Saturday, 23 August 2014

Anecdote vs Science

For my sins I am a reader of the Daily Telegraph. I say reader but I m more of a skim reader and picture observer. Some articles that piqué my interest are fully digested but most pass me by. One column that I began to read with interest was Robin Page’s Country Diary. I thought this would reflect some of my views on the countryside and the traditions therein, this was not the case. His column is in the Weekend section of the Saturday paper and is a mix of country and farming comment and opinion.
The opinion part is what riles me. He like anyone has a right to express an opinion but unlike many he has a wider platform. He has a particular problem with the RSPB and many of the other nature conservation bodies. He seems to be in favour of culling birds of prey to protect other species and espouses some rather weak evidence to support him.

My biggest issue are not his views, as I said he is entitled to express them but his vitriol for science. Take for example today’s piece on Butterflies, he counter poses the idea that British butterflies are on the decline with the anecdotal evidence that he has seen more Small Tortoiseshells this year, and this is the problem, much of his evidence is anecdotal. Such evidence is useful it raises ideas and perhaps prompts research, but it cannot replace hard science.

There are many reasons why Small Tortoiseshells could be prevalent where Robin lives and I could challenge Robin’s assertion that Butterflies are not in as much trouble with my own anecdote that on my patch Tortoiseshells are declining. The difference is I can analyse my assertion through science. I have taken population data on wildlife on my patch for the past 12 years and am just in the process of producing a 10 year study report. This analysis shows a general declining trend but the graph seems to indicate a fluctuating population structure 7 year peaks. This is a guess my data is not extensive enough to say anymore than that the general trend is down and that 2003 and 2010 were amazing years.

My data does not say that all Small Tortoiseshells are declining everywhere; I cannot extrapolate my small patch to represent the whole country in the same way that Robin can say that the species as a whole is okay because he say plenty where he lives.

Accurate science reporting is an ongoing battle and I do think there is a major issue to be handled here. There seems to me to be a disconnect sometimes between the research that is carried out and how much that research can inform and guide conservation policy. Sometimes we need to act without science, how many species could become extinct whilst research is conducted into whether they are declining or why?
Nature conservation needs to science led but it needs to have science that is focused on the practicalities of on the ground conservation workers. Local wildlife trusts need to know how they can maximise their work on their small budgets and be prepared to make hard decisions regarding policy areas.

I applaud Robin on his passion and gusto but hope that he can balance his annoyance with the science of nature conservation a little more fairly in his column. Nor should his views be ignored or his anecdotes treated negatively. There is a lot of wisdom in the countryside but there is much to be said of balance and supporting your arguments with peer reviewed research, a hallmark of scientific practice.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Feral Re-wilding for all

After a week’s pleasant reading I have now finished reading George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’. I mentioned I had started this book in one of my previous last blog posts (22nd July), I also commented that in the past I have found George’s approach to environmentalism idealistic and unrealistic. When I was younger I found this vexing but now as I get older and start to feel that yearning for how things used to be, and have watched the travesty of decision making coming from government I am beginning to find my views more in line with his.

The central thesis of ‘Feral’ was that nature conservation should be taking a more hands off approach to conserving wildlife. That nature should be able to reclaim its own balance encouraged by the reintroduction of what many call ecosystem engineers – key species that enable a cascade of effects down through the system. One of the key examples of such an engineer is the European Beaver. Such reintroduction projects using this species have been trialed in Knapdale in Scotland with some success although escaped Beavers in Devon are facing capture and possible execution.

George uses the example of Wolves in the Yellowstone to illustrate the idea of rewilding quite eloquently. He can be seen in this clip explaining what happened.

The book carefully explores the types of animals that could be introduced into the UK and he lists a range of species from Wolves and Lynx to Wild Horse and Grey Whales! He has arbitrarily graded each of the species suitability and I agree with his estimations. He ranks Lynx as more suitable than Wolves. He also highlights the hypocrisy inherent in Britain today. We pay thousands of pounds to Africa to protect big cats some of which threaten villagers whilst living comfortably in a land with no dangerous predators to contend with. We lambast Brazil and Indonesia for its logging of rainforest, whilst we deforested much of the country centuries ago. As in charity I do think conservation should start at home and with less condescension to local people. For people who watched Charlie Hamilton James’ excellent ‘I bought a Rainforest’ series he showed beautifully that world conservation is a much more complex affair than just fencing off an area. In fact such fencing can adversely affect people and in the long term wildlife.

In the UK pretty much all wildlife sites are heavily managed to maintain them in ecological terms they are kept at plagioclimax, an arrested state of development. Naturally the ecosystem wants to develop into in most cases in the UK woodland. Woodland supports the greatest number of species than any other terrestrial habitat, but is nature conservation just a numbers game?
Every year we read of declines in Farmland Birds for example. These values are admirably quantified by the British Trust forOrnithology. But given years of agri-environmental schemes both domestic and European, why is this decline continuing? Again it is a complex answer but at its heart lies the basic premise that wildlife is separate from farming. That the bottom line is the cost of the land and the produce on it, the emphasis is always on the productivity and not the conservation. A key marker for this is that protection of the Environment is paired with Food and Rural Affairs in DEFRA. The government agency contains two areas that are antagonistic to one another. Yes we want a balance between the two. I m not in favour of hounding landowners out in favour of wildflowers... not entirely, but the Environment deserves a government department of its own, one that enables it to carry the same weight as others. In recent years the language of conservation is continually one of compromise.

This brings me to what I am beginning to view as one of the death knells of conservation – sustainability. It rose to prominence whilst I was still at university in 2000 despite being coined much earlier. It has led to, in my mind, the constant flood of green wash. Tiny amounts of offsetting and other techniques to enable construction or development. Builders and planners use sustainability as a byword for getting more. Its okay this housing estate is sustainable – we have planted 30 trees and dug a pond
Having rambled off from the point I now return to George’s book. His vision for a rewilding of the UK is very exciting and something I see real potential in. Work is already going on in Glen Fleshie, Scotland and I hope that this will serve as a flagship for more work. ‘Feral’ is a well written work, both at turns humorous and engaging. It is well researched and does try to balance the disparate views. I would suggest that every ecology student read it as part of a reading list.

For those who want to know more and do not wish to read the whole book, this month’s BBC Wildlife magazine has an excellent article in which I read with interest Georges ambition to launch a rewilding charity later in the year. I will keep you posted on this.

Feral is available from all good bookshops.