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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

The Big Biogas Business in the Veneto countryside

A maize (corn) field in Treviso, 20th September 2019. (Davide Bonaldo, Alamy) 

The Big Biogas Business in the Veneto countryside 
Elia Cavarzan, journalist - translated from the Italian by Paul Tout

(from Internazionale magazine) 
16th July 2020 

This reportage was possible thanks to a prize awarded during the Impact Journalism workshop, organized by the NGOs Terra! All in the same dish and the Non profit network. They supervised Fabio Ciconte and Stefano Liberti.

As you wander through the countryside around Padua you immediately notice something. The large green cylinders with white domes. There are lots of them and they’re everywhere, surrounded by vast fields of maize (corn) and wheat. These are the most visible signs of the industrial plants that produce biogas on the farms, and that is gas obtained through the decomposition of a range of organic substances. This decomposition process takes place inside the cylinders that dot the countryside around the provincial capital of the Veneto. In the absence of oxygen and at controlled temperatures, the vast number of bacteria break down the substances and release biogas and digestate, a natural liquid fertiliser. This biogas is then transformed into electricity using generator, while the digestate is used as fertiliser on the surrounding fields. Built a decade ago to dispose of farm waste and generously subsidized using public funds, many of these plants have brought about a real agricultural upheaval in various areas of northern Italy

“I’m selling chopped maize to two one-megawatt plants” explains one supplier who prefers to remain anonymous. Fifty years old and with an unconditional love for his land, explains that “we are talking about five hundred tons of corn a day”. To do this, the plants require 53 hectares (131 acres) of land each month. To get an idea, this is an area equivalent to 74 football fields. “It is an impressive business, devouring agricultural land and disposing of very little animal manure from farms  because the ‘diets’ of biogas plants are now all based on plant products.” This refers to the original idea behind the state funding allocated in 2008 which was to create a virtuous agricultural circuit capable of disposing of the sewage from intensive farms in the biogas plants. This did not happen. 

Now as then, the biogas entrepreneurs work mainly with subcontractors. “They tell us which fields to work on and we provide them with the product their company needs,” explains the supplier. The owners of the fields are not usually farmers, but entrepreneurs who own large tracts of land. They sell maize to power the plants because it suits them much more, so much so that even the smallest farmers, when the year is uncertain, are tempted to turn to biogas entrepreneurs. This role play works and pays off. This is explained by a young farmer from Treviso, also preferring to remain anonymous: “For about five years I have only been working to bring corn, harvested a few months before ripening, to nearby biogas plants. My 25 hectares of land are entirely dedicated to this. And to tell you the truth, everything now revolves around these biodigestors, and only in this way do we farmers survive”. 

Few answers 
In the Region Veneto (which includes Venice) there are 256 biogas plants with a total power of 178.815 megawatts of electricity (the abbreviation is Mwe, the unit of measurement for the amount of energy supplied). The Region Lombardy (capital, Milan) led the way in 2009. Today there are 554 plants, which produce 381.203 MWe. Emilia-Romagna (Bologna) follows with 209 plants and Piemonte (Turin) with 189. In these regions a new agro-industrial team has been created which, over the years and with ups and downs, has been able to interweave three parallel universes of intensive animal husbandry, agriculture, and renewable energy. 

The numbers are remarkable, although difficult to obtain. In Veneto, according to the Regional Agency, Veneto Agricoltura, 61.6 percent of the plants are entirely fed with maize, wheat, sorghum and triticale (a hybrid cereal), and only 37 percent with manure. 

In the rest of the country it is difficult to quantify which substances the biodigestors are consuming on a daily basis and which are the most important ones and just how much farmed slurry they actually dispose of? The response from the communication office of the Italian Biogas Consortium (the Cib) - the first voluntary association bringing together biogas producing farms in Italy - was a lapidary: “We are carrying out analyses and processing data in this period. So these numbers are not currently available.” 

A step back 
To join up the dots that render the energy chain produced with biogas a unique one, you need to take a step back. In 2008, the then government led by Silvio Berlusconi tried to solve the problem of the disposal of livestock slurry by granting huge incentives to agricultural biogas plants, paying 28 cents per kilowatt hour, that is, four times the commercial value of the electricity 

A biogas plant that produces one-megawatt hour collects 280 euros per hour, almost seven thousand euros in just 24 hours of fermentation. In 2008, building a biogas plant cost around 1.6 million euros. With these incentives, you could repay your investment in just two years. 

The 2008 decree, voted and introduced in Italy seven days before Christmas, provided for 28 cents per kilowatt-hour “for 15 years”. In 2013, this unprecedented pay-out was curbed, reducing incentives by up to 50 percent, based on the type of plant and its energy production capacity. 

Some farmers remember that back in 2008 people were seen running around the countryside in Porsches. 

The aim of the decree was to help farmers who dispose of manure produced during animal rearing. But entrepreneurs were to use the biogas plants as machines to make money and take a breather during the economic crisis that began in 2008. Everyone working on it immediately realised that maize harvested before ripening or grains were better feedstock for the plants than manure because starch ferments faster. And the Regions and public administrations adapted, approving these types of projects. As one supplier, who (again) prefers to remain anonymous says, “sometimes I have seen flour thrown directly into the digesters to speed up the fermentation”. In many plants in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, it was mostly maize, wheat, and sorghum that ended up being fermented. 

Some farmers remember that at the time people could be seen driving around the countryside of the Po Valley in Porsches, getting out into the middle of nowhere with a briefcase in hand, looking around and saying: “Here’s where you have to build the plant”. 

After the bubble 
After the great bubble of 2009-2012, efforts were made to curb the speculation and put the small agricultural concerns that actually used - and still use - small biogas plants to create virtuous circuits of self-sufficient and circular agro-industry back on their feet. 

If we take a look at the 2019 budget law, the incentives are mainly directed to those producing only 300 kilowatt-hours and that can demonstrate a feedstock for the plant composed of 80% of livestock slurry and the remaining 20% from crops produced during the second harvest. Support is higher still if the energy is reused for business processes and not sold on. In this way they have tried to help those farming with a maximum of one hundred animals and who thus decide to build their own small digesters for the disposal of the animal waster. 

In spite of this, most of the plants produce around 999 kilowatt-hours. In Veneto more than 75% do so. This is because the state subsidies outlined in the 2008 decree strongly incentivized the plants that were able to produce 1-megawatt hour of energy. 

A challenge 
Yet biogas remains a valid and current challenge. David Bolzonella, Professor of Chemical Plants at the University of Verona and a researcher in the field of anaerobic biogas digestion, is convinced of this and speaks of “an extremely relevant challenge”. According to his studies, many of which have been conducted together with various agencies of the European Union, “the potential that biogas has shown has been phenomenal in helping the Po Valley agricultural sector and renewable sources, as well as the whole bioeconomy sector in general”. 

Bolzonella explained that “after the big bubble two paths have become apparent. One of these is speculative and the other innovative, the latter having reached very high levels of excellence Italy. I am thinking of a whole series of local agricultural concerns that have decided to form consortia to create experiences that could become examples to follow in order to make the agricultural world more sustainable”. 

One example is the cooperative La Torre in the province of Verona, which has thirteen animal rearering businesses, seven thousand head of cattle and a turnover of around €11 million a year ($USD 13 million, £GBP 10 million). With its two biogas plants of one megawatt-hour it manages to dispose of almost all the manure it produces. What remains, together with the wastewater that comes out of the plants, is used across its thousand hectares of land. 

