters, air, and minerals.  We depend on the goods and services this natural capital provides. They are essential to civilization. They are the food in our cupboards. The clothes we’re wearing. The water we drink. The things we make or build. The places we go and enjoy. The medication we take. The air we breathe. They pollinate our crops, control pests, regulate our climate, and provide and filter our water.

But they are all typically unpriced which, at best, means they are economically under-valued, and many of the impacts we have on stocks of natural capital currently bear no cost.

None of this has really been a visible problem to date because our economies have been generally growing for decades as we’ve been converting large parts of our planet to maximise the flow of specific goods and services. We’ve been harvesting the planet’s resources without hitting its limits. It’s only around now that we are starting to see that limits have been reached and our consumption of resources has been greater than the rate of replenishment.

Have you heard about Earth Overshoot Day? It’s a specific day each year when our consumption of the planet’s resources is estimated to exceed the amount that the Earth replenishes over the course of a year. By the end of my first year of life, the overshoot day in 1970 was December 29th – we were only just taking more than the Earth could replace. But by the time I had turned 50 last year it was July 29th, meaning we need approximately 1.75 identical Earths just to replace what we consume.

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Earth Overshoot Day has its critics and it’s certainly a headline grabber, but it does articulate out impact on the planet in a context we can all understand.

Because we don’t traditionally put monetary value to what nature gives us, we find ourselves with a serious flaw in the economic logic on which the global economy is built. We have basically valued the products and services that we rely on from nature, which are derivatives, higher than the source of those products, which is natural capital.

“The source of wealth is the functional ecosystems. The products and services that we derive from those are derivatives. It’s impossible for the derivatives to be more valuable than the source. And yet, in our economy now, as it stands, the products and services have monetary values but the source – the functional ecosystems – are zero. So this cannot be true. It’s false. We’ve created a global economic institutions and economic theory based on a flaw in logic. So if we carry that flaw in logic from generation to generation we compound the mistake.” 

Dr. John D. Liu, “Green Gold”, 2012.

(Picture source: Source: Google Images)

The World Economic Forum reported this year in their Global Risks Report, for the first time, that the top 5 global risks all come from a single category: the environment. They are:

  1. Extreme weather.
  2. Climate action failure.
  3. Natural disasters.
  4. Biodiversity loss.
  5. Human-made environmental disasters.
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Source: World Economic Forum

The current COVID-19 pandemic also moves a 6th global risk up the charts. Intact nature gives us a buffer from all the nasties in the wilderness. But we are increasingly going where we’ve not been much. We’re bringing things out that we haven’t brought out much. We’re eating things we haven’t previously eaten much. And we’re forcing animal life to seek out new homes after we’ve destroyed their existing ones. Our destruction and conversion of nature provides wonderful new opportunities for these nasties to come into contact with more of us for the first time. When one element in a complex and interconnected ecosystem becomes destabilised, all sorts of unintended consequences serve to remind us of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

In January, the World Economic Forum also produced a wonderful report with the help of PWC called “Nature Risk Rising”. Their research has found that more than half of the world’s total GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services. That’s $44 trillion of economic value generation. Nature decline and climate change basically mean that all of this GDP is exposed to all of the risks associated with this loss of nature and the impacts of climate change.

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Source: World Economic Forum

If we look at regional economies in this report, we find that between about 46% and 60% of those economies are highly or moderately dependent on nature and the goods and services that flow from it.

In the UK alone, our own Office for National Statistics calculated as far back as 2011 that our national stock of natural assets had an annual economic value of £1.6 trillion.

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Source: ONS

But should we be putting a price on nature? Does nature not have a purely intrinsic value? Critics argue that valuing nature in economic terms can put corporate and investor interests over human needs, exposing nature and biodiversity to the unpredictable and turbulent behaviour of markets in which values constantly change over short and long timescales.

The reality is that we are part of a liberal, market driven economy whether we like it or not, and every one of us contributes to an ever-growing consumer demand for goods and services. The monetary valuation of nature and the ecosystem goods and services it provides at least meaningfully articulates the importance of nature’s benefits to humans in terms and metrics that are meaningful to businesses, economists, and policy makers.

Given the prevailing global economic system, valuing ecosystem services in terms of their monetary value should ensure their conservation and sustainable use, although this should also be accompanied by non-monetary valuations, ethical, and moral considerations.

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The limits to natural capital and the services that flow from stocks of it mean that taking nature for granted can have serious economic consequences as well as existential ones. Our global economy, our finances, our food, drink, fuel, shelter, our health and well-being, and our stability are wholly dependent on the nature that we’ve been particularly efficient at destroying.

Of course, wherever there is risk, there is opportunity. By understanding our dependencies on nature, businesses can mitigate those risks and identify and create new value by working more closely with natural capital in a sustainable way. There is an important and exciting role for businesses to play in this journey and innovation that has the potential to truly drive change.

Happy Earth Day 2020.

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Source: Google Images

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Pelagic terrors in Victoria’s warm embrace

I love being next to the ocean.

I love being on the ocean.

But I have a mortal fear of being in the ocean.

It’s dark and brooding. There are monsters, myths, and the shadows of unknown terrors. Of all those who go into it, slightly fewer come out of it. And I confidently swim only slightly further than a small, spherical nugget of lead can. And even that’s assuming conditions are flat calm.

Beneath the bustle of the water taxis, yatchs, sea planes, and ferries to and from the USA, the waters of the Inner Harbour of Victoria, British Columbia are clear. Swarms of juvenile fish shimmer around the legs of pontoons where starfish of various shapes and shades of purple, red, green, and brown clamber rudely over clusters of mussels, barnacles, and sea anemones of differing sizes and colours.

I have been lucky in my relationship with Victoria. She has welcomed me with warmth and Autumn sunshine into her inner harbour each September for the last few years, visiting for an annual week of business meetings at a harbour front software company. The Pacific North West is rich in vistas and wildlife and Victoria, at the southern tip not just of Vancouver Island, but also of British Columbia and Canada itself, is a perfect doorway into it. 

Ahead of each visit I have routinely promised myself that, this time, I will explore the waters close up. By kayak. And like a scaredy squirrel, I have bottled out of it each time, failing absolutely to pluck up the courage to overcome the irrational fear of ending up wetter than planned. Until the last visit.

This time, instead of just the usual pre-trip promise to myself, I had hatched a cunning plan. I had not only talked a colleague into joining me for a 3 hour guided paddle out of the harbour and up the coast, but had gone ahead and pre-booked and paid for it from afar, having first checked all the reviews of previous clients for any evidence of even mild jeopardy. After a 19 hour trip and blessed with an 8 hour timezone lag, we wandered rather early out along the David Foster Harbour Pathway, through the park at Laurel Point, and down onto the floating boardwalk of Fisherman’s Wharf to where Kelp Reef Adventures ply their trade in “active kayak tours“. “Adventure” and “active”. Two words that together in the context of the words “sea”, “on”, and “in” don’t really gel well for me.

Fisherman’s Wharf is a floating village, although not a very big one. It is, however, fascinating. There are 3 streets of houses of differing colours and quirks, a water taxi rank, some food shacks, a fish monger, public toilets, a yacht marina, and, at the far end, a rustic collection of apparently sea worthy fishing boats and other small, aging commercial craft of unclear purposes but clearly hoarding a whole load of stories to tell. Belted kingfishers sit squatly on wharf pillars, whilst great blue herons stand motionless in the shallows over by the shoreline, frozen and staring into the last minutes of the rising tide. In the blue and orange glare of a September sunrise, with the waters a glassy calm, it’s a sublime place to wait for the day to catch up before charging headlong into a new, late season day of outdoor adventure. 

Breaking the tranquility, my colleague’s phone rang and off he scurried to deal with some unplanned and not discussed family matter. And that meant it was just me. But all would be fine. I would not be alone, as I was booked on a guided tour. And that sounded pretty plural to me. There would surely be at least 10 keen novices despite the season drawing to a close that week. The morning tours are, as clearly stated on the web site, “the best time to venture out of the harbour for a tour of Victoria’s coastline and nearby islands because the wind is typically at its lightest”. September is also still the pupping season for harbour seals, so I was probably lucky to have secured a place at such short notice, on such a beautiful morning, so late in the season.

