Huffing and Puffin' On the Isle of Maybe

Rich wonders:

“Nature as harmonious and peaceful? Have these people watched Springwatch?” 

Good point. They had live footage of swallows eating their own chicks the other day.

Springwatch somehow manages to marry the genres of science documentary, freakshow and aspirational lifestyle programme. And how better to combine the three than with a bit of dolphin telekinesis? Not only can dolphins navigate and hunt using sonar, but by picking up each others’ sonar as it bounces back, they can, (“we think,” coughs co-presenter Simon King), read each others’ minds.

Wow, dolphins. See how these clever, gentle creatures play…

[Shots of dolphins riding the multi-storey bow-waves of oil tankers in the Moray Firth.
Cut to celebrity wildlife-sound-recordist, Christ Watson
, against a sunset. He is listening theatrically into earphones and twiddling special dials on a machine slung over his shoulder] 

Simon King: “Their whole world is made up of a picture of sound. And on that point, I’d just like to show you something. Just have a look at this:

“Of course there’s a lot of boat traffic up and down the Moray Firth. You’d expect it; it’s normal; has been here for many years. But just listen – and this is just normal boat traffic – just listen. Just listen to what happens.
That’s what you hear above water…

[calming shooshing noise].

“And this is what you hear underwater…

[horrible grinding drone]

“Sound travels about five time faster through salt water than it does through air, and it’s just astonishingly loud from such a huge distance.

“Now I know there are proposals to potentially develop oil and gas extraction near the Moray Firth. And you’ve got to think; there’s going to be increased traffic; there’s going to be building; there’s going to be all sorts of seismic activity; and as a result, you know, what’s that going to do to the dolphins? There’s a lot of study still to go, but, I don’t know, the conclusion? Still waiting […]

Kate Humble: “Thank you Simon. Yes he’s right. I mean, there’s been quite a lot of talk recently, particularly when there are, kind of like, multi-strandings of dolphins or whales, that it could be down to noise pollution.”

Bill Oddie: “Yeah”

KH: “And when you hear that sort of thing, it doesn’t surprise you at all.”

BO: “Not at all. I was up there last year, with Chris Watson, actually, and we recorded the sound of a much bigger boat than that. And, I promise you, I had the earphones on. By the time it was within half a mile, it was like Status Quo on a bad night, you know, and not quite as entertaining, I promise you. The noise was unbelievable. I really couldn’t keep the earphones on.”

KH: “And you can see how disorienting that would be, particularly if it’s sound you rely on so much to find your way, your sense of direction.”

BO: “Totally, yes.”

KH: “Well, certainly, yes, research needs to be done.”

BO: “Well, I think the research has been done, you see. I just personally think it’s just perfectly obvious that it is a problem. And we know that and, really, some sort of legislation should be done. And that should be a boat-free area, really.

So, in summary, dolphins love playing about around huge, noisy tankers. But surely, all that noise can’t be good for them? Perhaps we should do some research. Although, nah, you just can’t be too careful, and anyway Bill Oddie once had his earphones turned up too high, so we’d better just ban something.

We’re back to Dr Fox again. Except that this is no nutter on a comedy programme. This is the voice of the BBC.

Further down the east coast, on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, there is another environmental calamity in progress. The BBC is on to it:

Fewer puffins are going to breed at the UK’s largest colony of the species, on the Isle of May, scientists report. 

Numbers are down to about 41,000 breeding pairs this year from almost 70,000 pairs in 2003.

We have as little against puffins as we do against dolphins. The Isle of May is beautiful. We know it well. You can’t move for puffin burrows. That’s because the Isle of May’s puffin population has been growing spectacularly over the last half century.

Puffin numbers on the Isle of May increased steadily from a handful of pairs 50 years ago to around 69,300 pairs in 2003.  

Global warming good for puffins, anybody? On the contrary, the BBC somehow still manages to turn it into a global warming scare story:

Researchers believe the decline is linked to changes in the North Sea food web, perhaps related to climate change. 

