Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Badger Cull - the clue's in the name

Two weeks ago the government decided to go ahead with a pilot badger cull in two areas of England, namely the districts of West Somerset and in the Forest of Dean. The intention behind the cull is to control bovine tuberculosis in cattle, a pernicious disease which once discovered can result in whole herds being destroyed, and the farmer's livelihood with it.

There are so many reasons why this campaign is insane: an online petition to Number 10 has already garnered over 100,000 signatures, with the intention of triggering a debate in parliament. The main reason is the terrible waste of life.  The cull could see badger populations decline by 70%, with healthy badgers being slaughtered as 'collateral damage.'  There is no question about this. If less than 70% are eradicated, according to research undertaken over nine years, the spread of TB might even increase, and so it has to happen.

While it is true, marksmen have been hired to exterminate the badgers, there is no guarantee that that every shot will be effective, since they are likely to flee in terror, creating a difficult target. A charity whose sole purpose is to rescue badgers is expecting to receive many wounded and distressed animals in the coming months. They will be the lucky ones: others will hole up somewhere, mutilated and maimed, consigned to a slow and horrible death.

The dispersal of the terrified creatures, faced with this ruthless and senseless onslaught, is the second reason why the pilot is a complete waste of time. Perturbation' is the technical name for the badgers' flight from danger and so instead of containing the disease, the act of culling actually spreads it. This was the conclusion of the research carried out in 2003 and analysed in 2007 by Lord Krebs, one of the government's most respected scientific advisers. 

His view of the cull is very clear. He calls it a 'crazy scheme' and suggests instead instituting a vaccination programme for the badgers and vulnerable herds of cattle.  But there is a problem here. Countries in the EU will not accept beef from cattle that have been vaccinated, especially after the BCE scare in 2002. And so the Farmers Union have given the cull their full backing, emphasising economics over ecology.

So what are we left with?  On the one hand we give our children story books with animal characters, ('The Wind in the Willows', Beatrice Potter) and fully rounded personalities (a little gruff, but warm hearted and charismatic).  And on the other, we sanction the demonisation of these elusive creatures, leading to their wished for extinction.  The wording is extreme but intentional.  Remember the word cull and kill have the same root.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cyclists - Take Notice!

On a sunny day in September, for the first time ever, I cycled all the way home from work. From Holborn to Crouch End to be exact, a journey of about six miles. Poised at the traffic lights at High Holborn, and a little breathless, my overriding emotion was one of... excitement. All round me were cyclists, a troop of cyclisme in all forms: hard-muscled, fashionable, quirky, armoured, youthful, grizzled, the occasional spiderman without the mask, and me (and my guide) on Bromptons.  To be part of this bunch reinforced my sense of entitlement to be on the road.  We were a posse and we were going home.

I am not a complete cycling novice. True, I only learned to bike as a student at St Andrews and I never quite mastered using brakes downhill. (I thought that was what knees were for, to disastrous and scarifying effect.)  My first venture into urban cycling was in Rome.  Not my idea I assure you and after being swept into a tunnel on the Appian Way, I beached myself on a traffic island, threw the (hired) bike on the ground and burst into tears.  

Later I became a cycle commuter, hopping on and off trains but not really owning the road.  However, to support my partner, Richard currently qualifying as a cycle trainer, I agreed to be his pupil.  Here's what I learned from the first three sessions.  

1. Gears are very useful and you shouldn't have to struggle and pant up hill- get to grips with them.

2. It is better to bowl along at a constant pace than to build up speed and then coast (although it does mean fewer opportunities to shout out, 'Weee', one of the perks of biking in my book).

3. Road positioning, surely my most important lesson. Don't stay in the gutter or the occasional ghetto of the cycle lane.  If you want to turn right at a junction, you've got to be in the middle. If you want to turn left at a junction, get into the middle, and so avoid being overtaken by the car behind.

4. And the final thing I learned (which kinda I knew already) is my sense of direction is dire.

On a bike however, you can take notice and that is how I navigate my route. Research into happiness suggests that 'taking notice' is one of five ways to create well being: cycling opens up your whole being to the world around you.

So on my journey to work, I have noticed the enticing Cafe Vintage on Finsbury Park Road, that marks my turning to the right.  I have enjoyed the smell of sausages and toast as I pass Thornhill Primary School, which probably explains their prestigious Food for Life Partnership award. I have noted the bunch of boys, all in hoodies, having a confab in the tree cage in Arundel Square Park, the top level safely fenced in. I have spotted tree pits on Barnsbury Road, planted with rudbeckia and pansies.

