So what does the map say?

Mangroves at the southern boundary of Everglades National Park

In a few days’ time I’ll be donning my big hat, a linen shirt and worn-through cut-off denim shorts. I’ll be in the depths of the Everglades again and despite having been there many times I’m spending hours poring over maps and atlases, planning routes, checking out small roads for anything that looks interesting and marking tracks and hiking trails. What I’m doing, as I always do, is indulging myself in anticipation of a forthcoming trip – reading the map.

Maps fascinate me. I don’t know of a time when they didn’t captivate me and stir my imagination so I’m taking them to bed with me and absorbing detailed information over cups of tea in my office; they’ll be beside me at dinner, in a stack on the coffee table and, of course, a constant companion in the smallest room.

A map of the Everglades showing Lake Okeechobee to Bahia Ponce de Leon and Whitewater Bay in 1859. Although the old U.S. Army forts are gone the area designated as Indian hunting grounds remains as reservations, housing, retail outlets and, er, Miami. It’s overflowing with wildlife, natural wonder and historical sites yet a SatNav in a car I drove through here once instructed me to ‘turn west onto Tamiami Trail at junction 25 and continue for 87.8 miles’ without mentioning anything on either side of the road. This is from the Library of Congress map division.

There’s real joy in reading a map, in examining small details and discovering something that had evaded one previously, in gaining what I think of as the ‘big picture’ and it’s because of this that I’m perplexed when I find someone has driven from point A to point B by following directions provided through a gadget on the dashboard. I’m not against the provision of important traffic information – far from it – but for me it’s essential that I choose my route and find road junctions rather than being told what to do when I encounter them. I just don’t get the attachment to SatNav instructions as it’s very important to me that, along the way, I don’t miss – even if I don’t intend to visit – a church or a building, a natural feature or a place of interest that isn’t highlighted because it’s off the route and not relevant.

Driving patterns change, of course, and I’m comfortable with a new generation of drivers taking ownership of the M25 queues, the endless rows of traffic cones, increasing fuel costs and diminishing road maintenance as they ‘continue on this road for the next one hundred and fifty kilometres’. In some ways, however, I can’t avoid the feeling that the monotonous tones and garish graphics of a SatNav that places value on reaching a destination without distraction are metaphors for a lot in life today. I’m by no means a Luddite but how many new drivers today will suffer the dubious and bitter-sweet agony of watching his wife reading a map upside down so that the picture faces the right way? How less rich will a relationship be if you don’t have to make up after an argument because a husband didn’t ask for directions?

Many years ago I met a chap who carried in his car a collection of Ordnance Survey one-inch maps that covered most of England. His neatly-stacked box held, literally, dozens. They all looked grubby and well-thumbed until a close inspection showed that the margins and plain areas weren’t actually dirty – they were filled with hundreds of tiny notes in neat, small handwriting. Over years of travel he had carefully recorded the memorable minutia along the routes of innumerable journeys such that his scribblings ranged from roadside artefacts and ancient buildings to uplifting vistas and barmaids’ knockers. Each time he turned the ignition key he was beginning an adventure and his maps were an intrinsic part. They were more than a mere means of finding directions between two points. In a counterintuitive attempt to improve the place to place ‘driving experience’, SatNavs will now provide sightseeing software that is not only portable, allowing you to walk away from your vehicle while retaining contact with your virtual companion, but which also records where your vehicle stopped, in case a short time in un-conditioned air disorientates you.

In Robert Harris’ book ‘The Ghost,’ the eponymous character, a ghost-writer, finds himself in a vehicle following the GPS route used by his dead – at that point presumed murdered – predecessor. In the movie version of the episode, a Teutonic and efficient female voice urges him on until he arrives, a long way off the beaten track, at the gates of an isolated house deep in the woods of New England. It’s a pivotal point in the plot and, to me, all the more sinister because of the unemotional and slightly disassociated tones emanating from a little piece of electronic gadgetry. It seems perfectly reasonable, however, for him to ‘turn left at the next junction and continue for one hundred and twenty metres’ even when it does send him down an unpaved track in the forest.

Whilst that particular journey was crucial to the pace and tension of a novel it is perfectly normal for people to suspend usual levels of caution and self-preservation as they blindly follow the instructions that a SatNav gives them. Turning left or right at the next junction when a gadget tells you to has proved to be dangerous and sometimes fatal and although I’m never surprised at how witless people can be I am astounded that apparently otherwise sensible individuals will state – usually in evidence – that the SatNav was to blame. We could perhaps have accepted that as the case in January 2012, when a coronal mass ejection – that’s a solar flare to the less scientifically verbose – threatened to take down parts of theGPSnetwork. That’s when I expected roundabouts to be blocked for hours while hapless drivers circled, anxiously awaiting instructions on which exit to take. Alas, there were no reported incidents.

I’m looking forward to my trip and know some of the routes through the ‘Glades by heart now but I’ll be taking a few back roads and will be off the beaten track so maps are essential. Although it’s a vast place I will eschew all efforts by the car rental company to impose on me the very latest, interactive, high definition, comprehensively-programmed SatNav unit. I love my maps and using them is part of the adventure. No, I don’t want one in my car unless, of course, it sounds like Sean Young. In that case I’d go more or less anywhere it told me to.

A Black Vulture at the side of the road...
...and a Sherman's Fox Squirrel in the dry pineland at the north of the park.

I am just going outside and may be some time…

…or a walk around the village…

After mild weather in Scandinavia that produced only a token dusting of snow I expected to find England balmy, full of birdsong and our woodland carpeted in snowdrops. And so it was for a few days before tentative forecasts of snow began to surface. Despite spring being in the air we were told to expect arctic conditions that would bring life as we know it to a frozen and ice-bound halt. I’m a sceptical sort of chap and take such warnings – the Met Office issued an Amber alert – in my stride but found myself glancing at the horizon to see if the distant spires of Cambridge were disappearing, Mordor-like, under dark clouds.

As the weather front approached us Heathrow Airport cancelled first a third and then half its flights; the BBC warned of icy conditions, road closures and probable accidents; concerned spokespeople wrung their hands in angst during hastily-arranged interviews as they implored us to pay extra attention to our elderly neighbours and the wireless advised us to stay tuned to our local station for weather updates. The tension mounted and the weather dominated the news – reporters ‘live’ at a silent Heathrow and various points around the country gazed upward into clear skies and down at deserted roads as they explained how serious it was going to be. When temperatures began to drop I wondered if I should I head over to our 24-hour Tesco store and stock up with essential provisions but worried that, if the snow hit, I might become trapped in a nightmare world of clueless staff, special offers and tasteless cheese. As Sky News reported that the snow had started falling in the north and was moving south we lit candles, turned up the heating and drew the curtains in what were probably futile gestures against the forces of nature.

It snowed during the night. At least 10cm lay on the ground and the biggest problem I faced was negotiating around the neighbour’s kids’ snowman on the way to pick up my croissants. Ben and Emily came in for hot chocolate later and, somehow, against the odds it seems, we all managed to survive without the aid of the emergency services.

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

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.