Note on snow

The snow is coming down diagonally. Driving hard. Gusts of wind swirling fat bumblebee flakes round road signs and street lights before hurrying them away into the dark. The cat appears at the window, doing its best to look pleading. He wants in.

Seconds later he is in front of the fire drying off, nose tucked under tail. A fox on the rug. The logs bought at Lackford hiss and pop gently as the fire burns through each ring of growth. It reminds me of a passage in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, the one where he traces history with the progress of his saw.

Looking out of the window, the snow is still coming. I imagine the tracks out by the den that could be waiting for me in the morning. A dot-to-dot map of the foxes’ nightly movements – completing the story I’ve spent numerous cold nights and mornings trying to understand.

The cat gets up, stretches and flumps back down again. He knows as well as me that the snow will have gone by morning.


Dingle Marshes to Doggerland

This was a country diary piece written for Suffolk Magazine.

It is a day of bluster and blow, of boiling sea and blistering spray. A time when the coast is truly alive; its shingle pulse roaring and racing with the tide.

I’m walking into the wind and on to the shingle ridge that forms the seaward edge of Dingle Marshes.

To the left of me, is the heaving North Sea, to the right, a wild mosaic of marsh, reedbeds and heath. Beyond I can see the dark brow of woodland that I left behind me almost an hour ago.

The shingle is deep and noisy. Walking here demands exaggerated footsteps and I tack up and down the bank towards the exposed and solid sand of the beach to try to rest my ankles. Globs of foam scud past as I pick up round nuggets of brick and glass – tumble-polished and buffed smooth by the waves.

Holding them in my palm I think about Dunwich, just a mile or two down the coast. It must have been on wintery days like this that it slid inch by broken inch into the sea, a transition from rotten borough to capital of Doggerland – the now sunken landscape that once connected Britain’s east coast to the Netherlands, west Germany and Jutland.

Just two years ago the sea came calling again, this time for Dingle Marshes. The storm surge of 2013 saw torrents of salt water breach the ridge on which I am walking, overwhelming saline lagoons and at its peak lapping into Dunwich Forest at the back of the marshes.

This time the waves also healed, pushing shingle back into the holes and leaving Dingle as a largely freshwater reserve once more. But then, maybe I shouldn’t think of it in terms of healing. After all in a place of nature and natural processes like this, a storm surge isn’t damage it’s dynamism. The land of the bittern becoming a habitat for avocet, redshank and brine-loving starlet anemone.

Pocketing my finds I clamber back up to the highest point to gauge how far I have come. In front of me a female kestrel is hanging above the marsh, her pointed wings fanning the air in butterfly strokes while her chestnut head remains dipped low and freeze-frame still.

The same wind that rushes off the sea and now pushes at my back is giving her lift, the splayed tail harnessing each stinging gust. I watch as the black and tan wings flicker and pause.

But instead of kiting on the wind, the kestrel falls into a shoulder-hunching dive towards the edge of a saline lagoon below – eyes locked on something I cannot see.

I crane forward hoping to see her; imagining the ultra-violet world of reflected traces and tracks that allows her to missile to the ground with such deadly accuracy.

But already she is back up, almost springing off the ground and back into position, this time slightly further away.

Whatever it was she saw, it has got away. I shoulder my backpack and start walking again.
A narrow squeak, I think.

If we value hares, we shouldn’t shoot them all year long

This piece first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times in response to the selling of hare locally. I’ve since had some criticism from the NFU about not mentioning hare coursing.

I didn’t touch on the subject of coursing here as it is something that is thankfully illegal and – judging by the number of listings on various magistrates courts in Suffolk – relatively well policed. As such, I don’t believe that such illegal activities, while obviously barbaric and wrong, put the same direct pressure on hare numbers as legal shoots.

The argument that farmers are killing hares to prevent hare coursing taking place on their land is not, or should not be, an argument to continue shooting with no close season.

Anyway, here is the piece:

The hare is running along in front of us, its flecked haunches and black-tipped ears visible in the headlights. It’s young; still a leveret really; its lean limbs long and awkward. A hobbledehoy, dazzled by the light.

Already driving at walking pace, we slow the car. The hare jinks one way and then the other as if to shake off a predator before veering sharply sideways under a gate and into the darkness.

I always think with a hare you somehow get a sense of the wild. Yes, rabbits may have that wide-eyed, cotton-tailed cuteness, but it is the hare with its gawky angularity, its poise and spring-like muscles that win me over every time.

