It was cold, dark, noisy and there were flashing Police lights all around me. I was loitering in a car park in east London usualy frequented by young men in expensive cars who don't take kindly to people staring at them. But today, that car park was full of people like me, politely shepherded by a small army of smiling, high-fiving Police Officers as we all waited amicably for the Paralympic torch to arrive. It was no wonder that when I got home I reached for some pain killers.
The average bathroom cabinet, if that's where you keep your stash of painkillers, quite often contains diclofenac; or used to. Laws have been changed in many countries and diclofenac is being dropped, not because it's harmful to humans. Quite the contrary. It's an effective anti-inflammatory. However, it causes liver failure in vultures and is one of the main reasons these amazing, if not cuddly, creatures have been dying at an alarming rate.
Saturday, September first is World Vulture Day. We should celebrate them. They played a starring role in the old Jungle Book movie and in real life, they clean carcasses of dead animals so fast, there's no danger of disease from the rotting corpse. That was before diclofenac entered the food chain. Not only is it an effective drug for humans, it's good for animals too, so domestic cattle, sheep and goats across Asia were also given it. When these animals died, vultures did what vultures do and ate the diclofenac impregnated corpse. It all sounds nasty and horrible, but not as horrible and nasty as the consequences of the loss of these carrion eaters.
Since vulture populations crashed, cases of rabies and other diseases have increased, as have packs of wild dogs and rats. They're taking advantage of the new sources of food previously cleaned away by vultures and it's resulted in their populations expanding. It's had a negative knock-on effect on people.
The RSPB has worked with others to find solutions to the problem and we've made progress. Alternative drugs have been identified. Vulture sanctuaries established with successful breeding programmes. We've increased awareness of the problem and secured lots of help across Asia. But it's not enough. We haven't saved the species yet.
More money is needed to fund this work and to fund all the work the RSPB does here in the UK and abroad. You'd expect me to say that wouldn't you. But we can all strive to do more. The decline of vultures was never an intention of the manufacturers of diclofenac. Nor is the scarcity of sand eels in the North Sea the aim of fishermen trying to make a living. Nor is the tidying of gardens and public spaces an evil conspiracy to rid London of sparrows or blackbirds. It just happens and eventually someone notices. Thankfully, the RSPB has noticed drops in kittiwakes, swifts, insects and river fish. While others argue for short-sighted action, such as giant airports or culls of cormorants, we're looking for real solutions to the root causes of the changes that are impacting on our lives.
Killing cormorants because they're taking a high proportion of the dwindling numbers of river fish after people polluted the rivers and over-fished the seas is not an answer. Increasing emissions by building bigger airports for more subsidised air travel is no way to address climate change that results in extremes of weather, higher sea-levels and poor food growing seasons.
Take a Paralympic torch and shine light on many of our modern day issues. Be inspired by the human spirit exhibited in the Olympic venues over the next few days and you'll soon realise that we can all do a bit more; push ourselves that bit further; aim higher and overcome the false assertions that threaten to rob us, and future generations, of our natural inheritance.
It's a bit like Sleeping Beauty rousing from her slumber .. I was so captivated by the Olympics (and will soon be an armchair expert in Paralympic sports too) that I had failed to notice, time had passed.
Our garden birds, flitting busily around feeding their young, have completed their short-lived intensive parenting period. That means they've entered meltdown and effectively vanished. Where have all the garden birds gone? They're far less obvious at this time of year.
It's the lull between the exhausting period of new parenthood and the coming survival marathon that will be winter. It's their time of rest and plenty. I suppose this perceived scarcity of blackbirds, sparrows and the like is deepened by the departure of swifts and other summer migrants; for they have gone (sigh). The good news is that, like The Terminator, they'll be back.
Which brings to mind Boris Johnson; the Air-Terminal-ator. Everytime this bright idea of a new airport teriminal in the Thames Estuary comes up, planners and developers suffer from a strange form of amnesia and everyone else has to step-up to perform a familiar old dance to the ragtime tune of 'been there, discounted that'.
Let's consider threeof the salient points:
Forget any commitments to reduce CO2 emissions; the frequent fog blankets; irreplaceable habitats unique in scale and importance in Europe; the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that will pose a threat to jets; or the irreversible damage to both the landscape and the river.
Why is it that like those garden birds, it's when they're gone that we want them most. We haven't yet lost the Thames Estuary. Why not use this Bank Holiday to re-discover its majesty, its diversity, its unexpected riches and its contrasts. It's part of our national pysche and we'd all be far poorer if it was scarred by any development of the scale and impact of those proposed by Johnson and Foster.
My new neighbour asked the other day if we'd tied apples on to the tree in our garden. I wasn't surprised by the question. Should I have been?
It wasn't sarcasm. It was a genuine question and yes, the apples do look wonderful now that they're turning a bright rosy-red.
My partner explained that they had grown there but aren't quite ripe. When they are, we'll share the harvest. My neighbour has never eaten an apple fresh off a tree.
There's a major discussion to be had about where our food comes from, how it's grown and the nature of farming.
