Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Pheasants, poultry and Bird Flu

Last year there was a furore in the British Press when it was discovered that pop singer Madonna was importing pheasants from France, to release for shooting on her estate on the Wiltshire/Dorset border in southern England. In addition to the 1000 pheasants imported from France, she and her husband had also imported another 31,000 from Wales. But this is nothing to the 39 million chicks of various poultry imported into Britain in 1999, or the 11 million adult birds imported in 1998 (Hansard June 2000). And, in answer to a Parliamentary Question from Roger Williams MP, in 2003, 2004, 2005 the imports were around 1 million a year from France alone(figures from Hansard March 2006). But unfortunately the UK government does not actually distinguish between 'poultry' such as pheasants and partridges which are destined for release into the countryside, and those designed for batteries and sheds. A quick check of the government website for trade statistics seems to suggest that trade statics for live poultry are currently being suppressed.

With birds being imported and deliberately released into the countryside, to me the surprise is not that Avian flu is a threat, but that there are not far more diseases in our wild birds and poultry flocks. Local livestock markets have mostly closed, and slaughterhouses have been 'rationalised'. All this means more and more animals are being shipped around the countryside. Combine that with imports, add it to the factory farm conditions many of them are kept under, plus the cocktails of antibiotics and food supplements they are fed (including ground up animal protein), and it is no wonder that we have problems with bovine TB, bird flu, BSE etc etc etc.

Time to take stock and re-evaluate.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Saving energy, and economic imperialism

I don't know who is conning who, but with all the talk about energy conservation there is a serious con' going on. There is talk of taxing aviation fuel, there are constant exhortations for us to use low energy lightbulbs, use energy efficient cars etc etc and so on. But while energy is in the hands of private business, who, we should bear in mind, have a legal responsibility to maximise profits for their shareholders, who really believes that the energy companies want us to use less? I certainly don't. Of course they all want us to use more and more. That's why they are building windfarms all over the Scottish Isles and the North Sea.

Sorry, but this is unacceptable. There is only one way of making us all conserve energy, and that is to nationalise it, and price it to ensure that the most polluting and inefficient sources cost the most. There are, of course problems with this approach of increasing price -- inevitably the poorer sections of society will be the hardest hit, but there are ways around this problem. But what is very clear to me is that the free market economy will simply encourage us all to use as much energy as it can. And if we don't use it in Britain or America, we'll simply import goods made with cheap, polluting energy from Asia.

We are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole, because we imagine (or politicians have conned us into believing) that quality of life is improved by having low taxes and all commodities as cheap as possible. The con' is that under low taxation, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer -- a gap that has widened significantly in my lifetime. Efficiency has become equated with cost. Just because it is cheaper for a council to privatise the street cleaning does not mean it is efficient. There are many ways of measuring efficiency, and in a wealthy society we should include quality of life and several other factors. It can be 'efficient' to cut down a mangrove forest if you own it, because you can make a quick profit, and then reinvest in something else. But is this efficient for the rest of the inhabitants of the region, who then get swept away by the next tsunami?

A couple of months ago I met with Pete Taylor, who worked for the WLT a few years ago, setting up the Focus on Forests website. Since then Pete has worked with Friends of the Earth, and is now working for the World Development Movement (WDM) on their website. I had a good lock at their website, and there are several parts of it which will have resonance with some of my readers -- they certainly struck a chord with me.

Unlike most of the big development agencies, WDM does not receive large amounts of its funding from DFID, or other government agencies, and consequently is able to criticise, when criticism is justified. The following following link is a fairly alarming report:

The British Government, it appears, is spending £30 million on encouraging poor countries to privatise their water companies. With predictions that the next major wars will be fought over water resources, this could be viewed as a very cynical attempt to recolonise the poorer nations. Imperial colonisation may have passed into history, but economic colonisation is alive and well -- just look at the spread of CocaCola and McDonalds. But it is scary when funding ostensibly intended as aid, is used to encourage such economic colonialism.

I confess a total dislike of the very concept of private ownership of resources such as energy and water. They should be a common heritage and managed for the benefit of the commonweal. They should not be used to line the pockets of a few investors and speculators. They are also the prime example of how when profits for the shareholders are claimed to equate with efficiency, other benefits are ignored. Which is easy to do, when you have an de facto monopoly. I have never ever really heard a convincing argument for privatising water supplies, for instance. Our local water companies have changed hands several times, but it's still the same water coming through the pipes, the only difference seems to be that different groups of shareholders have taken some of the profits that could have been used to repair the leaks in the system and help conserve water. And how energy efficient is it when French electrical engineers come all the way to East Anglia to repair cabling, because the company is owned by French shareholders? (as happened locally last month).

