Monday, 26 November 2018

Chickens and Eggs, Pasture to Plate

I had an interesting day out last weekend on the Horowhenua Taste Trail, where a handful of Horowhenua food producers--Horowhenua is a region in New Zealand--opened their doors and offered factory tours, tastings, and such to the public. At some venues, various restaurants and chefs had set up to offer “tasting plates” made with the products. The idea of this annual event is to share with ordinary people the “paddock to plate” process.

I drove up to the town of Foxton for my first venue, and started there with a visit to Turk’s chicken. Now I don’t think a chicken factory is a happy place, but I do think knowing where food comes from is important knowledge. Still, this is truly red pill, blue pill territory, or to quote the government propaganda in George Orwell’s novel 1984, “Ignorance is Bliss”.  Not everybody wants to know, or cares to see.

Turks produces corn-fed (not GMO corn) free-range “premium” chicken and chicken products that are sold primarily around the North Island of New Zealand. They are a local company employing over 200 workers and contractors in the operation, so they are a major employer in this small, rural town. They process around 125,000 chickens a week.

38 day old Turk's chickens
We didn’t get an opportunity to see the free-range chickens in the barns and paddocks run by Turks’ contractors, but at the entrance as we went in, they showed us a few chickens: first a bunch of fluffy yellow 2-day-old chicks you could pick up, and then some larger birds in a larger pen that were 38 days old: grossly overweight, and somewhat featherless, two days short of slaughter. Given the chickens are kept in barns until they are 3 weeks old, and they are killed just shy of 6 weeks’ old, their “free-range life” outdoors is pretty short. You can see more about the barns and outdoor spaces, and learn about the company, in this clip from the tv show “Rural Delivery”.

In the Turks factory, sample chicken (not a working day)
On tour inside the factory (they don’t operate on weekends), we viewed a huge and efficient, spotlessly clean stainless steel processing plant, and in each room workers explained what they do and what the various machines do. This is a big factory, highly automated, and Turks workers are clearly proud of the efficiencies they have in butchering, marinating, processing, bagging, packaging, and boxing their premium products, in whatever cuts and sizes their customers request. Once the breast meat has been removed and the legs and thighs and wings (nibbles) cut off, a machine extracts all the “meat” from stripped carcasses for human consumption, and that will be formed into various chicken products like nuggets and patties and sausages; the residual bone material is ground and extracted for use in pet food. Nothing goes to waste. In the small goods room they have smokers for smoking chicken and chicken sausages. In another room, they mix marinades, bag, and box. It’s all very clinical and efficient, designed to produce a variety of safe chicken products for the commercial market.

Outside the factory, the barbeques were going full-bore with generous samples of barbequed chicken breast pieces prepared with various marinades, sizzling hot off the grill, available on platters, free for sampling. I must confess that my appetite for chicken, low to begin with as I’m mostly vegetarian, had pretty much disappeared by this point (though it was lunch time), but in the spirit of the event, I tried a couple of pieces.

From the Foxton Turks factory I drove south to the town of Levin, and set off to explore more about chickens at the Ultimate Egg Company. This free-range egg “factory” gets an SPCA blue tick, and an SPCA lady was there talking to visitors about chicken welfare, and showing examples of the cramped single and colony cages used on some farms (not this one). All of The Ultimate Egg Company’s chickens are free to move about the barns and have access to the outdoors. None are caged.

Ultimate Egg free range hens in the front paddock
What I noticed first off is that the paddock out the front, visible from the front driveway, is quite appealing with lots of grass, big trees, little shade houses for the birds, and what appear to be lots of big, brown, happy-looking chickens poking about, exploring the paddock, and behaving like chickens (though I note their beaks had been clipped). As you walk down the row of barns--there were five or six long shed/barns--the paddocks outside the barns appeared less inviting with less grass and few trees, and fewer chickens were seen out frolicking. Outside the farthest barn, half a dozen chickens pecked aimlessly at the dirt outside the doorways in a mostly bare paddock, while all the rest stayed crowded in the barn, hen-pecking and hen-pecked. They could go out—the doors were open--but chose not to. I was surprised that this was the barn they allowed us to look inside.

