Australian Bush:The Invasion of the Giant Cane Toads

It could be science fiction.It has already been featured on games videos. But in the Australian Bush there’s an extraordinary real problem which is entirely self inflicted.

In the 1930s some bright person thought they had found an ecological way of dealing with a pest – a beetle – that was destroying Australia’s sugar cane crop. They decided to import the world’s large toad that had been introduced to Hawaii from Central America. The toads grow up to six inches long.

What the people who imported the toad did not know is that this large toad could not jump. And the beetles lived at the top of the sugar cane some 15 feet above the ground. So the toads were less than useless in combating the pest.

But their legacy has been a disaster. The toads secrete a poisonous fluid when attacked as their main defence mechanism. Toads are the natural food for many native reptiles and birds. They have no natural predators in Australia.

Worse the reptiles and birds that ate them were poisoned threatening the diversity of wildlife and forcing snakes and iguanas to the point of extinction in some areas. They also multiplied from a few hundred to an amazing 200 million and expanding their area from a small part of Queensland into the vast Northern Territories.

One area we visited was Litchfield National Park south of Darwin. This bush park is famous for its waterfalls and its giant termite mounds. Here the arrival of the cane toad has seen the disappearance of iguanas and some species of snake who ate the toads.

The guide who took us on the trip was devastated by the impact of the toads on other wildlife. And he was concerned about the spread of the toads which extend their range by about 25 miles every year.

Obviously it has not destroyed all wildlife in the park. Some specialised species like the olive python which feeds on bats are largely unaffected. And there is some hope that Australian wildlife hit by the toads may be able to adapt.

One snake has evolved to have a smaller jaw so it cannot swallow a giant toad. A bird under threat has found that if you turn the toad belly up it is possible to eat parts of it without being poisoned.

And the park’s meat eating ants have found they are immune from the poison. Normally they invade the huge termite mounds and kill the termites. Now they have found toads as another part of their diet.

The Australian cane toad has also adapted. It has grown longer legs so it can cover greater distances in this huge continent. Meanwhile scientists have unraveled the toad’s DNA in the hope of finding a way to try and eliminate them. This is an extraordinary story of a self inflicted problem that could be solved by evolution.

Samoa: Boris’s Treasure Island for post Brexit Britain?

The lush tropical island of Samoa in the South Pacific is famous as the last resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson author of Treasure Island.His villa is now a museum and a major tourist attraction set in the hills above Apia, the nation’s capital.

Stevenson is buried at the top of a nearby mountain and reached by a hike through tropical rainforest. There is even an environmental project to preserve the forest in that area.

It was at Stevenson’s villa that five months ago that Laura Clarke the British High Commissioner to Samoa chose to launch a new initiative aimed to boost Britain’s place in the world post Brexit. Here for one day the Union Jack flew from the building while the high commissioner waxed lyrically about how similar the UK was do this tropical paradise. You can read all about it in a FO press release here.

Samoa it turns out is one of nine countries that Britain is keen to strengthen its presence as part of a Foreign Office initiative to compensate for losing its influence in the European Union. The argument goes along the lines that for every small country that Britain supports is likely to back Britain at the United Nations as each country has one vote. That way Britain can keep playing a major role without relying on the EU.The initiative goes back to Boris Johnson’s time as foreign secretary.It is being repeated in Tonga and Vanuatu.

The policy could be expensive and the competition could be fierce. In Samoa it will mean building a high commission to compete with the ones already in the capital representing Australia,New Zealand and Japan. In both Samoa and Tonga the main competition comes from China which is aiding Samoa’s education system and operates behind a high security compound in Tonga. The Japanese and Koreans are funding a new bridge in Apia. And both islands have strong links with Australia and New Zealand.

Exactly what new business opportunities Britain will get from Samoa and Tonga is not clear. Neither country relies entirely on tourism but most of their exports are agriculture and both have tiny populations ( they have less than 300,000 between them) and are no substitute for any EU country. Britain could benefit from coconut oil and cream from Samoa. Tonga could send us frozen fish,squash and vanilla beans.

As a visitor to both countries, Samoa is stunningly beautiful and friendly and Tonga is similar. Both have a very strong Christian religious communities dating from the missionaries and still observe Sundays as a day of rest.

In Samoa family is very important and unusually there are few cementaries as nearly all Samoans bury their ancestors on their own land. As well having their own homes they build meeting halls for family events.