But there are also many other breeders who, using their biogas plants, manage to completely dispose of the manure produced in their animal sheds, producing electricity for their activities and saving thousands of euros in fertiliser bills annually every year. All this takes place without them taking anything away from agricultural production for animal feeds and even from products intended for human consumption. 

Friday 23 August 2019

"Sparare sulla croce rossa... " - The Knepp Stork project

When I was a teacher of Environmental Science in an international school one of my favourite games was hearing literal translations in other languages of expressions used to explain a particular concept. For example, anyone English understands the question: "Were you born in a barn?" said to someone who leaves a door open on a cold day. In my part of Italy that phrase is "Were you born on a boat?" (not surprising in a major port) while the Chinese (and, oddly, according to my students, the people of Sarajevo) ask "Were you born with a tail?", the implication being that you can't shut the door because your tail is still outside. One Italian expression I haven't found a convincing English equivalent of is to "Sparare sulla Croce Rossa..." - literally "Shooting at the Red Cross", i.e. attacking or criticising an act or person that is - in the eyes of others - beyond reproach.

Anyone who reads this blog will probably have realised that I am something of a contrarian on many matters to do with the environment. I don't do that for the sake of being awkward but out of a sense of deep conviction and because I'm free to do so, not having an employer who might want me to toe one particular line or other. I've already written blogs or tweeted about why I am unhappy about the orthodoxy surrounding the calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting, the withdrawal of the general licences for avian generalist 'pest' species, wide-scale and ill-considered tree-planting on marginal land and the current mania  for "rewilding". When I talk to other people (for example at the Bird Fair the other day) I do encounter people who broadly agree with my position but can't speak out for fear of a charge of heresy and risks to their employment or 'marketability'. 

The techniques to the species' establishment in new areas have been tried and tested in Europe over at least forty years and "new" "self-sustaining" (my italics) populations have been established in various countries in Europe including (to my knowledge) the Benelux countries (with birds nesting across international borders), France and Italy and perhaps elsewhere too.

I live in a part of the world that is only 50km west of the White Stork's natural range in Slovenia and 50km south of a White Stork "reintroduction" project so I'm well placed to follow some issues involved and the pitfalls surrounding this type of project. After he posted various announcements about the plans I tweeted to Prof. Alastair Driver, asking for detailed information surrounding the project but received no reply. I'm sure he just didn't see it.  I'm very grateful to Derek Gow for supplying that information and giving me pointers as to where I might find more details regarding the background, justification for and implementation of the project.
But why would anyone be irritated by such an apparently laudable project? Why would anyone fire on the Red Cross. Well ... here are a few reasons: 
  • At best the species is tenuously native.
  • The reasons for its extinction may have been partly natural - and perhaps partially persist.
  • No permits were asked for and none were needed it would seem.
  • No environmental impact assessment of the introduction was carried out.
  • There may indeed be impacts upon pre-existing native wildlife.
  • The birds and any "self-sustaining" population will be dependent upon hand-outs and remain thus if animal welfare issues are to be avoided. 

Lets deal with these issues one at a time: 

  • At best the species is tenuously native.

To their credit the project's proponents do a good job with presenting the evidence of various toponyms, the fossil record and the bird's status since the dawn of scientific recording during the Renaissance. You can read it here.

Apart from the incontrovertible, famous  and widely-documented nesting on Edinburgh cathedral in 1416, though, there seems very little to suggest that White Storks were a regular feature of the British and Irish landscape in the last millennium and perhaps (and only perhaps) a minor element in the preceding one. The evidence for the latter is scant, with a few bones here and there in Saxon middens. The document makes much of the repeated representations of White Storks in pre-Renaissance and pre-Reformation religious art but does not seem to look at this unduly critically, presenting it as evidence to suggest (it would appear to me) that the birds were present in Britain because the monks had seen them. It seems to imagine a Britain cut off from the continent, a Britain that had taken back control of its religious iconography but throughout the Middle Ages Britain WAS connected to the continent by trade, migration and particularly by religious diplomacy. Bishops and cardinals moved around Europe, from one posting to another, together with their enormous retinues like Medieval rappers, which I suppose they were in some respects. Pope Adrian IV, for example, was born Nicholas Breakspear in Abbotts Langley in Hertfordshire. So any illustrations of storks and stork-like birds may well have been seen by the illustrators or their supervisors where they are naturally present today, in the ultra-Catholic Holy Roman Empire, or Spain or even as close by as  pre-Reformation Denmark or the Netherlands where we know they bred in large numbers.

  • The reasons for its extinction may have been partly natural - and partially persist.

I have to state a personal stake in this. I once co-wrote a paper on an ecologically not dissimilar species (a non-passeriform trans-Saharan migrant), now extinct in Europe and being reintroduced in various countries, sometimes accidentally and sometimes by design: the Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita). (For what it's worth I've been equally forthright about one of the schemes that foresees its reintroduction in Austria and re-establishing its migration between Salzburg and Tuscany in Italy). From early Renaissance scientists (Conrad Gessner (1513-1565, and Ulisse Aldrovandi 1522 - 1605) and iconography, later backed by archaeological excavations ... so basically the same tools used to justify the White Stork reintroduction... we know that the species nested in Europe as far north as Salzburg in Austria until some time around 1600. It seems to have disappeared rapidly after that date and we know that, like White Stork, the species nested in association with people (on the city walls of Salzburg, Gessner tells us as much) and was taken for food (the bones were found in the middens of Medieval Salzburg).

That said, the manner of its vanishing was very rapid. Several factors seem to have been at work including depopulation as a result of the Black Death (which would have covered much of its feeding-grounds with rank grass and scrub (a negative effect of proto-rewilding) and the fact that Europe underwent a period of poor summers and bitterly cold winters, the Little Ice Age, between about 1300 and about 1870 but peaking in intensity around the time of the Bald Ibis's disappearance from Europe.

But another element in addition to poor climate and persecution is possibly key to the disappearance of Britain's phantomatic White Stork population: sea level rise.

The evidence for White Storks in Pleistocene Britain seems incontrovertible in terms of the fossil record. A fact that seems surprising given the cold temperatures at the time but the species nests as far north as  Estonia and Russia on the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland so perhaps the climate was not an issue. What differed back then was that Britain was joined to continent by a land bridge and was thus until (perhaps) 12,000 years ago. Why is that important? Because White Storks migrate, mostly using soaring flight like raptors, and are loath to cross bodies of water. They did nest in Sweden from the 16th century through to the 1950s (so in the teeth of the Little Ice Age), one imagines crossing the Baltic at the Øresund straight, which at Helsingborg is less that 3km wide ... so essentially no barrier at all. Any migrant stork reaching (or leaving) Britain for France must confront a crossing over water at least ten times that distance. This might not have been a real hurdle for an adult White Stork and "plastic" (sorry, I use the term as shorthand) storks from feral populations in NW Europe now reach Britain regularly but does this strategy perhaps impose losses of juveniles making the journey for the first time, a sort of tax upon reproductive success? Did this "tax" gradually doom Britain's native stork population in the early historic period, and, more importantly, does this biogeographical barrier represent an unresolvable barrier to the recreation of a truly wild, migrant White Stork population in Britain? White Storks CAN and DO cross much larger water bodies (Swedish birds have shown this, as much as 200km) but information is lacking about what the associated mortality rates are like. A marked bird which crossed the Baltic to Poland on migration was captive bred in origin and may have had "Eastern route" genes. It was essentially genetically programmed to undertake a do-or-die mission.

