Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Be careful out there

Life in rural Cornwall, particularly for anyone involved in agriculture, is often portrayed as a battle against wild animals. Any beast which competes with us for space and resources, disrupting our right to maximise output, is, at best, a nuisance – right?
 So last week’s news that squirrels had “brutally attacked” a three-year-old boy in Cornwall raised all kinds of profound questions, not the least of which were: Really? Should we be worried? And most urgent of all for the national newspaper journalists – what is the correct collective noun for more than one squirrel?

Words like “gang” or “pack” were initially popular, conjuring up images of squirrels hiding in bushes, co-ordinating their movements, prior to planning and launching a surprise attack on an unsuspecting human. Eventually the hacks (collective noun: “a scoop of journalists”) settled on the little-used term “a scurry of squirrels.”
I’ve had squirrels in my wood for more than 20 years, and although I have seen them in pairs I have never seen a “scurry” – but after last week’s drama I shall now be much more careful. And scared. In 2009, according to the ever-reliable Daily Mail, the Department of Health encouraged nurses at a Durham hospital to “walk about in pairs” in order to stay safe in the wake of squirrel attacks. “The hospital involved sent out guidance that nurses should be careful and wear protective headgear or carry an umbrella.”
More recently, thanks to the Daily Telegraph, we know that: “Terrified schoolchildren were forced to evacuate the playground after an aggressive squirrel caused havoc and attacked a teacher. Staff had to lead the children to safety at Watford’s Chater Infants School after an “unusually aggressive” grey squirrel disrupted their afternoon playtime. One member of staff was attacked and scratched by the squirrel during the encounter.”
Cornwall seems to be unusually plagued by vicious wild animals. At around the same time as squirrels were causing havoc in Tehidy Woods, giant seagulls were knocking teenagers off the harbour wall at St Ives. A 15-foot fall led to a flight in an air ambulance, and a trip to hospital, after a dive-bombing seagull snatched the 18-year-old’s ice cream.
Seagulls, of course, have form. There are plenty of stories of people who have nearly lost fingers, or suffered head injuries, following seagull attacks. In Cornwall, we know of cases where seagulls have killed at least one pet dog and (separately) a tortoise.
Personally, the wild animal I would definitely think twice about before approaching is the mink. More than 50 years ago, there was a mink farm near St Mabyn. As the demand for mink coats declined, the business closed and some of the animals either escaped or were released. I’ve seen one, with a rat clenched firmly between its razor-sharp teeth, down by the River Allen.
These mink really shouldn’t be here at all. An American-import, they have had a devastating impact on Cornwall’s native wildlife. A bit like grey squirrels.
Lazing in bed on Sunday morning, I watched as one crow after another settled and perched on the electricity cables which stretch across the field. There must have been about 20. I’m sure they were looking at me. I decided to stay in bed.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Stones, glass houses and really poor use of language

Is this the most famous window in politics?

Another day, yet another anti-Corbyn story all over the nationals, once again prompted by a group of Labour MPs.
I bow to no-one in condemning any hint of violence or intimidation in politics.  Jeremy Corbyn himself routinely receives death threats.  After the murder of Jo Cox, everyone should take such threats seriously and report them to the police.
But I am really getting tired of headlines such as today’s: “45 Labour women MPs have written to Jeremy Corbyn demanding that he does more to stop abuse etc etc.”
For example, Angela Eagle wants Jeremy Corbyn to “take action” over a broken window in Wallasey.  Before you go any further, please read this very interesting blog post from Wirral In It Together.
I don’t think the blog post quite proves that the brick attack was NOT directed at Angela Eagle’s office, but it certainly raises a huge question as to why Angela Eagle is claiming that it was.  It’s an excellent example of lazy journalists failing to ask even the most basic questions.
Similarly, the media seems to have forgotten that Labour MP Jess Phillips last year promised to “knife Jeremy Corbyn in the front” and said she frequently screamed at her leader.
My colleagues seem to have also forgotten that Ms Phillips’s views on sisterly solidarity run so far as telling Diane Abbot to “fuck off” during a comradely debate about feminism.
What action, precisely, does Angela Eagle want Jeremy Corbyn to take about the broken window which she shares with five other organisations?  And can anyone remember Jeremy Corbyn ever talking to national newspapers about his desire to “knife” other MPs?