Surprisingly for such a beautiful place it is not overdeveloped. There are no huge tower block hotels like Honolulu dominating the coast.Instead it remains rather a remarkable tropical paradise that even Robert Louis Stevenson might still recognise.

Cabo San Lucas: Mexico’s pristine environment on the front line of an American invasion

President Trump is more than keen to build a wall to keep out immigrant criminals, drug dealers and bad people from entering the United States from Mexico.

Yet some 1000 miles away from the proposed wall Americans are very happy to move into a country seen by some as a dangerous hotbed of crime and violence threatening the foundations of the US.

The front line for this “invasion” is Cabo San Lucas a fast growing resort in Baja California some 300 miles south of San Diego and once one of the remotest parts of the world.

Some 50 years ago it was a small fishing village set among spectacular scenery at the ” Lands End” of Baja California a long slither of land separated from the mainland of Mexico by an inland sea and then an extremely isolated home for amazing wildlife.

Every year grey whales from Alaska come and breed in Pacific Ocean off the coast and there are colonies of sea lions and pelicans plus a huge variety of other birds and fish. The local scenery is spectacular with huge rocks and pinnacles rising out of the ocean and a much photographed natural arch. Cabo San Lucas is also on the edge of a giant underwater canyon which makes for fine scuba diving. Outside the resort the desolate desert scenery is full of forests of slow growing cacti.

According to the guides the turning point in Cabo’s history came when the Mexican government altered land tenure law and allowed its original inhabitants to own their land in the village. Instead of sharing the windfall the people lucky enough to own property sold it to multinational corporations at what looked to them a vast profit. Most were American real estate companies who saw the opportunity to create a resort to exploit the stunning scenery and wildlife.

Now there are no original village homes left, local fishing has ceased,and an ever expanding ribbon of hotels,condominiums, apartments ,shopping malls and time shares have been built into the surrounding hills making it the most expensive city in Mexico. Villas with commanding views of the sea sell for seven million dollars. Millionaire yachts dock in the harbour alongside tourist boats.

The resort is and looks American with Walmart, Dominos Pizzas and McDonalds along the main streets. Most shops advertise their wares in English with pharmicists offering sleeping pills and body building drugs without prescriptions.Development has brought advantages for local people with most of the population in tourism or employed by real estate companies. Mexico unlike the US encourages immigration anyone who can earn the equivalent of 2000 US dollars,according to the guides, is welcome.
As a result Cabo has attracted people from other Central and South America to work there.


There are downsides. The pristine scenery and abundant wildlife is under threat by this mass invasion. Also the Koreans and Japanese are overfishing the abundant waters off Mexico though the under sourced Mexican government is trying to limit their activity.
The real dangers are that the overdevelopment of the area could eventually destroy its main attractions. There is also a national park where development is restricted which offers hope. But the town is both an example of pristine nature being exploited by corporate greed.

Bermuda: How shipwrecks can save our dwindling coral reefs 

While global warming and pollution are threatening our coral reefs Bermuda is a rather unusual success story.

Unlike more famous coral reefs like the Australian Barrier Reef which are in decline the coral reef around Bermuda is healthy and expanding.

One reason is that Bermuda is hundreds of miles from the US and other Caribbean islands and has no industry to speak of to pollute the seas.This tiny island has a coral reef far larger than the island itself. The Atlantic Ocean north of the island is in some areas just between three and twelve feet deep.

As a result the area is dotted with shipwrecks. So many ships have ran aground there and many have not been discovered. But here is the interesting point. These shipwrecks are incredibly beneficial to coral reefs. Sunken boats create a structure for corals to grow and are magnets with for fish with plenty of hides holes. And it appears rather surprisingly that the rusting iron of the hulks acts as a fertiliser to help coral establish itself. One of the few cases of human made debris being beneficial.

According to the tour guides who took us there is now growing interest in sinking redundant ships on the edge of coral reefs once they have been decontaminated. They are colonised by the coral which expands the reef.

One example is HMS Vixen a former Royal Navy ship which ran aground a century ago whose hull as the picture shows still sticks out of the shallow water. Here it is a magnet for grey snapper, Chubb and various tropical fish.

Bermuda’s coral reefs are also refuges for turtles which are protected from predators and conservationists have brought back turtle eggs to hatch on the island’s beache to re-establish and expand the population.

