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28 July 2017

What does 'natural' mean anyway?

IMG_2605

I love a bit of serendipity. I hadn't really been paying attention when Mrs K suggested a few days camping in Norfolk to kick off the summer holidays and I didn't have a plan in mind. The first morning we headed off to the beach at Sea Palling but I was a little underwhelmed (we're spoilt for beaches up here in the North East). So I wandered off to get a coffee, and found an interpretation panel which mentioned nearby Hickling Nature Reserve was the sole location of swallowtail butterflies in the UK. This caught my attention.

It didn't take much persuading to get the rest of the family to leave the beach and check it out. As soon as we walked in to the visitors centre, they asked us if we fancied a boat trip on the Broads and we said 'yes'. As we waited at the jetty, a bittern flew overhead – my first ever spot after years and years of trying.

Now, I knew that East Anglia used to be almost all marsh but that extensive network of ditches and dykes had been used to drain the fertile land for agriculture. I had kind of assumed that waterways of The Broads were a remnant of that ancient marsh, preserved for the future by chance or design. But, as Richard our boatman explained, I was wrong – The Broads are entirely manmade; the legacy of industrial-scale, but pre-industrial peat and clay extraction, flooded accidentally at first, then maintained for game hunting and pleasure trips via wind-powered pumps.

In other words, everything in Norfolk was artificial to some extent. This is no surprise as I am currently reading the superb 'Sapiens' by Yuval Noah Harari, who points out that every time our species colonised a continent, a massive extinction event happened pretty much immediately. Humans have been shaping eco-systems on a mammoth scale (pun all too appropriate) since the days of nomadic hunting and gathering. When we started farming, then very little wilderness survived.

I mused on this the following day as I cycled around the county, passing some signs campaigning to protect 'unspoilt countryside' by some proposed project or other. I think it is important that we remember that what we see, and conserve, as the natural world is anything but. Neither should we get too romantic about our ancestors living in harmony with the eco-system around them – as Harari points out, this is twaddle. The sustainability movement is trying to develop that harmony, but we're probably going to have to look to the future and not be constrained by some rose-tinted view of the past.

By the way, we never did see the butterfly, but we did see its caterpillars. The future!

 

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28 March 2016

Can we save the planet?

Jimmy and lego neneOver the Easter weekend we made one of our regular pilgrimages to Washington Wildfowl & Wetland Trust. Added to the exciting wild birds (we saw lesser redpoll, avocet and jack snipe), and the 'captive' bird collection, there was a Lego special with nine enormous models of birds including the iconic Nene or Hawaiian Goose (see pic).

The Nene is a wonderful conservation success story – and a powerful reason why we shouldn't be squeamish about zoos. The population was down to 30 in the 1960s, but is now at 2500 in the wild, with another 1000 or so at locations like Washington.

Bouncing back from such a critically low level is an inspiration to all of us working in the sustainability. OK, it's just one bird species, but it shows that we can make a difference if we really try. Issues like climate change may require considerably more effort to tackle, but a 'can do' attitude is the only way we're going to get close.

Let's do it.

 

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22 February 2013

Enjoy Nature, It's Good for You!

bike at big waters

By the time this post hits the blog, I should be off looking for otters with my eldest, Harry, who's on half term holidays. The natural world is a big part of our lives -  I spent last Friday cycling between local nature reserves (above), Sunday the whole family spent the day at Washington Wildfowl and Wetland Trust and on Wednesday Harry and I went on a guided bird walk just up the valley from where we live, spotting dippers, a kingfisher and a goldcrest amongst others.

Although I can be quite brutal about wishy-washy tree-huggers here, I love nature with a passion. I'm never happier than hiking over a moorland or pedalling along country lanes, and we pretty much bought our house on the basis of it being in a wooded river valley despite being near the centre of a major conurbation. And, it appears, there's a good reason for this. The theory of Biophilia says that, as we are intrinsically part of nature, we basically freak out a bit if we are deprived of it.

Studies have shown that patients with a view of nature recover faster than those looking out at a wall. Reoffending rates are said to be lower from prisons with natural vistas and interactions with nature have been shown to ameliorate the symptoms of a number of serious disorders including ADHD and autism.

So it looks like, as with so many other things, protecting nature is an opportunity as well as a challenge. By designing nature into our urban environment, we can bring in major social benefits as well as providing ecological sanctuaries. By providing natural areas in our places of work, we can soothe and inspire employees. And at home, there's usually space for a bird feeder in even the smallest flat to cheer us up.

