Going Vegan – another ism?

Having spent part of last week-end in an amiable argument with my daughter about her decision to cut out all animal foods from her diet, I decided to watch “Food Unwrapped Goes Vegan” on Chanel 4. I was shocked. Even the ads were shocking. What shocked me was not the topic, but the assumption that it’s perfectly OK to fly to California to “meet with” some expert who will explain something. Even more shocking was the assumption that becoming vegan meant buying processed foods which, it turned out, were more expensive than the meat equivalent because the processing wasn’t yet scaled up to the demand. Much of the programme was taken up with the quest for a vegan burger which, as a result of massively complex processing, was almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

In a programme full of stupid gimmicks which, like the horrible advertisements which punctuated it, gaily assumed that our world of over-consumption was absolutely normal, one report stood out, and I forgave Jimmy Docherty and his crew much for creating it: a graphic illustration which compared the amount of land needed to produce a kilo of vegan food with its meat equivalents. From the small square superimposed on a green field which represented the vegan food, the drone camera zoomed out to the larger chicken and pork squares until it reached the massive beef square. Even though I had a rough knowledge of the figures it still shocked me and seemed to genuinely impress the presenter. (I couldn’t remember the exact figures and couldn’t find them in an internet search – anyone remember?)

My purpose here is not to argue the case for animal food over plant food, but to challenge the assumption that it has to be “all or nothing” – that to save the planet we have to become something, subscribe to a doctrine or endorse an “ism”.

I suppose it gives the ego a hit to make a big life-changing decision: “I will not eat anything which comes from an animal”. It’s simple, easy to understand and gives you instant membership of a feel-good club of like-minded people. But real life is not that simple. Exchanging one kind of processed food for another may indeed enable more people to survive on the same patch of land but it does nothing to stop the damage done to our environment by the industrial production of, for example, soya and palm oil – two food industry staples. I’m not suggesting here that all vegans eat processed food, but there do seem to be a lot of foods engineered to replace meat and dairy products with foods which taste and appear similar. 

Up against veganism  are strong but complicated arguments about marginal land use highlighted by the “rewilding” movement. There are, for example, great health benefits from eating pasture fed meat as opposed to grain fed meat, and wild meat such as culled venison or rabbit as opposed to farmed meat.

Then there’s sugar. There is no word for a diet which excludes refined sugar – latin fails us here. The sugar cane and sugar beet industries are arguably not as damaging to the ecosystem as the dairy and beef industries, but refined sugar has done great harm to many of us, especially our children, and has, unlike dairy products, no nutritional value.

The vegan members of my family are still the same intelligent compassionate people they were before making the commitment, and I absolutely respect their motives, but I don’t think joining an “ism” is the best way to achieve a healthy diet which reduces our carbon footprints. My prescription for the right diet would be focussed on “natural” and “sustainable” foods. It would use the word “avoid” rather than “cut-out”. Here are some examples:

  • Avoid all processed foods
  • Avoid refined sugar
  • Avoid grain-fed meat

There would also be positives such as:

  • Eat high-fibre foods
  • Eat more green vegetables
  • Eat more fruit

In the crazy world of today’s politics joining an ism has much more clout than this kind of exhortation, but I hope in the politics to come that we might have a tax system that backed these principles. I would hope to see price penalties attached to junk food and price advantages to natural and sustainable foods. Watching “Food Unwrapped” though, it seems a long way off!


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Is Eco-tourism good for the environment?

This piece was prompted by a brief debate on the Facebook Group of “Terra Incognita” an organisation promoting eco-tourism. https://www.facebook.com/groups/425114481292734/

This is from Meike Becker.

. . . . I really found it hard to justify the passion for traveling at all while explaining how it is important to lower your impact on the environment.

I thought about how I could make my travels a greater good for environmental protection and so the idea is now, to collect examples of people and projects I meet on the road who are already doing great work in sustainability. I started to write articles about people who make an example and publish them on the blog to inspire people back home or elsewhere who are maybe still finding it hard to just start making a difference. This can be very small stuff, for example one story I am currently writing down is about a couple who built a fully (tiny) home just doing upcycling, means using things they found somewhere which got thrown away.

