One step at a time

Blakeney - church and saltmarsh
Blakeney – church and saltmarsh

Moving home is never easy although I guess it can be a lot worse than what we’ve experienced over the past year. It’s taken much more mental energy than I would have thought possible and it’s also been somewhat distracting. So, along with a range of other pleasurable activities that weren’t a priority as we rebuilt walls in the old place and removed them in the new, posting an occasional blog was put on the back burner. In any event, the exercise would likely have gravitated towards anecdotes surrounding delayed sales, clarifications of legal easements, moving packing cases across Europe or getting the piano to the auctioneers so describing events seemed just a bit too much like sharing personal angst.

The dust has settled now and life has taken on a complexion that looks normal so taking the time to set out some thoughts with a passable Pinot is back on the agenda again.

The past year wasn’t all moving boxes, retrenchment and decanting furniture; we broke surface for air to visit Dubai and Thailand, had a couple of short breaks in Germany and enjoyed some summer being Swedish in Sweden. Getting away from it all – which will fill some posts shortly – kept us sane and provided perspective.

When I was younger and needed some thinking space I’d go up to Norfolk and walk the East Bank at Cley where the saltmarsh and sea air is cathartic. We did that this weekend and stayed at the excellent Byfords in Holt. It snowed a little, was very cold at times, sunny and windy by degrees and the Brent geese were everywhere. Being back in Cambridge today has the feel of home for the first time – most of the boxes are gone, new furniture is in or due for delivery, cables have been tidied into ducts and the new bookshelves are full. Climbing into bed is once again a choice, not a necessity.

Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea
Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea


I’d rather have Buzzards than politicians

What is it about politicians? I try hard to take a reasonable and fair-minded view of them and their antics – understanding, as I do, the failings of human nature – but I’m inevitably drawn into a rant about the duplicity, the breathtaking ineptitude and perhaps worst of all in an occupation that purportedly exists only to serve the nation – the complete lack of nous. It’s not that I don’t understand political expediency; I do. It’s just that time after time politicians present us with glaring examples of exactly how not to deal with things and then, when they are called to account all that’s heard is the clamour of back-peddling and evasion. When did politics become a second-class profession and cease being a calling?

Perhaps the Leveson enquiry will punch the tickets of a few of these smug, self-serving characters but while that particular drama plays itself out another little sideshow has grabbed my attention and it typifies the arrogant and casual manner in which we, the voters (when we can be bothered to vote, that is), are held.

In April our Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK (Defra) invited bids (worth £375000 over three years) for undertaking research into concerns of a specialist interest group and what measures it, Defra, could take to – put simply – make those concerns go away. The specialist group was the pheasant shooting fraternity and the concerns surrounded the predation of reared pheasants by an increasing buzzard population. The evidence for predation, by the way, was entirely anecdotal and based on complaints from gamekeepers but nonetheless people who rear pheasants for sport shooting say they are losing income as their profits are being, er, eaten away. Something approaching 40m pheasants are reared each season for shooting and the sport is reported by PACEC as being worth about £1.6b annually so the first thing that springs to mind – and a point not lost on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and other commentators like Mark Avery, who is a past conservation director there – is that Defra has no business involving itself and spending our taxes in the interests of a commercial sporting enterprise that could easily fund its own research. Bowing under the pressure, Defra yesterday dropped the proposals ‘in light of public concern’ but Tim Bonner, campaign director for the Countryside Alliance, was unrepentant and labelled the protests ‘mock outrage’ and a ‘trial by Twitter’.

Defra hasn’t explained why it took the view that this particular issue needed its attention in the first place (as opposed to spending resources, say, that might help the Hen Harrier from disappearing as a breeding species here) but it set about undertaking a desk study and arrived at some startling conclusions, the first and most obvious of which was that breeders should try placing cover around the pens so that the young birds could hide from the buzzards. In Barrowboy’s world that should have been that – you fill the woodland floor with fat, baby pheasants and birds of prey with hungry babies of their own will see an easy supply of food. Whilst most people with even the slightest knowledge of buzzards would have seen that to be obvious Defra went on to demonstrate further idiocy by calling for ‘research’ that also considered ‘permanent removal off-site, for example, to a falconry centre’ of the birds together with ‘nest destruction’. Aside from being astoundingly naïve these conclusions were witless in the extreme. To my mind Defra’s guidance to bidders that the ‘overall aim of the study is to develop mitigation techniques that significantly reduce predation levels of pheasant poults where serious damage is being caused by buzzards’ indicated a clear presumption of guilt as well as a clear example of government being partial in responding to lobbyists.

