Richard Peirce: Cuddle Me, Kill Me

I’m interviewing author and conservationist Richard Peirce tomorrow, We met at a TeamEarth event in Bristol a few weeks ago, where he hosted a showing of the unforgettable (and rather bleak) 2015 film ‘Blood Lions‘.

Richard, who divides his time between South Africa and Cornwall (here in the UK he is perhaps mostly known for his work conserving sharks with the Shark Trust), recently wrote a sort-of follow up book which absolutely blasts the canned lion industry and is well worth buying: Cuddle Me, Kill Me (which apart from anything else has one heck of title…).

Putting bullets into lions seems a very difficult industry to defeat. Exposes of the canned lion industry, with it’s related ‘petting tourism’ and ‘walking with lions’ offshoots, have been around since Roger Cook’s famous ‘Making a Killing’ report was shown on ITV back in 1997. Even the global release of ‘Blood Lions’ doesn’t seem to have slowed the industry down. There appears to be a long queue of empathy-deficient ‘hunters’ (or more properly ‘gun owners who like to kill animals’) willing to prove their manhood by shooting a lion in a cage. Cynical owners/operators have dug in and greenwash their sordid activities by burying opponents under claims of ‘conservation’ (technically, yes, there are more lions in South Africa now than in previous decades, but only in the sense that opening an intensive chicken factory in a town means there are now more chickens in that town than previously).

It’ll be interesting to find out from Richard what solutions might exist, and what he considers the next moves should be. And what about the intervention in April of Tory peer Michael Ashcroft, a man who appears to be ruthless in business on the one hand but against canned lion hunting on the other (that link, incidentally, leads to Ashcroft’s own website where he writes about himself in the third person – not something I’ve ever felt comfortable about but then again I’m not worth 1.3billion dollars, so maybe there’s something in it)?

Richard was gratifyingly blunt in Bristol, I’m hoping for much more of the same!

Podcast uploaded: Pont Valley | Coal mining, newts, and climate change

Image copyright Coal Action Network

I’ve been working on a rather tricky edit of a conversation I had two weeks ago with campaigner Don Kent (a spokesperson for the Campiagn to Protect Pont Valley) and ecologist Tom Langton (who I visited in Suffolk recently and am increasingly working with).

We were talking about a huge opencast coal mine in the Pont Valley, Co Durham, and the reason the edit was ‘tricky’ is because part of what we were discussing is currently in front of the courts – and no-one wants to be accused of prejudicing or influencing an ongoing court case. So concerned were we all, that the edit went through a fact-check by a lawyer before uploading – and I’m grateful for his clear and important clarifications.

Anyway, on legal advice we kept certain details of the case relatively vague. It’s not difficult to find all the relevant details you could possibly need via whatever search engine you prefer to use (try ‘Pont+Valley+Opencast+Mine’), but I wrote a long (even for me!) introduction to this podcast explaining the current situation, which I’ve copied below.

In case that’s all a bit TL:DR why not go straight to the podcast itself, which is at Pont Valley – Coal mining, Newts, and Climate Change

But in case you are interested, here’s that intro:

Protest, climate change, fossil fuels vs renewables, development vs biodiversity loss, resources vs a fragile natural world, opencast coal mining, a County Wildlife Site, and the Great Crested Newt – all, remarkably, encapsulated in the story of the campaign to protect the Pont Valley.

How so? County Durham’s Pont Valley lies some twenty miles to the west of Sunderland, close to the edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a region of epic landscapes, of valleys and hills, wild places and small villages – but this part of the northeast was once the heart of lead mining, coal mining, and steel production. Times change of course, and by the 1850s the best lead ore had been removed, the nearby Consett Steelworks closed for the last time in 1980, and the last colliery in the Durham coalfield closed in 1994.

But there is of course still coal in the ground, much of it lying close to the surface, and local developers want to get it out – not just in the Pont valley but at other sites in the northeast including the magnificent Druridge Bay.

There is a long history of mining applications here. The first attempt to mine Pont valley was rejected by the county council in 1974, a further one was thrown out in 1986 and then again in 2011. But after a series of appeals a planning inspector granted UK Coal permission to mine in June 2015. When UK Coal went bust, the licence was taken over and in January 2018 it was announced that mining would go ahead.

The mining company intends to remove 500,000 tonnes of coal from the Pont Valley but many in the local communities, activists from for example the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley and Coal Action Network, and even former miners – don’t want them to. The Pont Valley is an ecologically rich area, coal use is being phased out anyway and the climate crisis demands that we look at cleaner energy, and – at a more local level – the development includes a well-known county wildlife site, Brooms Pond, which has held a well-known population of the Great Crested Newt for many years.

And it’s those newts that have – perhaps unexpectedly – caused the mining company the most trouble. Great Crested Newts are a European Protected Species: destroying their breeding and resting places is a criminal offence under The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations.

Ecological surveys for the newts were undertaken before mining began – they suggested that the newts were no longer present at Brooms Pond, but in April 2018 a Great Crested Newt was found in a pitfall trap by campaigners. Despite that, Brooms Pond was still drained.

Activists attempting to stop the company, destroying the pond and the habitat of a protected species, were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass, but the case was thrown out of court last August – the judge ruling that they were trying to stop a wildlife crime taking place. Campaigners are now looking to sue the mining company – and that action is still making its way through the courts.

My name is Charlie Moores and in this conversation about the mine and its environmental impact I’m talking with Don Kent and Tom Langton.

