Friday, 31 August 2012

Not just another wet summer

Warning - the following blog has a rant rating of 10! You may want to avoid if you've heard it all before. It's probably written more for my blood pressure than your pleasure - for which, apologies...

Over 366mm of rain has poured down onto the UK over the last three months, according to the Met Office. It was wetter still here, with 450mm - that's one and a half feet - of water cascading over us during this, the wettest summer for a century.

On its own this statistic would be depressing, but perhaps not worrying. It's happened before. We have a maritime climate - variable and quixotic. What makes it so disturbing is its conjunction with so many other extreme weather events, such as the drought in the US, and the greatest summer melting of the Arctic sea ice since records began. The most respected scientific institutions around the world, known for their hyper-cautious approach to ascribing reasons for this, are now pointing out that the probability that climate change is to blame is becoming unequivocal. An RSPB blog by Matt Williams had this to say:

The Met Office concurs with the overall findings, saying that climate change has significantly increased the odds of some recent weather events. Met Office and Oxford University scientists concluded that the extreme warm average temperature in November 2011 was 60 times more likely to have occurred then, than in the 1960s. 

Reading this makes me feel as if we are living in a country run by latter-day Neros. How can they even be contemplating building a third runway for Heathrow, or perhaps even worse, an airport in the Thames estuary, when the effect would be to smash our carbon reduction targets?  How can they fiddle with their quantitative easing and national debt, while the world burns?

Among all the newspaper reports of this summer's appalling weather I've seen nothing from the Government to say that they are using the reports to reinforce their commitment to tackling climate change, and how they are going to deal with it.. This in contrast to the publication of trade figures, or the state of the deficit, which bring immediate responses from the Chancellor, the Treasury, the Bank of England, et al, all explaining how they are going to get us out of this mess.

I thought the argument went that we had to tread carefully and slowly in tackling climate change because people would rebel if their lifestyles were damaged too badly? This doesn't seem to be an issue for the Government when it comes to cutting people's benefits, increasing their pension contributions, and making swingeing cuts to our public services, in the name of the economic downturn.

Bring on the rebellion.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Storm fox

It's often said that the British dislike success. It smacks too much of big-headedness, of over-confidence.

Maybe it's for this reason that we have such an difficult relationship with vulpes vulpes - our native, red fox. Hated by farmers and gamekeepers. Hunted with rifles and dogs. Always the baddie in children's stories. They don't get a good press.

And there's no denying foxes are indeed extremely successful - the most successful carnivores on the planet, in terms of their range. You can find their delicate, four-toed tracks in the snowfields of Arctic Russia and the sands of North Africa. And the distinctive musky scent of their passing hangs in the air of a Japanese city street as readily as on the Scottish mountains or the ancient woodlands of the south.

There is a list - I discovered today - of the 100 worst invasive species in the world, compiled by the illustrious International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and foxes are on it. Their introduction into Australia has had disastrous consequences for the native wildlife. And even in the UK it is not only seen as the bane of poultry keepers and pheasant growers, but of many conservationists, struggling to protect the eggs and young of endangered ground-nesting birds like terns or lapwings.

Ironically we hardly ever see a fox in the fields or woods around Ashfield. I can count the number of times on the fingers of one hand over the 12 years that we have lived here. But I saw one yesterday in the low, rough range of hills a few miles east of the village known as the Ochils. We had stopped by a small lochan to eat our sandwiches, while the edge of a thunder storm scudded overhead, forks of lightning and spatters of rain pinning us inside our steamed-up car.

The fox appeared among the scrubby gorse thickets on the slope to the far side of the lochan, sitting alert and upright like an obedient dog. It glanced in our direction, but the misted windows must have obscured our outlines, for it looked through us, not at us. It was a privilege to watch the watcher. After a while its attention was caught by something in the grass, and our fox pranced and pounced on it - moving more like a cat than a dog. In fact, despite being one of the dog family, there is something quite definitely feline about the way foxes look and move. The pricked ears, the silky coat, the way they stretch after sleep. For the next ten minutes we watched through binoculars as it dawdled lazily around the gorse, wandering back and forth, in and out of the tall, rank grass and sheep-flattened paths before disappearing for good inside a dark, thorny clump. Perhaps the rain had become too tiresome.