When the press picked-up the story last week after it received publicity on BBC Radio 4 there was a flurry of comment on the internet so Defra – remember I mentioned ‘back-peddling’ at the beginning of this post? – started back-peddling. They are well-used to this and have an interesting section on their website called ‘Mythbust’, which clearly aims to rebuff criticism in the guise of clarification. Look at what was posted on 24 May;

The Myth: There have been recent reports that Defra is proposing to cull buzzards or is about to implement a new policy to control their numbers. 

The Truth: Defra is absolutely not proposing to cull buzzards or any other raptors. We work on the basis of sound evidence.  This is why we want to find out the true extent of buzzards preying on young pheasants and how best to discourage birds that may cause damage to legitimate businesses. This would be only in areas where there is a clear problem, using non-lethal methods including increasing protective cover for young pheasants with vegetation, diversionary feeding of buzzards, moving the birds elsewhere or destroying empty nests. The results of this scientific research will help guide our policy on this issue in the future.  As the RSPB have said, the buzzard population has recovered wonderfully over the last few years, and we want to see this continue.

Setting aside the myths, the truths and the spurious nature of this clarification, here are some facts. Defra is not specifically proposing a cull of buzzards but it is proposing research that will have exactly the same effect; capturing, removing or confining birds or driving them away by destroying nests (with a shotgun if necessary) is culling, despite Defra’s semantics. Defra also states that it works on ‘the basis of sound evidence’ but clearly it doesn’t; if it did it would need factual proof that predation was a significant issue and not ‘anecdotal evidence’ that buzzards are wreaking havoc on planet Gamekeeper. It concludes by paying lip service to the RSPB, who led the outcry, yet that organisation was excluded from Defra’s own Project Advisory Group that would have assessed the study. The British Trust for Ornithology has also withdrawn, further reducing credibility and leaving the balance of the remaining members firmly weighted in favour of landowners. Leaving aside the questionable basis of the issue in the first place it seems unlikely to me that any valid results could have been achieved by such a half-cocked exercise.  

So buzzards can enjoy a relatively uninterrupted breeding season and I will be able to enjoy them soaring over my garden for the time being. One might say that Defra has been stupid and demonstrated a worrying lack judgement but that would be charitable. I perceive the implications as being far more sinister and don’t think this issue has gone away as I trust neither Defra nor its friends at the Countryside Alliance, who are little more than a lobby group for landowners. These issues arise through a lack of strong leadership and once again this has allowed a Government agency to act partially in the interests of a favoured lobby group. Yes, it’s good for the birds in this case but the bigger picture is of far more concern.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) reports that pheasant predation by all birds of prey averages less than 5% and in respect of buzzards a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology is more specific. It reported on a study covering forty buzzard nests between 1994 and 1995, during which 20725 pheasants were released. Based on responses from ten gamekeepers within the study area it was estimated that buzzard predation amounted to 4.3%; a long way from the 25-30% referred to as ‘anecdotal’ in Defra’s invitation to tender.

Two relevant conclusions reported were;

‘Predation by buzzards was recorded most often at release pens with little shrub cover, canopy that was deciduous and many released pheasants. Predation was worst in large pens with much ground cover and low pheasant density’

‘Radio-tagged buzzards were located most often at pens with open, deciduous canopy. Pens were most likely to be visited by buzzards that fledged nearby, but proximity of buzzard nests had relatively little influence on the level of predation’.

Journal of Applied Ecology, 38(4): 813-822 2001

Factors affecting predation by buzzards Buteo buteo on released pheasants Phasianus colchicus

Kenward, R. E., Hall, D. G., Walls, S. S., Hodder, K. H. 2001.




Wandering out of beaten ways

“… Me? I’m not off for anywhere at all. Sometimes I wander out of beaten ways. Half looking for the orchid Calypso.”
Robert Frost 1874 – 1963

I’ve had a long association with things natural and can’t remember a time when that wasn’t a significant aspect of my life.

