Tuesday 18 August 2009

We can’t throw things away – because there is no “away” left!

Chucking things away on a huge scale is a painful symptom of our modern society.

When you think about it, this makes no logical sense. We take resources that have taken millions of years to build up, make something briefly of use to us and then chuck them away where they become pollutants, make mess and take up space.

This is clearly unsustainable (yes – that “sustainable” thing again – it’s not jargon, it just means you plainly can’t do this for ever!). Furthermore, this causes damage to wildlife in all sorts of ways. One result that is all too obvious to people living in parts of Sussex is the need for landfill sites. We are running out of holes in the ground where we can casually throw our cast-offs so what we are left with is getting more and more damaging.

One site that is causing well-deserved concern is a proposal to fill a clay pit at Lay Brook with waste. This is a site near Ashington, immediately adjacent to Knepp – one of the country’s leading conservation projects.

I have talked about the Knepp estate in this blog before. For more details go to the estate’s own web site at http://www.knepp.co.uk/.

Suffice it to say here that the Sussex Wildlife Trusts has long supported the project and we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have one of the country’s best re-wilding projects on our doorstep. What is more, it is not just us that support it – friends of the project come from all over Britain (e.g. the Environment Agency and Natural England) and Europe. It has also received warm support from the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment. See:


The presence of a landfill so close to its borders could have a major effect. The proposed pit is wet – i.e. it fills up with water. Filling this up with any old waste would be extremely damaging. Dumped waste here would rot, chemicals would leach out and surrounding rivers would be devastated. This pit would leach directly out into the river Adur as it runs through Knepp. That would be the end of any re-wilding attempts. This would clearly not be allowed so, generally, two solutions are proposed. First the pit would be “sealed”, so nothing could leach out. Second, only inert waste that would not rot would be allowed in.

The trouble is that I am not sure this really works in practice.

First a pit will never really be sealed permanently – polluted water will always get in and out somehow, getting into surrounding rivers. Preventing a pit from flooding into surrounding steams becomes even more difficult with the increase in severe rains storms that we are now getting.

Second, can we really trust people dumping waste to only dump the most inert material into a big wet hole? Would anyone really notice the odd rotting refuse sack, oil drum or paint pot (until it started leaching into the surrounding river)?

Furthermore, these holes in the ground often have significant existing wildlife interest, or have the potential to develop it. The largest sand marten colony in Sussex is in an old sand pit for example. Holes in the ground are not just wasted land waiting to be dumped in – they are assets that could have a very positive potential use.

The current issue - Laybrook landfill - will shortly be considered by the County Council. For further details, with advice on how to make representations on the proposal, then the web site http://www.nolaybrooklandfill.co.uk/ is perhaps a good starting point.

However, we shouldn’t only be fighting against landfill sites, instead we should be forming partnership to work together and make best use of these potential assets. In other words we should be pushing for what we do want in these places, not just having to fight against what we don't. For my part I’d like to see a restored, re-naturalised lake and wetland there.

But all of this comes down to our attitude to consumption and waste. If we can’t consume without wasting then we shouldn’t consume in the first place. It may be reassuring to blame the County Council or the landfill companies (and the Sussex Wildlife Trust will oppose damaging landfill along with everyone else), but really they are just dealing with a problem that we are giving them. Obviously we have to produce less waste, obviously we have to reuse and recycle more and maybe there will always be some residue left to dispose of (maybe in an incinerator outside somebody else’s house). But the only real answer is to move to a no-waste society. Idealistic? Well I would say not, indeed our current get it, use it, chuck it approach is a silly ideal, and one that is now failing.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Book Review: “Where the Wild Things Were” by William Stolzenburg

I haven’t yet reviewed a book on my blog but this one was so good that I thought I would make a start. “Where the wild things were” looks pretty drab when you first pick it up but when you start reading it a fascinating story unfolds of how big fierce things rule the world (or should do).

We’ve all seen the nature programmes on TV. They are excellent and I am not one to criticise them. Good ones might tell you all about an animal – maybe giving you a year in its life. The very good programmes may tell you more about the habitat in which an animal lives. But there’s the rub – a habitat is generally portrayed as something an animal lives in. It is very rare for us to get a picture of how an animals shape the world they live in. This is a huge gap in the way nature conservation is put across to people - what we should be seeing is animals as integral parts of their habitat.

Animals often drive the ecology of an ecosystem rather than just live within it. For example large herbivores graze areas so, obviously they create grasslands, similarly beavers build dams, blocking rivers and so create wetlands. You can therefore see how animals impact on vegetation and so alter ecosystems. Large predators, however, are often just thought of as something that sits at the top of the food chain. We may think of them as a method of keeping the numbers of herbivores down, but surely a few lions or tigers wandering around cannot have much effect on what a forest looks like?

Stolzenburg, however, shows, in a clear, entertaining and readable way, how top predators are fundamental in shaping whole ecosystems, effectively driving the ecology of areas. Furthermore, he shows that many ecosystems around the world are in a tail-spin of degradation and collapse because they lack predators.

This is an excellent book. We may know that wolves are back in Yellowstone, USA, but nowhere else have I read such a clear explanation on how wolves have changed the behaviour of other species and in the process beneficially altered the vegetation. We may have seen cute pictures of sea otters off the Canadian coast but did you know that they eat large numbers of sea urchins and without otters sea urchin populations would explode leaving them to graze the marine kelp forests to destruction. So, centuries of hunting otter for fur actually resulted in the destruction of a major marine ecosystem.

He introduces us to concepts such as a “trophic cascade”, the idea that if you remove predators then the effects bounce around the ecosystem in unpredictable and destructive ways. For example when wolves were hunted to extinction in Yellowstone then, predictably, deer numbers exploded, vegetation became over-grazed and many plants and animals declined. Less predictably, without wolves, coyote populations increased which hunted Pronghorn Antelopes. When the wolves returned, the coyotes received a tough lesson in top-dog diplomacy! And Pronghorns increased. An interesting insight of how a predator can increase the population of a prey species. Also surprising was the effect on riverside vegetation – when the wolves came back the grazing animals avoided rivers as that is where they got ambushed. The result was less grazing alongside rivers and a huge flush of regenerating wetlands.

Examples pour out of this book developing a powerful argument to show the critical value of predators. From the effect of starfish on mussels to cougars on white-tailed deer, to coyotes on domestic cats, in each case the presence of a predator sends out ripples giving a richer, more diverse, more stable and better functioning ecosystem.

Discussions on what drives the ecology of ecosystems are always fascinating. The world is so diverse that most views are probably right somewhere – often the keystone species will be predators, often large grazers, sometimes ants, fungi, even midges! Stolzenburg makes an excellent case for predators.

Stolzenburg also does not shy away from “political” implications. The deepest resistance to the return of wolves in Yellowstone came from hunters who wanted the maximum number of docile deer that are easy to shoot. Killer whales are now eating otters and seals because we have killed off their main prey – the large whales. This is uncomfortable to both whaling commissions (unhappy that whaling could be damaging ecosystems) and conservationists (who consider over-fishing as the main cause of seal decline).

This book also boosts the case for re-introducing predators, or for carrying out management practices that mimic the effect of predators. Whole ecosystems are suffering, in Britain as anywhere, through lack of predators. We need them back for the health of our own environment, and if we do not get them back we need to find ways of controlling the things that top predators would have controlled.