Responding to the referendum result

Last Friday was a dark day for me, finding out the result of the referendum and trying to process the implications of that vote. I was shocked at the result – I found it hard to believe that so many people were ready to take such a big gamble. I was angry with the leaders of the Leave campaign who had deliberately and repeatedly mislead people on issues such as the cost of the EU contribution, and how that imaginary money will be spent post-Brexit. I was also angry with my fellow citizens, for falling for those lies. I was saddened and scared by what it might mean for things I value: environmental protection; workers rights among others. I was ashamed of how it must seem to my European colleagues and neighbours.

I work in London, and live in the Mole Valley, both areas where the majority of people voted to remain. Every colleague and neighbour I have spoken to about it has, like me, been saddened by result. Some have talked of their fears about what it will mean for them financially, or their work. Some have talked about leaving the country.

Things haven’t got better over the last few days. I have seen chilling reports of xenophobia surfacing. The Labour Party seems intent on self-destruction, while the candidates for next Tory leader are not reassuring. We seem no clearer on what will happen than we were on Friday. What model of Brexit will we go for? Will the United Kingdom survive Brexit? I’m deeply concerned about the direction this country is heading.

Grieving over the result is natural. But as I have worked my way through all these emotions (I’m not through them yet – they’re all still mixed up inside me), I have become convinced that’s not enough. That’s easily said, but what can or should I do? I don’t have the full answer yet, and it may take a while to work out.

Should I stay or should I go?

Leaving the country for somewhere new and more attuned to my values is tempting. I’ve considered sounding out colleagues in Africa or Canada. But I love this country (or at least bits of it) – its hills and woods and coast. I love its wildlife. Leaving would feel like washing my hands of it. A selfish act.

Staying to fight?

If I am to stay, I have to try to protect the things I love. It’s not going to be good enough to bury my head in the sand. On Friday, for the first time in my life, I joined a political party. Until now I have avoided party politics. No party completely represented my views. It seemed an ugly game. But now is the time to engage more with politics, as so much will need to be decided over the next few years. It’s no time to take a step back. Signing online petitions isn’t enough. I don’t know what will be enough, but joining a political party is a start.

Praying for peace and love

That sounds fluffy and hippyish. But it’s not. This country feels divided, with old hatreds bubbling to the surface. Lots of people are hurting, scared or angry.  There doesn’t seem to be a leader coming forward who can bring unity. I am a Christian, and I believe we need God’s grace in this situation. I will redouble my prayers for this country. And I will try to be loving in all my interactions with others.

 

I don’t have the answer. I don’t have a neat way to deal with the situation we’re in. I’m scared by what the future might hold. But I think this plan is enough for now, until it’s clearer what more is needed.

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Dormouse box check: June 16

This month’s dormouse box check started early with just Dr C and me. The birds nests were all empty, with the chicks having hatched and fledged between checks. The bees were still occupying a couple of dormouse nests, so we gave them a wide berth. And no dormice to be seen. There wasn’t even any sign of new nesting activities.

So a quiet check. Even the woods seemed relatively subdued after the cacophony of wildflowers on display last month. It was the first check this year without finding any dormice. But a pleasant way to spend a few hours, and good to get a chance to check boxes myself, rather than just map read and supervise. Hopefully next month we will find some dormice, and maybe even some youngsters.

The EU referendum: a vote to ‘remain’ is a vote for the environment

If you live in the UK, you can’t have missed the fact that, on 23 June, we get to vote on whether to stay part of the EU, or leave. The standard of the debate, from both sides, has been very poor: negative, fear-mongering, continued use of misleading statistics, and focusing on just a couple of issues. It seems to have turned into a Tory leadership contest. This has put many people off engaging with the topic – I have to admit, I haven’t watched the TV debates and interviews, because I know they’re not going to address the issues I care about. And even if they did, I don’t trust the people spearheading the campaigns to tell me the truth. But deciding whether to stay in the EU or leave is a really important step, so I think we (in the UK) all have a duty to look into it, beyond the negative headlines.

There are many important implications to consider when deciding whether to stay or leave. The impact it will have on the economy, jobs, protection of workers, immigration and free movement of people, security, science, sovereignty… the list goes on and on. It’s an important and complex decision. This post will try to summarise some of the environmental issues to consider.

The first thing to acknowledge in any discussion about the EU is that it’s not perfect. While some of its laws, policies and decisions have protected the UK environment, others have had a less positive effect, creating perverse incentives (eg. the Common Agricultural Policy). That means we need to weigh  up the pros and cons. This is made harder by the uncertainty over what would happen if we did leave the EU. The Wildlife Trusts, WWF and the RSPB commissioned an independent report to look into these issues, and I’ve drawn on the summary here, together with other sources, as this issue clearly goes beyond my personal knowledge and expertise.