I know I am not alone. In Suffolk it seems the hare is close to being an emblematic animal. You can’t walk past an art gallery without seeing a sculpture or painting of a hare. Shops are awash with postcards depicting their rangy form silhouetted against a landscape of Suffolk fields or boxing away unwanted amorous advances.

They are an animal close to our hearts. But it is also an animal in decline, with populations falling by an estimated 80% over the last 100 years.

In some ways it is the same old sad story. In short, the intensification of agriculture has led to a landscape that in many places lacks biodiversity. The disappearance of swathes of meadow and grassland combined with an increase in winter cereals mean hares can be without food during the breeding season.

The scrubbing of hedgerows has also deprived them of shelter; something that is particularly important given one of their main defensive strategies – despite their 45mph speed – is simply sitting still.

But there is another worrying factor at play. Despite being subject to a Biodiversity Action Plan, a measure to improve hare populations in light of falling numbers, the species is still considered to be, well… fair game.

Although the 1892 Hares Preservation Act prohibits the sale of hare between March and July 31, the older 1880 Ground Game Act means they can be shot throughout the year, including in the breeding season.

Pregnant does (female hares) can be shot, as can those that are lactating – even if this means the leveret waiting for its single dusk feed will most likely starve to death. Indeed the hare is the only game animal that does not have a close season.

Every other species; deer, trout, and even birds bred simply to be gunned down, such as pheasants, partridges and grouse, all have a period of time when they can, at the very least, breed in peace. To leave out hare seems arbitrary, outdated and wrong.

In Suffolk, one of the species’ few remaining strongholds, hares are still regularly shot in large numbers by organised shooting parties.

According to the Hare Preservation Society, which is pushing for a change in the law to introduce a close season, it is estimated that between February and March large organised shoots in East Anglia can kill as many as 40% of the national brown hare population. A truly shocking statistic.

But perhaps more shocking still is that the rules which currently govern the shooting of brown hares, rules that shooting organisations insist are sufficient, were drawn up by – yes, you guessed it – the organisations themselves.

To the horror of wildlife groups, the government left the job of drafting a code of practice for “hare management” to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the largest shooting organisation in the UK, and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Their work was supported by the Tenant Farmers’ Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Moorland Association, the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance (CA). This last organisation went even further, suggesting (somewhat bafflingly) that a close season could lower hare numbers. 
So, the shooting and the eating has gone on.

Perhaps I should say at this point that I am not arguing against shooting per se – this 
is not an attack on the CA’s 
“rural ways of life”, if this 
really is the phrase best suited 
to sum up various ways of shooting and chasing things in the name of sport.

Nor am I saying that “pest control” should not take place. Farming is undeniably important and if there is evidence that food production is being threatened by an overly large hare population then of course a cull is something that could be considered.

Rather, I’m trying to make the simple point that the controls currently in place to regulate the shooting of this nationally scarce animal are not adequate or ethical. Furthermore, if we really do care about the future of this magical animal then it is an issue we urgently need to take up.

An otter of my imagination

The bats appear out of the twilight, like shadows made solid. Flitting and falling at tremendous speeds over the water, they melt into the evening sky before taking form again as they belt after the midges that form low-lying, nibbling clouds above the hide. As one makes a tie-fighter dive across our line of vision Sam suggests they could be noctules – Britain’s biggest bat. Fat as butter, but still small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

But we’re not here for the bats tonight; we’re looking for Lackford’s otters. Going inside the hide, the shutters creak as we open them, the low light from outside barely filtering past our faces. A perfect V of geese, possibly Canada, head straight towards us like heavy feathered arrows, the powerful whooshing strokes of their wings clearly audible.

Sam and Shaun point out widgeon and teal clustered by reeds, while further away other water fowl, rendered anonymous by the light, land with celebratory quacks. Not so much flying, I think, but falling with style.

Picking up the binoculars again I scan the water for the otter’s sleek profile, or for the tell-tale v of an otter pushing through the water. Several times my heart skips a beat before the promising silhouette I’m staring at in the distance changes direction, revealing itself as a coot or a duck.
Earlier, as we walked to the hide, the reserve had been relatively quiet but here at the water, there are endless calls, splashes and flaps. Too noisy, I think, to hear an otter.

