Are you a European?

I was just too young to vote in the referendum of 1975 but as a politically-aware sixth former I followed the debate and the arguments about whether the UK should stay in the European Economic Community (which the UK joined in 1973 (alongside Ireland and Denmark, swelling the original six members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg) to the EEC nine)).

As I recently travelled across the USA I thought of the differences of climate and topography and of wealth and outlook between Montana and Virginia, and South Carolina and New York, and are these differences any the less than between Warsaw and Amsterdam, or London and Athens?  New York to Los Angeles is much further than Dublin to Athens – the EU boundaries would have to be extended to Israel to compete with the scale of the USA.  And yet Europe is divided into many small countries, many smaller than a decent-sized US State and with all the problems that collective decision-making confers.

Imagine going out for a meal with 26 friends and acquaintances and having to decide where to eat, what to eat and how much each of you should pay.  That’s the type of challenge faced by the EU 27 with differences of language and culture thrown in too.  Might it be that making any sort of decison under these circumstances tends to lead to decisions that avoid anyone’s best outcomes just as much as they avoid anyone’s worst outcomes?

But despite the frustrations of how the EU works, I feel I am European.  The willow warblers and black-tailed godwits, the common terms and fieldfares, whose ranges ebb and flow with the pulse of the seasons do not recognise whether they are in Spain or Portugal, Germany or Poland.  The boundaries of culture, language and politics which make our human lives more complicated are not ecological boundaries – they are not recognisable on the ground or as a flying bird looks down on the Earth below.

The wildlife of Europe is my nature just as the music of Mozart and Puccini is my music, the literature of Voltaire and Cervantes is my literature, the art of Bruegel and Miro is my art and the football of Real Madrid and AC Milan is my football.

Do you feel European?



The raptor haters – Richard Ingrams

The raptor haters is an occasional series of articles on people who slag off birds of prey.

Richard Ingrams finds red kites ‘menacing‘, ‘savage‘ and ‘unlikeable‘ and is ‘pleased to see a picture of a dead one‘.  Every three years or so he dips his pen in poison and is really nasty about these magnificent birds.

Here are three articles by Ingrams where he is rude about red kites; 13 June 2004 (Observer), 1 September 2007 (Independent), and 3 April 2010 (Independent). It looks like we are in the middle of a three-year pause in anti-kite vitriol from Ingrams but maybe that’s too hopeful.

Ingrams clearly doesn’t know that much about red kites as he speculates that they play a significant part in songbird declines.

There was a red kite over my East Northants garden yesterday morning.  It brought me huge amounts of pleasure as it is a symbol of conservation success and hope for the future.

Red kites disappeared from Northants in the middle of the 19th century and have only made a return thanks to their reintroduction by conservationists.  And apart from a very few people like Ingrams I cannot find many who dislike this bird at all.  The return of the red kite to my local skies has not caused the collapse of the rural economy, it hasn’t wiped out all other wildlife and no babies have been eaten.

What is surprising is that local businesses have not cashed in on the kites at all.  No local farmer has a kite viewing site, no-one is, as far as I know, charging people to show them red kites and no local pubs advertise the fact that you can see kites from their gardens.

But many local people get a thrill each time a kite sails over their garden, their school playground or their journey into or from work.  Nature enhances our lives provided we can lift our eyes to the skies and see.


The CAP still doesn’t fit

It’s not simple to understand, it’s not a riveting read , but it is very important – it’s the EU Budget announcement!

The overall budget goes up but CAP funding goes down.  Fears, which were absolutely justified according to insiders, that the ‘good’ bits of the CAP, Pillar 2, would be hacked into, disproportionately hard, did not come to pass.  Thank you to all those who emailed President Barroso on this subject – making a fuss can only have helped prevent an even worse outcome.  But the outcome is not good.

The Rural Development elements of the CAP decrease by 7%  in real terms meaning that there will be less and less good done by them at a time when wildlife is suffering across the European Union – in the UK it will mean that the queues of farmers who want to enter agri-environment schemes will grow as the available funds shrink – the CAP isn’t working for nature.