Not all Bermuda’s Eco experiments have worked. Just off the coral reef there is an abandoned Eco village. The houses are built on stilts on the coast with canvas rooves and no air conditioning and sound proofing.As a result they are unlettable in the summer when there is high humidity and people’s conversations can be heard from house to house.At the moment the government is desperately trying to flog them off to anybody who might want to use them as a spare summerhouse.

Some facts on tax haven Bermuda which free market Tories might like and Socialists hate. Income tax minimal at just six per cent or nothing for 65000 inhabitants.As a result there is a 17.5 per cent tax on everything that is sold there which is already expensive because it has to be imported. Average house prices are $800000. Cheapest one bed flat $300000. Some affordable houses for $300000 – these are ex Royal Navy homes. Lucky to get a beer for £7 and to eat out for two could cost over £100.

Not much chance of Liam Fox negotiating an independent trade deal – unless he wants to expand its tax haven status with the City. Bermuda doesn’t make anything except rum cakes. So apart from flying them in on direct services between Gatwick and Hamilton don’t expect anything special.

Bermuda until 1960’s had a naval presence. Plans by Gavin Williamson the defence secretary to bring back Royal Navy bases in the Caribbean should make it the ideal centre. A few slight problems.The Royal Navy commissioner ‘s house is a museum, the deep water berths are now cruise ship terminals and the port buildings a shopping mall. Apart from that it should be plain sailing.

Are Britain’s Green guardians clueless on future investments for this country post Brexit?

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Safeguarding UK green interests or clueless watchdogs?The five new trustees of the Green Purposes Company – James Curran,Trevor Hutchings, Tushita Ranchan,Robin (Lord) Teverson and Peter Young. Pic Credit: Green Purposes Company

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At the end of last year this blog published a highly critical piece on the sale of the Green Investment Bank which brought a  mint of money for the City and uncertainty for those who want to see a carbon free future.

The  blog was based on the findings of the National Audit Office report into the sale which showed the taxpayer had lost out yet again and the biggest beneficiary was the  Aussie private equity investment bank Macquarie for £1.6 billion  which had a bad rating on green issues and its subsidiary Thames Water is better known for polluting the Thames and failing to repair  burst water mains.

As reported before  business secretary Greg Clark let the bank get away with a non binding public statement to finance green projects for the next three years and instead set up a trust – the Green Purposes Company  -which could shame the new owners if they fail to keep to their pledge.  In theory they have powers to prevent changes to GIB’s green purposes, but this does not extend to control of, or input to, investment decisions.

The five trustees are independently appointed and include James Curran, former chief executive of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency: Lord Teverson, a former Liberal Democrat energy spokesman and Peter Young, an environmental management consultants But they are not paid to monitor such a big private equity company .

Hardly surprising the Commons Public Accounts committee has backed the scepticism of the National Audit Office. In a report  it condemned the way it was sold

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, Committee Deputy Chair said:

” The manner in which it was sold off is therefore deeply regrettable. Government did not carry out a full assessment of the Bank’s impact before deciding to sell, nor did it secure adequate assurance over the Bank’s future role.

This was a UK initiative but the rebranded Green Investment Group is not bound to invest in the UK’s energy policy at all, nor to invest in the kind of technologies that support its climate objectives.”

But since the sale there has been worse  disclosures.

Mps on the environment audit committee decided to grill two of the trustees, Peter Young and Lord Teveson, and the head of the company, Edward Northam. They were equally sceptical.

Here is an extract of some of the trustees response ( or lack of) to MPs written   questions.

5. How will leaving the EU affect the UK’s ability to leverage investment into low-carbon and environmentally friendly projects in the UK?
No response
6. What options are there for the UK’s future relationship with the European Investment Bank? What would be the implications for green investment in the UK?
No response
7. Given the work being carried out by the EU’s High Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance,where should the UK’s newly created Green Finance Taskforce concentrate its efforts?
No response

At the oral hearing both the head of the company and the two trustees were closely questioned by the chair, Mary Creagh; Green MP Caroline Lucas; Tory MP. Zac Goldsmith among others and they did not seem impressed. They were offered excuses why the new Aussie owners had hardly invested in any new projects and until the company revealed that the trustees have a budget of £100,000 a year ( small feed for a multi billion pound company) to monitor developments by the company head, were even reticent to discuss that.

You can get the text of the  full hearing or watch it here.

It is hardly an impressive performance and seems to suggest the first fears expressed on this blog are well justified. The government has dumped Britain’s green investment future and it will be interesting to see if the trustees really do have any teeth to do much about it.