Shaun leads us to another spot. Like the last, a filled in gravel pit, it looks slightly like an ox bow lake. Otter spraint has been found not far from here. We peer out into the gloom again, but the dark is over-running us now – filling in the light patches of water with shadows. Even the bats have been swallowed back into the night. It’s time to leave.

Crunching down the path back towards the car park I glimpse a dark shape slinking across the gravel 50metres ahead; head down, hump-backed. It lollops into a field before I have time to react, time even to tell Shaun or Sam. I think about the ‘otters’ that had previously turned into coots. Maybe it was a rabbit, Shaun suggests playfully, just an otter of my imagination.

An allegory on asylum

This piece was first published in the East Anglian Daily Times as a commentary on the county’s and the country’s attitudes to asylum seekers. Some of those commenting below the line conflated the issue with immigration (as the Government has also chosen to) but there you go – you can’t win them all.

Oh those scrounging bee eaters.

I can’t help but be driven to the point of fury on reading that these colourful creatures have deigned to flap their way across the Channel and – whatever next – to feed and rest on our shores.

Ten of them were spotted last week flying over Minsmere before settling down to guzzle up lovely English insects. Yep, that’s right, effectively taking food out of our native birds’ mouths.

The jaw-dropping temerity of it all.

Thankfully scores of good East Anglian people soon arrived to document the event and presumably try to push them back towards Europe with rolled-up newspapers and a rousing chorus of the National Anthem.

And a good job too, no doubt they’d soon move in and start taking our precious nesting spaces – even though hard-working Mr and Mrs Blue Tit have been on a waiting list for the best part of 18 months.

From looking at one of the less sprightly bee-eaters, he was only here for medical treatment.

Perhaps, I think clutching my Big Book of British Birds, we need some kind of net that can be strung around the coast to bring this situation to a swift (no pun intended) conclusion. Maybe those bee eaters would think twice about scrounging from our bird feeders if their journey culminated in imprisonment, confusion and separation from loved ones.

Yes, that’s the way, stiffen the border, pull up the drawbridge, don’t let them in.

But… imagining the sound of feathered bodies thwacking into the coastal net or returning sadly from whence they came only to plunge exhausted into the sea, I can’t help but feel guilty.

Perhaps what is really needed is a big net on the other side of the Channel too, to stop any of those bee-eaters piling over here in the first place (although there obviously would have to be some kind of system to allow proper British birds like turtle doves and robins to reach their holiday homes safely).

It will also have to be a really fine net, because of course, they are not the only ones – we mustn’t forget about all the hummingbird hawk moths. The Daily Mail is probably reporting now on a family of them ensconced in a five bedroom mansion in Chelsea while our poor native moths have to make do with the sock drawer and banging into naked lightbulbs.

Of course, the real reason that these bee eaters make this treacherous trip is because of factors that are beyond their control.

If their oh-so foreign calls of “tree-tree-tree-tree” could be interpreted they would no doubt explain that man-made climate change has drastically altered their flight patterns. Perhaps they might even lament being pushed out of their homes by less tolerant birds – birds who threaten to lop off their heads and refuse to let lady bee-eaters go to bee-eater school or drive tiny bee-eater cars.

But, as we stand behind our newly secure borders, such complicated problems are easier to dismiss aren’t they?

OK long, drawn-out allegory over. But there is a serious point here, and one that does needs to be dealt with.

Because Britain, which has a proud reputation for caring and sheltering those most in need, is in danger of standing by and failing Syrian children and rape victims in what is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of a generation.

In a month that has seen the sad passing of Sir Nicholas Winton, it is now vital that the country revives the spirit of the Kinder transport that saved thousands of children (including those who were sheltered in Suffolk) from the horror of the Nazis and allow refugees to settle here in safety.

The Government has of course provided aid to the Syrian refugees, who are thought to number in the region of 4 million.

This is of course commendable, but a refusal to separate refugees and asylum seekers from a target-driven immigration policy (don’t get me started) means the Government have only accepted a measly 140 Syrian refugees via the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), which has identified the most vulnerable.

I find it hard to believe a country (both its Government and its people) that acted with such benevolence and kindness in 1938 could now stand behind fictional borders when so many people are in need.

We must not allow barbaric hunting to return through the back door

This opinion piece was due to appear in the East Anglian Daily Times today, but following the SNP’s intervention the Government thankfully shelved the vote (for now). Anyway, the arguments against hunting and the views put forward by those who supported the amendments to the Hunting Act remain valid – so here is the piece in full:

If David Cameron gets his way today, the barbaric blood sport of fox hunting will return through the back door.

