This Cut is a Deep One

A guest post by Mark Averyan environmental commentator who writes a daily blog about UK environmental issues and their politics. He worked for the RSPB for 25 years, with nearly 13 of those as its Conservation Director. His latest book, Fighting for Birds – 25 years in nature conservation, will be published in August.

This month Plantlife launch a campaign to stop councils destroying the wild flowers of roadside verges through inappropriate cutting.  The wild plant charity says that they have been inundated by complaints from the public about verges being cut this year just as the flowers appear – giving them no chance to set seed.

Plantlife Chief Executive, Victoria Chester says “What’s not to like about a road verge full of wild flowers?  Beautiful, culturally significant, colouring our towns and countryside alike and heralding the changing seasons… And yet, they are under attack: flowers are routinely being mown down in full bloom, or sprayed off with poisons as ‘weeds’ and smothered with cuttings.  Over time, only nettles and coarse grasses can survive this onslaught.  As the flowers disappear, so does the verge’s value for wildlife.  And welose something too; knots of primroses and violets in early spring, the patriotic red, white and blue of campion, stitchwort and bluebells, or the midsummer golds and purples of orchids, columbine or lady’s bedstraw.  These flowers, with us since the last ice age, are on the edge – it’s time to cherish them.”

Plantlife have discovered that more than 75% of the councils contacted cut their verges multiple times over the spring and summer, with not one of them collecting cuttings as part of their routine management.  Councils are mowing verges in their care too early, too often and leaving the cuttings to lie. This means that flowers are not being able to set seed and they are swamped with the mowed material being dumped on the verges – which exacerbates the problem through acting as a fertiliser.

If this continues, the fear is that the flower-rich verges which brighten our countryside will turn into banks of nettles, docks and coarse grasses.

The justification for cutting verges is road safety which means that councils are scared stiff not to cut, or to cut less frequently, in case a road accident happens.

This is despite the fact that cutting verges is an expensive operation, costing many councils hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.  At a time of austerity one might have thought that looking to find sensible safe ways to reduce the cost of this activity would be just the sort of thing that a cash-strapped council ought to be doing to make our money stretch a little further.

It makes sense, although I bet some of even this activity is questionable, to cut verges at junctions and corners to improve visibility but many verges are routinely scalped along straight bits of road with perfect visibility – it looks more like an unthinking war on plants than a sensible accident-lessening management regime.

And I recall that when I blogged about kek, cow parsley or Queen Anne’s lace a little while ago one of the comments then was about the destruction of flowers on roadside verges.

It seems to me that Plantlife has caught the mood and the moment with this campaign. Do you have any photographs of wrecked verges? Do you have thoughts on the way forward?  Let me know please.

Please support Plantlife’s campaign.

Photo by crabchick, via Flickr 

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Mass Insect Extinction: The Elephant in the Room

Guest post by Brigit Strawbridge who campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of increasing biodiversity and reconnecting with nature, with a particular focus on ‘bees’: their behavior, the problems they face and what we can do to help. Brigit appeared on the TV show It’s Not Easy Being Green, and regularly speaks on a range of environmental and ethical issues.

Life on planet earth has evolved over billions of years and has, to date, endured five major mass extinctions

Billions of species of flora and fauna have been and gone, but one class of species has proved extremely resilient (so far) to whatever changes have occurred on the planet and – apart from losing a few of their orders and suffering a reduction in diversity during the end-Permian period – has been the only class species to have survived all these extinctions.

I am speaking of course about the class ‘Insecta’ - Insects to you and me.

Insects are amazing – in every sense of the word. There are currently over 900,000 known species in the world, each performing different roles within our eco-systems. Not only do they form essential ecological links as predators and parasites, but they are also responsible for the vital roles of decomposition, soil processing and, of course, pollination. Insects have also contributed to the evolution of many other species; the most notable being the relationship they have formed with the flowering plants with which they have co-evolved over the last 100 million years.

Many insects are known as ‘keystone species’which means a number of other species depend upon them for their existence. If you were to remove a keystone species from any given eco-system it would upset the balance and that eco-system would collapse. Nature is all about balance. 

Given the fact that many of the planet’s keystone species are insects, it’s most fortunate that they have proved so resilient to change.

Unfortunately, over a period of just 100 short years, things have changed so dramatically that this amazing class of species is now under threat. For the first time ever, insects are facing mass extinction. 

How can this be? Simple. It’s down, unequivocally, to Man’s chemical poisoning of the land, the oceans and the atmosphere. That, and our obsessive desire to tame, manage, destroy and ‘mow to within an inch of it’s life” their once rich and diverse habitats.

I say this because it needs to be said. Again.

We were warned of this scenario in the 1960′s by Rachel Carson  in her book ‘Silent Spring’. We are being warned again by Henk Tennekes  author of ‘A Disaster in the Making’ and by organisations such as the Pesticides Action Network  who campaign tirelessly to raise awareness of the dangers of pesticides and other toxic substances.

But why is this issue not being addressed as a matter of urgency in the media? Why can I not see any evidence that it is being taken seriously by the powers that be? And why are so few NGOs prepared to speak out about it? From what I can see, the only wildlife organisation that campaigns specifically against the use pesticides is BUGLIFE  - the Invertebrate Conservation Trust.

