Nature's Direct Feed from
Last updated on May 20th, 2013
|Country diary: Coombs Dale, Derbyshire: Click here|
Coombs Dale, Derbyshire: The land is scarred and nicked, like the face of a veteran fighter, but the blackthorn is smothered in blossom
The high limestone country north of Longstone Edge has its own strange energy, a consequence perhaps of the quarrying there, both ancient and modern. The land is scarred and nicked, like the face of a veteran fighter, a blue-collar countryside.
It's also rich with tales of horror, now recruited for the purposes of tourism. The notorious highwayman Black Harry, hanged at nearby Wardlow Mires, has lent his name to a network of bridleways for horse riders to explore.
Running across this landscape is the drawn bow of Coombs Dale, with its own legacy of mine workings but now a refuge for nature in the green mosaic of white-walled pasture with, in Ted Hughes' phrase, its "reluctant nibbled grass".
One moment I'm on the main road through Stoney Middleton Dale, rattling with quarry traffic, the next in an almost secret world, at the bottom of a steep-sided valley, and bathed in spring sunshine.
Alongside the path are hazel and willows thick with catkins. But the real pleasure is the blossom smothering the blackthorn. Last month I cycled up this lane under grey skies and barely noticed them. Now I'm shrouded in their scent.
It's not just the raw appeal of the dale threaded with creamy white flowers. Blackthorn has an almost sculptural appeal, the thick thorns spreading horizontally, which adds a spiky depth to the overall effect.
Most wood is useful, but blackthorn has an intimate, tactile quality to its utility: wands, walking sticks, shillelaghs and, in the hands of Black Rod, parliamentary doorknockers.
By the time I emerge into the upper dale, the sky has darkened and a brief hailstorm stings my face while the lambs curl up for warmth.
|Syria's makeshift oil refineries: 'It is like hell' – video: Click here|
As a result of the rush to make quick money, open-air refineries have been set up in al-Raqqa province
|Plague of deforestation sweeps across south-east Asia: Click here|
Illegal logging and unchecked economic development are taking a devastating toll on forests
In 1968, during the six-month siege of Khe Sanh — one of the most bitterly fought battles of the Vietnam War — a special U.S. Air Force outfit flew defoliation missions. Called the Ranch Handers, their motto was: "Only you can prevent a forest."
They may not have succeeded in their goal, but rapid development in Vietnam and the surrounding nations of the greater Mekong region is on the way to accomplishing what American defoliation missions could not: The widespread destruction of Indochina's forests and the biodiversity they harbor.
Stand on Khe Sanh today, and it's remarkably tranquil. Nearly all the metal from the old Marine base has been scavenged and sold to scrap merchants. The battlefield is now part of a vast green coffee plantation; all that remains of the airstrip that was the lifeline for U.S. Marines and Army soldiers is a length of reddish dirt.
The fate of the forests around Khe Sanh exemplifies what is happening today in Vietnam and the greater Mekong region, which also includes Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Although some large blocks of forest remain intact, the pace of deforestation is dizzying, threatening the region's remarkable biodiversity, which includes more than 1,700 species discovered in the last 15 years alone. Many of the forests in Vietnam have been cut down for the furniture export market and the trees replaced by coffee bushes; in less than 10 years, Vietnam has gone from zero to number two in global coffee production. So much forest has been cleared to feed the growing number of sawmills that loggers have moved across the borders into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, where they are illegally razing forests there.
In addition to widespread, illegal logging, other factors driving this precipitous forest loss include the spread of agriculture in a region with soaring population growth and the construction of dams and other large-scale infrastructure projects.
The scope of the forest loss was highlighted earlier this month by the conservation group WWF, which noted that from 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War, to 2009, the greater Mekong region lost nearly one-third of its remaining forest cover. Vietnam and Thailand suffered the most forest destruction, each losing 43 percent of their forest cover, according to an analysis of satellite imagery by WWF.
WWF concluded that areas of core, undisturbed forest — defined as at least 3.2 square kilometers of pristine woodlands — plunged over the past four decades in Indochina from more than 70 percent to 20 percent. I witnessed this destruction first-hand as I traveled around Vietnam for several months, researching a book on its biodiversity. While hiking near the mountain village of Sa Pa, near the Chinese border, I saw mile-long red clay scars on the sides of the green, tree-covered mountains – the highest in Vietnam. The land was being clear-cut for a controversial new dam, displacing many of the local Dao tribespeople in the process.
In another part of the country, a few hours from Hanoi in the Red River delta, a wildlife biologist and I could see the remnants of famous limestone-rich hills that had been pulverized to feed a nearby cement factory. The factory was located close to the Van Long nature reserve, home to one of the last bands of wild, leaf-eating monkeys known as "Delacour's langurs."
Scientists and conservationists working in Vietnam and surrounding nations say the region now stands at a crossroads. It can allow present rates of deforestation to continue, in which case, WWF says, by 2030 "only 14 percent of the greater Mekong's remaining forests will consist of contiguous habitat capable of sustaining viable populations of many wildlife species." Or Vietnam and its neighbors can take advantage of the natural bounty that remains — forests still cover roughly 50 percent of the region's land area — and choose a more sustainable path that will support reasonable economic development and preserve biodiversity.
The remaining forests in Vietnam are home to what was virtually a "lost world" containing wildlife unknown to the outside — so much biodiversity that for the past 15 years an average of two new species per week have been discovered by scientists. Some of these creatures are spectacular, including the Javan rhino, barking deer, fishing cat, ferret-badger, finless porpoise, Irrawaddy dolphin, giant Mekong catfish, and a creature called the saola, which looks like a goat but is genetically closer to an ox.
One University of Hanoi biologist, Vo Quy, eminence grise of Indochina conservation, is convinced that many other creatures are still waiting to be found. "Local people are always finding things that we scientists don't know about," he said to me.
But things are changing swiftly in Vietnam, which — at 127,240 square miles — is only a little smaller than Germany. In Vo Quy's words, when it comes to protecting the region's wildlife, "the peace is more dangerous than war."
With the country opening up to the outside world under an economic restructuring in the mid-1990s, Vietnam's economy has been growing by an average of 7 percent a year for the past decade. Like many countries in the region, Vietnam has a young and rapidly growing population, which has expanded by nearly one-third since 1979, reaching nearly 90 million today. (In the region around Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam's first national park and home to many conservation efforts, the average family has 6.7 children.)
As wildlife biologist Alan Rabinowitz, chief executive officer of the conservation organization, Panthera, described the country's rapid development: "Vietnam is a miniature China on amphetamines."
The inner workings of this rapid growth are not pretty, especially if one looks into the furniture export trade, one of the country's top five export earners and a major cause of the deforestation. (The United States is by far Vietnam's biggest furniture market, almost three times larger than the next largest, Japan. Imports from Asia now make up 70 percent of the American furniture market, a 4,000-percent increase in less than ten years.)
Vietnam has even weaker unions and lower wages than China, along with fewer labor laws, heavier subsidies to state-sponsored industries, and bigger tax breaks to favored companies. Consequently, furniture manufacturers in China are already moving their operations from industrial cities near Hong Kong to Vietnam.
While the mills are in Vietnam, about 80 percent of the wood itself comes from neighboring Laos and Cambodia. Much of the timber is cut in protected reserves in those countries — where laws are weak and enforcement is minimal — and illegally smuggled across the border to Vietnam in spite of export restrictions, according to an undercover investigation by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
In a 2008 exposé, the EIA documented the timber industry's severe deforestation of the greater Mekong region.
The organization's field investigators made secret films during undercover visits to furniture factories and found that "criminal networks have now shifted their attention to looting the vanishing forests of Laos."
But because the furniture export trade is worth more $2.4 billion annually to Vietnam alone, authorities turn a blind eye, according to the EIA. Corruption, large and small, has accompanied boom times.
One wildlife biologist, Tilo Nadler, director of the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Cuc Phuong, witnessed long lines of trucks loaded with tropical hardwood at the Cambodian border, on their way to factories near Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City. Nadler said that even in his area, far from the border, local attitudes toward protection were so bad that a mob had attacked a ranger station three years ago after the rangers had arrested some illegal loggers. Rangers earn little money and have low status, he said.
