Easing back in

About two years ago I left the blogosphere. The United kingdom had voted to leave the EU on the grounds that we had lost ‘control’ of the country and, worse, were allowing immigrants to swarm in and take our jobs, our appointments at the local doctor’s, our children’s school places and, if that wasn’t enough, claim benefits they weren’t entitled to. Donald Trump – of all people – was elected president in the USA; televised rallies showed hecklers being man-handled by security guards and apparently ordinary people chanting ‘lock her up’ each time Hilary Clinton’s name was mentioned. [I’m disinterested in Hilary Clinton, by the way, but that’s not the point]. It seemed to me that few people were prepared to speak truthfully or answer questions directly and, equally worrying, a great many good folk were just fine with that.

If you’ve read anything I’ve posted before you’ll have seen that I hold politicians in complete disdain. So it was no surprise to me in both the EU referendum and Trump’s election success that one could draw direct connections between a half-arsed referendum campaign on one hand and the complacency of smug, liberal elites on the other to incompetent career politicians placing self and job security above personal integrity.

I felt at the time that turning normality on its head might well be euphoric when you’re in the baying crowd but wondered if anyone was asking where, in the cold light of day, the jobs and healthcare or the arts funding, environmental protection and all the rest come from? All things considered, it seemed inconsequential to be posting personal travel blogs when a lot of bad was about to affect a lot of people. So, I sort of just let it go.

Two years on Brexit remains as unclear, unfocused and directionless as it did in 2016. The USA is in a mess but the clouds that the Trump debacle dragged into our lives provided some surprising catalysts in the mid-term elections. In Europe the peasants are on the streets voicing discontent in France, Nederlands, Hungary and Serbia.

All things pass, of course, but while we wait for that few good men and women to steady the ship the environment continues to go down the tubes, society remains divided and people continue to risk their and their children’s lives each day in the hope of settling in a country that will provide them with peace and security. It’s difficult to believe that going into 2019 there is still so much man-made awfulness in the world.

Perhaps posting travel blogs will take my mind off it all. Happy New year.

What if a politician was washed up on a Turkish beach?

A while ago in India we passed a festival site. We knew we were approaching something from several kilometres away as a fair amount of debris was spread far and wide. Amazingly, several million pilgrims had attended during that day but by nightfall they were all gone – every single one on them. Back to their towns, villages, huts or, as happens too frequently in the sub-continent, a roadside somewhere. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Several million – gone in hours and nothing to show but some paper plates and Styrofoam cups.

On a Saturday afternoon it takes something like two hours to clear sixty thousand people out of the Emirates stadium after an Arsenal home game – less when they lose to West Ham.

But in Europe, that international symbol of cooperation, understanding and mutual back-smacking smugness, that can’t happen. Despite being around three times the area of India politicians of every country and any complection are telling us how difficult it is to absorb a number of refugees that is something around fifteen times smaller than that of the pilgrims who gathered at that festival. Our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, told us yesterday that ‘absorbing refugees would not help ease the international crisis’. Today after any human being with even a modicum of compassion was moved to heart-stopping despondency by the story and images of little Aylan Kurdi, he had the audacity to look painfully at an interviewer and express his earnest view that Britain is a ‘moral nation and we will fulfil our moral responsibilities’. 

And tonight I hear that in Hungary refugees are being dealt with away from the glare of international media in an ‘operation zone’ because they are ‘a German problem’.

Politicians, eh? Well, forgive me for thinking that the whole lot of them are a bunch of self-serving, two-faced hypocrites whose only ‘moral obligation’ seems to be to themselves.

I think an allocation of 15000 refugees in each European country would disappear far faster than you could say ‘hari krishna’ and they’d be far more grateful than those Arsenal fans bemoaning the price of their season tickets. Why is it so hard to reach out and take care of these put-upon and unfortunate people? Have we really got to a point where it’s OK to let this happen and say it’s someone else’s problem?

A pox on politicians; may they rot in hell. God help us all.

“Er, waiter – what’s that tune?”

I have a friend – we’ll call him Charlie – who, like me, takes his food very seriously. He also likes music a lot but being a chap of deep convictions he believes that the qualities of each are such that they are best indulged separately; put simply, he doesn’t like both at the same time. He tells me that when he wants to listen to music he’ll choose it carefully and enjoy listening to it. Conversely, when he eats he doesn’t want music disturbing his meal. I understand that and I agree with the view he takes, albeit less demonstratively [I am English after all and we tend to avoid making a fuss] if the combination is on the sensitive side. Charlie, however, is not given to compromise. So, to my increasing admiration as well as my continuous entertainment, the first thing he does on entering a restaurant softened by ambient music is to ask that it is immediately turned off. Of course, that doesn’t always go down well but he knows what he wants.