Sciences relating to ‘the environment’ today were simply ‘nature study’ to a boy from the East End of London but back then, before Silent Spring* and the dawn of the environmental movement, opportunities to turn a passion for the natural world into a salaried occupation weren’t available to me. The selective school system advocated a career in light engineering and did its best to steer me into it. Our well-meaning but ultimately witless advisor was clearly taken aback by a precocious Cockney kid rejecting the prospect of a lifetime at the factory gates and had to think on his feet; ‘It says here that you know quite a bit about birds – have you thought of becoming a chicken farmer?’

Well, I hadn’t given chickens much thought while I was slogging the beach at Cley looking for my first King Eider but his question did teach me that if I wanted to do something that captivated me and paid a salary I’d need to employ a little self-help.

My interest in conservation didn’t diminish while I decided on a career and it was then, in those far-off days of shoulder-length hair and platform shoes, that I was introduced to Orchis mascula. The early purple orchid suffered badly in some trampled woodland in Stevenage so, with a few similarly-minded individuals, we formed the first conservation society in the New Town with worthy aspirations that included protecting the plants and raising public awareness. And our publicity certainly aroused great interest; a previously uninformed populace flocked to the woods and picked the lot. Those early efforts provided an interesting insight into the human condition as well as an early lesson in addressing it.

The career I chose eventually put me in a 17th century farmhouse surrounded by ancient woodland and, as a consequence, re-acquainted me with O. mascula. At the bottom of the garden there’s a hidden colony that doesn’t get trampled or picked and has had its best spring in years. Perhaps that’s due to the warm days in March or all the rain in April but, either way, it’s thriving and likes being left alone.

*If you don’t know about Rachel Carson’s seminal work you can read about it by clicking here.

Still no snow and the geese are getting fat

Barnacle geese arriving

Well into January and, despite an occasional crisp, cold day the warm, wet and windy weather continues. I’ve just read that it’s been the warmest Christmas and New Year in Sweden for 250 years and I think I know who to blame. When we celebrate St Martin’s Day here we eat roast goose. St Martinis the patron saint of soldiers and horses but I can’t find any reference to his ever having been to Skåne despite his penchant for travelling. He was Hungarian by birth and spent time as a Roman soldier and a monk; later he was Bishop of Tours in France and has his shrine on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain so quite why we make a fuss on his name day has escaped me, but there it is. Legend has it he hid in a goose pen while trying to avoid being ordained as Bishop and was discovered because the geese were cackling. The Swedes – always up for a bit of roasting and feasting – took that as a good enough reason for killing a goose on St Martin’s Eve and the celebration persists, although I suspect it may have more to do with the local Skånsk folk taking advantage of the arrival in autumn of tens of thousands of migrating geese. Whatever the reason, in honour of the saint those more traditionally-minded than me roast a goose, say ‘Skål’ and enjoy a bowl of black soup or svartsoppa. This thick, reddish-black broth is made from spiced goose blood, flavoured with fruit and is eaten with entrails of various kinds. I’m thinking it’s probably an acquired taste and not in the top ten vegetarian dishes.

St Martin’s Day is on 11 November and there is a piece of Swedish folklore attached to it. Apparently, if it snows on that day there will be no snow at Christmas but if the day falls on a Friday or Saturday – snowing or not – the winter will be harsh. Well, it didn’t snow on St Martin’s Day this year so snow wasn’t on the cards over the holidays but the day was, however, a Friday. The temperature today doesn’t even hint at a harsh winter and suggests the folklore is out of kilter. Either way, it’s been unusually mild and a little bit too damp for a London boy brought up on notions of roasting chestnuts and James Stewart running through Bedford Falls. I like snow and, despite my memories of Christmas being happy ones, in England the holidays tended to be wet and there was always a point when, with sad acceptance, I had to concede that the dull, drizzly days weren’t going to produce it. We expect some snow in Skåne during the winter – whether or not it snows forSt Martin – and I’ve lived in hope that the second half of the fable will hold true but so far, it doesn’t look like it and the long-range view is that it will stay mild.

Of course, if you’re one of those thousands of migrating geese that’s good news – hunters aside – as there is plenty of food and, more importantly, when it’s not frozen you can get at it. So the mild weather offers one way of bridging the gap between reliving the disappointment of Christmases past and digging out the car; it means I can spend a few hours with some of those geese on the flooded meadows near the blustery south coast at Ingelstorp.