The impacts of this wholesale devastation are substantial in one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. As the WWF report rightly notes, there have been enormous declines in the range and numbers of several of the region's iconic species, including the tiger, Asian elephant, Irrawaddy dolphin, and saola. Where once there were thousands of saola, now there are hundreds. The population of Asian elephants has dropped from hundreds to dozens. Rangers used to sight tigers roaming Cuc Phuong — which has been cut in two by a highway — but no more. And in 2011, the Javan rhinoceros was confirmed as extinct in Vietnam.
According to Nadler, biologist Vo Quy, WWF, and other experts, time still remains to reverse the runaway deforestation and habitat loss of recent decades and begin better preserving the greater Mekong region's forests and biodiversity. "I'm an optimist, but only if we have real government support to protect our special places," Nadler said. He cited the need to make difficult decisions, which may mean that biologists have to give up resisting a dam such as the one at Sa Pa, in order to save threatened wild lands elsewhere.
WWF said governments in the region need to do a far better job of safeguarding the parks and reserves that already exist since "many protected areas exist in name only." The group also stressed that unless regional government begin to rein in illegal logging and uncontrolled development, "natural forest habitats, along with their resident wildlife, face virtual elimination outside of protected areas."
Although the Vietnamese government has heralded its reforestation efforts, the fact is that they largely consist of monoculture tree plantations that harbor limited biodiversity, scientists say.
A key factor is local community involvement. The Van Long park, for example, was created as a result of local initiatives. Villagers living next to Van Long take a sense of pride in the reserve and have an economic stake in an ecotourism resort being built there.
In Southeast Asia, any long-term, sustainable, conservation projects require popular support; without that, formal edicts or restrictions on timber cutting from the central government mean nothing.
As a popular saying goes in Vietnam: "The decrees of the emperor end at the village gate."
|Worst natural disasters of 2012 by numbers displaced – in pictures: Click here|
Flooding, often during monsoons and sometimes accompanied by typhoons, displaced the most people last year
|Heartland Institute wastes real scientists' time – yet again | John Abraham: Click here|
Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where armchair experts gave up fighting over whether climate change is occurring?
This spring, I began receiving calls and emails from colleagues about a strange little book that was mailed to environmental science professors around the country. This was a big mailing, in total, a reported 100,000 copies were sent out. What was it about this little book that got us talking? Many things. First, a coordinated mailing of a book is unusual. But what is more unusual is a book that purports to be the "real story" about climate change, with graphs, figures, and tables. It came with a foreward by Senator Harrison Schmitt who is well known for misrepresenting the science. There was also an accompanying letter by Fred Singer. Many of us already know of Fred Singer; he was focused on in an excellent book by Dr Naomi Oreskes who catalogued his history of undermining the science and concerns related to second-hand smoke, ozone depletion, and acid rain. The letter from Fred Singer was on letterhead from the Heartland Institute which is a radical organisation that had compared belief in global warming to murder.
While author of the book, Mr Goreham, is described as a "researcher on environmental issues", a literature search for scientific publications revealed nothing.
But all this, by itself, doesn't mean much. I mean we are all entitled to our opinions on any subject, even if we don't know much about it, aren't we? Sure… but your opinions should be based in fact. With this in mind, let's examine some of the claims made in the book.
The best way to evaluate a claim is to go to its source. It appears that the author had ample references to support his claims. The only problem… the reference list isn't included in the book, nor is an index. Now why would an author reference papers but not list them in the book? I had to dig around to find the missing references so I could fact-check the text.
In his discussion of past climate variations, Mr Goreham used graphics from a contrarian website (CO2Science); I have previously debunked this site. He had other sources as well. In the book, Goreman references a graph which he claims he obtained from the 1995 IPCC report on climate change. The problem is the figure isn't there. He must have lifted the figure from a different report. Perhaps that was just a typo, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. On the same page, however, he cites a graph as originating from a 1998 paper by Mike Mann. That, too, is incorrect, the figure wasn't in the Mann paper. I wrote to Steve, asking him to clarify where these images had originated. He responded that I was right, he had made mistakes. He promised to correct these errors in future editions of his book.
Goreham went on to make statements linking changes in the Pacific Ocean to temperature trends however comparing his own graphs on pages 67 and 68 shows that they do not match very well. Surely he should have caught this inconvenient inconsistency during the editing process?
What about his claim that scientists ignore the sun? That too is pure fantasy.
His statements that temperatures have been flat or declining in the past few years? Also not true. But if Mr Goreham won't take my word for it, maybe he will take the word of the Koch-brothers funded study which agrees with me.
What about his claim that humans are responsible for only a very small fraction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Wrong again. Humans are responsible for approximately 40% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today. In fact, Goreham makes an elementary-school error by confusing gross emissions with net emissions. This is a mistake that anyone with a bank account can see. It is like the difference between the paycheck deposited in your bank account and the amount of money that remains after paying all of your bills. He also gets confused about how long elevated carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere. The high levels of carbon dioxide which results from human emissions will persist for decades and centuries, far longer than the 5-6 year molecule-specific residence time he claims.
What about his comments that the ocean will just absorb the carbon we emit? Wrong again. But then again, Goreham never claimed to be good a chemistry.
What about his claims that "all major climate models assume positive feedback"? Wrong again.
But it gets even worse. On one page (83), Gorehman admits that water vapor is an important greenhouse gas. But then just a few pages later (88) he states that the effect of water vapor may act to reduce warming. Not only does Goreham disagree with real scientists, he disagrees with himself. Now, in his defence, Goreham may be confusing water vapor with clouds. But real scientists know they are not the same thing. In fact, Goreham cites two studies by Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer that don't even deal with water vapor feedback. I'm going to go out on a limb here but I challenge Mr Goreham to get the very scientists he cites (Lindzen or Spencer) to agree with him that increased water vapor may not cause warming.
Just a few more errors, stick with me. On page 91 Goreham claims the IPCC "discounts" the sun. This is absurd and the quote he supplies is obviously misunderstood. What about his claims that the Antarctic is "growing". Real science disagrees here and here. His statement that the Greenland Ice Sheet is "healthy"? Not according to these real scientists or these.
At this point, I just had to skip to the end of the book and hope it was the end of the errors. Not so. At the close of the book (page 238), Goreham discusses ocean temperature measurements down to depths of 2,000 meters to determine how much heat is entering ocean waters. But then, he shows a "surprising result" that there has been no change in ocean heat content. What is "surprising" is that the data he shows isn't for ocean depths of 2,000 meters at all. In fact, he only shows data for a small fraction of the ocean waters. Had he shown the correct data, he would have come to the correct conclusion – oceans are warming.
So let's put all these errors, misinterpretations, and misguided comments aside. We know Mr Goreham isn't a climate scientist, in fact, isn't a publishing scientist at all. He admitted that in an email to me. What we should reflect upon is the absurdity of this mailing. Who really thinks that this glossy-covered book will sway real climate experts? Not a chance. It is much more likely that this was a major waste of time and effort. Why would such effort be spent? Why would the author now be promoted as a speaker who charges up to $5,000 per event as someone who can "deliver the real story" when he fails miserably in print?
Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where armchair experts gave up fighting over whether climate change is occurring and instead spend their time working on solutions? Solutions that we could implement today that would not only clean up the environment but would also create jobs, improve international security, and diversify energy supplies? Until we move on to that discussion, we scientists have the thankless job of fact-checking persons like Mr Goreham. It's a boring job but someone has to do it.
|Climate disasters displace millions of people worldwide: Click here|
More than 32 million people fled their homes last year because of disasters such as floods, storms and earthquakes
|Green heating payments to double for householders: Click here|
Rates for one-off payments will be increased to support the market as renewable heat incentive delays continue
Payments to help householders switch from heating their homes with oil to greener systems such as biomass boilers and solar thermal will double in most cases, the government is to announce on Monday.
