Coffee & Birds

Selected Fall Warblers from the Peterson guide

This week I’ve been thinking about coffee. Our household coffee consumption has rocketed in recent years: I’m drinking more of it and Rebecca has joined me since a conversion experience in Italy a couple of years back. As with many of the exotic imported foods we consider staples, it can be hard to remember that coffee beans are grown in real places by real people. We try to do our best for the latter by choosing Fairtrade, or at the very least brands with comparable established relationships with their growers. What about the places the beans are grown and the wildlife which inhabits them? A nicely made video dropped into my inbox from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology this week, reminding me of the benefits of shade-grown coffee in the Americas, especially for new world warbler species (I was going to embed the video here but it’s a private link and I can’t get it to work – try clicking here).

When we’re in the States I see the phrase shade grown on labels fairly often, but a quick survey of the labels in our local Waitrose suggests it is rarely if ever used here. In fact I think I’ve only seen shade grown used by the RSPB. Do other UK suppliers source fewer beans from the Americas? That doesn’t seem likely, and there are plenty of single origin varieties on offer from Colombia, Peru, Mexico, etc which make no mention of growing method. Or perhaps because the warblers in question are not ‘our’ warblers are we simply less bothered about them? That would seem a shame.

Our standard coffee purchase is a Waitrose own-brand. There’s some information on provenance on the Waitrose website, but most of it is unhelpfully vague, for example ‘we receive assurances over the methods used and quality produced’. But since they also say ‘we are proud that our own-label coffee beans come from defined sources’ Waitrose should be able to tell me exactly where in the world the beans we buy come from, and give us some more information about the estates on which they are grown. I’ll write to them and see what happens. In the meantime I’d also like to find out:

  •  Where genuinely shade grown coffee is sold in the UK. I’ll report back here.
  •  Whether growing style (shade vs full sun) is as much of an issue for birds and other  wildlife in other parts of the world, e.g. central Africa. I would guess not so much where coffee plantations have not replaced rainforest, but I don’t know.

I’ve just found this helpful blog by Derek Thomas (always google your questions before writing a speculative blog post!) from a few years back which gives some answers, but it will nonetheless be interesting to see whether anybody at Waitrose has encountered the bird friendly coffee concept since that time, and figure out which new brands on sale in the UK are supporting this. For now, here’s an American warbler. Not a long-range migrant and so not a species likely to turn up in a coffee plantation – but it is the only one I’ve managed to get a few seconds footage of!



See Eagles

I saw my first ever white-tailed eagle, indeed my first wild eagle of any species (unless I saw a bald eagle as a 10-year-old in Florida or a 12-year-old in New England and subsequently forgot about it), close to Andover in Hampshire, just down the road from the Hawk Conservancy Trust. That proximity did not go unnoticed to early observers of this particular bird, but it was soon established as a coincidence. The Hawk Conservancy had not misplaced any birds and the eagle in question was entirely wild, most likely a roaming first winter bird from Germany or Sweden. Oddly enough, I saw my second white-tailed eagle not far away at Old Basing, also in Hampshire. I wonder what they see in the north Hampshire countryside? Perhaps it’s the density of plump, juicy pheasants!

Despite all that free food going begging, eagle sightings like these in southern England remain a rarity. The closest breeding eagles in the UK, whether golden or white-tailed, are in Scotland, and I’ve contrived not to see one every single time I’ve been north of the border. Next time! Over in the eastern United States, where I’m fortunate enough to go visiting family once or twice a year, things are different. Bald eagles – the American cousin of the white-tailed eagle – are increasingly common in the Chesapeake Bay area at all times of year, and they turn up well inland too, frequently cruising the skies of the Washington, DC suburbs.

Geographically, the respective parts of the USA and UK I’m talking about are broadly similar: heavily developed, relatively densely populated, and close to the national capital. It’s a vague comparison, and one I’d like to research and interrogate in more detail, but it adds to my conviction that white-tailed eagles, ospreys too for that matter, would do very well along the south coast of England. Indeed they probably used to, many hundreds of years ago, so it could be that the difference is a matter of time and culture rather than ecology. Intensive human action on the American coast never quite had long enough to wipe out bald eagles before they were protected, nor to my knowledge was raptor persecution historically as high in the States as it was here. Another point for further research.

Today I was at the Hawk Conservancy for work. I spent some time admiring the three species of sea eagle (genus Haliaeetus) on display: bald, white-tailed and the immensely impressive Steller’s. I hope in the future that it will be much easier to see these awe-inspiring birds close to home without having to look at them through the wires of an aviary. Unfortunately, the potential reintroduction of white-tailed eagle to East Anglia has been shelved for now and the debate about rewilding and reintroduction of top predators seems to be entirely obsessed with mammals. Yet it seems to me that reintroduction of birds poses far fewer logistical problems (see osprey, red kite et al.) and that the example of the Maryland-DC region shows how, to paraphrase former president George W. Bush, human beings and the eagles can co-exist peacefully. What are we waiting for?!

A Meaty Issue

Grazing (or should that be lazing?) cattle at Acres Down in the New Forest.

Population growth is the ‘elephant in the room’ that everybody is already talking about, rendering the phrase pretty meaningless! I’ve long intuitively felt – even if I haven’t spent much time reading and assembling evidence – that consumption, not population growth is the more important issue*.

George Monbiot’s column in the Guardian this week is convincing on this point. Even if you remain unconvinced about the relative impacts of population and consumption, it’s difficult to come away from it thinking livestock is not a huge, huge issue.

We rarely eat meat. At home it’s a once a month treat, if that. When visiting friends or family or eating out we’re more likely to eat meat, but these are rare occasions and some of our closest friends are vegan, so gatherings of friends tend to be a meat free affair for us nowadays. I’d like to smugly say that this can all be put down to environmental concern. In part it can, but to be honest cost and taste has more to do with it. Good meat worth eating is not cheap and nor should it be. Since switching to a mostly vegetarian diet we eat healthier, more imaginative meals and can spread our food budget out more evenly rather than blowing most of it on meat.

Increasingly I would like what little meat we do eat to come from low impact conservation grazing herds or carefully culled wild animals – deer, boar, rabbit etc. Perhaps George Monbiot would prefer to leave the deer herds to lynx and wolves to control, but I reckon livestock farming and some form of wildlife management have a place in the British countryside for the foreseeable future. Indeed small scale livestock operations are an essential part of many productive small farms, though George would be right to point out we wouldn’t actually need to farm as much of the landscape as we  currently do if we all switched our protein intake entirely from meat to plant based.

This philosophy is far from perfectly applied in my life but I have to try: I just can’t see how factory farming and a meat rich diet can possibly fit in with my other views on conservation and the environment. And for those to whom nature conservation is not a big issue, there’s a powerful moral argument to make about the human costs of meat. As more of the world’s productive farmland is turned over to rearing livestock to satiate rich people’s (that’s us) appetite for meat, more of the world’s poor will find themselves short of food. Is your daily bacon sandwich or McDonald’s lunch really worth somebody else’s life?

*Even as I would suggest that limits to population growth springing from improved access to contraception and sensible, informed reproductive choices will make a useful contribution.


Letter to DECC

That’s the Department of Energy and Climate Change, for those not sure of their government department acronyms. Today’s energy policy announcements by the Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, have been well covered in the Guardian environment pages and elsewhere.

Apart from the commitment to phase out coal within a decade I found most of what she had to say pretty concerning. Since we live in a democratic society (stop sniggering at the back!) I fired off an email to let her know, and sent a copy to my MP Theresa May too. Any replies I get will, as usual, be posted here. Letter after the page break.

Continue reading “Letter to DECC”