Ultimate Egg free range hens in the barn
I was most heart-wrenched by a hen just on the other side of the fence in that farthest paddock (one of the few outside) whose tail feathers had all been plucked out leaving a bare-skin behind, and whose comb appeared to have been virtually pecked off as well. She had made it outside, but to what? Dirt and stones, a bit of grass farther away, and of course she would have to go back inside the barn for food and water and to lay her requisite egg. It was the saddest sight I saw all day. I just wanted to pick her up, give her a cuddle, and bring her home.

Ultimate Eggs stacked on pallets
The Ultimate Egg Company is a smaller operation than Turks, but much is still automated: hundreds of eggs roll down conveyor belts from the barns and are mechanically sorted and deposited on trays. An inspector looks for cracks and breaks, then stacks the trays onto pallets which are lifted into trucks with a fork-lift. The Ultimate Egg Company was in operation the day we were there (obviously chickens don’t take a day off), and I don’t remember the stats we were told about how many employees they have, or how many chickens, or how many eggs are produced, and their website does not supply that information. I seem to remember someone saying the chickens are kept for about two years before they too end up as meat birds.

After these two chicken stops, I meandered on to several other food producers (Woodhaven Gardens, Genoese Pesto, and Thoroughbread Foods who make bread) before calling it a day. In short, I can say those were more pleasant stops, but not the topic of this post.

I think it is brave of producers like Turks and the Ultimate Egg Company to open their doors like this to the public. I don’t think it is likely to generate new or more enthusiastic customers.  It’s easy to be beguiled in the supermarket by those “free range” labels where chickens and eggs are sold, and to assume that those chickens have led reasonably pleasant lives before their deaths. Mostly, I think they do not. I did not find either of these visits made me want to go out and buy either chicken or eggs, or to eat them and support these industries. What I missed most was some recognition that these chickens are sentient animals with personalities and lives that matter, not just “products”. The egg production process seemed as mechanical and product-oriented as the meat factory. None of these chickens—and their numbers are vast—is allowed to have a name, a personality, or the recognition of a being that matters as anything other than as a mechanical (though breathing) egg producer, or carcass for processing. 

And so… While this appears to be a post about chickens and eggs, I think it’s really more a post about who we are as human beings. Sobering. Many things in this world make me sad.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

House Shopping Around the World

I used to work in real estate, and I have always loved houses. I also love to travel. This post combines the two, if only via the internet.

Wellington’s booming house prices continually make the news, as do Auckland’s house prices. At the moment, the average sale price for a house in Wellington is NZ$615,000 for a 3-4 bedroom home—very high by international standards we are told. I thought it might be interesting to see what sort of house this budget would buy in some other parts of the world.

Karori Townhouse
First, a Wellington home—my baseline. Most houses here are marketed without price:  "auction", "tender", or “by negotiation” is what’s usually in the price box, so it is hard to guess what a property will sell for. One house currently on the market with an actual price indicator (“offers above NZ$595,000”) is a modern two-storey, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom townhouse with a single garage in the city suburb of Karori. It offers a floor area of 127m2 and a tiny land area of 142m2 in a new development.  If this front photo is anything to go by, it can be described as "box-like". By going to further-out suburbs, it is possible to find older, 3-bedroom houses with a bit of garden space in this price range. (For comparison sake, at the moment, NZ$595,000 = US$402,000, 354,000, £307,500 and C$547,000).

Wellington is a coastal city (and NZ’s capital) with a population of a little over 400,000. Where practicable, I’ve tried to echo that, and other similar traits, to some extent, in my global property search.  Next stop? Portland, Oregon, USA.

I lived in Oregon for two years, many years ago, and I loved it there. Portland is a city of 648,000 and is situated on the Columbia River, but it is not far from the coast and it is officially a major shipping port. It is famous for coffee, craft beer, parks, and an environmentally-aware attitude. It is surrounded by wine country, dairy farms, forestry, and orchards, and nearby Mt Hood attracts skiers, hikers, mountaineers, and photographers. Good place to live.