As it turned out, I was the first to arrive at the office at the end of the boardwalk. You see, jet lag can have its plus side. Having thoroughly read, absorbed, accepted, and signed a waiver, a disclaimer, a limit of liability, or whatever it was – which, for those of us with certain pelagic immersion anxieties, could have been more reassuringly called a Guarantee of Total Safety, Enjoyment, and Dryness – I was kitted out with all the kayaking equipment I would need. Pondering the lack of anyone else in the queue, the answer was  somewhere in my guide’s question as he shuffled the paperwork away and got straight to it: “As there’s just the 2 of us today, would you prefer to go out in solo kayaks, or double up?”. Had he not read of my limited, although not total lack of, experience? One double kayak, a safety briefing, and a brave face later, and we slid ourselves into the kayak on the “jetdock” – a small pontoon which allows kayaks to enter and exit the water without the need to get wet feet or, indeed, any version of unplanned, badly weight-distributed total immersion. And so off we dryly glided.

Victoria is a busy harbour. Even by the time we were setting off and getting into a gentle rhythm of paddle strokes, the ferry from Port Angeles in Washington State, the MV Coho, had already passed us on its first 90 minute international charge across the Salish Sea’s Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. The seaplanes buzzing back and forth between Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle had already done their early runs of the day, filling corporate meeting rooms with the first business travelers of the working week, and the quiet of the morning was constantly broken by the whining of propellers as the planes taxied out to their takeoff area in the Outer Harbour.

We were into a comfortable stride before we’d even paddled past the last of the wharves with their motley collection of boats. Rounding Shoal Point, where the Canadian Coast Guard has its local base, my guide turned the bow to face Esquimalt on the opposite shore across on the western side of the Outer Harbour. From amid the harbour ripples, a wave of nervous realisation ascended… We had to cross the seaplane takeoff and landing area. By kayak. If it’s possible to dash in a kayak, that’s what was needed – a quick sprint across an active and busy runway in a vessel that, compared to a seaplane, covers the distance painfully slowly and without the aid of rapidly spinning, kayak-chomping propeller blades. We brought the kayak to a halt and my paddling partner explained that “we need to have a good look all around the sky and check back to see what’s coming out of the Inner Harbour”. As we both scanned all around, up, down, and back down the takeoff zone, we cross-checked with each other and then it was a case of “Let’s go. Paddle briskly and in a straight line.” He probably does this 3 or 4 times a day, but I don’t. But calmly and swiftly we crossed, and I admit to being somewhat relieved once we’d successfully come out of the seaplane landing zone close to a rocky hump that was rather grandly titled Berens Island. There’s nothing like a dash in a low, narrow boat across an active airport runway to feel the vague exhilaration of having survived a game of “chicken”. I would do it again only 3 or so hours later.

As we turned to follow the rocky shoreline southwest past some islets and out towards the harbour boundary, an eyeful of scenery wrapped around me. Alongside the deep water cruise ship terminal of Ogden Point was the long breakwater pier. Beyond that the pale blue, smooth, shimmering waters of the Salish Sea and, across the Straits on the far coast, the snow capped peaks and ridges of the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. Huge cargo ships at varying distances across the Straits from us were making their lumbering ways out towards the open Pacific headed for such destinations as Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong. Rafts of small birds burst up from the surface to become clouds of whirring murrelets and auklets, whilst little flotillas of surf scoters, possibly freshly arrived from more northerly summer breeding grounds, simply drifted with little intent.

As well as his duel role of chief instructor and guardian angel, my guide was well versed in the wildlife of the area. We talked through the various cetaceans and pinnipeds that are common to the area; from the orca and humpbacks that cruise the Straits, to the California and Steller’s sea lions that clutter the islands a little further out around Race Rocks, noisily shouting at anything or anyone that has the audacity to pass too close. He told me a “friend of mine” story about a kayaker close to this spot being passed by a small group of orca to whom he shouted enthusiastically, only to have his bluff subsequently called when they turned back and headed straight for him. The bull in the group had accelerated and then broken away to the side at the last minute, showering the rather wide eyed kayaker with sea water in what he later claimed to be evidence of practical jokery in another sentient species. There are resident orca in these waters that feed mainly on salmon, and there are transient groups regularly cruising through that hunt seals and sea lions. Although there are no records of any wild orca ever intentionally hurting people, and certainly nothing more than a single bite recorded by a surfer in 1972, probably made in error, the transients do seem to be regarded as beasts around which to be a little more alert when sitting only centimetres above the interface between their world and ours. I suspect the encounter may have had a vaguely laxative effect.

Confidence growing, I became absorbed in conversation on the different bird species that were liberally scattered across all points of the compass – from cormorants commuting along the shoreline to red billed black oystercatchers waiting patiently in pairs on the islets for the tide to ebb. 

Skirting close to some of the islets, the waters became thick and viscous with sea lettuce and the fronds of bull kelp, these often breaking the surface with an alarming writhing, like sea serpents on the vague swell. An icon of the Pacific North West and a favourite habitat of the sea otters which have started to recolonise the coasts of the Salish Sea after decades of absence due to over hunting, the brown kelp fronds spread out across the surface from tough, rubbery stem-like stipes. They form under water forests and each frond can grow at an incredible rate of up to 30-60cm per day. Just like any forest, they form rich and complex ecological communities below the waves. And if bull kelp is good enough for so many other species, it must surely be worth a try? We fished a stem from the surface that had recently been cast adrift, hauled it across the deck of the kayak, and each took a bite, somewhat sceptically in my case. Unsurprisingly, it tasted salty but otherwise was mild in flavour, crunchy, and reminiscent of a rather flavourless radish.

Paddling on, we came up on a cluster of small, rocky, treeless islands separated by a channel and here we planned to put down an anchor to hold us in position whilst we had a bit of lunch. A commotion of splashing and snorting in the channel ahead, however, could not fail to capture our attention. About 30 metres off our bow and squaring off against each other, blissfully unaware of our approach, two male harbour seals were in the throes of dispute. It seemed the primary tactic was to splash intimidatingly and then roll away to the side and briefly below the surface. One of them turned a pair of large, wet, forlorn eyes towards us and quickly decided that this could be settled another day and they simultaneously slid down below, disputes on hold, and were gone. My guide had not seen such a fight this close before. I guess I was not in possession of exclusive rights to all of the day’s new experiences.

Under the watchful and possibly bemused gaze of a couple more harbour seals that were hauled out on the closest islet, no doubt the audience for the bout we’d unintentionally called time on, we set the anchor, secured our paddles across the deck, and tucked in to lunches that had been issued to us back at the wharf. A tidal pull dragged us to the extent of the anchor line, and an occasional slight lurch suggested the anchor was lifting and bumping in the swell that was caused by the current squeezing water into the channel. There is nothing a harbour seal likes more than apes in a kayak, parked up and stuffing their faces with cold meat sandwiches at the end of a long, yellow anchor line stretching out from the bow. Such lines are, of course, toys specifically provided for idle seals for nibbling, chewing, rolling on, and rubbing against. We soon welcomed our first visitor, although where from I couldn’t say. Dewy eyed and probably fighting against his or her better judgement, the seal came within touching distance between frolics around the anchor line, ducking down and under the kayak each time I stretched out a friendly hand, only to reappear and tug at the anchor line before again coming alongside for a closer look.

Lunch finished and, reluctantly, the bow inevitably was turned through 180 degrees and the route retraced in reverse. We had paddled along the coast for about an hour and a half. It felt wild and remote but, to be honest, I suspect we had not really gone far from the harbour entrance. If I’d been able to stand up, I could probably have seen the tops of executive suburban homes just beyond the rocky shoreline. But in that 90 minutes, however far we had voyaged, we had seen a buzzing, whirring, snorting, and splashing of nature. It was all around and in full three dimensions. Despite the proximity to Victoria, even a bald eagle had come out to welcome me to the waters of the Salish Sea, perched atop the skeleton of a dead tree just above the strand line.

