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“the danger of re-wilding ideas, though, is that they are often based on rampant political naivety”

the land would become covered in scrub and gorse, and if left alone would become inaccessible to visitors

a membership-collecting factory

the hard work of the upland gamekeepers controlling crows and foxes to protect the grouse

Ministers are reneging on promises to safeguard vital wildlife areas around Britain's coasts

there are claims that reinstallation of these raptors has ignored the needs of farmers, whose complaints should no longer be ignored


Lynx and beaver to ‘rewild’ English countryside, Chris Gourlay and Jonathan Leake, The Sunday Times 27 September, 2009

It is astonishing how superficial journalism can be, when faced with the opportunity for some sensational headlines. This one article in the Sunday Times opened up a floodgate of misinformation that even though it was easily checked, was perpetuated for many weeks afterwards. The journalists boldly announced that there would be a Government scheme to rewild tracts of the English countryside, the plans for which would be announced by Hilary Benn, Secretary of State at DEFRA, during his speech to the Labour Party Conference. The sensationalism arises because of the contention by the journalists that:
“Wild animals such as elk and even lynx could roam parts of England again, long after being forced out by deforestation and the expansion of agriculture”

They considered that the project would build on attempts in recent years to re-establish long-lost species, implying that rewilding is primarily about the reintroduction of free-living mammals. They asserted also that:
“The British rewilding movement draws inspiration from Holland’s Oostvaardersplassen reserve”

Do not include me in that movement as I consistently point out how half-baked is the rationale for a herbivore driven landscape.

To garner support for their article, they interviewed Keith Kirby of Natural England, who has provided some of the better critique of herbivore-driven landscapes. But Keith obliged them by commenting that in the longer term, lynx could be reintroduced, providing that public acceptance was gained and, as importantly, if dense forest were restored in some areas. The inconsistency between this and a herbivore driven landscape would be beyond these journalists.

Two more articles came out before Benn’s speech, both appearing to be a rehash of the Sunday Times article. Thus a Northumberland paper, The Journal, repeated the claim that Benn would be announcing a rewilding of Britain (1):
“Under the scheme, which is still at the review stage, large parts of the UK would be allowed to run wild in an effort to boost conservation and combat biodiversity loss”

The article goes on again to invoke lynx in this rewilding and then takes the opportunity to poll local opinion by talking to James Frater, chairman of the Northumberland National Farmers Union. Mr Frater, unsurprisingly, said the move could damage hill farming communities:
"What will happen to the sheep and the cattle if they release predators again? I think someone is having a joke with this"

The other article was in Farmers Weekly Interactive (2). Almost a word for word copy – including the reference to reintroducing lynx – this article did add in another farming bête noire, the reintroduction of sea eagles. Crofters on the west coast of Scotland claim that many of their lambs are lost to sea eagles, an exaggerated loss that has yet to receive any foundation (3).

So why had rewilding and reintroductions suddenly hit the headlines and become the cause of controversy? It derives from a press release that DEFRA put out where Hilary Benn announced a review of England’s wildlife and ecological networks (4). A review team would be set up to report in 2010 on what benefits in terms of a more robust ecological network could be gained by “connecting sites within designated areas and outside them through re-wilding initiatives”. There was no mention of lynx being involved in the rewilding, but Benn put rewilding into context when he said:
“Re-wilding, and linking together areas to make ecological corridors and a connected network, could have real benefits in allowing nature to thrive”

Thus the Sunday Times and subsequent articles were just sheer speculation, not just on what rewilding meant in the press release, but also on what Benn would be saying at the Labour Party Conference. The end result is that they gave every opportunity for the comments sections below these articles to become laced with knee-jerk reactions, filled with antagonism to rewilding.

