From the vaults: A wet ending to a wet year (26/12/2012)

Asked to encapsulate 2012 in a single word, I would probably look no further than ‘wet’. Out walking today, we tried to recall the number of times when we had been able to just sit ourselves down on dry ground. We came up with two: the first back in May on Wenlock Edge, when we still put down waterproofs as security; the second in August, when we sat on sun-warmed boulders at the summit of Craig Bheag, above Kingussie. Other than that, it’s been logs, benches, rocks, walls and, unless we’ve overlooked something, that’s the extent of it. And although there are still 5 more days of 2012 to come, there’s no great optimism that the total will be added to.
The photograph above was shot from a footbridge which crosses the Severn, near to the old mining village of Highley (Shropshire). There is usually a steep bank of around four or five metres in height, sloping down to the waterside. The trees in the picture are mature ones, which grow from the ground at the foot of the slope. Today the river was flush with the top of the bank, looks to have been even higher and may well be so again over the next few days. Higher, in a concave valley, inevitably adds up to wider, faster, more destructive.
Familiar paths, on both banks, were barely passable and in some cases already claimed by the floodwater. The one pictured above, were it to be visible, crosses a ramshackle fence line by means of a stile, just about at the point where the top of the fence dives below the surface. The only way to make meaningful progress was by sticking to either the engineered trails on the higher ground, or to the cycle tracks.
This apparent branch in the Severn is in fact flood water which has breached the top of the bank and is flowing through what is normally a dry fold in the meadows. Side streams and brooks, including some which would usually be little more than a trickle (and others which would not even exist) were pouring more water down from the steep, wooded slopes to the west of the river, prompting concerns for the preserved railway, which has suffered badly from erosion and subsidence in the past.
Everywhere, the noise of rushing water was inescapable and by the time we’d turned for home it was raining again; heavily. The last thing that’s needed right now.
The upper reaches of the Severn have a big catchment area, as have those of the Vyrnwy which, downstream in Shropshire,  adds its flows to those of the Severn. Heavy rain has fallen, is falling and is predicted to continue to fall over large swathes of the uplands of mid-Wales and Shropshire. With the ground already beyond saturation, the situation looks desperate for some of the vulnerable towns and villages downstream.
Even a 4-wheel-drive is no guarantee of security. This situation had arisen in a matter of the half an hour or so since we passed by going in the opposite direction. Whether the vehicle would be retrieved, or claimed by the river, we didn’t get to find out. Thankfully, it was unoccupied.

From the vaults: Someday there will be outrage (19/12/2012)

Outrage comes in many forms: it can be short-fused and incandescent; it can equally be slow to ignite, particularly if the conditions for combustion are carefully managed and controlled.

Lately we’ve seen a number of examples of suppressed outrage finally reacting to the oxygen of exposure: Saville, Hillsborough, and now probably Orgreave looks likely to join the list of late-in-the-day revelations about events which are – and here’s a paradox – unsurprising, predictable, but still scandalous.

The interests and reputations of those with power, influence (and the money which can buy both) have been protected and the opportunity for natural and legal justice has been denied until, in many cases, the culprits are beyond the reach of either. The role of our national broadcaster in the Saville affair has been exposed as a disgrace, and there’s more to say about it/them later.

My view on current energy policy is that it – a decade or two from now – will be seen as scandalous, bordering on fraudulent, and that the same devices of collusion, subversion and lack of transparency will be exposed to a future generation, who will wonder what the hell we were doing while all of this was going on.

Now I’m not, obviously, equating the issue of wind turbines with systematic sexual abuse, conspiring to lie about events which left 96 football supporters dead, or mining communities being wantonly and systematically destroyed. The point I’m trying to make is that we are already in the process of saving up a national outrage for some future date and, when the time comes, the BBC will be one of many organisations and individuals with awkward questions to confront.

There will come a time – I’m convinced of it – when the scale of this misguided and misrepresented lunacy will surface and be exposed to the unforgiving daylight. When that day arrives, it will be impossible to find space in the shadows; they will be crammed with those trying to make themselves inconspicuous. Former energy secretaries, wrong-headed journalists, green campaigners who never really understood the true meaning of the term – you won’t be able to find one with his or her head above the parapet.