  • No permits were asked for and none were needed it would seem.

When I criticised the Knepp White Stork project, people said "I'm sure they have all the necessary permits". I asked whether this was the case but didn't get an answer. Derek Gow finally provided me with the information that: "The IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions set out procedures to ensure that reintroductions and translocations of species for conservation purposes are carried out to high standards. The species is a regular visitor to the UK and the project fulfils all relevant criteria and Natural England and DEFRA confirmed that no licence is required under the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981) to restore the white stork in England as a breeding species. This project concurs with Article 22 of the European Habitats Directive and Article 11.2 of the Bern Convention."

So. That's pretty clear then. Even though those "regular" visitors are mostly "plastic" storks from W. European projects and that before they began (in the 1970s) White Storks were vagrants to Britain and by no means regular visitors. All above board then. I still think it's questionable.

  • No environmental impact assessment of the introduction was carried out.

It was decided not to carry one out. This surprised me and it should surprise you too. An EIA will not prevent something but it will flag up issues that require research or regular monitoring. Some of these are indicated in the main report: 

"White storks are opportunistic feeders and will readily feed on a broad range of small mammals (voles, shrews and moles) are likely to be important especially when food provisioning for nestlings (Chenchouni et al., 2015). Insects (beetles, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets), reptiles (snakes and lizards), amphibians (frogs and newts), bird’s eggs, fish (though they are not a specialist fish eater), molluscs and earthworms (which can form up to 30% of their diet) (Kosicki et al., 2006; Antczak et al., 2002; Hancock et al., 1992), along with various orthopteran (e.g. Boyan, 2013). Earthworms are likely to be a very important food source in Sussex (e.g. Alonso et al., 1991). On occasion they will take the chicks of ground nesting birds and will readily consume carrion (Hancock et al., 1992). Introduced Louisiana red swamp crayfish have become an important food source in Western Europe (Correia, 2001; Negro & Garrido-Fernandez, 2000; NABU, 2013). Storks are well-adapted to exploiting crayfish populations (Sanz-Aguilar et al., 2015)."

The Hare and the Stork - from the web.

  • There may indeed be impacts upon pre-existing native wildlife.

While much is made of the Stork's love of alien crayfish, the list doesn't mention Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) leverets and doesn't list the ground-nesting birds' chicks that White Storks find delicious, including the red-listed Skylark, Lapwing, Common Snipe and Grey Partridge - all present but endangered in Sussex. Obviously reptiles and amphibians are also eaten, in quantity when the opportunity allows. Many of those are red-listed too. The White Stork is not endangered (now) anywhere in its much expanded range. Do we really need more non-endangered things out there potentially eating red-listed species? Aren't there enough already? Another species with very similar tastes which (just about) nests in the Western Palaearctic in Iraq, the African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) is the subject of destruction orders in the European Union as it becomes established with resident feral populations now nesting in France, Italy and Spain. Its crime (apart from being non-native) is that it eats ground-nesting birds and rare amphibians. Sounds familiar? The very concentrated population of White Storks near Udine (NE Italy) are unpopular with  local hunters as they regularly predate a few of the main quarry species including Hares (leverets), Ring-necked Pheasants (chicks) and Common Quail. I don't expect sympathy for hunters' tears but very high densities of White Stork are present around the release and feeding sites, densities that are not dependent upon any natural food supply. Any leveret is just a lovely change from slightly-off sprat.

  • The birds and any self-sustaining population will be dependent upon hand-outs and remain thus if animal welfare issues are to be avoided.

While the thriving Slovenian population I alluded to above is entirely migratory, vacating the breeding grounds in August and returning at the end of March, the colony at Ciconicco (yes, the toponym means "Storksville" which is why it was chosen),  near Fagagna (Udine) in north-eastern Italy, established under the supervision of my late friend (and co-author of the paper mentioned above), Fabio Perco, is a mix of migratory and resident birds. Some birds do migrate and indeed two ringed youngsters were shot on Malta a couple of years ago, an incident that led to the premature closing of the hunting season that year.

Feeding time at the zoo - White Storks at Fagagna (UD, NE Italy. - from the web.

The birds that do not migrate remain close to the colony and are fed on unsold sprats from a fish-market close to Venice. This incentivises non-migration - why fly to Africa when you might be shot? - and has created a hand-out culture amongst the storks. Stopping the feeding would rapidly deal with the issue but would create animal welfare problems (of starving storks) which makes it out of the question. When birds from Fagagna do wander off, they either return rapidly or end up in care. 

From what I can gather, the Knepp birds will be fed year-round but perhaps not at a single concentrated site. Hooded Crows and (occasionally) Black Kites are an issue at Fagagna. I wonder if similar species (Carrion Crows and Red Kites) will become more common at Knepp with possible knock-ons for other red-listed species on the estate such as Turtle Dove?  

Anyway. I've said my piece. Somebody needed to play the Devil's advocate.  None of the above should lead you to believe that I am against reintroductions per se. Most of those underway, especially those for Wildcats, Pine Martens and Beavers, are long overdue and epistemologically solid. I just didn't feel that a White Stork project was a priority, necessarily philosophically and scientifically justified and without a potential downside as it has been painted. That said, I'm sure the releases will be a runaway success and that a resident, feral and artificially-maintained White Stork population of 50 - 100 pairs will be rapidly established in the south-east of England. I'm just not convinced that it's what was needed at this moment in time. Can anyone argue with that?   

Tuesday 28 May 2019

ukip: just a “one-man band”?

Five years ago, immediately after the 2014 European elections I wrote a piece for a small Italian political magazine of the Fondazione Critica Liberale and forgot about it. A piece in today's New York Times reminded me about it so I re-read it. Within limits (for "UKIP", read "Brexit Party") I think it's better now than it was then. It (obviously) failed to pick up up on Jeremy Corbyn you can sense the anxiety in my voice...

astrolabio ukip: just a “one-man band”?

paul tout

“…and always keep a-hold of Nurse For fear of finding something worse”
From “Jim” by Hilaire Belloc

In his award-winning 3-part BBC series ‘The Power of Nightmares’ the documentary film maker Adam Curtis asserts from the outset that the picture of Al-Qaeda as America’s bogeyman is none other than a mirror image of that which exists in the minds of fundamentalist Islamists throughout the world who, perhaps rightly, see their values, mores and traditions threatened by the globalising onslaught of a diametrically-opposed “West” that is setting out to sweep away morals, theisms and barriers to “free” thought. The substitution of the (fallen) USSR with a new and more insidious enemy, is, he suggests, nothing other than a plot by western governments to maintain control over an increasingly fractious and individualistic populace.

How far can this model, which has its critics, help to explain the spread of what has been facilely-labeled and oversimplified as ‘xenophobia’ in the liberal European press and, in particular, account for the rising star of Nigel Farage and his United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)? Why has the European Union come to be seen as little more than a bogeyman by a substantial slice of the British populace (and, indeed, the British seen as a bogeyman by EU arch-integrationalists)? What is different in the UKIP 15 approach in the current political and economic situation to that exhibited by extreme right-wing parties (such as Nicholas Griffin’s British National Party and its earlier manifestation, the National Front) which, after a series of false dawns, failed to gain any parliamentary representation and whose single European MP, Griffin himself, was not re-elected in the recent poll? What does Farage want? What processes have allowed him to come to the fore? Do the British really want what they voted for or was the UKIP vote, not unlike that for Renzi in the opinion of many, merely a reflection of a lack (or the removal) of alternatives?