Even after Benn’s speech, the fervid speculation continued. The Country Land and Business Association put out a press release that said that (5):
“plans to "re-wild" large tracts of the countryside are ill thought out and would have serious implications for England's working countryside”

Again lynx were invoked, with the CLA asserting:
"The CLA is worried about the effect the proposed reintroduction will have on livestock and rural businesses. Any animal population, once established, has the potential to spread, and we wonder what is being to done to assess the extent of the wider area likely to be affected"

Yorkshire Dales Country News took the CLA press release as the basis of their report, but added (6):
“But for Mr Benn to call last week for a review of the possibility of bringing back the lynx, a wild cat that grows as big as a medium sized dog, and the elk sent shivers down the spine of farmers and most landowners”

Terence Blacker in the Independent also invoked lynx, and poked a stick at rewilding (7):
“Something rather peculiar is going on here – the development of a two-tier countryside. An essential part of what is known as "rewilding" the landscape is that habitats and reserves should be connected across the country so that the various exotic and exciting species have the space to roam”

The award though for a total lack of effort in establishing facts must go to Charles Clover, for a follow up article a week later in the Sunday Times. Clover admits that he was abroad when Benn gave his speech to the Labour party Conference, but he persists with the speculation, rather than check what Benn actually said. Thus he invoked lynx again (8):
“I reflected when I returned to Britain and heard that Hilary Benn, our bespectacled, vegetarian environment secretary, had been talking about “re-wilding” the place. What on earth was he doing suggesting the reintroduction of such species as the lynx and elk to built-up, crowded, congested England”

Clover was out to trash rewilding by whatever means, suggesting that Benn purely sought political theatre for his speech by including “the reintroduction of beavers, lynx and elk — and by extension wolves and bears” He thinks that “the danger of re-wilding ideas, though, is that they are often based on rampant political naivety”, basing this again on the banality that Oostvaardersplassen is the arbiter.

Local papers also persisted with this post-event speculation about Benn’s speech and rewilding, but I will spare the blushes of such as the Hampshire Chronicle, West Sussex Gazette, and the Bracknell Forest Standard.

So what did Hilary Benn actually say at the Labour Party Conference? He said nothing about rewilding, nor did he mention lynx or the reintroduction of any other scary animal, but there was a reference to the review of wildlife (9):
“But now that we’ve fulfilled the original dream of the National Parks’ creators, our next task is to enrich and link together more wonderful places where wildlife, bees, flowers and trees can flourish, and we can enjoy them as they do. So I will now ask a group of people passionate about our countryside to come up with a plan to do just that so that we can realise another long-held dream of all those who care about our wild places”

To check further as to whether I had missed anything that the journalists may have seen, I contacted Keith Kirby about the original Sunday Times article, and asked him as a contributor to the DEFRA review on wildlife, whether he would explain it during his talk, later, at the Wildland Research Institute (WRi) seminar. His reply:
"I will try to bring this in (plus a pocketful of hypothetical lynxes). Unfortunately the reality is rather more prosaic than the Sunday Times hype, as I suspect you guessed"

Keith said at the seminar that he was unaware of any background press briefing from DEFRA that could have fuelled the inaccurate speculation.

As luck would have it, a week after the WRi seminar, I had an opportunity to confirm the erroneousness nature of all this press speculation when Hilary Benn gave a talk at Leeds University, to the School of Geography. During questions afterwards, I noted the use of the word in the DEFRA press release about the review, and asked him if he had a definition of rewilding and if DEFRA had any policies about rewilding? As I suspected, the answer to both questions was no. However, he finished by asking me to send him anything the WRi had to contribute on rewilding to the review.

There were many good reasons why it was important to set up the WRi in Leeds, not least of which is shown by the immature reporting of ill-informed journalists. The experience and knowledge that the WRi will bring will be able to cut through all the reckless speculation that is so damaging to the cause of wildland.

 (1) Wild animals could be reintroduced to Northumberland uplands, The Journal 28 September 2009

(2) Labour conference: Government wants to bring back wild species, Caroline Stocks, FWI 28 September 2009

(3) Crofters claim that lamb deaths conflict with results of eagle study, Mike Wade, The Times 3 November 2009

(4) Hilary Benn announces review of England's wildlife and ecological network, DEFRA News Release Ref: 226/09, 28 September 2009

(5)Re-wilding parts of the countryside is ‘misconceived’, says the CLA, Press release, CLA 29 September 2009

(6) Re-wilding” plans raise alarm, in Yorkshire Dales Country News, daelnet, 30 September 2009

