Friday, 14 April 2017

Tight Clothes, Nature and Angst

When I worked with the wise and delightful Monty Don on Radio 4’s Shared Planet, I remember him saying someone had asked him the secret to being happy and content. His answer struck me as worth spreading around – wear loose clothes and spend time outside. Now that is sensible. Wearing tight clothes can have the effect of making our brains feel constrained too, I certainly can’t relax or breathe so well when I am aware of edges, buttons, belts – things that inhibit.  I think it is harder to give out to the world when your body feels drawn in.

Monty Don

And going outside – well how much more evidence do we need to show that breathing outside air, feeling soil, smelling the scent from trees, grass and flowers, feeling rain and sun, seeing green and grey and blue – all calm our emotions and help healing.  I only wish major international meetings on war, weapons, refugees, the environment and so on happened outside in a meadow or wild garden, instead of inside constraining rooms.  I think we would come to different decisions.

Some trees are particularly good at helping.  In days gone by German village elders would hold judicial meetings under lime (linden) trees, and that is not a surprise.  Lime trees were said to evoke wise thoughts.  The scent of lime, particularly in the summer, is intoxicating and was said to help cure epilepsy, headaches, insomnia and bad nerves. This poem is by Wilhelm Müller

Der Lindenbaum
By the fountain, near the gate,
There stands a linden tree;
I have dreamt in its shadows
so many sweet dreams.
I carved on its bark
so many loving words;
I was always drawn to it,
whether in joy or in sorrow.
Today again I had to pass it
in the dead of night.
And even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.
Its branches rustled
as if calling to me:
“Come here, to me, friend,
Here you will find your peace!”
The frigid wind blew
straight in my face,
my hat flew from my head,
I did not turn back.
Now I am many hours
away from that spot
and still I hear the rustling:
“There you would have found peace!”
The Japanese have a word for the sense of peace you get from a woodland walk -  “wood air bathing” shinrin-yoku, breathing in the healing, enriching oils emitted from trees that lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system and calms thoughts. Throughout Japan there are shinrin-yoku walks where families have picnics and be together to de-stress.
Last week Iseemed to come across yet more horrible stories of  young children increasingly suffering panicattacks, depression, stress and low self-esteem and many other words for a mind in turmoil.  Teenagers too.  I know of a few young people now who have dropped out of university recently because of depression.  How much of this is related to the increasingly indoor, removed-from-nature life so many of us lead today is unsure, but it is hard not to draw some connections between the two. Children live virtual indoor lives, not real out door ones.

I watch the school kids from the local secondary school walk home each day along our very city-centre street right in the centre of Bristol.  They are bursting with that feeling of wanting to run, shout, mess around, kick balls or whatever.  But in the middle of the city there is nowhere to do that – just cans to kick, and swear and shout and lots of pushing each other around, which annoys middle-aged people who shout at them and complain to the school. I wish they had a big field to go to, somewhere to let off steam, and maybe even find something interesting to look at that for a short while takes the mind to other realms.  But this doesn’t happen, instead all of this youthful energy gets bottled up and who knows where it goes.

So – would a GCSE in Natural History help encourage kids to go outside? Get them to really look, smell, touch, sense the world they live in – even a local park? Would it help give their minds a break to think where swallows come from or how snakes shed their skin and why an egg is the shape and colour it is? And if it taught the connection between well-being and nature – would that help?  And if, through having access to nature-literature, they learned ways of expressing feelings that only natural things evoke  – would that go some way to stemming this awful spread of youthful angst? Concentrating on awe, wonder, joy, beauty, mystery, fear, trepidation, etc.  Those are the feelings that come from knowing the natural world.  Re-engagement with who and what we are on a living, breathing, vibrant planet can only ever be good.  We are a long way from that at the moment - let’s do something to try to change it.  Please sign the petition.

