The Simple Joy of Long-Tailed Tits

I recently had the pleasure of tagging-along for a day with a friend on her PhD field research on Long-Tailed Tits, and discovered that they are utterly delightful little beings.

Caitlin Higgott, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, is now in her second year of studying the nest-building behaviour of Long-Tailed Tits. However, on the day that I met her (and tried not to interrupt her science too much whilst making a video of her working), she was focussing a lot of her attention of a wider monitoring project on ‘Helpers’.

If one bird’s breeding attempt fails [ie. chicks get eaten by crows or similar], then that bird and it’s breeding partner can either try again and lay a new clutch of eggs, or they can go and help their relatives in providing food for their nieces and nephews” she explained.

This is very cool, and helping to nurture another’s young is a pretty rare behaviour to see out in the animal kingdom, beyond the the most social animals (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Elephants, some monkeys such as Spider Monkeys and pack animals like Lions or Wolves – but even then it’s rare to find simply helpful animals without it being some hierarchal structure thing where everyone just looks after the Alpha’s offspring), and ‘Eusocial’ in the case of colony-forming insects (Ants, Wasps, Bees etc. – and that’s because they’re all more related to their siblings than they are to their own offspring!).

In short, Long-Tailed Tits aren’t just adorable to look at; deep-down they’re just lovely characters.

But one of the most impressive things that I soon discovered while out with Caitlin, is that Long-Tailed Tits can freaking HOVER!

Hovering is a very impressive talent, that again, is very rare to see elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The only birds with a real reputation for being able to *truly* hover are the Hummingbirds (of course), and the Kestrel (one of the most delightful things to commonly see on the roadsides of rural Lincolnshire).

All said and done though, Caitlin may be right in her research that one of the most simply brilliant things about Long-Tailed Tits is the way they build their nests.

It’s like something out of a fairy tale.
(a Disney one, not a classic Grimm one).

Before Caitlin started working on Long-Tailed Tits, I’d never even really heard of them. Since discovering them and all of their wonderful quirks, I think they’ve become one of my favourite British birds. They’re just utterly lovely, and in a world that is such a mess, it’s nice to find these spirits of pure joy flitting about our towns and countryside.

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How To Fight Climate Change

Happy #EarthDay and #March For Science!

In short, here’s how to fight climate change (and save the world):

  1. Vote conscientiously. Get informed on different parties’ policies on climate and environment and how they intend to tackle them.
  2. Offset your carbon emissions with Saving Species.
  3. Reduce the amount of plastic that you use and throw away.
    (Watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix if you want to know why).
  4. Reduce the amount of beef and dairy in your diet – or cut it out completely (Watch Cowspiracy on Netflix if you want to know why).

and check out everything else in Your Save-The-World Starter Pack 🙂

But here’s a big question that people often ask:-

WHY SHOULD YOU BOTHER???

Amidst all the chaos in the world, the sheer magnitude of the climate change problem, it can be very easy to ask “What kind of a difference can I really make?”
You are, after all, just one person. How can one person’s lifestyle change actually do anything to change the world?

My old answer used to be that even if it seems inevitable, can you really be comfortable knowing that your actions are personally and directly contributing to the destruction of everything you love? (take rainforest destruction, the bleaching of the great barrier reef, or the threat of food and water security for your children and grandchildren as examples). Can you contentedly be a part of that? Or will you take a stand and say “No, I will do what is in my power to not be a part of that“?

That old answer is fairly powerful, in that it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, but there’s no assurance that you will actually make a difference – and that’s what you understandably really want.

Here’s my new answer:

We’ve recently seen the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump.
How many people said those things could never happen? How many people cast their votes the way they did because “they never thought it would actually happen“; because they “Just wanted to make a point“?

In the last year the world has been completely turned upside down, and we’re desperately close to irreparable damage on a host of issues – not least of which is climate change.

It’s a bizarrely bitter-sweet assurance that’s come out of the last year’s of turmoil:

IF YOU BOTHER TO TRY,
YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.

(now go change it for the better 😉 )

 

The Top Of The Tree on Kickstarter!

For the last year nearly I’ve been producing this film about flooding and what we can do now, and it’s nearly finished! But to really finish it off well, and to spur this ever-growing High Water project into an even greater resource, I’ve just launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and, well, take a look:

I spent the last week touring the country, taking to the stage and presenting material from High Water Common Ground at the National Flood Forum’s Conference titled “Are We Planning To Flood?” in London, at the CERT Cumbria Flood Expo in Carlisle, and at the ‘Sniffer‘ conference in Edinburgh #FRM2017. What a week!

Presenting the HWCG trailer at the NFF conference in London 🙂

Thus far I’ve received a seriously positive response from the people I’ve been speaking to and sharing sneaky in-production cuts of HWCG with, so it’s looking good for this film to make a good impact when it’s released later this year.

But what about this Crowdfunding? Please support the campaign, by sharing it and spreading awareness – but also, it’s a crowdfunding campaign, so like all of these things, if you’d like to see it brought to life then please pledge (even a small amount) to make it real.