Portland house
A lovely-looking house in a nice suburb in Portland has an asking price of US$399,500 (NZ$592,000). This 246m2 single-storey house on just under half an acre of landscaped woodland has 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and an internal-access double garage. The interior is modern and spacious with high, light-coloured timber ceilings. They don’t mention double glazing or central heating, but this is a modern American home so one can safely assume both.

Multi-cultural Vancouver, Canada, population 632,000, is also a coastal city and, like Wellington, is famous for sky-high real estate prices. Also like Wellington, it is coastal, environmentally-focused, artsy, and full of beautiful parks.

I found no listings for free-standing houses in Vancouver in this price range at all, only condominiums (sort of what in NZ we call “unit title”, or “units”). For C$549,000 (NZ$618,000) you can buy a 97m2 2-bedroom, 2-bath corner ground-floor unit in North Vancouver with a monthly fee of C$400, no dogs allowed. As with an American home, one can assume double glazing and central heating. But no bargains!

Taking a hop, skip and a great, big jump over to the UK, the city of Bristol is coastal like Wellington, and has a population of 440,000. It has a thriving arts and creative technology scene, was the first British city to be named “European Green Capital”, and it too has lovely parks and open spaces.

My internet browse in Bristol found an attractive and modernized 3-bedroom 1-bath semi-detached 2-storey home with a conservatory, single garage, and a large back garden. It is double-glazed, has a gas fire, and has a pleasant rural outlook. The house and section size were not noted on the internet listing. This is priced at £325,000 (NZ$629,000), a smidgen over our budget but asking prices are often a bit higher than what a seller will actually accept.

Valencia villa
I’ve only been to Spain once, but I immediately fell in love with this vibrant, sunny country. Valencia is a popular and beautiful coastal city, with a population about twice the size of Wellington, so I did a little outreach from there into the countryside. Within a 30-minute drive of central Valencia, I found a charming, modern two-storey Spanish villa of 265m2 with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a pretty swimming pool with an asking price of (NZ$606,000). At 400m2, the section is small but nicely landscaped and easily managed, and the property appears to be surrounded by similar nice houses.

Trans-Tasman rivalry being what it is, I can’t leave Australia out of the mix. While Melbourne and Brisbane beckon many Kiwis, both cities are really large. So for my comparison I’ve jumped to smaller Newcastle, a bit north of Sydney on Australia’s east coast, with a population of 550,000. Newcastle has the largest coal-exporting harbour in the world, but it is also known for great surf beaches, a lovely climate, good food, and proximity to not only the beaches but also to the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie.

The Newcastle housing market in this price range seems to be dominated by 2-bedroom apartments, but I found a nice, modern, 2-storey, 2-bedroom + study, 2-bathroom 115m2 townhouse with a single garage and a pretty private courtyard for A$550,000 (NZ$591,000) in a complex of 8 ground-floor units. It’s pretty similar to the Wellington offering, although—I thought-- more attractive. 

Maroochydore house
For better value for money, a quick browse up on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane yields a number of modern 3- and 4-bedroom homes on small to mid-sized sections. This one in Maroochydore, for example, is a single-story, modern and rather pretty home with 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a double carport on an 807m2 section. The price is “buyer enquiry over $570,000” (NZ$613,000).

Thailand is a popular holiday destination for a lot of folks, and the island of Koh Samui (population 65,000) has many Western residents as well as holiday makers. No wonder. Money goes quite a long way in Thailand. For 12,000,000 Thai baht (NZ$538,000) you can buy a brand new single storey 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom (all bedrooms have ensuites, plus there’s a guest bathroom off the living area) 200m2 house on a 300m2 section with a private infinity pool, just 300 metres from popular Chawang Beach in a new development. It has sea views. It is—in a word—gorgeous! I believe foreigners can only buy property lease-hold there.

