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Ragwort, Giant hogweed and Sheep.  06 June 2023
Epitome of Inequality.  29 September 2022
Lockdown and Open Up.  20 February 2021
Myths and Misinformation.  21 September 2020
Media Madness and Negativity. 30 May 2020
The Climate Battleground: Grassland or Forest.  6 May 2020
Fighting the Virus.  22 April 2020
Biosecurity or Biodiversity. 17 April 2020
A Chance to Change. 10 April 2020
Whither democracy? 4 April 2020
 Will extinction negate 50 years of successful conservation? 2 April 2020
 Covid-19 and change of lifestyle. 19 March 2020
 Disease control, how safe are we? 4 March 2020
 Forests or Grassland. 2 March 2020
 Anarchy or Establishment (biography). 12 February 2020
 Cows under attack. 31 January 2020   
For papers written before 2008 please see the 'Papers and Articles' page.  


 Ragwort, Giant hogweed and Sheep         06 June 2023

May 15-21 2023 was Invasive Species Week. It probably passed unnoticed by most people although it is unlikely they would fail to notice the profusion of a yellow-flowered plant that has invaded uncultivated areas of grassland and wasteland. There also is a white-flowered plant that is found in similar areas and attracts attention by its huge size growing to over 15ft in height. Both these plants are dangerous. The latter, Giant hogweed, is a non-native, invasive toxic weed. The former, Ragwort, also is toxic and its threat was evidenced by the need for a Ragwort Control Act 2003. Both plants are covered by the Weeds Act 1959 and both are a danger to both animals and humans.

Ragwort contains chemicals (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) that are toxic to livestock and has been responsible for the deaths of horses, cattle and other animals. They accumulate and cause liver poisoning and eventually death. The ability of farmers to take preventative measures to reduce the risk of ragwort spreading is limited as it often appears on areas adjacent to their land, such as wasteland or roadside verges, where control measures have not been applied.

Giant hogweed, a native of Russia, poses a serious threat to animals and humans. It has phototoxic sap which causes a phytophotodermatitis, a reaction whereby DNA is damaged and prevents skin protecting itself from sunlight. The resulting burns and blisters may last for several weeks and may recur over months or even years. It is listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales which makes it an offence to plant it in the wild or let it escape into the wild. It now can be found throughout much of the UK, especially on waste ground, roadside verges and river banks. In addition to damaging health, its spread threatens native biodiversity and can harm the environment as it out-competes native plants and reduces species diversity.

Control measures have proved ineffective as evidenced by the rapid spread of both plants, and responsibility for control often is neglected. But two recent studies both point towards the same chance to overcome the threat. A study in 2022, led by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover, discovered that grazing ragwort-infested pastures with sheep increased the yield of other herbs by more than 50% while reducing the amount of ragwort. Sheep continuously and preferentially selected ragwort, ingesting up to 5 kg per animal per day, and suffered no ill-effects. An earlier trial in 2019 by the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative had also demonstrated the ability of sheep to control an infestation of Giant hogweed alongside the River Deveron. The report of the trial stated: “The sheep did what we hoped they would do and ate away at the Giant hogweed plants with no ill-effects - - - we can look to clear the site of the dangerous Giant hogweed to make it safer for everyone to enjoy. The sheep developed a taste for Giant hogweed leaves and grazed the plants to the extent that they effectively suppressed hogweed growth across the site”.

Good press for sheep is rare. Mostly they have been the focus of ill-judged attacks from a miscellany of misinformed sources. They are implicated by ongoing media noise and column inches that attempt to blame ruminant livestock for the global warming crisis. But when the smokescreen of vindictive militant veganism, the hypocrisy of carbon-offsetting scams (i.e. claiming to justify the greenhouse gases from private jet flights by planting a tree), and the vote-grabbing short-termism of political naivety are removed, we can see sheep in a more favourable light. They are an integral part of balanced systems of grazing wherein they enhance biodiversity such as in conservation of alpine flora in Upper Teesdale, or in the creation of fire breaks to reduce the spread of forest fires in Spain and USA. They help to counter global warming by their contribution to the safe and efficient sequestration of carbon achieved in upland grassland by the interdependent trinity of soil organic matter, long-term grassland and grazing livestock. Far from being a threat to sustainability of life on Earth, sheep are making a positive contribution to quality of life in many ways.

 Epitome of Inequality         29 September 2022

September 2022 will enter the annals of British history as the month when the offices of prime minister and head of state changed hands almost in unison of timing if not unison of accord. But its significance is much deeper than a coincidental accident, as both changes served to highlight the deficiencies of democracy in modern Britain.

On 6 September when Liz Truss was elected leader of the ruling Conservative party she automatically became prime minister. She replaced a flawed incumbent, who had held office for only three years, after emerging victorious from the rigour of lengthy hustings and public debate. Nevertheless she was able to assume the senior political role without endorsement by the British public. Opposition parties and other critics were not slow to clamour for a general election to endorse (or reject) her elevation in status.

Two days later the head of state died after a tenure of 70 years. Huge headlines sprawled across the front pages of both broadsheets and tabloids, TV channels became monotopical, royal sympathisers queued for miles for a brief opportunity to see the coffin, and 17 days of mourning were declared regardless of the consequential loss of earnings by many poorer citizens. In the midst of such mass hysteria there was indecent haste to shoe-in the replacement head of state; no election, no critical evaluation, but rather detainment of legitimate protesters by police and an immediate ritual dictated by birth right. Yet the flaws of the dysfunctional family that claims the automatic right to rule make the transgressions of elected politicians pale into insignificance.

The media and political opponents pinned a ‘Partygate’ label firmly on Boris Johnson’s lapel. It made reader-attracting headlines. His positive policies of levelling-up (scuppered by the pandemic), and work with the vaccine rollout and support for Ukraine were largely ignored. Similarly, ‘Watergate’ still defines Richard Nixon despite the huge significance of his enlightened foreign policies. Jeremy Corbyn is marginalised regularly as an éminence grise by his successor, yet he undoubtedly remains a champion of some underprivileged sectors of the population. So much for flaws of elected politicians as fodder for the media, but if our elected representatives are subjected to such intense critical scrutiny, then any unelected representatives deserve even closer scrutiny.

Examination of issues that surround unelected constitutional office holders immediately reveals inconsistency. In the frenzy of sycophantic grovelling, and mass hysteria spin-off, the negative aspects of the covert installation of a new head of state scarcely rippled the surface of ingratiating media. Layers of obfuscation and adulation, honed by the establishment to defend the indefensible, have permeated swathes of the national psyche. Unprejudiced analysis permits a more realistic perspective and leads to a simple question – how can a feudal structure that is the epitome of inequality survive in a genuine democracy while the beneficiaries bask smugly in rapturous acclaim? Nepotism was blatant in the funeral procession which followed the coffin of the deceased head of state – left breasts adorned by arrays of unearned medals, titles scattered liberally around the family, admirals who never served at sea, colonels-in-chief who never saw military conflict. It is a family squabbling over titles which none has earned, occupying palace ‘courtesy’ apartments for select family members, continually amassing extraordinary wealth and clinging grimly to anachronistic privilege by every means at their disposal. It was described succinctly (Daily Mirror) as a ‘Ruritanian farce’.

Their life of privilege and extravagance comes under closer scrutiny when normal hard-working people are struggling to survive. The effects of global warming, the coronavirus pandemic, escalating cost of living, energy prices and food shortages as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, industrial action by trade unions and taxation policy, have combined to widen the poverty gap in a country which ranks among the richer nations in the world. We are not just talking Kensington and Knightsbridge where the gap between rich and poor is highly visible, extreme and disgusting in its scale. The poor in every part of the country are suffering, desperately attempting to balance their budget to choose between heating and eating while they rely on food banks and philanthropic generosity. It is demeaning and soul-destroying, exacerbated by run-down accommodation. Yet they still they must contribute to tax payments to enable the country to operate. That includes funding a wealthy family which has exemption from tax (including income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax) and thereby exempt from poverty and underprivilege. As millions of citizens, who fund their extravagance, continue to suffer, royalty rests securely behind its exemption from deserved prosecution.

Two major questions must be answered. First, what rationale justifies an arrangement whereby one wealthy family is enabled to accumulate excessive wealth by exemption from national fiscal policy? Second, is it reasonable to accept that a family with serious flaws of conduct and character should occupy the position of head of state on the basis of birth right?