 

Gove takes the lead in a Whitehall Brexit spending spree to bypass Parliament

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Michael Gove – top of the great Brexit spenders- and first to use a dodge to bypass Parliament.

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The government is planning a Brexit spending spree  this year without any say by Parliament.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money will be spent  setting up   bodies  to replace work done by the European Union some using a Whitehall  wheeze devised by a Treasury mandarin to get round  scrutiny by MPs.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is poised to be the first to use the new  system to allow ministers to spend large sums of money on Brexit without the approval of Parliament.

Very simply the dodge involves turning on its head a procedure called an accounting direction – normally used  when a senior mandarin -wants to challenge spending by a minister as illegal or questionable. It was most famously used when a senior civil servant questioned aid to pay for  Malaysia’s Pergau Dam – when he discovered the money was being authorised by Margaret Thatcher as part of a secret defence deal. It was also used to question extra costs on the Millennium Dome under Tony Blair. More recently a civil servants challenged the government paying for a survey requested by a UKIP council in Kent.

Now Whitehall mandarin Richard Brown has devised a scheme which will allow ministers to get round Parliament by using the same procedure to spend money on Brexit without waiting for legislation to be passed by Parliament. The letter is here. 

It has been sent to 25 ministerial departments, 20 non ministerial departments and over 300 agencies.

It followed a letter from the Treasury and the Department of Exiting the EU which also allowed ministries to raid the contingencies fund without waiting for laws to be passed.

Both senior civil servants are claiming that the requests for extra cash will be known to Parliament as they have informed the chairs pf the public accounts committee and the public administration committee. Some people might think that in all the huge coverage of Brexit they might be overlooked.

Today  Civil Service World reports that a massive £245million has been routed by a supplementary estimate to spend money on Brexit with Michael Gove’s Defra department taking the lion’s share of £67m closely followed by HM Revenue and Customs with £47m and £42m for the Home Office to work out a new immigration system.

On top the permanent secretary of Defra, Clare Moriarty, has asked Michael Gove to approve £16m of cash for a whole series of projects without waiting for legislation.

These are:

The new national import control system for animals, animal products and high risk food and feed. Scheduled to commence building: mid-January 2018. Estimated cost before Royal Assent: £7m.
– Delivery of new IT capability to enable registration and regulation of chemical substances placed on the UK market. Scheduled to commence building: February 2018. Estimated cost before Royal Assent: £5.8m.
– Delivery of systems for the licensing and marketing of veterinary medicines. Scheduled to commence building: end-January 2018. Estimated cost before Royal Assent: £1.6m.
– Development of a new catch certificate system for UK fish and fish products being exported to the EU on Exit. Scheduled to commence: building end-January 2018. Estimated cost before Royal Assent: £1.0m.
– Development of a UK system to manage the quota of fluorinated gases and ozone depleting substances required under the UN Montreal Protocol. Scheduled to commence: March 2018. Estimated cost before Royal Assent: £0.5m.
– Development of data exchange arrangements to identify the movement of EU and third country vessels in UK waters and the movement of UK vessels in EU or third country waters. Scheduled to commence: April 2018. Estimated cost before Royal Assent: £0.1m

This gives a small glimpse of how complicated the change will be. One mistake and Britain could be thrown into chaos as it has relied on the EU for authorisation and will have to sign up for everything again , including international conventions.

Imagine what would happen if there are errors in the licensing of veterinary medicines for example. It could mean that it will be illegal for your pet to get the proper medicine from the vets.

Also it reveals that large sums of taxpayers money are going to have to go on new bureaucracies to administer all this.  So where will be the Brexit dividend?

And all this is being pushed  out ” under the counter” by mandarins and ministers. If the coverage of errors and waste endemic in Whitehall are anything to go by, Britain could easily face total chaos after 2019. It’s going to be a hell raising time as we leave the EU.

 

 

Time to bin Keep Britain Tidy

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Time for Keep Britain Tidy to be put in the bin

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Nearly three years ago Parliament produced a damning report saying England was one of the worst developed countries in the world for litter and fly tipping. Worse than most of the rest of Europe, worse than Japan and worse than the United States and Canada.

Furthermore this situation has remained the same for 12 years under successive Labour, Coalition and Tory governments. And this is despite tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers money being poured into the former quango Keep Britain Tidy to provide leadership to tackle this problem.

The deregulatory coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats  thought they would find a solution by abolishing the quango and turning it into a charity  which now has to raise funds from cash strapped local authorities and big business.

