Environment and Ecology


Der Kaiserstuhl, literally the Emperor’s Chair, a range of hills in south west Germany, is the remains of an extinct volcano rising out of the Upper Rhine Plain like an island, and a fine place to go for a walk. The place got its name from Otto III who held a court nearby in 994. At this time he was merely King of Germany and the hills were given the name Königsstuhl, the King’s Chair. Some time after Otto had himself made ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in 996, the name was changed to Kaiserstuhl, although it is not clear if this happened before his death in 1002 (the change in name may not have occurred until the 13th century).

Walking up the Kaiserstuhl

Late summer shadows on the Kaiserstuhl

The hills today are a fascinating mix of vineyards, woodland and high hay meadows, with a near Mediterranean climate. This leads to it having an interesting flora and fauna, a number of the species living here have disjunct distributions, meaning that they are away from their normal areas. One such species is the European green lizard (Lacerta viridis) which normally only found east of the Alps, sadly we didn’t get to see any. The Kaiserstuhl is also famous for its orchid flora with over 30 different species having been recorded there. However, as we were visiting in September, we didn’t see any of these either. We did get to see a range of invertebrates, including Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) for which the Kaiserstuhl is well known, and a range of other bugs and butterflies.

Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)

Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)
Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)

Streifenwanze or Minstrel Bug (Graphosoma lineatum) on the Kaiserstuhl
Streifenwanze or Minstrel Bug (Graphosoma lineatum)

Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus coridon) on the Kaiserstuhl
Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus coridon)

Knappe (Lygaeus saxatilis)
Knappe (Lygaeus saxatilis)

Berger's Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis)
Berger’s Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis)

Euplagia quadripunctaria
Russischer Bär or Jersey Tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

There where also a number of snails (as yet unidentified) hanging from grass stalks, I am told they do this to avoid the midday heat.

Snail on grass

Snail on grass

shades of autumn

The floral highlight we did come across was Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale).
Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) on the Kaiserstuhl

After the hay cut

Given that this is a wine producing area, after the walk you might suppose that we repaired to a hostelry to sample the local produce, but we didn’t. I once asked a German friend (who harks from the Mosel region) and who is something of a connoisseur to recommend a good German wine. His reply was that there was no such thing and that I should stick with French, Italian and Austrian wines, advice I have followed since (when in Germany). So instead we adjourned to sample the café culture of Freiburg, a visit I touched on in the last post, but I feel that is for yet another post.

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The UK Government has recently announced a ban of the import ash saplings (Fraxinus excelsior) due to the spread of the Chalara fraxinea fungus, AKA ash dieback. This has been a disaster waiting to happen and one that could be avoided. Although the ban has just been announced there widespread reports infection across the UK (including Scotland), this is not an isolated windborne infection, which the Sectary of Sate for the Environment Owen Paterson MP, is currently claiming that it is.

The government’s own scientific advisors have repeatedly given warnings that there are an increasing number plant pathogens entering the country, such as C. fraxinea, Phytophthora ramorum, P. lateralis, P. cinnamomi and P. kernoviae. They have also been telling the Government that there is a need to increase biosecurity in the horticultural trade (plant nurseries and garden centres). However, the Government has refused to take notice of these warnings, saying that putting regulations in place which required the horticultural trade to improve biosecurity would be an increase “red tape” and this would be “bad for the economy”. Really? The scientist who investigated the Phytophthora Spp. outbreak which caused over £2m of damage to Balloch Country Park, were told they are not allowed to name the Garden Centre (which borders the park) which is the most likely source of the infection. On the grounds of commercial confidentiality. No action been taken against the Garden Centre, nor can any claim for compensation be made due to the gagging order on the plant pathologist who investigated the outbreak. How exactly has this helped the economy?

Nor is the UK Government particularly keen coming clean on the cost of felling and destroying all the Larch (mostly Larix kaempferi) in the South West of England, to control an out break of P. ramorum. Should P. ramorum spread into Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), which is a possibility, this would devastate the British forestry industry, worth over £7.2 billion a year.