I still think about how to fully deal with this difficult topic of “sustainable travel” . . .

It could be the cynicism of old age, but I no longer believe that there are positive choices we can make in how we live which will have any noticeable effect on the climate/ecological crisis. I do scrupulously recycle everything I can and live in an almost carbon-neutral house but I don’t really think these choices will disturb the ever rising curve of fossil fuel emissions which is pushing us remorselessly towards an almost uninhabitable earth within the lifetime of my grandchildren.

If you are one of the rapidly growing minority able and willing to look clearly at what is happening to our world, and if you live in the so-called developed or Western world you will find yourself living parallel and incompatible lives. One side of your brain lives and works in the “normal” world of conventional economics where we measure our wellbeing by how much we consume and judge our future by how much economic growth we can achieve. The other side sees a world on the brink of collapse in which some form of severe hardship looks inevitable.

Those of us with a life expectancy of less than 20 years have a get out clause – “not in my lifetime”. We can be forgiven for continuing to live and think as we have done for most of our adult lives. This doesn’t work for me though. As the natural world retreats from the human onslaught, I seek ways of getting closer to it. If I can deepen my understanding of the living world, perhaps I may find a way to reconcile these parallel worlds in my head.

To that end I have spent the last 5 years trying to find places where I can get close enough to the remnants of Britain’s wildlife to photograph and record them. For various reasons I am not comfortable in groups – especially groups of people like me – and prefer to travel alone, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to find places where I am not jostled and disturbed by the ever-rising numbers of people seeking the same thing. We are all inspired by the astounding images of wild creatures shown on our screens and we all want to get out there and be with them. In the “normal” world we are part of a large and growing business.

An astonishing 75% of British households are reported to feed birds in our gardens, spending an estimated £200 million to do so! Not quite in the same league as the £1.2 billion we spend on crisps, but you get the picture.

The RSPB claims that the re-introduction of the White Tailed Sea Eagle is worth £5 million in tourist spending per annum to the Isle of Mull alone, and generates 110 local jobs there.

Nature Reserves are hugely popular. The reserves managed by English Nature for example are estimated to generate £22 million in economic activity. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in 2018 had 200,000 members, attracted just over a million visitors and generated an income of £21.8 million.

We are generally encouraged to see figures like this as a good thing. They show that there is real concern for the future of the non-human life that shares our living space.

I’m not so sure.

It can also be seen as an abusive cycle: we use the fabulous incomes that economic growth has given us to buy more and more stuff and travel ever further and more often. Then we spend more of this fossil fuel-driven income on things that make us feel better about it – Nature Conservation for example. We drive our high emitting cars or fly in even higher emitting planes to special places where we pay a whole army of professional conservationists to repair some of the damage we have done.

It could even be argued that all this activity serves no better function than to ease our consciences and allow us to continue with our comfortable and exciting lives.

I think most of us who care about the natural world would agree that a much better approach would have been not to have done so much damage in the first place. We all want to find ways to reverse the damage, and there is an appealing logic in bringing tourist income to places where, to feed their families humans are driven to destroy the environment. The flaw with this argument is that it involves even more economic activity, namely travel, by the wealthy countries; more of that very consumer spending which has caused most of the damage.

There is an alternative, and it’s one which may be forced on us anyway: pull back, do less. This is at the heart of the now fashionable concept of “Rewilding” – the restoration of pre-farming landscapes by, in particular, the re-introduction of ancestral grazing animals and their predators.

Somewhere in the heated debate this movement has generated is a way forward which might offer a better solution than the half-century old “Conservation”. I have just ordered EO Wilson’s “Half-Earth” to learn more about an idea which, when I first came across it seemed ridiculously unattainable. What these three concepts share is the idea of setting aside land where non-human species can flourish. The big difference between Conservation and the others is the point I am trying to get to with this piece:

Conservation involves intensive human management from engineering through to captive feeding. The others promote the opposite – a retreat, a deliberate neglect. There is of course an element of overlap. For any tract of land which has been under human management for many years, a rapid return to bio-diversity can be greatly assisted by, for example, controlled tree planting, or managed introduction of grazing animals.

