Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bioblitz Bristol

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Passing this on: Discovering Places Mini BioBlitz, Brandon Hill, 24th July 2010

The Mini BioBlitz is a 3 hour wildlife survey of Brandon Hill running from 12-3pm on Saturday 24th July (see attached poster). We are inviting you and your community groups, family and friends to come and join in and see what different species you can find in the park. Scientists and naturalists from across the region will be on hand to help you identify what you find, tell you more about the region’s species, and give you ‘top tips’ for enjoying wildlife in Bristol.

We are hoping that with your help we can find over 100 different species in just 3 hours. This event is free, fun, educational and exploratory and for more information email or visit
Penny Starr
Director, Festival of Nature

Friday, June 25, 2010

Budget for people and planet?

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Spot the serious green measures in this week's budget? There weren't any! The budget showed no respect for our real wealth and was unfair both for present and future generations. The VAT rise, benefit cuts , public sector freeze, govt departmental budget cuts of 25%, and failure to begin planning for and investing in a greener society will all hit the people, communities and the environment that is our real wealth. In 1997 Robert Costanza estimated that the total value of all our planet's ecosystem goods and services was a massive US $33 trillion - that's US $ 33,000,000,000,000, greater than the economic growth of the all the world' economies combined! Well worth protecting I'd say. There are huge problems with producing such estimates of course - is it water or diamonds that are more valuable to thirsty and hungry people? A subject I will return to I'm sure. If you accept the premises and methodology you are also likely to accept that this US $33 trillion figure is a vast underestimate!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Government 'action' on biodiversity?

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A sixth mass extinction of species is underway according to those scientists who study this field. Even Bjorn Lomborg said in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist that the current/recent extinction rate is high (his figure = 0.014 % of species per year, compared to the background/natural extinction rate of 0.0001% per year ie even a 'sceptic' says it is 140 times greater). Large numbers of scientists put the extinction rate at ten or even a hundred times Lomborg's figure, which is why they talk of a sixth mass extinction: being underway; being very rapid compared to previous mass extinctions (see image, click to enlarge); being caused largely by human activities, especially since industrialisation.

Given this, how are our government reacting? What are they doing/planning to do? Not that much - certainly not enough! You can scour over this speech by the new Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman but you wont find much about action on biodiversity apart from acknowledging interdependence and generalities on wanting to make things better (the emphasis is in fact distinctly on other matters, like money). Lets hope that this is just down to it being early days for the new government. Spelman's department, defra, said this very recently about UK biodiversity assessments /measurements,

Of the 34 component measures within the indicators, over the long-term 10 have shown deterioration, 9 have shown improvement, 2 have shown little or no overall change, 12 had insufficient data for an assessment, and 1 is provided for contextual information and is therefore not assessed.

Not good. Note that by over the long term they appear to mean from the 1970s on! Figures comparing current biodiversity with pre-Second World War, pre- First World War or even pre-industrial levels would be very interesting, though the further back in time we go the harder it is to get reliable data. I'm not that impressed by the current way we gather, treat and use data either.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Food security and the variety of life

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Ask local and national govt about biodiversity and they will talk about species and habitats. Fine as far as it goes, there’s much to be done about both and too little action being taken. I’ve talked about loss of species previously. According to The Ecologist since the Second World War our country has lost 95% of flower-rich meadows, 30% of ancient woodland and 80% of lowland grassland. We’ve lost many thousands of miles of hedgerow, home to a significant proportion of our plants,mammals, bird, butterflies.... The World Resources Institute say that the worlds forest cover has shrunk by as much as half, that 58% of coral reefs are threatened, that two thirds of cropland suffers soil degradation to some degree. You dont hear enough about biodiversity at the genetic level though – and that’s vital to human welbeing, not least because it gives plant and animal breeders a resource to draw on to feed the world.

Within each species and sub-species exists a unique pool of genetic codes. This pool has enabled plants and animals to adjust to change ie its evolved by natural selection. This diversity is what gives our food its flavour, food value, resistance to disease, adaptability... We are allowing this pool – an invaluable resource - to diminish, cutting what we can draw on to develop plants and animals for food in the face of environmental change. Two very common foods –potatoes and wheat - illustrate the situation well.

The original home of the potato is the Andes, South America. Breeders are continually looking there for new genetic material – but as natural and semi-natural areas are cleared, built on, farmed and so on the range of genetic material is decreasing. Andean farmers have increasingly been encouraged to discard old potato varieties for newer, higher productivity ones. Artificial gene banks of seeds and living material are likely to be no substitute for the real thing! There is enormous value in preserving and growing traditional varieties and in protecting natural areas, preserving genetic material where it has developed.

