Sunday, May 28, 2017

Victoria Atkins Breaks Election Law (again)

In the 2015 general election the Conservative Party candidate and her agent broke the electoral law. I described it all HERE

Victoria Atkins was, nevertheless, elected as MP for Louth and Horncastle.

To place a poster on the highway, and that means the publicly owned land including all the verge between tarmac and fence line, is a breach of electoral law and this is clearly explained in the documentation that the candidate, Victoria Atkins, and her agent will have received when her nomination was submitted.

Despite this, and despite knowing what happened in 2015, the photograph below suggests she's done it again.

Has this candidate again shown no respect for the law?

Partney Road, Spilsby, Lincolnshire.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Skunk Cabbage and Monty Don

Almost four years ago I wrote a little piece about Himalayan Balsam. It's here:
It's Himalayan Balsam flowering season again.

Last night Monty Don, on BBC2's Gardeners' World, told us all about the terrible scourge overwhelming us that is Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus. I wondered just what harm, exactly, was this rather spectacular plant doing. So I did, as one does, a bit of Googling.

Photo: Kfediuk

First up was this from an RSPB site (what more responsible body than the RSPB, I thought).
Skunk Cabbage - Lysichiton americanus
Stephen Corcoran, biodiversity officer at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, said: “The Cairngorms National Park is one of the most important areas for biodiversity in the UK with a fascinating range of native plants and animals. We want to keep this a special place and it is vital that we all help to prevent non-native species from becoming established. This is because some non-native plants and animals can threaten the National Park’s biodiversity by out-breeding or out-growing our native plants and animals. These non-native species can spread diseases and result in significant economic impacts on our agriculture, forestry and fisheries. I recommend that you choose native plants or plants suggested in Plantlife’s “A guide to plants you can use in place of invasive non-natives” leaflet available on their website ( in your garden. By making this choice you will help to prevent the spread of invasive plants like skunk cabbage.”

Stephen Corcoran doesn't really tell us exactly what harm it does vaguely alludes to threats to biodiversity, spread of disease and economic impacts. He gives no references to scientific research.
So I checked the Non Native Species Secretariat(NNSS). This is the responsible government-sponsored organisation and ought to know best. Here's what they say about disease:
In GB gardens, skunk cabbage is generally free of diseases

Or did Corcoran mean diseases affecting people?  The NNSS again:
Health and Social Impact: None known.

Ah well, what about the "significant economic impacts on our agriculture, forestry and fisheries" of which Corcoran write.

Economic Impact: None known.
Now far be it from me to suggest that the RSPB is just making stuff up, but if what they say is not backed up by the responsible government body then they ought, at least, to provide references to the evidence that backs up their assertions.

Of course for the NNSS to have L. americanus on their list there must, surely, be some problem. But what is it? They say it's been grown in gardens since 1901 and escaped by 1947. They give the 'species status' as "Widespread (c.400 hectads) but not generally common. It is apparently increasing in lowland and semi-upland Britain except for the English Midlands and drier parts of Eastern England." I'm not sure that 'apparently is a useful scientific term, but this statement does not suggest imminent skunk cabbage armageddon.
So let's see how the NNSS describes what environmental impact can be attributed to this invasive:
Sanderson (2013) reported a significant decrease in numbers of associates within two riverine woodlands invaded by Lysichiton americanus in the New Forest, Hampshire, UK. Reports of it having similar adverse impacts on swamp communities in Germany require confirmation for naturally-spreading populations, as at the most affected site it had been deliberately planted in many different locations by a gardener.
That Sanderson (2013) looks like a reference to science though the NNSS does not actually provide a proper publication source. Google Scholar, however, finds it in milliseconds. And it turns out that it is not a reference to a paper published in a recognised peer-reviewed scientific journal but is, rather, a report of a study conducted by N A Sanderson BSc MSc for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Here it is.
I'm tempted to point out the various flaws which, had this report been submitted for peer-review in the hope of publication, an independent reviewer might have sent it back for revision, but let's not go there. It is worth noting that the report was commissioned by the Wildlife Trust for The New Forest Non-Native Plants Project. Now this is a project which jumps in to its task on the back of some major assumptions. This from the NNSS again:
The New Forest Non-Native Plants Project was established in May 2009 to stop the spread of invasive non-native plants in the New Forest area, particularly in wetland habitats and along rivers and streams.
The Project aims to:
identify where these plants are a problem;
arrange for control work to be carried out by volunteers and contractors;
commission research into control methods;
raise awareness of the need to control these plants and to prevent them spreading into our countryside.
So there we have it, the project has decided before it starts that there is a problem. The first aim is not to established scientifically rigorous evidence for whether or not there is a problem. The existence of a problem is already settled and the project just has to locate it and deal with it, whatever it is.
And just to get the emotional framing established they present a picture with a scary sign, not exactly the radiation symbol or other standard hazard warning sign, but the message is clear.