I’m a novice at this and not a wholly committed convert to Charlie’s cause but I’m not slow in having a word myself if the circumstances call for it. In my view the customer should decide as to whether he wants music while he eats and I’m not best pleased at having anything imposed on me in the belief that it will enhance my ‘customer experience’.

In Sicily we’ve been staying at a very new hotel – the Masseria della Volpe in Noto, which has just opened. This restored farm has a breathtaking setting that brims with innovation and Italian design. But to return to Charlie’s territory – its restaurant has an outside area that soothes the souls of its clientele with quiet classical music that is discernible, if you want to listen, well-chosen and unobtrusive. It’s very subtle and I found it pleasant enough. I was taken aback, though, when I asked the waiter about it because his immediate response was ‘would you like me to switch it off?’ This hotel is new and had a few [relatively minor] teething troubles but, if it continues in this vein, it might just turn into that rare thing – a venue where guests’ actual preferences are put first.

The peaceful view from the belvedere at 'Volpe', with the volpe symbol.
The peaceful view from the belvedere at ‘Volpe’, complete with volpe sculpture

In case you’re wondering – I didn’t ask that the music was turned off and the service, food and hotel were excellent.

We moved on to Tuscany, where we returned to Il Pellicano at Porto Ercole. The hotel is rated very highly and here, where there are more staff than you can say ‘buon giorno’ to if you had all day, I did ask them to turn the music off. Il Pellicano rightly prides itself on its five-star luxury service and I have to confess that we were looked after very well. Staff here glide silently through the hotel in twos and threes with choreographed ease, nirvanic expressions on their faces; their sole purpose to make their guests’ visit memorable. Nonetheless, the restaurants and bar were polluted by the worst kind of ‘ambient’ music; tuneless, invasive, unidentifiable piped background noise that was more suited to a shopping mall food hall. An American one at that. Of more concern was that I couldn’t find anyone who was actually responsible for it. No one knew what it was [my guess – an Art Farmer jazzy flugelhorn tribute selection, but I might be flattering it]; no-one knew who had chosen it; no-one knew why it was actually playing and, amazingly, no-one seemed to have authority to silence it. It was as if I had asked them to turn off all the lights in the foyer. A waiter made a valiant effort when I first complained and lowered the volume but only managed to change the track to a different version of the same stuff. When I reiterated that I would prefer it off completely he sadly advised that he would need to speak to his manager. Moving on to the black jackets didn’t help; my concerns received more smiles, some patronising hand-wringing and sympathetic understanding but the noise continued in tuneless irritation all evening. And all day. We ate outside the hotel after that. 

Il Pellicano's terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever...
Il Pellicano’s terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever…

It’s a funny thing, a hotel’s perception of service. In Il Pellicano service has reached a state of almost flawless perfection; eager faces and greetings at every turn, waves and smiles, immediate help with baggage or directions, earnest understanding of the guests’ needs and close attention to their every word [which I rather liked, actually]. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it’s become a well-oiled process that no one questions. So years of practice means that switching on the music in the morning has become a box that requires ticking. The operation is successful, but the patient dies; one night we had *spigola al sale. Staff buzzed around us, one bringing a serving table, another re-arranging ours and topping-up water glasses; our wine was relocated to make way for the food and yet another assistant brought roasted vegetables before re-arranging the table again. Under the paternal gaze of the maitre d’ the steaming dish was displayed and set before us, the salt ceremonially cracked and the fish lifted carefully off the bone, cutlery arcing like a conductor’s baton. But by the time this culinary two-step was complete both the dining plates and the vegetables were cold. And in the background the flugelhorn medley moved to double-articulation.

Now I’m certain that each person involved fulfilled their duties perfectly, yet the meal was actually a failure.

I hope that the Masseria della Volpe continues to put its guests’ preferences first and I’ll go back to find out. I know that Charlie, thankfully, will continue to keep restaurants thinking about what their customers want and not what convention suggests. As for me, I still can’t get that flugelhorn nonsense out of my head.