“There but for the grace of God…”

The manifest failure, post-2008, of the Euro currency (at least as far as its Mediterranean participants and Ireland were concerned) and southern European youth unemployment together with Italy’s catastrophic relative industrial decline and indebtedness have not gone un-noticed in Britain. They have in fact, been seen as a vindication of the UK’s less-than-hidden Euroscepticism and Gordon Brown’s only saving grace is painted as having been to keep the UK out of the Euro against the will of his then boss, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. The EU has ALWAYS had an image problem throughout northern Europe, at least since the 1986 expansion which took in Spain and Portugal and the undercurrent of anti-Latin sentiment has always been strong, not only in Britain. The dire economic straits in which the PIGS (even the acronym!?) found themselves was seen as a moral judgment on their economic and social rectitude, although perhaps more by the States who found themselves directly dealing with the mess, Germany to the fore, rather than by Britain which adopted a quasi-Latin quantitative easing with gusto and recommended it at every opportunity (and much to German annoyance).

Britain’s economic recovery, relative to the Eurozone members, albeit built on the sand of easy money, has only served to reinforce this opinion. French-led efforts to hobble the City of London and Britain’s financial services industry, a ludicrouslylarge 15% of GDP, via Brussels-imposed legislation, only served to stoke the tensions further.

Prior to this débâcle, while Spaniards, Italians and Greeks were perceived (and directly measured) as being happy to delegate decision-making to Brussels (seen as more honest and organised than their domestic politicians) the northern arc viewed a “swarthier” administration and body politic with suspicion, no more so (but not exclusively) than in Britain. Geography conspired too, and the British were not the only country to avail themselves of a Schengen Area opt-out, Ireland doing so as well.

Basic conceptions differ too, along with geography and the two parts have different judicial bases, with Europeans being seen as “subject” to Roman / Napoleonic law as against British “Common Law” which sets the citizen free and not subject to the authority of the State if the latter does not demonstrate his (or her) guilt; English Common Law adhering to the broad principle that everything is permitted unless specifically forbidden (the rest being regulated by the constraints of custom and manners). In contrast, the Napoleonic code loosely starts from the opposite premise and is utterly alien to the British mindset. It may seem to be nitpicking but the Anglo-Saxon premise against a “nanny” State was and remains strong, as evinced by the absence of an Identity Card (introduced and then abolished for both World Wars, and proposed once again by that man Blair but scrapped at the start of the current parliament), a citizen’s “residence” (other than for electoral, medical or communication purposes) or the need to carry some form of proof of identity, right down to the police not having a “right” to randomly stop motorists not actually committing an offence. The idea of unelected centres of power actually legislating is inconceivable. (Nota bene, the British monarch is, obviously, unelected as is the House of Lords but any laws are proposed by the elected government or by a private member of the House of Commons). As Farage would say (using his catch-phrase) the EU, indeed Europe itself, is, simply, “Baffling!” to the British, and vice versa.

This century has seen a fundamental change in the organization (‘The Common Market’) that British citizens chose to remain in by a large majority (67%) in 1975 (having joined in 1973). The Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and the various opt-outs 17 negotiated (Schengen, the Euro, et al) have reinforced the UK’s status as something of a sociopolitical ‘Galapagos’, isolated, but not completely so, (and, Farage would say, “not enough!”) from the changes going on apace within Europe. The most manifest change, electorally exploited to the full by UKIP, has been that of the net inward migration of EU citizens to the UK, perhaps as many as 2 million (and additional to those arriving from outside the EU, half as many again) which has seen the population rise more than 10% to almost 64 million in just 20 years.

That Britain as an economy has benefitted from this influx of young, largely single taxpayers without dependents, is almost undeniable but, in spite of this, the benefits accruing to individuals (and communities) with access to the ballot-box are far less clearcut if you don’t employ an Italian au pair or a pair of Spanish gardeners. Housing is in desperately short supply in the economically ‘hot’ parts of the south-east and England (as opposed to Great Britain) is rapidly becoming the EU’s most crowded country. While relatively low-paid work in these areas seems easy to come by (and youth unemployment is low by EU standards at 20%) the purchasing power of this segment of the population (but with a vote) has been static or declining for many years when housing costs are included. Farage knows this and has exploited it ruthlessly, snapping up the votes of people who, traditionally at least, would have voted Labour but see Miliband’s “soft” integrationist and pro-EU stance as being against their interests (which include easy access to a reasonably well-paid, low-skilled job with a decent disposable income, a family doctor and schools).

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Although not completely mutually-exclusive, via family ties, the second group coalescing around the UKIP leader (but not his minions, it remains very much a one-man band, something it shares with Italy’s M5S) is very different. Older, wealthier and drawn from traditional Conservative (and conservative) ranks, these are people towards the end of their working careers or retired who are ill-at-ease with the rapid changes they have witnessed in British society including the admirable rise of ‘political correctness’, racial tolerance and inclusivity that have 18 marked the years since Tony Blair first came to power but which perhaps began with the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

Now a threatened species, but, like-it-or-not, beacons of white British male political incorrectness, such as the BBC motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson, although periodically slapped-down by his bosses, are immensely popular. The chainsmoking, beer-swilling, wise-cracking Farage taps into this vein to great effect, occupying a similar ecological niche in humorously sailing close to the wind but, unlike Grillo, using measured tones and kind words whilst, at the same time, making his inner thoughts perfectly clear, at least to native speakers. He plays an ‘inclusiveness’ blinder too, with a German wife. (“Anti-German? Who me?”)

His chosen lieutenants, for the moment at least, lack this finesse and this has undoubtedly hobbled UKIP. Cameron and the Conservatives, however, cannot lean back and laugh at Labour and find themselves in a bind. The easiest solution would be to wheel out their old anti-EU, anti-European Commission, anti-gay marriage, anti-immigration sentiments that dominated party thinking until 1990 and reconquer that lost vote but at the same time they risk losing the votes they have gained from more conservative ethnic minorities and wealthy young people voting with their wallets, rather than their hearts. Anti-EU sentiment is not the only factor favouring the rise of the UKIP vote. ‘Islamaphobia’ which has waxed and waned in Britain following 9/11, rose again following the terrorist attacks on the London public transport network before falling once again. A series of recent high profile news stories on, among other things, the perceived Islamisation taking place in State-funded schools, the undeclared use of halal-slaughtered meat (in accordance with Islamic traditions) in schools, supermarkets and canteens, difficulties encountered in extraditing or expelling hardline muslim fundamentalists and violent criminals from the UK, (difficulties coincidentally attributed to EU rulings and its UK interpretation, the ‘Human Rights Act’) and a dreary, tragic series of ‘honour’ killings have all raised xenophobic fears and contributed to UKIP’s success.

What does Farage want? Can anyone ever truly read a politician’s mind? What would he settle for? He’s probably unsure himself. He currently presides, rather like Grillo, over an undisciplined and rag-tag ‘Barmy Army’ which may wither away as rapidly as it came to the fore. If anything the party apparatus is weaker, older and less solid than Grillo’s M5S and certainly less established than Le Pen’s Front National. For the moment Farage has successfully subsumed Griffin’s British National Party / National Front voters, telling them to put on a jacket and tie, cover their tattoos and let their hair grow a bit!