The argument that tourism generated by the royal family justifies their privileges does not bear scrutiny. The five palaces open to visitors, of which Windsor Castle is the most popular, currently generate an annual yield of £10 million. But in the republic of France Versailles attracts six times more visitors than Windsor Castle. The cost of the royal family to the taxpayer now totals more than £200 million of which about half is for royal security. It cannot be calculated precisely because the details are hidden and their wills are not subject to probate. The annual income from the Duchys of Lancaster and Cornwall and the Crown Estates is more than £300 million, and their wealth (including Balmoral and Sandringham estates) can be calculated conservatively at more than £17 billion. A man or woman on the minimum wage, a self-employed tradesman or a small honest businessman can be forgiven for objecting to such flagrant disparity in income for effort. It is impossible and irresponsible to ignore the unsustainable unfairness of the monarchical system in Britain.

Objections to the royal family assume a more serious and moral dimension when the attitudes and misdemeanours of family members are evaluated. They have been detailed in many column inches of the press in recent years and a brief summary here will suffice to convey the unacceptability of retaining a dysfunctional family at the apex of our constitutional system. What are the symptoms of their dysfunctionality? The excesses of the royal family are burned into its history. To mention just a few: abdication of Edward VIII, financial extravagance of Elizabeth the Queen Mother who left debts of £7 million; Princess Margaret’s hedonistic lifestyle in Mustique and London condoned only because she was royalty. They continue today in the same vein; the Duke and Duchess of Sussex renouncing responsibilities but demanding privileges; ‘air miles’ Andy (Duke of York), who deserves an even more damning soubriquet in view of his association with paedophiles, denounced by the people of York; the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) a supporter of the paedophile Bishop of Lewes and complicit in the receipt of Bin Laden ‘cash in bags’. Through all their transgressions they still expect and demand feudal style subjection from the British people.

It is time to say enough is enough. We all are equal with the right of equality of opportunity. We are citizens not subjects. Democracy demands that we elect our leaders and hold them to account. Common decency demands that we reject privileged birth right, especially when it is tarnished.

PS By coincidence an article in Metro on 29 September pursued the same theme. Graham Smith called for abolition of the monarchy, an archaic institution anchored in feudal elitism and fundamentally unable to modernise. It persists only by virtue of mythology and humiliating deference of its adherents, despite its subversion of values of democracy, equality and rule of law. Smith would consider I was too kind to the monarchy. He calculates the cost of its taxpayer-funded luxury as more than £345 million, and the avoidance by King Charles of inheritance tax on his mother's estate as more than £650 million. He also confirms the hypocrisy of the family (especially with regard to the environment), its secrecy, lack of accountability and misuse of public funds. Smith is part of the growing chorus of British citizens who wish to live in modern democratic equality rather than anachronistic subjection.

 Back in Business         26 September 2022

For two years we have dodged Covid-19 in its various disguises. We accepted lockdown, self-isolated, became anti-social in remote staycations, cancelled overwintering in Spain, and ensured we were jabbed whenever the vaccine was offered. Finally Covid caught us, although fairly mildly, and now we feel free to return to some normality and extend our social activity beyond close family. Being confined to barracks had some advantages - two books to be exact. One is described on the WELCOME page and I hope 'Precarious Planet' will be read widely as it not only cuts through the confusion of misinformation and self-interested lobbying which are driving the world to destruction, but also offers an evidence-based path back to normality. Of course, it will be a new normality and obstructive agents still will pose a threat, but nevertheless I judged that a positive formula was essential to counteract current negativity.

 Lockdown and Open Up         20 February 2021

During the last year Covid-19 has dominated our lives. Anyone reasonably blessed with intelligence and a sense of responsibility could not fail to understand the threat of this new coronavirus and it justifiably became a powerful force which shaped our lives. The vaccines that now race to our rescue allow other issues to resurface. Climate change, land degradation and loss of biodiversity have continued to erode the sustainability of life on Earth, and we still face the same critical deadlines as before. But now we will have more time and energy to focus on those problems again. The atmospheric pollution that declined so drastically as a result of reduced industrial activity during the early months of the pandemic will resume its damaging impact as industry roars back to life. No decline in plastic pollution occurred, it only accelerated as attention was diverted from it. It is essential these major issues now occupy our attention.

I had an opportunity recently to engage Jeremy Cherfas in discussion on his podcast He had read 'The Quest to Conserve Rare Breeds' and was interested to delve more deeply into several issues discussed in the book. Despite the title, rare breeds were only one part of the discussion. It was an opportunity for wide-ranging debate on those issues which had been relegated to the background by Covid-19. I commend the podcast to you. Jeremy's ability to identify key points enabled our debate to explore not only the conservation of animal genetic resources (rare and native breeds), but also associated topics. Misinformation is rife, as my earlier blogs have revealed, and it has not taken a back seat at any point. We reviewed some items of misinformation, and hopefully there is an increasing awareness of the need to seek out the truth more urgently. Holstein dairy cattle and Thoroughbred racehorses are seemingly secure breeds with a global presence, but they may be at risk even more than some rare breeds and their current dominance has a negative effect on biodiversity. Climate change continues with extreme events, with floods and droughts depleting the productive ability of the remaining agricultural land. The vast areas of grassland around the world remain a vital resource for extensive grazing by locally-adapted breeds which yields food, diversity, carbon sequestration and open space for recreation. 


Myths and Misinformation      21 September 2020

The recent publication of ‘The Quest to Conserve Rare Breeds’ (CABI 2020) was an event of mixed emotions. I experienced great pleasure and satisfaction, particularly as it enhanced my earlier work, ‘The Chance to Survive’ (1978, further editions 1989 and 1994), with a modern perspective. On the other hand, it also rekindled memories of negative aspects that tarnished a remarkable and vital conservation movement. The failure to preserve the memory of those who played a major role in the creation and development of the movement not only showed a regrettable lack of respect for them but also dilated the importance of others whose obsession with self-aggrandisement led them to manipulate publicity and deliberately foster misconceptions. In short, serial misinformation and untruths. The sub-title of ‘The Quest’ is not accidental, it is there for a purpose – ‘Setting the record straight’.

Untruth. A multitude of words in the English language are synonyms of ‘untruth’. Some, such as ‘fib’ (early 1600s), ‘porky pies’ (Cockney rhyming slang) or ‘cock and bull story’ (French), are amusing or maybe a means in casual conversation to call someone a ‘liar’ without risking  litigation. In contrast, ‘mendacity’, ‘duplicity’, ‘deceitfulness’, ‘misinformation’ and many other terms denote dishonesty without equivocation. The vocabulary is large and even more words have a similar meaning. They are sufficiently numerous to make it reasonable to believe dishonesty is a normal human characteristic. Of course some children are reared in a family where honesty is revered, but is their compliance natural or achieved by subliminal coercion? Is honesty a congenital trait? If so, there must be a threshold, which varies from person to person, beyond which one is susceptible to a temptation to lapse into dishonesty. Can anyone claim, without fear of contradiction, they have never told a lie. Very few I guess. Criminals thrive on dishonesty, moral ineptitude offers little incentive to remain honest, and even a naturally truthful person may succumb if a temptation or threat is sufficiently great.

Maybe we should not be surprised if a high proportion of the population has become inured to dishonesty. How can it be expected otherwise when obfuscation and prevarication has been used habitually by our political leaders and their advisors. The latter are prone to extreme postures and wild statements, assuming an arrogant authority unjustified by their record of (un)achievement. David King is wheeled out regularly by BBC as an expert opinion, yet his legacy and claim as an ‘expert’ rests on his record as the chief scientific adviser who oversaw the slaughter in 2001 of more than 10 million animals, most of which were healthy. I discount his opinions in the same way that a group of scientists exposed his shortcomings so nakedly during a debate in 2004. On that occasion he retreated from the meeting in embarrassment. Similarly scribblings of some elements of the media suggest they may be trying to settle an old score rather than honestly address an important issue. The ‘Cow apocalypse’ outburst by a Guardian columnist on Channel 4 in January deserved the derision it received. It might have been dismissed as an April Fool type of joke, had it not been such a wild and dangerous concept.