(7) Terence Blacker: Britain's green and pleasant divided land, Independent 30 September 2009

(8) No, Hilary Benn – a lynx is not just for conference, Charles Clover, The Sunday Times 4 October  2009

(9) Labour's Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn's speech at the 2009 Labour Party Annual Conference: 2009-09-28,2009-09-28

4 November 2009

Healthy eating 'alters landscape', BBC News online 20 May 2009

I heard on BBC R4 news that the research by the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) program on the impact of the five-a-day vegetable and fruit policy on farming and the landscape had been discussed earlier on the Farming Today program on R4, when the researcher was interviewed. In this Farming Today program, and in the news report that followed on the BBC website, a significant slant was given to the landscape modelling of the research that made certain predictions about change, including the potential abandonment of upland farmscapes. Abandonment is a heavily value-laden term. Coupled with this is an often repeated assertion, as was given in the BBC news online report:
”This would mean the land would become covered in scrub and gorse, and if left alone would become inaccessible to visitors”

Anna Hill, the interviewer on Farming Today, was particularly keen for the researcher to confirm these "fears", but had to prompt him repeatedly before he delivered the story that she hoped for (see the full transcript (1)):
It may sound simplistic but it sounds to me as if you are saying that vast tracts of the landscape will be covered with polytunnels and that also at the same time it is possible that the upland areas will not be grazed as much and therefore could revert to scrub, both options of which sound possibly not attractive to people who like looking at the countryside”

“So you are saying that would happen that we would have overgrown areas in the uplands and we would have massive swathes of plastic across the country in the S and E”

“That’s sounds like an awful lot of animals. How significant then would the picture of the uplands be if that happens? What would we actually see on the ground?”

Even when the researcher, Philip Jones of Reading University, finally gives her what she wants:
Well the most hardest areas will be the most disadvantaged in agricultural terms. So that would be the severely disadvantaged areas, the high hills in the less favoured areas, and you would get between 50-100% loss of livestock production up there, and you would get encroachment of scrub, and those areas would become largely inaccessible”

She continues to labour the point:
“So in fact we will see bushes growing on there, bracken, briars, small sections of wood possibly growing up, so it wouldn't look like it does now are you saying?”

Hill finishes with an obviously pre-calculated response as a final question:
And many people would regret that surely?”

The press release launching the research mentions abandonment in the uplands (2), but the Policy and Practice Note 6 that RELU issued in April about this research does not, nor does it talk about inaccessible landscapes (3). Perhaps the full report will mention these. Results from the research was amongst the presentations at "The Future of Rural Land Use" conference on 4 June (4).

Others picked up on this emotive "scaremongering" in the program (but not necessarily the lack of evidence presented thus far) by posting comments on the Farming Today program website (see the full comments here (1)):
"Why should we be concerned about the land reverting to its natural state? Parts of the land may become impenetrable temporarily. Some gorse will grow. The brambles definitely will (they do here). However, everything in nature has a cycle. Brambles provide shelter for trees to grow, without the risk of being damaged by browsing herbivores. Once the trees become established (it doesn't take long) they will shade out the brambles, leaving space for ash and oak trees to push through"

"Regarding uplands development your pet academic from Reading university is wrong to portray doom and gloom”

"Philip Jones at Reading University painted a dystopian view of rural landscapes if the government were to succeed in getting us to eat more fruit and vegetables (5-a-day etc). This seems like very flimsy research”

"Why does Anna Hill assume that uplands covered in scrub, bushes and trees is undesirable and unattractive?”

"With respect to this morning's item on 5-a-day and futures for UK food production, please let it happen. As our greatest issue today is Climate Change then to restore marginal farming to woodland will start to clean up our atmosphere and stop adding sheep methane”

"Why the scaremongering tone about the uplands becoming inaccessible due to scrub if grazing declines?”