Friday, 7 April 2017

GCSE in Natural History - reply to Chris Baker

Chris Baker is a teacher and wildlife lover.  He recently wrote a blog criticising the idea of a GCSE in Natural History. This is the point of the petition, to get a debate going, so here is my reply.

The first point: It’s an interesting idea and one that has good intentions. But I do not think it is good idea. For selfish reasons I would love to teach natural history as a subject on its own. The joy! But to how many students?  Would it benefit them? And would it positively affect the effort to conserve the curlew – The campaign (and a worthy cause I might add) that seems to have led to the creation of this petition?

I personally think the uptake would be good, but that must be part of the development process. There is a great hunger for nature that is more buried, but is certainly still there.  More young people watched Planet Earth 2 than the X-Factor which was screened on the other side. Tapping into this interest in life on earth is a no-brainer.  I'm not sure where the curlew link came from.  I came up with the idea for this GCSE in 2011, but didn't start the curlew work until 2016 - although I think it would help, not least by introducing more children to the fact curlews exist -but the campaigns are not related.

Second point: The second sentence of the petition reads ‘Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife’. I take issue with the word need here. I believe that young people can benefit greatly from learning these skills but they do not need them. They need to perform arithmetic so they can check energy bills, read competently and problem solve. Speaking as a science specialist, I would also argue that young people, in a time when internet memes and click-bait links are regarded by some as a valid sources of information on issues as serious as health and disease, need the ability to distinguish good science from pseudoscience. But they don’t need to know how wildlife is recorded. To some children, learning how to do so would be irrelevant and a waste of time. We can’t let our own passions and interests dictate what children must know.

This is where I fundamentally part company with Chris Baker. I think it is vital we know the world around us, that we can name what is in our lives everyday, know the seasons and the movements of life on earth.  Young people increasingly live in an indoor world of ideas, not an outdoor world of senses.  The visceral, earthy world is more remote than ever.  We are mammals with senses attuned to taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing - all of those are brought into play when studying nature, but used for screens?  Surely we must have an education system that fits who we are?  If you can record wildlife, plot the data, work out trends - then I bet you can cope with an energy bill.  A GCSE in natural history brings together maths, english, geography, biology, history - merging them into a subject of fascination and relevance to life. It is not some quirky subject that only a few geeks will like - that simply isn't true.  Nature has inspired some of the greatest thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, poets and scientists - why sideline it and treat it as an irrelevance? Let's celebrate our unique heritage, teach it and encourage the next cohort of inspirational naturalists.

The rest of the blog argues that the content of a GCSE in Natural History is present in other subjects anyway - so it is already being taught.  If that is true, then they are failing.  My son is doing triple science at the moment, including biology.  I can't see any natural history in his work - he doesn't have to have any of the skills I outline in the proposal.  He does some academic work on extinctions etc, but that is not what I am talking about.  Of course biology is a fundamental subject - but to say natural history is simply a part of it is like saying geology is just part of geography. Neither is natural history the same as environmental science - it is a subject in its own right.

Studying nature is rich and rewarding - and the skills gained are increasingly being lost.  We cannot be complacent about nature today and assume all is fine because we teach biology . The system as it is is not working for wildlife.  Britain was highlighted as one of the most nature depleted countries on earth in the 2016 State of Nature report, we are losing our natural heritage and there is no time to waste. Young people think this quiet, threadbare tapestry of nature is normal - it isn't normal, it is slipping away under our noses - we cannot and must not be complacent. Britain has a truly wonderful history of nature recording, writing, art and music and so on - now is the time to regain that and produce future naturalists who will fight for the natural world, not just through conservation work but through inspirational creativity.  Nothing that Chris Baker highlights in his blog has changed my opinion.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Hills are Alive

Its all kicking off in curlew land, they are streaming back to breeding grounds now and is great to get the reports from all over the country. People are posting on Twitter about hearing them and seeing them, and on Facebook, they are working their magic again this year.  The harbingers of spring are back and ready for action.