The grants were intended as a stopgap measure until the start this summer of the government's bigger renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme – ongoing payments akin to the feed-in tariff for solar panels but for generating low-carbon heat. But in March, the RHI was postponed until 2014, in a delay that industry said it was "bitterly disappointed" with.
From today, rates for the one-off payments, the Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP) scheme, will be increased to support the market through the limbo imposed by the delay.
Energy and climate change minister Greg Barker said: "I want to kickstart this exciting new market for consumer renewable heat technologies. This time limited, big increase in the value of vouchers for hardworking people who want to do something positive to install money saving green heating in their homes, should be a real boost for this growing green sector."
Payments for ground source heat pumps, which extract warmth from underground, nearly double from £1,250 to £2,300, and air source heat pumps – which take heat from air outside a home – rise from £850 to £1,300. Biomass boilers that provide a theoretically carbon-neutral supply of hot water and heating go from £950 to £2,000, and solar panels that heat water double to £600. The total value of the fund for the payments is £12m.
More than 10,000 people have used the vouchers since they were first introduced in 2011.
Gaynor Hartnell, chief executive of trade body the Renewable Energy Association, said: "It's welcome that these grants are being continued and the levels increased. They need to stay in place until the proper heat payment scheme for householders commences. This has been delayed on a number of occasions and we hope this will be the last time this stop-gap measure is needed."
However, under new rules announced today, householders wanting to take advantage of the payments will first have to pay around £100-150 for an assessment under the government's new flagship energy efficiency scheme. The green deal, launched in January, allows householders to take out a loan with companies who undertake work such as upgrading old boilers and lagging lofts.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change said that the increased payments were partly to offset the cost of the green deal assessments, which it said would "help householders think about how renewable heat could fit with energy efficiency improvements for their home".
Renewable heating technologies largely only make financial sense for homes that are off the gas grid. Most householders using a gas-fired boiler would be unlikely to recoup the initial outlay of a solar thermal system for more than 30 years, under the proposals for the domestic RHI.
|Dog-meat mafia fuels Thailand's canine trade - video: Click here|
Behind-the-scenes footage of the illegal live-export trade in dogs - from rounded-up strays to stolen pets - destined for human consumption
|Protection for trees from pests and disease held back by 'skills gap': Click here|
Government taskforce calls for plant health to be put on a par with animal health and for the creation of a plant officer
Efforts to protect Britain's trees from diseases and pests such as ash dieback and caterpillars that strip oaks of leaves are being hampered by a "skills gap", a government-appointed taskforce has warned.
The taskforce, set up in the wake of a fungus that kills ash trees being found across England last year, also called for plant health to be put on a par with animal health, and for the creation of a chief plant health officer akin to the government's chief vet.
"There has been an erosion in the UK and elsewhere of certain crucial field- and research-based expertise necessary to ensure tree health and plant biosecurity," said the taskforce's final report, published on Monday.
Prof Chris Gilligan, the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce's chair and head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Cambridge, told the Guardian: "We've been complacent for a long time [on the amount of plant experts the UK has], the complacency extends to tree health and also to plant and crop disease more generally."
He said the number of people working in this field was in "the tens", and that not enough scientists were being trained. "There are very few people being trained in these relatively important areas, and that is true in the UK and in the EU. Very, very few people are being trained in epidemiology [the study of how disease spreads] in this field." The report called for the government to address the skills gap.
Prof James Brown, president of the British Society of Plant Pathology, has previously said that job losses in plant science were "severe" and that "Britain is not producing graduates with the expertise needed to identify and control plant diseases in our farms and woodlands." Roger Coppock, head of analysts at the Forestry Commission told MPs last year that "the number of plant pathologists is very small".
Gilligan said there was "a need for significantly more investment" into researching tree pests and disease, but that would be offset against the savings of responding to such problems once they had hit. The government is to pay landowners to remove young ash trees to stop the spread of Chalara fraxinea, the fungus that causes ash tree "die back".
Proposals are on the table for research councils and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to spend £7.5m extra on tree health and plant biosecurity.
The taskforce's report also recommends the creation of a single national Plant Health Risk Register, which would put more emphasis on prioritising which pests and diseases to tackle.
The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said work to implement the register and "procedures to predict, monitor, and control pests and diseases" would start immediately, but he would respond to the report's other recommendations later this summer. He was speaking at the Chelsea Flower Show, where the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) garden features leafless willows to illustrate the threat faced by the UK's trees.
Sue Holden, chief executive at the Woodland Trust, welcomed the report and Paterson's promise on the register, but said more funding was needed if plant health was to reach parity with animal health. "… Last year animal health received 15 times more funding than plant health, so we believe there is still a great deal of work to be done to level the playing field. We hope the government's upcoming spending review will also recognise the scale of the problem and provide Defra with adequate funding and resources not only to put the rest of these important measures in place but to sustain them in the long term," she said.
The report comes just a week after the first cases of ash dieback in the wider environment – outside of nurseries and plantations – was found in Wales. The infected trees in Carmarthenshire are the first confirmed cases in the wild in the west of the UK; the majority of cases in the wider environment are in East Anglia and Kent.
Gilligan said the spread of the fungus to Wales "concerns me like it would everyone else, but it doesn't surprise me".
Paterson also said the UK was moving to ban imports of sweet chestnut trees from countries where sweet chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) – which has proved fatal for vast swaths of sweet chestnut forests in the eastern US – had taken hold.
Simon Pryor, director of the natural environment at the National Trust, said the review was "much needed", adding: "We are very pleased to see that government is acting straight away to ban the import of sweet chestnut plants from infected areas; this is just the sort of proactive bold action that is needed."
|Chelsea flower show: a guide to edible flowers: Click here|
Visitors to this year's show can pop down to a nearby restaurant and try a flower-based lunch menu. Is it just a novelty – or something worth taking seriously?
As Chelsea flower show gets under way it's not just the gardeners who are putting flowers on the table. Chefs are too. Down the road from the Royal Horticultural extravaganza, Tom Aikens restaurant has a lunch menu bursting with edible blooms. Loch Duart Salmon with viola, violet flowers or poached chicken with marigolds are followed by rose-poached strawberries and washed down with elderflower syrup.
This isn't just a PR stunt, says Aikens who has been cooking with flowers for several years: "Flowers complement dishes in the same way that herbs and spices do," he says. "In savoury dishes, flowers from herbs like rosemary and thyme, which have a short season, add a unique and distinct flavour while, in desserts, roses, lavender and hibiscus all add a subtle, sweet and slightly scented flavour – which works well."
One of the most high-profile chefs to use flowers is René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. His dishes include beetroot with thyme flowers, nasturtium flowers with snails, and broad beans with cucumber and mustard flowers. And anyone who read his book, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, may find themselves scouring the landscape for delicacies such as sea buckthorn.
Indeed, eating flowers dates back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks put violet petals in their wine, the Romans were partial to cooking with rose – as were the Ottomans, who used their flowers to flavour Turkish delight. Dandelions are thought to be one of the "bitter herbs" mentioned in the Old Testament and, fast forwarding through the centuries, the Victorians added violets, primroses and borage to their salads.
Medieval monks used a flower that Dev Biswal, head chef at the Ambrette in Margate, is currently reviving: the almost forgotten Alexander (also known as horse parsley). Found growing on the sites of former monasteries and along coastal cliff paths, the Alexander flower is greeny yellow with black fruits and has a flavour that falls between celery and parsley (it also makes a decent tipple). "I was drawn to this plant the moment I first encountered it," says Biswal who uses it to spice up his southern Indian-style beef stew. "It has qualities I have always admired – defiant and resilient as well as being crunchy and delicious."
Many cultures use flowers in traditional cooking – squash blossoms in Italian food; saffron flowers in Indian food – and not just for decoration. Spicy flowers such as chive blossoms can be rolled into pasta dough and pickled flower buds (such as nasturtium) used as an alternative to capers, while angelica adds a liquorice flavour to ice-creams and sorbets.