The cult of the ‘spin doctor’, evident spectacularly during the Blair interval of government, has made dishonesty seem normal. There now seems to be an expectation that politicians should be challenged. It often is justified, although when it occurs continually as an automatic reaction it can reduce the effectiveness of governmental business. When I was subjected to the doubtful privilege of a biography (unauthorised), my honest biographer recorded items and events which were faintly embarrassing – even the title ‘Anarchy or Establishment’ was intriguing. More ominous was his discovery of a tangled mass of deceitful misinformation seething below the apparently calm and respectable veneer of many areas and subjects that he researched. He exposed blatant examples that had escaped my notice even though I occupied a central role in the world of genetic conservation for half a century. He concluded that self-aggrandisement overcame honesty, not only in hard-nosed business and political arenas but even in philanthropic and charitable institutions.

My biographer may have discovered some examples of which I was unaware, but there were others he had not exposed or which for some reason he chose not to mention. Therefore, when CABI saw a need for a new book on genetic diversity and sustainability and asked me to write ‘The Quest’, I felt impelled to root out untruths, humbug and other deceptions more decisively and give a clear unvarnished record of the creation and development of the global movement focused on the conservation of genetic resources. Meeting misconceptions and misinformation head on justified ‘Setting the record straight’ as a sub-title. Why should we allow dishonesty and duplicity to travel unimpeded into the future in the guise of truth? Often it has been embedded so firmly that even the truth is disbelieved.

Misleading myths are not the exclusive preserve of the rare breeds conservation movement. Intensive agriculture is equally culpable. Intensive sustainability (an agricultural oxymoron) has been promoted as the solution to global food shortage. The need for greater production of food is obvious but intensive systems of production are the major culprits in degradation of productive land, soil loss and global warming, which cumulatively cause significant loss of biodiversity – a damning amalgam of negative effects. The linkage between biodiversity and sustainability is inescapable, and will become more critical as the global human population surges towards ten billion in 2050.

With a population of almost 70 million and 728 people in every square mile, Britain is a congested corner of Europe. In comparison France and Spain (65m and 321/sq mile; 47m and 244/sq mile respectively) have vast areas of open space. Britain also has a wide ethnic mix and an annual influx of 260,000 migrants (intensified further by illegal migration). These factors altogether create a complex problem, not only in production of food but also in speed of transmission of infections as evidenced by covid-19. The myths and associated accusations generated by the mass media and opportunistic politicians, feeding off news of migration, ethnicity and pandemics, obstruct positive action and divert attention from fundamental issues. A solution must incorporate a revolution in farming systems to minimise erosion of biodiversity, the use of cultivatable land for the production of food for humans (rather than animals), and the transfer of the focus of livestock farming to non-intensive (uncultivatable) grazing. An integral part of the ability to achieve a positive outcome is the need for policy-makers to understand that uncultivatable grassland (including heathland and moorland) is a key component. Its ability to sequester carbon and reduce the threat of flooding, while providing grazing for food-producing livestock and open landscape space for a mainly urban populace, is an impressive combination of benefits. It should give uncultivatable grassland priority over other options such as characterless forestry or urban sprawl, both of which are favoured by powerful vested interests. Yet another example of self-interest suppressing and marginalising the truth.

The link between ‘The Quest to Conserve Rare Breeds’ and current global crises may not be immediately apparent, but it is real. The common thread running through misinformation on genetic conservation and global warming also includes resistance to control of covid-19 (face masks, social-distancing) by some segments of the population. It demonstrates prioritisation of self-interest and lack of respect for others, and is a sad commentary on human nature. Although only a small part of the desire to counteract those unwelcome traits, nevertheless it is important to realise that native and locally-adapted breeds of livestock are an integral part of sustainability. They contribute to biodiversity which is a vital element of sustainability, and it was essential that a truthful record of their role was published before it became obscured in the mists of time.


Media Madness and Negativity 30 May 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic coincided with the appointment of a new leader of the Labour party. There was little fanfare but there was a glimmer of hope that confrontational aggression and personal invective, so evident in recent years, might be abandoned. The declaration by Sir Keir Starmer that he would adopt a responsible attitude in his new role in recognition of the need for unity in a national crisis raised expectations. It did not take long for any hope or optimism to be dashed. Strident criticism of the Prime Minister soon became his trademark, despite attempts to camouflage it as ‘forensic cross-examination’, and inevitably was echoed by similar sentiments in left-leaning tabloids. Kevin Maguire (I quoted him on 4 April in a previous blog) offered his opinion in the columns of the Daily Mirror that the “PM is a truth-twisting, cynical liar”. So when the Dominic Cummings drama occurred the stage was set for the worst traits of political and media polarisation. Starmer’s humbug was exposed when he demanded Cummings’ scalp for damaging the spirit of the regulations, whilst conveniently ignoring the misdemeanours of Labour MPs who blatantly broke the regulations.

I have no liking or sympathy for the cult of the ‘spin doctor’, exposed in its worst aspects by the tenure of Alistair Campbell during the regrettable Blair era of ‘sofa government’ and the Iraq War. Undue influence of unelected advisors is unfortunate in a democratic system, and so I viewed Dominic Cummings with suspicion. He is an abrasive character whose conduct on issues such as Brexit has accumulated many enemies. He must have expected that his ruthlessness would attract similar behaviour in return. However, I set my personal feelings and his reputation aside as I evaluated his dash to Durham.

The news broke suddenly and gathered rapid momentum, even though the incident occurred weeks earlier. I listened to the 70-minute inquisition in the garden at No. 10 when he faced a pack of journalists fuming with a festering agenda and baying for blood. The press corps then proceeded to confirm how it is mired in a culture of blame, or maybe revenge in this case. In a time of national crisis, which results from external factors beyond our control, we do not want or need negativity, yet once again the assembled journalists provided high-profile evidence that negativity is their natural modus operandi. Endless repetition of futile questions demonstrated both the questioners intellectual paucity and the focus of their tunnel vision on their selected target. Even the BBC was moved to condemn the biased vituperations of Ms Maitlis, presenter on its flagship Newsnight programme. There seems little chance they will ever convey a more positive mood and propose hope rather than damnation.

Cummings was like a hunted animal at bay which maybe was natural justice, but as his story unfolded I felt a twinge of empathy. There were items which were less than convincing, but I asked myself what I would have done if I had been in his position. If I was living in a house, where my wife was unwell and my child was young, besieged and abused by press and other aggressive individuals – what were the options? I would have sought the best situation for my family that did not endanger others. I sympathise with his decision to seek isolated refuge in a remote cottage where support for his wife and child was available if necessary. He did not create a danger of spreading the virus and he returned to work when his wife and child recovered and after his mandatory 14-day recovery from Covid-19. I weighed those facts against his suspect trip to the environs of Barnard Castle (my home town) but otherwise I have to accept that possibly his motivation may have been genuine and his actions were within the letter of the regulations.

My doubts revolve around the perceived lack of adherence to the spirit of the regulations, and that it might be interpreted as elite privilege. Jackson Carlaw, Scottish Conservative Party leader, identified the core issue. Much of the tabloid press, abetted by the odd broadsheet and the BBC, is generating an ongoing negative furore which distracts attention from the major issues being tackled by the government, and that is the focus of concern. Opposition parties, prompted by Sir Ian Blackford’s grim compulsion to criticise, will strive to keep the issue alive. The campaign against Cummings, developed covertly by the Observer and Mirror since late March until it was launched in late May (8 weeks after Cummings drove out of London), does little to help the battle to beat the virus. But doubtless it will achieve an objective of stirring up public opinion and encouraging flouting of policies designed to end the pandemic. That campaign ultimately must be held responsible for any new spike in Covid-19 infection and deserves even greater condemnation than errors committed by Cummings.

Some parts of the media, such as the Telegraph and Express, have taken a more balanced position. They recognise the danger inherent in the decision by Cummings to travel from London to Durham, but they have urged us (politicians and populace) to move forward and focus on important issues – battle global warming, reduce regional and personal inequality, continue to combat the virus and reduce ‘R’ so that lock-down can be lifted, not in any way to suggest approval of the irresponsible 15-20% of the population which jam-packed beaches and beauty spots, but to enable shops and businesses to re-open and allow the economy to set us on the road to recovery. It will be a long and rough road and we can well do without the negative attitudes of snide political interventions or questionable media motivation.