The first curlews arrived back in lowland areas in February, the more upland birds are just getting there.  In Northern Ireland the curlews in Antrim are said to come back to the hills on St Patrick's Day - which was the 17th March.

Slemish Mountain, Antrim, where St Patrick was held captive.

Mike Smart, a curlew watcher and recorder in Gloucestershire, and all round good egg, wrote a great description a couple of weeks ago of two birds that had just got to a meadow in his area:

"They seem to me to adopt very characteristic behaviour; they are generally in twos, stalking round in a rather proprietorial sort of way, a little way apart, feeding quietly, and not getting very close together.  Sometimes however, they move quite close together and start courtship display, in a moderate way: running around quite quickly together, sometimes in parallel, sometimes one ahead of the other, often picking up bits of grass or vegetation as they go, and throwing it down again; this can last for ten minutes.  On one occasion, the male opened his wings slightly and did a couple of flaps, and seemed to hold his tail up, rather like a Snipe; but I haven’t seen the slow ballet with outstretched quivering wings yet."

Others are reporting the same kind of behaviour, and Noel Kiernan who watches curlews on the wild and beautiful islands on Lough Ree in S Ireland also noticed 5 pairs behaving as though they were gearing up to breeding. That lovely bubbling call will soon be trailing over the meadows and moors of Britain and Ireland - well I hope so.  Actually, not so much in Ireland as there are only 130 pairs left, but where they still hang on these wild songsters will be adding joy to people's lives in a way that cannot by valued by money.

Lough Ree from

All of us curlew lovers will be watching and waiting to see how this season progresses and if curlews can hang in in our very human world. To keep this wild sprite though is a challenge, we may not be prepared to do what it takes to make room for uneconomic species, no matter how lovely and joyous they are. But I don't actually believe that - I think we will make it happen, because we are not just consumers, we are so much more.  No one just thinks about money.  We have so much in our lives that we don't put a pound sign next to. We don't charge for the time it takes to read a book, or walk outside, make a birthday cake, spend time with someone who needs us. We don't think about money when it comes to love, affection, respect, - those soul moments.

Photos by permission of Tony Cross

Post the Ireland and Slimbridge conferences more people are now involved in monitoring the birds and working out the best way to protect them - in ways that are suitable for their bit of the world.  perhaps that is putting signs up to tell dog walkers to keep dogs on leads around a known nest site until mid July.  Or maybe nests in some places may need electric fences to stop the eggs being eaten (but they won't stop the chicks being got unfortunately). Or even some lethal predator control is required in certain problem areas for the time of breeding?  Stocking density might have to be reduced.  It is all about what is needed where, and we need to have open and positive discussions about the way forwards.

But so far, the 2 conferences have shown just how much we British and Irish love these birds (and so much else too).  We don't want them to disappear, we don't just want to make money out of the land. It is clear to me we want a singing planet, not just a money-making one.  

If you are on Twitter search for curlew or curlews and you will get some great pictures and heartening tweets about the birds.  I am so grateful for those who write to me to tell me what is happening - and for being involved in the curlew groups as they gear up for the next few months.

Curlews are in a better place than they were a year ago - thank you to everyone who has been so supportive and for those rolling up their sleeves now and getting down to the serious business of looking after our birds.

Author Kathryn Norbury (The Fish Ladder) suggested making a Year of the Curlew.  Bit late for this year - but next?  Seems a great idea!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

A GCSE in Natural History - now.

A GCSE in Natural History – why it is needed.

I would like you to sign a petition for a GCSE in Natural History - and here is why.

The idea for a GCSE in Natural History came to me while chatting with Tony Juniper back in 2011.  Tony then wrote a piece for the Guardian, and I produced a flyer to sell the idea, and wrote a blog, for my own site and for Mark Avery. Despite a flurry of interest nothing much happened, and I became distracted by life. 