Guerilla Gardening on Barnsbury Road catches my eye.
I have learnt to notice other cyclists and to extend the same courtesy I accord to drivers, letting them know I am moving out and demonstrating clearly an intention to turn.  Last week I observed a woman on a bike upbraid a motorist for coming out in front of her. But I wonder if she was just a bit complicit: she was hesitant and uncertain and the driver took advantage.

Finally I notice myself, how I balance on my bike at the traffic lights, deliberately relaxing my shoulders which hunch when I'm tense, my mind alert, waiting for the light to change, ready to wobble off with those few moments of advantage.  I was breathless and flushed the first time I rode into work but I'm getting stronger.  My homeward journey ends with two hills, one a slow incline in Finsbury Park, the other a fiendish pull up before the final whiz ('Weee') home. I would like to say that each day I ascend a little more but that would not be entirely true. I notice my state of mind, my stamina at the end of a long day at work and sometimes I let myself off the hook.  And that's ok.

These sunny September days are a delight and they are particularly precious as the light begins to angle and fade. It has been a good time to learn and wintry rainy days may prove a greater challenge. Nevertheless I am convinced that the pleasure in observing and noting is one that will always entice me back on to my bike.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Is it Goodbye to the 'More than a Box' Scheme?

It seems that Church Farm, Ardeley is considering ending the 'More than a Box' scheme and this Thursday is likely to the be the last delivery to Crouch End and other drop-off points in North London.  

Lots of smiles and delightful produce on display but the slogan, 'Farm Store to the Door'
 is proving problematic for the Crouch End 'More than a Box' scheme.
The reasons for this are clear and understandable. The scheme has only recently started to make a profit and while it has been brilliant at promoting the idea of sustainable food, it has not proved to be sustainable in a business sense.

Driving a van to London once a week is expensive and daunting for those unused to the city's traffic: it requires a high level of commitment from the volunteers on the farm. The scheme has worked until now because of the enthusiasm of interns, Sam and Laura who have seen the value of giving an urban community access to food straight from the producers. But with both these individuals moving to different roles, the continuity of purpose is likely to go with them.

It was Sam's idea to bring the farm to London.  He is the co-founder of the Agrarian Renaissance, a movement which aims to reinvent farms as 'multi-faceted rural hubs with sustainable food production, and direct distribution'. He was and is passionate about the idea of connecting the farm which provides the food, with the people who consume it, particularly in an urban context, where most of our access to food is mediated by supermarkets. 

Working with Transition Crouch End, the scheme began in July 2010, then a parked van with boxes for people to pick up on a Thursday evening.  Issues with street trading led to a move to the Haberdashery, a vibrant local cafe which was becoming a hub of the community.  Since then the drop-off points have expanded to a local community centre and to other parts of North London.

Members of the 'More than a Box' scheme have appreciated the fresh seasonal food and exceptional range of meat and vegetables.  Direct communication with the farm has led to a more streamlined, customised service which may have benefited members of the scheme outside London.  (In the beginning the meat box contained sausages, mince and a joint, and was very difficult to get through in one week!)  Members have appreciated the ethics of the source of their food: the high level of animal welfare, the support for an enterprise committed to mixed farming and the concomitant rejection of supermarket hegemony.

But more than that (hence the name) have been the visits to the farm, to stay or volunteer or just hang out with the animals.  The farm is a magical place: two of my favourite visits were when we took part in the Supermoon Walk in March 2011, and when we caught the wave of bluebells in the wood in April.  It may even be that the London contingent of the members' scheme appreciate the farm more than the local members: it is an escape.

But the scheme has also developed a local presence in Crouch End.  Members and farm representatives have featured in the local press several times, promoting the box and explaining its values.  Sam has represented the farm at two AGMs for Transition Crouch End and the farm provided the catering for the Muswell Hill Sustainability Group's meeting on sustainable food.

Livestock from the farm were a star attraction in the Crouch End Festival, appeared in the local press (twice) and are now enshrined in the festival publicity.  The day the Church Farm lambs came to Stationers Park may well be the box scheme's finest moment. They inspired a raft of wool-themed activities in the local community centre and delighted the local children, and the scheme gained two more customers.

As I write, the blog begins to feel like a valediction to an initiative that has been running for just over two years.  It does not seem likely to continue in its present form, but as a loyal member from the beginning I would like to keep a few doors open.  Alexandra Park Farmers' Market attracts between 30 and 50 producers every Sunday, as well as 1,500 to 2000 visitors but it is not the only market in town.  Harringay Market  was launched on 24 June and takes place every Sunday at North Harringay Primary School and on 1 September, another market opened up in Bounds Green School. These small ventures may be a foothold for the farm to maintain that special relationship with North London, forged in Crouch End.

And members would be able to support a local enterprise in a neighbouring area. I for one would be happy to go the extra distance to keep the box scheme alive.