31 July 2009

Billions of butterflies

This year the UK has been invaded by an army of painted lady butterflies. The painted lady is a summer migrant, flying from Europe and North Africa. The conditions in North Africa this year were superb and the adults, strong fliers, have dispersed through Europe. Scientists estimate that one billion painted ladies will be on the wing in the UK in August, some having flown over from Europe and others emerging from pupae from the first arrivals back in June.
Its a bumper year for the Painted Lady and other common species such as the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Meadow Browns but sadly, others are not doing so well - fritillaries for example. Its not due to competition with other butterfly species, but habitat loss.
On the butterfly conservation website (http://www.butterfly-conservation.org) you can log your sightings of this butterfly as well as those of the humming-bird hawkmoth. This moth is a day flying species that is often seen sipping nectar from flowers using its extra ong proboscis. It gets its name from the way it hovers in front of the flower, just like a hummingbird.

30 July 2009

Photographing a dead whale

A large and very dead 12 meter long weighing about 40 tons Humpback Whale washed up just down the road from where I live. Of course I had to go photograph it; both out of curiosity and a need to educate people with images of nature.

It was not fun. The whale was leaking a whitish fluid, probably blubber (eau de baleen), into the rock pools around the carcass. This was giving the rocks a greasy sheen and transformed them into a skating rink. The pictures were easy to take as I just wanted to show how big the whale is and you can’t really ruin the impact and contrast of a 40 ton meatball compared to the average sized human. Got the pictures and sat on a rock and looked at the people. Interesting how people are interested in whales but remain unaffected by nature. Some people just spend a few seconds and others up to 30 minutes just staring at the animal.

According to the local museum the whale died of natural causes but I doubt it. Could be that the newspaper messed up the information. The whole head section of the whale is bashed in, something that indicates that a ship probably rammed into it. In Africa there is a lot of poverty and it was worrying to see that large chunks of blubber have been cut out of the animal. Hopefully there wont be too many upset stomachs and sickness caused by the rotten meat. Another aspect is traditional medicine and I wonder if the local sangomas have not used some of the whale for some or other medicine. In any case it is sad that the carcass can not be used for anything constructive and it will be left there to rot. Yes the local municipality will not remove it and I understand this as there are no people living in the immediate vicinity. It would also be a terrible job to remove the carcass. Local dive operators would be interested in towing out the carcass and anchoring it at sea in order to attract the Great White Sharks and other species that are common in the area. Unfortunately the whale washed up during spring tides and it is high on the rocks. The marine topography in the area is too shallow and rough to attach ropes to a boat and tow it out. You would probably just sink your boat.

It was interesting to see a group of Abalone poachers diving in the area. With that entire whale flavouring the sea there are sure to be many sharks in the area.

When I got home my dogs (Wheatie, Wiccombe and Widget) were delirious with joy to see and smell me, attracted by the “eau de baleen” smell that clung to me, my clothes and shoes. My partner was very unimpressed! The whale fluids stink and I had to immediately wash myself and all my clothes. So if you ever have to photograph a dead whale you need to stay upwind, avoid the juices and do be careful of slipping on the rocks. Also ensure that you are not wearing fluffy boots and your best clothes.

29 July 2009

Organic food is no better for you

As the owner of an organic farm (www.empirefarm.co.uk), I was very disappointed to read the findings of the Food Standards Agency's Organic Review. The research was carried out by a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who examined all the evidence on nutrition and health benefits from the past 50 years. The Soil Association in their response to the report could not understand why the research team decided to ignore virtually all of the existing comparative studies between organic and non organic foods. The reason given being that the studies did not met their criteria? In those studies where they did find differences, the research team felt that they were not important. For example, the researchers found that there was 50% more beta-carotene, 38% more flavonoids, and 11 % more zinc in organic food but decided it was not significant. They admitted that there were higher levels of the benficial polyunstaurated fatty acids in meat and dairy but again it was not considered beneficial to health. Bizarrely the study also ignored the results of a major multi-million pound study by 31 European research institutes that was published in April. This European Union research programme concluded that:
    • Levels of a range of nutritionally desirable compounds such as antioxidants, vitamins, glycosinolates were shown to be higher in organic crops
    • Levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds such as mycotoxins, glycoalkaloids, Cadmium and Nickel were shown to be lower in organic crops'.
    • The levels of fatty acids, such as CLA and omega 3 were between 10 - 60% higher in organic milk and dairy products, and levels of Vitamin C were up to 90% higher in leafy vegetables and fruits.

Another area ignored by the FSA study was the long term effects of pesticides on our health. A study pubished in 2006 concluded that the long tem exposure to pesticides can disrupt the immune systme, cause sexual disordered, and damage the nervous system and DNA.