And yet, despite being quoted at length in the article, Professor Mike Harris from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), who conducted the research, apparently says nothing about the climate change connection. Neither does the CEH press release that announced the survey results. The BBC has to go to the RSPB press office for that:

The suspicion is that climate change is altering the distribution of plankton across the North Sea.

This disrupts the entire food web, including predators such as puffin.

“This fits in with other evidence that North Sea birds have been desperately short of food over several seasons,” said the RSPB’s Grahame Madge.

By the time that the story has made it down to children’s news reports, the BBC has dropped any caution or context whatsoever. We’re killing the puffins and that’s all there is to it:

Scientists are worried that puffins are getting underweight and dying because they haven’t got enough fish to eat in the North Sea. 

The Firth of Forth in Scotland is home to one of the UK’s largest puffin colonies.
But experts who’ve been counting the seabirds there say their numbers have fallen by about a third in five years.

They think climate change could be to blame for the birds not having enough to eat.

Oh for the days when all kids had to worry about was nuclear annihilation. At least that would be quick. Without a cold war to scare them silly, children now have to lie awake at night fretting about the ecopocalypse.

Here’s something else to give them nightmares: The Moray Firth bottlenosed dolphins, which are among the best studied population of dolphins anywhere, have a nasty habit of going around murdering harbour porpoises. What’s more, they only do that because they mistake them for baby bottlenosed dolphins:

“k7250”> ‘Evidence for Infanticide in Bottlenose Dolphins: An Explanation for Violent Interactions with Harbour Porpoises?’ 

Most harbour porpoises found dead on the north-east coast of Scotland show signs of attack by sympatric bottlenose dolphins, but the reason(s) for these violent interactions remain(s) unclear. Post-mortem examinations of stranded bottlenose dolphins indicate that five out of eight young calves from this same area were also killed by bottlenose dolphins. These data, together with direct observations of an aggressive interaction between an adult bottlenose dolphin and a dead bottlenose dolphin calf, provide strong evidence for infanticide in this population. The similarity in the size range of harbour porpoises and dolphin calves that showed signs of attack by bottlenose dolphins suggests that previously reported interspecific interactions could be related to this infanticidal behaviour. These findings appear to provide the first evidence of infanticide in cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). We suggest that infanticide must be considered as a factor shaping sociality in this and other species of cetaceans, and may have serious consequences for the viability of small populations.

That’s all a bit too much, however, for even Springwatch to cover.

Environ Mental Ism

We’ve mentioned before how those of an Environmentalist bent are liable to blame the perceived failings of anybody who disagrees with them on some sort of mental illness. There’s Andreas Ernst, for example, the scientist who says that the psychology of sceptics is more like that of rats than human beings. Or there’s the professor of psychiatry, Steven Moffic, who thinks that aversion therapy involving the use of “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” can cure sceptics of their pathological ways.

But there’s a corollary to the idea that scepticism is a form of madness, which is that to stay sane, you just have to be environmentally aware. A recent example is to be found on the BBC news site, which reports on the mounting scientific consensus, or emerging truth if you prefer, that to avoid depression, stress or psychosis, your best bet is to commune with Mother Nature:

The secret ingredient? Greenery. Those of us who live in towns and cities, and even some who live in the countryside, don’t get enough of it. 

The result for most of us is highly stressful; we get irritable and depressed, and even physically ill (because high levels of stress mean higher risk of things like heart disease and diabetes).

While farmers, who arguably get more than their fair share of greenery, would seem to present something of a challenge to the theory (although that’s presumably just due to the psychiatric equivalent of climatic ‘natural variation’, or the rise of out-of-town shopping malls or something), it’s probably not much of a surprise to most people that doing non-stressful things like walking in the woods is good for reducing stress.

