Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Shall we stay or shall we go now?

If we stay there will be trouble, if we go it will be double.

I haven't used this blog to post any articles of a political nature before, but I decided to write something to articulate my views on the forthcoming referendum on the UK's continued membership of the European Union.  

This will be my second referendum in two years, and while I found the vote on potential independence for Scotland in 2014 a complex and difficult choice, I have found it very easy to decide on whether we should stay in or leave the EU. It's too important an issue for people to ignore, get wrong or for me to leave inside my head.

1. Value for money

We keep hearing that membership of the EU is expensive and poor value for money.  I received an information note with my P60 tax information return last year which showed the break-down of how my taxes were used for the last tax year.  It showed very clearly that about 0.5% of my taxes went toward payment of the UK's membership of the European Union.  I've seen different, lower percentages than this quoted elsewhere.  That's a bargain in my opinion.  I would go further and say that the EU is punching significantly above its weight in terms of value for money.  Perhaps I should turn the question around and ask why the 99.5% of my tax spend that goes to the UK government only delivers so little value for money.  OK, that was a somewhat facaetious question which grossly over-simplifies the types of things the UK and EU spend our money on, but there's a serious point in there somewhere.

2.  Environment, environment, environment

This is a wildlife blog after all, but you could say the same thing about lots of other things where the EU provides basic protection for the things I value the most, such as my human rights. 

I have worked for over 30 years in nature conservation and I see very clearly how the European Union protects the wildlife I value so dearly and want to see preserved for future generations.  The European Directives that protect our wildlife and our environment are just about the only checks that prevent widescale loss of wildlife habitats and deterioration of our environment.  It would not be an exagerration to say that we would see species extinctions as a result of losing the protections that those Directives give.

Many pro-exit campaigners claim that we would use or introduce our own laws as a replacement for the Directives.  That might be true; our Government is required to underpin all European Directives with domestic laws that translate the meaning of the Directive into out own legal framework.  However, they would not be the same deterrent without the EU Directives because no government would be able to resist the temptation to compromise those laws to rule in favour of over-riding public (i.e. commercial) interest, when push comes to shove.  This doesn't happen with EU Directives in place because if the European Court finds that the UK Government has failed to implement a Directive, either in the underpinning bywording of the law, or by enforcement of the law, then the UK Government can be infracted.  This means that the UK Government is fined 100,000 Euros per day until the damage or law is rectified.  How can a UK-only law replicate that?  We are hardly going to fine ourselves instead?  What kind of deterrent would that be?

If you need to be convinced of how powerful the EU protected sites are and how weak our domestic wildlife mechanisms are, you just need to look at the case of Donald Trump's golf course at Menie Links near Aberdeen.  That site was chosen because it was an undeveloped sand dune system amenable for building links golf courses that only had domestic laws protecting it (a Site of Special Scientific Interest, no less).  It was not classified as a Special Area of Conservation (an EU protected site) which every other undeveloped sand dune system in the UK is.  This explains the cynical targetting of this site by Trump International.  The rest is history, and the site's nature conservation interest has been completely destroyed, if not for ever, for hundreds of years after being allowed to teturn to the wild.  It is another statistic in a sad catalogue of species and habitat destruction here in the UK, which would have declined a great deal faster without European laws as protection for the best sites.

I am fortunate enough to have travelled to other countries and have seen how weak laws and corrupt governments combine to erode wildlife protection, environmental protection and protection of our human rights.  I have worked closely enough to our own government to witness how it is a thin line between what protects our rights here in the UK and the way that our own government would like to allow corporations to erode those rights.  But the European Union makes its citizens stronger.

3. Putting Herod in charge of babysitting

I take a look at the 'Brexit' camp and see a collection of most of the politicians I trust least to defend my interests and who have an unparalleled ability to make my skin crawlI can't think of a group of people I would like to see cast adrift in a metaphorical leaking boat less than the out campaign groups.  These politicians want us to leave the EU because they want to have more power than the EU currently gives them. It makes me shudder to think of what this group of politicians would do with extra power.  

Make no mistake, the 'Leave' campaign group has an agenda which is not just about leaving the EU.  It is a Neo-liberal agenda of deregulation which is not in yours or my interest.   Neo liberalism favours the rich and powerful who are best equipped to prosper within the chaos of a deregulated society at the expense of ordinary people who lack the financial means to hire lawyers, buy social services or private health care etc. when the state cannot support or protect them. 

4. The break-up of the UK

I make no secret of the fact that I voted in favour of Scotland staying in the UK in the Independence Referendum in 2014.  If Scotland votes for the UK to stay in the EU and the rest of the UK votes to leave, I would have no hesitation in voting for independence for Scotland in a new vote. I know many other people in Scotland who feel the same way because of the importance of being a member of the EU to them. I believe that if there is a majority vote in the UK to leave the EU, there will be overwhelming pressure for a new independence vote for Scotland, and this time, there would be a yes result in favour of indepndence for Scotland.