Is UKIP here to stay? It’s hard to say, but as a federalist consensus condenses along the middle Rhine it is increasingly putting legislative and philosophical water between itself and the isolated beasts on the ‘Galapagos’. How isolated that British position actually is will only become clear at the next French elections. One thing is sure however, that, like the grit in a clam, he’s an irritant in the UK’s body politic that is producing a hard, shiny (but largely white) pearl of Euroscepticism which the politicians of the main parties will have to take account of, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats being it’s most notable victim. The latter seem to have imploded utterly, compromised by decisions forced on them in coalition that have adversely affected students and young people (notably the rise in further education tuition fees to £9,000 per year) and, having lost the solid support they obtained in the big University cities in the last general election, seem destined to another period in the political wilderness that characterized Liberal fortunes for much of the 20th Century.

That said, the EU elections in Britain remain the non plus ultra of political protest voting. Just a week after the European elections Cameron halted the Farage bandwagon at Newark where the incumbent Conservative, Patrick Mercer, had resigned over ‘cash-for-questions’ impropriety and UKIP only managed to finish a solid second, well ahead of Labour. The May 25th surge was not maintained. It remains to be seen whether British voters who chose Farage to represent them in the EU Parliament want the same person running the country?!

Many die-hard Italian federalists I talk to, mostly nice people with nice jobs in the public sector, continue to paint British Euroscepticism as some sort of national defect and that an unbridled Europhilia should be the normal state of affairs. Both will have their expression, healthy or otherwise, in a debate about what the entire European Project involves. The Franco-German axis, with tacit Latin support, has made sure that the British have been manifestly unable to command the debate but the elections in May 2014 have left Euroscepticism in a healthier state than ever as the European Project has brought about mass migration as well as large-scale industrial relocation eastwards, putting pressure on blue collar purchasing power and creating mass youth unemployment in the south. Perhaps the REAL problem in Europe (and especially the EU) is the lack, thus far, of a democracy deficit, the democracy deficit illustrated by Ireland’s enforced re-vote on the Lisbon treaty or the suppression of the Dutch and French “No” votes on the European Constitution, in which the Superstate feels its peoples OUGHT to vote in a particular fashion. Perhaps the citizens of Europe, France and Britain in particular, not to mention the Greeks, need to be sent back to vote once again so that they come back with the “right answer”. I’m sure that, when sober, arch-federalist Jean-Claude Juncker would agree, especially with Farage, Grillo, Tsipras and Le Pen there to chase them back to the fold.

Friday 24 May 2019

The Return of Old Snakey.

A smug & well-fed Istrian Wryneck smiling at my attempts to photograph him.
With its mad eye and snakey charm in the hand I've always had a soft spot for the Wryneck. I remember my first one (at Blakeney Point in the 1970s), the first one in the hand (at Rye Meads in Hertfordshire) and even one calling in the breeding season in UK (at the marvellous Warburg reserve in the mid-1980s). The signs have been there for a couple of years now that something was happening but this year it can no longer be denied. The Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) is on its way back in the Karst and more generally around the Northern Adriatic. The question is “Why?”. When I first came to Italy to live in 1989, the Wryneck in the  Italian Karst was already a rarity as a breeding bird (though still here and there in the Slovenian part). People told me it had been a common nester until the 1970s, wreaking havoc on nesting tits, tossing them out of natural sites it was able to enter. It declined precipitously in the 1980s, much later than the UK collapse (1920 – 1980) and had pretty well disappeared around Trieste as a regular breeder by 1995. We’d hear the birds on migration for a day or two and then silence. We rarely managed to hear them on our annual early May bird race when confined to the Provinces of Trieste and Gorizia but even around Udine – where the bird was always common in the Prealps - they were a struggle. 

I have my own pet theory as to why the Wryneck (and Red-backed Shrike and many butterflies - such as the violet-eating Fritillaries - and moths) declined so much in Europe in the first half of the 20th century: Nitrogen. More specifically, the heavy use of fertilizers in agriculture, re-deposition of ammonia from slurry tanks and manure piles and the NOx emissions from vehicle traffic that have transformed marginal vegetation at a continental scale, favouring rank, shady nitrophilic plant species (such as nettles and dock) and penalising heliophile (sun-loving) insects that include ants, the Wryneck’s main food.

But recently, just in the last few years, since about 2015 to be precise, I’ve started bumping into territorial Wrynecks close to home once again in the months of May and June when any self-respecting Scandinavian bird would already on the breeding grounds. Around the lake at Doberdò, in vineyards here and there and occasionally for a day or two even in the garden. This year, however, there are Wrynecks EVERYWHERE! We saw and heard them on trips in Istria (2nd – 9th & 14th – 21st May) virtually every day and everywhere we visited including Isola della Cona, a wetland reserve, where there are at least 2 territorial males close to the Visitor Centre and the Marinetta hide. The pair that were shouting at each other in my garden on April 9th have now quietened down but are still here and must be nesting nearby: 

I found a dead chick Great Tit chick on the lawn yesterday evening, another possible sign that they are around. A friend in a neighbouring village called to say that the Great Tits in her Scops Owl nestbox had been turfed out with one corpse beneath the box and asking who the perpetrator might be? A Wryneck maybe? Driving around in Istria there were Wrynecks leaping up from the short turf along quiet roads and the odd flattened corpse, the victim of collisions with vehicles.

As Wryneck densities rise their visibility increases disproportionately as birds in neighbouring territories call to one another while solitary pairs have no such stimulus and call rather rarely, usually an hour or so after dawn and just for a few minutes, so perhaps the perceived increase is rather less than the actual one? What on Earth is going on? Well…

You can set out a range of theories. Perhaps nitrogen deposits are declining and opportunities for heliophile insects are improving? Catalytic converters have certainly helped but N loads on farmland are continuing to rise and heavy goods traffic on the main VeniceTriesteLjubljana motorway is many hundreds of times what it was in the 1980s with the Iron Curtain. Perhaps climate change is favouring the Wryneck although that needs to be set against what seems to be unrelentingly bad news for trans-Saharan migrants, almost all of which seem to be in decline for a range of reasons from habitat loss to the harvesting of birds in various areas around the Mediterranean. Wrynecks are certainly wintering in greater numbers in Italy and ever further north, even regularly in the Veneto, the Region around Venice. Perhaps the food supply has changed? Ah!!

I was in UK last winter and was amazed to see Cattle Egrets, Great White Egrets and Little Egrets in considerable numbers close to where I was living in Somerset. How much of that ‘boom’ is down to food supply and, in particular, the availability of abundant alien species such as the North American Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacusleniusculus) and the Iberian Green Frog (Pelophylax perezi) both present in SW England? What MIGHT be feeding the Wrynecks I’m seeing? Well…

Last winter I was translating a marvellous book into English, Il piacere degli api, (“The Joy of Bees”) by Paolo Fontana, Italy’s best-known entomologist and beekeeper. It'll be a monster at 700 pages and will be published this autumn by the World Biodiversity Association, an Italian NGO of which Paolo is the president. In it he mentions a new but resolvable challenge to beekeeping in Italy, the subtropical Argentine Ant (Linepithema humile), an alien species that exploits the heat produced by the honeybees’ winter cluster to survive the coldest months of the year, setting up home in the roof-space of hives before raiding the landladies’ eggs, larvae, honey and pollen as the weather warms up. He states that the bees often simply abandon the hive and its contents in toto before setting up home elsewhere.