The Climate Battleground: Grassland or Forest 06 May 2020

Nostalgia. The title of Tom Jones' album, 'The Green, Green Grass of Home' released in 1967, still rouses powerful nostalgia for the rural landscape of Britain. Similar sentiments are experienced by other nationalities, but grass is particularly relevant in Britain. It provides open spaces in our congested country with a population density of more than 700 people per square mile. It ranges in type from lush lowland meadows through upland pastures and heath to open moorland. Some types are special and particular to Britain. The mild moist climate of the temperate ecosystem at the north-western fringe of Europe provides the best conditions for its growth and its ability to play a major role in ensuring the sustainability of planet Earth. Yet in current muddled thinking, precipitated by global warming, its importance often is ignored. It shares the temperate latitudes with deciduous forest and some ardent arboreal environmentalists regard grass as an unnecessary ingredient. Clamour for 'wall-to-wall' tree planting recommended by extreme proponents would see acres of grassland and heath sacrificed in the blinkered focus on trees. Trees have an important part to play in the drama of climate change, but they must be kept in a sensible perspective.

Flooding risk. Several misconceptions, possibly fostered in some cases to support a personal agenda, conspire to prevent a rational interpretation of the relative value of trees and grazing land. Forests are reputed to retain water more effectively and thus reduce the risk of flooding downstream. Yet the opposite may be true. Protecting and restoring peatland, a major store of carbon, is a higher priority. Ditches have been blocked in the northern Pennine moorland by responsible owners attempting to refresh the peat which enables it to act as a sponge much more efficiently than forests. Their efforts to deliver 'public goods' in compliance with governmental policy contrasted starkly with the management of neighbouring land where the Forestry Commission (a non-ministerial government department) planted huge expanses of Sitka spruce and dug ditches deep into the peat to achieve rapid drainage and thereby caused soil loss and erosion and increased risk of flooding.

Trees in perspective. Carbon sequestration creates a more serious misconception. It almost has become accepted wisdom that tree-planting is a sine qua non in the struggle to reach the target of 'zero carbon' by 2050. Media pundits and advisers to government have joined extremists on the planting 'wall to wall' bandwagon in support of trees. A very different picture emerges when emotion and prejudiced opinion are set aside. The ability of trees to sequester carbon in all ecosystems cannot be disputed; they take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in their biomass and leaves. In a global context temperate forests are less efficient than other forest ecosystems. Northern boreal (coniferous) forests store the greatest amount of carbon per hectare with a high proportion held in the soil. Tropical forests sequester and store more than temperate forests with 50% in biomass. The rate of carbon sequestration is significantly lower in cooler climates and in old forests. So far so good on a global scale, but when a tree is harvested or destroyed the carbon is released directly back into the atmosphere. Forest fires account for an annual loss of an area equivalent to the size of Italy (c.300K km2). They are a regular occurrence in hot and arid areas such as Australia and California, but they also occur in temperate and northern areas and are expected to increase with global warming. In 2014 there were record-breaking wildfires in Canada's boreal forests, and in 2017 1.2 million hectares burnt in Europe. More than forty years ago (1976) a forest fire destroyed 50,000 trees in the moist mild climate of Dorset in southern England. A further 180K km2 of forest are harvested or eliminated annually through deforestation, insect damage, disease and other causes. Thus a total loss of almost fifty million hectares of destroyed forest feeds its stored carbon directly into the atmosphere each year.

Value of grassland. Grassland also sequesters carbon. As with forests, the rate of sequestration varies, but in most circumstances the rate is lower than forests achieve in a comparable ecosystem. The critical difference is that grassland stores sequestered carbon reliably and safely. The substantial stocks of carbon in temperate grassland ecosystems are located below ground in roots and soil and are 150% greater than those in temperate forest (Climate Policy Watchers, 2019). They are protected from fire, and there is evidence that storage capacity could increase further as temperatures rise with global warming and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is augmented by ongoing global emissions.

Apart from wetlands and boreal forest ecosystems, temperate grasslands are notable as the largest store of soil carbon. The carbon stored per hectare (to a depth of one metre) by extensive grassland is 25% greater than that stored by intensive grassland (Ward et al, 2016). Disturbance of soil, which occurs in the growing of arable crops, is a significant cause of carbon emissions. When grassland is converted to cropland soil carbon stocks are halved. Equally significant there is a 10% decline when grassland is converted to forest plantation (Ostle et al, 2009) which confirms the value of grassland compared to forestry and emphasises the value of permanent pasture compared with the unsustainability of current methods of cultivation of crop land.

Combined value. Resolution of the question of the relative merits of grassland and forests is obstructed by prejudiced opinions and extremist argument. The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has made several important recommendations, but its proposal that 30% of grassland could be converted to forest cannot be justified as a bald statement. It could be applied to intensively managed grassland unless that was used to grow human food crops, but as it stands the proposal ignores the critical value of extensive grassland. Without essential clarification that extensive grassland is not included in the proposal it would require highly sensitive choices between grazing livestock and expanding forests. It would change the character of the countryside if the familiar sights of food-producing cattle and sheep were replaced with serried ranks of Sitka spruce. It should not be a case of one replacing the other. Grassland and forests both have an important role to play. Forests rely primarily on their sheer volume of biomass, but also on potential increased use of wood in paper manufacture, boat-building and construction. Permanent grassland, heathland and moorland combine their value as secure carbon sinks with improved biodiversity, and providing grazing for environmentally-adapted breeds of sheep and cattle which also have heritage value as part of local or national culture (Thwaites, 2019). The combined value of forests and grassland is the key, either in dedicated separate areas or in integrated silvopastoral systems such as wood-pasture which is a promising option for achieving effective carbon sequestration in a multi-purpose context.

Climate Policy Watchers. 2019. Carbon stocks in vegetation and top metre of soil. Report modified from: Watson, R.T. et al. 2000. IPCC Special Report on Land Use, Land-Use change and Forestry.

Ostle, NJ, Levy, PE, Evans, CD and Smith, P. 2009. UK land use and soil carbon sequestration. Science Direct: Land Use Policy, Volume 26, Supplement 1, pp 5274-5283

Thwaites, H. 2019. Anarchy or Establishment. Hayloft Publishing

Ward, SE, Smart, SM, Quirk, H, Tallowin, JRB, Mortimer, SR, Shiel, RS, Wilby, A & Bardgatt, RD. 2016. Legacy effects of grassland management on soil carbon to depth. Global Change Biology. Doi:10.1111/gcb.13246

The issues discussed in this blog are elaborated in greater detail in my book:

The Quest to Conserve Rare Breeds: setting the record straight

It deals with the rare breeds movement from its foundation to the present and explores future options in a changing environment during the next thirty years. Illustrated with 120 images, it will be published by CABI in the summer ( Note: the manuscript for the book was completed before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe.


Fighting the Virus 22nd April 2020

As we settled into a new routine demanded by the need to control the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) pandemic, our minds turned from the initial apprehension which gripped us when we understood the severity of the situation and began to evaluate the contributory factors more rationally. There are factors which lie outside our control. There is little we can do about our age, gender, compromised immunity or underlying medical conditions. But we all can make choices about taking exercise, following a healthy diet, observing social-distancing and not smoking, especially the latter as we know smokers have more ACE2 receptors which facilitate infection by SARS-Cov-2. As responsible citizens we give support to those leading our fight against the pandemic. Unity is an energising inspiration in a time of national crisis.

Government policy. Our course is plotted by the policy of social-distancing favoured by government and it follows a precarious path between the risk to the future of the economy and the threat of another wave of infection if controls are lifted too soon. It is a policy of reason, pursued with advice from medical and health experts, designed to slow the rate of infection and keep demands on the NHS within its capacity, but its success depends on a higher level of compliance than has been evident thus far. It also places great reliance on sourcing vital materials from abroad. We have come to rely on the importation of less expensive goods. While that arrangement may function efficiently in normal circumstances its vulnerability was exposed in this emergency. Urgent supplies for the NHS failed when goods from China were defective and a shipment from Turkey was delayed.

Automatic criticism is an irritating and frequent habit betrayed by some sectors of the public and the media, and inevitably it is aimed at the government. Amid a rising crescendo of complaint it is right to deplore petty point-scoring and empty questions for which no sensible answer is possible, but also reasonable to explore both the reasons for our high level of infection and deaths from Covid-19 and issues which may compromise our fight against the pandemic. Some sectors of the community place the highest priority on their own interests. In some cases that may be reprehensible. The 15% or so who indulge their frivolities in defiance of the public interest are irresponsible and selfish. Demands for financial assistance from a myriad of struggling businesses and organisations have validity in most cases but can not easily be satisfied totally and must be prioritised. Demands from others with huge assets deserve a sharp rebuttal. The best outcome for both biosecurity and business recovery will be achieved by maintaining a sensible balance, but I doubt whether even that will quell the chronic complainers.