Here’s the thing – I’ve realised over this production that one film’s just not going to cut it. There’s a huge amount of information and personal stories that need sharing in HWCG, but there’s so much more to the flooding picture. There are more examples to learn from, more research to explore. And there’s also this fundamental principle (which does feature quite heavily in HWCG) that one size does not fit all. This is not a panacea. Ultimately, to solution to flooding in any catchment is going to be bespoke to that catchment. So how do we find that solution? Partly it is a case of learning from others, but recognising what will work in a unique situation.

To that end, I’ll soon be creating a full library of short films to cover every aspect of flood risk management, of course told from the perspectives of the people who live and work alongside these solutions. http://www.highwaterfilm.co.ukthe ultimate flood risk management resource!

And that’s really what this crowdfunded’s about – it’s about connecting people, to help them to understand the issues faced by flood-threatened communities. To learn from other’s mistakes, and other’s best-practise.

Innovative and engaging science communication, on a subject that readily effects thousands of people’s lives every year. If you think that sounds like something worth having, like something that could make a difference, then please please, support High Water Film on Kickstarter.

RIP Tilikum

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Of all of the losses or great, loved and impactful figures of the last year, one most recently has left me struggling to know how I feel. Tilikum, the Killer Whale, has died.

Thousands of people worldwide are familiar with Tilikum from his star status at SeaWorld, where he has entertained and enthralled audiences for years. However, the spotlight was really shone on Tilikum a few years ago in the feature documentary Black Fish – which, if you haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch it now. You see, Tilikum – more than any other Orca in history – lived up to his “Killer Whale” title.

(Critical note: it is *almost* completely unheard of for Orcas, aka.“Killer Whales”, to attack humans in the wild.)

Tilikum suffered a frankly horrible life. Abducted from the wild and from his mother’s side at an inhumanely young age – something which those involved confess in Black Fish as being one of the most heart-breaking experiences of their lives – and forced into captivity and public entertainment. This is not something which is ever good for marine mammals like whales, dolphins, etc. and it often manifests in obvious ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and physical symptoms. But in Tilikum, this trauma manifested more powerfully than in most. When he was 10 years old, he took his first human life, that of Keltie Byrne, in the middle of a public show in Canada.

Despite this event, Tilikum was kept in captivity, and would later be responsible for the deaths of two more people – one civilian, Daniel Dukes, and one trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during his time at SeaWorld.

This story so far is bleak, it’s morbid. And that’s the way that it was set to continue until Gabriela Cowperthwaite made the documentary Black Fish and revealed Tilikum’s tale to the world. Tilikum’s heart-wrenching story made him the poster child for captive animal abuse the world over. The use of captive marine mammals for public entertainment instantly received massive and unforgiving public attention – and none more so than SeaWorld.

It has been a long fight, but in the last year SeaWorld finally agreed that they would cease breeding further animals in captivity. Essentially saying that, when their currently captive animals die, that will be the end of their live shows.

Globally, wonderful progress has been made – almost entirely as a result of inspiration from Black Fish – in the regulations on transporting and keeping animals for entertainment. The power of Tilikum’s tale has been transformative to the modern world. And that is why I don’t know how I feel about his death.

Tilikum was a Killer Whale. He killed three people.

He also lived a utterly horrible life, suffering conditions that no sentient creature should be subjected to.

But because of his life the world is a powerfully better place for his kind, for humanity, and for every other creature that we interact with. Tilikum has done more for cetacean conservation than any other non-human in history. To me, his death simply brings to light the impact that he has had.

I am glad that SeaWorld have one less Orca to exhibit. I’m happy for Tilikum that his suffering is finally over. And I mourn him, out of sadness for his life, and for what he has inspired people to do all over the world.

As we go into 2017, renegotiating new-years resolutions and hoping for a year generally brighter than the last, please join me in raising a glass in Tilikum, the Killer Whale. Remember that from atrocity we have the power to act with overwhelming love, respect and kindness, remember that we can learn from our mistakes, and remember that you can change the world.

This Film I’m Making…

Four months ago I thought “Let’s make a little film about flooding. That’ll be a nice quick job.” Cut to now, and High Water Common Ground has evolved into a much larger project than I ever imagined. And I must say, it has been one of the most rewarding, enlightening and enjoyable things I have ever done.

The film focuses on ‘Natural Flood Risk Management’ – something with a plethora of benefits for people, climate and ecology, so naturally I’m a huge fan – and also on the communities behind these innovative schemes – so it’s involved speaking with a huge range of wonderfully passionate and fascinating people. Through that journey, I have learned so much – but here are two big things that really stand out:

1. Flooding is a genuinely awful thing.
I have been the first to admit that, as a lad born and raised in Nottinghamshire, I have no idea what it’s like to be hit by a flood. But from speaking to so many people who have lived it – and continue to live with the constant threat of flooding – I now appreciate how severe it can be. Businesses, Homes and Lives can be ruined. The damage done by watching your possessions – your most cherished belongings, heirlooms and memories be swept away or stained by flood waters is a cruel and deeply cutting natural disaster. After the initial shock, it can take months for insurance to clear, for properties to dry out, to clean, to rebuild – to actually live again. When or if a person or community does get to start again, there lingers the cloud that it is only a matter of time before it happens again.
It doesn’t matter whether the actual peak of the flood lasts ten minutes, ten hours, or ten days. Long-lasting damage is done in far more ways than we can articulate through any stock-check, or insurance claim.