Linepithema humile is an odd’un. This is from the Wikipedia entry:

“According to research published in Insectes Sociaux in 2009, it was discovered that ants from three Argentine ant supercolonies in America, Europe, and Japan, that were previously thought to be separate, were in fact most likely to be genetically related. The three colonies in question were one in Europe, stretching 6,000 km (3,700 mi) along the Mediterranean coast, the “Californian large” colony, stretching 900 km (560 mi) along the coast of California, and a third on the west coast of Japan.
“Based on a similarity in the chemical profile of hydrocarbons on the cuticles of the ants from each colony, and on the ants' non-aggressive and grooming behaviour when interacting, compared to their behaviour when mixing with ants from other super-colonies from the coast of Catalonia in Spain and from Kobe in Japan, researchers concluded that the three colonies studied actually represented a single global super-colony. The researchers stated that "enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society", and had probably been spread and maintained by human travel.
“They have been extraordinarily successful, in part, because different nests of the introduced Argentine ants seldom attack or compete with each other, unlike most other species of ant. In their introduced range, their genetic makeup is so uniform that individuals from one nest can mingle in a neighboring nest without being attacked. Thus, in most of their introduced range, they form supercolonies.

Now I’ve got no evidence that Wrynecks even eat Linepithema humile but could it be that the incredible densities reached by the Argentine Ant around the Mediterranean, especially in urban areas, have modified its food supply and overcome the decrease in ants that seems to have led to its initial decline and that - as in the case of certain grebes and herons in UK - an invasive species ‘problem’ actually represents an opportunity for one or more species. Answering that question is a job for some enterprising torquilla-phile to examine! I’ve no time I’m afraid.

As a kid I gazed at pictures of Wrynecks in books. I even remember reading about it in Richard Fitter’s old Collins Guide to Bird Watching (which is a great read, especially if you are new to birding, so you can ‘feel’ what has changed in your local avifauna over half a century):

R.S.R Fitter's 1963 accounts of the Wryneck in UK in his Collins Guide to Bird Watching
I love having a pair of Wrynecks in the garden … it was one of the ‘holy quartet’ with Hoopoe, Red-backed Shrike and Golden Oriole when I was a child. The Argentine Ant is unlikely to become established in UK away from thermophilic settings such as greenhouses, at least not for a while with climate change, and so won’t help the Wryneck become re-established anytime soon but I feel somehow reassured that the species is doing better around my part of the Mediterranean basin than it has been doing for more than 30 years.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

My limbic system battles it out with my frontal lobes in the General Licences fiasco.

News about English Nature’s (EN) decision towithdraw the various General Licences (GLs) regulating the killing of various wild bird species came minutes after I’d posted a tweet of the picture you see of three Carrion Crows hung on a barbed wire fence next to a public footpath and adjacent to the public open access land on Poyntington Down in Dorset, a place I like to wander about when I’m in UK and imagine what it would have been like to have been Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s mostly sheep pasture and shooting with open grassland interspersed with patches of game cover with release pens in summer and the asphalt of the surrounding roads is splattered with the victims of collisions between pheasants and vehicles. I grew up ‘mooching’ (in the British sense) around the Green Belt of NE London in the 1970s and can remember seeing the occasional keeper’s gibbet there and on trips to Norfolk but I thought it was a habit that had died out, partly through the shame of those practicing it and partly from a desire not to attract attention and comment. Such behaviour is unhelpful, boastful and counterproductive.

One reason for maintaining the GLs as they were as I see it (with lax controls on the numerical control of a handful of problematic species with optimal conservation statuses or alien species) was that it set clear water between what used to be considered “pest” species (the old Schedule 2 species of the1967 Protection of Birds Act, a list later thankfully much reduced in subsequent revisions) such as Carrion Crow (CC), Magpie (MP) or Wood Pigeon (WP) and those that were decidedly not, such as all raptors and owls. What the elimination of GLs for “pest” species might do now (depending on how the new licences emerge) is lump these species in with other sometimes problematic species for which specific licences had to be applied for, such as Common Buzzard (CB), Tawny Owl (TO) and Raven (RA), all of which sometimes cause well-documented problems to certain legal economic activities and for which EN provides licences, generally with great parsimony. Why should CB, TO and RA now be treated any differently by EN when compared to CC, MP or WP when someone applies for a licence, with each case being treated on its merits? De facto, via this action, willingly or unwillingly, EN have abolished the “Premier League” of pest species with a low burden of proof on the need to control them, all of which are doing very well numerically.

I groaned inwardly when I saw NE’s announcement, knowing that it would set off a major diplomatic incident within an already divided nature conservation community with all sorts of bad behaviour on display. I wasn’t wrong. I steered clear of the various shooting and gamekeeping groups I follow on Facebook. Someone can only take so many misplaced apostrophes, so much bad grammar and spelling, so much freely-vented spleen and cut-n-paste copies of Chris Packham’s address. These groups are usually full of common sense, insight and interesting observations but I did follow the discussion in more refined forums.

By way of background, I struggled (and eventually failed) to obtain licences for corvid control in Grey Partridge projects I was working on in Italy in the late 1990s precisely for the same reasons that EN withdrew the UK’s GLs twenty years later, perhaps only a month or two prior to a Brexit that would see the UK no longer (necessarily) bound by the Birds’ Directive that was cited by Italy’s Istituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica (now the Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale) the ecological equivalent of EN in Italy and the body that withdrew (in fact re-wrote it out of existence) my Italian licence after one season.

Re. NE’s announcement and the timing. It couldn’t really have been any worse, could it? 30 years of living in Italy has made me a proficient student of dietrologia, literally the study of what’s behind (‘dietro’) things. This is a haven for conspiracy theorists but I’m not one of those, usually. Was it really a coincidence that NE’s announcement came on TonyJuniper’s (TJ) first day?

Juniper’s appointment as Chair of Natural England by Michael Gove was met with cheers and incredulity from most people in the nature conservation community and gasps of horror from the establishment. What a welcoming present, eh? I wonder who decided that? And precisely at the time when people involved in legal predator control require those licences … and that includes the RSPB and probably other conservation bodies too, not just gamekeepers and farmers. Through no fault of his own TJ now finds himself with a mountain to climb at least as far as the groups that were cynical or displeased at his appointment, and that includes some of the most powerful lobby groups in Britain. It would be interesting to know who took the decision to withdraw the General Licences and why they chose to do so now when the plaintiffs had sought a revision to be in place for 2020?  “Sir Humphrey, was it you!?”

Re. ‘The plaintiffs’. Wild Justice Org. I find this a difficult section to write. I get the impression that the three main actors, Mark Avery (MA), Chris Packham (CP) and Ruth Tingay (RT) were surprised at the turn of events and have all sought to distance themselves somewhat from the plume of the fallout that their “victory” has left in its wake although their most recent statements suggest they are doubling down on their position. I struggle with that and they should feel free to deny that if I have misinterpreted them. 