Bali villa pool
Bali is another tourist hotspot. Most properties there are leasehold. For around 6 billion Indonesian Rupiah (that’s NZ$607,000) you can get a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom (but tiny tourist-sized kitchen!) villa with private pool, 5 minutes’ walk from the beach at Sanur. Or a 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom property with a small private pool and large, modern kitchen on a 300m2 section in Seminyak. Or a 2-storey, 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom 300m2 “villa” with private pool and sea view in Jimbaran near the airport—modern, white, elegant, and curvy—available freehold. (Actually, that last one is listed at 7 billion—don’t you feel rich?--but with numbers like these, and we’re only dreaming anyway, what’s an extra billion or so?)

So there you have it—a quick hop around the world looking at real estate. I think that little house in Karori in Wellington looks very basic for over half a million dollars. I think the Portland house comes out as my favourite to actually live in, for the money. Both Bristol and Valencia would be great bases for exploring Europe, if one could work a lifestyle out of either city, and both of those houses are nice. The Sunshine Coast of Australia wouldn't be a bad place to park, and many Kiwis do. Vancouver is just crazy expensive—yah, nah—though it is one of my favourite cities to visit (feels a bit like “home”—Southeast Alaska). And Koh Samui and Bali? Ah, they’re gorgeous of course, but I’d rather just go there on holiday… I’m not a full-time tropics girl myself…

Saturday, 8 September 2018

1080 Facts--A Quick Summary

 1080 poison-laced cereal baits

1080 is a synthetically-produced, tasteless, odourless poison, scientifically known as sodium fluoroacetate (or monofluoroacetate).

Poisonous fluoroacetates also occur naturally in a handful of plants in low concentrations. Fluoroacetate is believed to be a plant defense mechanism that discourages grazers and browsers.

1080 has no antidote. Because it is so toxic and dangerous, very few countries choose to use it. New Zealand uses over 80% of the world’s supply.

1080 affects all mammals, birds, fish, insects, worms—everything that depends upon oxygen. Basically, it stops cellular respiration. Some animals, such as dogs, are more susceptible than others.

Animals and birds can become ill and many die by ingesting 1080 directly, or by consuming the flesh of dead or poisoned animals. Thus ruru (morepork owls) and weka that feed off poisoned carcasses, or catch poisoned mice to feed to their young, will be affected. Kiwi (birds) that eat poisoned worms and grubs are harmed. 1080 affects the entire ecosystem.

There is always a risk that 1080 will enter the human food chain, if it isn’t there already.

Death by 1080 is prolonged and agonizingly painful—some say it is like getting hundreds of electric shocks. Many people object to deliberately inflicting such torture on animals.

New Zealand government agencies spend millions of dollars each year to aerial drop 1080 over roughly 726,000 hectares of bush under the “Battle for the Birds” banner alone (the Department of Conservation's 2017/2018 figures). The overall coverage is probably over a million hectares (2.4 million acres) if you include aerial drops by regional councils and through OSPRI (TB-free) funding. The stated goal is to eradicate "pests" in the target areas.

Rodent populations often boom the year following 1080 applications—rats seem to have tremendous rebound capacities.

New Zealand has been using 1080 since the 1950s. It has not been successful in eradicating unwanted animals, or in “saving” native species.


The above is adapted from an A5-sized flyer I recently handed out to onlookers during a 1080 protest. I have written a number of blog posts previously about 1080, which I believe should be banned. Some of these posts are 

And way back in 2011, I wrote this post: 1080

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Compassionate Conservation

While Invasion Biology (if it doesn’t come from here it doesn’t belong here) holds sway in much of the conservation world, the new kid in town is compassionate conservation. The keystone concepts of compassionate conservation are

--First, do no harm
--Individuals matter
--All wildlife has value
--Peaceful coexistence

Traditional conservation is ultimately about resource management, and that means people are continually making choices about how to “manage” and “control” the conservation estate. The [unproven] assumption that the elimination of introduced species will benefit native species leads to an inevitable death sentence for many undesirable animals. Sometimes populations of particular animals, even endemic ones like Australia’s kangaroos and dingoes, are considered too abundant in an area, and are thus ripe for culling.

But this raises a question. Should animal welfare be a significant part of conservation? While many people assume it is, the reality is different. Compassionate conservation comes  up and along with and part of our growing awareness of the sentience of animals, and the animal rights’ movement.