This is not all, the UK Government has a track record of opposing any form of environment protection at the European level as well. So it is rather rich for them to suggest that the current problem is the fault of EU for allowing international trade, without appropriate controls and biosecurity measure. The problem of imported plant pathogens is not new, Dutch Elm Disease was c. 1967 from North America. In spite of its name Dutch Elm Disease does not come from the Netherlands, it gets it name because the fungus that causes it and the way it spread by beetles were first discovered by two Dutch scientists (Bea Schwarz and Christine Buisman) in 1921. It is thought to originate from Asia, possible in the Himalayas, but no one really knows.

What we do know is that the movement of plants and living plant material is increasingly being moved around the globe. At the same time the number of plant pathologist being trained and employed in Britain is in sharp decline. At a time when we are seeing an increasing threat to our forests, it is galling to find that the UK government is cutting almost 30% of jobs at Forest Research. This is merely symptomatic of this Governments attitude to science, particularly environmental science which it sees as an inconvenience. Well Minster the truth can be very inconvenient and the cost of dealing with environmental damage is massively greater than protecting the environmental.

For the record, the author of this post is a plant ecologist who has, in the past, worked on forest biodiversity.

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Having made suggestions as to how to include active travel in party manifestos (here and here) and the Scottish Budget coming up, I though it time to write to my MSPs about this issue. So I sent this message to them via WriteToThem.

Dear Sarah Boyack, Neil Findlay, Margo MacDonald, Alison Johnstone, Kezia Dugdale, David McLetchie, Gavin Brown, and Marco Biagi,

As you know, I am keen to see an increase in Active Travel, so welcomed the recent announcement of an additional £6m to be spent on encouraging cycling. Although I was rather disappointed to hear that it was to be spread over two years and that £500,000 will be wasted on the “Give me space” campaign (Where is the research that this sort of campaign produces any long term benefit? Surely policy should be based on sound evidence?). The small increase in funding is a long way short of the level of funding needed to achieve the CAPS target of 10% of all journeys by 2020. In order to reach this target, spending needs to be at least £25 per head of population, which is rather more than the 50p per head which has just been announced.

The problem with this approach is that nowhere enough is being put into actually making the roads safe for people to cycle. The economic and social benefits of increasing levels of Active Travel are well known. When the economic analysis of the English Cycling Demonstration Towns was carried out, it was found that the overall benefit-cost ratio was 19:1 (with the bulk of the benefit coming from health improvements). This is significantly greater than any of the high-cost road projects which the Scottish Government is currently investing. It is in contrast to the claims that “We are using every possible opportunity to support economic recovery, create growth and maximise the effect of every pound spent”. If this were the case, the Scottish Government should be putting far more into active, sustainable travel and cutting back on the vanity projects.

There are claims that it takes years for the health benefits to be seen, but these clams are not supported by the medical literature. There are an increasing number of papers which show that when sedentary, often over weight patients are encouraged to take regular exercise their health shows improvements within weeks. Like wise with air pollution, there is plenty of evidence to show that reducing motor vehicle traffic dramatically improves air quality and this impacts on people health. Recent studies from China have shown that the improvements to air quality prior to and during the Beijing Olympics, there was an clear improvement in the health of people living in Beijing. That this declined again after the Olympics ended as air quality declined following the restrictions on emissions.

Scotland currently has one of the worst health records in Europe, twenty years ago this place was taken by Finland. Now Finland has a good health record with some of the healthiest citizens in Europe, they made the change by encouraging people to eat healthily and take regular exercise. Currently 10% of all journeys in Finland are made by bicycle, they improved the health of the nation by encouraging healthy eating and regular exercise. Active Travel is an important part of the mix in encouraging regular exercise, it makes it easy and also make life more pleasant for everyone. At a time when resources are being squeezed, it is better that money is spent to benefit the greatest number of people. Improving infrastructure to make Active Travel safe, easy and convenient, can improve the health of the whole nation. Whereas spending billions of pounds to reduce the journey time between Perth and Inverness by 12 minutes is a waste of money.