And, of course, a salad shot through with orange nasturtium flowers or stuffed squash flowers has visual impact as well as packing a tasty punch. Check out Great British Chefs for dishes such as duck breast with lavender, beetroot and sweet potatoes or courgette flowers with goat's cheese and violet jelly. If you're keen to experiment, Thomson and Morgan sells a variety of edible flowers online, as does Firstleaf.co.uk. or if you want to forage in the wild look out for these.
As a child, I remember annoying my father by munching my way through his nasturtium flowers, which were intended to add a splash of colour to the front garden rather than a distinct peppery flavour to a salad. But the novelty value of eating flowers was irresistible. My own tiny garden is covered in astroturf. I am not going to impress anyone with my green fingers but, if nothing else, serving dinner guests alexander flowers should give them something to talk about.
|Pakistan turns off air-conditioners and tells civil servants to ditch socks: Click here|
New dress code issued to government employees as country endures blackouts of up 20 hours a day amid 40C temperatures
Pakistan has told its civil servants not to wear socks as the country turns off air-conditioners amid soaring temperatures to deal with chronic power cuts.
The government has turned off all air-conditioning in its offices as the country endures blackouts of up to 20 hours a day in some places.
"There shall be no more use of air-conditioners in public offices till such time that substantial improvement in the energy situation takes place," a cabinet directive said. As part of a new dress code, moccasins or sandals must be worn without socks.
The power shortages have sparked violent protests and crippled key industries, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs in a country already beset by high unemployment, a failing economy, widespread poverty and a Taliban insurgency.
The "load-shedding" means many families cannot pump water, let alone run air-conditioners, with disastrous knock-on effects on health and domestic life.
Frustration over the power cuts contributed to the former ruling party's poor showing in the 11 May general election.
Two ministers in charge of water and power explained what could be done to end power cuts in parts of the country enduring temperatures of 40C and above – absolutely nothing, it seems, except raise prices. Ministers Musadiq Malik and Sohail Wajahat Siddiqui "expressed their inability to overcome the crisis", the Daily Times quoted them as telling a news conference in Lahore on Monday.
"They have termed financial constraints as a major, and incompetence as a minor, hurdle in resolving the issue," the newspaper said. "Presenting the realistic picture, the ministers announced that they were going to increase the price of electricity and gas for all sectors."
They gave no details but said the problem would get worse before it got better. About two-thirds of Pakistan's energy is generated by oil and gas, and there are widespread gas shortages, with cars run on compressed natural gas queuing up for hours overnight to fill their tanks.
|The Syngenta photography award 2013 – in pictures: Click here|
Jan Brykczynski has been announced as winner of this year's Syngenta photography award
|Rare crane egg given 24-hour guard: Click here|
The first common crane egg laid in western Britain for more than 400 years has been given a round-the-clock guard
The first common crane egg laid in western Britain for more than 400 years has been given a round-the-clock guard, conservationists said.
The nesting pair that produced the egg are part of the Great Crane Project, which has been rearing cranes in captivity since 2010 and reintroducing them to the Somerset Levels and Moors where they would have been found centuries ago.
The egg laid at a nest at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust's (WWT) Slimbridge Wetland Centre is the first known to be laid by the project's cranes, which were hand-reared at the centre and the oldest of which only reached maturity this year.
Once widespread in Britain, the species was driven to extinction as a breeding bird by hunting and habitat loss by 1600, although a small population has been established in the Norfolk Broads since 1979.
The public can watch the nesting pair from hides, and a long lens video link has been set up to give visitors to the wetland centre and online a close-up view.
The video cameras will also assist the guards protecting the egg against egg collectors. Egg collecting has been illegal in the UK for almost 60 years but a few people are still known to raid nests.
WWT's Nigel Jarrett said: "Cranes are an iconic part of British wildlife and one that was all but lost for centuries.
"There is a long way to go before cranes become widespread again, but it is absolutely momentous to see this egg laid at Slimbridge."
He added: "The parents of this egg were hand-reared here at Slimbridge and have thrived through their first three years on the wetlands of the Somerset Moors thanks to the help and support of the local community, particularly the farmers."
|Discovery Channel's North America – in pictures: Click here|
North America's diverse climate, geography and wildlife are the subject of an impressive new series on the Discovery Channel. It is narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor and spans the continent from the Canadian Rockies to the jungles of Belize
|Mother wasps do the work: Country diary 100 years ago: Click here|
Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 23 May 1913
The mother wasps, founders of the future colonies, are now busily house-hunting, town-planning, wood-pulp paper-making, or hunting for food for their first hungry infants. These wasps, large if compared with their children of later in the summer, work along the banks, creeping into possible holes, fly along the hedgerows in search of flies or to find suitable wood or fibres for conversion into paper, and buzz round our windows or amongst the timbers of our sheds, carefully examining each spot with a view to its suitability for nest building. With all wasps, whether the nest is constructed underground or hung from a branch or beam, the beginning is the same – a tough stalk below which is a globular bell of paper covering the egg cells; the opening is below, and the thin, but tough, paper envelope shelters the eggs and grubs from rain or falling sand. These are the embryo nests, the work of the queen-mother, but when the first brood grows up the young wasps continue the work of paper-making, and the queen remains at home to lay eggs. It is one of these first nests that is described by a correspondent who found it above his door at Mellor.
The bees sent from Congleton are solitary bees of the genus Andrena; although they are called solitary, each bee having its own burrow, many of them are gregarious; a suitable grass-plot, bank, or, as in this case, wall will provide burrows for very many bees. The young are pollen-fed, as the writer suggested.
The Cape everlasting which unexpectedly flowered long after it was gathered was kept entirely dry, and not placed in soil, my correspondent informs me.
|Birdwatch: Golden eagle: Click here|
In the Scottish Highlands they call buzzards "tourist eagles" because, when visitors from the south see any large, broad-winged bird of prey, they often claim they have spotted a golden eagle.
Now that buzzards are such a familiar sight in what my Scottish friends call "Englandshire", perhaps such misidentifications are becoming less frequent. In any case, when you do see a golden eagle, you can be in no doubt that you are watching the real McCoy.
I can still recall my first ever sighting of this magnificent bird. More than 20 years ago, driving along a road above the Spey Valley, I noticed a raptor flying high in the blue sky above. In those days any bird of prey was an event, so I stopped the car and lifted my binoculars. At that very moment, the bird folded its wings into the sides of its body and went into freefall.
I stood in awed silence as it plummeted towards the ground, and at the very last moment stalled, opened its huge wings and made its identity absolutely clear. There is nothing quite like the silhouette of a golden eagle at full stretch, its long wings broadening from their narrow base, primary feathers outstretched like fingers.
Since then, my sightings of golden eagles have been few and far between. But I reacquainted myself with the species this spring, when I visited the Aigas Field Centre in the Scottish Highlands.
It was on a trip along Strathconon, a stunningly beautiful valley with a river wending through it, hemmed in by huge lumps of granite on either side. My guide, Warwick Lister-Kaye, knows this place better than almost anybody, and was keen to see if the eagles had returned here to breed.
By mid-morning we had reached a likely spot, and several pairs of eyes scanned the skies for any sign that the birds were back. Then we saw one, soaring over the skyline: a huge bird made almost tiny in such a vast, unyielding landscape.
Lifting my binoculars, I enjoyed fabulous views of this magnificent bird, which as it turned towards the sun revealed the flash of gold on its neck that gives the species its name.
The eagle circled slowly and disappeared over the ridge. Then another appeared, heading for a shaded cliff-face on the north side of the valley.
To our delight, it landed, and through the telescope we could see that it was on its nest – known as an eyrie. By now it should have laid two eggs, and will soon produce two offspring.
During my week at Aigas I was fortunate to see exactly 100 different bird species, including a sea eagle over Loch Maree, all three species of diver, and close-up views of one of our most beautiful waterbirds, the Slavonian grebe, in full breeding plumage.
But nothing could match that magical moment when the king of raptors soared into my field of view, flashed gold in the sunshine, and floated up into the blue Highland skies.
|Weatherwatch: Keeping warm under a snowy blanket: Click here|
With snow still lying on the Cairngorm plateau in Scotland, this year has started well for ptarmigans, mountain hares and blaeberry plants. These species thrive in arctic conditions, and a decent covering of spring snow aids their survival.
