Monday, 28 January 2013

Conservation and Owls: An Unexpected Philosophy?

In British Columbia it’s a case of priorities. The Globe and Mail reports of the Northern Spotted Owl: dwindling to ten or so individuals in the old growth conifers of Pacific Canada. The causes are two-fold: trees and Barred Owls. Logging takes out swathes of old mature trees, a habitat that by nature doesn’t grow back overnight. That was a war waged in the 1980s though – and won – but now it faces a feathered foe. The Barred Owl is a native of the same woods but a more successful species that, through competition, is slowly pushing the rarer Spotted Owl out. So now the Canadian government wants to shoot the Barred Owls to save its Spotted Owls.

I can’t comment on the specifics of the case other than to note that the Barred Owl > Spotted Owl dynamic is not without its sceptics. What it does do, for me at least, is raise a number of questions about conservation and its purpose and priorities. This is an issue not short of a thought thistle or two.
Northern Spotted Owl © Wikimedia Commons
If it were a non-native species impacting on a native, than that would, for me, be an easier issue to deal with. When hybridisation with feral Ruddy Ducks threatened the sole European population of the White-headed Duck, the case is clear. Man made the mistake of taking a species to where it shouldn’t be, and other species mustn’t pay the price for it. The evidence is rarely 100% conclusive, but where there is the risk then action needs to be taken. Man has the blood of enough species on its hands and we don’t need to add yet another one to it.

But in the thick of coniferous Canada, the Barred Owl is native and has a history as old as the woods are deep. However, its population is expanding as the Spotted Owl’s dwindles, and is moving west into the Spotted Owl territory. This is apparently a natural increase (as much as something can be in a world so removed from the natural by human influence) unlike British populations of Crows, booming due to our unnatural wastefulness. It is tempting to take a Darwinian, survival of the fittest approach to this problem: the Barred Owl is simply more adaptable, out competing the Spotted Owl, so cut the sentiment and let nature take its course. But to do so is to consign one species’s fate to nature in an unnatural world, so why should we? What we lose with the loss of the Spotted Owl is a talismanic species that united environmentalists in the 1980s against unsustainable logging, as well as a species that has its own place in biology, cultures and myths. The preventable loss of one species is tragic: for conservationists this Darwinian approach can’t stand. What then would be the point and purpose of a conservationist?
Barred Owl © Wikimedia Commons

To shoot a Barred Owl is an action that requires no sentiment either. Nothing is fitter and more unnatural than a bullet from a gun. Nature has no respect for political borders: that the Spotted Owl has only ten individuals left in Canada is to ignore the thousands more to its south. The ‘northern’ subspecies extends from North California to British Columbia. Shooting Barred Owls may create a vacuum for more Spotted Owls from North America to fill. The result, some owls cross an arbitrary border because other owls died. ‘Nations’ as Larkin wrote, are ‘vague as weeds’. Why should an owl one side of a manmade line live and the other one die? What’s to stop the Barred Owl filling the Barred Owl vacuum?
You trace through the arguments, those pro-life for Barred and pro-life for Spotted Owls and end up with an interesting mix of not particularly not particularly satisfying conclusions. Conservation is a science steeped in arguments, interpretations and tough decisions with far-reaching consequences. I’m glad it’s not for me to decide.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A Very Literal Photograph

And a mildly frustrating one. Short of getting the secateurs out for an impromptu spot of gardening, this was the best angle for the clearest background on the healthiest looking flowers. It strikes me that despite their ubiquity, snowdrops are incredibly hard to photograph. It's the way their flowers droop from the stem like the heads of shy children, unwilling to primp and preen and pose like daffodils in a spring breeze. I like them for it when I don't have my camera in hand...

Sunday, 20 January 2013


Why would you want to be anywhere else?
Actually I would, but if you didn't have 15,000 words to write about poetry from 1790-1901, you really wouldn't choose anywhere else.

The snow came down here several days later than it did in Suffolk, but at last, it has come. First on the mountains, but now in the streets. With it, it brings birds: Fieldfares patrolling the streets of housing estates, Redwings in the trees at university, a Nuthatch tapping the bark of the campus Yew. Up Dumyat a pair of Stonechats stoically weathered the frost and snow and the bitter bitter north-easterly wind. 400 metres up, the only thing the wind passes before it passes through you are the snow-covered peaks of the highland mountains.
And still the snow keeps on falling but not accumulating for much longer than an afternoon. Without the time to do much walking or birding, photography and its challenges take over. Every non-Australian seems to have snow at the moment, so how do you make a photo stand out?
Streetlights and fiddling with shutter-speeds is a start. It's a funner form of photography not knowing exactly what will come out when you press the shutter and wait.

When the snow goes I'll have even less of an excuse to spend my time with binoculars and cameras as I attempt to crack on with my dissertation. My favourite form of blogging, of long words and longer paragraphs* will be retired in favour of photos, short paragraphs, and possibly old bits of writing from elsewhere.
Airthrey Loch, above. The Wallace monument from the road to Cambuskenneth, below.
See you in April! (If I survive.)