Then, in 2013, the first State of Nature Report was published.  It sent shockwaves around the media.  60% of wildlife has declined over the last 50 years, and out of those species assessed, one in ten faces extinction. Much loved creatures were slipping away – hedgehogs, skylarks, lapwings, cornflowers, curlew, common lizards, many butterflies, all of them edging closer to the edge of the abyss. 

There is often a spurt of activity following announcements like this, but it fades after a while.  We absorb the bad news, get a little more hardened, and carry on.  After all, what can an individual do when the pressures facing wildlife are as huge as methods of agriculture, increasing human population and climate change?

Scroll on another three years to 2016, to the second State of Nature Report.  The decline continues.  It showed that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.  More than half of our farmland birds are in danger of extinction for example. This report highlighted some good news stories too, showing where targeted conservation has worked, but on the whole the picture was just as dispiriting, and getting worse.

These reports came at a time when it was also increasingly clear that we are disengaging from the natural world as never before.  We are in a new territory, British society has never been so hands off and ignorant when it comes to nature.  We can no longer name common species or know the basics of their life cycles and what they need to survive. It is therefore not surprising that as nature thins out we hardly notice. It is a perfect storm.  As we lose species we lose interest. 

It hasn’t always been the case.  For generations, the British Isles were the best studied islands in the world.  In the 2013 report it says:

For over 200 years, amateur naturalists have been investigating the birds, plants, bugs and every other form of life that shares the country with us. For most of these enthusiasts, their primary motivation has been simple curiosity and fascination with the natural world. This world is indeed fascinating, and incredibly diverse. Most people have no idea that they share the UK with 4,000 species of beetle, 7,000 species of fly or 17,361 species of fungus. A detailed study of most British gardens would reveal hundreds of different types of moths. And our countryside is surrounded by seas full of enormous numbers of species even less well known than those on land.

Yes, the natural world is indeed utterly fascinating.  It is the source of wonder, joy, astonishment, mystery, sometimes fear. It is both beautiful and raw.  It challenges us to the heart. It makes us human.  It is irreplaceable. So why are we losing interest? 

The same report then goes on to say:

Worryingly, there are signs that people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. But scratch beneath the surface and there is a huge interest in nature – almost every child is interested in animals, at least when young. How can we bring this interest even further into the mainstream? What can we do through our schools, for example, to help city kids learn the pleasures of getting muddy while hunting for bugs? This is one of the big challenges we need to tackle if we wish to continue our tradition of volunteer wildlife recording. If we can inspire the next generation, we will create a huge force for nature.

OK – so here’s one solution. Let’s launch a GCSE in Natural History.  Let’s teach young people to name the world around them, to follow it through the year, to monitor numbers and to record it so that we can see changes over time.  Let’s teach them how to listen to and identify birdsong.  To know what flowers you can expect to find where and at what time of year.  Let’s teach them what feeds on what - to understand the web of interdependence that is all around us.  Let’s teach them the common trees and what they provide, not just for our benefit, but also for the wildlife that lives on, under and in them.  And so it goes on.  Let’s teach about spiders and earthworms, beetles and butterflies and why they are so vital to the functioning of our planet. Why you won’t find a Heath Fritillary in woodland or a guillemot on a river.  Let’s show them that a city park is full of wonder, as is an estuary or beach or oak woodland.  But that is not all.  Let’s introduce them the wealth of wonderful literature that has been inspired by nature, from ancient times to today.  Let’s celebrate Silent Spring, A Natural History of Selbourne, The Goshawk, Last Child in the Woods, the poetry of  John Clare; as well as the works of Robert MacFarlane, Richard Maybe and the many other superb writers today. And what about the influence of nature films and radio documentaries? More youngpeople watched Planet Earth 2 than X Factor.  This is what GCSE in Natural History could look like, and it should be compulsory for anyone who wants to go into politics.  It isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a concrete idea for putting nature back onto the agenda. 

