Eating your pet

Eating your pet

A while ago I was on the road in rural NSW looking at the conservation value of native vegetation patches. A fascinating tale of dual consent, blinkered minds and koalas. These stories will come later for I have another I must tell first.

On my travels, I chatted with a government vegetation officer who is also a farmer. For many years Dave has legally hunted on his property to remove feral animals and reduce the number of kangaroos and wallabies that eat his crops. This is standard practice in the Australian bush and a necessary function.

Although all native animals are protected under NSW law the balance between kangaroo numbers and the interests of landholders means there are commercial licenses to supply meat and skin products and non-commercial licenses for the purpose of damage mitigation and public safety. The commercial harvest is regulated through a quota and every step in the kangaroo supply chain is licensed and monitored. Around 1,800 professional roo shooters ply their trade across Australia.

So when David shoots animals on his land it is all above board. What he does with the meat was what we chatted about.

He makes biltong, a better kind of jerky if you will. And by all accounts it is delicious. I am a big fan of biltong from my time in southern Africa so we had a fascinating yarn about his techniques, recipes, the best animals, and the best cuts. Loin from smaller wallabies, dried in a dehydrator with a good hit of chilli, in case you were wondering.

africa-1238491_640

Excited on my return I began to tell my wife about this kangaroo biltong when she yelled ‘yuk’ and demanded that I stop.

“You can’t eat a pet,” she screamed.

Now I should explain that we have a swamp wallaby that visits our backyard during wet periods, usually with her joey in tow or pouch. Wallabies have a certain cuteness but are as wild as a ferret and definitely not pets. They are responsible for the loss of many an edible garden plant.

I should also say that my wife is by no means a nature lover. Movies, shopping and a good yarn with her friends are more her thing. She is also a keen carnivore who has been known to berate vegans for not feeding animal products to their kids. But clearly, she connected with this emblem of the nation.

Somehow she has acquired a visceral response to eating it.

I was taken aback. My biltong story remained untold and my own curiosity over why we have not made more of this protein source for sale to eager Asian markets was not aired. I had to be quiet misreading badly the depth of feeling for wild animals that I saw as a resource, David too presumably.

So you can’t eat your pet, even if it is not actually your pet.

This is a more severe dampener on a market for kangaroo meat than I had imagined. Pragmatologists beware, we have a long way to go.

Teaching ecology

Teaching ecology

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J.M., Boar, R.R. & Montgomery, P., 1987. Teaching ecology to undergraduates: a practical course using projects. Journal of Biological Education, 21(4), 251–258.


“In these practicals students learned how to derive facts through experimentation.”

This is a quote from my first ever peer-reviewed publication that appeared in the Journal of Biological Education, exactly 30 years ago. The irony that it wasn’t strictly research but some pedagogy gleaned from an undergraduate practical course I designed and delivered with my colleague Ros Boar that we thought would get students familiar with the process of research by experimentation. We were young and idealistic at the time but had a passion for education that was, and still is, a good thing.

The course began with some facts about three species of woodlice. One was common everywhere in the UK and the other two, whilst closely related (classified in the same genus) were rare. We presented the students with vast numbers of live specimens of each species from laboratory cultures along with some instructions on how to look after them responsibly, then asked students to test the hypothesis that it was the behaviours of these species affected their recorded distributions.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 8.41.25 AM.png

Next we said, ‘Well, there you have it folks. Form small groups and go conduct some experiments.”

It was a bold plan even for the University of East Anglia that, at the time, had a reputation for innovation in teaching. We were trying to put the ‘open needed learning’ paradigm that we believed in, to the test and, almost without realising it, I have followed this approach throughout my time as an educator.

Open-ended explorations of carbon budgets, all taxa biodiversity inventories, the spatial distribution of plants and animals, and even millipede mating behaviours found their way into subsequent teaching efforts. I am not sure that all students benefit from being thrown in at the deep end of the scientific method without any flotation devices. In later years I became convinced that the approach exposed secondary school education that no longer teaches “thinking” to any useful purpose. But in those heady days, we just knew it was worthwhile.

Between them, the UEA students interpreted behaviours with experiments on habitat preference, vertical distribution, survivorship, feeding and growth, and palatability. All the likely suspects for the global hypothesis you would have to agree. Only this was a learning exercise and so we did not expect much light on what makes Porcellio scaber so ubiquitous. That said, it almost certainly has to do with the weaker physiologies of its congeners, and out students were on that track.

We did ask the students how they went and from what they said we concluded

The majority of students (80 per cent) initially expected their conclusions to support the ecological theory that they had explored during their lecture course. Interestingly, only 25 per cent subsequently claimed that they would expect this if they were to begin another piece of work. All of the students who replied to our questionnaire that they would now be less accepting of theory.

So we created sceptics.

An inspired outcome, even if I do say so myself.

What predators do

What predators do

I have just seen a wildlife documentary where eco-tourists out whale watching in Monterey Bay had the experience of a lifetime.

They were on the water hoping to catch a glimpse of migrating grey whales, mostly mothers and calves as they journey along the coast to feeding grounds in the Arctic. Only on this particular day, and for the mother and calf they happened to be watching, the laws of nature were graphically applied.