*The undergraduate curse.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Pop Song of the Earth

Nature is the muse that inspires symphonies, painting, poetry throughout the ages and most religions. None of these, as painful as it is to admit, are very popular these days, despite environmental awareness being relatively high right now. What is popular? Well pop music, really. You can’t spend too long on social media without seeing someone quoting song lyrics as if it’s profound philosophy. So what of the links between the environment and pop music?

‘Things aint what they used to be’ (Marvin Gaye: Mercy Mercy Me)
It’s a common refrain. Love is the thing of pop music and lost love is even better. Marvin Gaye isn’t singing about break ups though, but channelling the anguish of ecocide: ‘Poison is the wind that blows/…oil wasted on the oceans/ and upon the sea/ fish full of mercury’. Written in 1970 from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, Gaye exhorts us to look around and laments, soulfully, for what he finds. The lyrics offer no help, just a catalogue of environmental degradation. Hope is found in the strings and his vocal delivery: cover versions just don’t have the same power.

I saw above me that endless skyway / I saw below me that golden valley / This land was made for you and me’ (Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land)
Things aint what they used to be. In 1940 Woody Guthrie blamed private property in a song that would become part of the ‘Great American songbook’ despite its Marxist lyrics. It’s also an exhortation to care for the land: if you care for the land then you care for the environment. If you care for that, then you care for nature by default, whether it comes sugared in American jingoism or not. It’s a hopeful song, and the idea that the land is a sort of utopia spoilt by private property is charmingly naïve, but with a grain of truth. In the thirty years between this and Gaye, pollution was invented, it seems.

Nature proliferates. Adapts. Evolves. This song has taken a life of its own, covered by pretty much everyone, and unlike Marvin Gaye’s, it improves with the different interpretations, such as Neil Young’s, Springsteen’s and Billy Bragg’s Great British version. Though possibly not Johnny Cash’s.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ (Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi)
The obvious one, perhaps. Also from 1970 and also a hit, this song is one of the most famous environmentally themed songs, mostly for its upfront lyrics. Is there another (good) song with lyrics about DDT? It was written eight years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first brought DDT usage into the spotlight and only two years before it was banned, adding to the snowballing public concern about pesticides. It’s also one of the few pop songs with a specific activist concern.

I actually prefer her song The River and its couplet: ‘its coming on Christmas / they’re chopping down trees’. The simple, stark juxtaposition between celebration and destruction is one I find subtly powerful.

Rise Against: Ready To Fall

Punk actually standing for things? That hasn’t happened since The Clash. I can’t actually decipher the lyrics to tell if Rise Against are different, but the video makes the environmental point with a fist-pumping earnestness.

‘Drape yourself in greenery, become part of the scenery’ (British Sea Power: North Hanging Rock)
British Sea Power remind me of the Romantic poets in their unabashed celebration of nature as a primal, intoxicating force. This song has a freshness to it like a sea-breeze, and an expansive sound, gradually climaxing in sublime noise. The lyrics are quite simple: ‘drape yourself…’ reminds me of an earlier song in which they sing ‘it starts with love of foliage, and ends in camouflage’. Anyone who writes lyrics like that stands a good chance of earning my enduring fandom: the birdsong over the intro seals the deal for me.

Pop is meant to be disposable, shallow, superficial, unit-shifting medium: the very antithesis of what modern environmental thought approves of. There’s a delicious irony then in the form subverted to spread a message contra to that embodied by its existence. These five songs are just a sample that is unashamedly biased towards those I actually like, feel free to correct any oversights in the comment section.

To The Farm

You know it’s chilly when your breath condenses and rises; you know it’s a touch too cold when it condenses and sinks. At three in the afternoon the sky was deep cobalt, but smudged with newsprint inky clouds. Snow seemed an inevitability but it never came. Instead, as we walked, we found brilliant blinding sunshine…
Down by the sewage farm, where the water never freezes, a Green Sandpiper stalked the beds like a giant wagtail. This used to be a shoo-in for Grey Wagtail but there hasn’t been one here in recent years. If it’s a straight species-for-species swap, I think I’ll take the sandpiper, thanks.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Barbed Wire

Johannes is not a birder but he is environmentally aware: primarily politically, but also for deer and other mammals. I can understand why. Being a Scottish German he was particularly keen on seeing Red Deer and Muntjac: the former a species he should’ve seen but hadn’t, and the latter a species that has yet to spread to either of those locations. The breckland seemed the best bet: a 15km walk from Icklingham to Thetford was planned along part of one of the oldest tracks in Britain, through forest and heath, grass pasture and parsnip fields. This is deer country. In an eco-system shorn of its natural predators, here they proliferate; eating their way through the dense low bush habitat of the Nightingale, with few barriers to their movements or growth. Nobody hunts them and their biggest source of fatalities is from cars that don’t brake in time. It’s not the deer crossing first that you hit, but the one which inevitably follows that takes a chunk of your front bumper with it.