We are a major European country and it is instructive to measure our national performance against results in France and Spain. All three countries fall into temperate latitudes on the Atlantic coast, have a democratic government, and a population of circa 50-70 million. Yet there are significant differences. Our government faces an extra hazard of a remarkably congested country with a population density of more than 700 people per square mile which compares with 240 for Spain and 320 for France. High density is expected to accelerate the spread of infection, yet Covid-19 hospital deaths in UK up to 19 April had reached 237 per million of the total population, while the comparable figures for France and Spain were 302 and 437 respectively. Evaluation of our results must take those factors into account.

Preparedness.The intense impact of SARS in 2003 was felt in primarily South-East Asia. South Korea was determined not to suffer a repeat of SARS and prepared a defence strategy with appropriate supplies and structures to combat any future pandemic. The severity of that SARS infection restricted its geographical spread and Europe was spared its worst havoc. Consequently, Europe was not incentivised to make plans comparable to those in South Korea as it had not suffered the same level of damage from SARS. When the relatively light infection of Covid-19 enabled it to spread out of China with alarming speed, passing South Korea at an early stage, Europe was caught in a state of unreadiness and inexperience. During the first two weeks in UK and France the rate of infection was much lower than in the comparable period in South Korea, but thereafter cases in Europe accelerated while the prepared procedures and stored equipment in South Korea flattened the increase in infection. After seven weeks the number of infections in both UK and France were more than ten times greater than in South Korea. No doubt the impact of Covid-19 will be imprinted on European minds so firmly that they will prepare a defence against any future pandemic.

Ethnicity. It may be a diversion from the current focal effort of developing reliable antibody tests and vaccines but several issues relating to ethnicity deserve attention in a post-pandemic wash-up. A BBC report on 19 April focused on statements by the BMA (British Medical Association) chief, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, which demanded that data on the ethnicity of Covid-19 patients should be recorded and published. The report stated that 14% of people in England and Wales are from an ethnic minority background, but currently 34% of critically ill coronavirus patients are identified as black, Asian or minority ethnic by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre. Possible reasons for the significant discrepancy between these figures include overcrowding, lower paid jobs and lower socioeconomic grouping of ethnic minorities. Clearly those reasons are valid, but attention also should be directed to underlying causal factors such as imported cultural values and family structures. In many ethnic minority groups there is a tradition of strong multi-generational family units, which permit easier spread of infection, and consanguineous marriages, which may expose recessive syndromes and reduce natural immunity. It is likely that genetic resistance or susceptibility to particular infections will vary from group to group. Those factors will confuse and obstruct an effective evaluation of social factors, but the fact remains that ethnic minorities play a major role in our health service and it is a high priority to protect them from the threat of Covid-19.

Data from North America throws some further light on ethnicity susceptibility. In Illinois black people comprise only 14% of the population but account for 41% of Covid-19 deaths. In Michigan African Americans account for 33% of the coronavirus cases and 41% of deaths, but again are only 14% of the population. Those data compare closely with British results. Data from Florida follow a similar pattern for black people, but show separate information for Hispanics who have mortality rates less than half the level expected from their numbers in the population. It may be further evidence that genetic factors are at work.

Personal issues. The WHO has attracted considerable criticism for its management of Covid-19 and earlier pandemics, but its basic advice to individuals follows a simple and more obvious formula. It draws attention to the importance of exercise, a balanced diet and danger of dependence on alcohol or drugs. It has been a surprising side-effect of the lifestyle imposed by Covid-19 that regular exercise has improved my fitness (see 'weight' below), the lock-down has increased my work output (mainly books and blogs), and an established routine provides a reassuring foundation for mental relaxation. Diet is a key part of that success. Being unable to dine out has highlighted the benefits and delights of home-cooking. We enjoy a balanced and varied diet and we are aware in particular of the value of some key elements such as omega 3 and 7 fatty acids and choline. Therefore beef and lamb (only pasture-fed), dairy products of all types, fish (wild oily species), free-range eggs, cauliflower and leafy greens, appear regularly on our lunch table accompanied by a glass of red wine.

Weight and Obesity. At a personal level I do not disagree fundamentally with a recent report from Medical Life Sciences warning that "Overweight and obese people are also at a higher risk of developing severe coronavirus disease". Clearly obesity reduces resistance to disease for several reasons, not least that layers of fat inhibit breathing, but the definition of people with a body mass index (BMI) 25-30 as overweight is less reliable. My BMI is 28 and has been at that level (plus or minus a point or so) for 60 years during times when I was an active sportsman. I am not fat. BMI is simply an expression of my body shape and that would apply to many fit and healthy rugby players, athletes, boxers and wrestlers. Recognition of that fact would change the emphasis of a report from icnarc (Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre). It studied admissions to critical care units and concluded that "seven in 10 patients admitted in intensive care units in the United Kingdom with coronavirus were those who are obese or overweight" because they included 31.64% who were in the 25-30 BMI range. If those were removed it would redirect the focus of attention to genuinely overweight/obese people in the >30 BMI category who comprise 40% of the population.

Recipe for Success. The eclectic mix of concepts outlined above gives some room for optimism that the virus can be beaten, but their disparate nature indicates the complexity of solutions that must be applied to enable a return to normality. It requires willing partnership and common purpose between government and the populace. It should allow no room for self-interest in either political or social arenas, no sniping from the sidelines or petty whingeing, no sinking into a swamp of alcohol dependency or binge eating. There will be time to fall into such bad habits when the crisis has passed, but for now there is a need for everyone to concentrate in unison on the job in hand.


Biosecurity or Biodiversity  17 April 2020

Our local town council has posted "Do not feed the birds" notices at strategic points on public walkways. Their purpose is not to deprive swans and ducks of a few extra crumbs thrown in the water, but rather to prevent disease, vermin and the proliferation of pests. No one could argue sensibly with such a policy taken in the public interest. Yet it is not unusual to see a dense flock of pigeons and hordes of swooping gulls gorging on bread and grain dispensed by a member of the public who is either devoid of commonsense or ignorant of the council's policy, or maybe even deliberately anti-social. Aggressive gulls, emboldened by hand-feeding, have hit the headlines too often. Pigeons are a proliferating pest which damage crops and are a source of disease in their guano-smothered roosts. The feed intended for them attracts rats and other vermin. The same issue can be applied to grey squirrels. In their case the problem is 'alien species'. They damage trees and predate the nests of birds, and have pushed native red squirrels to the margin of endangerment, and yet they also benefit from misplaced human beneficence.

There is a temptation to excuse such behaviour as natural instinct or affinity for animals, a wish to relate to 'lovely furry creatures'. A more realistic opinion would point to a woeful inability, or maybe unwillingness, to understand the ongoing ramifications of their actions and longer term ecological impact. It is less easy to excuse those in positions of authority and influence who are implicated. At times they seem determined to pursue their own narrow agenda, irrespective of wider issues. The ill-conceived and damaging coincidence of the tunnel vision opinions of BBC's natural history advisor and Natural England (non-departmental governmental body) required the government to over-rule their pigeon culling policy. Vital ecological balances are disturbed when any species runs out of control. Culling pigeons, badgers, foxes and deer is a sine qua non. Pigeon feeders and some nature ideologists need to develop a broader and more responsible understanding of nature.

Biodiversity is a factor of great importance to maintain sustainability of life on Earth but it must be interpreted and applied in the context other factors. Biosecurity must take precedence in some circumstances. I was immersed in the opposing arguments when Defra decreed that all sheep with the ARQ allele (i.e. susceptible to scrapie) should be culled. That would have led to the extinction of seaweed-eating North Ronaldsay sheep. In this case biodiversity was eventually upheld and the breed continues to contribute its genetic diversity to the ovine gene pool. Scrapie presents no threat to the human population and the disease can easily be controlled without resorting to extinction. In other cases biosecurity should prevail. Should we not seek extinction of the tick that causes Lyme disease, in the way we celebrated the elimination of the smallpox pathogen. There are about 40 zoonoses recognised by Defra in Britain, ranging from toxoplasmosis carried by cats to tuberculosis transmitted by badgers, and each should be evaluated case by case.