Please ask the Finance and Transport Minsters to support Active Travel and stop wasting money on nonsensical road schemes which offer very low social and economic returns.

Yours sincerely,

Kim Harding

 

The reply I have received so far are given below in the order in which they were received. The first was from Neil Findlay (Lab):

Thanks Kim, I too believe that active travel is better than spending money on Tarmac and road building and will speak to colleagues about this in the run up to the budget.

 

Next was Alison Johnstone (Green):

Dear Kim

Thank you very much for getting in touch on this important issue. As we work closely together, you know that the Scottish Green MSPs have consistently called for substantially increased spending on public transport and active travel within the Scottish Government’s transport budget and the levels announced are, indeed, far below what we need. I believe the Government’s spending priorities are wrong, by prioritising an absurdly expensive second road bridge across the Firth of Forth ahead of other areas, such as active travel, that would be far healthier for people, better for the environment, and reduce costs and congestion.

Our most recent manifesto included a commitment to target 10% of the transport budget towards active travel. It is vitally important to ensure that those who wish to cycle are encouraged to do so and the provision of new and maintenance of existing cycle lanes will help progress this aim. Safe streets with well-maintained pavements are required if we wish to see an increase in those walking to work and education. Street furniture should be streamlined and safer routes to school should be in operation across the school estate.

I have, and will continue to do all I can to challenge the Government, so that money within Scotland’s budget flows in a direction that improves people’s health, livelihoods and our environment. To this end, as you know, I have spoken about active travel, public transport and infrastructure within a number of Parliamentary debates. I hope that our new-ish Cross Party Group on Cycling can act as a focus for these messages to the Government.

Please be assured of my continued support on this matter.

Yours sincerely

Alison

 

So far Sarah Boyack’s (Lab) staff have acknowledged my letter twice, but Sarah herself has yet to reply, which is unusual and has now sent a pdf rely.

The most recent reply has been from Marco Biagi (SNP)

Dear Mr Harding,

Thank you again for raising this issue, and there is indeed much in your email that I agree with. As you know I was involved in the parliamentary side of securing the first additional £13m and indeed also this further £6m. I spoke on Thursday in Perth [at the SNP party conference] to many of my colleagues about the importance of creating foot-friendly cities both in terms of walking and cycling, and I will continue to work in Parliament toward that end also. I do believe the necessary framework is now in place, provided local authorities seek to show leadership. I think we can also both agree that neither of us would object to increased resourcing of the plan as set out.

Yours
Marco Biagi

 

I will add further replies as I receive them.

 

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Some people think that active travel and sustainable transport is all about live with a hair shirt and making things hard for your self, but it is not, it is about getting the right mix as this wee video shows.

We need to move from a car dominated transport policy to one where people are given a sensible choice of sustainable transport modes, for the good of everyone.

 

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Following from the tremendous success of cycling in the Olympic games (and the Tour de France) we started to dream of a Golden Legacy. People started to report that drivers were treating them with a modicum of respect when they were riding bicycles on the roads. There was hope in the air!

However, just a few months on, things are starting to revert, a small number of columnists in the print media have started to berate people for daring to ride bicycles as transport. Maybe we could blame this on Mark, who wrote a guide for columnists on how to write a terrible article about bicycles (something Tony Parsons seems to have taken rather literally). But no, the trend had started here in Scotland before Mark wrote his guide, as can be shown by Helen Martin writing in the Scotsman recently.

So I thought maybe it was time that this piece was examined in a little more depth. Let’s start with the headline:

Helen Martin: Invest in ‘active travel’ but make cyclists liable

which begs the question make cyclists liable for what exactly?