Underneath the 'subnivium', as this special habitat is called, plants, insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals all take advantage of warmer temperatures, near constant humidity and an absence of biting winds. However, Jonathan Pauli, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his colleagues are concerned about signs that the subnivium is retreating.
Writing in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, they say that since 1970 snow cover across the northern hemisphere has diminished by over five per cent during the critical spring months of March and April. Maximum snow cover now occurs in January instead of February, and the spring melt starts almost two weeks earlier than it used to.
Such changes, they warn, could spell trouble for species that thrive in the subnivium. For example, an earlier snow melt will bring hibernating reptiles and amphibians out of their slumber too early, putting them at risk of late spring storms and drops in temperature. Meanwhile, plants that lose their snowy blanket may suffer tissue damage from direct exposure to freeze-thaw cycles. Up on the Cairngorm plateau milder winters may enable red grouse to usurp ptarmigan from their homes. But for this year at least, the ptarmigans' main worry is whether the snow will melt in time for them to raise their chicks.
|Country diary: Lake District: A climb around nature's Notre Dame: Click here|
Lake District: Winter's snow and ice in these mountains has scoured spring's rockclimbs as sweet as a nut
Picking their way along mountain trods – like sheep returning to the fell after lambing in the pea-green fields below – climbers make for the high crags. Unlike the Herdwicks and Swales no longer in lamb, the climbers are heavy-laden, their rucksacks topped with butterfly-coiled ropes as they make for Lazarus or Nimrod, Slingsby's or Saxon, New-West or Vandal.
Winter's snow and ice has scoured spring's rockclimbs as sweet as a nut. To reach these classics, climber's tracks – blazed by Victorian climbers in nailed boots – branch from main paths like capillaries. Twisting and precipitous, they need care. The Gable Traverse from Sty Head across the Napes Ridges – "threading" Napes Needle and passing behind Sphinx Rock en route to the steep scree of Little Hell Gate – is one such arterial strand. Electrifying, it sparked the interest of climbing photographer Ken Wilson long before he produced his famous works, such as Classic Rock and Hard Rock.
The Climber's Traverse to Bowfell Buttress from the Band takes a similar line, passing under Flat Crags and Cambridge Crag; the buttress seen at last, its soaring pillar reaching for the sky. Esk Buttress has been likened to Notre Dame, resplendent above the Great Moss, and reached from the south by a trod starting below Hardknott Pass. Up soggy Mosedale it goes, past Lincove Beck and under Long and Gait Crags. The buttress finally appears as depicted in William Heaton Cooper's most magnetic painting, Scafell Pike from Upper Eskdale.
The "climber's route" to Gimmer Crag is another dedicated approach: via Middlefell Buttress above the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, topping out above Curtain Wall, then traversing the craggy fellside to Valhalla. The late Country Diary writer Harry Griffin showed me a way to bypass the stony path to Dow Crag from the fell gate above Coniston. "Via this sheepfold and that quartz cairn, cruising on emerald turf," I wrote in my debut diary for the Guardian nearly 10 years ago. Would that I could remember exactly where that magic path goes, evocative at every step.
|Climate change: human disaster looms, claims new research: Click here|
Forecast global temperature rise of 4C a calamity for large swaths of planet even if predicted extremes are not reached
Some of the most extreme predictions of global warming are unlikely to materialise, new scientific research has suggested, but the world is still likely to be in for a temperature rise of double that regarded as safe.
The researchers said warming was most likely to reach about 4C above pre-industrial levels if the past decade's readings were taken into account.
That would still lead to catastrophe across large swaths of the Earth, causing droughts, storms, floods and heatwaves, and drastic effects on agricultural productivity leading to secondary effects such as mass migration.
Some climate change sceptics have suggested that because the highest global average temperature yet recorded was in 1998 climate change has stalled. The new study, which is published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows a much longer "pause" would be needed to suggest that the world was not warming rapidly.
Alexander Otto, at the University of Oxford, lead author of the research, told the Guardian that there was much that climate scientists could still not fully factor into their models. He said most of the recent warming had been absorbed by the oceans but this would change as the seas heat up. The thermal expansion of the oceans is one of the main factors behind current and projected sea level rises.
The highest global average temperature ever recorded was in 1998, under the effects of a strong El Niño, a southern Pacific weather system associated with warmer and stormy weather, which oscillates with a milder system called La Niña. Since then the trend of average global surface temperatures has shown a clear rise above the long-term averages – the 10 warmest years on record have been since 1998 – but climate sceptics have claimed that this represents a pause in warming.
Otto said that this most recent pattern could not be taken as evidence that climate change has stopped. "Given the noise in the climate and temperature system, you would need to see a much longer period of any pause in order to draw the conclusion that global warming was not occurring," he said. Such a period could be as long as 40 years of the climate record, he said.
Otto said the study found that most of the climate change models used by scientists were "pretty accurate". A comprehensive global study of climate change science is expected to be published in September by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its first major report since 2007.
Jochem Marotzke, professor at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg and a co-author of the paper, said: "It is important not to over-interpret a single decade, given what we know, and don't know, about natural climate variability. Over the past decade the world as a whole has continued to warm but the warming is mostly in the subsurface oceans rather than at the surface."
Other researchers also warned that there was little comfort to be taken from the new estimates – greenhouse gas emissions are rising at a far higher rate than had been predicted by this stage of the 21st century and set to rise even further, so estimates for how much warming is likely will also have to be upped.
Richard Allan, reader in climate at the University of Reading, said: "This work has used observations to estimate Earth's current heating rate and demonstrate that simulations of climate change far in the future seem to be pretty accurate. However, the research also indicates that a minority of simulations may be responding more rapidly towards this overall warming than the observations indicate."
He said the effect of pollutants in the atmosphere, which reflect the sun's heat back into space, was particularly hard to measure.
He noted the inferred sensitivity of climate to a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations based on this new study, suggesting a rise of 1.2C to 3.9C, was consistent with the range from climate simulations of 2.2C to 4.7C. He said: "With work like this our predictions become ever better."
|Heatwave deaths in New York city could rise by up to 22%, study shows: Click here|
New temperature norms under climate change will increase weather-related deaths in metropolitan areas in coming decades
New York city could experience up to 22% more deaths from extreme summertime heat in the coming decade under global warming, according to a study of the impact of climate trends.
The higher deaths will be partially offset by a reduction in deaths due to the milder winters predicted in Manhattan.
Overall, however, the net effect of the new temperature norms under climate change would be to increase weather-related deaths in New York city by up to 6.2% a year by the 2020s, according to the scientists.
The study, published in Nature Climate Change, predicted oppressive summer temperatures would exact an increasingly heavy toll on people living in metropolitan areas such as Manhattan in the coming decades.
The numbers would not be significantly offset by milder winters, the study found, and deaths due to extreme temperatures would rise more dramatically in the later decades of this century.
Without bold action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, heatwave deaths in New York city could rise by as much as 91% on 1980s levels by the 2080s, according to the study's projections. The net loss of life would be as much as 31% on 1980s levels, the study said.
"This is the first real study of the seasonal trade-off of climate change," Patrick Kinney, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University and one of the authors of the study, said.
Kinney added: "What our study suggests is that the heat effects of climate change dominate the winter warming benefits that might also come: climate change will cause more deaths through heat than it will prevent during winter."
The findings, based on computer projections of future climate and their impact on deaths, provide a scaled-down version of the potential public health challenges posed by future climate change. The scientists used a set of 16 computer models to arrive at their findings.
The conclusions debunk the popular notion put forward by climate sceptics that warmer temperatures would benefit public health.
As the study notes, even under current conditions, there are more deaths due to extreme heat than to extreme cold in New York city every year.
Last year, the hottest summer since record-keeping began in the US, saw a string of days on which the temperature hit more than 37.7C (100F) in a number of US cities.
The week-long heatwave killed 82 people, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press.
In large metropolitan areas, such as New York, the impact of those temperature extremes are compounded by densely built-up areas. Cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St Louis have also recorded sharp rises in deaths due to heart attacks and strokes during heatwaves, according to the draft of the National Climate Assessment, which was released last year.