As is often the case, these comments were rebutted by someone who holds the dogmatic "orthodox" view, claiming an "understanding" that was lacking in the others:
"I do not have extremist views on anything, I do however, have an understanding which many contributors appear to lack. If you do not graze massive areas of upland Britain, you will find these areas are immediately over-run with weed species and rank grassland, species like gorse, bracken, thistles and so forth, because they are the dominant species normally kept in check by grazing animals”

The mainstream media sinks deeper into shouting headlines, and it is perhaps asking too much of a farming program to have a realistic discussion about future landscapes. This researcher from Reading Uni. was sucked into that morass. But it could also be that the RELU program, because of the nature of the themes that it tackles, has become a little too entangled with the "stakeholder" groups that it engages with, and is losing the detachment that is necessary. Moreover, I wonder if research funding isn't contributing to this since it seeks mostly to confirm the orthodoxy. This was recently described to me as realism, but it does of course depend on whose reality has supremacy.

Natural England is developing a portfolio of landscape policies at the moment, as well as a vision for the uplands. The Future Landscapes policy committed Natural England to developing a set of scenarios that would be used as tools to flesh out the policy (Policy 6, see (5)). I went to one of the workshops to test develop the scenarios, and my work group were assigned to "Environmental Guardians" in looking to the future of the uplands in 2060. The characteristics of this scenario were of open sourced networked governance, highly interconnected and with distributed information systems, loyalties to local community and biotope, a blurring of individual property rights and the commonweal, and a values based environmental paradigm ("evolving web of life - we are simply one node on the web interacting with the rest"). Other scenarios were Head in the Sand, So Far, So Good, and Protect and Be Damned

A couple of major disturbances associated with climate change were chucked in, which operated to create the "disturbance" for change. Ours was pretty much an outcome that accommodated a retreat to the uplands that did not take with it the escalating infrastructure of the lowlands, that secured water resources, had an evolving new paradigm to both agriculture and community settlement, and the ability to make informed judgements about acceptable practices. We were a disparate group by affiliations, but there was a consensus on not taking forward the presumptions of current management practices, and particularly the predator control associated with the game keeping that dominates our uplands. We looked past current orthodoxy (and dogma!) as a means of understanding what action was needed now and in the future.

There is a burgeoning demand for interdisciplinary research from the likes of the Natural and Environmental Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council (both fund RELU) and on the back of a "multi-sectoral approach to engaging with stakeholders from different communities, using workshops to bring them together to hold targeted discussions"! However, whether it is five-a-day or climate change, there are drivers at work that need a better understanding than the simple prejudice of scaremongering about upland landscapes. It is also clear that the concept of "stakeholders" is still poorly drawn, and as such will not initiate an inclusive future. If you need an example, consider who are the major stakeholders in developing proposals for marine conservation zones under the Marine and Coastal Access Bill currently going through Parliament? Should it be the fishing industry?

(1) Farming Today, BBC R4, transcript of broadcast and website comments, 20 May 2009

(2) Would eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day really benefit everyone? University of Reading Press Release 19 May 2009

(3) Implications of a Nutrition Driven Food Policy for the Countryside, Policy and Practice Note 6, RELU April 2009

(4) “Future of Rural Land Use”, RELU conference, 4 June 2009

(5) Natural England’s Draft Policy on Future Landscapes, 2009

5 June 2009

Feathers fly at osprey site split - A disagreement about the running of an osprey nesting site in Gwynedd has resulted in volunteers flying the nest, BBC News online 3 April 2009

The RSPB is “the cuckoo in the nest” that sucks up the conservation pound. Their annual income to 31 March 2008 was £104m, of which £26m came from membership subscriptions, £27m from legacies, and about £22m from grants, commercial donations and trusts (1). Another £11m came from such as farm income, entry fees and appeals. A further £16m came in from trading activities, but this has to be balanced against expenditure on this of £13m.

I am astonished by the fact that they spent a further £10m on advertising and promotion to draw in voluntary income and, judged by the size of their legacies, on a pretty aggressive approach from their team of Legacy Advisers. They got to spend £29m on research, policy and advisory services, £4m on servicing their membership, and a hefty £13m on more promotion in their education programs, publications and films. This leaves them the £24m that they actually spent on their reserves.