Many people are enthusiastic about the idea, but I have also had objections.  None of which I feel are sound.  Some of them are:  It is too middle class, too esoteric, too late (better in Primary school).  It will not be accessible to everyone.  It should be spread through the curriculum rather than singled out.  Here are some responses: It is not too middle class, no more so than history or geography.  Nature is for everyone and we need to instil that.  Yes of course nature should be part of education from day one – but it is sorely missing from secondary schools.  It is a t secondary school where it seems youngsters lose interest in the natural world.  A GCSE allows rigour. too and structure, rather than being soft.  No, it may not be as easy to study it in a city as in the countryside, but that is not a reason for dismissing it.  Nothing is the same everywhere – there is no level playing field.  And some cities have excellent green spaces.  Surely it is better to teach it where it is possible, rather than nothing at all?  And yes, it should be spread through all subjects, but for those who want to take it further and go deeper, it could be an inspirational course.   At the moment that is not an option.  I did an O Level in Geology, not available everywhere, fell in love with the subject and did a degree.

If we can teach GCSEs in Politics, Economics, Business Studies, why not Natural History? It is just as important – some would argue even more so.

This course will also require the assistance of the wildlife organisations throughout the country, get them into the classroom and out in the fresh air, helping with teaching and inspiring and thus building community relations. Museums too.

Nature deserves better than resignation and negativity.  The natural world needs us to be positive and forward looking like never before.  We have to do something that is long term and solid, and we have to do it now. This will help.

It will take time to reverse declines and to build a society that is nature literate, so we have to start – this is for the long run.  We are in the Great Age of Forgetting, forgetting what it is like to live surrounded by an abundant and fascinating natural world.  We need to get back to a richness and variety, and the joy and wellbeing it brings.

Please sign the petition.  Thank you. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

Green Ireland?

“Ireland's natural beauty is world-renowned. Glorious beaches, vast national parks, dramatic landscapes and interesting wildlife all make it the ideal destination for the nature enthusiast” 

So says, the website of the National Tourism Development Agency for Ireland which sells hard the Emerald Isle’s image of a green, nature-filled land, removed from the worst of industrialised countries further east. But scratch just a little beneath the surface and the state of Ireland’s nature is far from healthy. From the mountains to the lowland bogs, from rivers to the coast, Ireland is losing wildlife and environmental quality at an alarming rate. This will come as a surprise to the many who still have an image of “old Ireland” a place of quiet certainty and wisdom born out of a life with the soil and nature.

In November 2016 the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency for Ireland, published its latest assessment of the health of Ireland’s environment. Much of it makes disturbing reading.

“The majority of Ireland’s most important habitats are reported to be of poor or bad conservation status, including raised and blanket bogs, dune systems, oligotrophic lakes, fens and mires, natural grasslands and woodlands. Only 9 per cent of habitats listed under the Habitats Directive are considered to have favourable status.”

For example, the land of magnificent rivers and wetlands is polluted. The report states that the number of high quality rivers in Ireland has halved in the last 30 years. In the recent monitoring period between 2013 and 2015, only 21 sites were classified as the highest quality rivers compared with 575 between 1987 and 1990 and 82 between 2001 and 2003. Raised levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, mainly from agricultural run off and waste-water from human settlements, are the biggest cause of the pollution, and raw sewage was discharged into rivers at 43 separate locations. A European Commission report published in May 2015 stated that all of Ireland’s wetlands have an unfavourable conservation status and are continuing to deteriorate.

The Irish Environmental Protection Agency described the situation as “a critical issue for Ireland in the next decade.”
Ireland also has one of the highest green house gas emissions per head of population of any country in the world. 29% of the emissions come from agriculture, the single largest contributor, followed by energy generation and transport.