In the paddling and the looking and the seeing of this brief adventure I had managed to suspend my fears of the deep, the dark, the shadows, the monsters, myths, and other assorted oceanic terrors that had so often stopped me from walking onto Fisherman’s Wharf, signing the waiver, and grabbing a paddle. I had avoided being in the ocean and found another reason why it’s so good to be on the ocean.      

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Skye Gold

Not far past the Cluanie Inn the A87 begins a long, winding decent down Glen Shiel past foaming burns, shiny wet crags, the Five Sisters of Kintail, and the lingering ghosts of Spanish, Jacobean, and British soldiers. At the bottom is where Loch Duich gently nuzzles a rather vague boundary between land and sea, giving northbound travellers their first glimpse of the coastline that they will follow all the way around to Kyle. It’s a lovely route, and I don’t mean to disrespect it in any way, but if you’re headed for Skye, stop.

Just past the little shop and fuel station as you enter Shiel Bridge, before you can even see the sea, there is one of those brown signs intended just for you, the traveller. It boldly points you to “The Glenelg Scenic Route”. And it is what it says. It’s accomplice is a sign with the black outline of a ship containing 2 cars below decks and pointing the 9 miles to Glenelg with the tempting words “Glenelg-Kylerhea”, “6 car”, and “Easter to October”.

Have you stopped? Good. Now take a left and follow the steep, twisting single-track road over the Bealach Ratangan and down towards Glenelg, bearing right at the weathered caravans and the sign that points assertively to the “FERRY”. 

The ferry is the MV Glenachulish and it’s unique in 2 ways: not only is it the last manual turntable ferry in Scotland (I guess there were once many more), but it is believed to be the only ferry crewed predominantly by border collies. They are, however, ably assisted by a small group of fairly able human deckhands.

The Glenachulish and its crew shuttle cars, bikes, and people back and forth across the 600 metres of the Kylerhea Narrows which separate the Isle of Skye from the mainland and through which lumpy, excitable water races up and down with the rising and falling of the tides at a swift and clearly visible 8 knots. Once the cars have been carefully squeezed on to the flat deck, instructions are barked, the human crew members jump to it and heave the turntable deck into line, and the dogs oversee the loosening of the ropes, thereafter assuming roles of wildlife spotters, calling out every curious seal on the short voyage.

Our destination was not far. Up the slipway on the Skye side, turn right at the top, stop after about 5 metres and wave-off the other 5 cars that are now heading up the road over Bealach Udal and on, no doubt, to Broadford and beyond. We have stopped, finally, at Tigh na Cidhe. The “House on the Slip”.

Kylerhea is a small, scattered community in a Special Area of Conservation. Perched on rocks at the feet of Beinn Bhuide and Beinne na Caillich, the house sits just 10 metres above the rocky high tide line and has sumptuous coastal views to the north and east across the narrows. The slopes above the house are wooded – thinly in places, quite dense in others, and host Forestry and Land Scotland’s fantastic otter haven, complete with a fully accessible hide from which to spot said otters as well as seals on the shoreline below.

At around 6pm each evening the ferry makes its last trip across the narrows back to the Glenelg side and an exhilarating quiet descends on Kylerhea. The next house along is a few hundred metres away up and around a bend. Apart from the occasional soul taking an evening stroll down to the slip, we are alone. On a sharp blue evening in mid-April, can there be a better place to start a week of intensive relaxing?

The visitors’ book is full of promise. The previous guests have reported seeing otters, dolphins, eagles, and after staking out the gravel area in front of the patio doors all week, a brief glimpse at around midnight on their final night of a pine marten. My hopes are raised. I’ve always been lucky with wildlife, especially otters, whales, and, oddly, moose. But a marten? I’ve seen martens frequently in France and Germany, specifically beech martens, but in the UK they are rare, nocturnal, and notoriously hard to spot. The note in the book offers a snippet of wisdom, however – peanut butter. It’s a golden temptation to many a shy denizen of the woods.

Wandering onto the slip at high tide the narrows are at their calmest and least stressed, being fully gorged to the brim as the waters pause and prepare for the about-turn that follows the brief period of slack. Although the day is waning, the sky is still a royal, vivid blue, untroubled by any atmospheric haze. The sinking sun is carelessly casting a golden tint and the water is sparkling its appreciation. I can hear no human sounds. There is a lone gannet patrolling the narrows. Apart from its black wing tips and creamy head, it’s a far cleaner, crisper white than the various gulls, herring, great black backed, and black headed, that are pottering about in the small bay below the house or just nonchalantly adorning various prominent rocks along the shoreline. A couple of hooded crows further along the shore are pulling apart something they’ve found discarded on the rocks, and to the south where the narrows open out into the Sound of Sleat, I can see little rafts of seabirds, probably guillemots and razorbills, and there are small squadrons of what I think are little auks whirring along with great purpose just above the surface of the water. A call, almost a parody of soundtracks from movies set in the remote wooded lake country of North America, betrays a diver, or loon. I cannot immediately see it, but it’s most likely the black throated species. A curlew is lamenting its own melancholia from somewhere along the shoreline, and a rowdy party of oystercatchers is piping loudly as they cross the narrows and come in to land close by.

As I turn back up the slip a short, loud hiss, as if a tyre valve has just allowed a brief escape of air as the pump is removed, interjects the quiet of the moment. I hear a couple more blows and then see them – a small group of bottlenose dolphins is gently heading up the Sound into the narrows. There are perhaps 5 of them and they seem to be really close to the shore and although not racing along, they do look purposeful like they are on a mission.

As a cooler feel to the evening descends, I have a sense that I may have spent all my wildlife sighting credits in the first 30 minutes of our week-long stay. I head back up to the house to pick up this intensive activity, a glass of Isle of Skye Brewing Company’s Skye Gold ale in hand, from the sofa that we’ve cunningly moved across the lounge to take full advantage of the floor-to-ceiling patio doors. Scanning the rocks along the shoreline with the field glasses, it doesn’t take long to spot seals both hauled out on the rocks and bobbing in the water, almost looking like they might be calling their friends to “come on into the water, the temperature’s just right”. They are just too far away to tell which species they are, but I suspect we’ll see plenty more of them and at much closer quarters as the week goes on.

I’m convinced that my wife has a built-in otter sensor. Within 10 minutes of settling in for the evening shift, she spots 2 otters silhouetted on a particularly prominent rock just along from the house. They are tearing a crab to pieces, and we are pretty sure that it’s a female with last year’s cub. In the increasingly golden evening, there are regular forays into the water to hunt.

About 2 metres in front of the patio doors is a suspiciously convenient, large, flat, tree-stump of a rock that sits like an island in the middle of the gravel area. We have already smothered it with peanut butter and a liberal scattering of peanuts, as advised by our kindly predecessors. Well, with only a week in hand, you’ve got to do everything feasible to boost the chances.

To ensure our eyes remain adjusted to looking beyond the indoor domain, the lights are off. The bedroom above has a full-length gable-end window and we’ve turned the bedside lights on which subtly flood the gravel area with just enough light to see to the edges where vegetation and darkness take over, and a slope leads down onto the rocky shore. Centre stage is Mount Peanut Butter.

It’s a still evening. There is no breeze to ruffle the gorse flowers or the still-leafless young birches, willows, and alders that are centrifuged around the edge of the garden. The only movement is a poor, wee timorous peanut butter thief. The mouse has either struck it lucky, or else has high expectations that each week brings new residents and a new jar of Magic Spread for Mice. With lightning efficiency, it zips straight out from somewhere below the patio doors, scales the rock, steals a lick and a peanut, and retreats. Over and over again.

Our expectations of marten success are low. But we’ve got beer, chocolate, and a background mix of Runrig, Capercaille, and The Waterboys. Hardly the ingredients of a testing experience.