The current coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic has raised the significance of these issues to an unprecedented level. We are accustomed to the regular emergence from China of an avian influenza epidemic and have learnt to live with them. I survived the 1957 Asian flu epidemic when 14,000 people died in Britain in six months and I was one of only three boys in my school who did not succumb to the infection. But that was mild compared with the recent succession of major pandemics, the last of which has shown once again the irresponsibility of some of the British populace who have defied the government's advice to "Stay Home" in order to pursue their own selfish frivolities. The likely route of infection in each case was bats to cats in SARS, bats to camels in MERS and bats to pangolin in Covid-19. Looking at cause rather than control, bats are the common factor. I consider I am a conservationist, but when it comes to the crunch question I have to pause and analyse my options and priorities. Is it more important to preserve a colony of bats than prevent a pandemic which might cause thousands, or even millions, of human deaths? I have no hesitation in that case - biosecurity should over-ride biodiversity. The Bat Conservation Trust would not agree with me, while others who are plagued by bat colonies might understand the question more clearly. It seems a less frenetic approach to conservation of bats and other wildlife could be part of a new understanding of a sustainable ecological balance and more particularly a sensible balance between biodiversity and biosecurity not compromised by ideological extremes. However, it may be wishful thinking to expect the feeders and protectors of pigeons and any others who consider themsleves above the policies of government, the regulations of local authorities or the interests of their fellow citizens, to develop a public-mided spirit of responsibility.

Failure to learn from previous challenges has been a recurring and disappointing commentary on the ability to control disease epidemics. Following the major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England in 1967 the Northumberland report contained recommendations to assist the control of future outbreaks. When an even more serious epizootic occurred in 2001 there was no evidence that the recommendations were considered. It seemed there was even a lack of awareness of the Northumberland report. It is essential the policies applied to control the coronavirus Covid-19 are analysed and the lessons learned are kept close at hand for ready reference.


A Chance to Change 10 April 2020

Dealing with the immediate and urgent challenges posed by Covid-19 understandably dominates the news channels. It demands priority. A threat of such global severity has not been encountered in living memory, unless you can remember the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-1919, although the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) in the mid-fourteenth century (1347-1351) killed a greater proportion of the population (LePan, 2020). We have witnessed the behaviour of those who put others at risk by ignoring government requests, or even flouting official instructions, but such is the unfairness of life that some of those whose conduct was irresponsible and selfish probably will escape unscathed, while others will be infected and for some the effect will be catastrophic.

However, in the process of recovery and rebuilding there may be an opportunity to learn lessons. A time to pause, reflect and re-evaluate the principles and ethics which dictate the conduct of modern civilisation. There is a chance to change, but I wonder if that opportunity will be used wisely. We have observed the lock-down of communities across the world designed to limit transmission of the virus, but there also has been a drastic reduction in industrial activity associated with it. The result was a remarkable dilution (even disappearance) of atmospheric pollution in those areas. The 'before' and 'after' maps of China and Europe were dramatically revealing (Letzer, 2020). Is it possible that world leaders will recognise that burning fossil fuels is the critical culprit leading to global warming and atmospheric pollution, and find an alternative source of energy? Is it conceivable that China and USA as the prime global polluters will take the chance to demonstrate responsible leadership?

There are other major issues that any 'new world' concept should incorporate. Some doom-mongers predict global warming may make the Earth uninhabitable by 2050. That may be true if the increase in temperature exceeds expectations, but other threats of comparable magnitude are looming. Land degradation is more insidious but has been persistently gnawing at Earth's surface. At the current annual rate of crop land degradation and soil loss (Oldeman et al, 1991; Global Environment Facility, 2020) the productivity of our functional terrestrial ecosystems will be insufficient to feed the predicted human global population of 10 billion in 2050.

The unsustainability of intensive systems of cultivation and production is the fundamental problem. They are a form of extremism which is a pernicious blight on modern civilisation, and a return to moderation must be an integral part of any long-term solution. Revised methods of crop production which minimise disturbance of the surface would reduce land degradation and soil loss. Replacing high-yield high-demand intensive livestock systems with locally-adapted native breeds would bring a combination of beneficial outcomes. In particular, it would increase biodiversity and mitigate climate change. Relocating grazing livestock to extensive upland pastures not only would release fertile land for the direct production of food for humans (Poux & Aubert, 2018), but also would allow significant food production from grassland in the uplands which combats global warming through its efficient carbon sequestration capacity - a dual benefit from a simple policy revision. Change is inevitable and a sustainable future requires everyone from political leaders to lowly cattle and sheep to play their part. 

Global Environment Facility, 2020. Land Degradation. Retrieved from:

LePan, N. 2020. History of Pandemics. Visual Capitalist; retrieved from:

Letzer, R. 2020. Coronavirus changes pollution over China. Live Science; retrieved from :

Oldeman, L.R., Hakkeling, R.T.A. and Sombroek, W.G. 1991. World map of the status of human-induced soil degradation. An explanatory note. Second revised edition. ISRIC and UNEP, 34 p

Poux, X. & Aubert, P-A. 2018. An agroecological Europe in 2050: multifunctional agriculture for healthy eating. Findings from the Ten Years for Agroecology (TYFA) modelling exercise. Iddri-ASca, Study N.09/18, Paris, France, 74p  


Whither democracy?    4 April 2020

During its long and eventful history democracy has been applied in various forms, sometimes clinging precariously to its principles when challenged by alternative political systems, but flourishing in 'western' cultures in recent centuries. Now it is faltering again and its future is unsure. It still is touted as a preferred and civilised option, but the justification is wearing thin. Communism is a relatively recent political ideology, which has some similar features, and may provide useful parallels which offer lessons and warnings for democracy.

Communism (Latin communis, "common") is an ideology whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a socioeconomic order based on principles of common ownership and the absence of class. It is a theoretical system imagined by Karl Marx (1848) and defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as a "political system in which the government controls the production of all goods, and where everyone is treated equally". It is expressed in various ways including Marxism and anarchism. Its underlying logic is that weight of wealth (owned by the privileged class) which is applied to control the poor (proletariat) will cause current systems such as capitalism and democracy to become top-heavy and eventually crumble.

It can offer many advantages. Central government potentially provides a stable economic system. Social communities are bound together by the pursuit of identified common goals, and crime rate is low. But there are heavy disadvantages. Control by central state authority of all aspects of production enables corrupt leaders to assume dictatorship and become parasites of the populace. The ideology of Marx was based on a theoretical, even fanciful, concept. In practice the system usually has been corrupted and developed into strong central government, often controlled by a single autocrat who retained power for life - Castro in Cuba, Stalin in Russia and Mao in China. The general populace was deprived of rights with no freedom of speech, and simply complied with state edicts. There were exceptions. Josip Broz Tito led the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for 36 years as Prime Minister and President (later President for Life). Although criticised by many as an authoritarian he was popular and regarded widely as a benevolent dictator. Yugoslavia was plunged into bloody internecine conflict when he was no longer in control.

Democracy has a much longer pedigree than communism. The word 'democracy' comes from two Greek words that mean 'people' (demos) and 'rule' (kratos). The ancient Greeks were the first to create a democracy and the key principle was that the people have a voice. The first known example in the world was in Athens where it developed about the fifth century BC. That system was different from the present-day interpretation of democracy because in Athens all adult citizens were required to take an active part in the government.

But democracy was flawed at the time of its birth. Only free men were considered citizens in Athens and allowed to vote. Women, children, and slaves were not considered citizens. It has had opportunity during two-and-a-half millennia to remedy the flaws. It is true that a modern democratic society does not tolerate slavery, although we are aware it still exists, and that some women now have gained the right to vote although only recently won. Women finally were able to participate in federal elections in Switzerland little more than 30 years ago, and suffrage still is limited (sometimes for both sexes) in the Middle East where women are second-class citizens. Inequality is rife. Yet the kudos conferred by long pedigree allowed European colonial powers to assume a superior attitude and impose their democratic system on conquered nations. Was that arrogance or paternalistic benevolence, domination or philanthropy? Did they believe they possessed a moral (or divine!) ascendancy to over-ride local customs and culture?