Sentience is the ability to experience negative and positive emotions such as affection and loyalty and fear, and respond to those emotions, and also to feel and respond to pain. Those of us who have pets have no doubt our “fur babies” experience emotions and react to pain. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate this beyond our household pets to include our livestock, and then, eventually, to animals in the wild. In New Zealand, animal sentience was written into law in 2015, but the law—curiously enough—only applies to “owned” animals—unowned animals (feral) apparently have no legal right to sentience.

It seems almost bizarre to me that animal sentience seems to have been questioned for so long. And yet the reason seems obvious: people like to use animals, and using them implies taking advantage of them, and sometimes--often--that means hurting them. Obviously, we eat many of them. We use them in research. We remove newborn calves from their mothers so we can process and drink the cows’ milk. We wage war on "pests". Many people enjoy the “sports” of hunting and fishing. If we acknowledge animal sentience, then there are some implicit moral and ethical dilemmas that come with these food, conservation, and lifestyle choices.

But back to “conservation”. The invasive biology model purports that to save endemic and vulnerable animals and plants, “pest” animals must be "managed" and that usually means killed. Our current methods for killing unwanted feral animals are fairly blunt and brutal. Poison is top of the pops in New Zealand (often applied aerial, as with 1080), and traps of various sorts are popular. Sometimes deadly viruses, like myxomatosis and calicivirus for rabbits, are released.  In both New Zealand and Australia, shooting is also common. In Australia, shot kangaroos (endemic, but not endangered--check out this documentary film trailer) are “harvested” for their skins and meat; in New Zealand possum shoots or hunts even become school fundraisers; sometimes the skins are harvested. Baby kangaroos and possums, like bobby calves in the dairy industry and male chicks, are nothing more than unwanted byproducts. Compassionate conservation, in contrast, has as its first tenant “First, do no harm”.

Traditional conservation is all about management and balancing numbers and resources. Individual animals don’t count, as long as there are more than a few hundred left. It’s all about “populations”. And while science and farming are generally about “bulk” numbers (statistics don’t work with one or two, you need whole populations for them to be valid), with compassionate conservation individuals DO count. The life of one tui, one possum, one skink, one deer…each of them matters, and no one more than the other.

A few questions to ponder on this theme:

Should animal welfare be a part of conservation?

Is it acceptable to kill animals in the name of conservation? How many animals is it acceptable to kill? 

Is it ethically justifiable to kill many common or "nuisance" animals in the hope of saving a few rare animals or plants?

Is the life of one kind of animal of more value than the life of another? If so, who makes the judgement call? (Compassionate conservation says no, ALL individuals matter.)

Given death by poison is slow and agonizing, and the use of traps followed by a bash on the head is little better, is killing animals by more “humane” methods acceptable?

If invasive species do threaten rare endemic species, is it okay to allow those vulnerable species to remain at risk of extinction?


If you have found this post of interest, you might also like
The Invasion Biology Movement in Conservation
A Brief History of the Conservation Movement
School Possum Hunt Fundraiser and Drowned Joeys

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Invasion Biology Movement in Conservation

Common starling--a master invasive species. Photo
from New Zealand Birds Online
Invasion biology is the study of the introduction, infiltration, establishment, and control or elimination of non-native species in a given eco-system. It is a discipline that has come about primarily as a result of international trade and travel, which has increased the mixing of species worldwide. In many places, these biological “invaders” have raised concerns, particularly where agriculture and other industries find themselves threatened by the establishment of “alien” species, or where control of invasive species can, in and of itself, become an industry.

The science of invasion biology began in 1958 with the publication of Charles Sutherland Elton’s book The Ecology of Invasion by Animals and Plants. An animal ecologist and research fellow at Oxford University, Elton was given the task of finding ways to control the proliferation of rats and mice in stored grain during World War II. After the war, he continued his research into the connections between invasive/pest animals and human activity, and may also have been the first to suggest that invasive species might impact on native species and biodiversity in general, particularly when introduced into isolated habitats.

A “war” against invasive species was declared in the US in 1999 when an executive order “directed several federal agencies ‘to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.’” (see here). 