Given that Ireland’s gas emissions are on the rise, and that peat bogs are highly efficient carbon sinks, it is odd that three peat-fired power stations continue to be supported and subsidised by €150 million per year. The continued use of peat as a main fuel means Ireland will not reach its greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the EU. Laura Burke, Director General of the EPA:

“The EPA’s most recent greenhouse gas emission projections …projected that Ireland would not meet its 2020 target, with emission reductions likely to be in the range of 6-11% below 2005 levels. The greenhouse gas emission increases for 2015 in this report, suggest that achieving reductions, even at the lower end of that range, will be difficult.”

Legal, commercial peat-cutting to power Ireland’s 3 peat-fired power stations will continue until 2030. Private use of peat (used domestically and to sell on the black market) is a hotly contested issue. Some of it is harvested illegally on protected sites and angry, sometimes violent, conflicts arise when any moves are made to restrict or abolish turf cutting. Even on bogs protected by European law, turf cutting is proving hard to stop. Wildlife rangers and even the police are reticent about direct conflict and the practice goes on unchallenged. In fact the Environment Minister, Heather Humphries, has just announced the drafting of legislation to delist 46 bogs which have Natural Heritage Area status. NHAs are so called because they are recognised as valuable for wildlife. As the National parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) states: “NHAs are areas considered important for the habitats present or which holds species of plants and animals whose habitat needs protection.” Delisting them will remove any protection.

Ireland’s NPWS found that “no peatland type of priority importance in Ireland is in good conservation status.” Only 1% of the original extent of the great blanket bogs remains intact, the rest has been stripped for commercial and private peat extraction or drained and “improved” for agriculture.

For the wildlife that depends on these areas it is disastrous. The curlew, the most endangered bird in Ireland, is badly affected. 70% of the remaining 130 pairs nest on bogs, and each breeding season they return to find their nesting sites cut, burned and drained. The Irish government looks set to extend the burning of upland areas into March, when birds like curlew are returning to breed. For a bird so on the edge of survival this could be devastating. Population analysis shows that Curlew will be functionally extinct (no longer enough birds for a viable breeding population) in just 7 years.

Corn bunting - RSPB
Corncrake - Telegraph
The Curlew is not the only species in Ireland that is struggling to hang on. The EPA report highlights that out of 199 species of birds in Ireland 25 are considered to be in urgent need of conservation action. The corn bunting has already gone extinct, the corncrake, once widespread across the whole of Ireland, has been reduced to 183 calling males. 2016 saw the highest number of birds of prey shot or poisoned, including the endangered hen harrier. There are only 108 pairs left. Ireland could soon become the land where no birds sing. The report also states that more than a third of Irish bees, and 15% of water beetles, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are threatened.

Curlew - Wiki
Hen Harrier - RSPB
Ireland has gone through dramatic changes over the last 30 years, perhaps no more so than in the way farming is carried out. Agriculture, which was previously mixed and low intensity, has rapidly become highly intensive and specialised. Drainage of fields, increased use of fertiliser and the cutting of silage to feed the increasing number of cattle have resulted in widespread loss of habitat for wildlife, as well as increases in greenhouse gas emissions. The Celtic Tiger also took its toll, encouraging often unrestrained building on sensitive areas.

In many ways all this is counter to the true heart of Ireland where wildlife and landscape are intimately bound with creativity, tradition and folklore. Some of the most beautiful poetry and prose in Europe have sprung from the rootedness of the Irish psyche to its natural heritage. To see this disappear now is to lose more than just physical matter and living species. Perhaps a re-engagement of young Irish people with their landscape-literature will re-invigorate a respect for the natural world and forge a new identity where Ireland leads the way in Europe to a more holistic and greener future.

There is no doubt Ireland’s green image is tarnished, yet its natural beauty and unsullied image is used to attract millions of tourists each year. If the continued erosion of nature continues, the tourism industry will certainly suffer. The recent EPA report should raise serious concerns about how just how quickly this will happen.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Ethical Carnivore - Louise Gray

I loved this book -  Ethical Carnivore  by Louise Gray - it got better the further in and I found myself thinking about it quite a lot.  Louise comes across as a kind, determined, vulnerable woman who wants to be honest about what she does.  She eats meat - so what is the honest thing?  Kill it for yourself and don't hide behind plastic packaging and anonymous looking chunks of pink stuff.