So I'm not really clear why the FSA should fund such a poorly researched report unless of cause they are out to discredit organic food. I, for one, know that I do not want to eat food that has been sprayed with pesticides and fertilisers, often several times in a growing season.

20 July 2009

Bamboo taxi

An amazing vehicle can be seen driving around the streets of the Philippines. Believe it or not its a taxi made from bamboo. With its woven bamboo panels and seats, there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
The commonest and cheapest way of getting around in the Philippines is by habal-habal, a motorcycle taxi that is far from safe. It's modified to carry as many as 5 passengers, often under a make-shift canopy. Inherently unstable, it's likely to topple over if the driver comes to a sudden halt. It's also polluting. So, Rustico Balderia, mayor of the small town of Tabontabon in the Philippines has come up with a much green and safer alternative - the bamboo taxi, or Toti Eco as it is known locally. He knew he had to design a vehicle that could compete with the habal-habal, so his bamboo taxi is cheap, incredibly fuel-efficient, environmental friendly and safe. It's also made by a group of school leavers in the town.
So how do you construct a taxi from bamboo? Bamboo is surprising strong, in fact its tensile strength is greater than that of steel, so when woven, the bamboo sheets can replace steel panels. Obviously the chasis is still steel, but there are plans to replace that too in future models.
Bamboo is a common building material in the Philippines and other Asian countries, where it is used to the construction of buildings, flooring, scaffolding, piping and much more. Being a fast-growing plant, bamboo is both a ustainable and carbon neutral material.
To make the taxis even greener, the engine runs on coco-biodiesel and is incredibly fuel efficient, being able to travel for up to 8 hours on a gallon of fuel. The engine's quite powerful too, and is able to cope with the steep roads in the region.
So far there are two models, the Eco 1 which seats 20 people and the Eco 2, a smaller taxi for 8. With its win-win design, there are sure to be similar models appearing all around the world.

the Greening of the Billabong Pro in Jeffrey's Bay

Every year I attend the Association of Surfing Professionals Billabong Pro which is held in the small town of Jeffrey's Bay in South Africa. They were very proud to announce the greening of the contest with carbon footprint reduction, waste recycling, use of solar heating etc. It made me decide to produce an illustrated article on the greening of the competition and the concept made me feel good until I saw the recycling bins being emptied into the town's garbage removal truck.

Of course I got irritated and spoke to the media people and of course I didn't find the right person and decide to overdose on Billabong's coffee and photograph the surfing. The surfing was great but I couldn't let the apparently false claims of an environmentally correct event carry on. I contacted people and to my amazement got a feasable answer - the town's municipality were told their services were not required but arrived early one morning and started mixing the sorted waste in front of one confused photographer (me). Apparently they were chased away and the recycling was done in the correct way.

There is very limited recycling in South Africa and it is great that Billabong went green to reduce the impact of the event on the environment. I just wonder how the surf industry is going change the toxic materials that are used to manufacture surfboards - I did see a new board with a bamboo deck last week - so maybe things are changing for the better....

17 July 2009

Plastic bag use halved - well almost

In May 450 million single-use plastic carrier bags were given out to shoppers . That sounds a lot but its almost half the number given out in May 2006. Last year the Government set retailers belong to the British Retail Consortium the target of a 50% cut in the number of bags, and they have almost delivered on this - missing the target by just 2%. WRAP (http://www.wrap.org.uk) estimates that in 2009, about 5.6 billion bags will be given out in the UK, down from 10.7 billion in 2006. However, there is still a way to go so other measures such as taxing bags (as planned in Wales) and encouraging shoppers to reuse their bags. Participating retailers in the agreement are: Asda, Co-operative Group, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd, Somerfield, Tesco and Waitrose. Morrisons is not a member.

Cutting down on plastic bags has many benefits:

  1. Plastic bags are made from oil, so reducing their use reduces the use of oil and electricity in their manufacture and transport
  2. Plastic bags take hundreds if not thousands of years to decompose, so reductions mean fwer bags end up in landfill or littering our countryside
  3. Plastic bags can harm wildlife, for example, they get trapped by the plastic, or they may eat it (sperm whales and turtles mistake floating plastic bags as jellyfish), so fewer bags helps wildlife
  4. Plastic bags look unsightly when blowing around in the countryside, fewer bags mean less litter.

Below is a short piece of footage from Splashdown of a plastic bag floating in the ocean, posing a potential hazard to animals such as sperm whales and turtle, who may mistake them as jellyfish.

