Wednesday 11 March 2015

Priorities and how to get them completely wrong

As a nation we are failing to get our priorities right. This is a bold statement, but one that is very easily proven by the use of two very straightforward examples. One is national news, the other is not. In fact the very fact that the first is national news is yet more proof that the country we live in is immensely screwed up. It is that Jeremy Clarkson, the boorish host from Top Gear (if you do not know of it, it is a TV program about cars featuring three grown men doing mostly stupid things, and that appeals to people with the mental capacity of eleven year olds. And actual eleven year olds), has been suspended from the BBC for an altercation with a producer, and that the remainder of the current series has been scrapped. If you will pardon me for saying so, this is not news, or at least, not headline news, even though I did proclaim that there is not enough good news around just the other day. More telling is that fact that a petition for his reinstatement was immediately started and at the time of writing has garnered over 520,000 signatures. By contrast, Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven Grouse shooting has 21,212 signatures. As is stands, this means that nearly 25 times as many people would prefer that Clarkson, an outspoken, loutish and frankly rude-in-a-mildly-amusing-manner TV presenter, comes back to the show, than would like to see Hen Harriers quartering elegantly over English moorland from where they have been relentlessly eradicated by generations of criminal gamekeepers and their employers. How can this be even be possible?

Unfortunately Hen Harriers are not obnoxious and do not frequently antagonize and insult other countries and cultures. If they did they'd be a lot more popular and we might be able to preserve them.
Hen Harriers are awesome creatures, majestic. When you see one, as I have been lucky enough to on many occasions, though admittedly not in England in the summer, your spirit is lifted. Especially if it’s a male, slender with silvery wings tipped with black, gliding effortlessly along hedgerows and ridges. This experience is now really only available in winter, or in Scotland. I’ve said it before, but it is a complete travesty that so many areas of eminently suitable habitat are so sterile and lacking Hen Harriers. We all know why that is, but in case anyone isn’t clear, it’s because of money. Grouse Shooting is big business, and Hen Harriers might reduce the numbers of Grouse available to be shot, and thus the amount of money that can be earned. I know it sounds perverse, but that’s the way it is – people will actually kill one bird in order to protect another bird so that it can be killed later. And so for years gamekeepers, almost certainly with the full knowledge of the landowners, have quietly knobbled almost every single Hen Harrier nest in the entire country, along with many other birds of prey. Some no doubt fail for other reasons, weather, predation, sheer bad luck perhaps, but most are at the hand of man. The stats are incredible, hundreds of suitable territories, single figures of birds, four breeding pairs. It’s not right and it shouldn’t happen, but it does, and there is a massive lack of political willpower to do anything about it. There are reasons for that too, and they mainly have to do with cronyism and that the current set of politicians holding the reins of our dear country quite enjoy field sports, and in some cases own the land it happens on. Various people in conversation are doing a brilliant job to raise awareness, Hen Harrier Day for instance was a great success, but this morning the BBC have devoted more time to this Clarkson business than they ever gave to that Norfolk keeper clubbing a Goshawk. The coverage on my office TVs can only be described as blanket. And you can see why that is – only twenty thousand have signed the petition to ban driven Grouse Shooting, and half a million want Jeremy back on TV. As a media organization you pander to the masses, I can see that, but it is pathetic that more people care about what and who is on TV than care about wildlife. Though frankly if he was given his job back thus ending this hysterical coverage and limiting him to an hour a week, I might sign it too.

Which brings me to my next point, and one I care about possibly more than Hen Harriers – my local area. Wanstead Park is on the "At Risk" register. I assume this means it is at risk of having any value for wildlife completely eradicated, as there is now a management plan for it. The Corporation of London is working with a number of civil and citizen organisations to identify and prioritise opportunities for capital investment and potential changes in management. Now that would be all well and good if any of the plans were focused on wildlife and birds. They're not. They're focused on restoring 17th century landscapes and welcoming local people and visitors from further afield. Call me a thuggish boor, but I don't want local people and visitors. Local people are the problem, or some of them are. Those that let their dogs run out of control and shit everywhere. Those that dump tons of rotting bread on the sides of the lakes. Those that fish illegally. Those that sleep there and cause the management to cut back vegetation to prevent them doing so. I could go on. Instead let's look at a few of the various things on the table.