In fact the CAP isn’t working for nature or for farmers or for taxpayers.  And this budget will take the CAP through until 2020 or so, so in theory the opportunities for reform diminish at a time when reform is still desperately needed.  But that is not good enough.  There are always opportunities within the system to engineer change and if you are a campaigner you don’t have to accept what a discredited system offers you.  I hope that environmental groups can forge much stronger links with the public, across Europe, and be a progressive force for change over the next few months and years and give us all a better CAP.

Will farmers be on the side of a fairer CAP – fairer to taxpayers and to nature?  Certainly some will – many UK farmers joined the RSPB’s campaign and spoke out for the need to protect Pillar 2 payments.  The CLA were quick to claim a share of the credit for protecting CAP budgets in cash terms (but not inflation-protected) and for the fact that Pillars 1 and 2 were treated in a very similar way.  There is more work that the environmental movement can do with those landowners, currently represented by the CLA, who are  environmentally literate and are prepared to argue where it matters for long-term environmental improvement – and for a system of agriculture payments which helps us get there.  In contrast, the thoroughly anti-environmental NFU is pretty much beyond hope under the present leadership which can only come out with statements about global food security interspersed with comments praising biofuel production.

And while the NFU at the top is thoroughly anti-environmental it becomes difficult for environmental groups to work with farmers as a whole.  That is why the RSPB, which is the leading environmental organisation when it comes to understanding and seeking to influence farming practice, adopted a twin-track approach of working with individual farmers who were wildlife-friendly – and there are of course thousands of those farmers – whilst using a spoon with a long handle when dealing with the NFU hierarchy.  Of course, farmers who are members of the NFU do have the solution in their own hands – vote in a leadership that can speak to the public on a range of issues in an intelligent and consistent way.  CAP is not the only place which is due for reform.

I would be wary over the next few months about any moves to pillage Pillar 2 in order to spend more money on ‘competitiveness’ instead of using it for environmental recovery.  Notice how the NFU, and the CLA, always use the word competitiveness so freely.  And Agriculture Minister Jim Paice is also fond of using this term.  Be wary of moves to syphon off money that could be spent effectively on Higher Level Stewardship projects which will help protect the landscape and nurture nature  and instead spend it on further industrialisation of the countryside.

And this sorry budget increases the need to get the very highest value for money out of the way we spend that money back here in the UK.  I wonder how Defra is getting on with reviewing the ELS scheme conditions and arrangements – that’s a pot of money that isn’t working hard enough for me, the taxpayer.  I must find out.

The CAP still needs to be reformed.  It is a system which works badly for the environment and badly for the taxpayer.  It works well for some farmers and badly for others – it works least well for those who need the most help.  This latest EU announcement is not as bad as it could be – things rarely are – but it is still bad.  And where things are bad then it is necessary to seek to change them.





Rumours abound as to the outcome of the EU budget discussions. I’ve heard that all is lost, and that Pillar 2 funding has been successfully defended – they can’t both be true. We’ll see!

I attended the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee meeting hearing evidence on the Natural Environment White Paper yesterday. Sign up (it’s free) to the first issue of my monthly newsletter to hear more on this topic – next week.

And I had a quick listen to the Government Chief Scientist, Prof Sir John Beddington giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee yesterday too. A word of advice to Sir John, if you are going to say outspoken things about badgers in the corridor outside Committee Room 5, you’d be advised to keep your voice down. But I won’t land you in it.



I woke this morning to the sound of thunder.  Whereas Aristotle may have thought that this was the sound of clouds colliding I wonder whether it is the sound of disagreements in the EU over the future funding of CAP.  Or maybe Peter Kendall is still trying to tell Charles Clover how much he enjoyed Charles’s article at the weekend?

We may find out tomorrow what the proposed EU Budget looks like.

It’s good to see the National Trust’s Fiona Reynolds quoted in the Telegraph as saying that ‘David Cameron has 24 hours to prevent an environmental disaster’ and that ‘without the funding the Government’s environmental ambitions to restore wildlife and habitats would remain a pipe dream’.

And, I see, the Wildlife Trusts are taking a very similar line to the RSPB and the National Trust.  Good for them.

Does David Cameron have any environmental ambitions though, we wonder?  The Prime Minister has done little to demonstrate the slightest interest in the natural world since he came into office and the actions of the coalition government in cutting Defra’s budget very hard in the Comprehensive Spending Review speak louder than his fast-disappearing-over-the-horizon green words of wanting to lead the ‘greenest government ever‘.