Even if we agree about what we should be doing, we are still faced with the impossibly enormous question, the super-sized elephant in the room, possibly the greatest challenge humans have ever faced;


More specifically, how can we make space for nature and the climate to recover without condemning at least half our population to a nasty, brutish and above all, short life.

In the worst case scenario that will happen anyway.





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The Clash of Antlers

It’s a fine frosty morning, misty, and the cooler weather tips the trees from dull khaki towards those red and gold tints which shine in the low morning light. This has to be the day – probably my last chance – to get a better understanding of what is happening in the deer park at what should be the peak of the rutting season.

We know what the big Fallow bucks are supposed to do at this time: set out their stalls – their rutting stands. He who aspires to be the alpha male and therefore the one who gets to mate with most of the tail twitching eager does, choses a place to show how big and powerful he is, thrashing the trees, trampling the ground, pissing and bellowing. If one of his mates decides it should be him getting the does, he must fight for it, head to head, antler to antler.

That’s the theory, but here they just seem too relaxed and friendly to be bothered to fight. Last year I watched the two main men amicably share the spoils, giving rise to the theory that there are so many does in this enclosed cervid universe that they have no need to fight.

Today I have no volunteer duties and enough time to watch the three or four areas where I have seen rutting behaviour recently. I start at the northern end of the long wooded ridge. There is usually a group of does here; I see them; they see me; I freeze and they amble off. Good, now I can move towards a dark area of dense young trees much frequented by the group who hang out at this end of the park during the winter. I see movement: a stately procession of three of the biggest mature bucks is moving down towards the open ground to the west. Never much given to nerves, these magnificent beasts show their distain for us humans by walking slowly past. I carefully follow them down to where they have joined a group of around 30 does and a few immature bucks. The big boys move off southwards and the does follow except for a small group who hang around two immature bucks. They remind me of overgrown children trying out sexual behaviour. It’s all rather nice and peaceful. I return to the ridge.

There is a little grassy knoll which marks the highest point in the park, and was the scene of much rutting activity last year. Creeping carefully up the slope and slowly raising my head I see a gang of teenage bucks and a few does sitting peacefully enjoying the sunshine. It’s quiet – no sign of that grunting echoing bellow of the rutting buck. I’m beginning to wonder if some vagary of the weather and the temperature has reduced the number of does in oestrus. Where is all the excitement?

It’s lunch time and I retreat to the Kingfisher hide to watch my favourite patch of water – well rewarded with the rare sight of an otter, and even rarer, an otter out of the water.

The rut I observed last week was near the old boundary wall at the edge of some open grassland below and to the west of the ridge. The nearest cover is too far to get good pictures  so I decide to try to get to a patch of trees nearer to the wall. It’s a difficult and tiring climb-cum-scramble and the cover is not good. There is however a large group of deer in front of me. Crouching I throw a piece of camouflage net over my head, clumsily get the camera lined up and slowly stand. I can’t see properly and move about too much. I’ve been seen. The deer aren’t too concerned but steadily move away to the other side of the field – towards the ridge. My strategy has failed. There are several mature and immature bucks with them, but it’s too far away for really crisp pictures. Still, I’m here now so I’ll stay and see what happens.One of the big bucks is limping; wounded in battle? He’s very pale in colour – a Menil – and he’s restless. In the same group is another big buck, but this one is very dark (on the left in the picture above this one). The contrast is striking. They wander up and down along the edge of the steep woodland.

Suddenly, there is violent movement under the trees at the edge of the wood. A pale shape catches my eye and I swing the camera round. It’s a fight! The menil buck is pushing furiously at a dark shape. Both heads are hidden by bracken; click click click; the fight goes one way, then the other and now I can see the locked antlers.