1D. Create a visitor hub. Includes a cafe. Great, might put the Little Tea-Shop of Happiness out of business and attract more people. FAIL

1E. Conserve the Grotto. The grotto is a stupid Victorian heap of rubble with no practical value whatsover. A folly for good reason, a complete waste of valuable money. Dynamite it I say. FAIL

1F. Reveal vista along Long Walk. Need I say more. The minute you say reveal what you actually mean is chop stuff down. This may mean restoring the various aspects that the original landowner could see from his enormous pile, but please, the house was sold brick by brick to pay his gambling debts. Not a single morsel stands, what will sweeping views achieve exactly other than less habitat? It's a bit like the Friends of Wanstead Parklands chopping down a lovely little copse that could have held nesting birds in order to reveal a few Bluebells. WILDLIFE FAIL

1G. Open up other views. See above. WILDLIFE FAIL

1H. Reveal Mansion site; selectively clear vegetation to open up views. See above, are you sensing a pattern? WILDLIFE FAIL

1J. Reveal the Fortifications. Selectively clear.......WILDLIFE FAIL

1K. Improve paths and access. Yup more people. More dogs. More litter. More noise. Did somebody say fewer birds? FAIL

1I. Reveal North Mount (Warren Wood) and South Mount (Chalet Wood). Reveal in the sense of chopping down parts of Warren Wood and Chalet Wood I suspect. Has the benefit of being able to carry out archaeological investigation. If you were thinking that this is all some kind of egotistical project from a bunch of history buffs, you might very well be right. WILDLIFE FAIL.

1L Improve all main entrances. Clear vegetation to, you guessed it, open up views. FFS. Sorry, I meant FAIL.

1Q Improve the integrity and appearance of the historic water bodies. Selectively clear vegetation to open up views. Views. We don't want bloody views, views are sterile. We want wildlife. FAIL

1R. Reveal islands in Perch Pond. Selectively clear.............AAAAARGHHHHH!!!!

1S. Management of the Plain. Selective removal of encroaching trees and scrub. SEE ABOVE.

1U. Improve links with the River Roding; selectively clear vegetation to open up views. FUCK OFF!!

As far as I can see there is one decent wildlife-friendly proposal, which is 1C. Restore Heronry Pond. Re-line pond to stop water leaks; restore channels and islands on southern edge and introduce new wetland and marginal habitats along edges of ponds and islands. SUCCESS.

Those are just some of the immediate priority ideas. There is a whole long list of longer-term priority items, 13 to be precise. Eight of them involve the words "selectively" or "clear", or in one case a more overt "push back woodland edge". And there are a further eight plans labelled as possible aspirations. Of these, four involve restoring views, and one is extending a car park all the way down to the norther edge of Heronry!! So there you have it, the future of Wanstead Park, sponsored by Stihl. Other makes of chainsaw are available. I don't know who's genius idea this is, but they're clearly obsessed with returning to the 1800s. Probably some decrepit history nut who remembers it 'back in the day' and whose grandmother once worked as a scullery maid in 'the big house'. Wanstead in 2015 is not about returning to the time of Jane Austen, admiring sweeping vistas that a long-gone palace had, it's about saving what little decent habitat is left. The priorities of this plan are massively wrong, and combined with the slash and burn tactics on the Flats, are a huge disappointment that we will all come to regret. 


  1. Jono, the world is indeed a warped place - or should I qualify that, the HUMAN world is warped. I suggest that you book up a plane ticket, pack your camera gear and go and chill.

  2. You know what? That could be on the cards Steve..... Of course, this post was basically a rant, though I am genuinely sad (though not surprised) by the support of Clarkson vs the lack of support for Hen Harriers. Sign of the times. It is true that Wanstead Park is in disrepair, and some judicious coppicing and removal of fallen trees will be good for the future of parts of the woodland, however the emphasis in this is proposal is massively skewed in favour of recreating grand vistas from the heyday of the Park and it's baronial past, with nary a thought to wildlife. There has to be a balance, and this proposal simply does not have it, it's the pet project of a few old boffins by the sound of it.

  3. Totally understand. The Harrier situation is shameful but no doubt tacitly tolerated by our current government. Regarding Wanstead, have you and other birders gone through the official objection type routes and contacted the Corporation, plus eg Friends of Wanstead Parklands, with your worries, giving fact-based reasons? The local press is also worth a try. Apologies if you have, it's just that sometimes concerned individuals complain but don't actually communicate their fears and objections with those who are threatening their area. To the general public, this all sounds very presentable and worthy (nice views and paths etc) but if they were to find out what you have just said above -that wildlife will be adversely affected- they may not be so keen to let a small group with vested interests completely change the whole site. Best of luck getting the zealots to value the wildlife too!

  4. Not that objecting officially necessarily gets you anywhere, of course, but it's always worth a go and might at least help get wildlife some consideration in the final plans...

    1. Yes we have, and there has been recognition that wildlife wasn't given sufficient coverage. I think people more knowledgeable (and less ranty) than me are going to be invited join the working group to give wildlife a voice at the table.