After about 2 hours, just beyond the pool of visibility where the dark defends its front line against the light, a shadow zips up from the shore and stops, before disappearing down the side of the house. Was it a..? We’re not convinced what it was. It could just have been a brief wisp of wind ruffling the plants, a trick of light and shadow fooling the mind’s eye.

The shadow clearly has a well-rehearsed strategy. As we continue to scan the route the shadow took, it enters stage left. Being highly unlikely to have commando-crawled below the patio doors, it must have gone completely around the house.

We daren’t so much as breathe, let alone move a single muscle, as it bounds with unexpected confidence to the nut platter. Dark brown, with even browner paws, a dark and brushy tail, a very dog-like nose, erect teddy bear ears, and a signature creamy chest and throat. It is definitely, absolutely, no question, a pine marten. And it’s in no rush – this does not appear to be a grab-and-go sort of a marten. As the minutes pass, it becomes apparent that this is clearly a clean-your-plate sort of a marten. The mouse has, rather wisely, decided that there is a health and safety issue and is lying low somewhere. The marten spends around 15 minutes licking the stone clean, raises its head and has a good look all around before bounding off into the night.


Buzzing from the experience, I’m on my feet and up to the patio door, specifically the one that opens. As we all chat, whispered words and slow, careful movements thoroughly abandoned because that surely was it, experience over, the marten must have had the thought that it may have missed a morsel, perhaps tucked into a crack in the rock. It’s back and it really doesn’t seem to care that a whole family of 5 of the most dangerous beasts on the planet are squished up against a thin glass boundary a mere couple of metres away. I chance sliding the door open to share the same night air as our mustelid friend. The latch clicks painfully loudly, and I freeze. Marten does not. He, or perhaps she as I cannot tell, shows no concern. The patio door, perhaps the loudest in Scotland, swishes open with a “flee whilst you can” warning. Our friend pauses but measures the threat level as low and is soon back to licking his, or hers, seaside rock. I slowly, tentatively step outside. I am being watched, but there’s no apparent urgency to vacate the area. I am either misjudging the timidity of the species or underestimating the value of peanut butter. We are permitted to take a few snaps on cameras wholly inadequate for night time photography. Our friend’s comfort distance is about 2 metres, retreating a little if we step into the comfort zone, but quick to return if we step back out.

Our nocturnal diner returns every night of our stay, arriving earlier each night, not long after sunset, even cheekily spread-eagling against the patio door one evening as if to see if the wonder stuff is bulk-stored within. And word gets out, as later in the week there are 2 martens dining at the same time. A discussion around size and creamy chests leads us to suspect a third individual is also visiting. Our ethical, low salt, organic brand of the golden, nutty, spready stuff is clearly of a rare and fine vintage.

Each day, the MV Glenachulish glides back and forth across the narrows, casting 6-packs of cars and groups of cyclists onto each shore. As they head off up the road, I feel we are guardians of a secret. Of a little house at the end of a road, at the top of a slip, where human sounds and activities end at 6pm, 7pm in June, July, and August.

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To summon a moment

Late August in northern England often has more of a feel of Autumn about it than any sense of the often misremembered endless, hot summer days of school holidays of a childhood long gone. Fluffy clouds scud along on freshening breezes against a deeper, more chromatic blue than that of the hazier dog days of only a couple of short weeks ago. Blizzards of willowherb seeds dance and swirl to the whims and eddies of the wind. The swifts have departed, the family summer holiday has already shapeshifted into little more than a folder of photos, and household activity has turned towards the rapidly approaching return to school.

But if I close my eyes and rummage around a bit in my thoughts, I can imagine my way back to a moment I prepared earlier; a moment that I suspected I would want to summon again…

It’s a little after 7am. The sun is battling its way through the orchard across the road, gradually lighting up the garden as if a duvet of shadow was gradually being pulled back. It has already drenched the field, scrub, and woods on the hillside opposite with a golden cast and a more vivid palette of green and blue than the stronger, harsher light that will touch this scene later as the day progresses.

At home in North Yorkshire just days earlier I could sense nature rapidly quieting as breeding seasons draw to a close and moults get underway, driving birds to skulk in the undergrowth. Here, however, whilst breeding may also be over, the rabble-rousers of summer are still noisily calling and bickering their way through these earlier hours before the sun drives everyone to shade and inactivity.

The meadow on the other side of the wall from the garden has at least two green woodpeckers loudly mocking each other from respectable distances as they search through the grass and the thyme. There is a tapping from the orchard behind me, the instigator occasionally pausing from its carpentry and shouting a single sharp note to announce itself as a greater spotted woodpecker. In the line of trees on the far edge of the meadow, a group of magpies are arguing with each other in what look like Cyprus trees, and there are frequent harsh, hoarse admonishments from jays as they busy themselves in the oak trees either side. Wood pigeons clatter noisily amongst the branches and collared doves mourn in the day.

Atop the dry stone wall of the garden, and flitting between various shrubs and emitting sharp and repetitive agitations reminiscent of marbles clacking together, are a number of black redstarts; as common here as chaffinches are in my own garden. In the big pine tree in the garden’s centre there are a number of dull looking, busy little finches rummaging, squeaking, and jingling their way through the branches. Although not entirely sure, I’m guessing they are serins.

From the meadow and all across the lawn a symphony of stridulation and chirping is well underway as countless grasshoppers and crickets celebrate summer, whilst swallows and martins swoop, swirl, and twitter just metres above.

In the hillside field opposite a herd of heavy, white cattle is ambling along parallel contours, constantly pausing to tug and munch at clumps of vegetation in what looks to be a rather lovely, messy, and species rich meadow. They are Charolais and they are the signature breed of the region; the rolling landscape being liberally scattered with small herds of them, and only them. As I watch, they disturb four medium sized birds that suddenly fly up and make for the beech woodland just beyond the field. They have pinkish heads and shoulders, and rounded black wings with rather theatrical white stripes, giving an impression of somewhat flamboyant caped crusaders. They don’t call out and I’m not close enough to see much detail, but I know they are hoopoes and am thrilled to have seen what I would never expect to see back home.

I suddenly recoil as something rather large hums past my ear and heads straight for the purple buddleia at the edge of the flagged terrace on which I’m sitting sipping strong coffee. It’s the first of the day’s hummingbird hawk moths. Whilst a wonderfully descriptive name, I can’t help wondering what we called them before we discovered hummingbirds in the New World and then thought to make the comparison with a moth back home. Perhaps it was originally just a humming hawk moth, given the constant tone from its blurred and beating wings. I’ve occasionally seen them at home, but here they are in abundance. It won’t be long before there are four or five whirring away as they probe for nectar.

Another regular at the buddleia also turns up as the warming rays hit the side of the house against which it is growing. With patterning reminiscent of a zebra, it’s a rather misleadingly named pale yellow and black-striped scarce swallowtail butterfly. I suspect its English name hints at its rarity on our island, but here there are numerous individuals fluttering through the garden.

A rustling in last year’s dead and dried leaves that lie along the foot of the garden wall alerts me to one of the many wall lizards that spend much of their days chasing each other across the terrace and, perplexingly seeming to defy the downward pull of gravity, across the entire sun soaked and very vertical side of the cottage.

In one of the shrubs, a large and striking wasp spider is waiting for her breakfast to arrive. When it does, it can be guided in along a zip-zag landing strip.

I walk out onto the patch of lawn immediately adjacent to the terrace to get a better view of the sky and check out who’s up and riding the earliest thermals of the day. There are wafts of thyme and pine resin on a very slight morning breeze, and some very thin hints of cloud looking a bit too apathetic to form anything more substantial before the sun burns them off.  There is a kite. It’s much darker than the red kites that I see daily over my own house, and the forked tail seems, well, less forked. I’m sure it’s a black kite.