A decade after the Hunting Act came into force, the government has published proposals to allow foxes to be hunted by packs of dogs in England and Wales as long as it is “appropriate” for the terrain and done “efficiently” to protect other animals.

Ahead of a free vote on the issue, English and Welsh MPs are currently said to be split almost equally on whether to approve changes to the law that would bring England into line with Scotland.

In Suffolk and Essex, while several MPs have spoken out against any softening of a hard-won law – a law that Cameron wishes to slyly change with a statutory instrument rather than a vote on full repeal as he fears defeat – others have claimed that not making changes to ensure parity with Scotland would be “silly”

But these undemocratic changes in fact go far beyond anything north of the border.
Hidden in the small print of the amendments are proposals to allow an unlimited number of dogs to be used to flush out diseased or injured foxes and to conduct “research and observation” in the area.

The use of such woolly terms could easily be exploited by hunters who claim to be carrying out a population count or assessing disease.

No such term of “research and observation” exists in Scotland, presumably because it would make the law completely impossible to police.

It seems the whole bogus argument about having the “same law as Scotland” is just a smokescreen to the fact that there is no argument for bringing back hunting. Maybe they should just come clean and say they enjoy ripping a terrified animal to bits?

If further proof were needed, let’s consider some of the other claims put forward by the pro-hunt lobby.

They argue in their recent literature that the proposed amendments will make “pest control” more efficient or effective for farmers. This idea that hunting, with its baying hounds, its by-catch and its damaged fields, is some form of wildlife management in fancy dress is laughable at best – after all, pretty much any method of killing foxes you could imagine is more efficient and (importantly) more humane.

It also seems a trifle ironic that those supporting the hunt claim foxes pose a significant threat to game birds – birds they are probably hoping to blow out of the sky a few months down the line.
Nor do I accept the claims that fox hunting is some venerable tradition that should be retained at all costs.

What about cock-fighting? Dog-fighting? Bare-knuckle boxing? Should we bring them back too? No, obviously not. Our society has made a conscious decision to do away with this savage practice and an arbitrary and romantic use of “tradition” should not become the standard-bearer for its return.

And before I’m written off as some townie who doesn’t “understand country folk”, I should say I grew up in this rural region and know, respect and like many farmers and smallholders – none of whom (I might add) have any truck with hunting or its lobbies. And why should they? This is not farming, it’s blood shed.

Neither is this a class issue. I don’t care if “all kinds of people” go hunting and the “toffs on horseback caricature” is simply that – a caricature.  No matter who is involved, hunting is a cruel, unacceptable and throwback practice that 80% of the population rightly reject.

So, today , I hope our region’s MPs will think long and hard before they follow party lines that will fly in the face of the people and leave them with blood on their hands.

It’s our responsibility to educate children about relationships and gender – not just the mechanics of sex

I wrote this column a couple of weeks ago for The East Anglian Daily Times, but given what’s happened today with the return of the Page 3 in The Sun, I felt it’s worth a share again. The issue of Page 3 isn’t about ‘yogurt knitting’ lefties raging against ‘harmless tabloid fun’ or as the more dim-witted have suggested, jealous ‘ugly birds’, it’s an issue of continuing a harmful gender stereotype in a so-called family newspaper.    

To be honest, the idea that there should have to be a campaign to ensure there is a commitment in schools to the compulsory teaching of sex and relationships, beggars belief.

In an age where young people are bombarded with negative and conflicting messages about sex and gender roles, where Page 3 and pornography regularly dehumanise and sexualise women – while modern culture caricatures men as sexual aggressors and normalises misogyny and abusive behaviour – it should be an absolute given.

Yet following a drive by the Everyday Sexism Project and the End Violence Against Women Coalition to achieve this very commitment, David Cameron has said he does not support making such education compulsory.

Cameron, who is the only political leader not to back the campaign, claimed that “while it is important that all schools provide high quality PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) to their pupils” he believes schools should be left to tailor their education according to their own specific needs and plan curriculum content accordingly.

In short, he wants to maintain a status quo – a status quo that has so far proved to be patchy and inadequate at best.

When the UK Youth Parliament surveyed almost 22,000 young people about Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), 40% said theirs was either poor or very poor, and 43% said they hadn’t received any at all.