What has the EU done for the UK environment?

Our environment was not in a good state in the 1970s and 80s. We  had the highest acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU and our seas were polluted with sewage. Many of our species had suffered huge declines due to pollution or lack of protection. Membership of the EU has led to:

  • Otter
    The come-back of the otter is thanks to improved river water quality, due to EU legislation

    Substantial improvements in air and water pollution, thanks to EU legislation – we have cleaner rivers, beaches, drinking water and air thanks to the EU. The revival of species like the otter, thanks to our cleaner rivers, is testament to this.

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting
    Beach on the Cornish coast
    Our beaches are cleaner, thanks to the EU

    renewable energy

  • Protection of species and our most sensitive wild places, mainly through the Birds and Habitats Directives – according to Friends of the Earth, before the Directives we were losing 15% of our protected sites a year – that’s now down to
    Torpid dormouse in nest
    EU legislation protects species like dormice

    1%

  • Increasing recycling and improving waste management
  • Banning harmful chemicals, including some pesticides
  • Legislation to protect our seas
  • The requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment if developers are planning a major development, or development in an environmentally sensitive area, so impact on wildlife can be taken into account in decision-making, and plans made to mitigate it, if appropriate

On the downside, the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy have created incentives for unsustainable practices which damage our environment and wildlife. And the TTIP deal currently being negotiated between the EU and USA could be very bad news for the environment.

Working together to tackle big issues

The EU brings together member states, and allows them to work together to tackle important issues. It’s particularly useful for issues

Swallow skimming the beach
We need cross-border action to protect migrating birds, like this swallow

that have cross-border implications. Many of the environmental challenges we face do have cross-border implications, for example climate change, marine pollution, fish stocks, protection of migrating birds… Nature doesn’t acknowledge national boundaries, so some issues, by their very nature, are better tackled in a united way by many nations.

Brexit uncertainty

It’s very unclear what will happen if the UK decides to leave the EU. One scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU but stays in the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and thereby retains access to the single market, following models similar to those in countries such as Norway or
Switzerland. This would mean that many EU environmental laws would still be mandatory in the UK, but there would be exceptions – particularly the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and the Bathing Water Quality Directive, which were responsible for several of the benefits from the EU listed above. There’s a clear risk that we would lose some of the protection for birds, special habitats, and improvements in water quality for our beaches.

Another scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU and sits as a completely independent State outside the EEA and EFTA agreements. This would mean EU environmental legislation would no longer apply. Our government would be responsible for developing legislation on all environmental issues. Given the current focus on economic growth at all costs, that prospect fills me with terror.

Over the years, a lot of the criticisms of the EU (or at least the criticisms that aren’t thinly veiled xenophobia) have been around the level of red tape the EU imposes. I’m not saying there is no unnecessary bureaucracy in the EU, but a lot of the ‘red tape’ those critics are referring to are the rules that protect our environment (or workers rights). In the current political climate, we’re unlikely to see adequate protection of the environment enshrined in any post-EU UK legislation – it will be an opportunity for the proponents of deregulation to quietly get rid of annoying rules that protect our natural world, and ourselves. Do you trust Boris Johnson, the man who buried negative findings about air pollution around hundreds of London’s primary schools breaching EU limits, to be involved in developing a newly independent UK’s environmental legislation? Or George Osborne, who has publically condemned the EU’s habitats directive?

There’s also no reason to assume that if we’re no longer part of the EU, we won’t end up with something along the lines of TTIP anyway: the UK has been one of the drivers of some of the most damaging clauses of the potential deal, and would need to look for trade deals with other partners if we were to leave the EU.

Areas for improvement

Friends of the Earth, in their position paper on the EU referendum, spell out some of the improvements they are campaigning for in how the EU operates. This includes changing priorities away from economic growth and free trade, improving their laws, and increasing democratic accountability. But despite this need for change, Friends of the Earth are still strongly advocating for the UK to remain part of the EU, as the benefits to the environment outweigh the harms.

The EU isn’t perfect, and it’s environmental record isn’t flawless. But its legislation does provide significant protection to our wildlife and natural resources. By being part of something bigger we can more effectively tackle cross-border issues, which pose some of the biggest environmental challenges we face today. And by being part of the EU we can try to influence it positively. The MEPs we vote for will have a say. If we leave the EU, we lose that voice.

This referendum is important. If you care about the issues I talk about here, please vote on 23 June.

 

 

Close encounter

Ever since I learnt to sail, at the age of 10, I’ve dreamt of having my own sailing boat. Part of the appeal of sailing was the thought of seeing exciting marine wildlife up close. Last year I finally took the plunge and bought a 14 ft sailing dinghy.