5. Can we just stop making enemies out of our neighbours, please?

It's hardly surprising that our neighbours on the continent make life difficult for us.  All this negative talk about the EU, about how we are better off without it etc etc does not make for good neighbourly relationships with people we have a great deal more in common with than we choose to admit.  Imagine if your own next door neighbour moaned continuously about how terrible the village/town/city was where they lived?  You would just say "well fuck off then, and don't expect any help from me".  OK, maybe not you, but that's what I would say, and that's what many of my European friends say about our very public national moans about Europe and the EU. We come across as a nation of Carl Pilkingtons turning our noses up at everything about Johnny Foreigner Europe as if we are in some way superior and they are inferior.  

We would do well to stop moaning, respect our European neighbours as equals and try constructive criticism instead. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

A visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Monday 26th.

After the thrills of yesterday's pelagic it was time to get into South Africa's land birds.  Kerstin and I took a taxi out to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in the morning and slowly worked our way up through the different habitats and the different birds that they held.  The gardens are a celebration of the fantastically diverse flora of South Africa, with the main section dedicated to the local 'fynbos' habitat, dominated by ericacea and proteas. Stunning really.

The birding was good too, and we enjoyed African Goshawk, African Dusky Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul and Cape Batis in the taller vegetation.  Southern Double-banded Sunbirds were widespread in the fynbos, but the star was a Cape Sugarbird sitting quietly in the middle of a bush in the midday sun. Somewhat bizarrely, Helmeted Guineafowl (apparently introduced) and Cape Spurfowl are common and tame in gardens around Cape Town, which given that they are also popular to eat doesn't seem like a sensible strategy for survival.

We used Uber taxis in Cape Town, and given the controversy surrounding this service around the world, I was interested to see what it was like.  Firstly the 'app' is very efficient, having posted your location as the start point, and your destination, it assigns you a driver and tells you which vehicle to look for.  A newish car turns up on time (you can see its progress on a map in the app) and you take a very comfortable journey to your destination.  The price is less than the city taxis, and from speaking to the drivers, they earn more money.  You get to rate the driver and his vehicle, and the driver gets to rate you as a customer.  We got to try out a conventional taxi later in the week and the difference in quality and price were noticeable, and the driver did not seem happy with the amount of work he was getting.  It seems like a win-win to me, unless you own a taxi company of course!

The gardens with Table Mountain in the background

Kerstin in full birding mode

Part of the gardens with Table Mountain in the background

African Dusky Flycatcher

Cape Sugarbird

Cape Spurfowl

Helmeted Guineafowl

Karoo Prinia - later to become an 'ever-present' species

Common Waxbill



A Cape Town pelagic



I got up early and joined a group taking a pelagic seabirding trip.  We were driven to Hout Bay where we boarded a surprisingly small boat with two monster 250 hp engines at the back.  Steve, the skipper took us rapidly out to the continental shelf edge.  Bruce Dyer was our guide, and very good he was too.  His careful identification of the adult and sub-adult albatrosses was exemplary.  We passed a group of breaching humpback whales, which was pretty spectacular.  The first albatrosses we saw were Shy Albatross, which was a new species for me.  However, the species I really wanted to see were Atlantic and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross.  We saw a number of these, which made for good practice in how to separate these.  We found a trawler eventually, and it was mobbed with seabirds and also Cape Sea-lions, which were following the trawler too. That is, until a pod of Killer Whales tried to take one out.  I don’t think they succeeded.  

Leaving Hout Bay. Bruce Dyer, our guide, is on the left

A Shy Albatross

Great Shearwater - notice the pale panel at the greater coverts

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross - note the grey head

Cape Gannet

Sub-adult Black-browed Albatross

Pintado/Cape Petrel

Part of the seabird flock at a trawler

Dusky Dolphin

Cape Sea-lion fleeing Orcas

More of the seabird flock

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross

Stunning coastal scenery just north of Hout Bay

Settling in at Cape Town



Saturday 24th

I had planned on going to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens today, but opted instead to do some shopping and catching up with work.

View from the apartment balcony
Kerstin arrived mid-afternoon with Ilka Win so we watched the first half of the South Africa v’s New Zealand Rugby World Cup semi-final in the apartment, then went to find a bar where they were showing the match.  Well we found a bar and I soon realised that we were the only whites.  Not that there was any trouble.  I was encouraged to see black South Africans cheering on the Springboks – this isn’t always the case.

Kerstin and I went for a meal at a local restaurant called Eastern Food Bazaar.  It was a series of counters serving different kinds of middle easterns and Indian food.  It was incredibly cheap, not just because of the current strength of Sterling.