 * This is a local speciality consisting of a whole sea bass baked in a herb-seasoned crust of sea salt.

if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as sea below the hotel
… if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as the sea below the hotel

Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

Red kite inspecting us
Red kite inspecting us
Golden eagles over the garden
Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater
Egrets on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer
Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine


Beam me up, Rakesh

Pristine forest near Thekkady

I like India a great deal and love travelling there but it’s been difficult to whip-up enthusiasm for my recent sojourn amongst friends and acquaintances. Despite everything the sub-continent has on offer a fear of flying is commonplace; one said that he’ll only go if he carries his own food and another that he feared he’d be injured in a traffic accident and die in a foreign land surrounded by flip-flops. On the other hand, birders warmed to reports of my seeing 125 species in two days – including the very hard-to-see Wynaad Laughingthrush – whilst justifying their own reservations on the absence of cornflakes. By and large, though, the mere mention of the place evokes visions of chaos and a foreboding of parting company with bowel control.

I readily agree that standards of hygiene and driving are not what many of us are used to but both dangers can be avoided with a little care. After many visits and a reasonable amount of immersion in the culture, I’ve never felt that either presented a terminal threat. No, the thing that distresses me each time I visit is India’s apparent inability – and this is putting it simply – to sort itself out. Poverty is still rife, infrastructure is inadequate or absent and the consequences of corruption are widespread but the thing that irks me most; the issue that has me ranting into my masala dosa and coconut chutney is the ever-increasing and ubiquitous spread of garbage. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in India but all around you, in the streets, beside the buildings, lying in heaps and just getting under your feet is the detritus of 1.2 billion people. In Kerala alone an estimated 6000 tonnes is generated daily and most of it is apparently lying around.

It was alarming to find plastic in the dung of wild elephants and plastic bottles, paper plates and food wrappers deep in pristine evergreen forest. When I asked about it friends and even individuals involved in the management of national parks shrugged their shoulders at failed collection legislation and offered rueful excuses. Most blamed corrupt local government; local government apparently blames the State. In 2000 the Supreme Court of India issued a directive based on advice provided by the Centre for Science and Environment in Dehli. This called for all local governments to set up proper waste processing facilities by the end of 2003. Whilst several took some action the majority merely ignored both the directive and their garbage-strewn fiefdoms. In Kerala, NGOs and Community organizations such as Kudumbasrees* have been motivated with initiatives such as the ‘Clean Kerala Mission’ but despite success in some areas such as Paravur and Kozhikode [which was declared India’s first litter-free city in 2004] the heaps of solid waste and their associated pollution continue to increase.  

Black-shouldered kite
Sundown in Kochi

I took to browsing ‘The Hindu’ while I was in there. The local English language newspaper is a serious publication and a good read, with a history going back some 130 years and a circulation of nearly 1.5 million. It reports on issues like the problem of garbage, fly-tipping and landfill disputes in a fair and balanced manner as well as other aspects of life in southern India; fascinating stories of Bollywood stars sat alongside vacuous promises from government officials and reports of yet more fatal road traffic accidents. The seriousness of the reporting and the depth of detail were seductive – from reading the accounts of how problems were being identified and how officialdom was dealing with them I was beginning to  think that there was real concern for getting to grips with the carpet of plastic bags and bottles. That was until another report caught my attention and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. There was positive and expansive news that India is progressing well with its planned mission to Mars. Yes, Mars. Out of the heaps on non-biodegradable waste and open sewers is emerging an orbiter that will be sent to Mars in October to survey the Martian atmosphere. In collaboration with NASA it will attempt to detect the presence of methane, which I found ironic given the mountains of waste generating it down here.

Try as I may I can’t understand why India, with its breathtaking cultural diversity but so many earth-bound problems, is spending billions on a space programme – and one that is hell-bent on exploring Mars, too – when so many of its populace have to crap on the ground that the water table is being polluted. Could it be possible that the search for methane is just a ruse and that this mission is really a disguised effort to find the ultimate landfill in the sky?

Space might be the Final Frontier but I hope by the time India’s base on Mars is in operation the Intergalactic Garbage Police are fully in control.

*Kudumbsree – this is a worthy initiative set up by the Keralan government in 1998 with the aim of eradicating poverty through the empowerment of women. Its literal meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’ and it enshrines microcredit, empowerment and entrepreneurship.