"Urban heat islands, combined with an ageing population and increased urbanisation, are projected to increase the vulnerability of urban populations to heat-related health impacts in the future," the assessment said.
Kinney said he hoped the findings would push city planners in New York and other large urban areas to step up preparations for hotter and deadlier summers.
New York city has already begun efforts to cool the city during the summer, encouraging tree-planting programmes and setting new building standards.
Other cities also routinely set up "cooling centres", with cots and air conditioning, to allow people relief from the heat. Kinney said city officials also needed to target poor, elderly or disabled residents who are confined in hot and airless apartments during heatwaves.
"How can we reach out to people who are stuck in their apartments trying to ride out the events? We have to try to target vulnerable people," he added.
|The invisible beauty of flowers - in pictures: Click here|
Artist Susumu Nishinaga has used a scanning electron microscope to delve deep into the fabric of petal, leaves and pollen
|Tar sands exploitation would mean game over for climate, warns leading scientist: Click here|
Prof James Hansen rebukes oil firms and Canadian government over stance on exploiting fossil fuel, which he says would make climate problem unsolvable
Major international oil companies are buying off governments, according to the world's most prominent climate scientist, Prof James Hansen. During a visit to London, he accused the Canadian government of acting as the industry's tar sands salesman and "holding a club" over the UK and European nations to accept its "dirty" oil.
"Oil from tar sands makes sense only for a small number of people who are making a lot of money from that product," he said in an interview with the Guardian. "It doesn't make sense for the rest of the people on the planet. We are getting close to the dangerous level of carbon in the atmosphere and if we add on to that unconventional fossil fuels, which have a tremendous amount of carbon, then the climate problem becomes unsolvable."
Hansen met ministers in the UK government, which the Guardian previously revealed has secretly supported Canada's position at the highest level.
Canada's natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, has also visited London to campaign against EU proposals to penalise oil from Alberta's tar sands as highly polluting. "Canada can offer energy security and economic stability to the world," he said. Oliver also publicly threatened a trade war via the World Trade Organisation if the EU action went ahead: "Canada will not hesitate to defend its interests."
The lobbying for and against tar sands has intensified on both sides of the Atlantic as the EU moves forward on its proposals, which Canada fears could set a global precedent, and Barack Barack Obama considers approving the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Canada to the US gulf coast refineries and ports. Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, was met by protesters when he visited New York last week to tell audiences that KXL "absolutely needs to go ahead".
Canada's tar sands are the third biggest oil reserve in the world, but separating the oil from the rock is energy intensive and causes three to four times more carbon emissions per barrel than conventional oil. Hansen argues that it would be "game over" for the climate if tar sands were fully exploited, given that existing conventional oil and gas is certain to be burned.
"To leave our children with a manageable situation, we need to leave the unconventional fuel in the ground," he said. Canada's ministers were "acting as salesmen for those people who will gain from the profits of that industry," he said. "But I don't think they are looking after the rights and wellbeing of the population as a whole.
"The thing we are facing overall is that the fossil fuel industry has so much money that they are buying off governments," Hansen said. "Our democracies are seriously handicapped by the money that is driving decisions in Washington and other capitals."
The EU aims to penalise oil sources with higher carbon footprints, as part of a drive to reduce the carbon emissions from transport called the fuel quality directive (FDQ). But Canada, supported by the UK, is fiercely opposed: "We are not saying they should not move to reduce emissions," said Oliver. "But the proposed implementation of the FQD is discriminatory to oil sands and not based on scientific facts." However, Europe's commissioner for climate action, Connie Hedegaard, said the FQD was "nothing more, nothing less" than accurate labelling and putting a fair price on pollution.
Hansen, who informed the US Congress of the danger of global warming in 1988, has caused controversy before by saying the "CEOs of fossil fuel companies should be tried for high crimes against humanity" and calling coal-fired power plants "factories of death". In April, he stepped down from his Nasa position after 46 years, in order to spend more time communicating the risks of climate change and to work on legal challenges to governments.
Hansen has started a science programme at Columbia University, the first task of which is to produce a report to support suits filed again the US federal government and several state governments. It is being pursued by the Our Children's Trust charity and is based on a trust principle recognised in US law.
"We maintain that the atmosphere and climate are held in trust by the present generations for the future generations and we do not have the right to destroy that asset," Hansen said. "Therefore the courts should require the government to give a plan as to how they are going to ensure that we still have that asset to pass on to the next generation."
|Tax avoidance: how to change corporate behaviour: Click here|
It is up to consumers and voters to change the lousy behaviour of big banks, energy giants and internet multinationals. They will not change by themselves
Last week, I was waiting in the queue at the butcher while an elderly lady was being served. Clearly, she was not that well-off and chose the cheapest cuts of meat. When she was done, the butcher asked the assistant serving her how much the bill came to. Told that it was £11, he whispered: "Make it £8."
It was a small example of generosity made all the better by the butcher taking care that his customer was unaware of what he was doing. It was also a far cry from the world of big business in a week that saw dawn raids on Shell and BP for alleged price-fixing and Google accused by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge of doing evil.
Stung by the attack from the chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, mounted a defence in the Observer. Tax is a mightily complex matter for multinational companies, he said. The global system could do with reform. It was up to politicians to set the rules, but they had to recognise the dangers if profit became a dirty word.
All credit to Hodge for flushing Schmidt out. He likes to portray himself as the new sort of boss of a new sort of company, the ones that boast of their non-hierarchical structures, their dress-down policies and their chill-out zones. But the row about tax has shown that the people running these new-wave behemoths are not hippy capitalists, they are robber barons in chinos.
Nor should we expect otherwise. The dominant form of corporate organisation in the west is the joint stock company, the purpose of which is to deliver profits for its shareholders. Almost all these companies pay lip-service to corporate social responsibility. The companies selling booze say they are firmly committed to tackling problem drinking. The betting shop chains say they want to see responsible gambling. The fast food companies and the soft drinks industry sponsor sporting events in the hope that nobody notices how they are contributing to obesity. But they are in business to maximise profits for their shareholders. Period.
The intellectual justification for the profit-maximising company can be traced all the way back to Adam Smith, who famously said in the Wealth of Nations: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the baker or the brewer that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." The pursuit of profit, in other words, creates wealth from which we all benefit.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, an earlier work by Smith, contained a rather different message, namely that there are good human qualities such as generosity and the desire to be seen worthy of the approval of others. Many problems, Smith thought, would be solved if only people could hold up a mirror and see themselves "in the light in which others see us".
Corporate social responsibility is supposed to address this point. Businesses like to be held in high esteem by their customers, but many of them have missed the crucial part of Smith's message: curbing the instinct to behave badly was not seen as being driven by commercial ends but by natural instincts. The real world is somewhat different. More than 30 clothing retailers have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord for regular independent safety inspections of garment factories, but only after the deaths of 1,127 workers in the collapse of the Rana Plaza works exposed them to reputational risk.
Smith, at a guess, would have been horrified – if not entirely surprised – to find that the European commission had launched dawn raids on Shell and BP amid allegations of price-fixing; that the European head of Google was being accused of doing evil by Hodge; and that Britain's big banks had been fingered for a string of offences from the mis-selling of protection payment insurance to money laundering.
Nor would Smith have expected Google, Amazon or Starbucks to voluntarily pay more tax than they were legally obliged to for the simple reason that he distrusted enterprises which wielded monopoly or oligopoly power. His objection to a company such as Amazon would have been that it is using its market power to eliminate competition and would be in a position, once all the other booksellers had been driven out of business, to charge higher prices.
The fact is, of course, that the world has moved on since Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations. There are examples of businesses that operate "in the light in which others see us", but as a general rule of thumb they tend to be small, local, non-transnational, non-PLC and open to the full blast of competition.
But perfect competition does not exist. The corporate world is not dominated by small shopkeepers who worry what their customers might think about them, but by large corporations generating revenues that get channelled upwards to executives and shareholders.