Wow! The power and speed and violence of these animals is amazing!  Now Menil is literally pushing the dark one up the hill. Suddenly it is over. Menil has won and is chasing the other off, watched by several  younger bucks.  They are both rushing along just above the bracken, and burst out into the field. I’ve never seen bucks run like this before – they’re like racehorses.Phew! I have my pictures but the light was poor and the distance great. (Around 140 metres I discover later.) Will they be any good? I take a break and look at some of them – hm, not too bad. Then, suddenly there is movement again. The battle is being fought again in the same place, but with two different contenders. These two are both dull brown and astonishingly they are second or third year bucks with no chance of supplanting their elders in the winner-takes-all sex game.  The same chase ensues down the same path as the big boys. This must be a practise bout in exact imitation of the real thing. Were they the watchers? 

Now I really have learnt something new.

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Rewilding – cultural imperialism?

Thanks to Chris Robertson for sending me this link: 


As a lifelong greenie I am torn between a love of nature and a passionate desire to see a more natural landscape in Wales before I die, and anger at the insensitivity of so many radicals in the environmental movement. This is especially important at a time when Britain is riven by such a divisive, and in the long run, irrelevant issue as Brexit. How can we hope to persuade the majority that restoring bio-diversity is our best hope for the future if we antagonise the very people who are best placed to do something about it – local farmers. 

We’ve seen the same problem with Extinction Rebellion in London. The people who make the headlines are not the thousands of normal sensible people driven to demonstrate by their fear for our future, but the outlandish costumes and silly behaviour of the loonie left fringe. Result – the entire movement takes a step backwards. 

What I would love to see is an informed discussion amongst the farming community in Wales about sustainable farming. Any takers?

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Trees for Life – some thoughts

I don’t blame you, the leaders of Trees for Life, for my problems on the tree planting week. I brought my demons with me. I certainly don’t regret doing it, and there were many positives. There were also some things which I think you got wrong. Here then are my thoughts:

As a way to appreciate the beauty and complexity of this part of Britain a working week like this is hard to beat. I greatly appreciated the chance to get to know and photograph this extraordinary place.

Our two leaders were also extraordinary – not only competent and knowledgeable, but unflaggingly cheerful and supportive. Well done both of you.

I experienced great kindness and friendship and very much hope some of you will keep in touch. I certainly have no intention of doing another tree planting week, but would like to get to know Dundreggan and Corrimony, so may well be back. 

The Bothy – what ever were you thinking of when it was upgraded? What on earth is the logic of top-quality insulation, heating, toilet, decoration, solar power and lighting but no hot and cold running water, and no shower? From my experience with van conversion and building our own eco house, it would have been easy and not expensive to install at least constant running water. A small well-insulated gas-fired hot water system would almost certainly use less gas than cooking up kettles on the stove. It will cost a lot more to retro-fit such a system, as the architect would have known. So why? Perhaps because the volunteers come here for the experience of living in a remote spot, off grid, no phone signal, all mucking in together and making the best of it – life enhancing? If so, why bother with insulation? Why not huddle round an open fire? Why the sophisticated electrics, the modern LED spotlights? Why not paraffin lamps or candles?

The all-male group. I was seriously worried about being in such a large group anyway, but to find that there were no women volunteers was very dispiriting. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding single-sex groups difficult. Since the volunteers have made such a large commitment in time, energy and money to work for you is it asking too much to ensure that the groups are mixed in both ages (which this one was) and gender?

The “spiritual moments“. There is a big argument about how political campaigners should present themselves, but this does not feel like the right place to dip my toes into that turbulent stream. Though an atheist I do believe that there is an essential spiritual side to our nature which we need to nurture. However, I do strongly object to being told to do so! 

That’s it. I will publish a gallery of photographs. Full high-resolution versions will be available by request at no charge. All I would like is an acknowledgement. If I can work out how to present videos online then those will be available too.

Have a good winter everyone.



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