The knee jerk reaction of a Left minded blogger might be to persuade an incoming Labour government to push taxpayer’s money back to Keep Britain Tidy. But after an investigation looking at its precarious finances and its rather lacklustre approach to tackling the problem this would be the worst thing it could do.

The real problem is that successive gutless ministers of all parties  (perhaps they have at the back of their minds that they could take lucrative directorships after leaving politics)  won’t tackle the real cause of much of our litter – the  products of big multinationals like McDonalds and Wrigley’s and the tobacco companies –  who take no or little responsibility for the problem.

There is a parallel here  with  Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – who connive with big multinationals to avoid paying their fair share of tax which would go a long way to providing better public services and a cleaner  public space.

There is a simple solution here either these companies pay up for a clean up or the Government levies a tax on them ( not us) to employ someone else to do it. I bet the firms would come up soon with some innovative solutions to avoid either.

Now why have I concluded that Keep Britain Tidy is a no no solution  despite being told by some people that its  new director,Allison Ogden-Newton is much livelier than her predecessor, Phil Barton.

The charity has a guilty secret. It has a pension deficit of  £4.5m  for a closed scheme on a turnover of just £5m and assets worth £2.5m. For some private companies this  could lead them to cease trading.

The 2015-16 accounts lodged with the Charity Commission say :

 “The pension deficit as at 31st March 2016 is £4.511m. Future contributions to the scheme have been negotiated with the Trustees of the scheme.
The Company is the principal employer and paid approximately £131,000 to reduce the deficit this year. Keep Britain Tidy will continue to make contributions in line with terms agreed at the last triennial review until any new scheme of payments is agreed. In the financial year to March 2017 it will pay approximately £134,000 towards reducing the deficit in addition to the scheme running costs of approximately £72,000.”

 

The report reveals that the trustees – who would be liable if  Keep Britain Tidy went bust – certify it is a going concern. But to do this they have had to put aside £2m – equivalent to six  months operating costs -to ensure that it stays afloat.

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Allison Ogden-Newton, new chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy

When I put this to the charity – who first ignored my request – I got this reply from Ms Ogden-Newton.

 “Our Annual Accounts have been audited by RSM UK Audit LLP and a clean audit opinion has been given. Standard audit procedures include an assessment of Keep Britain Tidy as a Going Concern and this specifically includes an assessment of our ability to meet the agreed pension scheme contributions. No issues were raised in this respect.
 “We have an agreed schedule of contributions between Keep Britain Tidy and the Pension trustees in order to address the pension deficit and this has also been submitted to the Pensions Authority whom have accepted this plan.
 “To that end we and the relevant authorities consider our agreed repayment programme to be satisfactory and sustainable for both the fund and Keep Britain Tidy.”
Now that is all well and good – but I don’t believe it doesn’t restrict its activities. It has got some income from the 5p levy on plastic bags ( notably £500,000 from Lidl) but as a Defra paper reveals most private companies use the levy to fund other worthy causes whether it is the Alzheimer’s Society, the Woodland Trust, animal welfare or Kew Gardens.
The other major reason why Keep Britain Tidy does not seem to be working well was shown up when MPs questioned the former chief executive at the Commons communities and local government committee.
 He was taken apart by MPs of all parties in an evidence  session.
He produced figures which he couldn’t defend, evidence that MPs found flawed and finally admitted that Keep Britain Tidy refused to talk to the tobacco industry. Given cigarette stubs are a source of litter MPs found this extraordinary.

Clive Betts MP

Clive Betts MP, chair of critical House of Commons report on the state of England’s litter.

Clive Betts, the Labour chairman of the committee, also made this observation.

 ” Frankly Keep Britain Tidy was not a main part of our report or inquiry,. We were more interested in some of the innovative work down by local authorities to tackle fly tipping and litter.”
 Now this is really damning with faint praise given Keep Britain Tidy was meant to be the leadership body.
Since then nothing has improved much. A House of Commons library briefing on litter last July said this :
“Levels of litter in England have hardly improved in over a decade and 81% of people have said they are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter in the country. Local government net expenditure on street cleaning (which includes but is not limited to clearing litter) in 2015/16 was £683 million.”
It also clear that by dividing up responsibility between four Whitehall departments doesn’t work. Perhaps the Cabinet Office should take over responsibility for a national litter strategy. At the moment neither Keep Britain Tidy nor the various ministries seem capable of negotiating with a paper bag.