Inspectors from education watchdog OFSTED, writing in the “Time For Change? Personal, Social and Health Education” report in 2007, said that: “Many young people say that parents and some teachers are not very good at talking about the more sensitive issues in PSHE, such as sex and relationships … In the

case of SRE, young people do not want just the biological facts but want to talk about feelings and relationships.”

And according to a 2010 YouGov survey for End Violence Against Women, almost one third of 16-18-year-olds in the UK had been subjected to unwanted touching at school. 
The same survey found that a total of 71% of 16-18-year-olds reported being called sexual names at least a few times a week.

These official accounts are backed up by a quick look at the Twitter feed of the Everyday Sexism Project – an initiative to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t take long to find an account of a child talking about harassment at school, more often than not arising from confusion about what and what is not acceptable.

Of course, it’s not just girls that are being left wanting by this educational black hole.

The volume of sexist material that is directed at boys and young men through both mainstream and social media can only have a harmful affect on how they view relationships, while leaving them with numerous unanswered questions about their role in society.

As a result it seems vital that in the lead in to the General Election pressure is brought to bear on David Cameron to make sure that all primary and secondary schools in England are required to educate pupils about a whole range of issues that extend far beyond the mechanics of sex.

Issues such as consent, respectful relationships and gender stereotypes need to be handled comprehensively and sensitively while online porn (however uncomfortable or embarrassing it is to admit) is now part of our everyday environment and needs to be discussed openly.

Obviously, it goes without saying that this needs to be done in an age appropriate manner (I don’t think anyone would back a class on pornography to five-year-olds) and, as both End Violence Against Women and the Everyday Sexism Project point out, backed up by statutory guidance and training for teachers.

But furthermore these messages of equality and healthy attitudes towards sex and gender need to be fully supported by parents and grandparents.

As the father of a six-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl, I’ve thankfully no experience of either of them being exposed to the worst cases of sexism; of name-calling or physical harassment.

But even with them I’ve had to grit my teeth with frustration and anger when my son has been told he can’t have something pink, as my daughter is called a tom-boy for choosing Hulk over Frozen costumes or when Mrs Christmas thanked Santa for bringing her a washing machine in a school play.

We must remember that to rail against the uncritical acceptance of gendered roles and to refuse to accept excuses based on class or generational differences is not ‘political correctness gone mad’ – it is ensuring the long term health and happiness of our children.

To oppose feminism is to oppose equality

This column was originally published in The East Anglian Daily Times. Since publication, I’ve received a few emails asking if I’m a man and others furious that I also mention UKIP. I tend to avoid reading below the line (it’s generally not a heartwarming experience) but for the sake of clarity the inclusion of UKIP is justified because of several high profile incidents (see here and here) and anyway, I can’t say I lose any sleep by offending supporters of a political party that feeds on intolerance and prejudice. 

I admit I had second thoughts about writing this piece. Not because I don’t feel strongly enough or because it’s not an important issue. No, I just didn’t want to give this man a platform.

So instead, I’m trying to think of this opinion piece as a rickety old stool to be kicked out from beneath him.

The man in question is Mike Buchanan, leader of the newly formed political party, Justice for Men and Boys.

Buchanan quit the Conservative Party in 2009 after David Cameron announced support for all-women parliamentary candidate shortlists. Since that time he has dedicated himself to promoting his own brand of anti-feminism and has written; not one, not two, but THREE books on the subject. And now, Lord help us, he has designs on Westminster.

Speaking last week he told one national paper that feminism is “vile” and claimed that “fatherhood is being systematically removed from society”, which means “taxpayers are subsidising sperm banks for single women and lesbians”.

His party’s manifesto (not a pleasant read) also targets what he describes as a “scandalous ‘gender justice gap’” and claims that not enough support is given to male victims of intimate partner violence (IPV).

Buchanan recently added to this claim, stating “there are as many battered women as battered men” (there aren’t – one in six men will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, compared to one in four women).

But let’s not nit-pick at Buchanan’s arguments and his party’s general election manifesto, which makes UKIP’s look like an enlightened and progressive doctrine.

Because, at the very heart of this kind of thinking, is the same old hackneyed idea that powers much of the flatulent guff seen on a worryingly large number of ‘anti-feminist’ websites and so-called ‘meninist’ Twitter streams. In short, and it has been plainly stated by Buchanan, this is the idea that “whiney” feminists “hate men”.