Bean geese

In autumn and winter southern Sweden gets a lot of geese – the delightful and excellent restaurant at Skanors Gastgivaregard even has goose footprints painted on the road outside in celebration. Around 50000 Bean geese fill our fields and meadows and, if it remains mild, something between 11000 and 20000 White-fronted geese join them, too, although they move south quickly if it freezes. Last winter, when it did snow, only twenty-one White-fronts stayed but this year there are thousands feeding with the Bean geese. At Ingelstorp over the holidays there were geese everywhere; grazing the fields, filling the sky and enjoying the weather in noisy abandon. The numbers are immense and swelled by some of our 200000 Greylag geese and 50000 Canada geese. A few days ago the beet fields also had a few Pink-footed geese and some Barnacle geese which meant that there were six different species in one of the flocks. Occasionally a Lesser-white fronted goose joins this party and the Barnacle geese often have a Red-breasted goose with them. They are hard to pick out from the 130000 or so that fly-by on their way to the Nederlands and I know one particular chap who has tried and failed to do that more than once. The Brent geese don’t stay long even if the weather is mild so the 18000 or so migrating birds [of the 100000 that pass through] have now gone. There are one or two Egyptian geese around and they, like the lonely Bar-headed goose that keeps turning up year after year, have probably escaped from someone’s back garden.

Ingelstorp offers another local treat. Olof Victor’s is a bakery and café that uses a wood-fired stone oven to produce some of the best bread, cakes, biscuits and, especially, cinnamon buns in Sweden. Their products are seriously good and can even be found in Harrods food hall. Mild weather in Skåne might be good for the wintering geese but it’s still pretty cold even when there’s no snow so OV’s is the perfect place to get warm again. And for checking the weather forecast.

And as for me, I can feel spring in the air and am getting antsy so before I head for somewhere that has warm water and palm trees I’ll have a few days in the north of Sweden just so that I can get snow on my boots. Tallberg in Darlana, with its frozen forests and wolves beckons.


Who’s afraid of big, bad wolves?

In a lifetime of accumulating memories there are some that stand out above the rest and which remain with one always. They’re the memories that don’t fade with time and which become richer for it. We all have them. One, for me, is from a quiet, warm night in southern Italy when I was woken by the howling of a pack of wolves. I recall standing in awe at an open window, looking up at the forested hills above Maratea and listening to a sound that evoked wildness and spiritual communion with the natural environment that was, simply put, quite unique. The howling drifted through the otherwise silent darkness for a short while before every dog in the area took the opportunity to join in with a relish and variety heard only in a Disney cartoon.

Wolves are very, very special. We associate them with intelligence, ferocity and mysticism. Mythology frequently makes reference to the special spirit of the wolf and it has inspired literature, poetry and tales of magic. One such author, who remains anonymous, wrote;

Perhaps it was the eyes of the wolf, measured, calm, knowing.
Perhaps it was the intense sense of family.
After all, wolves mate for life, are
loyal partners, create hunting communities
and demonstrate affectionate patience in pup rearing.
Perhaps it was the rigid hierarchy of the packs.
Each wolf had a place in the whole and yet retained his individual personality.
Perhaps it was their great, romping, ridiculous sense of fun.
Perhaps it was some celestial link with the winter night skies
that prompted the wolf to lay his song on the icy air.
For the native people who lived with the wolves,
and the wolves once ranged from the
Arctic to the sub-tropics,
there was much to learn from them.
Is it any wonder that the myths of many tribes characterize the wolves
not as killers but as teachers?

Such sentiments exist in all cultures. In Norse mythology Fenris or Fenrir is the name given to a monstrous wolf and the god Odin was accompanied by wolves. Other representations of wolves such as Varg, Sköll and Hati run through the *Prose Edda, which is said to influence Scandinavian literature up to the present day;

It is two wolves; and he that runs after her is called Sköll; she fears him,

and he shall take her. But he that leaps before her is called Hati Hródvitnisson.

He is eager to seize the moon; and so it must be’.