Well, she doesn’t tell us that at the start, therefore we need to work our way through the full article before getting to the punchline. She starts by telling us that she admires cyclists, while admitting to being chronically unfit. Next, she says that she doesn’t object to public money being invested in Active Travel, even if she doesn’t fully understand what it is. Public transport also involves an active element, as it doesn’t transport one from door to door, you are required to walk (or even cycle) at least a part of the way. Using cars and taxis is much more like “passive travel”, as the users will avoid walking at all cost, even if this involves parking on pavements or in other places which causes inconvenience or even hazard to others.

As a driver, Ms Martin then tells us that cyclists have made her a better driver, as they have taught her to use her mirrors. Well, speaking as an ex-driving instructor, I would hope that she had been taught to use her mirrors when she was learning to drive, as it is one of the basic skills which are tested during the driving test. Sadly, many drivers fail to understand that all the skills they are taught test are for use in everyday driving, all too often I have heard people saying “you only learn that for your driving test”. Besides which, all drivers are legally obliged to drive with due care and attention, failure to do so can put 3-9 penalty points on your licence (not that this seems to make that much difference). Maybe Ms Martin is also unaware that she is legally obliged to drive with reasonable consideration for other road users (again, failure to do so can result in 3-9 penalty points), she certainly seems to begrudge having to do so. She claims that “no driver wants to cause them harm or sets out to make their two-wheeled journey more treacherous than it need be”. Again sadly this is not the case: over the last few years in Edinburgh there have been a number of court cases where drivers have been prosecuted for deliberately endangering cyclists. Most, if not all, of these cases have been covered by the newspaper which Ms Martin is writing for. One of these cases involved a driver who “nudged a cyclist” as “a joke”, the driver in his defence claimed that he did not think this would seriously harm the cyclist. The cyclist suffered a broken hip. Now I am in no way suggesting that Ms Martin would drive this way herself, merely pointing out that these things do actually happen. Fortunately, such malicious behaviour is rare, however motor vehicles are inherently dangerous (which is why society only allows people to drive under licence). As a result, an inattentive driver is just as dangerous to other road users as a malicious one, for a cyclist or a pedestrian being hit by a car travelling at a speed of 35 mph, their chance of living is only 50%! Just think about how many drivers actually keep to the 30 mph speed limit, surveys have shown that the majority of drivers admit to exceeding it some or all of the time. The result of this inattentive and illegal behaviour results in, quite literally, thousands of innocent people being killed or seriously injured. Given these facts and that cyclists are required to ride on the roads to get from A to B, is it any wonder that they can be rather defensive when criticised by lazy journalists?

Next Ms Martin moves on to helmets, where she asserts that she “heard the generally accepted wisdom of cyclists wearing helmets being pooh-poohed by a lobbyist on radio”. Humm, I wonder who that could have been, I think I might well know. More importantly, where is the evidence to support this “generally accepted wisdom” on cyclists wearing helmets? For anyone who cares to check their facts, they will quickly find that it is rather less convincing that is widely supposed. Probably because the people most enthusiastic about the idea of cyclists wearing helmets are not the cyclists themselves, but drivers who don’t cycle (mostly because they think it is too dangerous). The reason they are so keen that those riding bicycles should wear helmets, is their belief that, should they “accidentally” hit a cyclist, they hope that a piece of polystyrene might in some way save the cyclist’s life. Sadly the evidence for this simply does not stack up.

Finally we reach the part about Liability, she starts by accepting that cyclists are vulnerable on the road and that most accidents will be caused by motorists, so far so good. Then we have “it is another thing entirely to say that cyclists cause absolutely no accidents”. Well yes, there is a small number of collisions each year where cyclists hit pedestrians or other cyclists, I would not deny that this happens. Next we have this:

What happens when they do [when they hit pedestrians or other cyclists]? Does the driver’s insurance pay out for his own injury or death as well as the cyclist’s? Who pays out when a cyclist collides with a pedestrian causing injury?