Companies will only change for one of three reasons: they are forced to do so legally; they are forced to do so by their customers; or because they spontaneously decide that they want to operate in accord with Smith's moral sentiments.
Changes to the international tax system will be on the agenda when the G8 meets in Northern Ireland for its annual summit next month, and there has probably never been a better time to crack down on tax havens, aggressive tax planning and transfer-pricing schemes. In part this is because of the egregious nature of the corporate scandals and in part because governments are badly in need of tax receipts in a time of weak growth. Tax threatens to become to the 2010s what debt relief was to the 1990s: the focus of a global campaign for reform.
In the end, though, the success of any campaign will depend on how the public behaves. If we don't like the current state of affairs, we can do one of two things. We can put pressure on governments to break up monopolies and inject more competition. We can call for a new business model, based on "for benefit" organisations, to challenge the domination of the joint stock company. We can force them to introduce sales taxes to avoid profits migrating offshore. Alternatively, we can vote with our feet, and stop patronising the companies that exploit loopholes in the tax system, even though that might mean higher prices and less choice. If we are not prepared to do one of these two things, we will have to lump it.
After the events of the past few years, it would be naive to expect the initiative to come from the boardroom. Corporate social responsibility has been a smokescreen behind which companies can screw their customers while pretending they are putting something back. The activities of the banks and the energy companies illustrate the point. Capitalism is not about being cuddly or sponsoring exhibitions at the Tate Modern; it is about making profits, the higher the better.
|Science promises strawberry fields forever: Click here|
UK growers adopt specialist computer forecasting system to help improve yields of crops whatever the weather
As Britain steels itself for the prospect of yet another washout summer, strawberry growers are finding themselves forced to come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of assessing the threat posed to their livelihoods by inclement weather.
For fruit growers, predicting the weather is vital. It causes fruit yields to vary by as much as 70%, making for an erratic growing season if poor conditions are not anticipated.
The last few years has seen a glut of strawberries arrive during rainy periods, when demand was limited. Conversely, this has meant a shortage of the fruit in some parts of the country at peak times – for example outside London when Wimbledon fortnight started last year.
But as the year's first crop of British field-grown strawberries goes on sale this weekend, growers have a new hi-tech weapon in their armoury. The biggest growers are using a state-of-the-art forecasting system that allows them to predict the yields in individual fields.
The specialist technology compares historical yield curves, the recorded effect weather has on the crop and the planting date of the strawberries in their respective locations. The information is then fed into a computer along with long-term weather forecasts, specific growing data for some of the 600 varieties of strawberry produced in the UK, and growth charts for each field.
The new system is helping the UK's biggest growers, who are responsible for producing around 20,000 tonnes of strawberries – a third of the annual UK crop. It involves field visits up to three times a week, when light levels and plant growth are recorded. The collated information has helped growers accurately determine when to plant their crops to ensure yields mature throughout the season, "smoothing out" the supply of strawberries to the supermarkets.
Although the vast majority of British strawberries are grown under polytunnels, their yields are heavily influenced by dank, cold conditions.
"For the last couple of years a glut of strawberries arrived during a rainy spell when demand wasn't so high," said Paul Jones, a strawberry buyer for Tesco.
"As a result we got together with some of the UK's biggest strawberry growers and suppliers to discuss bringing in technology that could help them plan their planting programmes more accurately. Now, with the aid of computer technology and leading weather prediction data, we will be able to process and analyse forecasted strawberry volumes down to individual field level."
The hi-tech approach is a new way of harvesting one of the most venerated, historic fruits. In medieval times strawberries were regarded as an aphrodisiac and a soup made of strawberries, borage and soured cream was served to newlyweds at their wedding breakfast.
An initial trial of the new system involving a small number of growers last year was found to be around 95% accurate, enough to convince large-scale producers of the need to use the new technology. Growers hope it will spell an end to the problems they experienced last season when a very wet spring and poor light levels were followed by the wettest summer for more than a century.
Securing a steady supply is likely to pay dividends for retailers. Demand for strawberries – which were first cultivated by the Romans in 200 BC – continues to increase every year, according to industry figures. The industry predicts an 8% rise in tonnage this summer compared with 2012 and estimates that between 60,000 and 65,000 tonnes will be produced by British growers.
But the prospect of a glorious summer in which to enjoy strawberries looks a forlorn hope. Early indications, such as last week's snow flutters in Shropshire and Devon, suggest that we may be in for a similar summer to last year.
|Lauren Laverne on fashion: shopping with a conscience: Click here|
Rana Plaza shows just how much traceable supply chains matter. We need to care about the people making our clothes
"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Oscar Wilde's famous quote keeps coming back to me at the moment. I have thought of it over and over in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. More than 1,120 bodies were removed from the rubble of the eight-storey complex. For some, the Rana Plaza tragedy is a matter of criminality, and indeed there have been multiple arrests, including engineers who are alleged to have illegally added several shoddily constructed floors to the building, and the factory owner who is said to have ordered employees to work the morning of the collapse, after safety concerns had been raised.
They may be directly culpable, but it is disingenuous to claim we are not connected to this tragedy. Government officials blamed the relentless thrum of industrial machinery for the building's collapse. For whom were the needles whirring if not us? Can you be sure nothing you own was sewn by one of the workers who went into the factory that morning and never came home? Me neither.
This week's column, therefore, is a plea to fashion producers for traceability of their supply chain, and a mention for brands and services which supply those things to consumers. Frustratingly, at the top end of the market that kind of accountability is easier to come by, but there's no reason the high street should be exempt from offering similar guarantees. As Lucy Siegle noted in this newspaper, big brands distancing themselves from the factories in which their goods are produced is part of their business model. It helps safeguard their profit margin. If consumers demand they become accountable in great enough numbers, they will.
The other half of the Wildean price-value aphorism is less frequently quoted, but worth bearing in mind: "and a sentimentalist… is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing".
Often the argument against buying fair trade (or introducing any kind of guarantees about the working conditions a garment was made under) is one of price. It may seem pompous to ask anybody to pay more than they might for a T-shirt, especially in times of financial hardship. But as garment workers' wages make up such a tiny fraction of the cost price of an item (around 1-3%), a small increase in price might improve their circumstances greatly.
At the moment, though, if you want to be sure the workers who made your clothes didn't suffer doing it, investing in fair trade is the only option. It may cost more, but the price of a garment isn't just the one on the tag – there is more than one kind of cost. How cheap is anything if someone dies to keep the price down?
|Green deal debt may have to be repaid before property sold: Click here|
Homeowners wishing to sell may find buyers are not prepared to take over green deal loan attached to the property's energy bill
Homeowners taking out a loan under the government's green deal energy efficiency scheme could find themselves having to pay off the debt before they can sell their property, according to consumer body Which?
Since January, householders have been able to sign up to the green deal, which allows them to pay for energy efficiency improvements in their home with no, or little, upfront cost; instead, these are funded by a loan repaid through their electricity bill.
Crucially, the "golden rule" of green deal is that you should not pay back more in loan repayments than you are saving on your energy bill – but this can mean that, depending on the cost of the improvement, you could be making loan repayments for as long as 25 years. The loan is attached to the property's electricity bill until it is paid off, so if the person who has set up the deal moves house, the bill falls to the new owner.
Research by Which? shows that of the 2,070 people it surveyed in April 2013, a fifth (21%) would reconsider buying a home if it had a green deal loan attached to it. Almost half of prospective buyers (46%) would want a green deal loan paid off before they would purchase the property.
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: "With rising energy prices still one of the top consumer worries, measures that help people make their homes more energy efficient are vital to help save money on bills.
"The green deal might work for some people but, as with any financial product, whether it's a good deal for you will depend upon your personal and financial circumstances."
In January, the Observer warned about the possible implications of taking out a loan that comes attached to a property — even if the purpose of the loan is to save homeowners money on their bills.
A mortgage industry source told The Observer at the time: "We have concerns that a potential buyer looking at a property may not value the improvements carried out under green deal and may not want to pay for them. Buyers may also consider that the benefits of any home improvements have already been factored into the sale price, and that the loan repayments on their electricity bill are therefore an extra cost they don't want to pay."