Yes, Scandinavia has a long and arcane association with the wolf. In Sweden they were hunted to virtual extinction by the 1970s but, ever resourceful, individual animals from Russia and Finland started a slow repopulation towards the end of the decade. The wolf had been declared a protected species in 1965 so an increase in numbers, which generated rejoicing by conservationists, was a good thing, no? Well, no, it wasn’t if you were a hunter and your club, the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management, had a strong political lobby. By 2006 there were indications that the hunting fraternity was avoiding areas where wolves held territories due to worries that hunting dogs might be attacked; there were 43 reported incidents of wolves killing or attacking dogs between 1997 and 2003. It was rumoured that hunters might even go ‘on strike’ if something wasn’t done about the wolves, of which there were then about 100. Forestry is a big deal in Sweden and is credited with easing the country through the global financial crisis. Commercial forestry companies, who own almost half the forests in Sweden, were concerned about a burgeoning elk population and the damage it was doing to their trees and their profits. They also wanted to maximise income from ‘harvesting’ elk so they needed the hunters. The solution was simple – shoot the wolves, bring in the hunters to keep the elk numbers down and profit margins could be maintained. Or even improved.

So last Saturday saw the start of this year’s official wolf hunt in Sweden. It runs for a month from 15 January despite misgivings from scientific bodies and the EU as well as protests from conservationists and the public. Wolves are starting to do well in Sweden although there are some problems associated with inbreeding in an isolated group. The population has gradually increased but the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency [SEPA] has decided that the appropriate wolf population is 210 and therefore a cull of 27 individuals is justified. There appears to be no scientific basis or justification for this number. Last year we experienced the first official hunt for around 45 years and, despite the sensitivity surrounding it, the Swedish hunting fraternity – 12000 registered for the hunt – managed to ‘harvest’ more than SEPA’s allocation; aside from the 27 to be taken out at least seven were shot and escaped into the forest. Just to put these numbers in context it is cautiously estimated that Sweden could support a population of around 5000 wolves.

It’s reported that this year around 6500 hunters signed-up for the hunt, dressed-up in camouflage and headed for the forests. As I write this, five days after the start, the quota has almost been filled. There’s little logic to the hunt if you remove any arguments involving commercial interests. The hunters say that they are preventing a measure of genetic inbreeding by removing some of the inbred wolves to make room for ‘new genes and new wolves’ although specific individuals are not targeted – the cull is based only on the number shot. Given that the original repopulation in the 1970s was generated by wolves from other countries and that recent DNA studies have shown wolves from outside Sweden have supplemented the population the hunters’ argument is both fatuous and dishonest.  Inbreeding could be alleviated by translocation so ‘harvesting’ isn’t absolutely necessary. Of course, if you’re a hunter and you’ve invested in all that macho quasi-uniform stuff then shooting wolves probably beats shooting elk.

A great deal of monitoring has been undertaken and a great deal is known about the Swedish wolf population. With its usual smugness the government insists that this knowledge supports the cull and indeed, a report I’ve read clearly shows that in some cases public opinion would support control through hunting. The question asked in the survey, however, was whether hunting should be used to control wolves that moved into urban areas and threatened humans, livestock and dogs. Well, of course it should – but there are no reports of wolves doing that so why ask that question unless you want to get that answer. One wonders if this would be happening if we were discussing leopards or tigers.

The wolf population in Sweden is red-listed by scientists as critically endangered and Dr. Mikael Karlsson, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, says, ‘We ask for support from an international opinion in order to stop the government from continuing the killing’. Well, something is happening. The lethargic behemoth that is the European Union [EU] is threatening to initiate legal proceedings against Sweden. On 17 January, the Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik said in a statement, I regret that Sweden has begun the licensed hunting of wolves. The actions of the Swedish authorities leave me with little choice other than to propose to the Commission that it begin formal proceedings against Sweden for breach of EU environmental law.’ This follows his earlier statement of concern on 7 January and a letter to the Swedish government in December.

Will anything happen? Experience tells me that that when commercial interests are in conflict with conservation the former wins unless there is a political or pecuniary advantage to be gained. Will the EU and Sweden make a deal? It will be interesting to see if anything happens after the outcry has died down, when people’s attention is focused on recycling bins and the cost of energy. All I can do is express to the bureaucrats in Sweden, once again, that richness in life isn’t necessarily dependent upon a 20% increase in timber production by 2050 and that the sound of wolves howling long into the night has an importance and a value, too. Regrettably, you can’t draw a graph showing that and my fear is that the people who decide if 20 or 27 wolves should be ‘harvested’ or that a wolf population of 210 is appropriate respond only to PowerPoint presentations at off-site seminars.

* The Prose Edda is an Icelandic text dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and said to have been written or compiled by a scholar named Snorri Sturluson. It comprises four main parts and encompasses background, history and references to sagas from Old Norse poetry. Strictly speaking, it was a guide to interpreting the language and meanings of mythology so that Icelandic scholars could understand the subtleties of alliterative verse together with the meaning behind the figures of speech [called kennings] that were used in skaldic [royal court] poetry.