Friday, 22 July 2016

Lessons from history

Len McCluskey might be many things, but paranoid isn’t one of them.  His comments to The Guardian about possible infiltration of the Labour Party by agents of the intelligence services are firmly rooted in historic fact.

The response of former (Labour) Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, dismissing the suggestion as a “downright insult” demonstrates how little she knew about what was going on when she was supposedly in charge.

For readers worried that Jacqui might be struggling to make ends meet after the ungrateful voters of Redditch booted her out of Parliament in 2010, I’m happy to report that she has now found gainful employment in Egypt and Jordan.

I drew attention to the official, authorised history of MI5 in this blog back in 2009.  The book, Defence of the Realm, actually boasts about how MI5 spied on the then democratically-elected Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

There are also countless records of how the spooks involved themselves in assorted industrial disputes, notably the 1980s miners’ strike.

No-one should rubbish what Len McCluskey is saying until they have researched the recent history.  The idea that the intelligence agencies might be responsible for various attempts at de-stablising Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party would be very far from the most outlandish stunt they have ever tried.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Three days in public health

July 18: Skin cancer experts say keep out of the sun
July 21: Vitamin D experts say we need more sun

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Let us (s)pray that nothing goes wrong...

Something you might think I would have learned by now is that almost every initiative I try to take on running this place has some unintended consequence.

For example, the long-awaited launch of my bee-keeping project a few months ago was accompanied by a diligent observance of the instruction manual’s advice to leave the bees in peace and give them a chance to settle in.
I did precisely that, and I’m pleased to report that the bees have indeed settled in and are thriving. The unintended consequence was that leaving the bees in peace meant that the grass in the orchard – along with stinging nettles, docks and giant hogweed – grew so tall that they all towered over me. And then the lawnmower broke down anyway and so the reclamation of the orchard went to the bottom of my to-do list.
Last week, with lawnmower repaired, I encountered another unintended consequence. Would I be able to cut the grass right up to the bee hive? Would the bees get angry, and would I need to suit-up with face mask and gauntlets? On this point the bee-keeping manual was no help, and the internet is swamped with conflicting advice.
A few years ago the government actually urged us to make less of an effort to cut our grass, on the grounds that clovers and other wild flowers help bees in their quest for pollen. This presented me with a serious dilemma: should I follow my natural instincts to be as lazy as possible? Or should I, almost on principle, disregard government advice on the grounds that no sensible person could ever believe a word they say?
In the end I compromised – combining my inclination to ignore government advice with my innate laziness, and so set about cutting the grass but without bothering to wear protective clothing (it was at the end of hot sunny day and the bees appeared to have gone to bed.)
Everything went according to plan until I accidentally bumped into the hive with the lawnmower. Suddenly the air was thick with angry bees. I retreated, unstung, and there is a small patch of the orchard which still has long grass, nettles, docks and giant hog weed.
This afternoon I plan to have another go, along with a few patches in the corners of the meadow where the stinging nettles have advanced several yards.
Sometimes I survey the scale of my small, amateurish agricultural venture and wonder how anyone would ever have the time to be a proper farmer, with hundreds of acres, and potentially more aggressive livestock, to worry about.

On the radio right now is the news that the European Commission (remember them?) is to continue licensing glysophate, the all-conquering weedkiller, and that farmers will be free to carry on spraying. This is despite (or maybe because of) expert scientific advice saying it is a bad thing (or is it a good thing?) and very dangerous (or is it safe?)
I am comforted (I think) by the idea that “proper farmers” actually face precisely the same dilemmas as I do, having constantly to juggle conflicting advice and priorities. Let us hope that the industrial scale application of chemicals to crops has no unintended consequences.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Brexit and brown flags

So far, very few of the millions of words written about last week’s Brexit have touched on the environment.