Despite this, and with a possible Disney influence, deer are an excellent species for enthusing people about wildlife. As we walked, Roe Deer peeked out of long grass beside the path: the big quivering ears giving the game away, and leading to a pair of wide, glassy black eyes looking back at us. It’s impossible not to anthropomorphise. Even an alert deer looks kind of cute.

And then we found a muntjac. Johannes is surprisingly sharp-eyed and spotted it first: blasé, I whispered it was a muntjac, and his enthusiasm was infectious. It reminded me of me. I’ve had that enthusiasm, that rapt excitement of seeing a wild animal for the first time many times before and I still can’t really rationalise why it should be so. For me, time has made even the tamest muntjac not particularly noteworthy. For him, this small deer creeping through the undergrowth of a hawthorn thicket was the most exciting thing of his stay in Suffolk. I found the stoat with white-flecked fur that sprinted across the path to be far more exciting; though Johannes wasn’t sure if it was a hermelin or a mauswiesel.

The overcast sky cracked to reveal blue. Countless Green Woodpeckers and Kestrels later, I was enjoying the burning feet, thighs and lungs of my first long distance walk in ages.
(Deer photo by Craig Nash. Check out his blog here)

And then we discovered it. The path turned north towards Elveden, running alongside a pine belt and a parsnip field with a waist-height fence, topped with a single line of barbed wire. I couldn’t work it out at first. Across the barbed wire ran a brown line… a branch? Binoculars revealed a grimmer sight. A cloven hoof suspended in mid-air and a leg at an unnatural angle, bathed in blood red. I peered over the fence and found a Roe Deer slumped. It saw me too, staggered up onto three legs and with a desperate agony strained to pull its broken bloody leg off the barbs.

It was suffering. I can’t imagine the distress of being trapped in bloody agony, but we hid in the hope that it would calm down as every strain made the situation worse. We rang the RSPCA distressed animal helpline but to no avail: apparently without a town, road name or postcode they wouldn’t be able to find us. It must be said that these things tend to be lacking in the middle of a wood. My offer of a six figured grid-reference and directions was ignored and I was advised to ring the police to tell them we had a distressed deer and weren’t sure where we were. I later learned that most police retain a deerstalker but in the stress of the moment I couldn’t see the sense of it and ran off in pursuit of a farm-worker we could see several fields away. He went off to get the landowner. By this point we were past the deer and carried on walking to cause no further unnecessary distress to the animal.

Thirty minutes later we heard a gunshot.

At that point we were standing beside a nature reserve, a typical breckland heath of rabbit grazed grass, sandy soil and stones and weeds. It was rung by a wire fence, waist-height, with a single line of barbed wire topping it off. A deer should be able to jump it and the barbs aren’t close together, so it was by some staggering piece of misfortune that the Roe Deer had managed to impale itself. That is beside the point though: I can’t see a single good reason for the existence of barbed wire in the countryside, least of all at such a risky height, in such a risky place. The brecks are covered in deer and beside a nature reserve the presence of a fence that is dangerous and potentially lethal for animals seems grotesquely out of place. Although I can see the need for a fence around a nature reserve as sadly not everyone wishes wildlife well, I don’t see the reason why it should surround a farmer’s field. Who wishes ill on a growing root vegetable?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Big Dipper

Patchy fog clings to the Breckland turf and trees on winter mornings like these. We drive through the dawn towards Thetford on a road that periodically disappears in its gothic shroud, abruptly reappears, and then disappears over the next field again. It sets a rhythm for our dawn jaunt.

There and then gone again. The Black-bellied Dipper turned up at the start of November, the start of December and the start of January and hasn’t been regularly seen later in the month. I’ve no idea why this should be. Its choice of location is unexpected. East Anglia doesn’t have a great selection of rivers, but nobody could’ve guessed that this Dipper would turn up on a dismal stream in the middle of Thetford: a town so pleasant it’s locally known as ‘Thefthood’.

Through the foggy morning emerged a small band of birders lined up by the stream. The bird was showing from our arrival: dipping, bobbing, wading through the gentle flow of the stream and picking out invertebrates from the leaf litter. Its white bib glowed amidst a body of black and brown, an environment of black and brown, and a stream and sky of grey. The breast band was all black: a sign of a foreign origin. Scandinavian, I reckon: it makes more sense to me as an origin, than anywhere else in mainland Europe. Compared to the Scottish, brown-bellied, birds I’m familiar with, it seemed significantly chunkier, broader as if packed with additional buoyancy aids. Certainly it didn’t submerge itself and swim as I’m used to seeing, but this may be down to the shallow, slow stream it was sat in: not a habitat I would expect to see one in Scotland, either.
The justification for this twitch? It’s a bird. There’s not a lot around this winter. It’s an unusual form too: not a species but something sitting uncomfortably outside of the normal but short of the difference required for speciation. And, on a much more superficial level: have you ever seen a thrush-sized bird wading through water? It’s just got charisma this species.