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Why we should learn from the otter's good news

Friday 16 May 2003

Country commentator John Sheard delights in the comeback of the otter - but warns that this is a story with a sombre message for the future

TIME was when anyone who wrote about the environment was labelled a "doom and gloom" merchant by the countryside establishment. In the bad old days, that included the men from MAFF, some sections of the NFU and, in particular the big agri-chemical companies which had waxed rich by persuading people to pour poisons on the land.

Over the years, I have had my fair share of that criticism - almost half a century on it, in fact - but this week we were able to report the good news that the otter has made a very strong comeback after facing near extinction in many parts of Britain.

But that brought with it a surprise, a countryside secret which had escaped my attention for most of those 50 years, because three sinister words cropped up again: aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor.

I have referred to these three poisons in past columns - under different circumstances. They were the "killer" elements of pesticides used as seed dressings back in the 1950s which almost wiped out Britain's birds of prey because they built up in the wild food chain.

Songbirds which fed on treated grain were not affected: the scientists who developed these chemicals had carried out tests on that. What they had not discovered, however, was the small birds stored the poison in their livers - and when hawks ate them, they became infertile: their eggs failed to hatch.

We "doom and gloom" merchants exposed that more than 40 years ago. But only this week did I learn that these very same chemicals were largely responsible for the dramatic decline in the otter population too.

At the same time, there was huge drop in the numbers of salmon, sea trout - and in some areas, brown trout - breeding in our rivers. This was widely blamed on pollution and a fungal disease which ravaged salmon stocks in the early 1970s. But if fish-eating otters were rendered infertile by pesticides, did fish suffer the same fate?

The recovery of the otter is a matter for rejoicing - although some short-sighted anglers are beginning to mutter that fish stocks are at risk - but the lessons is that is took 50 long years - and there is still a long way to go before the recovery is complete.

And who was to blame for all this? Not the farmers, who collected all the opprobrium, because they were not biochemists. They used products from well-known and wealthy companies and had every right to assume those products were safe.

Much the same can be said about all the other food and farming scandals we have had since: salmonella, listeria, E.coli and BSE: the farmer got the blame - and the big suppliers got the profits.

Now, of course, the big worry is genetically modified food, which the big agri-business companies - particularly American ones - are pushing with multi-million-dollar lobbying campaigns. Against them are ranged a handful of environmentalists who are the new "doom and gloom" merchants.

Now I would like to see cheaper food production, most certainly in the Third World, but I have grave doubts that enough testing has been done to ascertain without doubt that there are no long-term risks of GM changes being passed onto other species - and in particular, bacteria capable of spreading disease.

So are we once again putting profit before safety - this time, perhaps, human safety? I won't be here then but I hope there will not come a day when one of my successors is sitting at his computer writing good news about the recovery of human beings fifty years after their sharp decline in the early decades of the 21st Century.

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