Excuses, excuses, excuses…..

Having raised this issue myself on numerous occasions with people from all walks of life, I’m tired of hearing the same old arguments from those who advocate that we ‘need’ these toxic substances to survive.

The arguments range from “We can’t feed the world without the use of pesticides” to “What about all the jobs dependent on the pesticides industry….people can’t afford to lose their jobs” - and many more arguments besides.

These arguments are unbelievably short sighted. Without insects (not to mention unpolluted soil, water and atmosphere) man will not survive anyway. Very little will survive. We are destroying our tomorrow for the sake of our today. And the craziest thing of all is that it doesn’t need to be like this because small scale, organic and sustainable farming CAN & WILL feed the world. 

Of course it’s not just the agri-chemical and pharmaceutical industries doing the damage…insects need habitat to survive too. They need environments where they can forage, nest, breed and hibernate – and this is something we can all help to provide.

It is time for us to face the facts, however uncomfortable they may be. We can only effect change if we know and understand that change needs to happen. Burying our heads in the sand isn’t going to solve anything . . . . it never has.

Humans are amazing, resourceful beings. All we need to do is wake up to the reality of the damage we are causing, shift our mind sets a little and  DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!!

National Insect Week  is coming up soon. Get involved….you’ll be amazed how much fun you’ll have!

Other ways you can help . . . . .

Become a Bee Guardian

Join Buglife

Get involved with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Take part in the UK Ladybird Survey

Become a Bees, Wasps & Ants recorder

OR…. simply spend some time lying in the undergrowth getting to know your local insects. They are utterly mesmerising and once you’re hooked you’ll wonder how you ever managed not to notice them before.

Photo by xlibber, via Flickr 

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Prawn Cocktail

Shrimp or prawns are one of the world’s most popular type of seafood, but unfortunately are one of the least sustainable.

Shrimp can be farmed or fished for in the wild, and in many parts of the world that means using weighted nets to trawl the seabed, damaging sensitive ecosystems for up to a decade, and scooping-up pretty much everything over a wide area, including turtles, sharks, rays and juvenile fish and invertebrates in huge numbers.

Most of this bycatch is simply discarded dead back into the sea, and can often be up to 80% of the weight of the total catch. In fact although shrimp fishing produces around 2% of the world’s annual fishing production, it produces a third of the bycatch!

Farmed shrimp are little better, with shrimp farms often replacing other sensitive ecosystems, such as mangroves, and being reliant on large quantities of chemical nutrients and antibiotics. These energy intensive inputs, along with the transport, mean typical Asian farmed prawns have a very significant carbon footprint. Even locally caught prawns, from around the British Isles, can have a significant associated carbon footprint, as many are transported to Asia for processing by hand, before being packaged and returned to UK stores.

As with many rapidly expanding forms of cheap labour,  many of those working in the shrimp industry in East Asia work in very poor conditions, with debt bondage, child labour and threats and violence all recently reported by several investigations.

More sustainably produced shrimp is available, though it can be hard to find. Several organisations, such as Sea Food Watch provide detailed buying guides.


Photo by from Ben Sutherland, via Flickr

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Urban Forests

Whether tree-lined streets, parks and open spaces, suburban or rooftop gardens, or perhaps something more unusualtrees are incredibly important in cities, and are increasingly valued as such.

They provide islands of natural ecology for birds, insects and other animals, as well as filtering the air, moderating water flows, providing street level shade, screening road noise and also reducing the urban heat island effect caused by the thermal properties of buildings and hard surfaces.

In addition, of course, they look nice, which is not a trivial issue, both due to the significant effect mature trees can have on property prices in an area of a city, but also in the promotion of general health and wellbeing. American sociobiologist Edward Wilson argues that the people are attracted to natural environments and feel happier in the presence of nature.

The presence of urban trees also have a number of more unexpected beneficial effects – average traffic speeds are lower along tree lined roads and less ‘road rage’ is also known to occur, tree dense areas typically have a greater sense of community and are often safer as a result.

There are many charities and groups promoting the beneficial effects of urban trees, and running various planting schemes; including Trees for Cities and the Government backed Big Tree Plant scheme in the UK.

Photo from The Seafarer via Flickr

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Palm Oil or Orangutans

Palm oil, extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, is an globally important component of a surprising number of processed foods – used in biscuits, margarine, sweets and chocolate, breakfast cereals, crisps, pizza, bread and all sorts of other products.

Indonesia is the largest palm oil producing nation, and unfortunately has a history of felling its ancient tropical forests in order to develop large palm oil monoculture plantations. Indonesia’s rainforests are some of the most ecologically diverse in the world, home to numerous wildlife, including the critically endangered orangutan.

In 2009 the film maker Patrick Rouxel independently produced the powerful film Green about the fate of a particular Indonesian orangutan, and the story of devastating deforestation and the associated trade in timber and palm oil.

He describes his witnessing of the large scale environmental destruction of Sumatra and Kalimantan as “overwhelmingly depressing” and argues that as consumers we are all part of this process.

Photo by from Wikicommons

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