2. Community is a phenomenally beautiful thing.
From the devastation of flooding I have seen the most admirable and inspirational community spirit emerge. This film has re-defined “neighbourliness” for me. A flood event poses a severe threat, in the heat of the moment and for months afterwards; I have found people rise to that with the most glorious acts of love and stoicism. I don’t wish to downplay the destruction of the floods last winter, but there is a seriously wonderful silver-lining to that dark cloud. It’s not even my place to praise the people who have acted so admirably for their communities, but I can’t help it – I am genuinely grateful to everyone for their example and their efforts. I can only hope to pay homage to that in this film.
As this then moves into the context of flood risk management, one fact profoundly stands out: schemes are so much fuller, and more effective, when we work together as a community, compared to schemes that operate divisively, or with imposition. And this year particularly, this is really coming to the fore.

Throughout the last few months I have got to know some really wonderful characters from all walks of life and from all around the UK. I can’t begin to name them all here because they are so many, and their work is so remarkable I could never stop writing about them. But I will say this: they are a wonderful, diverse, passionate and charismatic community.

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‘Alternative Xmas’ in the Calder Valley this July.

As much as I have found new peers and colleagues through this process, I have made new friends. I have made connections with people that I deeply value and I will be honoured to work with them further in the future, should we get the chance. The film itself would not be half of what it is going to be without the great help and support of the contributors to knowledge, and fundamentally important are the official sponsors of the film with whom I am working to make this truly beneficial and impactful. To them I extend my most sincere gratitude – but for now, I can’t yet tell you who they all are…

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#AccidentalHeroPose with this star of the film…

As I have learned more about this sector within the environmental management industry, I have become more sympathetic to their foibles, and more aware of their needs and ambitions. I have realised that writing environmental policy (particularly in the midst of a Brexit) is astronomically difficult, and that is because it is largely a task of fitting mixture of social science and ecology to a system grounded in the hard facts of engineering and economics. Now, you can probably name examples of people who are an endless and perplexing enigma shrouded in mystery, but consider biological science. Watch The Big Bang Theory, and you’ll find Biology ridiculed as the softest of the sciences. While it is unquestionably the cuddliest, it is also the hardest to define or quantify. We can’t even keep track of our variables enough to not reduce any model of the environment a crude papier-mâché caricature (Fellow scientists, I am over-simplifying and sensationalising to make a point). Seriously, try to make a solid predictive model of something as notoriously unreliable as the weather, whilst considering the entire planet of things that continually interfere with it. It’s difficult.
The nice thing that we can take from that is that there is always room for improvement; we can always get better.

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Integrating with nature is looking better and better…

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Scientist. Star.

We are getting better. With intrigue comes investigation, and a number of great scientists have been answering the call for evidence to back natural flood risk management that emerged a few years ago – a call founded in the fact that a ‘natural’ system is far more saturated with uncertainly than a man-made system. We can now model and predict our impact on the environment better than ever before, and we are nowhere near reaching a pinnacle in our ability. As this foundation grows stronger, more time, energy and funding is being devoted to strengthening that foundation. Finally, now, we are on the cusp of having the right combination of ability, opportunity, and inclination to put more holistic flood risk management schemes into action. And we can accept that we cannot stop flooding full stop – particularly as climate change pushes back against our efforts more and more every day – but  there is so so much that we can do to make so many things better.

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Peter taking his job seriously, and recording a babbling brook. This film is going to sound exquisite!

Overall I just can’t get over what a good time I’m having with this. I’ve seen utterly beautiful parts of the country that I’d never have seen otherwise. I’ve developed skills that I’d never have learned otherwise. I’ve drunk beer that I’d probably not have tasted otherwise…

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“Old Sphagnum” Ale. Delicious!

And throughout visiting all of these wonderful places and meeting these fantastic people, I’ve had a couple of utter stars by my side – the other two thirds of my production team, Ben Sadd and Peter Baumann. They have both contributed phenomenally to the beauty and success of this project, and they have both been brilliant companions throughout this journey (apart from that time Ben left us to go to the Galapagos, the lucky sod).

