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Emperor_of_Exmoor_(red_stag)

“It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-84), Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson

In October 2010, reports appeared in UK newspapers proclaiming that the Emperor of Exmoor, a giant stag given his name by photographer Richard Austin, had been shot. The red deer stag is the largest indigenous mammal in the British Isles and at almost nine feet tall, and weighing 300 pounds, the Emperor was a magnificent example of its kind. The Guardian reported that he was shot and killed close to the Tiverton to Barnstaple road at the height of the mating season and quoted Peter Donnelly, an Exmoor-based deer management expert, saying it was a disgrace the animal had been shot during the mating season: “The poor things should be left alone during the rut, not harried from pillar to post. If we care about deer we should maintain a standard and stop all persecution during this important time of the year.” 

I’ve never been an absolutist on hunting. I understand the need for there to be management of herds and for vermin to be controlled. I worry, too, that so many children today have no understanding of where their food comes from. (In one recent study by the British Nutrition Foundation, 18% of primary school children thought fish fingers came from chickens.) However, I have never been able to reconcile myself to the pointless destructiveness of trophy hunting.

It’s more than a vague feeling or an intellectual opinion. It is a very physical and emotional response to the idea that man (and it is usually men, not women) has to prove himself by killing other creatures, for no other reason than the sheer hell of it. I first encountered that response as a child, reading Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, and it has remained with me ever since. To my mind, such testosterone-addled, adrenalised thrill-killing demeans us as human beings.

article-0-1C49273D00000578-824_634x449Fast forward to 15 March 2014 and in today’s Daily Mirror are two stories which reveal that our appetite for momentary glory at the expense of the animal kingdom is as great as ever it was.

First of all, poachers hunting for antlers have killed a New Forest deer known as the Monarch. According to the report, the poachers used a calibre of rifle too low to kill cleanly and instead the deer, badly wounded, drowned as it tried to swim to safety.

Spend a moment imagining the sequence of events. Spend a moment imagining the fear that magnificent creature experienced as the bullet crashed into its flesh. The pain as it tried to get away from violent intruders into its safe space, its fight-or-flight response leading it to crash towards a familiar stretch of water that had been a place of rest and refreshment for sixteen years. Think about its desolate coughing bleat as it limped towards death. And then those last, terrified gasps as it drowned, its exhausted body weakened further by blood loss.

All because greedy, vainglorious men wanted to hang its antlers on a dining room wall.

500-pound-wild-hog-3236934And then, across the Atlantic, the story repeats itself. A different country, yes, a different animal, yes, but once again actions that lead from that same ignorant bravado of inadequate men. Unlike the two deer, the protagonist has been only too happy to be associated with his ‘triumph’. A cretinous redneck who’d not be out of place in a North Carolina remake of Deliverance, Jett Webb is shown posing proudly with his ArmaLite AR-10, resting on his kill – a giant 36-stone wild boar nicknamed ‘Hogzilla’ that had become the stuff of local legend. He shot it in the Indian Woods area of Bertie County, having hid out in the woods at night, but there was no Hemmingway-esque poetic reflection on this particular kill.

Jett’s insightful comment?

“The sweet-tasting corn and a night-hunting light was too much for this oversized heap of pork chops.”

What ignorance. What pointless cruelty.

In the deaths of the Emperor, the Monarch and Hogzilla we have gained nothing and lost much. Gone are the chances for stories that make a place, that lend wonder to those exploring for the first time, the “what if…?” and the “perhaps we might…!”. Gone are the chances for a glimpse of nature’s magnificence made manifest in three animals whose unassuming majesty had the potential to induce wonder in inquisitive young minds.

And, as usual, greed will be excused as endeavour by those that celebrate and justify this pointless pursuit.

Samuel Johnson couldn’t have been more right.

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So Charlie Hague’s beautiful eco-home, which wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire, is to be bulldozed within two months on the instructions of Pembrokeshire County Council because:

“”benefits of the development did not outweigh the harm to the character and appearance of the countryside

A lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges for young people today. Local authorities are often reluctant to build or facilitate it, preferring instead to take money from developers to fund future social housing developments. In a different  place, at a different time. In a more ‘appropriate’ development. Rather than now, when people might need them.

We see this locally in Basildon with the proposals to build hundreds of “aspirational” homes on ancient pastures in Dry Street. Essentially, these will be unaffordable, luxury homes with a bare minimum of affordable provision. Neither the local council nor the developers have any interest in providing houses that local people can afford to live in. Instead, they are content to see greater and greater strain placed on local services and infrastructure by encouraging new people to move to the area.

Having been on a downward trend in the UK for years, the number of households in temporary accommodation has started to rise again. The long term impact of poor quality housing on health is well-documented. After four years of living in a damp caravan, Charlie Hague decided to act.

Charlie’s father owned a plot of land next to the pioneering Lammas Ecovillage. For around £15,000 he built a roundhouse out of straw bales, plastered with lime, and covered with a reciprocal roof (self-supporting, essentially). You can watch the story of Charlie’s house below:

I’ve served on local planning committees. The decisions are never easy. But retrospective planning permission is granted up and down the country all the time and for less considerate developments than this.

We should be looking to promote and support inventive and sustainable ways of building and living. This kind of construction should be championed as an example of how a new house can be sympathetic to its environment – not bulldozed out of existence.

Sign the petition to save Charlie and Megan’s house and please like, share and reblog to draw attention to the their plight.

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A couple of weekends ago I decided to get up early on a Saturday morning and, with Farming Today on my headphones, take a walk around the Langdon Hills Ridge.

Occasional readers of Fragments and Reflections will have seen similar pictures before. However, no matter how many times I make this particular walk, and no matter how many times I photograph the hills, fields and footpaths, it looks different every time.

Some of these reveal just how beautiful the landscape is in our neck of the woods – and how vital initiatives such as Langdon Hills Living Landscapes and the campaign to protect Dry Street are.

I finished my walk at “Hillcroft”. My parents’ garden is as fine an example of an English country garden as you can find. And I am not sure you can get much more English – and welcome – a breakfast than toast and Marmite. There is a real sense of satisfaction in walking such a distance before 9am. I heartily recommend it.

I hope you enjoy these photographs as much as I enjoyed taking them.

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Every now and then in this digital age we are sent links to videos or articles that make us stop and think about the way we live.

My friend Andy has always been a passionate environmentalist. He posted this on his Facebook.

Please watch it and share.

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I stumbled across this video on the Internet. There’s something strangely hypnotic about the way these ants work – and bearing in mind their size it seems all quite incredible.

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There is something quite bleakly beautiful about the countryside that lies against the Essex coast. The vast skies over flat scrub and grassland, the silhouettes of trees against the horizon as the sun sets, and the cold reaches of the Thames, snaking its way past Southend, Mucking and Tilbury, can conjure feelings of a romantic loneliness. It was the perfect surrounding for a New Year Day’s walk, a chance to walk and think and take in the beauty of the countryside I am lucky to live so close to.

At Mucking, the Mucking Marshes Landfill provided one of the largest landfill sites in Western Europe. Until very recently, the barges floating down the Thames, carrying London’s municipal waste in bright yellow containers, were a familiar sight. At the end of 2010, with the expiration of its extension on its waste license, Mucking Tip stopped taking waste. Now, the site has been capped and the amazing Essex Wildlife Trust has established its largest and most ambitious project yet, Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, creating a safe haven for dozens of birds and other wildlife, both common and rare. With a visitor centre providing stunning views over the Thames estuary and a café with welcome refreshments, EWT have  created something really quite special on this stretch of the Essex coastline.

Some photos from today’s excursion below.

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Life has its way of providing food for thought – sometimes more than it is reasonable to expect a person to digest. And much as a good walk can provide suitable repair after a heavy dinner, so a walk is often the best way to get one’s head around the various challenges that life throws up. Between national and local politics, happenings to friends, and other personal events, a long walk was long overdue.

I have a favoured route.

I walk along Nethermayne and past the hospital, turning into Dry Street. I head past the farm where I spent so much of my childhood, past my church and on to One Tree Hill Country Park. From there I walk through Northlands Woods, around Sutton Woods and in to Coombe Woods. Finally, I arrive back on to Dry Street, before ending up at Hillcroft for coffee.

On the way you can’t help but be moved by the beauty and serenity of the countryside. I think I have reflected previously that you could never imagine that you are just twenty-five miles from London. The sounds of traffic on the A13 is blocked out by trees and hills and fields. The sun was glorious this morning, and the sky blue. The rape fields were bright with their yellow crop. The bluebells are at their height, though they seem fewer in number than in previous years. A lack of sun, perhaps, or sustenance for the elusive muntjac deer that live in the woods?

Between Northlands and Sutton lie ancient administrative boundaries with interesting purposes and delineations. Thankfully, there are still a few people about the hills who know the stories of the past. Local social histories are fragile things and there seems less and less time for them in this increasingly busy and technologically-demanding world. With so much emphasis on the future, we often forget that there is a rich seam of learning to be had in investigating the history of the places about us.

Anyway, I thought I would share this morning’s walk in pictures.

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Small birds bounce back

31 March 2011

Over 600,000 people took part in this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, a record breaking number watching their garden birds.

And their counts revealed that some of the smaller birds that decreased in numbers last year, bounced back this year.

Sightings of goldcrests, the UK’s smallest birds, doubled, long tailed tits increased by a third and coal tits increased by a quarter.

The long, harsh winter of 2009/2010 hit birds like long-tailed tits, goldcrests and coal tits with all three species dropping significantly in last years’ Big Garden Birdwatch.

Although smaller birds can be particularly badly affected by harsh winters, a good breeding season can help reverse declines, and these new results suggest that may have been the case in 2010.

Thousands of people were also lucky enough to see waxwings.

The striking birds flood to the UK from Scandinavia every few winters and this year saw an influx, known as a ‘waxwing winter.’

Waxwings are bold birds that are comfortable feeding around our towns and cities, and over 7,000 were counted in this year’s survey, in almost 1,000 gardens.

Big Garden Birdwatch Co-ordinator Sarah Kelly says: ‘It’s fantastic that so many people stepped up for nature by taking part. We were really interested to see how the small birds fared, after such a disastrous last year. It appears that many may have had a decent breeding season and have been able to bounce back a little.

‘But we mustn’t be complacent –another hard winter could see numbers back down so it’s important everyone continues to feed their garden birds.’

RSPB Scientist Mark Eaton says: ‘We knew this was going to be a bumper year for waxwings as we’d had so many reports from all over the UK.

‘But the Big Garden Birdwatch is the first indicator of exactly how many were seen in gardens, and we’re pleased that so many people got to enjoy sightings of these beautiful birds.

‘They’d only come into gardens if the right food was available to them. They feed on berries so it shows that lots of people are planting the right things for wildlife and reaping the rewards.’

609,177 people counted 10.2 million birds

A total of 609,177 people counted over 10.2 million birds. Over 70 species were recorded in 300,780 gardens across the UK over the weekend 29-30 January.

Starlings and blackbirds have swapped positions on this year’s leader board, with starlings now at number two and blackbirds at number 3.

Starling sightings have increased by a quarter since last year, but their numbers are still down from when Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979.

The house sparrow retained its top spot for the eight year running with an average of four seen per garden, and has increased by 10 per cent.

Numbers of blue tits increased by 22 per cent and great tit numbers were up by 12 per cent.

Almost 90,000 school children and teachers took part in the schools version of the survey, ‘Big Schools’ Birdwatch.’ The UK-wide survey of wildlife in schools, which celebrated its 10th birthday this year, introduces thousands of children to the wildlife visiting their school environment.

Nearly 3,000 classes from more than 2,000 schools were involved, which was also a record-breaking number for the survey. 87% of schools taking part reported seeing blackbirds, with an average of five being seen at each school, making it the most common visitor to school grounds.

From the RSPB.

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In 1992, the United Nations designated March 22nd as the World Day for Water in Resolution 193 of the Forty-seventh Session of the General Assembly.

The World Day for Water was first proposed in Agenda 21 for the 1992 Rio Summit, the meeting that hugely raised awareness of the role of local government and local communities in tackling global environmental and climate issues.

Since 1993 the day has been observed consistently, drawing attention to the plight of the estimated one billion people plus who each year have to rely on dangerous sources of water to survive.

Having travelled a little in India and Africa,  turning on a tap and being able to drink a handful of clean, cold water is still something for which I am profoundly grateful. Whilst it is easy to take it for granted, when I think about it I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like not to have it.

A year or so ago we had a small taste of what it was like to lose our mains supply for just a few hours. The sense of worry as you wonder when you might be able to wash clothes or make drinks again is out of all proportion to the scale of a relatively small inconvenience. It does, however, cause you to pause and consider how it would be to have to walk miles a day to a potentially polluted stream and draw water you’d be uncomfortable watering the garden with.

The IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre reports the stark analysis of the World Health Organization:

Each year more than 1 billion of our fellow human beings have little choice but to resort to using potentially harmful sources of water. This perpetuates a silent humanitarian crisis that kills some 3900 children every day and thwarts progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The consequences of our collective failure to tackle this problem are the dimmed prospects for the billions of people locked in a cycle of poverty and disease.

The root of this underlying catastrophe lies in these plain, grim facts: 4 of every 10 people in the world do not have access to even a simple pit latrine and nearly 2 in 10 have no source of safe drinking-water.

Thankfully, the appalling situation is not something that the UN/WHO are prepared to see continue:

To help end this appalling state of affairs, the MDGs include a specific target (number 10) to cut in half, by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation. In addition, the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation recently recognized that integrated development and management of water resources are crucial to the success or failure of all the MDGs, as water is central to the livelihood systems of the poor.

Among the more innovative ideas for drawing water to the surface, one particularly caught my attention, marrying the desperate need for fresh water to a completely different and endless resource: the playful, optimistic energy of children.

Water for People provides a very clear explanation of how these amazing inventions work:

  • While children have fun spinning on the PlayPump merry-go-round (1), clean water is pumped (2) from underground (3) into a 2,500-liter tank (4), standing seven meters above the ground.
  • A simple tap (5) makes it easy for adults and children to draw water. Excess water is diverted from the storage tank back down into the borehole (6).
  • The water storage tank (7) provides a rare opportunity to advertise in outlaying communities. All four sides of the tank are leased as billboards, with two sides for consumer advertising and the other two sides for health and educational messages. The revenue generated by this unique model pays for pump maintenance.
  • The design of the PlayPump water system makes it highly effective, easy to operate and very economical, keeping costs and maintenance to an absolute minimum.
  • Capable of producing up to 1,400 litres of water per hour at 16 rpm from a depth of 40 meters, it is effective up to a depth of 100 meters.

Innovations such as this, which show the application of creative, lateral thinking, create a real hope that the challenge of providing clean water can be met. Days such as the World Day for Water play a crucial part in alerting all of us to the need to act sooner – not later.

The video below, again from Water for People, is quite uplifting.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Finally, by way of a footnote, I clearly should have written this yesterday – but being tired after a long day I didn’t. So my apologies for lateness (something I seem to do far too often).

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“The Members of Essex County Council are very concerned that the Government is only undertaking a very limited public consultation on Bradwell being a suitable site for a replacement Nuclear Power Station. Members call upon the Government to widen this consultation across Essex so that all our residents have the opportunity to make their voices heard on this very important issue.”

This was the motion put forward by Essex Liberal Democrats at the meeting of Essex County Council on 15th December.

It looks pretty measured doesn’t it? It doesn’t indulge in party-political posturing. It doesn’t even pompously declare that “Liberal Democrats are very concerned” but uses the neutral “Members of Essex County Council are very concerned”. It doesn’t require the spending of large sums of taxpayers’ money or force the County Council to do something (heaven forfend!). It simply requests that the Government – the Labour Government – extend its very narrow consultation on a potential new nuclear power station at Bradwell to the rest of Essex (the existing Bradwell nuclear power station was decommissioned on 28 March 2002). The motion doesn’t put pro-nuclear supporters in a difficult position by offering an opinion as to whether nuclear power is a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, it simply makes the point that on an issue this big the whole of Essex should be consulted.

As motions go, particularly those designed to attract support from across the political spectrum, it’s pretty darn good. So more on the motion in just a moment.

First, it’s worth taking a moment to examine quite how appalling the consultation referred to is. Or rather – was. I think. To be honest, it isn’t so clear. On 9 December, the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) issued a press release entitled “What does new nuclear mean for Essex?” It boasts:

“Residents of Essex are this weekend being asked to have their say on proposals to a build a new nuclear power station in the area……The announcement on new nuclear sites was made as part of a planning overhaul for big energy projects and ten potential new sites for nuclear energy were named in the draft Nuclear National Policy Statement. These sites are Bradwell, Braystones, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Kirksanton, Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa. Bradwell was nominated by EDF, who are currently seeking to sell the site to a credible nuclear operator.

Following the nomination of the sites the Department of Energy and Climate Change is conducting a 15 week consultation to hear people’s views about the proposals.

The new Infrastructure Planning Commission will use the National Policy Statement when considering planning applications for new nuclear power stations. This consultation is an opportunity for local people to influence what the IPC should take into account when considering whether to grant consent or not.”

It looks promising. There is a fifteen week consultation. There is an opportunity for local people to influence what should be taken into account when considering whether to grant consent or not. In fact, the press release begins by saying “Residents of Essex are this weekend being asked to have their say on proposals to a build a new nuclear power station in the area”.

  • On Wednesday 9 December DECC issues its press release including consultation details.
  • On Thursday 10 December there is an exhibition in West Mersea.
  • On Friday 11 December there is an exhibition in Maldon.
  • On Saturday 12 December there is an exhibition in Bradwell-on-Sea.
  • And there were two “two public discussion events” – but no details were provided in the release. (They clearly weren’t intended for non-locals who I assume – hope – were at least leafleted.)

And… Er… That’s it.

Residents of Essex, eh?

Even though DECC describe the site in their press release as “near Chelmsford” there isn’t a consultation in Chelmsford. Despite it being a fifteen week consultation, Essex gets five highly localised events in the three days immediately after the press release going out. I may be atypical of your average Essex resident, but even despite my political interests, I don’t keep tend to keep track of Government department press releases day by day.

Good luck to those of you who do and managed to get there.

According to the website of West Mersea Council, West Mersea has a population of 6,925 people. According to the website of Maldon District CouncilMaldon has a population of approximately 60,700. The website of Bradwell Parish Council doesn’t provide any information on population – but Wikipedia lists the population as 877. According to the website of Essex County Council, the population of Essex is 1,396,400 (excluding Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea – though in the event of disaster, I am not convinced fallout is as discriminating as the Boundary Commission).

Of course the residents of those places should be consulted. However the Labour Government (DECC) and the Infrastructure Planning Commission think that consulting 0.05% (I am rounding up here) of the population of Essex is somehow giving residents of Essex the chance to have their say. As for the time given over to consultation, the DECC press release highlights a paltry three specified days in a fifteen week consultation.

It is nothing short of outrageous – a complete scandal in a 21st century liberal democracy.

And you would think that the Conservative Party, a national party of opposition, that controls the County Council, would want to stick up for the right of local people to be heard, regardless of its own policies on nuclear power.

Back to the motion…

Did the Conservatives support the Liberal Democrat motion?

Not a chance. The Tories voted against. They opposed the extension of the consultation to the rest of Essex and, by doing so, have effectively said our views don’t matter.

Essex County Council doesn’t record how people vote as a matter of course. Why should they – after all, you are not interested in what your elected representatives are doing, are you? Therefore, finding out which way your local representatives voted looks like being a case of emailing them directly.

You can find your way to the contact details for Essex County Councillors here. For those readers in Basildon, the following Conservative councillors may well have voted to prevent you having more information:

I have emailed each of them to ask if they were there on 15 December and, if they were, how they voted. If they opposed the motion, I have asked why they don’t believe the Government should consult the people in Basildon that they are elected to represent.

You might want to do the same.

I would be interested to know the reasons people vote as they do – so please add a comment to this blog piece!

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