Giant and powerful agrochemical and agribusiness interests are disregarding biodiversity, at genetic, species, habitat and ecosystem levels - and dominating the seed trade. Reducing variety – ideally to a few patentable, single-season, expensive cross-breeds, dependent on fertilisers and pesticides – makes sense and makes money for giant transnational companies. Those who dominate the seed trade also make the chemicals! Where they once used to be varied, wheat and corn aren’t so now - 30% of the worlds wheat comes from one parent plant and 70% of the corn comes from six parent plants. Narrow genetic variation means lower food security because in the event of plant pests/diseases successfully attacking wheat/corn we could lose a big chunk of what is grown.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gardens and wildlife: biodiversity 'begins at home'

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There are around 15 million gardens in Britain and those in England cover an area larger than all nature reserves. Gardens often support more variety of life than the green belt and have long been vastly underrated and underemphasised in biodiversity action planning! Help protect the variety of plant and animal life and gain pleasure by:
* digging and maintaining a pond in your garden – even a small, basic one will attract all sorts of wildlife
*make a small log/twig pile in a garden corner – lichens and fungi may grow, bugs and frogs will make a home and hibernate there
*leave a small, confined part of your garden to grow wild – plants like nettles and brambles are a haven for wildlife
*look into putting up bird, bat and bug boxes...

Excellent and detailed list of tips on gardening for wildlife here from Natural England.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

British animals we've made extinct

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There are plenty of reports about species made extinct and those threatened with extinction from around the globe. Here I just want to give a few examples of some animals we've made extinct from Britain (sample pictured - click to enlarge).

As Britain's human population grew and its agriculture, communities, society and then enentually the industrialised economy developed we have lost, amongst many others: the Wolf (late 1600s in England, 1743 in Scotland) due to hunting; the Brown Bear (during the 1100s, perhaps earlier) due to habitat loss and persecution by hunting; the Wild Boar (the true British Boar by the 1400s and reintroduced types by the end of the 1800s) due to hunting for sport and food as well as loss of forest habitat; the Reindeer (extinct according to some sources by 6000 BC though there are reports of Reindeer in Scotland until 1100 or 1300 depnding on which source you trust!); Aurochs (extinct in Britain perhaps 1000 or 2000 BC and lost from all of Europe during the 1600s) due mostly to habitat destruction; Beavers (mostly gone by the 1300s, may have survived in small pockets until the 1600s, perhaps later) due to heavy trapping for pelts plus loss of range and habitat; the Crane (by around the 1660s) due to taking for food as it was a great delicacy in medieval times; the Great Bustard (by around 1832) due to habitat loss and hunting; the Black Tern (by the mid/late 1800s as a breeding bird) due to draining fens; the English Large Copper butterfly (during the 1860s) due to fen drainage; the Mazarine Blue butterfly (in the early 1900s) due to loss of its habitat and food supply; the Black-veined White butterfly (during the 1920s) due to habitat disturbance and destruction...More recently losses include: the Greater mouse-eared bat in 1990; the Burbot in 1972; the Pool Frog during the 1990s; the Mining Bee in 1934; the Digger Wasp around 1950; the Essex Emerald Moth in 1991; the Vipers Bugloss Moth in 1977; the Dainty and the Norfolk Damselfly and the Orange-spotted Emerald Dragonfly all during the 1950s...

There have been attempts at reintroduction, including for some of the species I've named but the scale is generally small and success can be patchy. Britain's environment has changed a good deal since many species have gone. There are fans of the Wolf, many of whom argue for serious debate on their reintroduction in the Scottish Highlands. The Wild Boar was repeatedly reintroduced for hunting/food until the late 1800s and due to escapes from captivity there are several pretty healthy wild populations in Britain now. Reindeer reintroduction to Scotland began in the Cairngorms in the 1950s and has been successful on a small scale. There have been and are attempts at planned Beaver reintroduction and Natural England are studying the issue. An attempt to reintroduce the Great Bustard to Salisbury Plain in the 1970's was unsuccessful but recent attempts with this species has been much more fruitful, with a few years of successful breeding and increasing nesting. A tiny number of Cranes struggled to sustain itself in Norfolk in the 1980s but there are now efforts at reintroduction. The Black Tern can be seen again as summer visitor and birds have fledged here from the 1960s on. A European sub-species of the Large Copper butterfly was reintroduced in the 1920s. Stray specimens of the Black-veined White butterfly have occasionally reached southern Britain from the Continent.

Diverse and unified; different and equal; changing and constant

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Behind the idea of growth and progress is out of date, straight line, mechanistic, scientific and technical thinking based on the philosophy of breaking things down and analysing them in isolation. This stresses qualities that help us distinguish between people and things. It portrays difference and diversity as opposite, antagonistic, negating extremes: natural v social; human v animal; economy v environment; mind v matter; female v male; black v white; heterosexual v homosexual; old v young; science v art; left v right; objective v subjective; dynamic changes v stability...