Don, a veteran activist and spokesperson for the Campaign to Protect the Pont Valley, lives just a few miles from the opencast site. Having played an active role in protests about CFC’s, nuclear power and Lead in Petrol, he sees permission to mine Pont Valley as a major failure in the slow progress towards environmental protection that he has seen over his life.

Tom is a scientist and nature conservationist. A highly-experienced ecologist his work in recent decades has turned more and more to legal defence of wildlife. Associated more recently with badger and bat conservation, his main and life-long specialisation are reptiles and amphibians – and in Britain he – literally – wrote the book on conserving the Great Crested Newt. He has given half of his time for 40 years helping wildlife charities, working without charge for local groups such as those from friends of the earth and other unfunded wildlife protest groups and individuals. His involvement in the Pont Valley campaign began when lawyers asked him to look at the surveys that were done at Brooms Pond and to appear as an expert witness in Middlesbrough Magistrates Court.

Discussing such a delicately balanced situation while it is in the process of going through the courts means being very careful about what is said of course – hence, for example, the rather vague references to ‘mining company’ when a quick Google of the case makes it very clear just who is involved. So, in some respects, this is a more generic conversation about mining in the northeast and wildlife survey methods than such an extraordinary campaign perhaps deserves, but none of us want to do anything that might cause claims of prejudicing or influencing the case.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that what is happening in the Pont Valley is hugely important – not just at the local level but in the way it fits into larger, big picture conversations and actions that right now are taking place all over the planet…

Podcast uploaded: Plantlife | Road Verges Campaign

I only recorded this conversation at Plantlife HQ in Salisbury yesterday – and I have a rather daunting backlog of edits to be getting on with – but during my conversation with the excellent Dr Trevor Dines on the importance to biodiversity of road verges we also referenced another Plantlife campaign, NoMowMay, a campaign focussing on our gardens that is running over this Bank Holiday weekend, so I thought I’d best get on with it.

From the spoken intro to the podcast:

“…verges are actually fascinating habitats…because they are these fragments of the surrounding countryside that are preserved along ancient routes…”

Most of us are aware now that biodiversity is in decline. Plant biodiversity here in the UK has especially suffered: wild flowers have been lost from huge areas of Britain, and so have the pollinators and other invertebrates that depend on them. Conservationists are having to look to protect what’s left of our wildlife in areas that may not be optimal, but that nevertheless hold a surprisingly important range of flora and fauna. Along with our gardens, one of those areas is our rural road verges, those largely county council-owned strips of land next to our roads which, according to the UK charity Plantlife, make up a network that is equal to half of the country’s remaining flower-rich grasslands and meadows.

I spoke with Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife’s exuberant Botanical Specialist, about the charity’s excellent Road Verges Campaign, which has been running for a couple of years now and is having positive and hugely encouraging results.

Road verges may have the potential to literally re-seed our denuded countryside and looking after them sounds like such a simple solution to plant biodiversity loss, but do we actually have the data to quantify just how important our road verges really are?

The podcast is on Lush Player at Plantlife | Road Verges Campaign

Interviewing Plantlife tomorrow

After a number of false starts I’m heading down to Salisbury tomorrow to have a chat for a podcast about roadside verges with Plantlife‘s Dr Trevor Dines (Trevor the Botanist on twitter).

If like me, you’re sick of watching councils mow down countless numbers of wild flowers alongside miles and miles of roads (especially in spring, depriving early pollinators of food, and early summer when huge numbers of small mammals and invertebrates lose safe homes) then this will be of enormous interest.

Plus, I’m really interested by the suggestion (made by many different sources) that roadside verges act as wild flower ‘reservoirs’ – if verges really do function in that way, what more powerful indictment of how utterly screwed our wider countryside must be if strips of land alongside our heavily polluted roads are actually more botanically rich than the fields they pass through…

Tom Langton

I’m just back from a very interesting/successful two days in Suffolk with Tom Langton – the first spent around the site of the proposed Sizewell C reactor, the second interviewing Tom himself: in the morning we talked about the badger cull (Tom, an ecologist specialising in epidemiology, has some very forthright things to say about the badger cull, which he says is basically built around an error in interpreting data); in the afternoon we talked about amphibians and ponds (Tom was a founder of Froglife, and is an expert on Great Crested Newts).

In between I met up with the charismatic John Burton at the offices of the World Land Trust (interviews have been promised with John and his team and will be finalised asap!), and wandered around Tom’s land – twenty-five incredibly beautiful organic acres of rural Suffolk, where he and his partner Cath have dug out nineteen ponds, planted hundreds of trees, and allowed the return of flower-rich grassland.

It’s genuinely astonishing driving through miles of intensively managed farmland to turn down a long farm track and find this oasis. The land is still in the process of returning to the state Tom wants, but Turtle Doves breed here, butterflies abound, and those ponds are heaving with Great Crested Newts and other amphibians. Underneath corrugated sheets lurk Slow Worms and bees nest under the eaves of the house along with bats and a pair of Jackdaws.

It’s the kind of place you’d never want to leave, the result of many, many years of hard work – and from this island of biodiversity (surrounded by chemical-spraying farmers and a goddam pheasant shoot) Tom works on a pile of Judicial reviews, sends streams of letters advising campaigners and activists, and – on behalf of wildlife everywhere – fights back!

It’ll take a while to edit up the conversations, but they will be well worth hearing when I do!