Friday, 28 April 2006

Worm tablets

Last weekend I was out in the first warm sunshine gathering llama dung. Now this may sound a trifle odd, but the background is this. My wife and I have about three acres of land, most of which is managed as a garden for wildlife. It is not large enough to be a proper nature reserve, and it has all been recently cultivated. There is a small spinney (with a rookery), and we have vegetable patches, a small orchard and flower gardens. But the largest part is grassland. Unimproved grassland is among the rarest habitats left in England, and consequently we are doing our best to revert two small fields back to something that approximates to an old meadow. Having mown off the nettles and thistles which had become dominant before we purchased the land, we then introduced five sheep to graze. And subsequently three llamas.

The llamas are ideal for grazing meadows as one of the problems of improved grassland is that it is nutrient rich, with grasses dominating. In order to revert to a flower rich meadow, the nutrients need to be reduced, and this is where the llamas come in. Unlike sheep, llamas are territorial, and deposit their dung in heaps, communally. This means that the dung can be removed from the field. Not only that, it is nicely pelleted, and can be put straight on the garden.

This is why I was out, last Sunday, collecting llama dung. But while I was collecting it I was aware that there were very few invertebrates crawling around in it -- just the odd earthworm. Surely there should have been maggots of dung flies? Perhaps it was too early in the year, but it did remind me of some reading I had been doing over winter concerning the use of helminthicides, and the massive impact on invertebrates. Helminthicides are used to control worm infestations in sheep and cattle, and most farmers now routinely dose their livestock. But the impact on wildlife is going largely unreported, although as far as I can make out, it could be having an impact comparable to the insecticides of the 1950s. The countryside is losing its flies and other invertebrates at an alarming rate, and because most people don't like flies, little fuss is being made. But the impact on birds and other wildlife is devastating.

Perhaps some of the campaigning groups -- such as Greenpeace and FoE could look into the problem. Much as I would like the WLT to get involved, we simply do not have the resources.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Lighting up the darkness

If governments were really interested in conserving energy they could, to misuse an old expression, kill two birds with one stone and thereby save millions of birds from being killed. How? By making local councils switch off street lighting for most of the night, and controlling the unnecessary use of artificial light. Millions of birds are disorientated by street lights, and billions of insects die beneath them. Over all our major cities there hangs an appalling orange yellow glow of light pollution. The precise amount of environmental damage caused by this pollution is extremely difficult to quantify, but it must be enormous. Of course there are places where night time lighting reduces accidents, but there are plenty of places where there is no obvious benefit of lights being on at 2am. What is the point of governments exhorting us to switch of lights and appliances to save energy, while leaving millions of watts illuminating the night sky?

Anyone who has visited the Estancia la Esperanza in Patagonia will have experienced true darkness, and witnessed the enormity of the Milky Way. To anyone living in most of the industrialised Northern Hemisphere, the enormity of outer space cannot be contemplated. Looking up into the clear Patagonian sky, the millions and millions of stars that constitute the Milky Way becomes mind boggling. Governments have it in their power to limit light pollution -- but no action seems forthcoming.

Wednesday, 12 April 2006

Professional fundraising

Within the charity sector professional fundraisers have become all important, often commanding very high salaries. After all, without funds, charities cannot exist, unless they have been established with significant endowments. For many charities, expenditure on fundraisers has now become a significant part of their budget, and fundraising is now a fully fledged industry with its own professional body, standards and everything that goes with it. However, I think that charity managers would do well to look at their expenditure on professional fund raisers and see if that money might not be spent more effectively in other ways.

I have been working in the charity sector for over 30 years, and only rarely seen professional fundraisers as a cost effective solution. I have from time to time hired professional fund raisers, but in my experience they do little that the organisation could not do itself, and do it much more effectively for lower costs.

The problem for most charities is that they do not distinguish clearly enough between marketting, PR and fundraising. If the PR is effective, and the marketting targetted, then the fundraising follows.

warfare and wildlife, and missionaries

One of the problems that biologists have is reconciling empiricism, with the world we live in, and the ethics of modern society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sphere of conflict and war. I should make my own position clear. Morally and politically I am a pacifist. However, as a naturalist, I observe animals, and man, as an animal engages in intraspecific competition, which often culminates in warfare. The disturbing thing about this is that based on all the available evidence, this is the natural state of affairs.

Long-term peace, in human populations, is abnormal, rather than normal, and has always been so. At low population densities, relative peace is usually established, depending on the obvious factors such as allocation of resources. But as soon as resources become scarce, and inequalities start to emerge, and populations grow, then warfare, be it tribal or national, starts to become the norm. This is a fact that few politicians seem to recognise, and few aid agencies accept when developing strategies. If warfare and conflict is accepted as being normal behaviour, then it becomes an absolute essential to work on the causes, if one is trying to solve the problems of the results. And this is something I see little or no evidence of aid charities ever even considering. Actually, that is not entirely right, since I did note that Oxfam do have projects relating to land rights in Africa -- probably an essential step forward for preventing environmental degradation, and also one that helps prevent conflict.

On the broader issues, while reflecting on the way relief and other forms of aid are delivered, I am increasingly of the opinion that much of the foreign aid, particularly in Africa is a 21st century form of colonialism. Imposing the values and aspirations of the northern hemisphere on the south. There seems to me to be very little difference between modern aid, and the evangelist missionaries of a century ago. Both destroy traditional cultures, both create dependency, both create markets for imported goods. Just as our grandparents felt good when they gave a few shillings to send missionaries to save their souls, too many people give a few pounds top salve their own consciences, without thinking about the long-term consequences.

I am certainly not saying I know the answers, but I do know that most of the aid does not have long term benefits. Even worse, it is often absolving governments of taking responsibility for their own shortcomings. Because, in reality, most African governments could provide far more money than Live Aid and similar charitable activies raise, if only they stopped buying arms from Britain and other rich countries, and they stopped the outflow of capital. Buying cows for African farmers, and digging more wells is a short term solution that will invariably create long term problems. Sending old clothes, creates a demand for designer labels, which in turn creates another dependency, as well as exporting capital to the northern hemisphere.

One of the problems concerning aid is that it is extremely difficult to get honest evaluations. All donor agencies, be they government, intergovernmental, or NGOs always tend to write up projects as successes. If all the millions of dollars, pounds and euros spent on aid have financed so many successful projects, how come Africa is in such a mess?