Pouring palm oil on troubled waters – an update

On Tuesday Caroline Spelman delivered her speech to the Global Business of Biodiversity Symposium. It was entitled ‘Biodiversity and the bottom line’. Her article in The Guardian sort of implied that she would be speaking about palm oil; that ‘miracle product’, remember? Well, she did mention it – eight times actually – but it was lost in a speech that was essentially based on understanding the economics of biodiversity and associated emerging business opportunities. I guess that was to be expected. Her speech was a carefully crafted vehicle that touched all sides but didn’t really say anything. A pity, that; I like to see ‘keynote speeches’ be just that.

She opened with an admission of failure by stating that This is the year our current global target to significantly reduce the loss of our biodiversity expires. It’s the year we finally know that – despite our efforts – this target will not be met.’ And, whilst that is not her fault, nothing in her speech suggested that she brings a wind of change with her appointment. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The good news was that the symposium was attended by representatives of a gamut of organisations that could, if given the chance, make real changes to the way we produce palm oil and manage the consequences. But to do that you need political will and you need to be empowered. This well-meaning symposium was short on the former and, by placing emphasis on business opportunity rather than environmental management, effectively emasculated the latter.

One of the points she made at length and which has nothing at all to do with palm oil is that the UK is the first country in the world ‘to be carrying out a national assessment of our ecosystems’. This is an initiative from 2005 that seeks, according to its website, to ‘help people to make better decisions that impact on the UK’s ecosystems to ensure the long-term sustainable delivery of ecosystem services for the benefit of current and future populations in the UK’. One presumes the contributors to the National Ecosystems Assessment [UKNEA] to be sincere and of course the initiative has to be seen in optimistic terms. But there has been an agenda, meetings and events since 2009 and they will not report until 2011 at the earliest. So it’s going to take six years to get to a point where a report exists. And then? Given that the wheels of government bureaucracy grind very slowly and that palm oil production is projected to have doubled in the twenty years to 2020 I think ‘mapping of the country’s consumption’, which is the initiative she is about to announce, is probably too little, too late. But then, we don’t want to lose the cheap resource while we’re self-righteously debating the loss of biodiversity on the other side of the world, do we? She went on, ‘Working with businesses, we aim to map the palm oil supply chain to the UK, including public procurement, to find out where we are using sustainable palm oil, what we are using it for and how we are sourcing it. Working with companies and NGOs, we aim to use our findings to produce a plan to help shift Britain’s sourcing of palm oil to a sustainable footing’. No programme, no targets and no action; except that every one of those aspirations represented a business opportunity in consulting, reporting, monitoring or production. And if you are in the lobbying game, opportunities to work for both the producers and the conservationists. No, plenty of time before anything gets done and, because they are already on the ladder before the conservationists get a foot on the bottom rung, plenty of opportunities to ensure that the guys in the production chain remain firmly in control.

Ms Spelman was not disingenuous in her speech and clearly believes that commercial opportunity supersedes firm conservationist principle. So we at least know where we stand. She concluded like this;

‘So I will leave you with two thoughts.  Firstly, it is imperative for each business to examine its own supply, to ensure that every step of the way it is guaranteed sustainable, otherwise your supply chain will be at risk.

Secondly, the world is going to start pricing natural resources, so if you move into these markets early you will get the first mover advantages that those moving into the carbon market are seeing.

So you have a Government not just concerned for the environment, but your bottom line as well’.

As I write this David Cameron is in USA having just discussed the fallout from the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and protests have taken place in Alaska against the commencement of deep-sea drilling. I suspect that in both those cases senior officials gave smiling and heart-felt assurances that the then current government was just as concerned for the environment as it was for their bottom lines.

We never learn, do we?

Pouring Palm oil on troubled waters

Oil palm plantation

Caroline Spelman is our secretary of state for the environment and has entertained me today with a gripping piece in the Guardian. She advocates that we reap the benefits of palm oil but manage the environmental costs. As a newspaper article it’s pretty thin but, more worryingly, the rhetoric used hints at taking our highly-lauded coalition down a sad and familiar road. Yep, it is the economy, stupid; but sorting it out is likely to cause the resolution of environmental issues to back-up like trains at Victoria Station.