View inside the Biodome of India’s Mars base



Sicily – birding a bare island

There are birds to see in Sicily although it doesn’t appear so at first glance. Aside from some crows and starlings we saw none on fence posts, none flying overhead and none in the fields during our initial bumpy introduction to Sicily’s autostradas. Birding the island is patchy so you must be reasonably single-minded and cover it all. You need inside knowledge and careful timing, too, all of which made it difficult for me given the nature of our visit and that neither Mission Control nor our companions were birders. I had to get my birds where I could and adopt an opportunistic approach to osservare gli uccelli. Before we travelled I’d assumed I’d see very little and although it wouldn’t be entirely honest to say I was pleasantly surprised I did record 109 species and could have done better. Nonetheless, I found the total birding experience in Sicily to be less than the sum of its parts.

The island gets a bad press and deservedly so because by and large it doesn’t give the birds much chance. Areas described as riserva naturale have virtually no protection and those not yet cultivated or developed live a charmed life as the authorities can be exceedingly – to coin a phrase – malleable. The current favourite is wind energy, where Italy pays a whopping €180 per kwh generated. Last year police disrupted corrupt plans to erect a discordant backdrop of wind turbines overlooking the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] reserve at Trapani and, in Mazara del Vallo, arrests have been made for bribing officials for permits to erect unapproved turbines. You’d believe that someone outside those deals would notice a 100m tower being erected so what on earth were they thinking? The travesty is that minimal protection and management could transform Sicily but it has its head so far up its nepotistic backside that the chances of conservation even making it to the agenda are non-existent unless ‘opportunities’ are exploited. That said, I can appreciate that a lot needs sorting out before a put-upon and disenfranchised population can be encouraged to embrace the esoteric values of wildlife conservation.

Organised trips that target specific sites provide notable birding and are necessarily supported by the rest that Sicily offers – Mediterranean weather and scenery, great food, historical culture and all those gaily-painted fishing boats. But if you are serious about your birding there are other places to go and there’s the rub, because Sicily has a lot going ornithologically; this spring a Bar-tailed lark and an Atlas flycatcher were recorded – very special birds for European birders. Sicily holds the only wintering group of Pallas’s gulls in Europe as well the only Italian-breeding Bonelli’s eagles. Migration across the Straits of Messina can be spectacular and an internationally important population of Lanner falcon and endemics such as the Sicilian Rock partridge and Long-tailed tit are worth the air fare alone. Why is it then that conservation and its consequent nature tourism – given all the other delights on offer – isn’t a better deal here? I concluded that Sicilians mostly don’t like birds – unless they are served with a passable Nero D’Avola, that is. In Pozzo di Mazza we were woken early on Saturday morning by continuous blasts from propane cannon bird scarers before local hunters went on to spend the weekend shooting across the adjoining fields and above our heads in an alarming barrage. The coordination of explosions from cannons and shooting led me to suspect that the former weren’t used to scare birds away from crops [after all, they didn’t use them during the week] but instead to keep them in the air for the benefit of the latter. Just ponder the logic of that for a moment. The same thing happened at Corte del Sole near Vendicari, suggesting it was common practice. At Lago della Priola, another WWF reserve, even putative birders are denied unaccompanied access for fear of them secreting guns into the bird hide or using the tiny remaining piece of endemic woodland for firewood. You wonder how that could be a concern when Sicily employs over 26000 people in its forestry department – more than they employ in British Columbia.

It appears that, a few good men such as Andrea Corso and Antonini at WWF or the hard-working volunteers at CABS notwithstanding, no one who can really make a difference gives a flying whatever; especially where money can be made. I was humbled by Antonini’s calm determination and persistence in the face of insurmountable barriers – he represents WWF locally and has been working with them for twenty years – but confess to being less than comfortable with the brand of nature tourism we bring. It provides a pleasant sojourn in the sun, holiday-island accompaniments, that list of interesting – and sometimes exciting – birds and, probably, a very nice set of photographs but it doesn’t give much back. I couldn’t, for example, find one reference to contact with conservation organisations on any of the birding holiday websites. Certainly some money trickles into the economy but it’s channeled neither into conservation nor a local organisation that might eventually ease these issues onto the agenda. Trips that target a list of species in pleasant surroundings merely perpetuate an archaic and ultimately self-defeating situation.