Some invasive species are clearly destructive. One example is Dutch elm disease, caused by a fungus native to Asia where trees are naturally resistant to it. The disease, which is spread by bark beetles, first appeared in Europe in 1910, and over the next century spread to North America and New Zealand. By 1990, few mature elms were left in Europe or the UK, and vast swathes of North America’s elm forests had been destroyed. Today, disease-resistant elms are being bred, fungicides can be injected into infected trees, and a vaccine has been developed for injection into non-infected trees that seems to provide some protection against the fungus.

Other invasive species have been of benefit to nature and sometimes to man. Honey bees, for example, are native to Europe, but are “non-native invasives” in the Americas and in countries like Australia and New Zealand; much of our agricultural pollination and our honey industries depend upon them. Many “invasive” plants and non-native garden plants gone feral are enjoyed by native birds, providing valuable sources of food and shelter. The Japanese white eye, a small silver-eye-type bird, is an invasive bird species in Hawaii, but its introduction means several native plants are now being pollinated, something that became a problem after the indigenous birds that used to pollinate the flowers became extinct.

Some places have taken the invasion biology approach to conservation to heart. In New Zealand, much of the conservation movement is aimed at the removal of non-indigenous species in an attempt to recreate uninhabited areas that appear to present a more “nativist” landscape. Even in towns and cities, there is a strong drive to exterminate wild mammals (before Man arrived, New Zealand had no mammals other than bats), and many public parks and private gardens are planted predominately—sometimes exclusively—in native plants. The Department of Conservation has a long list of “weed” species under the [usually chemical] gun, and every Kiwi is deliberately  indoctrinated to believe that rats, stoats, possums, and feral cats are public enemy number one (two, three, four…). New Zealand has become a land of poisons and traps for unwary four-foots. It is a profitable industry. (For more on this, see my blog posts Predator Free New Zealand and How Belief About the Nature of Nature Impacts Conservation Decisions.)

One of the primary arguments presented by invasion biologist enthusiasts, especially in places like New Zealand, is that controlling or exterminating invasive species in an ecosystem helps improve biodiversity. See my previous post on biodiversity for a bit more on that issue.

Certainly, studying the effects invasive species have on an ecosystem and its inhabitants provides tremendous opportunities for understanding how ecosystems function. While much of the current movement is directed towards removing visible species identified as “pests,” I think much could be gained in simply observing what Nature does without human interference. It can be argued that Man, rather than Nature, is responsible for moving species out of their native habitats and into alien ecosystems, and therefore He has a responsibility to remedy those “mistakes”. Yet, once established in the new ecosystem, invasive species become a part of that system, and their removal results in yet more chaos for Nature to repair.

There is a lot we don’t know. We are just beginning to understand and appreciate the interconnections between individuals and species. In spite of Darwin’s theory that species thrive through competition and that only the fittest will survive, we are beginning to understand that many species have symbiotic relationships with other species, some species are surprisingly nurturing to others, and that when one thing is changed in a system, many things change.

Friday, 1 June 2018


The term “biodiversity” gets used a lot in modern conservation, though there seems to be some confusion as to what it actually means. Invasive biology proponents—those who believe that the invasive infiltration of non-indigenous species into an ecosystem inhibits the thrivability of indigenous ones—often assume “biodiversity” refers to just endemic populations in situ, something to be protected at all costs. In New Zealand, this is a big issue, and one of the key assumptions that is used to justify the “Predator Free New Zealand by 2050” movement.

Awesome Poster by Pedro Teixeira 
The Oxford dictionary defines biodiversity as “the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable.” There is nothing in this definition about a species being endemic.  And here’s why this matters: If a species exists, and perhaps even thrives, outside of its native natural habitat (and therefore might be considered an invasive species in another habitat), but it no longer thrives--or perhaps even exists--in its native habitat, is that a loss of biodiversity? If a plant or animal exists in a controlled environment but not in the wild, is that a loss of biodiversity? For more on this line of thinking, see my post on endangered species.