I usually have cause to trash the RSPB for the all-consuming grip that their sectional interest holds on nature conservation in Britain. If a reminder of this extent be needed, then witness the clamour with which the RSPB regards the latest figures for the designation of Special Protection Areas, which they contend shows the UK is “lagging behind other European Union countries in nature conservation” (2). They don’t seem to recognise what many believe that nature conservation in the UK is driven by birdist interests - why have an EU landscape designation just for birds? Alistair Gammell, the RSPB director of international operations did a brilliant piece of redirection in a recent article to suggest that SPAs were a bastion against expansion of urban development (3) when the substantial bulk of SPAs in the UK are overwhelmingly in open countryside as well as coastal areas (4). One comment on Gammel’s article pretty much sums it up for me:
“Vast amounts of public money were entrusted to organizations such as RSPB to protect these habitats but through mis-management and putting the interest of birds before the local flora, fauna and inhabitants it is clearly recorded that they have had a detrimental effect”

Which brings me to this story of a walkout by volunteers from the RSPB visitor centre at Pont Croesor, near Portmadog in Wales. The centre is associated with the Glaslyn Osprey Project viewing site, a nest in the Glaslyn Valley that has seen a pair of ospreys produce chicks each year since 2005. The visitor centre was set up in 2004 on the back of European Objective One funding given to the RSPB for their group of projects on endangered bird species of Wales called “Aren’t Welsh Birds Brilliant”. The award was a stonking £2m of EU funds that essentially were targeted towards improving areas with high economic and social problems in West Wales (5). RSPB Cymru sold their application on the basis of community activities, but this emphasis was questioned by at least one of the county economic partnerships set up to ensure that a inclusive approach was taken to the development of Objective One projects. The criticism was that the project needed to be linked with local tourist businesses and local tourism partnerships, and that it should liaise with The Wildlife Trust in the management of the project (6). There were also concerns at the level of revenue funding requested when viewed against the outputs.

It is clear that while they sought and got considerable backing over the years from the local community around Pont Croesor in terms of voluntary effort, RSPB Cymru had no intention to dilute their control of this project, nor share its promotional opportunities, and that is the crux of why the volunteers walked out. The members of the Glaslyn Osprey Community Society feel that the RSPB is using the site primarily to recruit members. They also say that a promise to hand the site at Pont Croesor to the local community to run after the end of EU funding has been broken. John Parry Williams, who has put in up to 1,000 hours of volunteering at both the nest and visitor centre is cutting all contact with the project:
"I've been involved since the start and my understanding was that the site would be handed back to the local community. They also want to turn it into a membership-collecting factory and I feel very strongly about the whole situation"

RSPB Cymru director Dr Tim Stowe claimed there was no deal to hand over the centre, and then revealed what is at stake for the RSPB:
"As a charity, particularly in the current economic climate, we need as much support (volunteers and memberships) as we can get to help us show these birds to the people of north Wales"

To some, that just sounds like a self-justification for carving out great lumps of funding to feed a massive machine, and to keep it fed by using these projects to bring in new membership. The RSPB have been quick to shore up their situation at Glaslyn – they have already advertised their need for “People Engagement Assistants” for the re-badged project Glaslyn Osprey Date with Nature! (7). The cynical may note this distancing now from the EU funded project title, and the fact that the osprey watching site is sunk without the support of volunteers. Any who applied to this volunteering opportunity were of course given training (29 March) in an “understanding of the work of the RSPB in Wales, Britain and worldwide”

RSPB Cymru makes great play of their involvement over the years in the development of strategies for EU funding in Wales, and now that the EU has incorporated the previous funding schemes that they took advantage of into the Rural Development Program, they fear they will lose out in getting more money (8). They should perhaps ponder the words of Don Touhig, the MP for Islwyn when speaking during a debate on Welsh Affairs in the House of Commons (9):
A look through the Welsh European Funding Office list of the largest objective 1 projects shows that the money has been used for agricultural food processing, tourism promotion, and a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds scheme called, “Aren’t Welsh Birds Brilliant!” I have no doubt that those are worthy causes, and I do not want to denigrate them, but are we seriously saying that they are priorities for investing the European money that we have won for Wales?”