As I’m on my feet, I might as well investigate the cracking and popping sounds I’ve heard coming from the hazel tree. As I approach, a rather agitated chuntering comes from somewhere amongst the foliage. I creep slowly closer. A movement high up betrays a squirrel. It’s a red squirrel and its flicking its tail in annoyance at me. I’ve interrupted his breakfast. It reminds me of autumn days watching the fast and furious antics of a group of red squirrels at the top of a larch tree in the wood opposite my childhood bedroom in Northumberland. I wonder if the larch tree is still there. I strongly suspect that the squirrels are not. Not the reds, anyway.

As I turn to wander back to head in for a coffee refill, I hear a rowdy party in full swing in the tall poplar trees that are shimmering and glittering in a breeze that looks a little stronger up there than it is down here at ground level. I don’t recognise them by their calls and enthusiastic squabbling, but then they take to the air and vivid yellow and contrasting black wings immediately identify them as golden orioles. A first for me, given they are vanishingly scarce in the UK and constrained to a very small patch of the wrong part of England.

It’s only a moment, a brief window of time from a calm and quiet summer’s morning that’s since passed on. But to close my eyes and summon it now is to wander through the moment, to smell the thyme and the pine, to feel the first warmth of the coming day, and to hear, see, and be amongst the rich diversity of the southern Burgundy hills, just west of Cluny.

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Chaleur humaine

Egrets are memories. At least they are for me.

They are Florida swamps, Breton estuaries, Aveyron river gorges, and Camargue étangs. Summer heat and cottage holidays.

When they are cattle egrets, they are exotic. Exotic in the sense that they are new, foreign, and are starting to colonise England. Little egrets and great white egrets have been moving north for some years and are now distributed across a number of parts of the country, but cattle egrets are more recent immigrants, first arriving around 2008 and, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, first breeding in 2012.

An article I’ve just read in the Guardian newspaper highlights cattle egrets and a host of other species that are also heading north, whilst many of the species we are more used to seeing have been quietly slipping from sight. They have both been heading up… Up north and up-a-height. Why? Well, it’s that usual antagonist again, anthropogenic climate change. Let’s  consider our islands’ natives.

What do we do on a hot day? We soak it up for a while, then reach a point at which we can take it no more and we make a bee-line for the shade. We seek refuge from the heat. Many of our native species have been doing the same – searching for refuge from the heat. The only difference is the timescale. We beat the retreat based on the weather across a single day. Wildlife species are doing it in response to climate change, and more specifically in response to rises in average temperatures over a period of years.

So is it a case of stay and die, or flee north or to higher ground? Well, it often depends on whether there are local refuges from the heat.

I recently went to a talk that Dr. Andy Suggett of the University of York gave as part of the Wild Watch project that Nidderdale AONB is running. As part of a wider research team, Andy has been looking into such refuges. To be a bit more precise, the team has been looking at whether the landscape contains, or could contain, habitats that have microclimates that will continue to be favourable to species that, because they are vulnerable to rising temperatures, could become locally extinct.

Within our variety of landscapes in the UK, a small geographical area can have a very varied topography containing a number of different habitats. Different habitats result from a combination of things such as exposure, shade, height, slope, orientation, hydrology, soils, vegetation structure and cover, and land use. In these varied habitats we also get varied climatic conditions on a similarly small scale. In other words, habitats can have their own microclimates. Daytime maximums in these habitats can often show differences of up to 7C compared to each other and compared to the surrounding area as a whole. Indeed, Andy cited a day in May 2013 where the temperature variability across the UK overall was 5C, but a thermal sensor recorded a ground level temperature range at a particular location of 15-45C depending on what the vegetation was across the site. In other words, this location had a range of habitats with a range of different microclimates, all based on relatively small scale differences in topography and vegetation cover.

The more a landscape varies, the more habitats it contains. The more habitats it contains, the more microclimates there are. More microclimates means that there will be some habitats that have climatic conditions that are far more favourable to species that are otherwise vulnerable to rises in average temperature. All in all, Andy and team have found that the variation in microclimates that can exist locally in a landscape creates “microrefugia”. They refer to this as microclimate heterogeneity. These microrefugia have been found to make a real difference to species seeking respite from the heat. Species that respond negatively to climate change have been found to respond more positively to the microclimate heterogeneity, or variety, in a landscape. And that in turn reduces the risk of local extinction, or extirpation as it’s also known. By the way, although we’re discussing this in the context of rising temperatures, it equally applies to climate change in the other temperature change direction, too.

What does this all mean in terms of practical conservation? Well refugia, whether micro or macro, are likely going to be increasingly important as alternative habitats for species fleeing rising temperatures. Yes, some refugia will serve as little more than vestigial habitats; the last resting places of the relict and the damned – those that cannot flee. But those hoping to stick around, and even some of those already on the move, might find a place to stay in some of the more suitable refugia, so long as the topography that creates the refugia in the first place doesn’t find itself a victim of further agricultural intensification or development for economic “progress”. Whatever the circumstances of our climate refugees, these refugia can at least provide alternative habitats and, with luck, stave off some local extinctions. Refugee camps, in a way. It’s just sad to think of that as being the analogy.

In order for refugia to work, they need to exist. We need to identify them and protect existing ones, perhaps more actively managing them. We will probably need to create many more. And we will need to ensure that they are interconnected so that we don’t just create small islands of biogeographical isolation for species that cannot afford to be isolated. We might even have to assist with some emergency evacuations of some vulnerable individuals – translocation as it’s known in the trade. Or even undertake assisted colonisation. My overall enthusiasm for nature protection and biodiversity improvement is for self-willed natural processes and rewilding, but sometimes we need to intervene. Indeed, most habitats in the UK are managed, and restoring nature in the UK really does, and will, encompass the full spectrum of approaches. And we are talking here about vulnerable refugees. We surely cannot sit idly by. 

Andy concluded his talk with some ideas as to what could be done. Better advice on the creation and management of refugia for land managers and conservation practitioners… Better public awareness and engagement… Better identification of potential sites for refugia creation, protection, or management through mapping various factors to identify the places with the optimum characteristics for refugia… Better and more targeted agri-environmental subsidies for land managers…

Of course, the last thing we really want is to create little microrefugia a few metres square, randomly scattered and far apart across the landscape. What we really need to achieve is the almost serendipitous creation of refugia through larger scale habitat restoration. There… I managed to bring it back to landscape scale restoration of nature.

Anthropogenic climate change is artificial. But climate change itself is not. It’s a natural process. It’s just one that has been artificially speeded up and might go too far too quickly. But to the species affected, it seems natural and so they respond naturally. By colonising.

Thus, cattle egrets are coming. They are heading north, like many species. And I do look forward to welcoming them all, although at the same time it will be sad to see those having to pack up and head for the shade, so to speak. These new species blowing in on a southerly wind are not what we sometimes label as “invasive”. They have a drive to disperse and to expand or move their ranges based on where they can find suitable habitats and a cosy niche into which to settle down. Sometimes the niche they seek has already been vacated, and sometimes they are the usurper, pushing out the existing occupier who is no longer the one best suited to that particular abode. Some species, we should remember, are simply returning. We might mourn losses, help refugees, and welcome newcomers, but for species like the common crane, the white stork and, perhaps one day, even the dalmation pelican, it’ll actually be a homecoming and not necessarily be driven solely by climate change.

Not all are going crazy from heat. But many are. Let’s hope we can help as many of them as possible escape the warmth that we have blown across them.

Little egret
Little egret, ‎⁨Etang des Ginès⁩, ⁨Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer⁩, ⁨France⁩ 07/08/2017.
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Small swift birds

I have heard about the lives of small swift birds.
They dazzle with their colour and their deftness through the air.
Just a simple glimpse will keep you simply standing there.
Legendary journeys made on fragile hollow wings.
The night skies rich with whistling, each and every spring.
And then there’s the day we look for them and can’t find them anywhere

From “Small swift birds” by Cowboy Junkies.

Henshaws college in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, supports people living with sight loss and a range of other disabilities. It’s claim of being a transformational place is readily apparent to the first-time visitor when taking just the briefest of strolls through its gardens. It’s a sensory journey through a rich and diverse range of flowers and succulents, and, judging by the evening bird song and the wonderful bug hotel, clearly a space enjoyed by more than students, staff, and visitors alone.