15 July 2009

Buzz buzz - save the honey bee

Honey bees have a vital role in pollinating many of the country's crops but they are disappearing rapidly. Over the last two years there has been a massive decline in honey numbers and as many as one in three hives failed, but the Government seems to have little interest in this problem, despite the fact that the value of bees has been estimated at £200 million a year. This problem was highlighted recently by members of the all-party House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, who said that money for research into bee health should be ring-fenced rather than put in a general pot for research into pollinating insects. They want DEFRA to take more action, such as asking bee-keepers to register so that inspections can be made, which would give a much better picture of the health of the nation's honey bees.

Edward Leigh, chairman of the committee said "Honeybees are dying and colonies are being lost at an alarming rate. This is very worrying, and not just because the pollination of crops by honeybees is worth an estimated £200m each year to the British economy. So it is difficult to understand why Defra has taken so little interest in the problem up to now. Additional money for research into honeybee health has been announced, but the focus will include all pollinating insects," He went on to add, "We need to know what proportion of the funding is to be ring-fenced specifically for research into the causes of the decline in honeybee numbers."

One possible cause of the rapid rise in hive death (often called colony collapse disorder or CCD) is the use of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These were first used in the mid 1990s, a period that coincided with the first observations of mass bee deaths. These chemicals block specific nerve pathways in the central nervous system of the insect. In bees, they interfere with communication, foraging, orientation and flight. Other countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia, have banned them but they are still legal in the UK.

The Soil Association is so concerned about these chemicals that it has started a petition calling on Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs to ban neonicitinoid pesticides with immediate effect. Sign the petition today: www.soilassociation.org/bees.aspx

There is a lightbox of images at this url : http://www.ecoscene2.captureweb.co.uk/lbshow.php?lightboxid=387429465654

Ecoscene can privide photo features on the honey bee and other related stories.

Low carbon transition plan

The morning news is full of low carbon stories in advance of the UK Govenment publishing their Low Carbon Transition Plan to meet the ambitious 34% carbon reduction targets by 2020 . The aim is to reduce the country's dependency on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas which produce a lot of carbon dioxide, and to switch to renewables such as wind, solar, water and biomass. This switch is not going to be easy in a country that is so hooked on oil and coal. Renewables are not such a convenient source of energy, being much smaller in scale and by necessity being located in places that are generally away from the end consumer. Although the efficiency is getting better, the cost per unit of energy from these sources is much higher than the conventional energy sources, so the cost of electricity may rise . Other measures will probably include financial incentives to improve insulation, smart meters in every home, cycling and electric vehicle initiatives.

Several of the BBC news items featured the village of Ashton Hayes, a village near Birmingham with the ambitious plan to become Britain's first carbon neutral community. I have been following since the project was set up in 2006 and will watch the news items from the village today with interest. For more on the scheme visit their webpage http://www.goingcarbonneutral.co.uk/. If more communities follow their lead, the transition to a low carbon economy may be much easier. And mention of the word 'transition' leads me to the Transition Towns movement. The movement want to encourage communities to move towards a more sustainable future by reducing their carbon footprints and becoming more self-reliant on food, energy, health care, jobs and economics. The leading light in the UK is the town of Totnes in Devon. There websiteis an interesting read: http://totnes.transitionnetwork.org

Another energy source is nuclear - always contentious but probably a necessary evil. Although our own nuclear energy stations are being wound down, we are still dependent on nuclear energy to meet the demands. Many people are unaware that we buy in electricity from France, a country that generates about 90 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power stations.

As usual Ecoscene has a fabulous selection on images to illustrate any story on low carbon initiatives and a light box of images can be found here : http://www.ecoscene2.captureweb.co.uk/lbshow.php?lightboxid=173521027109

Watch out for updates on this story once the white paper is published.

10 July 2009

Poaching Boom

Rhino poaching is now at a 15 year high according to a report published by the IUCN, WWF and Traffic. In South Africa and Zimbabwe alone, an estimated 69 animals have been killed since January 2009, a rate of 12 animals a month, compared with just 3-4 a month between 2000 and 2005. This spat of poaching is being driven by a soaring demand for illegal horn by traders in Thailand, China and Vietnam. Asian rhinos are also being targetted, with dehorned carcasses being found in India and Nepal. The report was presented to the
58th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Standing Committee this week in Geneva

Dr Jane Smart, Director of IUCN's Biodiversity Conservation Group said, "Rhino populations in both Africa and Asia are being seriously threatened by poaching and illegal trade. The IUCN and its African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups are working hard to gather data and information on rhinos so that CITES parties can make informed decisions and ensure that rhinos are still here for generations to come."

