Wednesday, 25 June 2003

Gardening for wildlife

Until last weekend I was bewailing the lack of insects. But then my garden was full of them. Well not exactly the numbers of 50 years ago, but nonetheless some good numbers. It just goes to show how easy it is to garden for wildlife.

The insects in good numbers were bumblebees, and they were on the sage bushes and white clover. The sage had been planted in the herb garden, and the white clover was in an area of lawn that had been allowed to revert to ‘meadow’. Simply by not cutting this area, over a period of only two years, its species diversity has increased dramatically.

Unfortunately, one group of insects I have not seen in any great numbers is the short-horned grasshoppers. As a child I always remember grasshoppers abounding on the commons around London, and bush crickets were a real rarity. But now, living in the countryside, I see quite a lot of bush crickets, but very few grasshoppers. And despite seeing very few house martins and swallows earlier in the summer, this week the first broods have left the nest and are flying around – hopefully they will raise two or three broods this year if the fine weather continues.

It is always notable how the swifts and swallows gather over our garden – five acres of unsprayed garden and woodland in the midst of East Anglia provide a ready supply of insects. Very soon the dragonflies will be on the wing, and with any luck they should attract the odd hobby.
But if any one asks what they can do to encourage wildlife, the answer is very simple – go organic. Suburban gardens are among the last refuges for many species of wildlife, but they are also often sprayed more intensively than farmland.

Thursday, 12 June 2003

Rose-Coloured Starling

On Wednesday 11 June, the World Land Trust Board of Trustees met for the Annual General Meeting of the Trust. But before the meeting started two of the Trustees, Prof. Renton Righelato and Dr Nigel Simpson went to Minsmere for a couple of hours birdwatching. On their way back to the meeting they saw on a telephone wire en route to Westleton, one of the most spectacular birds to visit Britain -- a Rose Coloured Starling. A quick check with the RSPB's Warden of Minsmere revealed that no one else had seen the bird so far.

Rose Coloured Starling breed in India and other parts of Asia, as well as Eastern Europe. Their plumage is a beautiful rosy pink, contrasting with glossy black. Nigel Simpson managed to snap a photograph by using his digital camera down his binoculars -- not the perfect way of photgraphing, but a good picture nonetheless. No doubt scores of twitchers will now descend.

How green is green diesel?

How green is green diesel? Trying to keep abreast of these developments I asked one of the World Land Trust's Trustees, Prof. Renton Righelato to review the issues, and below is a summary he produced - feedback would be very welcome - it's a controversial issue.

Biofuels - a Review by R C Righelato

"Green gasoline", "biofuels" - warm words, an attractive concept perhaps, but just what does it really mean and does it make sense?

Long before Kyoto, governments in many countries had been encouraging the use of biofuels to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels or as a way of subsidising their farmers. More recently, the threat of global warming has given impetus to the development of "renewables", which are encouraged under the Kyoto Protocol and are planned to replace significant amounts of petroleum over the next decade.

There are many types of biofuels, some created from wastes (particularly methane) others from crops grown for the purpose:
  • vegetable oils from oilseed rape and oil palm added to diesel
  • sugars from maize starch, beet and cane converted by fermentation to ethanol which can be added to petrol
  • plantation forestry or coppicing to produce wood for burning
  • methane from sewage, farm wastes, landfill.
It can only be helpful to make use of wastes, particularly where the potent greenhouse gas, methane, is converted to carbon dioxide, which, carbon for carbon, has a much lower greenhouse effect. But the production of more crops to fill our fuel tanks will only compound the ecological problems we have already created with agriculture, with potentially little or no greenhouse benefit.

This discussion will focus on oilseed rape and biodiesel in the UK, but the same logic applies to bioethanol and to tropical, as well as temperate areas.

UK consumption of diesel in 2002 was 17.6 million tonnes(1). To provide the vegetable oil for this (with present technology, up to 10% vegetable oil, after processing, can be added to diesel), over 1 million hectares of arable land would be required - a massive 25% increase in the total land under crops in the UK and nearly a quadrupling of present oilseed rape production.

The equivalent of 0.56 tonnes of fossil diesel are required to produce 1 tonne of biodiesel (2). So, the use of rapeseed oil for biodiesel gives us an overall saving of fossil fuel of around 4%. Applied to all of the UK's diesel consumption, this represents a saving of 774,000 tonnes of fossil fuel and is equivalent to a saving of carbon released into the atmosphere of around 0.5 tonnes carbon per hectare.

The land needed to supply this quantity of oilseed could come only partly from set-aside and would require further land being brought into cultivation, with a concomitant release of carbon stocks from the soil and ground cover.

If instead, the land were allowed to regenerate as forest over a period of 50 years or so, the rate of removal of carbon from the atmosphere would be around twice as much as the saving arising from the use of biodiesel (3). Sustainably-extracted, such forests could provide timber that, used as a structural material, would increase the carbon "sink" effect in the mature forest.

The ecological cost of intensive, mono-crop agriculture, in terms of lost biodiversity and lost resilience to environmental change is huge. Added to this is the loss of the countryside as an amenity to enjoy and, for many people, the nose, skin and eye irritation that the pollen causes.

A strategy for carbon emissions should firstly be based on using less carbon derived energy – driving more gently and less frequently, more efficient engines etc. Secondly we must develop alternative energy sources out-with the carbon cycle. And thirdly create and maintain stable carbon sinks. This means:
  • protecting established forests and grasslands;
  • re-establishment of stable forests and steppes.