There are also reports of rogue traders attempting to use the green deal to defraud householders. Caerphilly Trading Standards has recently received 17 complaints of people knocking on doors claiming that homeowners were entitled to around £10,000 of funding for free home improvements. The fraudsters then asked for an "administration fee" to undertake various tasks on behalf of the householder. But Tim Keohane, senior trading standards officer in Caerphilly, said that none of the people under investigation was registered under the scheme.
The Building & Engineering Services Association, which operates the consumer advice service the Heating Helpline, wants the government to do more to publicise the fact that only authorised installers will be able to identify themselves as "green deal installers" and use the green deal quality mark.
|Working conditions in the fashion industry: news and teaching resources round up: Click here|
The collapse of a factory in Bangladesh has put sustainability in the fashion industry back on the agenda. Here are the best news stories and teaching resources to deal with the issues in class
The deaths of more than 1,100 garment workers when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed last month, as well as those at a Cambodian shoe factory on Thursday, have forced consumers and retailers to re-examine the impact and ethics of fast fashion.
Here we round up the best news stories, multimedia, teaching resources and websites to help you study the working conditions of garment workers and the sustainability of the fashion industry in the citizenship and geography classroom, and beyond.
From the Guardian
Cambodia shoe factory collapse kills workers
Fashion chains sign to help finance safety in Bangladesh factories
Eight top fashion retailers fail to sign Bangladesh safety accord
Bangladesh building collapse: woman rescued after 17 days speaks of ordeal - video
Bangladesh building collapse – pictures
Fashion doesn't give a damn about garment workers
Was your T-shirt made in the Dhaka garment factory? You have no idea
Death in Bangladesh is too high a price for quick-fix fashion
Time for an international minimum wage
On the Guardian Teacher Network
Desperate poverty behind the tragedy of Dhaka – The Day
Ethical clothing lesson
Guide to becoming a Fairtrade school
Send my Friend to School PowerPoint
The best of the web
Love fashion hate sweatshops
Blood, sweat and t-shirts
Labour behind the label
In praise of sweatshops
Facts and figures on child labour by UNICEF
This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Looking for your next role? Take a look at Guardian jobs for schools for thousands of the latest teaching, leadership and support jobs.
|New to nature No 104: Meenoplus roddenberryi: Click here|
The presence of isolated bug Meenoplus Roddenberryi on Gran Canaria suggests important things about the evolution of cave-dwelling species
Things are looking up for bugs underground. Among the 132 cave-dwelling invertebrate species of the Canary Islands are about 15 species of Hemiptera or true bugs. Most of these troglobites are from younger, more recently volcanically active, islands where lava tubes are abundant. La Palma and El Hierro, for example, are less than two and one million years old, respectively, and until recently home to most of the documented cave fauna.
Most volcanic activity on Gran Canaria ceased 1.6m years ago. As a result, this 14m-year-old island has few lava tubes, leading biospelunkers to assume that the cavernicolous fauna would be sparse. Localised activity to the north and east has produced some volcanic landscapes, but the south-western half of the island has few lava tubes or cinder cones and virtually no troglobites.
Before the year 2000, Gran Canaria cave fauna consisted of one spider and one cockroach. Since then, explorations of lava tubes and old artificial caves have revealed a much richerfauna than was suspected, almost the equal to that of younger islands. Discoveries have included millipedes, pseudoscorpions, spiders, silverfish and beetles, many of which are yet to be named. Most are found in shallow mesocavernous habitats, the so-called milieu souterrain superficiel. Caves are voids large enough for a human to enter. Mesocaverns are smaller than caves, but larger than mere fractures in rock.
Dr Hannelore Hoch of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, with Dr Manuel Naranjo of the Sociedad Entomológica Canaria Melansis and Dr Pedro Oromí of the Universidad de La Laguna, recently discovered a new species of cavernicolous true bug in a 30 metre-long water mine on Gran Canaria near Tenteniguada, at about 1,100 metres above sea level. The bug was found in the deepest part of the mine, formed in colluvial deposits of basalt, where seasonal variations are slight; temperature remains 13-17C and the relative humidity 85-94%. The presumed food source for the bugs are roots of a number of trees and shrubs penetrating the mine, including some combination of sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), yellow broom (Teline microphylla), blue Gran Canarian tajinaste (Echium callythirsum), and escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus).
Meenoplus roddenberryi is named after Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek that has spawned an industry of sequels, movies, and now scientific names. The mission statement that began episodes of the original series included the words "… to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life… to boldly go where no man has gone before". Hoch et al suggest this applies as much to biospeleology as to space exploration.
M roddenberryi is a textbook example of a relict since not a single epigean member of the family exists in the Canaries, but must have at one time. Those remaining reflect three independent cavern colonisations by at least two different extinct ancestral species: M claustrophilus on La Palma, M cancavus and M charon on El Hierro, and M roddenberryi on Gran Canaria. It is equally curious that in spite of suitable habitats and the presence of other troglobitic bugs, no meenoplids are known on Tenerife. Nor is M roddenberryi a close relative of known species from Africa or Cape Verde, leaving its ancestral origins a mystery for now.
Because larvae of the family live in or on the soil the transition to hypogean life is easily envisioned. Still, there are degrees of morphological adaptation to cave life, and M roddenberryi is a more extreme example than its relatives on younger islands. The opposite has been noted among bugs in Hawaii with the most extreme forms on younger islands. This suggests that degree of adaptation correlates with physical parameters, rather than a gradual process. The scarcity of cavernicolous planthoppers on older islands had been explained by the elimination of mesocaverns by erosion and soil formation, but M roddenberryi challenges that explanation and suggests that landslides and rock avalanches create new habitats.
|The founders of Plümo offer their tips for your summer wardrobe: Click here|
Esther and Verena Roth, founders of Plümo, tell us what's making stylish online shoppers click this summer
For the Roth sisters, an open-minded approach to is key. Esther is the business brain behind Plümo, the brand she set up 15 years ago and where she was joined seven years later by her younger sister, Verena, who focuses on the creative side. Both have what Esther calls "a magpie eye – we love fairs and car-boot sales". It's a trait that's evident on the site, which sells a mix of independent designers, fair trade goods and artisan fashion.
There is a look, but it isn't about trends – it's about layering and easy-to-wear shapes. "I'm not a size 10, I'm a 14, and I want beautiful clothes that will last more than a season," Esther says. Plümo's hot item right now bears out this philosophy: a £95 "Sicilian" shirt dress is selling out "because of the oversized shape. It looks great with flat shoes, and you can easily wear it to the office or dress it up on holiday."
The Plümo woman has changed her habits in the recession. "Customers are happy to invest in something expensive, so long as it lasts more than a season." Her hot picks? The Carla bag, and a £300-plus lace shrug ("People buy it for weddings to add zing to a more basic outfit").
Verena recommends 60s-inspired knits from Ganni, though she has a pressing sartorial issue to deal with: she's six months pregnant. How's her wardrobe coping? "I'm going for summer leggings with long tunics or boxy Baum und Pferdgarten T-shirts, because they're so easy to wear."
What we like
|Ask a grown-up: who invented clothes?: Click here|
Fashion writer Hadley Freeman answers eight-year-old Harriet's question
Clothes have been around for a very long time. Even in The Flintstones, which is set a very, very, very long time ago, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble wear some absolutely darling dresses, hair accessories and even the occasional swimsuit.
No one knows who was the first person to invent clothing, but at some point in the very distant past, your ancestors and mine decided to put on some animal skins to keep themselves warm. But more important than learning who invented clothes is figuring out what new thing are you going to do with clothes. Perhaps you will wear a brightly patterned, long-sleeved shirt under a neon floral dress? Maybe you will wear ballet slippers with dungarees? Or you could wear a Snow White costume with a pair of wellingtons. Clothes have been around a long time, but there is so much more to do with them. I'm more interested in what you will do with your dress, Harriet, than who invented it.
If you're 10 or under and have a question that needs answering, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll find an expert to look into it for you.
Go to the Backyard Nature Homepage