It is a sobering thought that many of the reasons why Cornwall’s green and pleasant land is green and pleasant stem directly from the European Union, and unless we now think of a new regulatory framework to protect the public good, our environment will be sacrificed on the altar of private greed and its lust for profit.
Don’t get me wrong – the EU has, historically, done plenty to mess up the countryside. For example, guaranteed Common Agricultural Policy prices for crops such as oil seed rape encouraged over-supply and turn the fields from green to bright yellow.
And as Europe’s butter mountains continue to melt, farmers quite rightly complain that they are now being turned into park-keepers. But at least they are heavily subsidised park-keepers. With huge uncertainty now surrounding their subsidies, why would Cornwall’s farmers not decide instead to become property developers?
It was partly to off-set some of the worst excesses of its own policies that the EU pursued the development of directives to protect the environment, such as the Nature Directives. These provide a framework of EU law which limit what landowners can do on sites which are home to some of our most threatened species and habitats.
Directives to protect habitats and birds formed the foundation of nature conservation across Europe. While some landowners howled about red tape and bureaucracy, many people saw wider, public social and economic benefit in ensuring the triumph of survival over extinction.
Protected sites in the UK were being lost at a rate of 15% a year before the directives, but this declined to just 1% a year after their introduction.
Defra minister and Camborne and Redruth MP George Eustice, a keen Brexiter, has described these protective measures as “spirit crushing.” I heard the Country Landowners Association on the radio on Monday rubbing their hands in eager anticipation at how they might now cash in.
Why was it that in the 1970s we had the highest acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU and our seas weren’t much more than open sewers as we pumped sewage into them? It was because it was cheaper, and therefore more profitable, to ignore the consequences. It was the EU that drove improvements.
We didn’t hear much from groups like Friends of the Earth during the referendum campaign, but that’s because we in the media thought it much more fun to photograph Boris Johnson waving pasties from his bus. FoE was actually doing its best to warn that shared problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss and air pollution were better tackled on a continent-wide basis.
Fishing stocks, and polluted air and seas, are not by themselves respecters of off-shore limits measured in miles. FoE, and several other green groups, were trying to get us to recognise that it was the EU that cleaned up our drinking water, our beaches, and meant that the UK could no-longer be called “the dirty man of Europe.”
Remember the fuss when it looked like Cornwall’s beaches might not be able to fly blue flags? Maybe we should now invest in the manufacturers of brown flags instead.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Always going the extra mile

The patch of oil on my garage floor is now so large I’m thinking of joining OPEC. Unfortunately the oil comes not from a deep well of latent riches, but from the blown turbo on my 15-year-old 310,000-mile Skoda.

Like many people in rural areas, I have little choice but to make my car last a long time. North Cornwall villages are lovely, but can be a gilded cage for those without independent transport.
My Skoda was for several years in harness to a one-man voluntary organisation known as DTS (Dad’s Taxi Service) and has taken its share of knocks (none of them my fault, naturally.) This particular car escaped being pressed into service when the children were learning to navigate the craters at Davidstow airfield, but one of the reasons it might now be approaching its final parking space is the state of Cornwall’s rural roads.
Many of the country lanes in and out of St Mabyn are like a smaller version of Davidstow’s runways – full of holes. The effect on any car’s suspension inevitably takes its toll. It appears that potholes account for a third of mechanical issues on UK roads and cost British motorists an estimated £2.8 billion every year.
The Federation of Small Businesses recently produced a report which said that potholes were one of the top three issues of concern to rural firms.
Cornwall has more than 4,500 miles of roads, many of them in country areas. The A30 (east of Chy-An-Mor roundabout, Penzance) and the A38 are trunk roads are the responsibility of the Highways Agency. All of the rest are down to Cornwall Council.
The council says it evaluates highway maintenance requirements and allocates the highway maintenance budget at the beginning of each financial year. I can only assume that St Mabyn didn’t make the list this year.
The FSB said poorly maintained roads, and a lack of regional strategic planning, posed “a significant economic barrier to economic growth,” particularly in rural areas.
The report, “Going the extra mile,” showed rural businesses were more likely to rely on roads as they often reported little or no access to public transport.
The FSB is calling for new combined authorities to commit to greater investment in local transport. Surprisingly, many of those who responded to the FSB did not know who was responsible for keeping roads in good repair.
The report certainly struck a chord with me, and I suspect with many other people. Indeed, the BBC once ran a competition inviting people to submit photos of their “favourite” pothole. The Beeb was inundated with replies.
Motoring organisations claim that at current maintenance levels, the average frequency for a road to be resurfaced in England is once every 54 years. If all councils were given the budgets they need to fix their roads (and they won’t be,) it would still them 12 years to catch up with the current backlog.
Few things wind people up as much as potholes. Only last week a Cotswold woman made national news headlines because she posted signs saying “No Roads Here, Only Holes.”
In recent years Cornwall Council has seen its annual compensation bill steadily rising – about £120,000 last year.
I know that it’s all about tax-and-spend, and priorities. Maybe there’s a case for devolving responsibility for country roads to town and parish councils. Would that make things better or worse?