John Craven's last word - On rewilding, evicting bees and getting rid of sell-by dates...

John Craven returns for his monthly musings on country affairs. Should we be bothering to bring back beavers, why a council has banned bees and do we need sell-by dates on our food?

12th August 2009

Beavering back
In these hard economic times does it really make sense to spend £2m on bringing beavers back to a forest in Scotland where they became extinct many hundreds of years ago? To people who live and work in beaver country they are like Marmite – either loved or hated with no in-between. To some they’re a menace, destroying woodland and blocking streams and rivers; to others they’re one of nature’s heroes, creating spaces amid dense tree cover for the benefit of other creatures. Ten of them, imported from Norway, have been set free in the remote Knapdale area of mid-Argyll and for the next five years they will be closely monitored to assess their impact on the environment.

I must confess that for me it was a magical moment when, as dusk fell on a small loch and the mist rose from the limpid water, two of them swam close to my canoe. I’d been filming the project for Countryfile and had been told there was a good chance of seeing them. Now, I’ve heard that assurance many times on wildlife assignments and often been terribly disappointed (“You should have been here yesterday!” is the usual comment). So it was a real thrill to be one of the first to see wild beavers in what was once their natural habitat.

But we shouldn’t let emotion obstruct reality and rewilding, as it is called, is highly controversial. Plans to return wolves and bears to Scotland have already been abandoned. So I asked a couple of old friends with much experience of wild animals, Mark Carwardine and Michaela Strachan, for their verdict. Mark, soon to co-host a new BBC Two series on endangered species called Last Chance To See with Stephen Fry, put it like this: “In the game pick-a-stick, when you take out one stick all the others fall into a different pattern. If you try to put that stick back again things will have changed – and it’s the same with rewilding… the surroundings and circumstances will be different. I wouldn’t condemn it but there has to be a very good reason for doing it.” Michaela, who’s just finished filming Michaela’s Animal Roadshow for Five, thought the positives outweigh the negatives and the publicity created by reintroducing animals would benefit conservation in general. “Can we criticise other countries for their handling of animals like cheetahs and leopards if we
can’t cope with a few potentially difficult ones of our own?” she asked.  

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Should we be introducing animals once lost to our country? Let us know on our forums

Bee-gone!
As if honeybees didn’t have enough problems, with billions being wiped out around the world by bad weather and the horrific, blood-sucking varroa mite, they’ve now been ordered off an allotment in West Yorkshire! According to the local council, bees fit into the category of livestock under the Allotment Act of 1950 and as such are banned; so a proud beekeeper has been told to remove his five hives. If councils care about the environment, they should be doing all they can to help Britain’s battered bees, not finding obscure ways to persecute them. Let’s remember that without bees there’d be no pollination – and without that not much would grow, on allotments or anywhere else.  

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Was the council right to evict the bees? Have your say on our forums

Waste not, want not…
I’ve been careful not to waste food ever since I carried out an investigation for Countryfile and discovered that, as a nation, we throw away more than £10bn worth of perfectly good grub every year. Families with children dump 27 percent of all the food they buy; it ends up, untouched, in landfill. Most families, I’m sure, can’t afford to be that wasteful and if we carry on at this rate, there won’t be any suitable space left to take it.
One solution is anaerobic digestion – collecting food waste and turning it into electricity and fertiliser. It’s been pioneered at Ludlow in Shropshire with great success, powering more than 300 houses. And because householders have to bin unwanted food separately, they’ve realised just how much there is and are cutting back on purchases. But it would take decades for such a system to make an impact nationally and we need action quickly to tackle the root causes of our disgraceful mountains of waste.
Here’s a start – there’s pressure now to get rid of those labels that say ‘sell by’, ‘best before’ and ‘display until’. They’re useful to shops but confuse customers. Five million potatoes that could have been eaten are thrown away every day, as well as a million loaves and goodness knows what else. What’s wrong with having just one label with the instruction: use by? The government is considering such a measure – and about time, too. As many a good cook has said: “You can tell when food isn’t fit to eat – it smells!”

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Are our sell-by dates past their use-by date? Discuss it at our forum

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