The only question then will be… actually, there will be two questions: do we clear up the mess? If so, who pays? Not those who have made money and are long gone, we can be pretty sure of that; it will be the taxpayer or nobody. Like Railtrack, like the East Coast franchise, like the banks with their incomprehensible, thinly-sliced and bundled derivatives, we will pay. It will be us or nobody.

Those who received the subsidies will be beyond reach; merged, acquired, obscured by a web of offshore shells and arcane tax shelters. The ones who argued for wind – erratic, unreliable, quixotic wind – to be seen as a plausible cornerstone of our electricity supply will be ‘unavailable for comment’. At least the BBC will still, probably, be around to answer for its role in the conspiracy.

I’m not a climate change denier. I’m prepared to accept the evidence that the planet is warming; and that human activities are making a contribution to that warming. The question for me is: what do we do about it? Wantonly damaging the environment in the name of protecting the environment seems to me to be beyond perverse.

There’s a couple of lines from a Dougie Maclean song…

We are the seeds they grew
It’s we that you must answer to

It’s about a future generation asking questions and not taking ‘No’ for an answer. Heaven only knows what our response will be when they enquire about our motivation for turning pristine wilderness into post-industrial desolation.

I’ve gone on a bit; more than a bit. I needed to get that lot off my chest.

From the vaults: Not much to look at (03/12/2012)

A few months back, a participant in the Allt Duine enquiry process stood on the car park at Coire Cas and pronounced that there was little to see. Spectacularly idiotic it might have been but sadly not uncommon; I’ve heard similar observations about the hills of mid Wales from any number of people, and I know that other hill country – the Howgills as an example – are often the object of similarly dismissive comments. It makes me wonder what people are looking for; or if they’re even looking at all. Looking for a place to stick another cluster of turbines isn’t really what I’m getting at here.

I was out in the high ground above Claerwen not so long ago and, as is often the case, it was blustery, intermittently wet, deserted. As I walked I gave some thought to what I wasn’t seeing or, more to the point, what was concealed from view. What was out there watching me? possibly from no more than a few feet away. 

There’s an understated quality about these parts of mid-Wales. Not the spectacular architecture of Snowdon or Cadair Idris, both of which can be seen from the higher tops on those days when conditions allow; but the terrain, the vegetation, the general remoteness allow for a particular kind of biodiversity. Kites and ravens show themselves readily enough, but what about the voles, the polecats, the ground nesting birds, the reptiles and amphibians? They’re there right enough, probably not far from the path; seeing and unseen. If time and weather allow, sitting for a while is the best way to have a chance of finding out, although the aerial patrols by kite, kestrel and – just once – a merlin can certainly discourage activity, and understandably so.

I was reminded of all of this again at the weekend when out walking a couple of stretches of the local canals, punctuated by a diversion across an adjacent top. Reminded because, with the leaves generally now fallen, more activity is coming back into view, particularly in the high branches. Unfortunately a SD card failure meant there were no pictures captured from the walk; it was the first such error I’ve ever had with the camera and a reformat of the card seems to have done the trick.

Long-tailed tits seem to be steadily increasing their numbers; seen in new places from time to time and also in larger flock sizes; rarely still for any length of time though. Similarly, nuthatches are no longer difficult to find and the winter blackcaps appear to have returned to woodlands and gardens.

What was most interesting were the after effects of the recent heavy rains: the Stour had flooded its banks in a number of places to a much greater extent than is usually the case, leaving behind large expanses of surface water and almost creating areas of temporary swampland. It was like having a bit of Louisiana transplanted to the North Worcestershire/South Staffs border country; an alligator or two wouldn’t have looked out of place. The Stour is an interesting habitat itself: it is a shortish tributary of the Severn, flows through Stourbridge and joins the main river at Stourport. There was a time when its upper reaches collected the unfiltered pollution from BlackCountry forges and stamping factories and, for good measure, gathered the discharged dyes and adhesives from the carpet factories of Kidderminster. A few miles downstream and this toxic cocktail spilled out into the Severn, with predictable consequences for wildlife on the middle and lower reaches of the river.

A lot has changed: The Stour was recently named as one of the 10 most improved rivers in England in terms of pollution and kingfishers regularly nest in the steep sandy banks. Pollution, where it occurs these days, is more likely to involve a Red Bull can and a polystyrene fast food carton; unsightly if not quite as noxious as what went before.