Louise comes from a farming/shooting background and so the idea of picking up a gun isn't totally new, although it seems her brothers took to it as children more than she did.  When she made this decision to spend a year only eating meat she killed herself, at least she had her dad to teach her how to handle a gun and take her out to shoot rabbits, I wouldn't have a clue who to ask.

The first chapter is less strong than the rest, it feels a bit - well- shaky.  She finds it hard to manage the gun and can't dispatch a rabbit without tears.  I probably wouldn't have started this way, but her vulnerability comes across straight away, and that is good. She isn't a campaigning, tattooed activist who lies in front of lorries, she is a normal, sensitive westerner who has been removed from the reality of food and now has decided to face up to what it means to eat meat.  I liked that - I identified with her fears and squeamishness, I couldn't have done what she did.

She delves headlong into abattoirs and intensive chicken farms, eating road kill, going on fishing trawlers and breaking the necks of roosters.  Eventually she tackles shooting a deer. She visits farms where animals are simply units to be processed and others where they are loved until they die humanely. She describes being in a large abattoir as being in hell and was deeply traumatised.  Addressing the question of whether CCTV should be be installed in them she says no - no one should see what happens, it is like being in a vile dream. But how else do you despatch enough animals to supply the ever growing demand for meat in this country? Around 8 billion animals (livestock and fish) are killed each year in the UK for food. Can that really be true?  This figure is taken from a vegan website which says:

The total number of animals killed in British slaughterhouses in 2013 was over a billion.
This included 9.8 million pigs, nearly 15 million sheep, 18 million turkeys, 14 million ducks, over 945 million chickens and 2.6 million cattle. Add to that 4.5 billion fish and 2.6 billion shellfish you have a total of over 8 billion animals killed in the UK each year.
This equates to around 22 million animals slaughtered every day; 919,000 an hour; 15,000 per minute and 255 every second.

I was particularly interested in reading this book after making "Would You Eat An Alien?" for Radio 4 - a whacky look at the intelligence and sentience of farm animals.  It was such an eye-opening set of programmes to be involved with and taught me a lot.  We are strange creatures, we don't treat chickens as real birds, or cows as real mammals - somehow farmed animals are different to their wild relations.  But of course they are not.  Maternal and social bonds are just as strong, the ability to feel pain and fear is just as strong - but it is far easier if we don't acknowledge it.  If we had to kill pigs or cows ourselves I am sure most would be vegetarian pretty quickly.  But we don't and we absorb the Old MacDonald farm image and turn a blind eye to reality.

I went to see Louise give a talk at the Birdfair this year - she asked if the audience would rather be a chicken or a pheasant? Clever and brave for that venue - the majority of whom would be opposed to pheasant shooting. Most of the people there, and I am sure more generally, would choose to be a pheasant - given than it lives a wild life until shot (or run over or eaten by a fox).  Surely better than living for only 6 weeks, bloated and full of chemicals, hardly able to stand and never seeing daylight. She was courageous, polite and definitely, in my opinion, held the moral argument. There is no doubt pheasants - agree with their existence in the UK or not, have a better life than your average broiler.

Therefore I applaud Louise - she didn't pretend everything was fine - she found out for herself, carried on eating meat but did the honest thing and killed it with her own hands.  And the surprising thing is - she carries on trying to eat only the animals she kills, which has had a drastic effect on how much meat she eats.  She now eats mainly vegetarian food with occasional meat thrown in.  That seems to be a very healthy and sensible way to live. We all know the dangers of too much rich, animal fat.  Many people in the West overdose on protein they don't need (my family for a start!)

Well done Louise - well written, direct from the heart, not one ounce of preachiness and its challenging. Its a great read. And if I was asked round to Louise's for a squirrel supper, I think I would look forward to it very much.