Motivated by attacks on lad culture and a powerful campaign by @NoMorePage3 against Page 3, it’s a beer-soaked pub philosophy that proclaims sorrowfully that “us men can’t do anything right in modern society”.

But instead of an ounce of introspection or debate, the response to a movement that is merely opposing exploitation and inequality is that it just “hates men”. This isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction, it’s an attempt to stop a conversation and halt the potential spread of a more tolerant world view.

Tellingly, it also throws into sharp relief the painful anxiety that some men have (consciously or otherwise) when they are confronted with a political, cultural and philosophical movement that is hell-bent on removing its privileges.

Because, no matter what people like Buchanan say, us men still have it good. As a man, I’ve no doubt whinged about unfair expectations and pushed against gender stereotypes, but I know I have never encountered the barriers that my wife and, in future years, my daughter will have to face.

The continued existence of a gender pay gap is just one example of the privileges of men and the need for feminist voices to be heeded.

A new study published last week by the Open University revealed that “three quarters of women are working too hard”, with 61% of women regularly do overtime in an attempt to secure a promotion or pay rise.

About 8% of those questioned clocked-up an extra 40 hours or more, every month – a full working week.

Of course, Buchanan and his Justice for Men and Boys party are not the only example of privileged people thinking the promotion of equality is tantamount to persecution.

There are sadly numerous examples of how attempts to eradicate racist and discriminatory language or promote inclusivity are condemned as “political correctness gone mad”.

But, and I suppose this is what has really got my liberal goat when it comes to Buchanan, feminism is not about polar opposites or pitting men versus women, it’s about inclusivity.

Actor Emma Watson, in her recent speech to the UN in her new role as Women global goodwill ambassador, put it well when she encouraged men and boys to speak out together for women’s rights in the #HeForShe campaign.

“If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice.”

She added: “But also, so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too.”

So there you have it, Mr Buchanan, there’s no need to worry.

Feminists do not hate men, except perhaps men like you.

And even then, pity is probably closer to the mark.

Climate change – overcoming a perfect moral storm

This weekend I was one of 40,000 people who took part in the Climate March in London. The event was one of more than 2,000 taking place in 150 countries to urge political leaders to take action on climate change. Before we set off I was interviewed and asked why I was marching and why I believe it is so important for governments across the globe to act now.

I tried – and I think failed miserably – to answer in a coherent and intelligent way. But last night I remembered a really brilliant paper by the philosopher Stephen M Gardiner in a 2006 edition (15.3) of the Environmental Values journal. I’ll try and sum the paper up quickly, but I’ve posted a link to the full article at the bottom of the page.

In short, Gardiner describes how the features of climate change pose substantial problems to our ability to make the choices necessary to address it – describing the climate change problem as a convergence of a set of global, intergenerational and theoretical problems or ‘storms’ to create a ‘perfect moral storm’.

Gardiner claims this perfect storm in turn helps to obscure the ‘lurking problem’ of moral corruption that’s also to blame for the failure of governments and political leaders to act.

In brief, the ‘global storm’ and the ‘intergenerational storm’ arise out of the dispersion of causes and effects, the fragmentation of agency and institutional inadequacy. In the first storm these characteristics have a spatial theme (i.e. emissions from one geographical location affect the whole world) while in the second storm these characteristics have a temporal theme (i.e. climate change is a time-lagged phenomenon that is substantially deferred).

A third storm concerns how ill-equipped we are to deal with many problems characteristic of the long-term future. He argues that even our best theories face severe difficulties when it comes to dealing with scientific uncertainty, intergenerational inequity and more.

Since climate change involves a complex convergence of problems, it is easy to engage in manipulative or self-deceptive behaviour by applying one’s attention selectively, to only some of the considerations that make the situation difficult. At the level of practical politics, such strategies are all too familiar.” Gardiner, S. 2006, p408

I reference this paper, not as an apology for inaction, but as a sign of what we are all up against and as evidence of why it is so important that we continue to fight for real change as loudly and as often as we can.

You can find the full article here. 

How to turn your child into a sports star

Following a chat about sports day and teaching kids about winning and losing, I was reminded of a piece I wrote for The Telegraph a couple of months ago.

It’s the primary school sports day this week and I’m feeling guilty. While my preparation for the centrepiece “dad’s race” has been almost flawless (the personal trainer, the fitness shakes, the shiny new running spikes), my five-year-old son has hardly balanced an egg in anger.