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Ben patiently listening to my rambling direction…

There is one final lesson that has been imparted upon me (mostly) by the scientific community over this production – Natural Flood Risk Management is not the panacea!! That accepted, ‘NFM’ is an incredibly valuable component of any flood plan, it is worthy of greater attention, and there exists plethora of benefits that it can provide to us all – from cleaner water to increased biodiversity, healthier ecosystems, improved fish stocks, carbon sequestration, protection of rare species, recreation, improved health and well-being, community inclusiveness, collaboration, more cost-effective environmental management, improved agricultural techniques, environmental resilience to climate change, community resilience to flooding, reductions in flood peaks, and the simple fact that a lovely woman called Susie now has a frog living in her pond. It is not the panacea, but it is great.

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This is Susie; we were utterly delighted when we found a frog in her sustainable drainage pond 🙂

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Susie’s Frog.

High Water Common Ground Premieres October 2016.

A Phone That Redefines “Smart”: INTERVIEW with FairPhone

Now thanks to PokémonGo, fewer people then ever are managing to prize themselves away from thier smartphones for any length of time – even when out in the great outdoors. Technology, and smartphones in particular, have become deeply integrated into our lives. They are for work and for play. They open up a universe of information, and eons of hapless distraction. Ask most people now if they could function without their smartphone either for work or for their general lives, and most will concede that it’d be an awful lot harder if not impossible.

[I would like to suggest here that, at some point, you get off to a jungle and leave your phone in the rest of the ‘real world’. It is a gloriously freeing experience. Then return to society refreshed, work with the system to make it better, and look forward to your next opportunity to get out in nature.]

But where do these miracles of technology come from? What is the cost of something that enables and provides so much? A fundamental component in most technological goods is heavy metals – particularly things like gold, tungsten and tin – and if you look at where these metals generally come from things start to look a little darker than even your favourite Instagram filter could brighten up. The smart phone industry is an incredibly wealthy one, though one still very tied into market forces and all too-often cheap raw materials come with some sombre hidden costs. The fact is that almost all smart phones are currently produced with non-fairly traded raw materials. That might not sound like the worst thing in the world, until you realise that for many people around that world, that is a distinction between life and death at the hands of industry.

This injustice has not gone unnoticed, and the call to produce tech that has a positive impact on the world has been enthusiastically answered by a great bunch of people from Amsterdam; the team behind FairPhone.

FairPhone, “the smartphone with social values”, tackles four major issues in standard product development and distribution; the mining of raw materials, the way a product is designed (they don’t really agree with the concept of “inbuilt obsolescence“), the manufacturing of the product, and the overall lifecycle of the product. The result is a fantastic smartphone that is responsibly and fairly sourced from the moment it’s components leave the ground, is built to last and also built to evolve – you’re in control of your FairPhone, as it’s modular design makes for easy repairs and upgrades as technology develops. And there’s a kick-ass recycling scheme built in there too.

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The FairPhone is as transparent and integrous as they come.

I recently received my very own FairPhone2, and I must say that I love it. Habitual iPhone users may sneer that the camera’s not yet as clear as theirs, or that there’s no virtual butler to dictate text messages to, or that it doesn’t automatically sync up with your new Apple Watch;  but frankly, if we can’t produce Apple level of slick-ness without ignoring human rights and the environment, then I’m not interested.

I dropped the team a line and asked if I could get to know a bit more about them as – and I’m sure you’ll agree – they deserve some praise for taking on the challenges faced by modern society in such entrepreneurial and altruistic ways. When I got in touch, Daria from Fairphone was more than happy to chat:


You’ve just launched Fairphone 2, how’s it been received? (I should point out at this point that I’m a big fan of mine, so as far as I’m concerned it’s been received very well).

 Over 40,000 have already bought the Fairphone 2, around 17,000 of them crowdfunded the phone last summer to kick-start the production and had to wait for their device for around half a year (now we finally have the phone in stock and for the new customers the delivery takes place within a week). We are very thankful to all these people for joining the community of 60,000 Fairphone 1 users who enabled us to take this next step towards fairer electronics and invest in the Fairphone 2.

The phone has also been received well by many technology and sustainability experts. For example, the Fairphone 2 has been the first smartphone ever to receive 10 out of 10 reparability score from iFixit. We’ve also received the highest rank among electronics manufacturers assessed by Rank a brand recently.

But we’re just getting started. In 2016, our goal is to focus on growth in order to create even more impact in our supply chain (with higher volumes we can become a more interesting and important partner for suppliers). We aim to sell 100,000 phones this year. This is a very ambitious target and in order to reach it we need to appeal to a more general public as well as to corporate clients and expand our distribution network. It is challenging but we’re working hard on it. This is why this year the support of our community and buyers is by no means less important than previously, but perhaps even more important than ever before.

 What kind of impacts have you already achieved through your design, and what are you hoping to tackle in the near future?

 We designed the Fairphone 2 ourselves (as opposed to the licensed design used for the Fairphone 2) in order to gain more transparency in our supply chain, build deeper relationships with suppliers and be able to choose materials and influence the production processes. It has enabled us to work closely with partners such as Fairphone 2 PCB manufacturer AT&S (second-tier supplier) and, for the first time in consumer electronics, we managed to integrate Fairtrade gold in our supply chain. Furthermore, recently we’ve announced that we’ve established a supply chain for conflict-free tungsten from Rwanda – again, thanks to working together with our suppliers (such as the mine and the smelter) behind the first tier. However, these are just the first steps and in the future we want to engage with more suppliers to increase our impact.