This has its place and its usefulness but its very often an either/or trap that is at odds with reality. It is preventing us from acting on the fact that uniqueness, diversity and difference are vital, connected, complementary qualities. Reality is interdependence – the natural and social, human and animal, economic and environmental and so on, are both unique and part of the whole simultaneously. The social emerges from the natural. This is what we are learning from joined up thinking - systems thinking - that is a feature of the newer, fast developing branches of science such as ecology.

The value of diversity and difference can and should be emphasised to counter the trend to political, economic, social and cultural uniformity. Diversity within and between species, habitats and ecosystems brings multiple interactions, with species compensating for each other in the face of change. Avoiding confusion, ie differentiating what is not different and identifying what is not identical, is vital. Difference stressed at the expense of and devoid of solidarity, cooperation and connection can become magnified, resulting in: neglect; blame; anxiety; racism; sexism; abuse; and oppression.

Awareness of this issue that results in action would mean better decision making, better problem solving and better ability to take opportunities. Connections would be recognised and accounted for and complexity better managed.

For the moment though we persist with predominantly straight line thinking: the more economic growth the merrier; its the amount that counts; not much of a selective, controlled approach or much breadth or subtlety in the way we think through, measure and assess growth and progess. High growth, high energy and resource use (especially non-renewables), high waste and pollution, loss of biodiversity (such as the species we've made extinct - sample pictured) – damage to the quality, security and stability of human life.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The case for protecting our closest animal relations - and so protecting ourselves

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The image and letter [left, click to enlarge] was first published in the Bristol Evening Post in April 2004 - I'm still putting the same arguments now. Protect biodiversity and we protect ourselves.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Biodiversity: threats to

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There's only so much of our planet to go around and so as the human population has accelerated in growth and as human consumption has increased - and intensified per person especially in the rich world - so biodiversity has declined. Its estimated that there are 1.4 to 1.7 million living species that we have named and described and that there may be as many as 10 or even 100 million species in total - and we are responsible for hundreds of extinctions, more likely thousands if you count in species we did not even know existed.
We hunt species directly - for food or medicine or sport - cutting numbers and sometimes wiping out, as with the dodo, or nearly wiping out species, as with the blue whale. We take large areas of land, wiping out habitats and ecosystems eg by deforestation, wetland create farmland, mine resources, build roads, airports, towns and cities...We dig and drill into the ground and under the sea to extract resources, like coal, oil and gas, that have taken millions of years to form. We consume the resources we've extracted and pour waste and pollution into the air, oceans and onto land.
We grow our economies as fast as we can - that's how we measure our progress, by the increase in gross domestic product (GDP). GDP treats loss of biodiversity and loss of ecosystems and the services provided as a benefit not a cost eg the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Exxon Valdez disaster or all the other oil spills are counted not as a cost but as a benefit - yet we are in truth impoverished by it.
I've previously posted on the gross deficiencies of GDP as an indicator here and on the need for a new kind of economics here. See here for the wiki entry on why GDP is very bad as an indicator of general welfare and wellbeing.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Biodiversity matters because...

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Biodiversity [life in all its variety] should be valued for reasons of: ethics; aesthetics; ecology; education; recreation; economics; and the resilience that comes from diversity in systems. I suppose preserving biodiversity basically comes down to the fact that it exists, the fact that we like it - and the fact that we need it.

Lets focus in on how and why we need it - and in fact cant live without it! Basic life support systems - those that process our water, soil and air - require varied forms of life, so this alone makes biodiversity essential.

What follows is a list of just some of the uses humans make of biodiversity directly - it shows that it is the source of our resources and the basis of our lives: wheat, rice, potatoes, vegetables, meats and the other stuff we eat; construction materials like wood and bamboo from plants; cotton, paper, linen, and wool from fibre producing plants and animals; renewable fuels, like coppiced willow; latex from rubber trees to make tyres and condoms; ornamental plants for our gardens; tropical fish as pets; large natural/seminatural areas for eco-tourism; many species used as biological pest control for our crops eg ladybirds; reeds beds that clean up sewage-contaminated water; many pharmaceuticals, now synthesised, but originating in natural products eg aspirin from willows and penicillin from fungi...[many of these are pictured, click to enlarge].

Friday, June 04, 2010

Biodiversity is...