The otter hunt will probably be a wild goose chase, but we'll enjoy ourselves anyway. Have a good weekend!

 

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26 September 2011

Does Commerce Trump Charity?

I spent a very pleasant evening on Friday listening to Chris Packham at a Northumberland Wildlife Trust fundraiser (he's vice-president of the Wildlife Trusts). He may be 50 now, Packham retains all the enthusiasm, charisma and rebelliousness of the days when I watched him present The Really Wild Show back in the late 80s - and he isn't afraid to mince his words.

He started his talk with photos he had taken of Siberian tigers in the snow. This took him to the conservation of these beautiful animals and the shocking figures that a tiger is worth $100,000 to the poacher that shoots it, and $300,000 to the guy illegally selling its parts for medicine in China.

He went on to berate what he called "the tiger conservation industry" for hoovering up huge amounts of money, but failing to even slow the decline of the tiger. "The only thing I've seen that works is eco-tourism", he said "You've got to make the tiger worth more alive than dead to local people."

This is something I passionately believe in. In my opinion, much 'charity' is at best ineffectual and often makes serious problems worse - in effect when we sign a cheque we are buying a feeling of "having done something". If you look at international development, the third world countries which are breaking through like India are doing it by entrepreneurialism, not by accepting charitable handouts which can undermine local markets, trapping people in poverty. (If you are interested in this way of thinking, you must read "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" by JK Prahalad - and before anybody gets angry, I'm not including disaster relief in this critique).

Bringing it closer to home, when I started in this career, a surprising number of businesses expected to be given environmental advice for "free" - paid for by the taxpayer in other words. For many years this was what I did - delivering projects where the beneficiary wasn't writing the cheque. Something I noticed early on was that the "free" advice I gave was rarely if ever acted upon, not because it wasn't any good, but because it was seen as free and wasn't valued. Thankfully we have largely thrown off the shackles of publicly funded business support and the bulk of Terra Infirma's turnover is now earned from those who are directly benefiting from our skills, experience and knowledge. We charge them quite a lot of money for this and guess what? Our clients value what we do.

Another great example is the explosion of solar energy in countries which enact feed-in tariffs, creating a market for small generators and undermining the monopolies of the big generators. Those markets are doing more  to ramp up renewable energy than virtually any other attempt I can think of.

The free market is by no means perfect, but I believe in working with what we've got. The challenge is can you harness markets for good? Can you make 'good' financially worthwhile and 'bad' expensive?

Photo © BBC

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2 November 2010

The Birds and The Bees (and The Snails)

My second son, Jimmy, had his first birthday on Friday, so I had my mother over from Belfast for a long weekend to celebrate. We'd spent the weekend in the house, so yesterday I took her and both boys to Washington Wildfowl and Wetland Trust to do a bit of birdwatching, birdfeeding and cake eating. And fantastic it was too, with a wonderful backdrop of autumnal colours spectacularly lit by the low sun.

I'm a huge fan of conservation. In fact about 13 years ago, I got fed up with the sanctimony of much of the green activist movement and started volunteering with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. I planted hundreds of trees, laid hedges and dug several ponds - and doing something practical rather than finger pointing was so much more satisfying.

Conservation and its close cousin biodiversity have been much of the news of late with the UN Convention on Biodiversity meeting in Japan agreeing a 20 point plan to protect species on earth. But you don't have to try and save the rainforest to do your bit to protect biodiversity - you can start literally at home, or in the workplace. Here's some examples:

  • EAE Ltd in Edinburgh have a nature area in a grassy verge barely 3m wide around their site - and you could tell the difference from the sterility of the rest of the business park where they are situated from the bird song alone;
  • Fenwicks department store in the centre of Newcastle has bee hives on the roof;
  • Northumbrian Water have been working to protect the round-mouthed whorl snail - the size of a full stop and only found in one place in the world in County Durham;
  • The chemical industry on Teesside set up the Industry and Nature Conservation Association (INCA) to roll back decades of ecological destruction around the river Tees in general and the Seal Sands estuary in particular - they now have a colony of 70 seals living happily in the shadow of the chemical plants.

While much of our industrial sustainability efforts are focussed on global/regional issues like climate change or acid rain (which have a massive impact on biodiversity), there is much to be said for this kind of very local effort. It engages employees and local people in environmental issues, it provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with nature, it generates lots of goodwill and, not least, it provides a engagement mechanism for those big issues which can often seem distant.

So don't forget about the birds, bees or indeed the round-mouthed whorl snail.

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