MA says (in his blog): “The Natural England decision to revoke the long-standing General Licences came out of the blue”. That’s as maybe but ultimately, and for whatever reason it was Wild Justice’s challenge of the GLs that set the chain of events in motion. CP (who has been on the receiving end of brutal death threats , which is a scandal in itself) says (quite rightly) in a tweet:

“Can I please ask why campaigning against 1) the illegal killing of raptors 2) illegal fox hunting 3) pesticides which are human carcinogens 4) poor animal husbandry and 5) a scientifically invalid badger cull makes me an ‘enemy’ of the countryside ? Just plain weird.”

… but in the end it was the revocation of the GLs that Chris facilitated via Wild Justice that really set things off when the “fire risk” was already very high following #ExtinctionRebellion’s highly successful show of strength in London around Easter.

So let’s look at the positions of a couple of individuals who are not at the forefront of the battles on either side but who perhaps find themselves in a difficult position. One is Mary Colwell (MC), the author of the lovely Curlew Moon said (in various articles):

“You couldn't have chosen a worse time to revoke the general license than this week really.”
“We completely welcome a general license review, it needs tightening and more rigour, but to time it with the peak start of laying is really terrible. It's caught us all by surprise.”
“Crows eat both the eggs and the young of curlews. Their eggs are quite large so they don't take them away but they intimidate the birds off the nest, smash the eggs up and eat them in situ.”
“If we had time to prepare, people could have applied for individual licenses, no one would have minded if it happened at a different time of year.”
“Curlews don't often re-lay if they lose a clutch. So we have lost a season and that's bad news for birds in such trouble.”

Nothing to quarrel with there from me. All facts. All true. No “opinion”. And Mary has an unimpeachable pedigree having walked 500 miles to raise money and awareness for the Curlew and, like me, has no interest in practicing field sports as far as I am aware.

Then there is Owen Williams (OW), a fantastically talented artist who probably knows as much about the Woodcock as anyone in Britain but is closer, politically, to the field sports wing of this argument and knows which end of a shotgun and a fishing rod to hold:

OW (on Facebook): “ There was one point in our debate that gave me a great insight into why we had such opposing views on the killing of one bird to save another. I had pointed out to Mark the killing of crows on grouse moors not only increased fledging success of curlew, lapwing and golden plover from 23% to 64%, but it wasn’t having a detrimental effect on the population status of crows. His reply was very revealing.

MA ‘Owen- 10,000 murders a year would make no difference to the human population (not if (it) was measured the way we measure bird populations) but I doubt you would say it was OK, Have a think about why you wouldn’t’.

OW: “I suddenly understood the nature of the gulf between us. He was asking me to accept a level of equivalence of a bird death and a human death. (My italics). I was looking at the subject of predator control objectively from a science perspective and he was introducing the highly subjective angle of how we should view birds.

“This made me realise why, however much we objectively point out scientific facts that the killing of predators on grouse moors gives threatened species like curlew and lapwing a fighting chance to avoid national extinction he still can’t accept the valuable work that keepers do for our biodiversity at no cost to the public purse. He is conflicted (my italics) between his instincts as a bird lover and his training as a scientist – preservationist v conservationist.

“What is frustrating is that Avery and Packham are accepted by the media and the British public as scientists. The public believes that what they say is pure and objective. In reality their views start with their high subjective view that a bird’s death has a high level of equivalence with a human death, they then go onto to dress their argument up with a coat of distorted science that enables them to tell the public and our policy makers such lies as our grouse moors are ‘Dead Burned and Barren’ when anyone with a pair of boots and the desire for a good walk would see that this was far from the truth.

My debates on the subject of grouse moors elsewhere on social media threw up a comment that professional ecologists now use the word "MAMBA" (miles and miles of bugger all) to describe our moors. If professional ecologist, despite their training to be objective, have bought the REVIVES ‘Dead Burned and Barren’ slogan, as promoted by their media representatives Packham and Avery, then we have to be very worried. Science and our policy-making has become infected with subjectivity and a lot is at risk if we allow this to continue.

Again I thank Mark Avery for revealing why the arguing of our science informed position has, thus far, had little effect.”

And here the dissonance between the brain’s limbic system and its frontal lobes is laid bare. Just to refresh your memory: the brain’s "primitive" limbic system regulates our emotions and controls various aspects such as anger, fear, anxiety, empathy, satisfaction and happiness while the "higher" frontal lobes (among other things) deal with cognitive functioning and deductions and exert a control over our behaviour and impulses.

Intellectually, however, many people in this argument seem to be finding themselves at odds with their deeper (limbic) selves. Conflicted. Our limbic systems are telling us that "killing crows" is ‘wrong’ and that we shouldn’t be doing it, while our frontal lobes, presented with the data, as set out by OW or MC or the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust are telling us that “killing crows” (as a short-hand, my shorthand for the past and, to a lesser extent, the present style of land management across much of the uplands with good populations of rare breeding waders such as Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel and even Merlin) is precisely what we should be doing (and what, for example, the RSPB are/were doing on many of their reserves) if we want to avoid their imminent extinction in Britain and Ireland.

Although I am not interested in practicing field sports myself I think I have my limbic system well under control as far as this question is concerned. Some might say I am “emotionally blunted”. Whatever the case, Britain’s uplands and river valleys with breeding waders are the product of at least (an arbitrary, post-Industrial Revolution) 250 years of a social and economic system, that whether you view it as “just” or not, was what it was and is what it is. If you change it, modify it or abolish it, you will change, modify and in some cases "abolish" the flora and fauna associated with it.

I often imagine Cirl Buntings in Britain in a "Just William" haze with Spitfires in the sky, skinny kids running about and jam for tea. Why? Because they were widespread right up into the northern Midlands until the 1940s at a time of spring-sown cereals, a lack of herbicides, plenty of hedges and generalised predator control when the Spitfire represented the zenith of technological achievement. In an era of autumn cereals, Roundup® and the Tesla®, the RSPB is turning cartwheels to maintain and increase numbers of this beautiful bird (including the finding, collection, hatching and rearing in captivity under licence of first clutches for later release). Our populations of Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel and even (ground-nesting) Merlin are a product of their time and place. Of grouse moors and watermeadows, deerstalking and gamekeepers, ‘drowners’, ‘aftermath’ and Lammas. If we want to keep them and abolish many traditional land management systems then we are also going to have to ‘turn some cartwheels’ and that involves modified forms of many of these practices including generalist predator control. Abolishing (say) driven grouse shooting without a very good back-up plan risks knock-on effects that many can see. MA, CP and RT all know this. If they don’t they should. But do their financial supporters at Wild Justice? Perhaps not.  Perhaps they choose not to? Perhaps they do but their own limbic systems (or desire to ‘belong’) override coherence with their frontal lobes? Perhaps they think that it’s a price worth paying, “a mere detail” in a much larger political struggle? (I am very aware here that there are modern practices on British grouse moors such as medication via grit and shortened burn cycles that the GWCT researched, developed and now recommend so spare me the 'whataboutery').

We hear a lot about rewilding of vast tracts of upland Britain. There are some successful proponents too, such as the Knepp Castle Estate which lies in that felicitous band close to London within which a farm shop might charge £15 - £20 for a kilo of  organic pork sausages from uproariously happy range-reared pigs but what would re-wilding do to the UK’s populations of Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel, all a product of their time and place in history - human, geological and climatic? Rewilding is often put forward as a panacea to the problems caused by both excessive sheep grazing and grouse moors in the uplands. I live in an area where involuntary rewilding has taken place since the Second World War.  Let’s look at that process and what it has entailed, the pluses and minuses on the biodiversity front.

Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy’s most north-eastern Region covers 8,000 km2. It borders Slovenia in the east, the Adriatic in the south, the Italian Region of Veneto in the west and Austria’s Carinthia Region in the north. It’s roughly 50% plains and low hills below 250m and 50% “uplands” (tetrads with some points above about 400m above sea level. The geology of the latter is often harsh. There are plenty of peaks above 2000m in the Julian and Carnic Alps. It's fairly rich by Italian standards but not atypical of Italy as a whole in the 21st century. According to Franco Musi in Foreste, Uomo, Economia nel Friuli Venezia Giulia (1990) in 1945 the Region had 800  km2 of forest - 10% - not far off what the UK has today (13%). Today that figure is approaching 50% “forest” cover, 4,000 km2, (ISTAT) that includes the heavy (often Hazel and Green Alder) scrub and secondary woodland that has developed since World War Two!

What could have produced such a dramatic change in the landscape in 75 years and what have the ecological effects been? One reason has been the switch from firewood to more convenient sources of home heating such as diesel or methane but the main cause has been rural depopulation and abandonment of marginal areas. Just taking a local mountain municipality at random, Preone in the Carnic Alps, famous for its late Triassic fossils, the population peaked at 947 people a century ago  but is now fewer than 240 (2017, 25% of its peak) and dropping 3-5 (2-3%) per year. People emigrated from poor, isolated villages to the cities, in Italy or abroad, in search of employment and an easier life, leaving the elderly and the less able “at home” to fend for themselves. But there is a second factor too.

According to Guy Shrubsole in his new book “Who Owns England” (and there is no reason to doubt him) more than half of Britain’s land (if I have the figures right) is owned by just 25,000 families. The Italian system is very different. Not only were sharecroppers and tenants GIVEN the land they were farming or renting on the large estates during the process of  Italian was unification (1815 – 1871) but most of Italy also applies the Napoleonic Code system of inheritance that sees one's estate (including land) divided between all the children at the death of the (final) owner, usually the farmer's wife. This has caused massive fragmentation of land-holdings and indeed it is not uncommon to find 6 or more co-owners of indivisible fragments of land of around 3000 square metres more than half of whom may prove untraceable or are now living in Argentina, Australia or the USA. This means it is virtually impossible to put together a viable land holding for any economic operations other than subsistence (firewood and vegetable plots).

Enough of the socioeconomic effects. What have the ecological effects of this extraordinary and spontaneous rewilding been? Well there are certainly pluses. Brown Bear, Grey Wolf and Lynx are all recolonists in NE Italy, albeit in small numbers. Red Deer and Roe Deer have increased too, although before the predators returned so it will be interesting to watch what happens. The Golden Jackal is colonizing Central Europe from the Balkans and other mesopredators such as Beech Marten, Badger, Red Fox, Raven and Wildcat all seem to be doing well, especially since rabies was eliminated through a large EU-funded vaccination programme. But what about the larger picture and that list of species I mentioned earlier?

Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel.

Well Curlew is a regular non-breeding visitor, Lapwing breeds in agricultural areas, Golden Plover is a regular but rare non-breeding visitor while Twite is a vagrant, but Black Grouse, Capercaillie and Ring Ouzel, all breed in the uplands of Friuli as do Rock Partridge, Hazel Grouse and Ptarmigan as well as Corncrake, Water Pipit, Snowfinch and Golden Eagle. All the latter ten species have been seriously impacted by this spontaneous “rewilding” (among other factors, including climate) either due to direct loss of open habitats (Black Grouse, Rock Partridge, Ptarmigan, Corncrake, Water Pipit, Ring Ouzel, Snowfinch and Golden Eagle) or (in the case of Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse) because the structure of their preferred habitat of light, open woodland has been adversely influenced by succession, or they have been affected by the increase in mesopredators that abandonment and depopulation have allowed.

Birds being negatively affected by this abandonment has not proved the only downside to this spontaneous ‘rewilding’. Other biodiversity and landscape diversity (a good proxy measure of biodiversity) has suffered too, particularly insects and plants as hay-meadows and high altitude grazing land have been allowed to scrub over while stands of pest-prone Norway Spruce have been planted on marginal land. Forest fires – rare when the Alps were intensively managed - have increased massively this century as the dense, scrubby stands become like tinder in dry summers and – more –recently – the final weeks of winter.

What has this got to do with the (hopefully temporary) withdrawal of the General Licences? Lots. The General Licences fiasco slots in as another battle in the ongoing "war" against driven grouse shooting (DGS) and the plans (and the philosophy behind the plans) for the use of “marginal” areas of Britain by people who by and large do not live in those areas are idealistic but will have both positive and negative effects upon biodiversity. I am going to make a confession. It’s like owning up to (say), voting for Brexit: I voted for the parliamentary debate to discuss the ban on DGS promoted by MA, CP and RT. I now think I was wrong. I think these points are best set out in a bullet list:
  • On consideration I no longer think that a ban on DGS would be good for biodiversity;
  • My experience in Italy suggests that large scale rewilding will have major impacts on biodiversity, many of which will be negative for species favoured by ‘traditional’ forms of land and wildlife management, and not just birds but plants and smaller organisms as well;
  • I think that “rewilding” as it stands takes little account of what established communities will do (economically) should it take place;          
  • I think that the rescinding of the GLs is very bad for avian biodiversity whether this was Wild Justice's initial aim or not;
  • I do not believe that removing the distinction between the species previously covered by the GLs and those covered by special licences is good for biodiversity. 
I also believe that MA, CP and RT (both individually over time and together in Wild Justice) ... and now the other extreme, let's call them the "shootists" ... have harnessed social media in such as way as to worsen the already polarized state of British nature conservation that - frankly – has stunned a substantial proportion of the remaining very knowledgeable and fairly conservative centre into what seems to me to a sort of sickened and fearful silence. This polarization of the debate is something which is occurring across the political discussion in the anglophone world and is something that saddens and worries me. There are many far worse enemies of biodiversity in Britain than the people who manage some of its private land in a “traditional” fashion that incorporates legal predator control. I don’t have to name them here. Nor will I but it includes the "agents" of intensive agriculture that lobby for the use of their own products in it. Often many of "them" are not people or companies at all but “policies” decided at various levels. Suffice to say there are 25,000 companies and organizations with offices in Brussels alone, let alone those in the capitals of Europe. We need to maintain an alliance across the spectrum of the millions of people in Britain who hold biodiversity (in some form or another) at the centre of their value systems. I believe Wild Justice is not helping that process. I am disgusted by the way CP, MA, RT and Wild Justice have found themselves on the end of death threats and intimidation but I also abhor the way in which the entire argument has been actively politicized and subject to ‘ramping up’ in social and traditional media by both sides. We are all diminished by it, the silent centre included. 

I shall probably lose some “friends” and “followers” over this post, but I won’t remain silent. Aristotle (in his Nicomachean Ethics) (effectively) said that In medio virtus stat” – that “virtue lies (somewhere) in the middle” (and not at the extremes). Aristotle was also (probably) the first true scientific naturalist and as such his position is good enough for me.

Thankfully I will be away showing a group around Istria this week so don’t expect much discussion or many replies from me. At least we will have something to chatter about without recourse to the dreaded  and divisive “B-word” at all!

A Curlew egg predated by a corvid, Nidderdale, April 2019 
(via the Nidderdale Moorland Group on Facebook)