Ms Spelman has an interesting background in matters relevant to production of such an important cash crop, or the ‘ultimate miracle product’ as she describes it. For three years from 1981 she was a Sugar Beet commodity secretary at the National Farmers Union and then deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers – Heaven knows what its acronym is – from 1984-89. That was followed by a research fellowship for the Centre for European Agricultural Studies. Her statement today makes reference to our coalition being the ‘greenest government ever’ and shows that she clearly understands that many businesses will ‘now have targets for when all of the palm oil they use will be sustainable’.

What caught my interest in her statement was that today she will be addressing ‘an international business audience’, not a group of significant or proactive environmental organisations who might put controls and sustainable management in place before the grubby fingers of international finance and commodity dealing soil it beyond recovery. But then, an environment secretary should put business interests ahead of environmental issues, no?

She has a lot of experience in speaking on environmental matters and, together with her agri-business background, clearly has a good grasp of the commercial aspects of how one might manage this ‘miracle product’. Having read the vague and evasive text of her puff this morning I’m wondering, however, if somewhere off in the wings the ground isn’t being prepared for companies such as Spelman, Cormack & Associates and their like, to manage not the environmental implications but the financial benefits of this ‘miracle product’. Spelman, Cormack and Associates is a consultancy that she set up with her husband and which lobbies on the food and biotechnology industry. Although she resigned as a director in June 2009 and the firm is reportedly not earning revenue her closeness to it and the real possibility of a serious conflict of interest have caused some questions being raised. Those good guys, The Sunlight Centre, have written to the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Defra] pointing out these concerns. The Guardian reported in May this year that the response, in part, was ‘The secretary of state and Defra’s permanent secretary will be ensuring in the usual way that the secretary of state’s private interests are declared and handled in line with the ministerial code’. Well, in light of what she wrote this morning and the fact that I know about her lobbying background and family interests it seems to me that her ‘private interests’ have certainly been declared. But that’s just what I’m worried about, her private interests.

Ms Spelman has a bit of form. There was the uncomfortable episode involving her employment of a ‘nanny’ whom she paid for with her parliamentary staffing allowance and which she had to repay. There was also the interest in where her main residence was at the time with her responses generating both opacity and Moonwalking.

Ms Spelman is clearly a consummate and intelligent politician and there is no suggestion that she has acted inappropriately. But you have to wonder just how clear things are; after all, she did claim £40000 on expenses for bills and cleaning against her second home while hubby, who was campaigning for a seat in the European Union, was claiming that the same place was his main home. I’m scratching my head a little here; me and Mission Control both know where we live .

I took an interest in palm oil several years ago after a visit to Malaysia and a late-night conversation fuelled by a lethal combination of environmental concern and Tiger beer. The product is a double-edged sword generating income across a very broad market but bringing with it the worst of human deprivation on mankind and the environment. Palm oil is derived from the pulp of the fruit or seed kernel of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis. It’s used for cooking, in food product manufacture, industrial processes and, of course, our future’s saviour, biofuel. But the true ‘miracle’ of palm oil is that it grows a long way away in Third World areas. This means that you can minimise and manage the concerns of the troublesome local people, who are easily dispossessed, while avoiding pestiferous environmental organisations.

The response, as always and as disingenuously referred to this morning by our environment secretary, is to manage the environmental impact. But then, of course, if you did you’d have to add the cost of controlled sustainability, compensation for local people, addressing eradication of biodiversity and the carbon mileage incurred between Asia and the West. Then the ‘miracle product’ would become a little less profitable.

The question is, how do you manage all these issues if you are secretary of state for the environment? Well, you start by addressing ‘an international business audience’ so that commercial opportunities are dealt with first; then you put in place rhetorical statements that sound like you are dealing with the consequences of a frightful mono-crop culture but which have no real impact because you are being cautious so as to avoid mistakes that will lead to real environmental damage; then you tax the profits of the companies that exploit the ‘miracle product’ but leave sufficient overseas-earnings loopholes so that political donations keep you and your political party in office. Finally, you make loudly-trumpeted gestures and perhaps throw aid in the direction of the environmental and social issues. But you won’t get a consensus and you know and we know it will not be enough and it will be after the fact, so it will also be too late.

But by then you may have left politics and moved into the consultancy business, lobbying the food and biotechnology industry again and, this time, perhaps for biofuel concessions; especially if your husband and the little firm you set up all those years ago have done well in the interim.