(1) RSPB Trustees’ Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2008

(2) UK must set a better example, RSPB News release 3 April 2009

(3) How legal protection for Europe's birds moved from hope to reality - Thirty years on, the European birds directive has an ever more crucial role in safeguarding Europe's wildlife heritage, Alistair Gammell, Guardian 1 April 2009

(4) UK Index - Regional Breakdown of the distribution of the UK SPA Network

(5) Aren't Welsh Birds Brilliant, Approved Projects (2000-2006) Welsh European Funding Office

(6) Ceredigion Objective 1 Partnership Management Board, Minutes of THE 32ND MEETING held on Friday 24th January 2003

(7) People Engagement Assistants - Glaslyn Osprey Date with Nature! – Porthmadog

(8) RSPB Cymru’s experience of EU Funding 2000-2006 and comments on the future implementation of EU Structural funds in Wales, European and External Affairs Committee  24 January 2007

(9) Don Touhig, Column 1303 Welsh Affairs, House of Commons Hansard Debates 28 February 2008

11 April 2009

Green plovers' eggs are off the menu
Wild Notebook: lapwings are a part of history but they are not often seen now, Simon Barnes, Times 28 February 2009

Barnes is a frequent flyer in these columns. He is a serial propagandist for the RSPB in his Wild Notebook, over-romanticizing his nature observations that seem either parochially rooted in his home county of Suffolk, or in charismatic birding spots around the world. Like many entrenched in the south of England, there is no association with or experience of the north, for if there was he would have known that lapwings still breed here, rather making a nonsense of his claim that they face extinction.

The problem I have with Barne’s writing is that he takes no responsibility for the issues that he writes about. Thus when he says that lapwings are wedded to farmland, he denies an existence for this bird before farming came along, a mere droplet in the time in which the lapwing – and humans – have been in existence. To say that lapwings are farmland birds is but to condemn them to the reality that they have little choice in Britain when so much of our land is farmland. What would be the natural, wild habitat of the lapwing? How would we know what it was in Britain? How many lapwing would there have been before farming?

The lapwings that breed within a 10-minute walk from me are ground nesters in a wet, unimproved field at the edge of the moor. Even though they are not on the moor, they exert an influence over it. Birdist organisations will not countenance tree cover being restored on the moor because they claim it will harbour predators that can disrupt ground nesting birds. And here is the connection, the responsibility that Barnes never faces up to. Within days of his Wild Notebook, a representative of game shooting interests seized the opportunity of Barne's Wild Notebook to portray their activities in a beneficial light. Thus Dr Stephen Tapper of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust wrote this in a letter to the Times (1):
”Don’t discount the uplands; visit the English upland grouse moors along the northern Pennines or the North York Moors this spring and you will find them alive not only with lapwing but also with golden plover and curlew as well. Whatever one’s views about grouse shooting and gamekeepers, it must be acknowledged that the designation of these moors as special protection areas for waders results not from any action by a conservation agency, but from the land-use of hill farming and grouse, and the hard work of the upland gamekeepers controlling crows and foxes to protect the grouse”

Here is revealed the unholy alliance between birdist interests, especially the RSPB, and the disgusting wholesale slaughter of “vermin” that goes on every year, and which I have written about before (see Legal control of crows, foxes and stoats and They shoot foxes, don't they?). Barnes is quite happy to see the world rearranged for the benefit of the birds he wants to watch, maximising their numbers without counting the cost to so much else in wild nature. Where’s the responsibility in that?

(1) Although lapwings are disappearing from farmland, they live on in the upland grouse moors, Dr Stephen Tapper, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Letter to the Editor, Times March 5, 2009

8 March 2009

Save our seas: Ministers go back on promise to protect UK waters, Geoffrey Lean, Independent on Sunday 8 February 2009

Lean is from the reveal-er school of journalism, as in “The Independent on Sunday can reveal….”. His revelations are invariably directed against Government, but they are usually insubstantial or unsubstantiated in their criticism, or just come well after the event, and this article is a classic example.

He purports to reveal a discontent over the Marine and Coastal Access Bill currently going through Parliament, when most interested organisations issued press releases with their concerns way back in December last year when the Bill first made it into Parliament (see for instance (1)).