And while we’re on the subject of definitions, words like endemic and native are often wrongly used interchangeably, so just to clarify...  Endemic refers to an indigenous species found naturally nowhere else on the planet. Native species, by contrast, are species that naturally occur in a place, and they also occur elsewhere. In New Zealand, for example, the kiwi and the tui (birds) are endemic, while fantails and pukekos (birds) are natives.

Some numbers:  According to Wikipedia (they have a pretty decent article on biodiversity I think), 99.9% of all animals that have lived on this planet are extinct. The estimated current number of different species on earth ranges between 10 million and 1 trillion, of which a little over a million have been identified. Which means scientist haven’t really got a clue about how much biodiversity there really is on this planet. (I suspect the trillion figure may include micro-organisms.) 

The earth has undergone five mass extinctions that we know about, and it is generally accepted that we are undergoing a sixth mass extinction now, a human-generated catastrophe caused primarily by habitat destruction. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the annual number of extinctions as between 200 and 100,000, while the UN Environment Program estimates 150-200 species become extinct daily. Such diverse numbers suggest nobody really has a clue. It is estimated between 5000 and 10,000 new species are discovered/identified every year.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, acclimatisation societies sought to increase biodiversity by introducing non-native species into newly-colonized lands. These societies were popular in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Numerous birds and game species were introduced by settlers to make their new homes feel a bit more like their old homes, for farming purposes, and to provide wild meat and fish for the table and hunting and fishing pleasures.

Today there is a strong movement to reverse many of these deliberate introductions ostensibly because of a concern that introduced species puts the survivability of indigenous species at risk, though the actual risk from introduced species may be fairly small.

Ultimately, most scientists agree that the greatest threat to the planet’s biodiversity is humanity. We decimate wild ecosystems and habitats with our forest clearings, and our agriculture, our seas of plastics, and our toxic chemicals that contaminate our lands and our waterways, our seas and our skies. One recent study in Germany documents an astounding 75% decline in insects biomass in Germany over the past 30 years. We tend to walk carelessly across the surface of our planet with hobnail boots and are headless of our tread.
Some of my other posts on the conservation theme:

Sunday, 27 May 2018

A Brief History of the Conservation Movement

Early conservation writing:
1662 paper by John Evelyn,
cited by Wikipedia as a beginning
point of the conservation
Historically, the conservation movement as most people know it comes from a sort of business model for forest management that was first promoted in 17th century England to encourage more sustainable timber harvests. This concept was refined in the 19th century and solidified around three core assumptions:

--Human activity damages the environment
--The natural environment needs to be maintained for future generations
--Scientific methods should be applied to conserve forests
19th century conservation in America probably has its philosophical roots going back to Henry David Thoreau and his writings about nature at Waldon Pond—an observational and reverential approach to the environment—and the naturalist John Muir, often called “the father of national parks”. The earliest political push for conservation in the US probably came from President Teddy Roosevelt and his desire to preserve what was left of North America’s big game species. He was an avid big game hunter, and he created the US Forest Service, established five national parks, and four national game preserves as well as other public forests and reserves.

Practically—after all, we live in a world driven by economics, and they did back then too—the stated American government conservation goal was to maximize natural resources for long-term economic benefit. Today the US Environmental Protection Agency is government-funded, and continues to serve that goal, at least more or less.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of non-government, non-business conservation organisations sprang up, started by concerned citizens who felt government guidelines and regulations didn’t match the true need for conservancy and environmental protection. These were groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and Friends of the Earth. The focus of these groups was moving away from an emphasis on forests to include the whole range of “natural” environments, and from conservation of economic reserves to conservation in its own right—a desire to save the natural environment and at-risk species, and to mitigate man's impact upon the planet (different organisations have somewhat different goals). To get the private donations they needed to do this, they learned to build campaigns around poster animals such as whales, tigers, elephants, and polar bears—wild at-risk animals that it is relatively easy to get people to care about.

In New Zealand, as in many pockets of the world, we have had a mix of government and non-profit organizations working towards “conservation”. And I put that word in quotes here because meanings are a little fuzzy sometimes. In almost all cases, economics remains a primary driver, nature is seen as a commodity, and results are measured using pseudo-scientific methods. Poster animals are used to capture public support for various campaigns: save the kakapo, kill the possum sort of things. Winning the hearts and minds of the public for various projects ensures funding.

