Environment and Ecology


These days I often get e-mails from PR people either offering to write something for my blog about a product they are wanting to push, or wanting me to write something about a product they are wanting to push. Generally these message are of no interest to me and show that the person sending them hasn’t taken the time to read anything I have written or find out what my blog is about. These e-mails are simply deleted. However, yesterday I received an e-mail from Emmy who had taken the time to read some of posts I have written, understood some of my interests, and sent me a pitch on behalf of her client Grow Wild, a campaign from Kew Gardens, in which she to invited me to take part in the Grow Wild Scottish Vote.

Grow Wild, is a campaign bringing people together to do something positive for the place they live by sowing native wild flowers. Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, it offers four local communities across the UK (one in each of the home nations), the opportunity to create and inspirational space by encouraging wild plants. There is more to this that just sowing a few packets of wild flower seed, it is based on enthusiastic community members who’d actively rallied local people to decide what their community should do with the Grow Wild funding. Youth groups, community associations and residents groups, artists, high school design students, and landscape architects have all worked to pull together to create some really inspirational plans.

Hopefully it won’t just be the horticulturists from Kew who will be supporting the winning communities, but they get the scientists involved too and teach the communities about the ecology of their local environments. I won’t tell you which community group I voted for, but encourage you to make your own decision, and please do vote. Voting runs from 14th October until midnight on 3rd November. The winning Scottish Grow Wild site will be announced in mid-November and will open in May next year.

The three short listed Scottish sites are:

If you would like to vote, you can do so using the widget below –

If this widget isn’t working then follow the link here.

Hopefully there will be another round and maybe an Edinburgh based community group will be in the running for a £100,000 Grow Wild transformation.

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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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