A selection of images on rhinos can be found at this URL:

8 July 2009

The disappearing Maldives

The scenic beauty of one the worlds most idyllic and peaceful environment is under threat. The Maldives, a cluster of islands lying in the Indian Ocean, are threatened by rising sea levels. The islands are a popular tourist destination, with their sandy beaches and dive spots attracting more than 600,000 tourists each year. Tourism accounts for 28% of their GDP. The sea levels, which are predicted by the UN to rise 58cm by the year 2100, could see most of the 1,192 islands submerged, as the country has an average height of 1.5m above sea level - the lowest in the world. These projected rises are said to be the result of global warming, and could see most of the country’s 369,000 inhabitants made homeless. The coral reefs surrounding the islands act as a buffer to the sea, but damage to the reefs due to overfishing and too many tourists as well as global warming threatens the islands existence, as well as the two main industries of fishing and tourism. Also adding to the damage is pollution, rubbish dumping and illegal coral and sand mining, which rob the country of some vital resources.
In response to this, President Mohammed Nasheem has pledged to make the islands carbon neutral in ten years time, by moving to solar and wind energy. Nasheed's aim is to install half a square kilometre of solar panels and 155 wind turbines, each generating 1.5 megawatts. The electricity will power vehicles as well. Boats and automobiles with gasoline engines would be slowly replaced with electric versions. The plan will cost US$1.1Billion, but the economy of the Maldives (mainly fishing and tourism), is only worth $800million a year.

It is estimated that the project will pay for itself in another decade, as the country will no longer be reliant on oil imports, so it will be totally energy self-sufficient. However, many locals are against the new plans, as they do not see why the Maldives, who contribute to less than 0.5% of the world’s carbon emissions, should have to waste money on an environmentally-friendly industry, as it is a poor developing country. But many environmentalists don’t agree, saying that if one country can become carbon neutral, then it will encourage other countries to follow; and many see it is something the Maldives can lead the world in, meaning richer countries can’t complain that going green is too expensive.

The Maldives are set to lead the way in renewable energy, and we at Ecoscene hope that this will encourage other nations to follow their lead and embrace green technology in a bid to become carbon neutral.

7 July 2009

Save the corals

David Attenborough is the latest name to call for a reduction in carbon dioxide levels before global warming wipes out the world's coral reefs. Speaking at the Royal Society, he said "A coral reef is the canary in the cage as far as the oceans are concerned. They are the places where the damage is most easily and quickly seen. It is more difficult for us to see what is happening in, for example, the deep ocean or the central expanses of ocean."
So why should we be alarmed? These amazing marine habitats, often called the 'rainforests of the sea' are home to more than a quarter of the world's marine life, and this includes 4000 species of fish. The reefs are fish nurseries, supporting local fish populations, as well protecting coastlines from tidal surges and storm damage.

Corals are particularly vulnerable to global warming, as the slightest increase in sea temperatures can upset the fragile balance on the reef. The reef builders, the coral polyps, live with algae in a mutualistic relationship. The algae supply the coral with food while the coral provides the algae with shelter and protection. The slightest rise in water temperature cause the algae to leave the coral, causing it to become white, the so-called bleaching.

Click on this link to see a further selection of coral reef images from Ecoscene.

Splashdown – a sister company of Ecoscene has great footage of coral reefs. Below is just a taster of what is available. (If you can't see the video click on this link)

6 July 2009

Two degrees and no more

G8 leaders have called for 80% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
They have also said that human-induced temperature rise must be kept below 2oC. Tony Blair has encouraged rich nations to use ‘clean’ technology, such as renewable energy, while he has also stated that they should pay poorer countries as an incentive to preserve their forests. Blair said that acting on these measures were “urgent”, although progress was being made. He said there was a “general acceptance” of these measures by most people. The ex-Prime Minister added that China has changed its attitude to global warming, and that they are now willing to help.
Mr. Blair also said that "practical policy making" was now needed, and technological solutions to climate change were reachable, saying only political will was needed to implement them. He finally mentioned that it was now time for the people who will have to get the job done to do it. Blair’s report was published ahead of the Major Econ
omies Forum, being held in Italy this week. This sets out seven different policies to cut emissions.
However, critics say that these measures will be scaled back, and many question whether politicians will get the job done in these times of recession.
Also, it is
said that the USA is blocking these short-term targets, and US officials have said that they simply can’t cut emissions quickly enough.
Copenhagen will
host a UN climate change summit this December. Others have called for investment in "clean" energy sources such as wind and HEP, as well as carbon capture and storage, new generation nuclear plants and electric or hydrogen vehicles.

Ecoscene has prepared a lightbox of relevant images which will be perfect to illustrate your articles on global warming.


2 July 2009

The clean tech revolution

The Carbon Trust (www.carbontrust.co.uk) has published an economic review today showing how investment in offshore wind and wave power technology could make the UK a global leader in clean energy, boosting the economy by £70 billion, creating up to 250,000 jobs and reducing carbon emissions - some pretty good reasons to push forward with green energy.