When we stayed near Selinunte we awoke each morning to a silence broken only by the sound of occasional passing cars. There was no birdsong at all, not even a chirping sparrow. The adjacent fields were liberally covered with spent shotgun cartridges and although it might be different in spring the picture was there to see. Sicily is unique and has huge potential but it needs to find a way for conservation and appreciation of a rapidly-diminishing natural heritage to gain at least as much kudos as self-interest and destructive machismo.

 Without that, even the listers and nature tourists won’t have anything to come for.


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.




The grave risk of using common sense

If I had been asked to come down on one side or the other about the recent protest by public sector workers I would have said I was against it. It’s not that I believe our working class shouldn’t have a decent pension or that it’s alright for them to be exploited or that they shouldn’t have the right to strike. It’s just that I’m uncomfortable with people withdrawing labour as a means to getting what they want – especially when the adverse affects usually land in the lap of uninvolved innocents such as schoolkids, the less able or the put-upon travelling public. Now, I should be clear that I have great respect for a host of low-paid workers in health-care, the police and fire and rescue whose dedication is beyond question and I’m pleased that this is being recognised by the Government; I’m referring here to the vast majority who choose a life in the public sector because it provides cover from the cold winter winds and the pain of the real world. Working in the public sector lets a huge number of people cruise along without really having to own responsibility and, the crux of the matter, it provides them with a pretty good pension just for staying the course. And if you’re unaccountable you can’t be responsible, can you? But it’s that reward at the end – or the thought that it might be in danger after a career spent discussing initiatives or attending committee meetings – that was the sensitive nerve tweaked by union leaders to encourage the workers to rise up and reclaim the streets.

I can appreciate that the shock of being woken from your bureaucratic slumber to be told you have to increase your pension contribution and can’t retire as early as you’d planned is pretty unpalatable but although we saw lots of placards criticising the Government I didn’t see one that said ‘…and bring the 20% of salary you contribute to our pensions into line with 5% the private sector gets!’ No; for the most part people were on the streets because they wanted their benefits, not more personal responsibility for funding their golden years.

I’ve spent my working life in the private sector but that has often involved working for clients in the public sector. In doing so I’ve rubbed shoulders, so to speak, with a great many of our now-troubled public servants and understanding the mindset that I frequently encountered continues to elude me. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always found the culture of playing the long game whilst avoiding responsibility something of a contradiction. What it has done is left me with an impression that our public sector can be a closeted world where conclusions are drawn and decisions made in a manner that is at once self-justifying and mystifying. If the Government’s austerity measures have sent shock waves through this hitherto unaccountable and cosy world then I, for one, am pleased to see the process start.

I live in a pleasant and attractive part of England but just up the road we are experiencing the consequences of an eye-watering example of the kind of nonsensical thinking that seems to emerge from the collective mind of the public sector far too often. It involves Health and Safety but, regrettably, not much Common Sense. We’ve had an incident in the graveyard. Apparently, a lady who was attending a grave used a headstone to support herself as she stood up and it tipped over, hurting her leg. Not seriously or even badly, just enough for her to suffer some distress. Alarm bells rang at the Town Council offices and, I suspect, an emergency committee meeting will have been convened to decide on the appropriate response. The committee meeting, especially in its unscheduled, ad hoc emergency form, is the lifeblood of public service, where planned committee meetings fill your schedule and your life. Successful officers list the committees they’ve served on or chaired as proof that their career amounted to more than merely showing up every day. If you’ve ever attended one of these gatherings you’ll know that it would have started with a safety assessment covering the use of the chairs and tables or the flip-chart, perhaps even the window blinds if it was particularly sunny that day, together with a briefing that located fire escapes. Several people would have arrived late, clutching variously files, papers, plastic cups of tea or water bottles. [I’ve experienced meetings in a local authority where attendees arrived carrying cups of soup!] There would be many utterances of self-importance that said ‘I’m really too busy to attend this but I’m too important to not be here’. The chairman – this being the officer who is probably the only one in the room with the authority to actually make an executive decision and therefore ensure that any agreed action is actually implemented –  apologies for the limited time that he or she can give the meeting because there is a ‘ways and means’ committee to attend or, given the time of year, a ‘Christmas Lights’ meeting. So the discussion will probably have concluded leaderless after lengthy, unstructured deliberation.