But surely the good folk of the Wildlife Trust and the NNSS are not making it all up for no good reason; there must be a problem. For sure, where L. americanus grows it, like any plant, native or not, must have displaced something else. It grows rapidly with large leave that can shade out smaller plants so where it gets established it can form mono-species stands. But this only happens in quite restricted areas since it requires very wet, boggy land. There is no way that it is going to spread away from the bogs. So we came to the issue of biodiversity. Other things being equal, adding a species to a habitat increases biodiversity. A decrease only occurs if it replaces and excludes the existing species. And we really should think about the area we are talking about. If an invasive species establishes a stand that excludes others over a few square metres or tens of square metres that might not indicate a lowering of biodiversity, if the pre-existing plants are thriving in their own stand a little way off.  That is, after all, how many native plants operate. Think nettles or great willow herb.
What we need is evidence that the establishment of L. americana has put in jeopardy the existence of other species in the overall area of study.  It may have done but I've not found the evidence reported in the scientific literature and so think it is best not to jump to conclusions.
Biodiversity is, of course, not just about the plants, but involves the whole ecosystem. Where is the study that describes which insects benefit from L. americana, if any? Certainly the smell of the Skunk Cabbage is popularly considered to attract flies and beetles. What is the ecosystem-wide impact of the introduction of such an attractive (to beetles) new addition?

Scientific knowledge is always provisional, nothing is ever proven, and it may be that the escape of an invasive species is deleterious to the environment, but very often it is not. There may be a bit of elbowing and shuffling around before a new dynamic sort of stability is achieved but do let us avoid jumping to conclusions on the basis of hearsay and prejudice and ensure that our policies and actions are evidence-based.

P.S. Legislation: American skunk cabbage is not actually listed under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales (2010) as an offence to plant or otherwise cause to grow in the wild.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Compost and Global Warming


I’m not too sure about talking about compost to allotment holders – they will know all about the subject already. So I want to set the business in the context of global warming, the existential crisis facing humanity. Perhaps such an approach might give rise to some fresh thinking.
Let’s look at why we make compost. The two obvious things are
1.       To improve the soil
2.       To get rid of waste vegetable matter.
But there are a couple of other aspects I’d like to include:
3.       Biodiversity
4.       Global Warming
As you probably all know, the addition of organic matter to the soil improves fertility. Humus binds to clay particles and allows them to hang on to plant nutrient elements that would otherwise be leached out of the soil as rainwater drains through. The organic matter also provides food directly for mycorrhizal fungi. These are essential for many plants, helping in the breakdown of minerals to provide nutrients and in transporting nutrients through the soil, effectively acting as an extended root system.
The food we take from a veg plot is only a small part of the biomass that grows each year. We have to do something with the rest and we don’t want to lose the mineral matter it contains since this will be needed by the next year’s crop. Composting is an essential step in the cycle.
Let’s look closer at this cycle. Actually it’s more complicated than a simple circle so let’s take a system approach, looking at inputs and output to our veg plot. The output we actually want is the food we carry off and eat. This depletes our plot of the various elements it contains and have to be replaced by equivalent inputs.
After water, carbon is the main one, freely gained from the air by photosynthesis. Nitrogen comes next, also from the air but fixed with much greater difficulty. All the other elements are derived from the weathering of soil minerals, ultimately from the rocks below.  Some growers do a bit of cheating, they bring in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous in the form of a bag of NPK fertiliser. This is just taking phosphate and potash from rocks elsewhere in the world and burning natural gas, methane, in the process required to fix nitrogen. This is ultimately unsustainable and organic permaculture seeks to avoid such inputs. If we get the soil right these inputs from afar are not needed and composting plays the key role here.
Let me say a bit about how I do the composting. Everybody’s situation is different and what suits me may not suit everybody. I’ve a large garden – six and a half acres in all – but much of it is growing trees or a meadow and doesn’t get involved in the composting business. I have a veg plot much the size of a standard allotment and some big areas of flower beds and lawns.
What goes into the compost? As far as I am concerned everything that was once alive is potential compost and that includes wood, eggshells, all food waste, lawn-mowings and anything else that once lived. I put kitchen waste into a plastic composting bin, along with a little garden waste and some lawn-mowings. Everything goes in, eggshells, meat and fish, orange peel and anything else you may have heard shouldn’t be composted! Using a bin keeps things that might be unsightly, tidy and stops rats and pheasants and foxes scattering the stuff about. Actually I have two such bins. When one is full I start the other and by the time that is full the first is done.