His claim is that "Ministers are reneging on promises to safeguard vital wildlife areas around Britain's coasts” because he thinks they have diluted plans to set up highly protected areas.

Lean has picked up a few things from the Government’s response last September to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation of the draft Bill. This stated various intentions to amend the draft Bill so that the original policy intentions and implementation plans would be put on a more formal and statutory footing (2):
“For example, we propose to confer a statutory duty on Ministers to designate Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), coupled with a reference to a network of sites which will include highly protected sites”

Another proposal in that Government response was for the inclusion of conservation orders – to be called byelaws – to be made to protect the proposed Marine Conservation Zones from harmful and otherwise unregulated activities.

Because there is no mention of highly protected areas in the Bill, Lean jumps to the conclusion that the Bill does not provide for them. Well, he is wrong, which he would know if read the Bill, or the draft Bill that preceded it, and made any attempt to understand it. For those who do wish to understand, here is an explanation.

In the Bill in front of Parliament (3) there is no mention of highly protected sites in Clause 119: Creation of network of conservation sites. There is however a follow through in Clause 125: Byelaws for protection of MCZs in England on that intent for byelaws to be used to regulate harmful activity within an MCZ and thus give it protection:
“1) The MMO may make one or more byelaws for the purpose of furthering the conservation objectives stated for an MCZ in England”

Clause 125 lists a range of activities that can be restricted, in particular the following proscription would have the affect of creating a no take zone:
“3(e) prohibiting or restricting the killing, taking, destruction, molestation or disturbance of animals or plants of any description in the MCZ”

It is likely that the need for a byelaw such as this would be stated in the conservation objectives that are required to be drawn up for each MCZ, as is given in Clause 114 (2) (b). The no take zone may not cover the whole of the MCZ, which is the case for the Lundy Island MNR, and this is catered for in Clause 125 (8)(a) that allows for byelaws to make provision for “different parts of the MCZ”. In effect, the range of potential activities that could be restricted through byelaws - given in Clause (3)(a-f)) – allow for a variable zoning system that could meet all needs for regulation within an MCZ.

My preference would have been if the Bill had made explicit reference to highly protected or no take zones, and that a formal and transparent mechanism had been given for their setting up. This was was my response to both the consultations on draft bills in 2007 and 2008. My conclusion now is that their absence from the Bill is to mollify “stakeholders” since the Bill does bend over backwards to give fishing interests a say - Clause 116 Consultation before designation. It was ever thus - no take zones are anathema to the fishing industry.

There is still a great potential for this stakeholder consultation to scupper the whole intention of the Bill for marine nature conservation, making me wonder how the voice of non-fishing interests will be heard in this process – those people to whom the commonweal of our seas also belongs, and who wish for some part of it at least to be protected from endless exploitation. Let us not forget that it was the narrow-mindedness of fishing interests that led to only three Marine Nature Reserves ever being designated, and the failure of that legislation in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (4).

None of this lets Lean off the hook because his is just lazy journalism. His article could have been about the amendments to the Bill that are currently being discussed in the Committee stage of the Bill as it passes through the House of Lords (5). These amendments thus far meet some of the concerns of organisations, voiced in December: the amendments instate that explicit reference to a highly protected MCZ; give a time limit of 2012 for an initial network of MCZ to be set up; and require that the network should cover at least 30 per cent of the UK marine area by 2020. My guess is that more amendments will follow as those that give explicit reference to highly protected sites only cover the situation where the whole of an MCZ would be a no take zone, and the definition of highly protected is not clearly enough stated.

One last observation on Lean’s level of journalism in this article. He makes reference to the to the statutory no take zone of Lundy Island MNR and the recent voluntary no take zone set up in Lamlash Bay on the Isle of Arran, and likens their level of protection to the widespread terrestrial system of protected area designation of the SSSIs. This just exposes his lack of understanding as SSSIs are overwhelmingly exploited landscapes. There is no element of “no take” associated with them. In fact, if exploitative activity or interventionist management was withdrawn from them, then the land owner would likely be in breach of the law as the features that the SSSI were designated for would be considered to be in unfavourable condition.