From the product perspective, with the Fairphone 2 we have managed to increase the reparability of the phone – users can replace the most commonly broken parts of the phone easily, without any technical knowledge. We sell spare parts that are needed to replace broken ones. Modular architecture also allows interesting upgradeability possibilities. We’re going to continuously improve the device doing incremental upgrades so that the product lives longer in the market commercially. As the first step, we are going to refresh the camera module as it’s one of the most utilised features of the phone.

In addition, we included an expansion port in the back of the transceiver. This expansion port gives us the option to build alternative back covers with integrated additional functionality.

 The big thing that I really want to ask, is Why is Fairphone special? By which I mean – why are more devices not like Fairphone? It’s great that Fairphone is special because it is fair, but obviously it’d be great if everything was fair, so why is it not? Why is it not just the expectation that we operate fairly?

 It’s a philosophical question. I think that one of the key reasons is that there is not enough visible demand for more ethical and long-lasting products, especially in electronics. Why is there not enough demand? There is a lack of awareness: people just don’t know where their stuff comes from, who makes it and in which conditions.

And this is exactly why we created the Fairphone – as a means to build the movement for fairer electronics and inspire the entire industry to tackle issues across the value chain: from mining to design and from manufacturing to life cycle. The Fairphone is a storytelling object. By making it we can open up the supply chain and bring its stories all the way to the consumer. By using it users can spread these stories further. Together we can show that there are people who care, that there is a market for more ethical products. This can motivate the industry to act more responsibly.

 Along such lines, what do you think that we could all do to improve our practise? Both on the large scale of corporate social responsibility, and on a personal level in the things we buy and our approach to the world.

Apart from what I’ve described so far, there are many actions that we as consumers can take to push towards a fairer economic models.


My sincere thanks to Daria and the rest of the FairPhone team for all that they’re doing to make the world a better place. Everyone else, get yourself a FairPhone and make some positive changes to global industrial practise.

Now if I could only catch that Snorlax

A Bold N-EU Frontier…

Some things never seem to change… Donald Trump remains grossly uninformed, Walnut Whips are a delicious outdoor treat, and the environment’s still in severe danger.

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Original photo credit: Bethanie Francis

We’re likely to soon lose some of the highest levels of environmental protection this country has ever had – including Natura 2000 designation, Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protected Area (SPA), and other measures that intrinsically support environmental management, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the inclusive Greening Measures.

But, as so many people are saying, now is not the time to be playing Captain Hindsight and waste time blaming mistakes that have been made or dwelling on what could have been. Rather, in light of losing these things that have protected our environment for so long, we need to come together to work out how we’re going to carry on protecting the environment.

This sense of togetherness is going to be intrinsic to how we move forwards in looking after and managing the environment (though the irony is not lost on me that it was not a sense of ‘togetherness’ or unity that many recently declared their priority). However, divisions and tribalism are going to have to be put aside in the future, because that’s simply not the way the world works. When I say “The world” there, I don’t mean society; I mean the actual, living world. The Earth. The global biosphere. Gaia. Call it what you will, this environment that we’re looking to manage exists as a wide and holistic entity. Only by appreciating that we are a part of that, and sympathetically addressing it holistically, will we really stand a decent chance of managing it.

Community engagement with science and policy is going to be intrinsic to our future in the UK, and there’s a plethora of ways that that has been building momentum for some time. Now let’s get on it.

Don’t Worry, The Lynx Aren’t Going To Eat The Sheep

An organisation called The Lynx UK Trust are currently putting together a very coherent consultation to propose the reintroduction of Lynx to specific sites around England and Scotland. This is awesome. It’s awesome partly because the rewilding debate is such a hot topic with so much potential, and it’s also awesome purely for the quality of this consultation – it’s a sound and thorough read.

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Unfortunately, the awesomeness of this project rarely makes headlines; when this topic is reported it’s normally the lynx’s title of ‘carnivore’ or ‘top predator’ that’s focussed on. For example, last month I was somewhat disgruntled to see the only recent update in the rewilding story to be

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Wild lynx plan ‘threatens sheep farmers’“. Why is it never a positive rewilding headline? At least this one didn’t feature a close-up mug-shot of a particularly savage-looking lynx. And to the Beeb’s defence, the article does then explore the issue quite well. But if you as a reader don’t care that much and only get your information from headlines, there’s no way by this point you’ll be thinking that bringing in the lynx is a good idea.

(More recently I came across this stellar piece of journalism from The Telegraph, stating in it’s headline that “Releasing Lynx into the wild puts ramblers in danger of attack…
It’s even grosser extrapolation than the sheep – but worse because the views peddled in this article are riddled with inaccuracies and assumptions that are, simply,  wrong!
Lynx are no danger to humans. Fact. Nowhere on Earth are lynx considered to be a threat to humans. Lynx are only, very rarely, a mild threat to our stuff, and that is still an idea that is irrelevant in this debate, as I will go on to demonstrate.
Now, that’s all of this post that I’ll devote to that nonsense.)

Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

So there’s fear that lynx might pose a threat to our sheep – which in the BBC article is expressed by the National Sheep Association in a lengthy document of anxiety and skepticism. I can see why people might think lynx are a threat; the lynx is a Big(-ish) Cat by most people’s standards (it’s not technically a ‘Big’ Cat, at best it’s a Medium Cat) – it’s the largest feline predator in Europe, and our British sheep are hardly bred for their ability to stand up for themselves in a fight. But there is one fundamental fact that means we really don’t need to worry about this: Lynx aren’t going to eat our sheep.

It’s not that a lynx is liable to turn it’s nose up at mutton; if anything it’s simpler than that. Lynx live in woodland – they need woodland to survive, as they’re opportunistic ambush predators of small things. For that reason, we can only think about (re)introducing Lynx to pretty densely forested areas. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed on scenic drives through the Lake District or one of our other great grazing pastures / National Parks, but we don’t tend to do much sheep farming in the woods. In nerdy biological terms, these Lynx and our sheep will be functionally and physically isolated from each other.

On the continent they have Lynx, and by-and-large it’s fine. The exception is Norway, where they do have an issue of Lynx predating sheep. BUT, in Norway, they farm sheep in the forests – now do we need to wonder why Lynx eat more sheep in Norway?
Using Norway as a model environment in this debate, is tantamount to a red herring.

Now, to be fair, if we were to saturate our island with Lynx, we might have a little more to think about, and that’s really where the NSA’s objections are focussed. Their concerns relate more to farming alongside a full, genetically viable population of a few hundred. But for the time being, the reintroduction trail is to release between four and six individual lynx at very specially selected sites to suit Lynx ecology, boost ecotourism and limit any negative (sheep-related) effects. So let’s just work on getting that right for now, and if it goes well, we can use the same decent methodology to work out how a larger population might fit in.

lynx1I recognise that people don’t like that motive – the ‘let’s just try it for the sake of trying it‘ motive, without it serving a larger purpose. So why should we give the go-ahead to this trail?
One key argument is for Lynx to exert some control over our rampant deer population – which we desperately do need in our oldest forests. And while Lynx may not have quite as powerful an impact on deer as, say, a few packs of wolves, they unquestionably will make significant impacts. But I think there is an even greater reason why this trail needs to happen.

Sir David Attenborough has been infamously quoted as saying that “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” This is a very common view in conservation – experiencing nature first-hand opens your eyes to it’s importance in ways that simply hearing the facts of it never could (the same is true of many things, like my Dad’s love of his new Apple watch. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it”, he says).
All over the world, we need to start understanding and appreciating wildlife more; simply before it is too late to do so. As a pretty substantial player in global economy, the UK is in a good position to influence that, but compared to most others our little island is desperately depauperate of wildlife. We need Lynx to make a global and local point that the effort is worth making to save the life of the Earth. Lynx could potentially do wonderful things for inspiring awe in nature and biodiversity in the UK, and from the immediate delight on the faces of children to the wider global perspective, that is a great thing.

You experience ecology, your eyes open. You understand ecology, your mind opens. You appreciate ecology, your heart opens. You protect ecology, because it moves you.

Original Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

 

The Cartoon Conservation Crash-Course

Do you enjoy cartoons, and also want to know more about ocean conservation?
– Before we go any further, the second part of that’s not that important right now, let’s just focus on the cartoons.

Because cartoonist Jim Toomey has drawn-up this series of cartoons [about conservation] and they’re brilliant [and informative]!

Can we do this more in science communication please? Use a vessel that people love when we communicate our most important messages – rather than waiting for the media to not bring it up after they’ve talked about some sporting achievement or some foiled or successful terrorist incident, or relying on the public to muster up some curiosity and fork-out to see what’s lurking behind the infamous pay-wall? Because, as exemplified by the Cartoon Crash-Course, when you communicate serious issues through an element of joy, it can be fantastic.
Watch this:

Do you know when I first got to know about Ocean Governance? My masters degree.
As Pew state on their channel, “Ocean conservation is essential but extremely difficult to understand“. However, with Jim here it’s become fantastically accessible and – dare I say it – quite entertaining! Here’s another about Ocean Acidification – bet you never thought you’d see a jolly cartoon about that:

Jim Toomey is the cartoonist behind Sherman’s Lagoon, a cartoon strip about a great-white shark named Sherman and his marine pals. Naturally there appears to be a cross-over of his interests, from cartoons to conservation.

In this series Toomey combines a natural, comfortable style in front of a camera with his artistic flair, and manages to make complicated, serious topics – including Bycatch, Marine Reserves, Illegal Fishing and Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management – really quite engaging.