About 7% of the UK's total financial worth.. about £88billion a year.. comes from food and farming. Growing and processing all that food requires a lot of people (estimated four million UK jobs), a fair bit of land and lots of resources: mechanical; physical; chemical and of course, natural. Statistics are of course meaningless. What matters to many, most probably, is whether they can get a good value meal when they want it. But there's the rub. What is a good value meal?
Is it value in relation to cost? Value in relation to taste? Value in relation to where the produce has come from or how it was grown and harvested? My apple crop is not great value for money if you judge it by yield. It is great value if you think it''s started a new relationship with a neighbour, who'll get to taste an apple untouched by pesticides or herbicides and who may now be wondering where other food comes from.
My tree looks great. It's supported bees, hoverflies, wasps, some greenfly and probably many more bugs too numerous to mention. Great tits, blue tits, robins, a wren and blackbirds perch in it and may well get to the apples before I do. It's a valuable addition for the wildlife in my garden.
We owe a lot to the farmers who produce our food. Most farmers also care for the environment and are passionate about the well-being of their livestock. They need a good return on their investment and know they have to look after the land and wildlife that helps maintain a natural balance to produce quality crops. People who can afford it are willing to pay a premium for food grown this way compared with more industrially produced foods. That premium is an investment in our countryside. Part of the heritage we'll pass to our children. We'll be talking more about the value of nature over the next couple of weeks.
So, let's support our UK farmers. In association with the Telegraph newspaper, we're asking people to vote for the UK's most wildlflife friendly farmer. There's a shortlist to review and the deadline's looming.
I'm in danger of sounding like a doom-monger, but the fact is, London's blackbirds are vanishing.
Yet another common garden bird to add to the list of species no longer thriving in the Capital. The difference with blackbirds is that your sightings (reported via our Make Your Nature Count survey) run contrary to the rest of the UK, where the species appears to be OK. When it comes to other birds on a downward trend, such as starlings and swifts, the decline is national.
I bang on about the declines because birds are a great indicator of other less obvious things going wrong. Would you notice if London's earthworm population shrank, or if numbers of earwigs dropped off the white cliffs of Dover? But if your garden were bereft of birds, I'd hope you'd start to wonder why. Wouldn't you? Maybe I'm barking up the wrong telegraph pole? Do feel free to let me know.
There are good things in the survey to celebrate too. You told us that goldfinches are doing well, adding credence to suggestions from other recent surveys and anecdotal feedback. London's awash with goldfinches and if you haven't sen any around your home, you're either not looking hard enough or you live in a very built-up area with no green space to enjoy; in which case, you don't know what you're missing.
My cycle ride in to work takes me through residential streets in Hackney and Islington where people's imaginations and personalities have created amazing front gardens. Public spaces adopted by communities make me smile. Like the usually-compacted-soil-squares around street trees that are transformed into mini-flower beds, or informal troughs of plants and nestboxes tacked up along iron railings, probably tolerated but not authorised by borough councils. These mini-habitats help support bugs, bats, birds and more and offer stopping-off points for wildlife as it moves around the Capital.
My pedalling progresses through the heart of London, down to the Thames and the majesty of the old riverside buildings. The north bank's linear parks are much under-rated and forgotten, separated from the river walk by the busy A3211 Victoria Embankment road. Even here theree's wildlife to be seen. I've not yet spotted any foxes, but I have seen cormorants, gulls, swifts and great tits. I haven't paused long enough to see goldfinches, and I bet there are bats every evening.
We are losing some species. We're gaining others. Nature changes and will continue to change as time passes and as our climate alters. That doesn't mean we stand by and do nothing. What's important from a conservation point of view, is making sure there's supportive space in which all that moving wildlife can rest, feed and reproduce. That will ensure that future generations, while probably also failing to have time to see it, at least have the opportunity to discover living examples of our natural heritage.
The tumblers and divers have finished their show and after a feast, to celebrate their time here with us in London, they''re preparing to set off on the long journey back to where they came from. Swifts are migrating back to their wintering grounds.
I'll miss them. But I know they'll be back. Hopefully all of those fantastic athletes and sporty folk who've been hanging around will return too. The Olympic Park in east London has momentarily been vacated by the masses of human visitors, leaving the site clear for wildlife to explore and enjoy. There's still the Paralympics to come [and YES - punches the air - I have tickets], so it's a very brief break in proceedings.
I'm hopeful that we'll see lots of birds, bats, bees, hedgehogs and newts take advantage of the new green spaces. Where once there were dodgy lock-ups that you didn't want to hang around after dark, there are now new parks, waterways and development opportunities.
Nature finds ways to colonise the most unlikely of habitats. It may start off with moss and lichen, but soon green shoots of bigger plants start to sprout. Big things come from small beginnings and that was evident in the park over the past few days. Athlete after athlete spoke of being new to their sport, but given the right circumstances, they were able to test themselves, push the boundaries, develop and grow to the point where they exceeded their dreams.
All livings thing share a dream of growing and developing. If only we could always provide the right circumstances for growth.