Speaking of visitors…

Looking up into a cloudless blue sky on a vivid early summer’s evening in that same garden, I had hoped to see what I’d come to hear about. Perhaps the intersecting of place and time just produced a wrong moment, or maybe the empty sky was corroborating the theme of the evening – Save Our Swifts.

Tanya Hoare is so passionate about her chosen subject that you find yourself succumbing rapidly to what must be some contagion with each fact, picture, and anecdote. 

Listening intently, I learnt from her about a species that I had otherwise only really noticed out the corner of my eye – its arrival, its daily screams over our village from late May, and then its disappearance in early August rather distressingly reminding me that although the school holidays still had a month to run, summer time was ticking away.

What did I learn from Tanya?

Swifts, and more specifically the single species we get here in the UK, Apus apus, are 100% faithful to their nesting sites. Having tiny feet, they have only an extremely limited ability to do anything with them, except briefly perch on the entrance to their nest sites as they come and go. In fact, they even gather nesting materials by snatching whatever is usefully floating on a summer breeze. After fledging at the end of July or so, youngsters are on their own. No further parental catering from that moment on. The kids just hang about for around a week, then take to the skies in early August for their first ever journey south to Africa. They might not touch the ground again until they are ready to breed themselves at 3 or 4 years old. They even sleep on the wing, having the ability to shut down parts of their brain whilst managing to keep the vital flight systems fully operational. Their in-flight safety is their top priority, of course. Congo is their typical wintering area from August through to January, with some wandering to the south and east later on in their African season. Oh, and there’s a great gathering of European swifts over Liberia to reap the harvest of the annual eruption of termites as they, too, take briefly to the skies to mate and, perhaps inadvertently, to be eaten.

Tanya and her husband Edmund will one day struggle to describe some of the features of their house if they ever showcase it on Rightmove. “Bathroom with low flush w/c“? Nope – “Bathroom with low flush w/c with full en-suite nest gallery observation windows”? Yes, that’s far more more accurate. A swallow may favour a barn, and a marten a house. But the swifts journeying to spend their summers with Tanya and Edmund must have their own “Secret Escapes” holiday service. Through numerous alterations and perhaps some very understanding builders, they have transformed their house into a unique place to stay if you’re a swift – off the beaten track, far from the holidaying hordes, and with a choice of views for the discerning avian holiday maker. And there is technology in great abundance. What Tanya and Edmund have done is to rig up their own outside broadcast capability where cables, cameras, recorders, and monitors can capture every arrival, every birth, every drama, and every departure. The bathroom features are actually special double-glazed doors that provide both a means of observation of nests from within the house, and access to the nests when it’s needed. And all this means that the Hoare family has been able to develop a detailed knowledge bank of the lives of their own small swift birds. And that’s important, because the swifts are in trouble.

Between 1995 and 2016, the UK swift population declined by around 53%. They are an “amber listed’ species in the RSPB’s traffic lights system for the state of our nation’s bird species. Whilst red really does mean jeopardy in great abundance, amber is the next, slightly less critical category. But swifts are heading rapidly towards the red list. The wrong wrong direction, the wrong list.

Since learning more from Tanya, I’ve been more observant of the swifts that visit our village daily. There appears to be 5 of them. I’m sure there were more last year. And even more in years gone by. In fact, I’m sure they used to spend more of each day over the village, too, rather than just passing through on their evening commute back to wherever they’re nesting. Snacking as they go, of course, but not pausing to soak up the ambience of the place.

Remember the first fact? That swifts are 100% faithful to their nesting sites? Guess what we’ve been doing a lot of in our country over the years? Demolition and renovation. Our new build homes lack the open and overhanging eaves and crevices of older buildings and, indeed, of older building styles. Our home improvements only improve our homes. Nest sites are, simply and rapidly, disappearing.
But it’s so easy to help save our swifts.

Tanya and her neighbours have been working hard to improve the availability of swift nesting sites in their local town of Sedbergh, with great success. Swift boxes have gone up, and new builds are encouraged to include swift “bricks” into the structure of their walls and gables. New nesting sites are advertised to passing swifts, bearing in mind that younger birds might be in the market for their starter homes if they’ve finally hit breeding age, by calling them in with the sounds of their own kind played at volume and at timed intervals using an attraction call player.

Across the country, people have been setting up their own local swift groups to do the same. We need to do this widely across all of our communities. We should look at the buildings where we live and see if the owners of suitable ones would be willing to host a swift box or two. 

As Tanya explained, perhaps the biggest contribution we can all make is to lobby, ask, and encourage planners, architects, and developers to cater for swifts in the structures and houses they build. 

As a species, swifts don’t usually feature high on people’s list of pressing biodiversity concerns. We welcome them back each summer with often little more than a cursory glance. We notice that they’ve gone some time after they’ve left. And we don’t notice that each year there are fewer.

I don’t think it was swifts, specifically, that the Cowboy Junkies were thinking about when they penned “Small swift birds” as metaphorical thoughts on the passing of time and of our lives. But apart from dazzling colours, and rich night time whistling, they otherwise fit the bill.

Some links that you might want to check out…

RSPB’s Swift action

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Stone the crows

Everything eats something. And when something is cute, vegetarian, or eats creepy crawlies, it’s fine. If it tweets, chirps, and socialises as a charm, a covey, a richness, a trembling, or a pitying, it’s fine.

But when it caws, cronks, squawks, or croaks, and when it hangs out in murders, wakes, parliaments, hordes, mobs, screeches, scolds, mischiefs, clamours, and unkindnesses, it’s better dead than red in tooth and claw. And it’s invariably the antagonist in the avian chapter of our epic saga of the decline and fall of nature on our scepter’d isle.

We are supposedly a nation of animal lovers. But the growing frequency of headlines that scream about the huge and long term loss of biodiversity, and the drastic and wide ranging falls in the populations of many species does, however, contradict our national sense of self righteousness when it comes to nature. You see, we are selective. We croon over the benign, and boo and hiss the villain red in tooth and claw. Quite simply, we root for the underdog and shoot the top dog.

When it comes to birds, we don’t even need an identity parade – we already know who the suspects are… It’s the raptors and, of course, the infamous Crows Gang: Carrion, Raven, and Magpie. Especially Magpie. After all, sorrow comes with every one.

The charge against the accused was lodged in full in the Country pullout of our local paper around the end of May, but then I inadvertently lost it to the council recycling team. But the first witness for the prosecution gave their statement just a week later and was caught in time to capture for posterity…

So these species are clearly out of control. They are implicated as prime offenders responsible for the decline of song birds, farmland birds, and waders from our increasingly manicured and highly managed green and pleasant, deforested, de-wetted, and often monocultural land. Not that i’m subliminally trying to convince you so early in the article that there might be other causes.

The recent legal challenges by Wild Justice to the way that Defra and Natural England had been running an unlawful licensing regime for the control of certain predatory species of birds reminded us that there are armed vigilantes out there effectively acting on circumstantial evidence alone and lynching the suspects without a fair trial. But although some are simply worried about an urban misunderstanding ultimately curtailing their fun, many of these people are acting with the best intents and are genuinely concerned about the decline of songbirds and moorland birds. And of course there are plenty of others, perhaps like Angry From Wherever who, on the face it, potentially align their views with the loudest rural voices and base their understanding of the issues on the premise of who said what about what to whom. And then he said.. And then she said… 

I’m rural born and bred having grown up in, and still live in, farming communities. My relatives were farmers. I worked on farms from time to time as a teenager; mainly with cows, sheep, and cauliflowers. I know how firmly rooted traditional views can be when it comes to predation and the perceived need to control it by lethal force. But I’m also originally trained in a science. Yes, Geography is a science – I have 2 qualifications ending in “Sc.”. So I’m a scientist. Indeed, a fully operational Master. Now Geography’s real value is in providing a framework for organising and relating knowledge from a range of fields. Surely worthy of a capital letter. Geography puts our understanding of natural sciences, physical processes, societies, and economies within the context of place and time and helps us organise, communicate, and understand our world. Ooh, that’s good. I think that may appear in many of my articles!