My parents let me keep the boat with them, down in deepest Cornwall, so I only get to sail it on visits to them. That means I’m still getting used to the boat, and, more tricky, the cove I launch her from. Last week was my first opportunity of the year to take the boat out.

The weather was perfect – sunshine, with the right amount of wind coming from the right direction. The wind swirls around a lot in the cove, but once you’re out from the cliffs things get a lot easier. It was early on a weekday morning, so not many other boats were out.

Within 15 minutes of setting sail, Dr C spotted something in the water some way off – the sedate roll of a porpoise’s fin breaking the surface before disappearing. We continued in that direction, hoping to get another glimpse. We were in luck, with the appearances of the fin getting closer and closer to the boat.

But there was something strange about it. On one sighting it looked small and dark, and the next time taller and light grey, then again small and dark. We worked out that it wasn’t one animal we were seeing, but at least two – some kind of dolphin (most likely common) as well as a harbour porpoise.

I’m not sure how long the encounter lasted – not long. But it was the closest I have come to a harbour porpoise, who are generally quite shy and tend to keep boats at a distance. I suspect that us sailing, rather than being propelled by a noisy engine, probably helped us to not alarm the porpoise too much.

I had decided to leave the camera ashore (one less thing to worry about, and I was sure we’d see something exciting if we didn’t have the camera with us). So I don’t have any photos of it. You’ll just have to picture the scene: a quiet, sunny morning in a marine conservation zone off the south Cornish coast; blue sea fading into blue sky; just one small sailing dinghy and the gentle glimpse of the backs of a couple of cetaceans. Living the dream.

Dormouse box check, May 2016: unlikely nests

After April’s soggy box check, it came as a relief to set out in the dry in May. The woods were decked out in their best – more species of wildflower than I can name, in all the colours of the rainbow. And the dormice were co-operating too.

The check got off to a good start – in one of the first boxes we checked one of the volunteers called my attention to a small pile of dead leaves at the bottom of the box. That immediately made me think that an apodemus mouse (wood mouse or yellow-necked mouse) had started to build a nest there. That’s not something to particularly get excited about – if an apodemus mouse is using a box, that means it’s one less box available for dormice. And, unlike dormice, they’re not house-proud. They happily urinate and defecate in their nests. And an apodemus mouse is much more likely to bite you than a dormouse is. (Having said that, I’ve never been bitten by an apodemus mouse, but have been bitten twice by dormice…)

So, when I came to have a look at the box, I wasn’t expecting much. There weren’t enough leaves for it to be a proper nest, and there was no structure to it. But I investigated it gently, and as one of the leaves from the top of the pile shifted, I caught a glimpse of gold – the gold of a dormouse, rather than the dull brown of an apodemus.

The dormouse was torpid, so it was an easy job to get the mouse out and weigh it. It was a 16g female, which is about usual for this time of year. We managed to weigh, sex and put the dormouse back in its unconventional nest without waking it, which is always satisfying.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

Obviously it’s always a delight to find a dormouse. But this was particularly special, as it’s the first dormouse we’ve found in the new boxes we put up last year. It’s good to know that we work we put in then is now benefiting at least one little dormouse. And it’s also encouraging to know that dormice are active that side of the footpath.

Many of the boxes we checked had birds nests in – mostly bluetit nests, generally with eggs being incubated, although one nest had chicks. They seem to be a little behind compared to previous years. There are also more wren’s nests around this year. Wrens build lovely nests – loads of moss, with a big chamber, and they keep them clean (unlike bluetits). Dormice will quite often move in to these.

We found another dormouse somewhere we weren’t expecting to. At the last few checks a shrew has been using an old dormouse nest, which by now has broken down and got smelly. If it had been unoccupied this month, we’d have cleaned the box out. But a dormouse had moved back in – obviously too lazy to build its own nest. This was a 14g male, who was also torpid, but showed signs of waking, so we dealt with it as quickly as possible before returning it to the dilapidated nest. Hence the lack of photos of this dormouse.

Two of the nicer dormouse nests from previous checks had been taken over by bumblebees. As you probably know, bumblebees are having a tough time at the moment, so it’s hard to begrudge them a couple of nest boxes. But they do pose a hazard for whoever’s checking the nest box, as they are prepared to sting if disturbed. Luckily we escaped unscathed, and will tread cautiously round those boxes until the bees leave the nest (probably in a couple of months time – they go into hibernation even earlier than dormice!).

So, a successful box check this month. Further encouragement that dormice are using the whole box check area, and a reminder to never assume dormice aren’t present in an unlikely looking nest.