It is my hope that marine conservation, done properly through a new Marine Bill and with no take zones, would act as a lever to reconsidering our terrestrial “protected” area designation. Wildland will not exist in Britain unless we have non-intervention – no take – protected areas in our landscapes as there will be for our seas.

(1) 30% Of British Seas Must Become No Take Marine Reserves By 2020, Marine Conservation Society News release 9th December

(2) Taking forward the Marine Bill: The Government response to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation, September 2008

(3) Marine and Coastal Access Bill, House of Lords 4th December 2008

(4) Marine Conservation Zones, Post Note 310, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology June 2008

(5) Marine and Coastal Access Bill [HL] 2008-09

11 February 2009

After beavers and wolves, why not bring back the black rat? - Those who argue for the reintroduction of lost species must understand it will devastate a landscape we love, Catherine Bennett, Observer 4 January 2009

Nothing like starting off a new year with a repeat appearance by a Guardian/Observer journalist. In taking a swipe at the forthcoming reintroduction of beaver to Knapdale in Argyll, Ms Bennett set up a straw dog to knock down the reintroduction of lost species by proposing with her tongue firmly in her cheek that we reintroduce the black rat. As the many people who commented on the article pointed out, the black rat is not a native animal, nor has it been banished from our shores. The choice of the black rat to illustrate her dislike of re-introductions was thus just a parody through which to exhibit her bilious opinion.

Ms Bennett has been this way before. In October 2005 she wrote in the Guardian of her disdain for "a new lobby of predator-lovers, whose affection for things that bite is supported by the EU's Habitats directive". On that occasion, her concern was for the potential reintroduction of lynx, new evidence having been brought to light that its extirpation from Britain had resulted from human means, and thus putting us under a legislative if not a moral obligation for its reintroduction.

At the time, I remember being somewhat offended rather than amused when she wrote:
"The impulse to restore the more stimulating predators seems less ecologically inspired than sentimental, and principally associated with the sorts of faintly Aspinall-like people who find in the idea of free-ranging animal savagery a thrilling antidote to fat-bottomed, contemporary decadence"

I suspect that the people who attended the Wildland Network conference "Wild, free and coming back" in September last year that she noted in her current article, and who committed themselves to the hard slog of a working group on species reintroduction, would also feel aggrieved. They may also be puzzled by a particularly opaque paragraph in which Ms Bennett is trying to pore scorn on the notion from Scottish environment minister Mike Russell that the Knapdale beavers will attract visitors, by conflating her cynicism at the opportunity presented for those who travel from afar there with the homily from modern nature writers "that we need not travel far to find wildness". I'm guessing the latter comes from a book by one of her Guardian colleagues - Rob Macfarlane and The Wild Places.

There is though a change of attack with this article. While last time, she condemned the vicarious thrills she expected advocates were seeking from reintroductions of potentially dangerous animals, it is now framed as a beauty contest where only the charismatic are considered for reintroduction, an emphasis that Ms Bennett considers overlooks the plight of less sexy species such as song birds, butterflies and bees. If only she knew how many £millions go into butterfly conservation that is so destructive of the landscape. And she has obviously had the sob story that those nasty sparrowhawks eat blackbirds, robins, blue tits, collared doves and song thrush. But as in any predator-prey situation, if songbird numbers increase, sparrowhawk numbers increase, and if songbird numbers go down, so do sparrowhawk numbers (1).

Ms Bennett’s is a mostly metropolitan outlook on life – a black rat is a much more likely scary presence to her colleagues in the centre of London than is a lynx, and that is why she chose it as her straw dog. But ultimately, most objections to reintroductions are based on the perceived threat to farming and sporting livelihoods. Thus she falls into line when she raises the spectre that the beavers will "destroy trees and gobble fish in territory from which they were energetically eradicated four centuries ago".  And there is her assertion by proxy that “there are claims that reinstallation of these raptors has ignored the needs of farmers, whose complaints should no longer be ignored”

(1) Sparrowhawks and Songbirds, RSPB

5 January 2009