Now, at this point I would have expected some attempt at answering these questions, but no, instead Ms Martin starts to talk about “road tax” (for what it’s worth my views on Liability are here). She ignores the inconvenient fact that road tax was actually abolished in 1936 by Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the grounds that it was giving motorists what he regarded a dangerously inflated sense of ownership of the public road. Boy, was Churchill right on that one, 76 years later this delusion still persists, with many drivers not understanding that owning a car doesn’t give them a greater right of access to the public road. Indeed there is no right to drive a motor vehicle, it is a privilege granted under licence. But, I digress, as this is one area where Ms Martin does seem to has done a little research, as she states “We know road tax doesn’t actually pay for roads though it’s not always easy to figure out where it goes and what it funds”.

Well Ms Martin, for your information, Vehicle Exercise Duty (VED) is a tax on pollution, based on the level of CO2 emissions. Vehicles which produce emissions of less than 100 CO2 g/km are exempt from VED. This means that the bicycle is in effect a zero rated vehicle, although it is not required to carry a tax disk. It has been calculated that if every bicycle in the UK using the road were to be issued with a tax disc, the cost of administration would add £20 to the bill for every vehicle producing emissions of over 100 CO2 g/km. It should be noted that this estimate is a few years old, pre-dating the current increase in on-road cycling, so the cost would probably be greater now. Strangely, when this is pointed out, most motorists suddenly want to change the subject. OK, lets deal with where motoring taxes go to. It is simple, they are paid into Government funds where they are used to pay for all those things the State does. If you are one of those people who thinks that the State shouldn’t raise taxes or spend them on infrastructure and services, might I suggest that you try visiting somewhere these thing don’t happen, Somalia springs to mind.

Having stated that she doesn’t understand how the roads are paid for, Ms Martin then goes on to say that, as motor vehicles pay this mythical “road tax”, cyclists should stay out of their way, and use the “whole swathes of our roads [that] are marked for cycles only”. This begs another question, where is this cycling paradise? There are a small number of advisory cycle lanes across Scotland, most of which are badly designed and often used for car parking. There almost no statutory cycle lanes in Scotland (if you disregard a few hundred meters in Glasgow, where the total length is less than 1Km). She further suggest that cyclists don’t pay for any of the cycle facilities provided, effectively saying that if you are a cyclist you don’t pay tax. Why doesn’t my accountant know about this?

Ms Martin tells us that roads are “car lanes” (see, Churchill was right!) and that cyclists using the roads “is extremely dangerous behaviour that poses a threat to themselves and drivers”. Hang on a minute, cyclists using the road pose a threat to drivers? I know of no record of a driver ever being killed or seriously injured due to a collision caused by a cyclist. Yet there are thousands of cyclists killed or seriously injured every year by drivers (the same goes for pedestrians). Earlier in the article did correctly state that most accidents collisions are caused by motorists, so which way is it?

This is followed by what I can only describe as a rant, in which Ms Martin complains about “Lycra-clad and helmeted” cyclists behaving like drivers. It is interesting that this group is singled out. One of the reasons that drivers pose such a threat to other road users is their relative lack of vulnerability. It is also a known factor that helmet wearing cyclists are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, a phenomenon called risk compensation, and is often cited as a reason why promoting the wearing of cycle helmets can actually be counterproductive. Another point I would like to make is that an individual’s choice of transport doesn’t make them a better or worse person, a reckless moron is a reckless moron, regardless of whether they are driving a car or riding a bicycle. The only difference is the scale of the risk they pose to others. Reckless, stupid, selfish behaviour should be condemned for what it is, irrespective of the mode of transport of the person concerned.

In conclusion, if you are going to write an article saying that “everyone has responsibilities and it would be nice to know what responsibilities cyclists should display as their part of the bargain.” You should first remove the mote from your own eye, before offering to wipe the speck from the eye of another.

Active Travel has a great deal to offer to the City of Edinburgh, but it is not helped by this hypocritical bilge masquerading as a reasoned argument published in the Scotsman.

 

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