All the garden waste, except woody material, just goes onto a big pile. When the pile is big enough, maybe half a year’s worth, I start a new pile. Some folk are very keen to ensure that their compost reaches a high temperature and adding lawn-mowings usually heats things up quickly. The advantages are that composting goes faster and weed seeds are killed.
My experience is that however hot things get there are always parts that stay cool and weed enough weed seeds survive to make that objective never realised. It might in an industrial scale system but for domestic purposes expecting one’s compost heat to kill all the weeds seeds is to invite inevitable disappointment.
As for speed of composting, yes, that’s useful but I don’t get too hung up about that. It will rot eventually whatever you do and maybe we should extend the slow-food movement to slow-composting. Anyway, I’ve got plenty of space so there’s room for two heaps and a third if the first isn’t ready soon enough. If you are limited for space then speed may be more important and getting the optimum mixture of high-nitrogen waste such as lawn-mowings with coarser material, keeping the compost damp and neither too wet nor dry, and periodically turning it over, will all help to speed things along.
What of the woody material? This takes much longer to rot and while you don’t get much, if any, from a veg plot (fruit bush cuttings are about it), our garden certainly produces a great deal as we have a lot of trees and shrubs. Anything getting on for an inch thick goes to the woodpile and, when dry, will heat our house, but we still have masses of smaller woody stuff. We never have bonfires. Instead we just pile it up and if it takes several years to rot then so be it. Because I have plenty of space I don’t much mind if heaps of dead plant material are left lying about for a long time. I actually welcome this.
A few years ago I joined the fashion and made a bug hotel – a box with lots of hollow sticks for the wild solitary bees to nest in. We certainly have plenty of these bees but the hotel never got used, and the reason is pretty obvious. We have great heaps of slowly decaying sticks that produce veritable cities for the bugs and bees; why would they want an extra facility?
A large heap of woody material, slowly decomposing, is a biological factory producing biodiversity. Starting with the bacteria, algae and fungi, through the myriad of small creatures, the pile anchors the food chain all the way up to the badgers and buzzards. Yes it provides a hiding place for slugs and snails but it does the same for hedgehogs. That’s what the organic permaculture approach to food-growing is all about.
And so we come to the elephant in all our rooms, global warming. This, being the existential crisis facing humanity, ought to be the thing that dominates everything we do. The biggest factor is our habit of burning fossil carbon and so adding the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to the air. The obvious solutions are to stop burning carbon and also to use photosynthesis to remove the CO2 already emitted and store the carbon. This is where the allotment holders can play their part. What we should try to do is maximise the amount of carbon stored on our plots.

Those piles of dead sticks are our contribution to global warming mitigation. The bonfire destroys all the good work. If we can get an extra tonne of carbon stored on our plot, whether in organic matter incorporated in the soil or woody stuff in heaps, that’s a tonne knocked off our carbon footprint. Every little helps.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Improving Air Quality in UK

Today, having been so ordered by the courts, the government has published its approach to Air Quality.

Here's the document:

And here's the consultation form:

It's all a bit rubbish but I filled it in anyway. Here are my responses to the main questions.

7. How satisfied are you that the proposed measures set out in this consultation will address the problem of nitrogen dioxide as quickly as possible?

We have two problems:
1. Air pollution leading to immediate adverse health effects
2. Greenhouse gas emissions leading to catastrophic global warming.
The solution to both problems must lie in the rapid removal of technologies that burn oil.
The proposed measures address neither the scale nor the urgency of either problem.

8. What do you consider to be the most appropriate way for local authorities in England to determine the arrangements for a Clean Air Zone, and the measures that should apply within it? What factors should local authorities consider when assessing impacts on businesses?

The concept of a 'Clean Air Zone' only addresses the issue of concentrated local pollution and has no bearing on global warming.
It is for national government to create the conditions in which the use of the internal combustion engine is ended.
Meanwhile, local authorities can create traffic-free zones in town centres and promote alternatives such as public electric mass transit systems.

9. How can government best target any funding to support local communities to cut air pollution? What options should the Government consider further, and what criteria should it use to assess them? Are there other measures which could be implemented at a local level, represent value for money, and that could have a direct and rapid impact on air quality? 

Central government funding should be provided to local authorities to carry out programme described in Q8 above.
The use of the phrase "value for money" is worrisome. What price is government attaching to the immediate health of its citizens and the long term survival of humanity?
Government should outlaw the supply and purchase of new vehicles with internal combustion engines and provide funding for the motor industry and its supply chain to change to electric vehicle production and provide funding to the renewable energy electricity generation industry to be able to cope with the increased demand.

10. How best can governments work with local communities to monitor local interventions and evaluate their impact?

If Government were committed to an evidence-based approach to policy, then the evidence of local pollution's direct health effects and the long term global warming effect would be taken seriously. There is no evidence in this consultation that this is the case.
Government should enable local communities to live without burning fossil carbon, the monitoring and evaluation of which is a trivial task compared with implementation.

11. Which vehicles should be prioritised for government-funded retrofit schemes?

'Retrofit' is not a useful concept. Internal combustion engines have to be removed and replaced with vehicles that do not pollute the air.

12. What type of environmental and other information should be made available to help consumers choose which cars to buy?

Since all new vehicles should be zero-emissions in use this question should focus on the carbon emissions embedded in manufacture and in electricity generation.

13. How could the Government further support innovative technological solutions and localised measures to improve air quality?

The whole energy and transport industries should be put onto a 'war-footing' to make the entire sector fossil fuel free  as fast as technically possible irrespective of short term expenditure.

14. Do you have any other comments on the draft UK Air Quality Plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide?

Do not pretend that there is anything 'evidence-based' about current policy-making when so little is being done to address the problem.

15 Overall, how satisfied are you with our online consultation tool?

Loaded questions which have prejudged assumptions built in. These will direct most responders to give a false account.