But I did not think 'bloody show-off'. I thought 'brilliant animal'. Perfectly adapted for its environment - a native in his own world. The sight of it gladdened my day.

It's the pheasants and poultry that are the incomers here, not the fox. And though it's true that foxes are a threat to ground nesting birds, the issue is really that the habitat in which they can nest has shrunk, reducing their numbers to such an extent that the natural balance between prey and predator has changed. Foxes are not the villains.

I don't know why we don't have foxes around our village - perhaps they have all been shot, or perhaps the shortage of rabbits - which have also disappeared over the last 10 years, has starved them out. I do know that our landscape is the poorer for their absence.

Friday, 24 August 2012

A wild idea

A chance comment overheard in a shop, and a fisherman's wry joke as I walked Jake the dog this lunchtime, give me hope for the future.

'It feels like autumn's coming - I can sense a change on its way', said the shop assistant I eavesdropped on. 'I'm off to catch my dinner', quipped the angler. But what they said sounded to me like: 'I'm still in touch with the natural world'; 'I still get a thrill out of hunting for wild food'.

There's much talk of our current dislocation with nature. Rightly, conservationists and environmentalists fear that if we don't understand or care about the natural world we won't try very hard to protect and restore it. Yet those random comments make me think that although many of us may have lost touch with our wild side, it's still very much alive, waiting like a dormant seed to be germinated in the right conditions.

What would those conditions be? Perhaps we can draw parallels with the UK's approach to the Olympics? The government invested billions of pounds not only in the infrastructure to make the Games happen, but in finding and training the athletes to achieve their potential - sometimes hidden until discovered by scouts and coaches. The legacy is to be the inspiration of a whole new generation of happier, healthier people for whom sport will be a key part of their lives - with more government investment to make that happen.

What would happen if a similar approach were taken to discovering our own potential for wildness - for valuing and taking part in the natural world? If government invested similar billions into the infrastructure - wilding school grounds, creating more nature reserves, National Parks, marine conservation areas and the like, reinforced by cash for training naturalists, funding teaching in schools, celebrating the best through awards and ceremonies. The legacy would not only be a whole new generation of happier, healthier people, but also a happier, healthier environment too.

Why are we waiting?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Scottish autumn or Indian summer?

It's nearly two months since I posted a blog, and I'm feeling rusty. So apologies if today's offering is less than fluent.

I won't bore you with a 'What we did on our holidays' piece. Suffice to say we had rain - often, and sun - occasionally, walked for miles and sat for hours, watched wildlife and the Olympics, made fires on beaches on the warm days, and lit our wood burning stove on the cold ones. The typical British summer holidays.

My daughter went back to school today. The beginning of the Autumn term. And although August has been a warm month here so far, the over-ripe scent of early-autumn is indeed already in the air. All day ranks of cumulonimbus clouds have passed overhead like fleets of battleships, strafing the ground with rain, hard and grey as bullets. When the sun reappears it turns the air humid and musky with the smell of wet hay and drying mud.

But at least the warmth has finally brought out the insects that have been absent for much of the so-called summer up here. The lipstick-pink, open flowers of the huge mallow plant that the rain has pounded flat across our front steps is alive with honey bees - so many that I'm reluctant to move it for fear of being stung. We step over it instead.

And I watched a bumblebee taking nectar from a sweet pea the other day. A perfect demonstration of the ingenuity of plants. As the bee landed on the lower lips of the petals its weight pushed them down and out, revealing a pollen-covered stamen underneath that curved up at the perfect angle to touch the base of the bee's abdomen. Presumbly the covering mechanism prevents the pollen being damaged or eaten instead of being transferred. Genius.

 Dozens of small tortoiseshell, peacock and white butterflies prefer the tiny, purply flowers of the marjoram that is slowly taking over the garden. When the showers come through the insects dive for cover, emerging with the sun like visible perfume wafting over the flowers.

I suppose, rather than calling this autumn, I should think of it as an Indian summer - complete with monsoons and the exotic fragrance of incipient decay. At least that way I'll feel we've had some kind of summer.