Science is all about building up knowledge that is based on observation and data, and which produces explanations and predictions that can be tested and re-tested systematically by others. Science lacks emotion. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, really take an opinion or a view that cannot be supported without facts. And there are no such things as alternative facts. There are emotional and passionate scientists, of course. They are usually human, after all, and have normally taken a path that reflects their personal interests and passions.

Now Wild Justice is not specifically seeking to stop predator control through lethal means, but rather to stop the casual and uncontrolled killing of so-called “pest” species, including the names topping Britain’s Most Wanted, the Crows Gang.

In trying to explain the rationale behind their challenges to a public and media that seems uniquely able to block both ears whilst simultaneously humming loudly and keeping a finger on a trigger, they point out that numerous studies have generally and consistently concluded that there is no evidence-based scientific justification for the rampant killing of our infamous gang of corvid hoodlums for the purpose of conserving other wild birds.  The data collected by decades of research does not show or support any link between the populations of the predatory species and the declining populations of those that are predated.

So is the shooting down of fugitive carrion crows a classic example of a miscarriage of justice? Have we hanged the wrong magpie in a classic case of mistaken identity?

There is plenty of data, and so no doubts, that show there have been rising populations of many predator species, especially raptors and also, to some extent, members of our syndicated Crows Gang over recent decades. However, these rises are considered to be less about over-population and more about the recovery of populations in the decades since we banned some of our least delightful, but sadly most effective, pesticides. Which both directly targeted and indirectly affected a range of species.

Time to consider population dynamics…

Now, it’s a big subject and here I really do run the risk of jumping headfirst into a deep end in which I will struggle to swim and could even hit my head on the hard floor. Beyond basic regression analysis, my statistical methods days are long behind me. But if I delve back into my dim and distant past and, more specifically, my undergraduate studies in biogeography, I know that populations of predators and of prey species generally align over time. They are dynamic with a tendency towards being cyclical with predator populations peaking sometime after those of prey species. The population size of predators is limited by, amongst other things, food availability and breeding habitat availability. If prey species do well, perhaps because of an abundance of food, of habitat cover, and of availability of breeding territories, then their numbers may increase. In response, predator numbers may also follow with increases – after all, their food has just grown in abundance! And plenty of food means that breeding territories can be smaller and, so, there can be more of them.

But there comes a point at which the populations of the prey species are limited in some way from growing any further, perhaps because there is eventually a lack of breeding territories. The knock-on effect is that this then limits the predator populations because their food (our cute and chirpy prey species) is no longer growing in abundance. Which means that the predators too have reached a limit both in terms of food and, consequently, have also probably run out of space for breeding territories. The lag in the population growth of the predators as they head towards their habitat’s “carrying capacity” then starts to impact the now-stable and limited populations of the prey species. Which then declines due to over-predation. And this decline means a reduction in the availability of food for predators, which in turn becomes a limiting factor to the predator population. Which adjusts accordingly.

Are you still with me?

As a geographer, my visual interpretive abilities far outweigh my mathematical and statistical prowess, so i’ll use a picture to help you visualise what I mean and what is more fully explained by Lotka–Volterra equations, also known as the predator–prey equations (a dive into which I am not prepared to take, you’ll be relieved to learn):

So that’s a very, very simple view of how populations of predators and prey species tend to reflect each other, albeit with a time lag, and tend to become limited from exponential growth, falling as they often do into a cycling pattern. In extreme cases, this is a “boom and bust” cycle.

Now this is not to say that there aren’t times and places where predators have a far greater impact on prey species. The boom part of the predators’ population cycle can, and does sometimes, have a disastrous impact on the prey species before the limiting factors come into play.

After reading and getting thoroughly annoyed at the aforementioned and fairly sensationalist article in the paper, resulting in the subsequent follow-up letter a week later from Angry From Wherever, I decided to delve into the scientific paper that the original article was quoting, or perhaps misquoting. Because science, and the raw fuel of science, data, is what should be informing us, and journalists should be articulating it to us properly.

The science in this case, although funded by a charity with, as some commentators might allude to, a greater sympathy for specific groups of species (prey) than others (predators), was undertaken by a university led research team. This team actually found that individuals within a population of a predatory species such as our dandy ringleader, Pica the Magpie, can differ greatly in how likely they predate other bird species compared to others within their own predator population. 

The researchers found, through observations and the data collected and analysed, that there was little evidence supporting a general link between rising numbers of members the Crows Gang and declines in their feathered and shelled snacks. But the data did show that where there are some particularly thuggish individuals in the Gang that have developed a tendency towards more targeted and persistent predatory behaviours, some disproportionate impacts on prey species than would otherwise generally be expected did occur. It found that where such individuals are, er, “removed” from a habitat where they are having a disproportionate impact, this might help vulnerable populations of prey species avoid an overall significant decline. But as with many of the studies into predator-prey relationships and population dynamics, that particular study generally found little evidence of any real link between an increasing populations of the Crow Gang and a subsequent decline in the populations of prey species, specifically songbirds.

So although the science, conducted by scientists, in a science department at a university, and using data collected, processed, analysed, and interpreted using scientific methods, was presented in the newspaper under a pessimistic headline bemoaning how our songbirds are being ever more decimated by the ravenous horde, the science again had actually suggested differently. 

So why are populations of some songbirds, farmland birds, and waders continuing to show long term declines?

Food. Shelter. And the decline in the availability of both. 

Which is a longer way of saying “habitat loss”.

And as we know, species populations are limited by the abundance, or lack of, both food and shelter.

Hedges get cut. Scrub and trees get removed. Pesticides remove insects. Monocultures of arable crops reduce the variety of foods. Native flowers and grasses are replaced with more silage-friendly species. Silage is cut earlier than hay traditionally was. And it’s rolled before it’s cut. Meadows are grazed and compacted to fine lawns and sterilised of flowers and shrubs. Dead wood is removed. Verges are cut. Slurry poisons the water courses with excessive amounts of nitrates and phosphates. Moors are burnt to favour specific vegetation in order to encourage unnaturally high populations of some species over others. And if there is a reduction in the management of an ecosystem, be it from a decline, a loss, or a change in natural or human stewardship, natural succession may, at least in the short term, reduce habitat variety and cover, perhaps favouring a short term boom in predator populations. I could go on.

Any bird is more likely to be weakened, ill, or even starve without enough food. Food comes from the habitat. Which is in long term decline. And when the prey species also declines in response to these diminishing resources, the lower population size in turn becomes increasingly impacted by the effects of that other limiting factor, predation.

With less cover and less food, predators can more easily spot their lunch, especially if it’s a ground nesting bird or a conveniently fast-food takeaway in the form of that bird’s eggs. And less cover means fewer nesting sites. Which might also force prey species to nest closer to the breeding territories of their enemies, which because they are breeding, need to find food for many more hungry mouths.

So, as the science continues to demonstrate with real data over and over again, the decline of many bird species is far more strongly linked to habitat loss that comes with the intensive agricultural uses of our land and other development activities, rather than the inexorable and uncontrolled rise of the Crow Gang.

Conversely, habitat creation creates cover and food. Which in turn support healthy populations of prey species which are far less vulnerable to being predated. And directly removing or fooling (by cunning stunts such as diversionary feeding) delinquent individuals from a predator population probably does help.

But cleansing the fields and moors of Pica and his mates? Surely that’s just identifying a fall guy to take the rap as we continue to intensify agriculture, clean and tidy and develop the land, and generally deflect the blame from our ongoing crimes of habitat destruction.