The original underlying principle of 'equal share of power', bearing a strong resemblance to the 'common ownership' ideology of communism, was an illusion and remains a theoretical justification. The UK has an unelected head of state, the monarch, who has appropriated vast swathes of land and amassed huge wealth in an embedded system of persistent feudalism (Thwaites, 2019) which reflects some of the worst aspects of 20th century communism. She consorts with senior royalty from the Middle East, and her accumulation of wealth matches that of despots who similarly parasitise the lower classes and regularly attract vituperative comment from the 'civilised' press. The head of state is surrounded by the family (the 'firm') which is maintained by payments from the public purse. Does the 'firm' deserve such beneficence? How can the support of the heir to the throne for paedophiles such as Jimmy Savile and Peter Ball (former Bishop of Lewes) be condoned, or the close association of his brother with Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted criminal? Even one of the next Mountbatten-Windsor generation seemed to expect he could renounce responsibility while clinging to the doctrine of 'divine right'. Norman Baker (2019) filled more than 300 riveting pages with his evaluation of a disreputable and dysfunctional family. A brief review by Kevin Maguire (Daily Mirror) was succinct: "Norman Baker brilliantly exposes how a Ruritanian farce is ripping us off'. As part of the inevitable revision of lifestyles and wealth redistribution triggered by a combination of the Covid-19 crisis, mass migration and widespread civil war, the anachronistic monarchy is a priority for abolition.

Even the ability to vote fails to meet the 'equal share of power' principle of democracy. It might be expected that an elected government would command the support of a majority of the population. Not so. The 1997 election opened our eyes to reality. It was classified as a landslide - an overwhelming victory for Blair's Labour party leaving him with a working majority of 179 seats, allowing him to mismanage the economy and pursue a disastrous war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact the votes of only 30.8% of the electorate were cast in his favour enabling him to occupy 10 Downing Street. It was a mockery of the basic principle of democracy, exacerbated by his use of spin doctors and 'sofa government' which undermined the authority of parliament.

Claims that failure to correct the obvious faults of democracy is justified by its efficiency and productivity does not bear critical scrutiny. That fallacy is being cruelly exposed by Covid-19 which demonstrates the benefits of decisive action in controlling a rampaging pandemic. It may seem morally justified to lambast political leaders in countries which have not espoused and applied our 'western' ideals, but they are not fettered by the need for government to plead and cajole minorities of the electorate to observe critical restrictions which interfered with their partying priority. They do not have to endure the self-interested bleating of condescending has-beens or the poltroonery of an opposition leader who refuses to participate in a movement of national unity in a crisis. They do not even have an opposition party. Major, Heseltine and Corbyn would have disappeared without trace. They can concentrate effectively without interference on the urgent task in hand, and the evidence lies in the accelerating graphs of European and North American Covid-19 infection and deaths, compared with the flatter lines achieved by Asian countries.

Are we witnessing a major shift in the political landscape? Is democracy faltering, or even falling? Gone are days when European colonial powers imposed their principles of western democracy on other regions. Globalisation and multiculturalism are modern buzz words. Global fora now give autocracy, oligarchism, totalitarianism, despotism or any other 'acy' or 'ism' an equal voice whether at the United Nations or Fédération Internationale de Football Association. They may have priorities which line their pockets but they bring a different ethos to the table. Western dominance similarly has been challenged and is being overtaken by Asia in business and finance. Maybe it is time to admit our new place in the world hierarchy, to adjust the baselines of our lifestyle and possibly our principles. But that is unthinkable. After all, we are British!

Baker, N. 2019. And What Do You Do? What the Royal Family don't want you to know. Biteback Publishing.

Marx, K. 1848. The Communist Manifesto (originally published in German)

Thwaites, H. 2019. Anarchy or Establishment. Hayloft Publishing.                                                                                      


Will extinction negate 50 years of successful conservation                                 2 April 2020

Saved from oblivion. The germ of inspiration that took root in England in the late 1960s has become a global network responsible for saving endangered heritage breeds of livestock from extinction. The conservation of those animal genetic resources has been an undoubted success story of the last half century since the first national 'rare breeds' NGO was founded in England in 1973 (Thwaites, 2019). Breeds that verged on the brink of oblivion have been re-established as part of the cultural heritage of their region or country. They are the vanguard of a crusade seeking to conserve endangered native breeds as important contributors to global biodiversity. The Chantecler chicken in Canada was created more than a century ago at the Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac in Oka. Afrikander cattle, herded historically by Hottentot pastoralists, were the draught animals used in the Boer Great Trek in South Africa in the 1830s. Mitochondrial DNA has enabled White Park cattle to trace their roots to a founder cow the Middle East 10,000 years ago. In some cases, relatively new discoveries, often equine, have become flag-bearers - Kerry Bog pony in the Republic of Ireland, Caspian horse in Iran and Eriskay pony in Scotland. They all form part of a global network of genetic diversity

Daunting thresholds. The conservation of many breeds remains work in progress. Some breeds still are verging on the brink of extinction. They have a chance to be saved but it is a difficult and daunting process through which they are supported by non-governmental organisations (NGO) which are one of the legacies of the 'visionaries' who launched the movement in the 1960s. To escape from their perilous situation and achieve security they must reach well-defined thresholds of population size, geographical distribution and genetic variability. Many have made hard-won progress towards the thresholds, and some have almost succeeded in joining the mainstream of domestic breeds. But now a new non-genetic threshold has been thrown into the planning procedure - the timeframe of global warming - and that may prove to be the most critical factor.

A mid-century deadline. Many predictions and planning models point to 2050 as the critical deadline, a timeframe of only 30 years. At that time it is likely the global population on Earth will have swollen to about 10 billion people. Yet during those three decades a combination of global warming, land degradation and loss of biodiversity threaten to change the face of the world. Informed opinion (IPCC, 2018) advises that staying below an increase of 1.5 degrees C is the minimum requirement. Even that target requires "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". Yet IPCC further considers the world is already heading towards a rise of 3 degrees C driven primarily by burning fossil fuels. That could prove a situation beyond recovery and inevitably would trigger a fundamental reassessment of agriculture and fisheries with a likelihood of inability to produce sufficient food. Warming seas will drive many species of fish to seek cooler water and loss of productive land will inhibit the growth of crops. Already 25% of the total terrestrial area has been degraded, and more than 3.2% (400 million hectares) is being degraded with a loss of 24 billion tons of soil each year (GEF, 2020). If that rate of loss continued the total land surface would be degraded in the next 20-25 years. The effect of both global warming and land degradation will be to accelerate the erosion of biodiversity which is the essence of sustainability. A logical outcome could be an uninhabitable world in 2050!

Native breeds. Locally-adapted native breeds, a category which includes both rare and endangered breeds, have the potential to play a significant role in resisting the Armageddon scenario described above. They are adapted to utilise extensive grasslands which cover 52.5 million square kilometres (40%) of the Earth's land surface. Those uncultivated grasslands are a vital resource. They are less susceptible to erosion and help to control global warming by sequestering carbon efficiently and safely. Transferring the focus of livestock away from unsustainable intensive systems of production to extensive upland grazing and heathland brings a more positive outlook for the future. Not only would the animals produce food and other products in sustainable low-input systems with high biodiversity (Allard, 2007; Poux & Aubert, 2018), they also would leave more fertile areas free to produce crops to feed humans rather than animals.

The positive contribution of locally-adapted breeds must be utilised and prioritised to enable them to play their part in halting and reversing the negative impact of degradation of the world's climate and resources. Amelioration is not adequate. Only urgent and powerful action will be sufficiently effective to overcome the damaging impact of the latter before a point of no return is reached? At present we do not know when that tipping point will be reached. The only option for the whole world is to apply the positive elements of the equation with commitment and dedication to allow reinvigorated biodiversity the chance to maintain the conservation benefits already achieved and to prevent extinction.

Allard, V., Soussana, J-F. et al. 2007. The role of grazing management for the net biome productivity and greenhouse gas budget (CO2, N2O and CH4) of semi-natural grassland. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 121: 47-58.

Global Environment Facility. 2020. Land Degradation. Retrieved from:

IPCC. 2018 report.

Poux, X. & Aubert, P-A. 2018. An agroecological Europe in 2050: multifunctional agriculture for healthy eating. Findings from the Ten Years for Agroecology (TYFA) modelling exercise. Iddri-ASca, Study N.09/18, Paris, France, 74p.