Granted his raw ability and giddy enthusiasm may be enough to see him through this time (we have medal hopes for skipping, running and a strong chance of a good showing in the sack race) but I fear his woeful lack of dedication could put him on course for being nothing more than an “also ran”.

After all, practice makes perfect. Or at least, that’s what popular wisdom would have us believe, with writers and authorities lining up to tell us that it takes 10,000 hours of practice and graft for an athlete to become distinguished from the rest. First formulated in a 1993 paper by Anders Ericsson, professor at the University of Colorado, the 10k hour concept has been popularised in Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and most notably by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

According to such thinking if my son is to stand a solid chance at competing at a serious level (and not being embarrassed at future sports days) he needs to put in serious levels of work. By my reckoning, if he wants to hit the magic 10,000 hour marker and swap the egg and spoon for an Olympic start in 2028, he needs to train for two hours a day.

Only two hours a day?! I hear you say. Easy, especially considering that he will probably do many more hours of training in the run up to the games. Who knows, if he really puts his back into it, he might even be able to have some down-time on his sixth birthday or a lie in at Christmas.

Of course, I’m joking (he will be up at the crack of dawn this Christmas). But the idea of early specialisation, where a child is intensively drilled in a single discipline does appear to have been normalised. A glance at any forum-based discussion on children and sports is guaranteed to mention 10,000 hours at least once.

But does it work? According to Stewart Laing, senior lead performance pathway scientist for the UK talent team, working for the English Institute of Sport, the simple answer is no.

“The list of things that are related to possible risks of early specialisation is physical and mental exhaustion, risk of over-use injuries and increasing risk of premature drop out,” he explains.

“In targeting the 2028 Olympics by drilling one item, you risk them (your child) dropping out of the sport prematurely, while they might naturally go on and progress anyway.”

Instead, argues Laing, it’s important that children experience a wide range of sports, especially those with “foundational elements” like swimming and gymnastics.

He adds: “Gymnastics has a huge transfer over in terms of spatial awareness the ability to rotate roll and twist. All of those things are transferable. I have just run the Girls For Gold recruitment campaign for canoeing and we’ve got athletes there who have gone into sprint kayaking that come from a multitude of backgrounds, some come from equestrian, athletics, hockey, some golf.”

Jacquie Beltrao, Sky presenter and former Olympian, is currently supporting her child’s push to take part in tennis at a top level.

“I think parents have to ask the question ‘Am I doing this for me, because I didn’t realise my sporting ambitions?’ Or ‘Am I doing it for them because that’s what they want to do?’”, she says.

“The main thing about sport and people that do well at any sport, whether it is running, cycling or tennis, is they have a real passion for that sport. That passion has to come from themselves, it’s not going to come from their parents no matter how much you want it. It has to come from within the child.”

Echoing Laing’s advice about trying a variety of sports, she adds: “Your job as a parent is to make them try as many sports as possible and see if they have an aptitude for something, or really fall in love with something.”

So, does this mean that sport for children should just be about the taking part in as many possible events? And furthermore, does this also mean winning goes out the window?

Not so, according to Beltrao.

“Children have to do competitions and go to practice once or twice a week,” she says. “If they are asked to compete, you should get them to compete, because that’s what it’s about and it’s how they learn. It’s also when parents learn whether children are up for it or not. You don’t want to waste your time pushing them into competitions if they don’t like it, but equally if they like the training let them train.”

Laing sounds a note of caution about the number of competitions young athletes take part in, but agrees. “Competition for development is important, and by that I mean developing the mindset and attitude of competition.”

There is another point worth bearing in mind. Most advice so far points to parents as having a purely supportive role in the development of young athletes, as opposed to drill sergeants standing over whimpering five-year-olds. But this doesn’t mean parents can’t be, or shouldn’t be, involved in guiding their child, especially when it does come to specialisation later down the line.

Beltrao explains her views were reinforced after a conversation with the father of double Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Laura Trott. “He said what you need to do is carry on doing the sport you do and if it’s not happening for them at the age of 14, whip them out and put them into something else. If you’ve trained all your life as a gymnast, there nothing to stop you being a track cyclist, you’ll probably have factors that will translate into another sport.”

So, while my training will continue (after all this could be my last chance for glory) the badgering of my five-year-old will stop. Indeed he is already planning his own sporting schedule. It’s now just a case of finding a sword-fighting class and a ski jump in Suffolk.