Conservation today has become a sort of “farming” of the common land, done using all of the tools farmers use to shape their land and make a profit. Conservationists choose which plants and animals to nurture, or ignore, or cull; they manage wildlife and plants as class groups rather than individuals. Until it is down to the last few members of a species, individuals don’t really count. A stated goal is to protect biodiversity. But what, exactly, does that mean?

In an up-coming post, I’ll be looking at that biodiversity issue along with the conservation movement themes of ecological restoration and invasion biology.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

In Defence of Wilding Pines

Poisoned pines, from article here, similar to grove in news clip
The other day I caught a television news story about a house fire in Skipper’s Canyon in New Zealand. Part way into the news clip, they panned over the area around the house, and the journalist commented on how lucky they were the fire hadn’t spread to the dead pine trees.  Behind the house, a whole grove of dead pines—undoubtedly poisoned—looked, well, dead. “Those are not only seriously unsightly,” I thought to myself, “but also a huge fire risk. This is nuts!” (You can see the news clip in the video here; the trees and comment about them are at 58 seconds into the clip. 

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has been at war against “invasive” pine trees for some years now--see their website page on it here. In the category of “pine” trees—which they have defined as “weeds”--they include not only eight species of pine (lodgepole, mountain mugo pine, Corsican pine, maritime pine, Ponderosa pine, Scotch pine, bishop pine, and radiata pine) but also Douglas fir and European larch. Radiata pine and Douglas fir are also grown as commercial timber crops in New Zealand, which is fine, just so long as they stay in their neatly tended rows and don’t “jump the fence”.

Photo of wild pines by Neville Peat on DOC website page
Getting rid of invasive pines is challenging. Cutting and grubbing out “wilding” pines, or injecting poison into individual trunks requires intensive hands-on management, so increasingly vast tracts are simply aerial sprayed with herbicide, generally with a mix of glyphosate and metsulfuron. After the pines are killed, they are almost always left standing, in situ, grey skeletal hulks of no benefit to man nor beast and—to my mind at least—a huge eyesore and potential fire risk. It will be many years, maybe decades, before these dead trees eventually rot and fall. Ironically, the photo at the top of the DOC webpage on wilding conifers doesn’t show a hillside covered in dead trees, but one dotted with live ones.  I think it’s rather pretty.

Besides the aesthetic appeal of a green, living tree over a dead one, live trees provide shade and shelter and homes for birds and livestock and a variety of insects. They help stabilize the ground and prevent land slips (which is why many farm trees were planted in the first place). They offset global warming by absorbing CO2. When mature, in some areas they could be harvested for timber, firewood, or wood pump. 

NZ forest cover before man
One argument against these trees is simply that they are not native to New Zealand. Many of the areas they colonize, however, were forested before the first humans arrived here. Little attempt has been made, or is being made, to plant natives in these areas or to replace the unwanted pines with indigenous trees. I reckon the truth is, folks are so used to seeing bare hillsides of grass or tussock that the prospect of trees in historically grassed areas seems almost unnatural. It isn’t.

Another argument that DOC purports against wilding pines—and trees in general—is that trees reduce the amount of water in catchment areas because they pull it up from the ground and release it into the atmosphere—a big issue for farmers in dry areas. While trees do pull up water and release water vapour into the atmosphere, current scientific studies show that trees cool the air and create more rainfall—overall probably a win rather than a loss. Trees—not ocean evaporation--are responsible for an estimated 70% of earth’s atmospheric moisture.

A last argument that DOC uses on their webpage to support their campaign against wilding pines is that they “impact tourism”. I find it a stretch to imagine they think Asian tourists—who revere the pine as a symbol of peace, longevity, and virtue—want to come to New Zealand to see how we poison pines, or to see “wild” hillsides dotted with dead trees.

John McCrone wrote a good article last year titled SprayTactics: The $16m War on Wilding Coniferswhich also examines some of these issues, and more. It is worth reading.