Cynical, I know, but I’m certain that such a meeting took place and equally certain that it ran its erratic course because a decision was reached and it was acted upon. They didn’t close the graveyard; they didn’t post warning notices or fence off dangerous areas; they didn’t try to stop people leaning on headstones. Nope, the combined cerebral power of the gathering came up with this; push over the headstones before any fall on someone else. And here’s why I know there wasn’t a chairman in attendance at that point because that wasn’t all they decided. There was clearly a discussion about whether or not all the headstones were in danger of toppling over [there are more than a thousand in the churchyard] so a test was devised – a ‘topple test’ – to find out where the danger lay. It was decided that each headstone would be subjected to a 16Kg weight being pushed against it and those showing signs of tipping over would be helped on their way. A team was dispatched and, as I write this, over two hundred headstones have been pushed over. The Town Clerk, who may have been reclaiming the streets during the protests, found time to be quoted as saying, We had arranged to do this over the coming months but because of an incident that happened and the bad weather, we’re addressing it as a matter of urgency. It’s now a matter of priority for us to make sure that it is accident-free. We understand this is an extremely sensitive issue and may cause some distress to families. However, to ensure we comply with complex health and safety regulations, it is essential this action is taken’. Remember my mentioning responsibility above? It appears that no one can be identified who actually devised the ‘test’ so we don’t know why 16Kg [and not, say, 25Kg or maybe 5Kg] was selected and no one knows why so many headstones are suddenly in danger of being pushed over when flowers are laid against them. In another gem of local authority insight, however, the Town Clerk said that the headstones failing the test are not set as deeply in the ground as the ones that pass the test. He gave that a lot of thought, didn’t he?

I’m past the point where I think too deeply about how these imbeciles spend our council tax as it keeps me awake at night but the local press have asked how much this nonsense will cost. Ah, the Council doesn’t know but we, the taxpayers they serve, shouldn’t worry – the cost of rectifying headstones that have been pushed over but which might not have fallen of their own accord for the next fifty years will be passed on to the bereaved families. And if they don’t pay up the headstones will stay on the ground. Cue further stories about elderly, impecunious widows and graves with no surviving family members.

Just as an aside, our local authority used part of an increase in the council tax a few years back to fill a gap in their pension fund. Now, let’s reclaim the streets!

Dubai; over to you, rent-a-crowd

Sitting outside a restaurant in Dubai recently our evening was disturbed by a raucous and rude party who were perhaps drinking more than was appropriate and who began shouting and intimidating the staff. They happened to be Russian [there are a lot of Russians in Dubai] but could have been British or German or any other of around 200 nationalities that are represented by the people now living and working there. What they weren’t was Emirati. There was a time – and not so long ago either – when the principal reason for being in Dubai would have been work-related. It wasn’t hard to get into the country but there was a process one had to go through and an implied level of obligation was imposed of the visitor. We were frequently reminded that we were guests and there was an unwritten but well-understood code of conduct. These days the doors are not only wide open but hanging off the hinges. Dubai does tourism and shopping in a very big way but, in embracing anyone who wants to spend, has been the architect of its own downfall. Consequently, one of the less endearing aspects of selling itself and its glamorous lifestyle across the world is that rent-a-crowd has moved in.

The dilemma that arises from the occasional clash of culture is well-publicised; tales of medieval punishment emanating from a stolen lip-smacking kiss in public tend to exaggerate the extremes and aren’t typical but there appears to exist now a level of communal disrespect that is both alien to the culture and saddening to witness. My experience has been that even in the most trying of situations Emiratis are by nature respectful, polite and dignified; qualities reflected in a legal system that will tolerate dangerous driving – to some extent, anyway – but which will lead to deportation for showing the finger to another driver. Rowdiness and injudicious dress amongst tourists are not only commonplace now but are justified by ubiquity. I guess this attitude comes with the proliferation of bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and leisure facilities that have swamped the place but, in many ways, the removal of exclusivity and the relaxation of entry regulations have combined to lower the bar.

Of course, expatriate life has changed a lot since I first stepped off a VC10 into the heat of Dubai. That was a long while ago and I’ve gone on to spend many years since then living and working in the region. Whether living in the Middle East is better or worse in 2011 falls to personal opinion, unless you’re in Syria, Bahrain or Yemen I guess, so I’ll avoid nostalgic anecdotes of a life when we had to use handwriting and telex, before we e-mailed each other and kept in touch constantly with mobile phones and before fax machines, computers on every desk and two-day weekends. Going to the souk a couple of times a week and bargaining the price of fruit and veg was just a part of life then; in Dubai last week we shopped at Waitrose for the same stuff you can get at our local store in England. We were spoiled for choice so breakfast was organic muesli instead of the flat bread I used to get in a pack from Sharjah Modern Bakery. And there are no weevils in the flour any more, which I suppose is progress of sorts.