As the tourists stared on in boats tens of meters from the migrating family a pod of killer whales arrived and began to harass, circle and ram to try and separate the calf from the mother.

This is, of course, what predators do. They predate. Usually on the individual that is easiest to catch or subdue thus giving them a meal that keeps them alive at the lowest risk to their own safety.

On the plains of Africa, lions, wild dogs and hyenas will single out the weakest of the grazing herd – why make things any harder than they already are? Chase down predators, as opposed to those that sit and wait, will benefit from making the chase as easy as possible.

The orcas were persistent. Injuries to the calf steadily accumulated and blood became visible in the water, the reality of the event dawning on the faces of the watchers. For the television audience, the narrator embellishes the visuals with “the calf was being eaten alive”.

Marine scientists, who later analysed footage of the event, observed that it was the younger orcas that took the most active roles in the attack whilst the adult animals held back. “Teaching the youngsters how to hunt”, they concluded – or perhaps leaving the dangerous work to the more agile individuals.

The scientists also concluded that this was “not usual behaviour” or “if it is what orcas do, then we have not observed it” and “maybe it was because of the high numbers of grey whales in the bay at the time”. Or maybe, like the lions, hyenas and wild dogs of Africa, predators rarely pass up an opportunity for lean times are more common than times of plenty.

Whatever the reason, the attack was a prolonged event lasting several hours.

Time enough for the storyline with a happy human ending that is so essential to the modern wildlife movie, as “against all the odds” the grey whales swam towards the shore, reached shallower water and the orcas broke off.

No-one could follow the calf to see if it survived its injuries but the looks on the faces of the tourists interviewed for the documentary left the audience in no doubt. Of course it had survived for the sake of all things decent.

The responses of the eyewitnesses were most intriguing. They went to see nature in the wild where wild things happen by definition, yet they were all shocked, not quite able to accept that wildness includes violence and death. Perhaps if the calf had died quickly and became the meal the orca pod was after the onlookers would have been more accepting of the cycle of life.

Instead, the escape and inevitable pain was, for many, too much. The people were visibly affected.

No doubt a few of them went home to enjoy a t-bone steak.

Subsistence

Lately Conservation International have been asking us all to adopt greater personal responsibility toward nature, because mother nature couldn’t care less about us.

Here is their logic

 

Fair enough. After all there is evidence for this argument. The previous five mass extinctions saw nature come back bigger and more diverse than before. And in time she will again after the current human-induced one.

Meantime there is a snag in the present.

Around half the people on earth grow most of their own food. These are not the new age Nancy types jumping off the grid or the allotment owners escaping their nagging spouses. We are talking about real life people from Bengal to Benin who have few job opportunities, little money, and no choice but to live off the land.

And today there are over 3 billion of them. That’s more than the entire human population in 1950.

These resourceful people perform miracles on tiny parcels of land. Yams, cassava, peanuts, plantains, rice and the like are tended with the care that comes from nurturing your future dinner. Multiple crops are rotated and intermingled to make the most of the soil reserves and to thwart pests and pathogens.

In some places this form of production is fairly secure. It rains enough onto soils that can give and retain nutrients. And with care families can survive on tiny parcels of land for a long time, often for many generations.

Elsewhere no amount of care can prevent soil depletion. And without money for inputs yields decline or become unreliable. Eventually the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move to pastures new. This is shifting agriculture and it requires an important thing. It needs land.

If your soil is depleted and fails to grow enough food for your family what choice do you have but to move on.

Many move to the cities or send their youngsters in search of a fiscal solution so no surprise that urban populations are expanding. Even a modern city like Sydney is growing at 2,000 people per week. Meantime Lagos, Nigeria has reached 21 million.

Those left behind must either wait for newly urbanised family members to send funds or find a new patch of land to grow some food.

And this is where the Conservation International message of personal responsibility hits a snag. If half the people in the world will need new land sometime soon they will try to find it no matter how much they want to be kind to nature. None can be expected to curl up on their depleted land and sacrifice themselves.

A billion or more people practice shifting agriculture because they have no choice. Starvation is their alternative. Instead they turn to mother nature. They eat from another piece of cleared forest.

The guilt trip of personal responsibility is meaningless when your stomach is empty and your child is malnourished.

 

Environmental values | A national park should be a national park

EucalyptusForestMany years ago I was driving along a dirt road in rural Zimbabwe.

We had been following a game fence for several miles, a formidable veldspan barrier between a tired looking patchwork of withered maize fields, goats, and clusters of rondavels out the passenger window, and the intact open woodland of a game reserve on the driver’s side.

Dirt roads allow plenty of time to take in the scenery and I couldn’t help but notice how one of my fellow passengers, a former student recently appointed to the wildlife department as a trainee scout, was so captivated by it. Not the savanna with its prospects of a kudu bull framed by an acacia thicket, an elephant ambling along ready to tug at the sweetest smelling grass tussock, or maybe even a leopard draped across the bow of a marula tree; no he watched with great intent the farmland.