But this is science. The BBC’s wholly uncritical ‘news’ story (which is actually just an excuse to flag up its perennial Springwatch tv series, which this year features ‘nature does you good’ as one of its themes) draws on ‘research’ by Natural England, the RSPB, journalists, celebrities and various other experts in the field to prove its point.

First up is Springwatch presenter Bill Oddie, celebrity ornithologist, one-time comic, and BBC spokesman on climate change and now on mental health. He suffers from depression himself, and has no doubt that contact with nature helps his condition:

“when you get a downer, and lots of people suffer from this, there is no question, every self-help book, every doctor, every therapist will tell you: get out there in the fresh air, get yourself moving. It’s to do with fitness, it’s also to do with a meditational thing.” 

Were we inclined towards the level of critical analysis provided by the BBC, we could suggest that, had Bill spent less time out in the woods talking to his feathered friends, he wouldn’t have got depressed in the first place. But we’re not. And anyway, it’s hardly Bill’s fault. (And he’s really quite good as wildlife tv presenters go. He might bang on a bit about how great it is when you’re out in the country and can’t see a trace of all those ghastly humans, but at least he doesn’t talk to the viewers as if they are seven-year-olds and pretend that nature is some sort of lovely, fluffy, real-life Beatrix Potter tale (as recent newspaper headlines testify.)) Our gripe is with the BBC. The article continues:

Scientific support for Bill’s beliefs comes from Dr William Bird, who combines a career as a GP with a part-time role as health adviser to Natural England. 

Last year he produced a report for Natural England and the RSPB arguing that contact with nature and green space has a positive effect on mental health, especially among children.

So, a medical practitioner hired by a quango and an ornithological charity to justify their existences and relevance to ‘Modern Life’ counts as ‘scientific support’. Has the word ‘quack’ ever been more appropriate?

Dr Bird is urging his fellow GPs to prescribe regular walks and exercise in green spaces for patients suffering from heart disease, depression, obesity and the like.

We don’t doubt it.

Referring patients to the natural environment rather than the pharmacist is a lot cheaper than conventional pills and prescriptions…

We don’t doubt it. As we’ve said before, Environmentalism provides the perfect excuse for anyone in power to explain their failure to provide a public service.

The next expert witness is the journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the “deprivation, sometimes amounting to mental illness, of children who grow up without contact with the natural environment”. It is, says the BBC

an echo of the medically-established condition, attention deficit disorder 

Indeed. But as the BBC points out in about the only vaguely factual part of its article:

“Nature deficit disorder” is not a condition the medical profession recognises 

As a certain Dr Fox might say, ‘there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact’. And anyway, it seems that most of the medical profession do recognise it:

Natural England polled 70 GPs and nurses and found that 61% recommended that patients use green space, and 79% recommended walking informally. 

So what’s the problem?

But that still left a sizeable minority who didn’t.


Neither the paucity of research nor the failure to identify a causal relationship between urbanisation and mental health prevented the authors from concluding that:

One way of helping to mitigate these effects would be the provision of good quality green spaces

This is more than just silly; it is verging on the sinister. Aside from the fact that nature deficit disorder is about as scientific as any old snake oil, there is something deeply patronising about the idea that we can all be happier if only we walked in the woods.

Unhappiness is the stuff of life, in that it is the experience that prompts us to improve our circumstances. It is a sign of the political times that, rather than encouraging people to realise their aspirations, various agencies – both governmental and charitable – seem to be telling us that our aspirations are the problem; rather than seek to change the world, we ought to put up with our lot and hang out with the trees.

Anyone who takes at face-value the advice to go for a walk and achieve ‘balance’ with nature, won’t be engaged in any serious attempt to either improve their own life or challenge problems in the real world, as much as they will be wishing them to just go away.

By fitting symptoms to diagnoses for the sake of realising the remedy – the environmental agenda – the powers that be are failing to see the wood for the trees. Fortunately, people don’t lack the brains to make the most of their spare time; unfortunately, they lack the means.