There used to be very few amenities and whilst hotel bars, the Rugby Club and one or two other celebrated watering holes were always popular, one’s social life tended to develop around a dinner table or barbeque. In Dubai today you are spoilt for choice and you go out but, despite there being so much, there is a wearing sameness to what’s on offer. Before the move towards tourism the community was much smaller and less diverse than it is today. Expatriate society then was dotted with real characters and I’m often left wondering, dealing now with the mind-numbing ordinariness of the Facebook generation, where they’ve gone. Perhaps the paucity of people with charisma, individual qualities and original opinions reflects the manner in which society has changed but whatever it is, fewer occasions these days in Dubai leave you thinking that you’d just spent time with someone special. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Social life used to be a joyride that ricocheted between sumptuous feasts and evenings of inedible food, memorable occasions highlighted by adventurers, raconteurs, personalities of questionable background and a share of lost souls. Now we go to a sports bar, compete with flat screen television and look away as the bare-footed untravelled in cut-down shorts loudly demand service.

The Middle East and Dubai in particular is overflowing with the mile markers of our ‘improved’ and accessible lifestyle. It likes to wear it’s modernity on its sleeve so the tenets of what the USA upholds as ‘freedom and democracy’ are on every corner; Starbucks, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Baskin-Robbins proliferate and the fast-food courts in the malls are full.

So while I watched as restaurant staff were insulted and intimidated I wondered if the Emiratis who wanted Dubai to be the destination of choice have got what they wished for. And in an obtuse kind of way, I think they have. It’s busy, a lot of money washes around, it’s unquestionably safe and the Emiratis don’t have exposure to what I watched last week.

I am nostalgic for how it used to be but being an expatriate is of course enjoyable and more comfortable in different ways now. Variety and accessibility, however, don’t necessarily equate to richness and it seems to me that what’s on offer in Dubai sacrifices life experience for gratification. It sometimes feels like Ibiza.

I’ve made good friends in Dubai, some of whom I’ve known for more than thirty years; spending time with them these past few weeks has been an absolute joy. And we didn’t sit around groaning at how much better it all used to be, either – the steak and Argentine wine we had at Jumeirah Beach Hotel were as good as it gets. But it’s sad to think though that what made Dubai special and kept us coming back over the years has gradually been eroded. Things do change, of course, but it seems that the majority of visitors these days don’t really mind where they are, as long as the sun shines, they have money to spend and restaurant staff doesn’t answer back.





Lessons will be learned in 2011

While waiting for publication of the final report I’ve been absorbing all I can of the findings of the presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last April. Me along with BP, Transocean and Halliburton, that is. I’m in Florida at some point every year so have an interest of sorts in the outcome and, especially, the measures that will be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The human and environmental reckoning remains outstanding and I’d like to take comfort in knowing that a recurrence will be avoided. Alas, having heard the utterances from BP this week I won’t hold my breath.

A lot is wrong with the way that powerful companies operate – by powerful I mean those with huge financial and political muscle – as they eventually get to do more or less what they want. The huge financial interests involved allow for the coercion of government and facilitates the bullying of subcontractors so they get their way in the end. According to the commission, which has released a chapter of its report, the root causes of the event were systemic’ and that ‘absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies’ may allow a recurrence. So no specific entity is to blame and all share some responsibility, which is what BP has strived to convince us of from the outset. In simple terms the commission concludes that ‘management and regulatory failure’ led to the disaster, which comes as no surprise and which, all things being considered, is not a bad outcome for BP. This was reflected in the statement they released after the findings were made public when, in cursory and arrogant terms, they again cited ‘multiple causes, involving multiple companies’ and that the company would ensure that the lessons learned from (the) Macondo (well would) lead to improvements in operations and contractor services in deepwater drilling’.

Lessons will be learned, eh? When I saw that it had me thinking about how often I hear the expression and what it actually means. It’s platitudinous in the extreme but not an admission of wrong-doing; it’s dishonest and means in reality, ‘OK, something went wrong, we understand that you’re pissed, we’re not admitting guilt but we’ve acknowledged it and we’re moving on’. Now, of course, the job in hand for BP is to minimise the fallout from the event and that will be achieved by spreading the blame and the need for ‘lesson learning’ as far and as wide as possible.