Thanks to this series, I’ve also discovered series’  producers; the Pew Charitable Trusts, who’s mission statement is to

…lay the foundation for effective policies and practices by invigorating civic life, conducting research, informing and engaging citizens, linking diverse interests to pursue common cause, and insisting on tangible results.

I think they deserve a doff-of-the-cap for that! If you’re looking for something philanthropic in almost any sector – check out their website and their work.

Now maybe I’m just too much of a jungle-lover, but I do feel that throughout the general populous there is a significant bias towards terrestrial life in conservation, and a severe disconnect from the ocean. It’s probably because most of us don’t see the sea all that much, and when we do we are struck by it’s enormity. That’s why for so long we thought, like the atmosphere, we could chuck whatever horror we liked out there and let it dissolve into insignificance. But yesterday we lost five Solomon islands, demonstrating that our interactions with the air and the ocean are not as distant as they used to seem. Unfortunately, that’s a fundamentally grim topic. So now, we desperately need some awesome, entertaining, joy-inspiring communication of such important issues. And definitely more science cartoons.

How To Discover Conservation: INTERVIEW with James Borrell

A little over a year ago, a very good friend of mine send me a link to the website of conservationist James Borrell with the words “You’ll like this guy.”

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She was right.

In that time I’ve become rather a fan of James Borrell, a PhD student from London who’s immensely passionate about conservation and has a love for communicating science that rivals even my own. James has undertaken scientific expeditions all over the planet, has received high praise for his TEDx talk titled “Is there hope in conservation?”, and when he was twenty-three founded a programme to help students experience conservation whilst telling the most uplifiting stories from the field; Discover Conservation.

James recently organised and undertook Expedition Angano – a research expedition to Madagascar to discover the mysterious future of the desperately fragmented forest there. It’s been a few years since I was out there, and with the imminent release of The Evolution of Madagascar I was incredibly keen to hear how things are out there now, and quiz James on the world of conservation in general. 


 It’s the cliché conservation question, but, what do you feel that the world of conservation needs now, most of all?

I think a couple of things. Firstly, we need to stop being so cynical about governments. The green movement is sometimes synonymous with being left-wing, and government-hating in general because it’s difficult to get the things we want. I saw a great talk by [an MP], the other day: “she said, if you don’t like it, stand to be an MP.” That’s all they are, is people who’ve got up and are having a go (most of them anyway).

Secondly, we need more ambition and to stop trying to ask for scraps. Conservation needs to make sense in an economically efficient way, that’s the only way it will be successful – at least in a time frame that matters. My pet hate is how much money we spend on crap species that are common as muck but we just happen to like – that goes for things like Elephants and Rhino as well, there are a lot of those, and while we spend money there, lesser known species are slipping to extinction. I’d like to see prioritisation on where you can spend your money and get the biggest bang for your buck I think, and there’s folks like the EDGE programme already making great progress there.

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Very fair ideas, and I totally agree that the world would be so much better if people would moan a bit less and try a bit more. I’ve seen you speak a lot about Hope in conservation before, and would always say we could do with more of that, but do you think there’s a good amount of hope in conservation already?

Yeah, I see two bunches of conservationists: There’s those that I see in their own little world, managing little nature reserves in the UK, and then there’s the ones that are trying to work internationally. I appreciate both; you need both. But I don’t think that all conservationists in the UK can visualise the big picture, and that’s where you need to project hope – out of our little bubble in the UK and out to the wider world.

That’s why I’ve never specialised you know, I still call myself an Ecologist, as I’ve been on conservation expeditions a fair few times now and you meet people who are so passionate about snakes, or so passionate about birds, or so passionate about termites. Whereas I get my kicks from seeing the way that it all works together. And I still love snakes and birds and termites. But I feel that it’s… it’s kind of selfish, to prioritise something like that, and not see it as a component of something more.

Yeah, unfortunately though, career-wise at least, it’s pretty good if you specialise. If you focus on being the expert on Boophis of northern Madagascar, then people will recognise you as the Boophis expert of northern Madagascar.

Very fair point. But anyway, tell me more about Madagascar – is there any hope out there?

I think that’s the toughest place of all. There’s still lots of things I don’t get my head around out there. You see the scale at which everything operates, the small scale of forest fragments. I can’t quite imagine how these vast bits of forest are just disappearing. I don’t know, I think there’s hope, just. There’s a couple of really amazing statistics, and that’s that in modern history, no species of lemur have gone extinct. Chytrid hasn’t wiped out Madagascar’s frogs yet. And when you still find these intact patches of forest, that can be quite surprising, when you consider how much is gone. I think there is hope, but I think Madagascar is the hardest place to sell.

It’s such a strange place, I agree. So you’ve been working out there quite a bit recently, tell me what you’ve been doing?