“Which do you like best,” I asked him, “the savanna or the lands?” He looked back across at me with eyes wide, forehead furrowed and cheeks raised and said nothing. He turned back to his left to look out of the window and said softly “the lands”.

It was not the only time during a decade in Africa, that included the great fortune of visits to half a dozen countries, where the locals made it very clear how important agricultural land was to their very soul. Fields and pastures are, after all, the source of sustenance to us all and a place of protection and community. Human modification of the wild and dangerous savanna into safer and more comfortable countryside is the achievement that founded our ongoing numerical and lifestyle success.

In the west we sometimes pretend that the wild mountains, forests and windswept moors are our places of true beauty, but actually we too have quite the soft spot for farmland. Countryside would end up as a more popular choice for most than wilderness. Even the words themselves evoke opposites: cozy comfort aside inglenook fireplaces with a slice of apple pie, or gray skies, damp smells and wind that howls.

Given these deep and innate responses it’s no surprise that there is a conflict over what to do with wild areas. Should we set some aside and then keep out of them to be what they are as unfettered cauldrons for nature? Or should we designate them and, with a calming hand, mollify all that that wildness? After all we are under more pressure that ever to make every hectare of the land productive and available to yield fuel and raw materials for our voracious economic engines.

Australia is slipping into the midst of this conundrum.

After many decades of increasing environmental protection with laws set to slow or stop landscape modification, restrict pollution, and set aside close to 7% of the land [529,380 km2] as conservation areas, change is afoot. State governments in Victoria, Queensland, and NSW are variously allowing areas designated as national parks to be used by recreational hunters, mineral prospectors, graziers and even foresters.

Whatever your politics, hunting, livestock grazing, digging big holes and cutting down trees do seem rather odd activities to allow within a national park. Remember that the majority of these areas are either rugged and remote [part of their initial charm] or unproductive for all the usual commercial things we like to do. Allowing them environmental value seems to make perfect sense.

There is also the important ecological reality that once an area of land is grazed by livestock, or cleared, or a road cut through it, or big holes dug into it, then it will never again be as it was. Our modifications are irreversible.

We can [and should] restore landscape after the effects of our worst excesses but, by definition, we cannot return a landscape to pristine wilderness. All we can do is set areas aside for nature to be and preferably areas that we have not messed up too much already.

Recognition of environmental value, so that each set aside area has meaning, is a really smart thing to do.

Yet in doing so we are at odds with our instinct for the safe place that is productive. We all want to look to the left of the dusty road at the brown stalks of the harvested mealies just as the young wildlife scout did, because at core we are all control freaks. We are desperate to keep the nastiness of nature at bay and make the land safe and productive for our families — something inside says that that wild wood must be tamed. Let’s send in the guns, the herders and the chainsaws.

Only we are better than this. Surely there is enough in us to recognize that we do not have to be afraid of lions or wolves anymore and we can let some small proportion of the planet be close to what it was before we swarmed across it.

And surely we don’t have to go back to the trenches of environmental warfare where passion to protect and equal passion to exploit creates sides that throw dirty grenades at each other and the only winner is the peddler of vitriol.

For goodness sake let a national park be a national park.

Protecting Mother Nature

“We must protect mother nature from our worst excesses” is the headline of an article in the Enquirer section of The Weekend Australian this week.

The tagline “We can raise our living standards without destroying the natural world” introduces an opinion piece about growing human numbers and our deepening psychological motivation to keep up with the Joneses. Two things that are leaving us with stress and putting strain on the environment. And yet the ”wonderland of nature” is still there to us inspire the spirit. Natural glories abound that should garner our respect and “a determination to protect Mother Earth from our worst excesses.”

All good stuff you would think.

There are posts a plenty on this blog and by many thousands of other bloggers saying pretty much the same thing. Hey, it is even the main tenet of my latest book Missing Something.

_

Missing Something | get your print on demand copy from Amazon or download a paperless version Missing Something Kindle Edition.

_

So why mention this piece from the sunday paper? Well, the curious thing is that the article is attributed to Craig Emerson, the federal Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in the struggling Labour government.

Now if the juxtaposition of topic and source doesn’t make you smile, then it is worth remembering that the newspaper is as brown as it gets [being owned by News Limited is a bit of a give away] and is always sticking the knife into anything with a green hue.

Clearly the editor was having a laugh and providing a great gotcha opportunity to catch the hapless minister sometime later in the election year.

It is shameful that the sordid media cycle and political agendas do this to such important ideas. We do need to be more mindful of nature, more concerned about our exploitation of natural resources, and even to take time out to feel the wonder for ourselves.

What the Minister did, apart from being suckered, was miss the opportunity. It is not enough to say that there are now very many of us putting the environment under pressure, we have to confess to our dysfunctional desire to exploit and find the emotional fortitude to think before we act.

Maybe my lesson was to enjoy the chuckle I had at reading a green rant from a trade minister and leave it at that.

NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK

It is true, I do have a new book that is all about how we perceive natural resources and those wonders of nature.

Check out a description here or better still order a print-on-demand copy of Missing Something from Amazon or download the Amazon Kindle edition of Missing Something right now.