BP was about 100 years old in 2010 and there is no questioning the experience and expertise that it will have built up. Halliburton started work on well cementing in 1919 and Transocean commenced well drilling in 1953. How, with all that collective experience, is it really possible that they hadn’t foreseen the possibility of what went wrong and put measures in place that would have managed the risks? The answer is simple – they probably did; someone somewhere took a decision in favour of cost over redundancy of safety systems. Saying that there are ‘lessons to be learned’ implies humbleness brought about by a gap in knowledge and infers contrition, but it doesn’t quite say that. In BP’s case it’s patently not the case and it’s as near as can be to being dishonest.

But it’s not just BP that advocates the learning of lessons; the rhetoric flows from all directions so you’d expect that lessons are being learned in a lot of other places, wouldn’t you?

In February 2009 the then Labour government was trotting out the same old line after snow and ice led to travel chaos on the roads and the closing of both bridges across the river Severn. With motorways blocked, drivers trapped in cars and families separated Lord Adonis, the Transport Minister, vowed that ‘lessons would be learned’ but it snowed again this winter and the chaos reportedly cost £1billion. In response the coalition Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced in December that the performance of transport operators would be reviewed. He reported that a national strategic salt reserve existed for the first time but went on to say that ‘I share the frustration of the travelling public and we need to be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep Britain moving. Complacency is not an option. There are lessons to be learned……’.

The Commonwealth Games Federation [CGF] is the governing body for the debacle that led up to the games in Delhi last June. They met in Glasgow for a debriefing on issues such as running sewage, human faeces and falling ceilings in the accommodation, packs of wild dogs, poor security and a collapsing bridge that preceded the opening ceremony, where a lack of protection allowed the competition surfaces to be damaged. In a statement issued by CGF they declared that ‘lessons would be learned’ from problems in Delhi. What sort of lesson needs to be learned when a bridge collapses? I’ve walked on bridges built by the Romans, for heaven’s sake.

Just before Christmas some 40000 homes in Northern Ireland were without water after distribution pipes fractured in the cold weather, reservoirs emptied and management ran around like headless leprechauns. Conor Murphy, minister at the Department of Regional Development [DRP], admitted serious failures as he sympathetically explained how he understood the frustration and anger of being without flushing toilets, hot baths, cooking and drinking water over the holidays. He believed that ‘lessons need to be learned’ and put the point very sincerely. I’m sure that people collecting bottled water from car parks on Christmas morning in below-freezing temperatures agreed with him. But wait a moment – back in July four directors of Northern Ireland Water [NIW], which is the state-owned monopoly controlling water supplies, were fired because of irregularities in the award of 73 contracts. Paul Priestly, permanent secretary to the DRP and speaking at the time, said he found the failings ‘absolutely staggering’ so one wonders how Mr Murphy reached the conclusion that there were still lessons to be learned six months later.

On 2 January the coalition government’s Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt, promised us that ‘lessons would be learnt’ after a riot at Ford Open Prison in West Sussex erupted when prison officers attempted to breathalyse inmates who had been drinking alcohol as part of their New Year celebrations. The ensuing conflagration caused damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room and snooker and pool rooms and resulted in some buildings being burned to the ground. At the time some 500 inmates were being overseen by six, yes six, prison staff only two of whom were actually trained prison officers. So what was there to learn about six people watching over 500 prisoners with virtually unlimited access to alcohol?

And just to prove what a piece of absolute nonsense it is last Sunday in The Independent it was stated that the success of the England cricket team in winning the Ashes as well as the rescuing of the Chilean miners represented opportunities for ‘lessons to be learned’ in how we manage our personal finances. Excuse me? In all honesty I struggled to make the connection but I certainly learned two lessons from the essay; first, the expression is trite and reeled off so frequently as to be meaningless and, second, I was reminded why I don’t read the Independent.

So now when I hear ‘lessons will be learned’ I tend to be more than a little cynical about the sincerity and the honesty of the person delivering the message as well as the organisation it’s coming from. After all, will BP double the number of safety systems as a result of Deepwater Horizon? Will ill-prepared Commonwealth Games hosts be excluded from consideration? Will we see more snow-clearing equipment or salt reserves even if we don’t need them for years? A realistic ratio of prison officers to detainees? Transparency in Northern Ireland? We all know the answer. And as for learning lessons about managing personal finance – doh!