If governments are going to be serious about energy and natural resource conservation, they are going to have to think very seriously indeed about privatisation, because in many cases privatisation of such resources is incompatible with conservation. I recall having the basics of this explained to me in the early 1970s, when I was part of a team working of the Whale manual for Friends of the Earth. Under any competitive industry regime, it was not 'efficient' to conserve whales. It was in the interests of the investors to exterminate them as rapidly as it was compatible with profit margins, and certainly in the lifetime of equipment used to exterminate them..... but that's another story.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Where have all the birds gone? And where do pheasants come from?

The British Trust for Ornithology run a splendid website called Birdtrack, which enables observers to keep their birding records on line, and at the same time contribute to a national data base. When you are signed up to it, you also get occasional updates as to what is going on in the bird world in Britain. In the February update they mentioned that there were: over 50 Snipe (and up to eight Jack Snipe) at several locations in the Midlands . Now this is seriously scary. To think that seeing 50 snipe is worth mentioning. When I was a teenager in the 1950s, birdwatching on the sewage farms of South London, 50 snipe would have been a depressingingly low figure, and 1000 or more not exceptional. All these habitats have, of course gone.

I can only remember what birdwatching was like back to the 1950s, when it was already depauperate. Read W H Hudson and earlier writers to realise what has been lost. And now the winter habitats of our summer migrants are being trashed, so even these will decline and disappear.

While checking the DEFRA website for information on avian 'flu (a waste of time as their "interactive map" didn't work) I came across the following:

Many millions of game birds will be imported to the UK over the coming months. Most will arrive as hatching eggs or chicks, but up to 3 million birds will be imported as 8 week old pheasant poults or 18 week partridge chicks which may have been reared outdoors.

Great. So 3 million birds, with goodness knows how many diseases and parasites, will be deliberately released into the British countryside to mingle with our wildlife. And of course the pheasants will go on to peck away at any number of small snakes, lizards, newts, frogs and any other small animal they can gobble up. And the three million is only the birds. Even more eggs will be hatched and released to massacre wildlife. All so that a few people can blaze away at these half tame creatures and spray lead pellets into the countryside, where no doubt some of it will end up in the gizzards of small birds and possibly poison them.

No wonder wildlife is declining.

And that is why grabbing every single bit of natural or semi natural habitat, anywhere in the world is so important. Acre after acre, hectare after hectare are being gobbled up by 'development', by monoculture agriculture, or being cleared for grazing, or being overgrazed until it becomes desert. And while government agencies allow exotic species and 'game' birds to be released into what little wild is left, it is almost too depressing to contemplate.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Bird 'flu and turkey factories

The World Land Trust has its HQ in Halesworth, which is walking distance from the airfield at Upper Holton, where the Bernard Matthews turkey factory is situated. It does annoy me how the TV and press keep describing it as a Turkey FARM. That is an insult to farmers. The site is completely enclosed, which makes it quite outrageous how DEFRA and the media immediately started implicate wild birds. While they should not be ruled out, it seem quite incomprehensible as to why everyone jumps to the conclusion it must be wild birds. If the outbreak was in the DEFRA HQ or the Houses of Parliament there would probably me a greater liklihood of contact with wild birds, than there ever would be in the highly controlled environment of a turkey factory.

Perhaps we should be looking at the way poultry are kept. These intensive batteries, barns and so forth are hothouses for disease. And even so-called organic and 'free-range' eggs and chickens often come from 'farms' almost as intensive as batteries. Intensive animal husbandry has a lot to answer for, both in terms of animal welfare and also environmental damage. Hormones are pumped into the animals, together with a nauseous cocktail of antibiotics and other drugs, many of which end up in the environment. And, as WLT supporter Simon Barnes, of The Times, has pointed out they don't even taste good.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Climate change -- it's official

So everyone is agreed, climate change is occurring. And it's man made. It's about time these facts were recognised but the problem is that politicians are still not facing up to the real causes.

Aircraft emissions, cars and central heating are all important, but however much we in Britain and the rest of Europe reduce, it will make virtually no impact on the global situation.

The driving force behind the spiralling outputs of CO2 is the growth in human populations, and the growth in those peoples aspirations to a western-style standard of living.

And environmental campaigners are just as guilty as politicians in ignoring this very serious and obvious fact. If we don't do something about the human population, both in developing countries and in the developed, highly consumer orientated countries, the situation will continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate, until a man-made or natural disaster reverses the trend.

Pandemics, volcanic erruptions, earthquakes will take an increasing toll of human life. And bear in mind that a volcanic erruption of the scale of Tambora in the early 19th century with its follow on of lost harvests, could kill tens of millions in the 21st century.

The predictors of doom in the latter part of the 20th century, did not get it wrong, they simply got the time scale wrong. And still we are doing nothing about human population.