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The elephant in the room has claws

We all know what rewilding is, don’t we? It’s the random scattering of deadly and long vanquished super predators onto farms, grouse moors, and into woodlands without consent. Super predators with a culinary penchant for mutton, family pets, and members of the public. It’s the furry and the furious. It’s the green and pleasant replaced by the red in tooth and claw.
So when a Royal Geographical Society “Question Time” style panel discussion titled “Re-Wilding in Nidderdale and the Uplands” is advertised, you can almost hear the old Wartime Broadcasting Service cranking up and screaming a new message for the 21st century:  “This country has been attacked with zoological weapons. Stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own house. Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By leaving your homes you could be exposing yourself to greater danger. If you leave, you may find yourself without food, without water, without accommodation and without protection. You may even be the food.”
It was on a clear, sunny May evening, not far from Britain’s oldest sweetshop, on Britain’s Best Village High Street, that the curious and the concerned were expected, perhaps as many as 20 or 30. But whether through worries over the climate emergency, niggles about the accelerating loss of biodiversity, or the abject fear of the imminent seeding of the landscape with savage beasts, around 100-150 actually packed in to the main hall of Nidderdale High School to put questions to, and hear the thoughts of, the panel. There was even someone who’d tanked it down all the way from Berwick in Northumberland. Then all the way back again after the event.
Most capably facilitated by a Fellow of the RGS, the panel itself was drawn from a wide range of stakeholders, collectively representing the diversity of interests and traditions in the dales and uplands. 
Would there be an Entente Cordiale develop through a meeting of minds with shared views? Or would there be a total stubborn unwillingness to look facts about biodiversity loss in the face?
The panel was: a gamekeeper; an estate owner with extensive moorland and a shoot, as well as substantial agricultural holdings and interests; a site manager from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds who manages two upland farms with a focus on biodiversity gains and whilst also maintaining a viable farming enterprise; a professional conservationist from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust with a specialism in upland habitat management; a professor of Conservation and Society from the University of Leeds with expertise in biodiversity conservation, political ecology, rewilding, the social impacts of conservation, and the politics of conservation; and a researcher from the University of Leeds looking at “The Future of Human-Carnivore Conflict and Coexistence in Europe”, more specifically looking at the dynamics between returning large carnivore populations (mainly wolf and bear), managing authorities, and local communities. What?! Wolves and bears?!
And centre stage, if entirely hidden from view as more an “I know what you’re thinking” sort of a beast, was the elephant in the room. The one with paws, claws, and jaws.
So that’s what was tackled first.
As the big first question of the evening, the whole Jaws-With-Paws thing was discussed more in terms of that tricksy, troublesome word itself, “rewilding”. What is it, exactly? Is it about the big ticket carnivores, or is it about the habitats, the diversity of species at all scales, the land uses? The panel’s answers fell into fairly predictable “camps”. In the red corner, the concerns of the current custodians of the land, worrying about the sensationalist headlines they’ve read, sweating about the impacts of enforced changes, palpitating about profits after the imposition of such changes, fretting about the implications for long established traditions, and anxious about the communities of the rural uplands. In the green corner, the insights and experiences of those researching and working in conservation.
It quickly emerged that “rewilding” is not a very useful word to anyone, even if some of us in the room were, and are, massive proponents. It’s seen as being too mixed up with teeth and claws when, it truth, it’s more about natural processes, soil fertility, worms, pollinators, mini-beasts, habitats, and water. Yes, yes, of course it eventually goes all the way up to the apex predators, but nature in the UK has a long road trip to undertake before any such final destination is reached. And rather paradoxically, given the direction many of us would like it to take, autocorrects seem to prefer “rewinding”.
And with the closure of that question, the bears and the wolves were vanquished from the room, returning only occasionally as anecdotes to tease a thoroughly engaged audience.
"Re-Wilding in Nidderdale and the Uplands”
With the metaphorical elephant gone, a number of questions were put to the panel covering such topics as how the custodians of the land might be able to evolve their businesses to enhance the natural world under their stewardship without losing money.  
For the land managers, it all comes down to change and, one might speculate, possibly the fear of change. They don’t particularly want to see their centuries-in-the-making ways of using the land, enjoying the land, and earning a living from the land being stomped on by, to them, the deadly duo of changing subsidy payments and misguided and badly aimed legislative sticks. In many respects, a reluctance to recognise that any change is even necessary seemed the prevalent stance. Perhaps even an outright denial of any need for any change? After all, the land they nurture and love is, in their view, perfectly fine and everything is in balance because they keep it so. Predators are kept in check, so upland birds are protected. And money just pours in from the shoots, it seems, keeping many local people in local villages locally employed. And everything is nice and tidy, not like the mess that Brimham Rocks has become under the management of that rabble, The National Trust, who’ve just let it all go to birch trees, scrub, bracken, and corvids. What a mess! And how many red kites can one dale really support? Oh, and don’t forget the growing number of people that need to be fed.
It was very clear how Shifting Baseline Syndrome, the gradual change in the accepted norms of how the natural environment should be and what it looks like, has radically altered and shaped the views of the current “custodians” of the land. 
Conversely, some of the farmers who’ve been working hard on their own farms to improve conditions for nature, increase biodiversity, and champion the benefits of doing so, were variously tutting, muttering under their breaths, rolling their eyes, and shaking their heads at these traditional arguments from long-entrenched positions.
The entente cordiale was looking like it would not be getting capital letters this evening.
The other members of the panel cited knowledge and gave examples from research findings, observations, and real experience that were, in effect, counter arguments. There was discussion around the positive impact on farm productivity from lower stocking rates and increased numbers of pollinators from more flower-rich meadows, headlands, verges, and other marginal areas of land. There was talk of how wild animal populations tend to adjust and reach equilibrium based on nature’s version of the law of supply and demand, the predator-prey balance. Everyone agreed that increased nature tourism in the dale would be no bad thing, but also accepted that there’s not enough of it to go round the whole country and so not everywhere would experience beneficial effects. Supply and demand again, I guess. Much lauded, yet still fenced-in across a pitifully small number of “trials”, the beaver finally put in an appearance in the evening’s discussion. After some humorous exchanges about a flooded Co-op store in the Highlands, the benefits of these busy little bucktoothed civil engineers was discussed. A nod was pragmatically given to some negative elements of beaver ecology that can occur in some environments, but aside some mild scepticism that there would be any suitable habitat for them in Nidderdale, it was clear that there was positive interest in them throughout the room.
The landowners answered questions around what could be done on their holdings to improve biodiversity. “Balance” was the word most frequently used in responses. It was used, however, in the context of “no change”. Now change can be proactively embraced or reactively responded to, and resistance to change, perhaps from a mind less open to what could be just a bunch of radical and subversive ideas, can mean opportunities are missed. As it stands currently, balance in the UK countryside really means “managed for economic purposes” and is, invariably, far from balanced.
More than one of the audience expressed hope in the future generation coming through our excellent state education system, and it was refreshing that the GCSE geographers from Nidderdale High School posed many of the questions that were on the lips of most of the rest of us. They did a stunningly good job of it too.
Although the panel was quite clearly grouped into the respective “camps”, in truth, by the end of the debate, these camps were not the inseparable and contradictory opposites that they could have so easily been. Despite some of the traditional, entrenched, and sometimes just factually wrong responses and positions of the land owning and management camp, they did not seem closed off to the idea, or at least some aspects, of rewilding. I sensed a willingness to be shown more, and perhaps they just need to be taken on a journey of discovery to find the opportunities that may be uncovered. They acknowledged that changes are coming that will most likely materially change what they are paid their subsidies for, and that there will be further legislative carrots and sticks that will, overall, support activities that improve biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As one of the panel reminded us all, the government expects to pay land owners “public money for public goods”.
The whole event was warmly received and with everyone feeling that we ran out of time with many more questions to ask and much more to discuss, there is clearly an appetite to develop this discussion further, and the RGS is to be commended for organising and facilitating it. Both the audience and the panel gave a sense that each “camp” in the discussions is far more likely to move towards each other with time than not; whether through desire, legislative changes, or both. The question now is how everyone who came to the discussion can progress the discussion. The key to successful “rewilding” is going to reside with the custodians of the land that we want to “rewild”, with the active support of those who want to see more “rewilding”.
It seems the bears and the wolves might have to wait some time. Unfortunately.

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