Thwaites, H. 2019. Anarchy or Establishment. Hayloft Publishing


Covid-19 and change of lifestyle  19 March 2020 

Having very recently returned from a long visit abroad we put ourselves, as responsible and public-minded citizens, into voluntary self-isolation. We understand and accept the acute necessity for our government's ongoing policy of social-distancing, even though it will require a change of lifestyle on a longer-term basis. The world is vulnerable to infection from a novel virus, and cannot avoid the short-term disruption and tragedy caused by Covid-19, but its effects may persist long after the immediate crisis has passed.

Thank goodness for technology such as telephone, email, skype and blogs, which enable maintenance of communication with our family, friends and business colleagues even in such dire circumstances, although we must remember many citizens may not be able to access that technology. On a wider front, many retailers face a bleak future as lock-down will prevent normal conduct of business. TV regularly features owners of restaurants and other food establishments describing their predicament and predicting inevitable closure. However, food is an absolute essential and already we have seen significant adjustments with a rapid expansion in home deliveries by some farm shops, restaurants, grocers and other purveyors of food. A legacy of Covid-19 may be to make the home delivery van a permanent element of the food chain, simplifying the path from field to fork. 

We have been reluctant previously to resort to home delivery. We valued the ability to inspect and select fruit and vegetables to ensure good quality of each item. But our early experiences of home delivery have been reassuring. Livestock products may present slightly more complication because of our particular requirements but we do not envisage a problem. Our priority, apart from our appreciation of the taste and texture of food, is to maintain our natural immunity against this virus and its successors by having a healthy diet. Pasture-fed meat and milk is top of the list, followed by oily fish. They both provide vital Omega 3 (PUFA), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and vitamins (especially B and D). Then we look for free-range eggs, fruit and green vegetables. We favour sources that do not practice intensive farming as we are also conscious of the other looming crisis of global warming (see my earlier blogs).


Disease control - how safe are we?  4 March 2020

The current explosion of the SARS related Coronavirus (Covid-19), especially with the aggressive type 'L' mutation, made me reflect on lessons we should have learned from earlier experiences. I had face-to-face confrontation with both SARS (when returning from a meeting in Egypt in 2003) and the Asian flu epidemic of 1957-58 when only three boys (of which I was one) in my school escaped unscathed and acted throughout the outbreak as auxiliary nursing staff. However, the best examples of what not to do possibly can be found in the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Britain in 2001 when incompetence was at its worst.

I made a presentation to an international meeting in Rome, which was later published as a paper. I have copied the paper into the My Supplementary Blog page. You will find it heavy and depressing reading, but it is a clear warning that those in authority are often found wanting. At present the British authorities seem to have applied sensible controls and prepared effective forward planning but only time will tell.  


Forests or Grassland 2 March 2020

If you follow the popular press you could be forgiven for believing that we should sacrifice the grassland of our green and pleasant land in the interests of combatting global warming. Politicians are subjected to an endless torrent of advice, urging them to plant vast acres of serried ranks of Sitka spruce in oppressively dark and dank plantations. They smother upland pastures, and even our iconic heather moorland. The food-producing cattle and sheep eventually would have nowhere to graze. The moorland birds would lose their nesting ground. The argument goes along the lines of "trees sequester carbon and therefore tree-planting is the priority". The mantra is repeated so frequently that the most resistant member of the public may believe it is true. Even the media have been conned - just listen to the BBC or read the Guardian - and groups such as militant vegans have seen an opportunity to attack farming and livestock in particular.

In the circumstances maybe one should not blame politicians for succumbing to the barrage of propaganda. Yet not only is it wrong, it is positively dangerous. Grassland sequesters carbon more efficiently and safely than forests, and it stores it safely. Forests are susceptible to bush fires - Australia and California spring to mind, but millions of acres are burned or destroyed in temperate and boreal ecosystems - and every tree that is destroyed by fire, felling, insect damage or any other cause, delivers its carbon back into the atmosphere and fuels global warming. Grassland provides grazing for native breeds of cattle and sheep which provide food and many other products. Similarly, moorland is a vital storage depot of carbon. Almost all the heather moorland in the world is found in the British Isles, and it also is the home not only for curlew and lapwing but also for Highland cattle and Pennine black-faced sheep. We will do our best to ensure that the real facts are presented to our politicians as the current Agriculture Bill is being debated.


Anarchy or Establishment by Henry Thwaites 

a biography of Lawrence Alderson published by Hayloft Publishing in June 2019.  It is unauthorised but was checked for factual accuracy by the subject who also provided 144 colour and monochrome images. The opinions and interpretations are entirely those of the author. The author tracks the development of Lawrence Alderson from his roots as a boy on a remote hill farm to his guru-like status as leader of the 'saving rare breeds' movement with an international crusade to conserve the genetic diversity of endangered breeds. The content ranges far beyond native breeds and farming as it follows the subject on his travels to fascinating destinations and recounts his sporting prowess, all concurrent with his successful consultancy business.  


Cows under attack 

Attacks from disparate sources have been aimed at livestock, especially cattle, because of their alleged contribution to global warming. Militant vegans have welcomed the opportunity to put pressure on the livestock industry and large swathes of the media, public and politicians have been sucked into a swamp of misinformation. 'Eat 70% less beef' is a typical knee-jerk reaction to extreme opinion. Destruction of the Brazilian rainforest is a serious concern, and intensive farming has serious questions to answer, but that does not justify an assault on livestock grazing extensive grassland. They not only provide meat of high quality and contribute to biodiversity, but also help to control global warming because their system of management has a beneficial effect by sequestering carbon. Shifting the current mindset is proving difficult but it is essential that we do not lose a valuable part of our farming culture in Britain.



I have been involved with conservation issues affecting rural affairs for more than 50 years. The central core of my consultancy has been the conservation of rural heritage and its component parts. The countryside must be protected from current threats of indiscriminate development and political apathy in order to maintain it as an integral part of British life. It is a dynamic complex structure of varied and, in some places, still unspoilt landscape, encompassing human resources, native breeds of animals and traditional values. This blog will deal with each significant issue when new information makes it newsworthy.              

Policies for rural development have failed to establish sensible and sustainable structures. They have swung from one extreme to another. The ruthless commercialism of many intensive systems, the imposition of theoretical biodiversity measures on agricultural production systems, and disproportionate measures to control problems, all compromise the ability to maintain balanced rural systems. As a result the societal value of smaller production units is being marginalised towards extinction by the concept of economy of scale, and over-zealous and counter-productive 'biodiversity' programmes allow moorland and heath to revert to worthless scrub by demanding the removal of livestock from their traditional grazing areas. Many people understand factors such as the significance of finite resources in crop production, the value of native/local adaptation of livestock, and the productivity of small-holdings, but nevertheless too often we see 'glamorous' issues such a genetic modification imposed on the farming industry before their long-term effects are understood.

I was founder of both RBST in UK and Rare Breeds International as the global co-ordinating body for the conservation of animal genetic resources (AnGR) with native adaptation. Native breeds of farm livestock were seriously threatened by the 'maximum production' philosophy which impelled British agriculture through the second half of the twentieth century, and the extinction of some breeds (e.g. Lincolnshire Curly Coated pigs, Sheeted Somerset cattle, Goonhilly ponies and Rhiw sheep) during the last century represented an irreplaceable loss and cumulative erosion of our genetic resources. Now there is increasing awareness of the value of native breeds with local adaptation. 

Following publication of a report from the 'Breeds at Risk' seminar in London (see 'London Seminar February 2010' page) the standardisation of criteria and thresholds for the recognition and prioritisation of endangered breeds has been formalised by FAO. Agreed breed defintions also are important, especially where incentives are offered for native breeds. See 'Animal Breeding & Genetics' page for categorisation of severly endangered breeds at risk, such as Vaynol or Northern Dairy Shorthorn cattle, or extinct breeds, such as Oxford Sandy & Black pigs or Blue Albion cattle. This website describes some breeds in greater detail. White Park cattle are the most ancient breed in the British Isles and demonstrate both the vulnerability of a 'breed at risk' and the value of a native breed in its natural habitat (see 'White Park' pages). British Milksheep (Alderbred) are an example of the value of native genetic resources in the development of new and exciting breeds within the British livestock industry (see 'British Milksheep' page). 

Literary and photographic records are not an adequate substitute for the original article but, as breeds disappear and the rural landscape is invaded and eroded, these records are a permanent reminder of lost treasures and a warning to conserve our remaining assets more diligently.