One of the biggest problems in Madagascar is forest loss – you end up with just ten percent of it left and that’s bad situation. But one of the things you don’t think about is the resolution of the fragmentation. On average, Madagascar has some of the smallest fragments of any country in the world. So if you picked a point in the forest somewhere, eight times out of ten, it would be within a kilometre of a forest edge and a transition to grassland.12801372_1095874970478923_5459027516276760676_n

That’s pretty close! So, it’s not just that there’s not much forest left; the bits that are left are in really small pieces. My interests are in habitat fragmentation and how that works, and one of the things you get when you get smaller and smaller pieces, you get a higher ratio of edge to interior. Forest Edge, where it meets that grassland, is a really different environment to the interior. It’s a lot hotter, a lot drier; it has shallower leaf litter and higher tree mortality, more human disturbance and so on.

What we don’t really know though, is what you call “The Edge”. Do you call it first five meters or the first fifty? That makes a big difference; if you’re looking at a satellite image and you can see one square kilometre of forest, how much of that is good, intact, original forest, and how much is subject to these different conditions?

So the edge of a forest could easily be one, two, three, four, five degrees higher temperature than the interior. So in the field what we’re trying to do is study reptiles and amphibians in an attempt to detect this transition from edge to interior. If you walk on grassland in Madagascar, you’ll see some skinks, some snakes, you’ll see species that can tolerate disturbed habitats and so on. As you go into a rainfoest, they should disappear and be replaced by ones that can’t survive outside of that original habitat, things like tree frogs, little leaf-litter frogs and that kind of thing. So basically we’ve been trying to find that transition, and see at what distance from the edge you get that change.

And you were working up in the North weren’t you?

We worked in the North because most of the research that’s been done in Madagascar has either been done in the East around Moromanga, or Ranomafana in the South, which is great, they’re both lovely areas. In fact they’re nicer areas where the forest is in better condition, but the largest chunks of remaining forest are far far up in the North. They’re very very hard to get to, and comparatively much less studied. I happened to be able to put together a team that’s capable of getting to somewhere really remote – you know, and that’s part of the fun of it.

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One of the thigns that was really interesting about your expedition – what was the name of the expedition again?

Angano. An “Angano” is a story or a fable or a legend in Malagasy. I didn’t know what to name it, I mean the name wasn’t particularly important. We didn’t know the name of any of the regions we were trying to get to, because they didn’t have names – at least as far as we knew or as far as google earth tells you. So we picked Angano because it means a ‘story’ or a ‘legend’ I was like “well, a story, that’s nice. Let’s name our expedition a story and then use stories to teach people about conservation.”All my guides then pee-d them selves because apparently an Angano, a legend in Malagasy means a story that isn’t true. I tried to argue that it’s a legend that can come true, and they were all just “Nah”.

Oh well that’s alright, you can still sell it to people in this country as Angano, it’ll be fine. So yeah, one of the interesting things about Expeditoin Angano was that you crowd-funded it.

Yeah we tried that. We got quite a lot of money from grants, quite a lot from members of the team, and then we managed to crowd-fund a little bit extra to support some Malagasy students that we took with us.

That’s awesome! I’m glad it’s all been such a success! And it’s a really great way of connecting people generally with conservation efforts.
I really love the way you’ve set up your website because it’s absolutely full of articles and advice on how to get involved with conservation, but for anyone who hasn’t yet read it all, what advice would you give to people who haven’t yet experienced conservation, and don’t yet realise how much we need it.

I think the way to realise how important it all is, is to realise how much everything depends on the environment. The value of the services that we derive from the environment, and don’t have to pay anything for as a society is massive. But that’s quite boring. I mean, it comes across as really really boring. I just can’t see a way of catching someone’s eye with an elevator pitch for something that, as much as I would love to. That’s why so many NGOs use big fluffy animals, to attract people’s attention.

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My take, I guess, is I try and mix something a bit adventurous, a good story that appeals to everyone, with a bit of purpose. That’s expedition Angano. For someone who’s not a conservationist, we could say “we had a team of fifteen people living in the rainforest for a month.” They might think “ooh that’s cool”, and then they could see what you were doing. So my take is try to mix a little bit of adventure with conservation but that’s definitely not the only angle. I really liked Monbiot’s take on the iconic idea of rewilding, that’ a great one for getting people interested.

Incidentally the reason why I love rewilding and think it’s what we should do, is in conservation we don’t have a lot of money, and rewilding should be the cheapest possible strategy. Conservation charities in the UK don’t have very much money, and they spend ridiculous amounts managing tiny reserves, stopping tree encroachment and that kind of thing. If you could replace everything that wasn’t there and makes reserves large enough they should, eventually, manage themselves. You could then spend the money on educating people instead – but that’s all a bit out there at the moment I think!

All in all you’ve just got to capture people’s imaginations with these kinds of things, but I definitely don’t have the answer for how to do it. 


My most sincere thanks to James for taking the time to talk to me, hopefully the next time we meet it’ll be in a pub with good beer and we can really give the world a thorough chewing-over. In the mean time, we may not have the answer to the world’s troubles, but I’m confident that the world of conservation –and it’s communication – is in good hands with him.

Visit www.jamesborrell.com to hear even more from this brilliant fellow.