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Its International Year of Biodiversity this year so I'm going to do a series of articles on biodiversity in the run up to and a little beyond World Environment Day tomorrow. I've posted on topics relating to biodiversity many times before, notably here summarising the range of reasons why we should protect life in all its diversity and here illustrating the incredible variety of life to be found just within common fruit and vegetables, using the carrot as an example (click on the label biodiversity in the right hand column if you want to browse through my posts on this topic).
Some are unsure what is meant by biodiversity and it is all too often spoken of and explained as if its just about the range of species - its about so much more than that! This first post in the series thus gives my definition. Modern science has been and is learning about joined up - systems - thinking . Biodiversity is thus about the genetic variation within species, the range of all species, the interrelationships between species and between those species and their habitat(s) and the variety of habitats and ecosystems. Lets not forget that human beings are included in this of course and that the living world is tightly coupled to and dependent on the non-living ie water, rocks, air and so on. In short biodiversity is nature as a whole - and its the source of our resources and the basis of our lives - see biodiversity sample in the image above (click to enlarge).
The level of biodiversity is a key measure of how sustainable human society is - and should feature at least as much as the often discussed carbon emissions as an indicator. If biodiversity is high then we are much more likely to have: protected natural assets; kept ecosystems healthy; retained regenerative capacity; maintained the ability to deliver goods and services; kept wastes and pollutants below environmental capacity for safe processing.

Fears over feuding families scupper school merger plan | Bristol news

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Fears over feuding families scupper school merger plan Bristol news

PLANS for a £6 million new primary school in Knowle West have been dropped after concerns a merged school may bring "warring" families together.
An independent report said the proposal to shut Ilminster Avenue and Connaught primaries and merge them in a new building was a bad idea.
The merger plan was announced two years ago in the council's Primary Review. People in the area immediately opposed the scheme, and eventually the council decided to commission consultants
Cambridge Education to help find a way forward.
In their 90-page report, the consultants were critical of the proposal for many reasons.

Hardly a fair and balanced choice of headline by the Evening Post (which is also unfairly subheaded 'Scheme dropped after warning over tensions') but it suits the stereotype of Knowle West they always seem to have in mind. The consultants - very significantly - also said that the scheme would leave the area without enough primary school places and that not enough money had been allocated to building the proposed single, larger school. Also pretty significanly they outlined further community uses for the existing school buildings and proposed that such changes to schooling need local community support - but the Post chose to put the spotlight elsewhere. Its great that the merger idea has been dropped but why did the council have to employ consultants to reach this conclusion - why did they not listen to locals and campaigners instead?

Nuclear station wants an extension to make more cash

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Nuclear station wants an extension to make more cash

Oldbury nuclear power station is set to continue operating into next year despite previous plans to shut it down within months, it has emerged.

Officials are requesting a "fairly short" extension to its lifespan, which would generate cash that could be off-set against a £4 billion hole in the national decommissioning budget revealed yesterday by the Government.

Oldbury was due to be decommissioned in 2008 after operating for 41 years but was then given permission to run until this year.

Oldbury nuclear station has already been allowed to operate for longer than originally envisaged and designed for. This report does not tell us how much longer they are now asking for and the reason - financial - is hardly right-headed. One nuclear station operating for a 'fairly short' time is hardly likely to make much of a dent in the £4 billion black hole in the nuclear decommissiong budget. That there is such a large financial hole for such a vital operation is in itself disturbing - and adds weight to arguments against nuclear power.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Science cafes on climate, biodiversity and energy next week

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Passing this message on: As part of the Festival of Nature, there are four science cafes in Bristol next week, Monday to Thursday, at various venues. All are free, starting at the usual time of 8pm. No booking is needed.
Monday 7 June at the Tobacco Factory, Raleigh Road, Southville, BS3 1T

How will humans change when the climate does?
Scientists seek to understand nature; philosophers and economists explain human culture. Our combined knowledge has vastly increased, but has control of our world advanced?

This discussion will explore connections between the 'producers' and the 'users' of environmental change research to inform real-world environmental decision-making on many scales.

The speaker is Sarah Cornell
For more information email:
Tuesday 8 June at At-Bristol, Anchor Road, BS1 5DB

Geoengineering the climate: A brave new world?
Even very substantial cuts in carbon dioxide emissions are unlikely to prevent 'dangerous' climate change, so what other choices are available? This event will discuss alternative engineering options for cooling the planet and explore the risks of not tackling ocean acidification.

Speaker: Andy Ridgwell and Daniela Schmidt
For more information, email:, or tel: 0117 915 7120
Wednesday 9 June at the Bristol County Sports Club, 40 Colston Street, BS1 5AE

The rise of the Peregrine: A recovering population
As the peregrine falcon spreads into our towns and cities, how will the species fare in the future? This event will consider the consequences of reintroducing birds in other European countries to bolster their populations. The persecution of birds of prey is on the rise. How can we manage their survival?

Speaker is Ed Drewitt -
For more information email: [Image] Bristol County Sports Club, 40 Colston Street.
Thursday 10 June at the Watershed, 1 Canon's Road, Harbourside, BS1 5TX

A sea of energy
Energy is everywhere: it escapes from buildings; it changes form; it can be captured. But how do we do it? Join in discussions of how small devices can be powered from captured energy and how renewable energy could revolutionise our lives without some of us even noticing.

Speakers: Stephen Burrow, Jeremey King and David Drury
For more information email: