Kindling 2016

Another year, another Wood Festival – and another tent filled with the thoughts and passions of amazing people. My little empire, a small geodesic dome, has become one of my favourite places. I get to invite people to speak on subjects that interest them – and the results, well, while it is not as carefully crafted as a TED talk, can be rather special.

I won’t go through everyone – but here are some of the highlights.

George Monbiot – I have been wanting to get him here for three years now – so glad he came and spoke on the theme of rewilding – he opened proceedings, thus setting an impossibly high marker for following acts in terms of eloquence and audience …

George Monbiot

George Roberts stepped into the breach when I found that my second speaker was unable to appear (while my first was on stage) – thank you George for poems that continue to startle and sparkle.

George Roberts

Merryl Gelling was given the chance to talk about Oxfordshire’s mammals (she is chair of the Oxon Mammal Group of which I am the world’s least attentive member) – she was assisted in her presentation by her very own small mammal … who sort of stole the show! Lovely to hear about otters making their way back into Oxford – and one being seen right by the Hinksey swimming pool!

Merry Gelling

Great to have news of the update of the success of the Oxford City Farm in getting planning permission from Lucie Mayer – she has been and talked each year about their plans – now it is really happening.

I had booked in Tom Burnett on a recommendation but had not followed up what he planned to talk about very well – so I thought it was about playing football in Palestine … which it was, sort of … but it was also about the plight of Palestinians who are finding themselves subject to a brutal regime. He went out with the Bristol-based social club – the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls. As he pointed out, yes, there are some idiots who shout about wiping Israel off the face of the earth, but for the majority of Palestinians, there is a desire for peace – painting them all with the same brush is like assuming all Americans are represented by Donald Trump.

Easton Cowboys

Saturday night is always tricky at Wood – working hard all day means I feel I have earned a pint … but I have to work hard the next day too – and in this instance also had to get up at 0630 to ensure my son was bathed and smart for choir duty … which was always going to be a challenge.

Tiger facepaint

However, I managed it while having fun too – highlight of the night – Xogara.

Xogara

Sunday – bleary Sunday – came with a shock of sun. When you run a tent like Kindling the rain can be your friend, driving people in for cover … damn you sun … but still there was a demand – for Richard’s didgeridoos!

didgeridoos

I was very disappointed that the entire field of the festival did not descend to see Stevyn Colgan – he is one of the QI elves – witty and with a voracious need to know things, he was wonderful. Buy his book! He is as close as I am ever likely to get to Douglas Adams or Stephen Fry …

Steven Colgan

Following on was Charles Foster – his latest book, Being a Beast, is magical – eccentric and transcendent nature writing (I think I said something like that for the book cover) – how does it feel to be another animal? Not an easy task to accomplish – and I will be finding out more from him when we share a stage for the Oxford Festival of Nature on the 8th June.

Charles Foster

How to become a climate rebel was the mission of a quartet of mischief – Danny Chivers, Sheila Manon, Phil Ball and Richard Howlett … tales of derring-do from blocking Heathrow runways to months in a Russia prison – but what is the best way to tackle this global issue? They were brilliant, challenging and entertaining.

climate rebels climate rebels 2

Somewhere along the way I talked about hedgehogs – I packed up my tent on Monday lunchtime – it is now Wednesday afternoon and I am still shattered. The Kindling tent makes me equally happy and tired! So, who will be on stage next year? Will Robin, Megan, Claire and Joe Bennett let me back in? Leave a message if you have a story to tell.

Badgers and hedgehogs – again ….

hedgehog picture

Tuesday night was interesting. I had been invited to talk to a public meeting organised by Devon and Cornwall Against the Badger Cull – about hedgehogs.

I was, to be honest, apprehensive. I know that some badger lovers can be quite defensive about their beasts. And while I have been very clear – in The Beauty in the Beast – of my love for brock (nearly got a tattoo of one) – I have also had to contradict many badger-fans who think that they would never eat a hedgehog.

My companions on the panel were Dr Chris Cheeseman (ecologist and expert on bTB) and Dr Mark Jones (vet working with the Born Free Foundation). I was to speak last – following their detailed look at the failings in the management of this disease – and deal with a question that is thrust at campaigners many times – ‘what about the badgers eating all the hedgehogs?’

One of the reasons that this annoys me is that it is clearly nothing to do with the badger cull. A cull that was set up to protect wildlife would need an entirely different research base on which to justify it. The call to protect hedgehogs is often coming from people who have only recently discovered how much they love them (because they can be used to beat up badgers) – it is a deeply cynical move.

The cull is supposed to be helping control the spread of bovine tuberculosis from badgers to cattle. From the words of both Chris and Mark it is clearly doing nothing of the sort. The highly respected and extremely detailed Randomised Badger Control Trial showed how, with an exacting set of protocols, it was possible to gain a 12-16% reduction in the incidence of bTB in cattle over 9 years (5 years of culling, 4 years of extra surveying) if badgers were killed at a rate of 70% in the clearly identified zone.

animals_only copy - Version 12

Culling in a different way will produce different results and the scientists are sure that what is happening now will generate far less in the way of benefit to farmers and cattle. In fact it is quite possible, probable even, that the current action will be making matters worse as the perturbation effect will cause infected animals to move far greater distances.

The evidence is clear, the cull, as it is being done now, will not benefit farmers or cattle. Yet despite the case being put with thoroughness, the farmers in the room would not hear it … despite seeming to acknowledge many of the most important facts.

Two things were clarified for me during this discussion. First – the only way to survive the extremely hard work of farming is to be bloody stubborn – to be as obstinate as the most recalcitrant bull. Farmers tend to be friends with farmers, so the stubbornness rarely gets challenged. The conservative view of the world this engenders does not react well to outsiders coming in and trying to change how things are done. Therefore it is up to us, critics of the cull and elements of industrial agriculture, to find better ways of communicating.

The second point I realised is that when we get hung-up and defensive about the messiness of ecology we quickly lose focus. Yes – badgers do have a population level impact on hedgehogs. But the cull has NOTHING to do with hedgehogs – the cull, in its current form, is nothing more than a carrot being offered to the farming community.

If we want to see more hedgehogs in this country there are ways we can make it happen without resorting to the gun. For example, where there is Higher Level Stewardship of the land (part of the Agri-Environment Scheme), there are more hedgehogs. The more of this ecologically aware farming that goes on, the more food there is in the environment for both badgers and hedgehogs and the greater complexity there is in the landscape.

Lets not scapegoat the badger for our own failings – and remember, it is ours – we are the people (apart from my vegan friends) who demand cheap food and are unwilling to pay the real price at the till. If we don’t pay a decent price for our food there will be payment taken from the environment – and if we don’t want that, we need to change the way we shop.

 

Breaking news …

I think you are not allowed to release new polling data on the day of an election, but as you will probably know, hedgehogs are notoriously slow at responding. So it is only now that the results are in and I can reveal the startling news that ….. hedgehogs around the country are near unanimous in voting Green.

There was a time when many hedgehogs were seduced by the silvery words of David Cameron – he promised the ‘greenest government ever’. But then he imposed the arch-enemy of the natural world, Owen Paterson, as Environment boss … for a short while hedgehogs thought this was some sort of elaborate joke – about like Donald Trump running for the Whitehouse … until the truth emerged and ‘all that green crap’ started to be dismantled.

As George Monbiot said: “The final shred of credibility of “the greenest government ever” has been doused in petrol and ignited with a casual flick of a gold-plated lighter. The appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary, is a declaration of war on the environment, and another sign that the right of the party – fiercely opposed to anything that prevents business from doing as it wishes – has won.”

There was a time when hedgehogs were tempted by the moderate words of Nick Clegg – he seemed so reasonable on all the key issues – friends to everyone. Whatever happened to him?

A few generations ago I met some hedgehogs who were partial to new Labour – Tony Blair, bright-eyed and evangelical was seducing some of the suburban hedgehogs into thinking that he might present a solution to the massive housing shortage that has followed rapacious industrialisation of agriculture. But he turned out to be just like all the others too.

Clearly there are some hedgehogs who are rather insular in their outlook – who do not take kindly to incomers (all those African Pygmy Hedgehogs, coming over here and clogging up the internet with cute buck teeth, or setting up cafes). And for them the easy lure of the fascist had, for a short while, the potential to swing a few votes. But even hedgehogs are not stupid enough to vote for UKIP.

And that leaves, for hedgehogs in England at least, only one option – it has to be the Green Party. They are the only political party to have a deep understanding of what underpins everything we do – and that is not the economy. It is the ecology on which the economy rides. As the ecological economist Herman Daly said:

“Once you sit down and draw a little picture of the economy as a subset of the larger ecosystem, then you’re halfway home as far as ecological economics is concerned. That’s why people resist doing that,” he says. “That means you would have to say well, there are limits, we’re not going to be able to grow forever. That means the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system. That means you don’t grow beyond the optimum. How do we stop growing? What do we do? These are very threatening questions.”

Without this rudimentary understanding of the way the world works, no political party can be trusted with power. So – if you can – get out there and vote Green – it is what the hedgehogs would want!

 

 

Ecological disrespect

The disrespect given by the news to matters ecological was made even clearer to me just now. I had a call in from BBC Radio 4 World at One – they wanted me to present a one minute guide to why Hedgehog Awareness Week was important and give examples of what we could do. They stressed that they wanted it to be humorous.

Sounds like my kind of challenge, so I said yes and pointed out that if I could manage to get John Humphreys laughing on the Today programme (yesterday) I am sure I could give them what I wanted.

Oh dear … the producer had to go away and talk to her editor because they can’t use someone who has been on the Today programme so recently.

She called back – and it was all off … despite the fact that I talked yesterday about the impact that HS2 was going to have on the hedgehogs of Regent’s Park … not about how and why we should make our garden’s hedgehog friendly.

Now imagine this was a story about economics – about banks and money? Or even about politics? I listen to Radio 4 a great deal and the same voices come on repeatedly talking about these topics. What is so different about hedgehogs?

Some years back I tried pitching something about hedgehogs to Radio 4 – ‘we’ve already done something about hedgehogs this year’ was the response.

And this does not have to be hedgehogs – but all issues ecological seem to be considered ‘light’ – not serious news. Only when there is a real economic impact – flooding and just possibly climate change now – is there scant attention paid.

I have said it before and am happy to repeat myself. We need to treat ecology with the same seriousness as we do the economy. Just because the politicians are so myopic as to not be able to see more than a term of office into the future it should not be the case that we ignore the long term. And by looking long term it is clear that only an utter moron would ignore the ecosystem on which life on earth relies.

The news is able to help set this agenda, if it were a little braver. They would treat wildlife and our shared ecology with respect and allow the news of the disastrous impacts our actions have to be given airtime. Instead these subjects continue to be disregarded as real news. Maybe I need to set up my own media channel – WildNews perhaps – that will give proper attention to the fragile system in which we live. Never mind markets up or down – how about a species count – new ones found, others we have driven to extinction. Or carbon dioxide ppm in the atmosphere? These are the metrics by which we will live and die.