1 DTI Energy Statistics, Government News Network 27 March 2003;

2 Richards IR, 2000 "Energy balances in the growth of oilseed rape for biodiesel and of wheat for bioethanol." British Association for Bio fuels and Oils.

3 Read D et al 2000 "The role of land carbon sinks in the mitigation of global climate change". The Royal Society, London (
Other useful bibliography
DEFRA - Economics and Statistics
Shapouri H, Duffield JA, and Wang M (1998). "The energy balance of corn ethanol". U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of the Chief Economist, Office of Energy Policy and New Uses. Agricultural Economic Report No. 814.
Shapouri H, Duffield JA, and Graboski MS. (1995) "Estimating the net energy balance of corn ethanol". U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Office of Energy. Agricultural Economic Report No. 721.

Sheehan J, Camobrecco V, Duffield J, Graboski M, and Shapouri H (1998) "Life cycle inventory of biodiesel and petroleum diesel for use in an urban bus". National Technical Information Service, Springfield VA.

Biofuels - background notes
  • Net Energy Analysis USA : Office of Energy Policy, New Uses (OEPNU)
    US corn to ethanol 1.34
    Soy biodiesel 3.20
  • Net Energy Analysis UK (ref 2)
    UK rapeseed oil 1.78
From DTI statistics:
  • UK transport fuels demand 49Mt/a (2002) of which 17.6Mt DERV
From DEFRA Statistics:
  • Total arable crops in UK 4.5 Mha
  • Rape UK 432 kha; 1.4Mt; £294M
  • Sugar beet 169 kha; 1.4Mt; £272M

Monday, 9 June 2003

Wildlife Conservation

Wildlife Conservation, terrorists, guerrillas, and drugs

The World Land Trust is frequently approached by individuals who want our help in conserving areas of land that are threatened with development. We have also had a few time wasters - individuals owning land in the tropics who think they can make a quick buck, by selling it at a vast profit to a conservation charity.

But a more interesting development recently, was a proposal that we should buy land in Colombia. There is no question that the land is of biological and conservation importance. It is in one of the areas of the world’s greatest species diversity - a so-called biodiversity hotspot. And the land is cheap - relatively undamaged natural habitats at $35 a hectare - which means for around $5000 we could buy a reserve of round about 250 acres - a significant area. But one of the reasons the land is so cheap is that it is not entirely safe in the area, there are guerrillas. [ A 600-acre wildlife reserve in England recently cost over $1.5 million, - well over 100 times more expensive - which gives some perspective on the relative cost. And if the relative cost per species is calculated, it is even better value]

Should a charity like the WLT risk buying land in such circumstances? There are obvious security issues for its staff, but if it operates, as we always do, through a local NGO, and that local NGO is happy to acquire and manage land in those circumstances should we risk funding it?

My own view is that the general funds raised by the Trust for land purchase should not be used - after all the majority of the general public and companies supporting us would not expect any risks to be taken. And I am sure that most other charities and non-profits would have similar policies. However, what such a policy does mean, is that real opportunities to do something really positive, at very low cost are probably being missed. But if a wealthy private individual wanted to donate to the WLT with specific request that the funds be used for such a venture it would be an entirely different matter.

That such conservation opportunities are available I have seen first hand. Soon after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon, I visited the area - there were some very real opportunities for imaginative conservation. And fortunately there were people interested in enough to take the initiative. But in Colombia, they wouldn’t need to be fabulously wealthy - $5000 - $10,000 could make a really meaningful contribution.

My brief experience in Lebanon led me to believe that wildlife conservation could play an important role in conflict torn areas. Despite more than two decades of war in Lebanon, the conservation movement had grown up and flourished, with very little outside contact. It reminded me that in 1975 I had been present at a ceremony in what was then Zaire, presenting medals to wardens who had guarded the national parks throughout their recent civil war. And in Rwanda, the guards stayed loyal, and the gorillas survived, despite the terrible genocide. More recently, last year I visited Uganda, where there are many very enthusiastic and dedicated conservationist, despite the years of war.

So is there serious philanthropy somewhere in cyberspace? If anyone fancies being really innovative and putting up some funds I’d be delighted to hear from them.

Tuesday, 3 June 2003

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show, Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don and Peat,

BBC TV's presentation of the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show last week was thorough, and for most gardeners one of the highlights of the viewing year. I was particularly impressed with Messers Titmarsh and Don tackling the thorny issue of the use of peat. But as usual the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) are doing too little too late. In fact they are doing virtually nothing, which, as the leading horticultural organisation, is appalling. Peat extraction for the gardening trade is destroying thousands of acres of unique habitat. David Bellamy, and most high profile TV gardeners have spoken out against the trade, but it continues unabated.

Many years ago, when I was Executive Secretary of the Fauna Preservation Society, we managed to extend the Society's remit to include plants, and it became the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International); and one of our first campaigns related to the import of hundreds of tonnes of wild collected bulbs. But I could not get the RHS to take a strong stance against the trade - banning the exhibition of wild collected orchids and bulbs for instance. Twenty years on the RHS is still being weak-kneed over conservation issues. There is absolutely no reason why they should not ban the use of peat in any form at the Chelsea Flower Show. But will they? No. A spokesman for the RHS when tackled on the issue by Alan and Monty gave very unsatisfactory answers. I was a member of the RHS for many years, but I resigned over their failure to take action over the bulb trade. It is time RHS members took a firm stance over the use of peat. Geoff Hamilton, one of the most popular gardeners of the last century, was a strong advocate of peat-free gardening - and he died in 1996. How is it the RHS has not taken action nearly eight years after his death?